Five fucking years down the drain, and for what? To win a pissing contest against the schmuck who got my ass terminated and destroyed my life?
I take one final deep breath to blunt the feelings of rage that always bubble to the surface whenever I think about that bastard. The prison alarm blares, making my ears ring for what I sure as hell hope will be the last time. The automatic metal door creaks open, and I step into the warm late afternoon sunshine, finally seconds away from freedom.
All I need to do is walk through those tall iron gates, the ones wrapped in barbed, electrified wire. There were always stories floating around about inmates who felt the need to test out the silent threat but ended up roasting themselves. Same idiots who weren’t smart enough not to get caught. Five years was a damn long time, but not enough of a sentence that would make me risk deep-frying my balls. And yeah, even though I got out early on good behavior, I was one of those idiots. I did get caught.
Gone is the bright orange jumpsuit. I look normal, even though I feel anything but. The Nevada desert air is dry, stagnant, and still. In any other situation, it’d be thick enough to choke me, but being on the other side – the free side? – is so fucking sweet. I adjust my belt, several notches too big. Being in lockdown takes more than a few inches off the waistline, mainly due to grueling daily workouts, food that was best described as maggot meal, lamenting, and plotting…mostly plotting.
The alarm sounds again, shattering the blissful silence, and the large gates swing open, allowing me access to the outside world. So many thoughts run through my mind about what went wrong that fateful night. Almost everything was within my control, but I overlooked a single detail, and it was a fucking major one. I lost my focus. Didn’t see the signs. Walked right into the goddamned trap.
So, now, there’s a score to settle. A big one.
I turn and look back at the dark gray concrete building known as San Pedro State Penitentiary, my home from the last five years.
No fucking way will I be back there again. Ever.
Idiots have nothing to lose. I have everything to gain.
My partner Remo is waiting for me at the exit in a beat-up, navy blue Honda Accord. The car is as non-descript as they come. Remo on the other hand? He towers over me, over most people, at almost seven feet tall. Dark hair, dark skin, menacing eyes. He looks like a badass motherfucker, but he’s one of the best guys I know. Huge heart in a very unexpected package. I peer through the window of his car, furrowing my brow at the paper bags scattered on the backseat. He also has an unhealthy obsession with saturated fat. Remo gives a half-shrug as I open the passenger side door. “I’m trying to run it into the ground before I buy something new.”
“Better to have a getaway car like this than the pimped-out Hummer that Rand drives.” I yank the door handle and pull it open, sinking into the bucket seat. The stale stench of fast food immediately assaults my nose. “Jesus, Remo. This shit’ll kill you,” I say, kicking at the bags surrounding my feet.
“It’s how I fuel up. You know that. I think best loaded up on grease and salt.”
“Yeah, well, it’s too bad I made you skip dinner the night I got pinched. Maybe things might’ve gone differently.”
“And now you’ve paid the price. I bet you’ll never make me skip another meal again.” He puts the key in the ignition and the car coughs its way to life. “How was the clink?”
A loaded question. To say it’s full of interesting characters is a gross understatement. The shadiest ones had their own personal lines to the outside, and with a little bit of cash, you can get a lot of shit from them. But I didn’t care about things like porn, smokes, or booze. I wanted information, which was harder, and more expensive, to get. But like minds always came together, and I used my steady stream of cash to get me exactly what I needed to concoct a plan – the plan – that will make me whole again. “Not horrible. Gave me time to clear my head.”
Remo sticks his hand in a grease-stained bag on the console and digs around, producing a fistful of soggy French fries. “Want some? Looks like you can use some food.”
I stare at his hand and then at him. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“Not good enough for ya, huh? Even after five years of choking down that horseshit they’ve been shoveling onto your plate?”
I snicker. “I am starving. How about a beer? And I’m talking about a cold one, not one you pull from some magical hiding place in this shit heap.”
“Is that the way you talk to the only guy who’d pick your ass up in Nevada and drive you all the way back to LA?” Remo shakes his head and pulls the clunker onto the freeway heading south. “Jesus Christ, in about twenty minutes, I’ll be an accomplice to your parole violation. Not to mention I’m the only one who has the inside scoop about where the star of our upcoming show is gonna be later tonight. And guess what? A Grammy ain’t the only thing she’ll be wrapping her hands around and squeezing.”
“We’re getting married!”
Even though my head is blissfully thick with cobwebs, courtesy of the gallon of champagne I’ve already consumed, those three words reverberate between my ears like clanging symbols. I can’t drown them out, and believe me, I’ve tried. For hours.
Pulsating beats vibrate the lacquered floor beneath my stilettos as I make a futile attempt to dance away the hollow feeling in my heart. A stream of perspiration drizzles down the back of my neck, making me cringe. I’m alone…alone in the most frivolous and artificial world I can imagine. Hollywood. La La Land. Tinseltown. Call it what you want. It’s still a big ass bubble of superficiality.
I’m jaded. At twenty-eight. Of course, out here, that’s pretty damned ancient, not that I have any delusions about a career in acting or modeling. Nope, I don’t have any aspirations to be one of those diva bitches. My goal is simple. Keep said bitches out of the media. Note, I said nothing about keeping them out of trouble. My very expensive services only cover so much. I’m not their babysitter.
I’m a publicist.
A swift hip check jolts me from my scattered thoughts. “Hey! You’re dry.” My assistant Layna points to the empty crystal flute in my hand.
“It’s not doing any good. I think I’ve drunk myself sober.”
Layna snickers. “Good! Grammy after-parties always equate to paparazzi poison for our clients, so it’s probably better if you’re sober. I sure as hell hope you’re ready to do some serious damage control.”
I let out a deep sigh. “Aren’t I always?”
Layna’s smile fades. “You’re still upset, aren’t you?” It was a question, but the tone of her voice made it sound more like a statement. She’d never understand, not that I’d ever bothered to explain the deep-rooted feelings I didn’t even want to acknowledge to myself.
“It’s just a little fast, that’s all. Can you blame me for being apprehensive?”
“I get it. I just think you need to let things go. She’s not you, Ari.”
No, she definitely isn’t.
I manage a weak smile and wave my glass at Layna. “Maybe it is time for another drink.”
“As long as you promise me that you won’t be dragging me into the office at three o’clock in the morning to handle disaster recovery for our leading ladies.”
“That’s part of the job, love. You signed up for that shit day one.” I link my arm through hers and push through the throng of sweaty bodies grinding to the deafening music. Groping hands slither over my hips and ass as we move, one even having the audacity to pinch. I spin around, narrowing my eyes at the leering dumbass. Pretty boy. Fucking stupid as hell, though. I grit my teeth. It’s bad enough my clients cause tsunamis with their less-than-aboveboard antics, I don’t need my good name spiraling down after them. I have to be careful. Social media can crush me if I make a single wrong move. And I can’t afford to have that kind of negative attention on me right now.
Still…I don’t have patience for this crap.
I lean toward his tall, built frame, my lips curling into a saccharin sweet smile. “Did you need something?”
He grins, swaying toward me. “Just a dance. Then maybe a fuck.”
I squeeze Layna’s hand and avert my eyes in an attempt to look demure before I knock him on his cocky ass. “I’m pretty sure that a guy who looks like you can get a girl to drop her panties without having to manhandle her.” I flutter my eyelashes and move in for the kill. “But I can’t say she’d be too eager to screw you once she finds out your dick’s the size of a peanut. Because really, if it weren’t, wouldn’t you be waiting for me to come to you?” I wink. “Try not to overcompensate too much. In this town, you need an air of mystery. Especially with a small penis.”
I don’t use brute force unless I absolutely have to. I’m better with words. It’s why I get away with charging such exorbitant retainers to preserve livelihoods.
Despite everything polluting my mind, tonight is a good night. One of my clients walked away with the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocalist, so it’s celebration time for a job well done, all around.
The bar is packed. We stand around, pressed together like a bunch of slimy sardines in a can, since the air in the club is drenched with humidity. A whiff of Prada cologne floats under my nose and I stifle an inward groan.
I paste on a smile and twist in the direction of the gruff voice to my right. You never know whose tarnished reputation is in need of polishing, which is another reason why I don’t go around pummeling drunk, handsy dipshits in bars. I’m always on the job.
Dark eyes crinkle in the corners as they narrow at me, full lips stretched into a tight line. Tall, menacing yet delectable, and built like a brick shithouse. I can work with this, provided he hasn’t killed anyone. I’m good, but I know my limits.
“You need to follow me.”
I snort and turn back to my assistant Layna, who’s waving a fifty at the bartender as she flirts madly with her boobs. “I don’t think so.”
He steps closer, completely invading my space, his breath hot against my ear. “My boss has a message for you. He’s asked to speak to you privately.”
A dry laugh escapes my lips. “Well, if it’s so important, he can get off his ass and find me himself.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Ms. Carlson. You’re about to have a very big problem, and only one person can solve it. I suggest you follow me. If you don’t, your very lucrative client list will dissipate like a fart in the wind by sunrise. That’s a guarantee.”
Her expression is stony and petulant. I can see it clearly from my vantage point in the back corner of the dimly lit lounge. Good. She’ll need to channel that anger and hostility pretty damned soon. Remo nods his head in my direction and she turns toward me, her eyes narrowed and lips pursed. I maintain a steady gaze, even though my eyes beg to rake over the luscious curves storming through the crowd. They are desperate to leer, but that’s not why I’m here.
I never make personal appearances for professional reasons. Ever.
But this situation requires an exception. Nothing will be left to chance, not this time.
Her tits bounce as she walks, high heels making her leg muscles flex with each step. The tight black dress wrapped around her body like Saran Wrap makes my cock twitch, and I grit my teeth. It’s gonna be a long night, and nothing about it is even remotely sexual.
Remo disappears like the good minion that he is, and Ariana Carlson stands in front of me, arms folded, accentuating the fact that she’s about to have a wardrobe malfunction if she squeezes her arms together any tighter. I can’t say I’d be sorry to see those tits up close and personal, but now’s not really the time. We’re on the clock, starting exactly thirty-seven minutes ago. I knew my nemesis would come out of his fucking hole sooner than later, and Ariana Carlson is the one person who can help me string up that bastard by the balls.
Finding her wasn’t much of a challenge, but convincing her that I’m not the enemy is going to take some finesse, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Especially since that is exactly what I am.
“I don’t appreciate being summoned. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I allow a smug grin to spread across my face. “I’m the one who got you over here despite that claim.”
Her mouth drops open and then quickly closes. “Make no mistake. I’m not intimidated by you or your thugs.”
“I’m aware of that. You’re here because you’re curious, and that’s good.” I pick up the half-full glass of scotch in front of me and swirl it around before taking a long sip. Impatience is creeping into her expression, and I know this cat and mouse shit isn’t going to work for much longer. “It might be better if you sit for this next part.”
“I’m fine right here.”
“I don’t think you want me to shout.”
She rolls her eyes and slams her hands on the table. A definite spark plug with a mouth that can spit fire. Fuck, that has so many possibilities…
“What makes you think I care?”
“Because if I mention a name that currently pays your firm $20,000 a month for representation, the same one who walked away with a very prestigious award tonight, it won’t bode well for you if anyone overhears why said name is in question.”
She sinks onto the leather bench, searing me with a glare that could slice through concrete. “Listen, you creepy mother fucker. I don’t know who the hell you are, but I’m about two seconds away from calling the cops. Don’t you dare try to dangle bullshit information in front of me and think I’ll give you the time of day!”
“Fair enough.” I pull out my iPhone and pick out one of the photos that I’d received. I hand it to her and watch the snark desert her body, deflating her with each second she stares at the image.
“How do I know this isn’t photoshopped?”
“Why hasn’t your client shown up yet? This is her after-party, isn’t it? Shouldn’t the hostess show up at some point?”
“She’s on her way.” Ariana’s shoulders are squared, her voice strong and assured. But it’s her eyes that betray her. They flash a lot of fucking emotion, none of which includes certainty.
“On her way where, exactly? Because from the looks of these pictures, she’s not leaving her current location any time soon.”
She leans closer, dropping her voice, practically seething at me. Her perfumed scent wafts under my nose – sultry, spicy, and sexy as fuck. It momentarily clouds the issue at hand, and like some jackass, I allow it. I want to see the fire deep within this woman. She’s about to combust, and I want to be singed by the flames. “You think you’re the first jackass photographer who’s shown me a hacked up picture of a client and expected me to write a check for it? If you’re looking for a payoff, I’ll have my attorney so far up your ass, it’ll feel like a colonoscopy without the anesthesia. Fuck off.” She flips her hair, the smell of coconut whipping across my face, and slides away from me.
I grab her wrist and her head jerks backward, her eyes narrowed. “Take your hand off me.”
“I can’t let you go, Ariana.”
“The fuck you can’t.” She pulls her wrist away, but I keep my grip tight.
“I need your help.”
“What you need is a class that’ll teach you how to deal with people.” She yanks again, to no avail. Answers are what she wants, but she can’t have them; at least, not yet.
“Here’s the deal, Ariana. If you walk away right now, you’re in for the biggest shitstorm you’ve ever experienced in your professional career. This problem your client has wandered into will snowball very quickly, and unless we get in front of it, your reputation will go up in smoke by the time the first headline flashes on the morning news.”
“Let go of my arm,” she growls. I drop it, partly to test her. Reading people comes pretty easily to me, and despite her bullshit I’ve-got-everything-under-control façade, I know she’s flipping the fuck out. And rightly so.
“Why should I trust you? I don’t even know your name.”
“Names aren’t important right now. And you should trust me because I’m the only one who can save the livelihood of your star client, America’s newest pop tart sweetheart, the one who’s on her knees right now with a dildo shoved up her skirt and a dick plugging her in the ass.”
That image of Scarlet is seared into my memory forever. I’ll never be able to look at her again without seeing her head bobbing up and down, as if deep-throating that scumbag is going to land her another Grammy nod. My skin prickles, beads of perspiration popping up along the back of my neck. I can barely squeeze out a breath; my throat is so tight.
“Are you ready?” The vile man sitting across from me swirls the last of his scotch and gulps it down.
“Ready for what?” I gasp, dragging my eyes back to his face, whoever the fuck he is.
“To get your girl and her golden pussy out of the line of fire.”
My shoulders snap backward. “How the fuck am I supposed to do that? Waltz in there with my can of pepper spray and pull her off his saggy balls? I’m a publicist, for chrissakes! I don’t have a goddamned SWAT team ready to steamroll anyone who manhandles my clients!”
“Your alleged virgin clients.” He cocks an eyebrow, his dark-eyed gaze smoldering my insides. “Sounds like you’re about to lose your shit, and if you’ve got any shot of fixing this, you’d better keep it together.”
I swallow hard. He’s right. I’m about half a second away from crumbling like a stale cookie. “I need to assemble my team.”
“So you can do what, exactly? Make some phone calls, post some tweets…how is any of that going to save Scarlet? Or you?”
Okay. Time the fuck out.
“Don’t make this about me, you asshole. I’m not an idiot, and you’re sure as hell not going to bleed a dime out of me. I don’t respond favorably to blackmail.”
“I don’t want your money. But since your client has just pissed me off by interfering with a very lucrative business opportunity, we have an issue. Now, I can let her career – and yours – go up in smoke and enjoy another scotch while I watch you run around like a fucking lunatic, trying to snatch up all the pieces in an attempt to salvage them. Or, you can work with me and keep your thriving business intact. Your choice.”
The threat he so calmly spews chills my blood. “I’m not a fucking hacker! How am I supposed to keep this shit from blowing up the internet?”
“You have a colleague named Oliver Wilde.”
Ollie? “What about him?”
He narrows his eyes and pauses. “We should take this conversation somewhere else.”
I let out a snort. “I wouldn’t walk with you to the bar, much less go anywhere with you!” A shiver flutters over my skin as his deep-set eyes appraise me for what feels like years. And truth be told, I’m not the least bit bothered. Regrettably, I’m more turned on than I’d like to acknowledge, even multiple cocktails into my evening.
With a nod, he glances at the watch peeking out under what looks to be a Boss Black blazer. And that heady scent…Chanel Bleu, the one cologne that can make me do extremely bad girl things without so much as a drop of shame. “You have about fifteen minutes to change your mind and call your buddy. After that, I can’t promise that your office won’t be boarded up by the time you roll in tomorrow morning with your lightly sweetened iced Youthberry tea.” He reclines against the cushions, folding his hands on the table. Good God. The fact that he knows my Teavana drink order somehow escapes me while I admire his strong, thick fingers and massive palms. What he must be able to do with those magical tools.
Oh, Christ. Focus, Ari! I can be as big of a bitch as I want, but if there’s even a slight chance those photos are real, Scarlet’s entire career is at risk. I worked my ass off to put her in the limelight so my firm could have the legitimacy it needed. I can’t chance it. Scarlet’s my ace in the hole. Having her as a client validates everything I’ve worked for, and everything I’m building for the future. I’ll make the call.
“I don’t even know if I can get Ollie to my office in fifteen minutes. It’s after midnight!”
“Something tells me you won’t have an issue. I’ll meet you there.”
“The fuck you will. I didn’t get to where I am by taking orders from seedy thugs. If you think you’re coming anywhere near my office—“
“Don’t worry, your pal Ollie will vouch for me. I’m not seedy, nor am I a thug. And I only use my M-16 when people mouth off once too often.”
His eyebrow slides upward again, and I bite the inside of my mouth to keep from smiling when the corners of his lips curl upward. Asshole. As if this is any bit funny. “And who exactly should I tell is asking for him?”
“Just tell him Jeff is back in town to collect on a debt. He’ll know what it means.”
Yeah, but do I want to know?
I don’t wait for her response. She’s going to do exactly what I said because she’s scared shitless. Yeah, she tried to hide it. It was a pretty decent attempt, too. But I know what these star chasers are all about. Once you land one and they hit the top, you’re along for the ride. And that’s exactly where my new friend Ariana Carlson is headed. No way is she going to take any chances and blow her career at this point. Not after spending two years scrounging around for clients before finding a diamond in the rough with Scarlet. And despite all the “I’m waiting until I get married” bullshit, I always knew that actress bitch was a fucking whore. She can park cars between those tight ass legs. All that virginal crap got her a lot of fame, but no amount of groveling will erase those very disturbing images from the minds of her adoring public, that’s for shit sure.
Which is exactly what I’m counting on.
Coming back for Ollie is risky, since he has eyes on him at all times. He was part of my team, the one tasked with taking down the enemy. But shit went sideways, and instead of arresting said enemy, I ended up handcuffed in the back of a Town Car.
I’ve waited patiently, knowing the opportunity for revenge would eventually surface. The time is finally fucking now. I need Ollie’s help, and his panicked boss is going to make it happen. No doubt about that after the scare I’ve just delivered.
The cool night air is a welcome change from the fucking rain forest I’ve just escaped. My skull is pounding from the deafening music that was vibrating the whole club, celebrating the hits of all the winners from the evening. Except not one of them makes anything remotely close to real music. Not like the good old days, when actual instruments were used and voices weren’t created with a soundboard.
I palm my keys, open the driver’s side door, and slide onto the pebbled leather. In my line of work, it’s best to fly under the radar, hence the reason I’m driving yet another piece of shit from Remo’s fleet. I made him clean this one first, before I even agreed to go near it.
Ariana’s office is only a few minutes away, and I know she needs some time to figure out how the fuck she’s going to salvage both of their careers, with the bottle of Cristal swimming through her veins. I don’t give her any time. The panic will serve me well. It’ll ensure she acts without thinking too much. That’s a necessity. And Ollie will be waiting in the fish bowl conference room, ready to jump if she gives the word. He’s so blatantly infatuated with her that he’s given up any chance at a real career to stay close to the woman he will never in a million fucking years bed.
I throw the car into gear and zoom out of the parking lot. Even at this hour, the city streets are crawling with barely-dressed models and actress wannabes. They are loud, drunk, swinging their asses, and stumbling on the concrete in high heels. Pathetic. Guys flank them on all sides, desperate to cop a quick feel. I snicker and signal a lane change. Shit never changes. East Coast, West Coast, it’s all the same. Women always hold the power; most just never seem to realize it.
After a few minutes of dodging idiots crossing in the middle of Spring Street, I pull up to an open spot in front of Ariana’s office building. I run a hand down the front of my shirt and walk toward the entrance of the tall, mirrored, glass building. A large embossed sign greets me on the inside. Carlson & Associates. She’s come a long way since she first stepped onto the Hollywood scene. It’s impressive, especially in this town.
But my business is a revolving door. I, unlike Ariana, keep few trusted associates. And none of them have an ass as perfect as hers, or a set of tits I can feast on for days. This is just business. It’s always business, never personal, not since I lost so much of what made living worthwhile. Admiring is one thing, but dabbling doesn’t have a place anymore.
The lobby is bright and airy, even at night, with light marble colored floors and columns adorning the space. I walk down the corridor toward the elevator bank and stab the Up button. I don’t even look at the directory; I know her office is on the seventh floor. Lucky seven. Her favorite number, which is another nugget I’d gathered, courtesy of the eyes and ears.
The elevator creeps up to the seventh floor and soundlessly, the doors open. The clear glass doors reveal a gaggle of computer geeks with their heads stuck in their laptops, no doubt searching for any leaked photos of Scarlet. They haven’t even made it as far as a conference room; everyone is congregated in the reception area. Their fearless leader, who looks pretty fucking spooked right now, is commanding the charge, her fingers pounding away at the keyboard behind a large teak desk in the middle of the floor.
I pull open the door and everything stops. Ariana’s head snaps up, and her back stiffens. “We haven’t found anything online yet. Nothing’s been leaked.”
“Good.” Of course it hasn’t. “But I’m more interested in whether or not you’ve located Ollie.”
She narrows her eyes and pushes back the chair. “I think we should go into my office.”
I nod and wait for her to lead the way. She eyes me up and down, her expression a mixture of disgust, curiosity, and blatant desire; the latter making my dick twitch. She doesn’t trust me, as well she shouldn’t. But, she still wants me. And that pisses her off to no end.
Body language is my specialty. I can tell you that mine would have a hell of a lot to say right now if given the chance. With one final glare, Ariana twists away from me and stalks down the hallway to her office, her hips swinging with each click of those heels on the shiny marble floor. But as much as I’m enjoying the view from behind, it’s Ollie I’m waiting to see.
I follow her into the office and glance around at the over-the-top décor. There were enough overgrown plants lining the walls to create an alternate oxygen supply. And the art? The abstract splotches of color overwhelm the white walls, creating an aura of confusion and chaos. I guess it works for her clients. Bringing order to their crazy lives, or some shit like that. I sink into one of the plush leather couches in the center of the room.
“Please, have a seat,” she mumbles under her breath. She inches closer, hands on her hips. I can see the definition in her shoulders and biceps. Another tidbit I’d learned was that she’s single. No big shock there. I had her sized up in about five seconds flat. I swallow a snicker. Judging by the way she’s staring at me, I can see where it might be a little hard to scale those walls for some unsuspecting douchebag. She’d make the poor schmuck work for it, and then be disappointed when he didn’t live up to her expectations. Because he never could, and she’d never let herself get caught up with someone who’d be a constant disappointment. It’s much easier being in control of every aspect of her life. She runs her own show and nobody can challenge her.
At least, that’s what she’s been used to for so long.
She didn’t count on me.
“I’ve assembled my entire team in a span of twenty minutes. I’ve contacted Ollie. And all you’ve done is given me a first name, which by the way, probably isn’t even real, but let’s forget that tiny detail for the time being.” She lowers herself next to me, her spearmint-tinged breath wafting under my nose. My fingers itch to trace a path down the smooth bronze skin of her arms, and my hands tingle with the urge to knead those full tits. Fuck, I’d love to push her onto her back and drive myself into her with no regard for who might be watching. I want to fuck the control freak out of her and save the freak part for later. Unfortunately for me, later is never coming. Things move fast, and pretty soon, she’ll be a name buried in my past. So, I play along because that’s what I do.
“Let’s get something straight, Jeff. I don’t respond well to threats. I’m only doing this for Scarlet and for my team. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s really going on here. Or…” Her hands graze the fabric straining against my full-blown hard on. “Do I need to fuck the information out of you? I don’t have a lasso of truth, but there are plenty of other tools in my arsenal.”
She slides her skirt to her waist and straddles me, one long, toned leg at a time. Her finger slides my belt buckle open, and then pops open the button on my pants. But those eyes never leave mine, not even for a second. She holds her hand up to her mouth and licks the palm. A smile lifts the corners of her glossy pink lips when her hand travels down my abdomen and into my boxer briefs, squeezing my cock with authority. “I think that would be a yes, am I right?”
I can come right now and die a happy man. Flipping her over and driving my dick into her until the sun rises is my new goal. Fuck Ollie and everyone else.
She slides against me and my cock thickens against her naked, wet pussy. Skin against slick skin. Fuck me, I want her. I grip her waist, pushing her down, ready to sink into her slit, and lose myself—
Snap! Her eyes narrow. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes.” Well, I know what I heard in my head…and what I felt with my other head…
“So? Are you going to tell me what the hell this is all about? I really don’t have time for games, and if there’s damage control to be done, I need to get on it asap.”
Get on it. Fuck, yes, you do.
“I already told you. I need you and Ollie to help get this under control. These photos will crush Scarlet’s career. I don’t think you want to see all your hard work blow like Old Faithful, right? Pun intended.”
She winces, and I know she’s recalling one of those graphic pictures in painstaking detail. “You still haven’t told me what you want.”
“Look, Ollie is a technology genius. He can comb the web for toxic information faster than most people can tie a shoe. He can make all of this disappear and clear Scarlet’s bullshit good girl reputation.”
“What do you get out of it? Because I sure as hell know you don’t care about her career.”
“It’s my job. I get a big fat paycheck.”
Ariana stands up and lets out a huff. “And you really think getting strangers involved with your underworld deals is smart business?”
“Who said anything about the underworld? Now you’re just being presumptuous.”
“Please. There are two reasons why you’re sitting here right now. One, because you know Ollie, and two, because I have an ex-Navy Seal bodyguard with an Uzi down the hall standing guard.”
“Sounds like you don’t trust me.”
“I don’t trust anyone, Jeff. Don’t take it personally.” She bends to grab a bottle of water from the small refrigerator in the corner of her office. “Lucky for you, Ollie vouched for you; otherwise, you’d have never made it as far as the elevator.”
“I admire your reconnaissance skills. I’ll admit, I didn’t give you enough credit.”
“I work very hard to earn that credit, Jeff.” She twists off the cap and takes a long sip. I was lost in a moment of lust before, but that mouth is just sending me back down the rabbit hole. The way it squeezes the bottle opening and sucks down the liquid…I bet she could suck other things like a champ. “Do you have a last name?”
“It’s best we keep things less formal.”
“Best for whom? We’re not exactly on a level playing field right now.”
“True, but then again, you came in at a disadvantage.”
She saunters toward me, crossing one leg in front of another, twisting her body left and right, making me forget why I’m standing in the center of this room. Jesus Christ, what the hell is happening to me? She can flash her pussy right now and I’d fall to my knees, mouth open, tongue ready to lap. And that’s goddamned unacceptable. I never lose my shit like this. “I think I deserve a chance to level the field. I’ve done everything you’ve asked. Even some things you haven’t asked.”
Yeah, I’d love to get to those other things little later.
There’s something about this man that has my insides twisted like a lanyard. The fact that he’s sitting here right now is making me question my intellect. Sure, I told him I’m guarded by an ex-Seal, but what he doesn’t know is that Ray isn’t exactly an ex-Seal, he’s a retired Rent-A-Cop. And that Uzi? It’s actually a BB gun. Sure, he looks intimidating because he’s six foot four and looks like a white Dwayne Johnson, but…yeah, small fib. Oops.
For some reason, I’m not threatened. Maybe it’s because he knows Ollie, whom I trust implicitly. Ollie didn’t give me details over the phone, but the reassurance that “Jeff” isn’t going to chop me up and dump me behind the building in a plastic bag was enough to get me to the office.
I suck in a breath as his gaze rakes over my body. It’s a brutal and blatant eye-raping of the most arousing kind. Strange. He doesn’t seem to be the type to let his emotions control him, but if I were a betting woman, I’d say he’d bend me over the couch and give me access to his bank account if I so much as spread my legs. And by the looks of him, I’m sure that happens more often than not. Maybe not the bank account thing, but definitely the spreading of the legs part.
He knows I’m analyzing him. That cocky ass smile is back, shadowing his apparent desire. What can I say? It’s a critical part of my job – reading people and understanding what buttons I need to press to get what I want. Those are my gifts, and I use them on a daily basis.
There is a smoldering heat between us, so powerful it can ignite an explosion. But the need – my need – for distance keeps us at opposite ends of the room, silent, almost daring the other to speak. My skin prickles under his penetrating gaze. Goosebumps shoot up my arms and down my legs, and my body craves the feel of his thick fingers dancing all over it, rubbing, flicking, plunging…
“Ariana, Ollie just walked in. I’m sending him back.”
I jump, startled by the sound of Layna’s perky voice over the intercom. I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear and clear my throat, effectively ending the moment. Not a second too late, either. The hunger in Jeff’s eyes is evident. He’s ready to devour me whole, and it’s a good thing I left my buzz at the club because I’m disturbingly close to allowing it.
Ollie pushes open the door and heads right over to Jeff. I can’t decide if I love him or hate him in that moment. A smile lights up Jeff’s dark, rugged features, making his whole face glow. The man is a certifiable Adonis. But there’s still something remotely demonic that intrigues me, something my innate investigative skills want to decode.
“Jeff!” Ollie claps him on the back and pulls him in for a man hug. “It’s been too long. Where’ve you been hiding?”
Jeff chuckles. “I’ve got a few places, in a few countries. Plenty of opportunities to lose myself.”
“Translation…plenty of pissed off people on your tail.”
“Everybody likes a little ass, Ollie.” Jeff cocks an eyebrow and clasps a hand on his shoulder. “But nobody likes a smart ass.”
I bite down on my lower lip to keep the loud cackle in my throat. “Excuse me, while this little reunion is very sweet, I’d like to avert this disaster as quickly and neatly as possible. Ollie, Jeff specifically requested you, so thanks for coming.” I focus my attention on Jeff. “Let’s get this moving, shall we? What do you need from us?”
Jeff walks toward one of the windows lining the office. “Scarlet is involved in a situation bigger than her. We need to eliminate all evidence of her whereabouts. If we don’t act fast, there will be dire consequences to her career. And yours.”
My brain may still be a little fuzzy because of all the champagne I’d guzzled hours earlier, but the question still remains; the one which Jeff seems to expertly deflect each time it’s asked. “Let me ask one more time, Jeff. Why are you here?”
He pauses and exchanges a look with Ollie. “I need Ollie to hack into an encrypted security network.”
I furrow my brow. “Why? To delete the pictures?”
“No, the pictures are the least of your concern right now.”
“I don’t follow.” Shit, I’m really floundering now. My temples pound as I try desperately to make sense of this situation.
“This is a remote virtual network set up for sick bastards around the world who watch live sex. Scarlet was picked specifically for this porn network. Celebrities sucking cock for the cameras. People pay good money to watch that. Can’t fuck Scarlet yourself? Well, just live vicariously through some other jackass who has enough money to lure her into his sex den.”
“Wait, are you telling me that Scarlet’s boyfriend, Taylor Hayes, is messed up in this whole thing, too? She’s supposed to be with him tonight.” Of course, I’d known they were banging like cannons; however, with the same clean-cut image and a shitload to lose if anyone was to say otherwise, Taylor kept an airtight lid on their sexcapades.
“Our intel said they split up after the show and went their separate ways. Scarlet’s flying solo.”
“So, wait, you work for who, exactly?” Intel? Tailing Taylor and Scarlet? Hacking into porn networks? My body is twitching with the adrenaline coursing through it, but my brain is nearing shutdown. I’m exhausted, though desperate to understand how all of these pieces fit together.
Jeff’s hand slides into the pocket of his pants; the ones that hang on what I’m sure is a perfectly chiseled waist with that delicious “V” I’ve only seen in pictures, since I’m pretty much celibate these days. Well, most days. “I’m a private investigator hired by an underground governmental agency. My ‘business deal’ is making sure the assholes running this online porn haven are stupid enough to get caught before more people get hurt. And we were close tonight, ready to pull the plug, until Scarlet showed up on the scene. Now we need to get that footage before it goes live.””
My eyes narrow. “Which agency?”
“I can’t disclose that information.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me all of this from the beginning?”
“Some people aren’t as agreeable once they find out I’m working with the government.”
I fold my arms over my chest, trying to process everything I just heard. I still don’t trust him, but I know he’s safe because of Ollie. It would have been nice to know from the get-go that he wasn’t going to impale me with an ice pick when I was approached at the club. “I don’t understand. Why don’t you just get a warrant and force your way inside? Is she still there? How are you going to get her out?”
Ollie crosses the office and places a hand on my shoulder. “I’ve just taken a look at the security feed, and I don’t see her on any of the cameras.”
“The videos don’t go live right away.” Jeff runs a hand through his hair. “And this one is going to cost the most sick and twisted viewers plenty to watch. We still have time to intercept it, but we need to act fast. Scarlet is only one of the victims here. This is an extremely covert operation, Ariana, and it requires the utmost discretion if we’re going to stop them for good. That’s why nobody can know about our involvement.”
I nod and nibble at my cuticle, careful not to chip the nail polish, but my teeth are too close to the nail. A corner of my French manicure chips off. Motherfucker. “Okay, so what do you need from us?”
“I need Ollie and a computer. I’ll guide him through the network. We’ll erase all traces that Scarlet was involved and include surveillance so we can make sure she doesn’t end up there again.” No nonsense, no emotion, just business. He makes it sound so neat and clean, like the ties between us will be once he cuts them.
Because when he eliminates the trail, he’ll be gone forever.
Not that this should make me upset at all, since my star client will be back in action, pun intended.
Ollie nods. “I’ll grab my laptop.”
“Keep it quiet, Ollie. Let everyone out front think they’re still on the hunt for online gossip. I don’t want anyone to leak the fact this is part of an investigation. Not yet.”
“Got it.” Ollie sticks up his thumb and rushes out the door.
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t just tell me all this in the club, why you had to make this whole thing sound so ominous.” I make a concerted effort to pull my damned finger out of my mouth. It’s a nervous habit, one I’ve tried to break for years, but the need to chomp on my cuticles is amplified when I have serious reservations about a situation. Just like I do now. Because for as much as Jeff has told me, there are a lot of holes in his story. Big ass holes he probably doesn’t think I recognize, but I do, and I’m biting my tongue until I can get Ollie alone.
“I needed to make sure you understood the ramifications if you didn’t comply.” He turns away from the window and moves toward me with slow, deliberate movements that make me feel a little bit like an animal being stalked by a predator. His dark eyes pin me under their gaze, and my limbs just hang at their sides. My fingers twitch, and the urge to bite my nails is overwhelming, but I refuse to let him see my inner conflict. “I think you can appreciate what a delicate situation this is for everyone. I also want to make sure this sex ring isn’t alerted about my involvement. That will only make the cockroaches scatter, making them much harder to track, and we might lose access to the evidence we need to bring them down.”
Okay, he just said cock and harder. Is it sick that those are the only two words I took away from his last sentence? Shit, I need some coffee. Maybe a vibrator. I clear my throat, ready to turn away, but his hulking body prevents any movement. His fingertips are close enough to dance along my prickled skin, lips close enough to brush against mine…holy crap! I am in so much danger of losing everything I’ve worked toward, yet all I can think about is having this man plastered on top of me.
I swallow hard. No, that’s not exactly true.
He can be under me, against me, behind me…doing just about any damned thing he wants.
Oh, Christ. This is what happens when someone is both sleep and sex-deprived. That has to be the reason for these insane obsessions about a man who, within thirty minutes, has gone from ominous threat to potential extortionist to government agent. The stress of this night is unleashing a whole bunch of complicated emotions that I’d decided a long time ago needed to be buried. Permanently.
“Okay,” I rasp, grabbing my bottle of water. The cool liquid hits my empty stomach, sending a shiver through me. Yes, I’m sure it was the result of my large gulp of water, not his eyes peeling off my dress.
Argh! Get it the hell together, Ari!
“Your cooperation means a lot, Ariana.” He smiles, and my knees weaken. I’m a freaking tightly wound ball of pathetic.
I manage to return one of my own. “Just doing my civic duty.” Ironic. I’m not usually the one saying that.
A chuckle escapes his lips. “However you want to think about it.”
I furrow my brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, to be frank, you’re not exactly doing this to be a good citizen. This is about keeping Carlson and Associates on the up and up.”
Up and up. This just gets better.
I package the lust into a tiny little locked up box in my mind and narrow my eyes at the intimidating, yet delicious specimen of a man in front of me. “My priority is obviously going to be my work. I have a duty to protect my client—“
“From offering her mouth and alleged virgin pussy to a bunch of people who can very easily make her into an even bigger star than she already is? Sounds to me like you’re just protecting her lies and that she’s just a fame chaser who’ll do anything – or anyone – to get what she wants.” He runs a hand through his thick, dark hair. “Much like your other clients, am I right?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” I sputter. “My job isn’t to make them appear to be virtuous, it’s about…it’s about…” Fuck, why am I doing this again?
“What you do isn’t even remotely admirable. You protect these people from themselves for a shitload of coin. And even after all your efforts, look how easy it is to divert them off your carefully crafted path.”
My jaw drops. “You are such an asshole!”
“I’ve been called much worse, sweetheart, and to be honest, I’m a little shocked you couldn’t come up with something more original. Aren’t people like you all about the spin?”
“I’m still a lady, for chrissakes!”
His grin widens. “I can see that. Very much so.”
I’ve effectively pissed her off, but the lust is still there in her eyes. I can see it beyond the rage. And much as I’d like to act upon it, I can’t. You don’t shit where you eat. Ever. Or else you end up in prison. Or in a ditch. I’d very much like to avoid both.
Despite what I know, it doesn’t stop me from undressing and mounting her in my mind. I’m gonna let that whole scene play out a few more times until Ollie gets back here with that laptop.
Her nostrils flare, fists clenching against her sides. Looks like I’ve ignited a fire. Christ, I’d love her to unleash it all over me.
Ollie returns with his laptop in hand. Too soon for my liking. This next part will be quick, and then I’ll walk out of this office and away from a woman who’s sparked something deep inside me that has been dead for too long…so long, I can’t even remember its last breath.
Focus is the only thing that will help me right all the wrongs, but Ariana makes it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Her body is tense, her shoulders squared, lips pursed. I know she wants to kick my ass. But then I’d just pin her to the floor and those legs of hers would be rendered useless against me. And that’s exactly the way I want her, writhing beneath me, screaming for God, while I drive into her pussy. At least, for the first go. After that, I’d take her any which way I can have her.
Ollie clicks on his Mac keyboard and waves me over. “Okay, give me the IP address of the network.”
“You’re on a secure connection, right?” Ariana inches toward us. “I don’t want this traced back to us, Ollie. It can’t be.”
Ollie lets out a chuckle. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”
I hand him a scrap of paper with a set of numbers on it, and his fingers fly over the keys. I peer at the black screen rapidly filling with white type. I have no idea what the fuck it all means, but Ollie does, and that’s what matters.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ariana chewing on her finger. She’s nervous, but there really isn’t anything I can do about that. This type of mission always results in unanticipated casualties, and much as I try to minimize them, some things are beyond my tight control. Walking away has never been an issue before, but for the first time, it bothers me. And I don’t like that one fucking bit. Using her like this, invading her office with bullshit stories of sex rings, all because it’s part of my grand plan to steal from the asshole who pretty much cleaned me out. It’s wrong, but now isn’t the time to be justifying my actions.
I allow my eyes to drift over her curves again, trying to commit every detail to memory, imagining what lies beneath the fabric. It’s something I might have had the opportunity to find out in another life; a realization that gives me pause for one fleeting second, shocking the shit out of me.
I can’t let emotion compromise my ability to execute this plan. I’ve been there before, and it won’t happen again.
“I’m in. Just searching through the security feeds. I’ve cracked the encryption code, so I can see everything. Do you have the other IP addresses?”
I hand him a second piece of paper with a list of numbers, and his fingers again click and clack for the next few seconds. The screen displays a bunch of gibberish, but Ollie navigates it like the pro he is.
He adjusts his glasses and rakes a hand through his longish hair. I catch the look he throws Ari. She manages a weak smile, but I know she’s flipping the fuck out on the inside.
Work pauses as their gazes connect – hers reflective of sheer panic, and his…puppy fucking dog adoration. She’s got his dick wrapped around her pinkie, and that look on his face makes my spine stiffen. I rake a hand through my hair and tear my eyes away.
Just focus on the task at hand. Fuck everything else. Never get in deep.
I repeat my mantra a few more times until I hear Ollie’s triumphant announcement. “I’m in! Just searching through the feeds for the footage.”
Ariana walks around the couch next to where Ollie is furiously working the keys, her brow furrowed. Her perfume wafts into the air as she flops onto the cushion. “I don’t understand something. Why would you be erasing evidence if you need it to take down the group that’s involved with this ring?”
I allow my lips to curl into a smirk. “Nobody’s erasing anything.” Ollie taps the side of the laptop, pointing to a thumb drive. “Ollie is just collecting data so we can track activity on their network. Nothing will go viral without our knowledge, and we’ll crash the network immediately before someone can hit Play on any of those videos.” Ollie truly is the best at what he does – tapping lines, installing triggers. He does flawless work. I knew I made the right decision when I went searching for him.
“I just don’t understand why you’re not storming the place and arresting them all. Why would you go through all this trouble? Just get a warrant and seize everything.”
“There’s a very delicate balance of power. If we act too quickly, we risk losing our chance to nail the bastards. These people aren’t stupid. They can re-route everything with a few strokes of a keyboard. That’s why Ollie’s involvement is so critical. We’ll be able to track their every online move. We’re not looking for the quick win here. We’re going to take down their whole virtual empire. You have no idea what these people are capable of doing. They prey on the insecure, the ones with the over-inflated egos, who’ll do just about anything to get to the top and stay there. And once they’ve had a little taste, like our naïve friend Scarlet, they won’t want to do anything that’ll jeopardize their newfound place in this world.”
“So what do they expect to get from her? Will they try to lure her in again? Is anyone going to jump in to intercede if they do?” Ariana rubs her temples, clearly trying to make sense of everything I’ve said. She should have gone down her original path. By all accounts, she had so much potential for a successful law career. She’d have definitely been a kick ass defense attorney, instead of this bullshit glorified babysitting job, making sure the press thinks everyone’s asses are clean and veins heroin-free.
“That’s our intention. And plugging into their infrastructure is the surest way to do it. We need eyes and ears on them at all times, so we can act when the time is right. Trust me, there are plenty of sick fucks out there in cyberspace who want to get off with someone like her, and they’ll pay big bucks for the chance to watch someone else plug her up the ass.”
“What’s next? Just walk away with your little thumb-up-your-ass-drive and wait for the next victim to be assaulted?” Ariana’s fists are clenched. Her fury is so fucking hot. If Ollie wasn’t sitting in between us, I’d be very tempted to tear off that dress, bend her over the pristine white couch, and fuck her long and hard. I can hear the quiver in her voice, even though she’s trying to mask it. Worrying is a waste of her energy, but I can’t exactly tell her that, not without blowing this whole thing wide open.
“I have all the evidence I need for the time being, now that Ollie’s cracked their network wide open.” I clap a hand on his shoulder. “But there are a lot of formalities, a lot of red tape to cut through. A ring like this has roots that go far and deep. There is already an ongoing investigation, but all details need to be confirmed before we can take action.” The bullshit spews from my lips without thought. Luckily, I have bureaucracy on my side. Everyone knows that the authorities can’t get out of their own way unless all i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. This is no exception. And now, I have what I need, and it’s untraceable, thanks to Ollie’s tech genius.
Ollie shuts the lid of his laptop and rises. “Ari, we have everything under control. I updated my web crawler algorithm to include a kill code for any websites that make mention of Scarlet. The program will crash the site and scrub it for any potential damaging words or images. My team will evaluate every instance, and we’ll deal with them on a case-by-case basis. This will not leak, I promise you.” His hand grazes her arm and my throat tightens as she glances up at him with a look I wish I were on the receiving end of.
“Thanks, Ollie. I know you’ll take care of this for us.”
“Anything for you.” He grins and turns toward me, interrupting the vision of my hands around his neck, squeezing—
“Jeff, I think you have everything you need now. If you find anything else I can help with, give me a call.”
I nod, trying to yank my gaze away from Ariana. She regards me with a look that can freeze water in hell. All lust is lost, not that I could have done anything about it, anyway. I’ll just have to rely on the good old highlight reel.
“Good luck with your investigation.” Her hands are on her hips, and with reluctance, she peels one off and offers it to me. I take it in my own. Such soft skin, but what a monster grip. She’s an aggressive one, that’s for shit sure. I hold it for seconds longer than necessary, unable to break the connection, allowing the zap of electricity to tear through my body. Fuck me. Can she feel that, too?
“Thanks for your help, Miss Carlson. I appreciate your cooperation.”
“Tell the agency lining your pockets that if they need something else, not to have one of their agents bust me out of a club. I work much better in an office with a clear head than at a club after sucking down a bottle of Cristal.” The corners of her lips curl upward into a sexy smirk.
“If that’s an invitation, I can be back in a few—“
“Please, don’t take it that way.” Her smile widens and she nods toward the door. “Ollie can show you out.”
Ollie’s lips are stretched into a tight line, his back now stiff. I follow him through the mob of millennials with their laptops sprawled across the sofas in the lobby toward the elevator bank.
We get onto the elevator and he stabs the ground floor button. He turns to face me, his eyes hard, shielded, and I know he’s pissed. “You can’t just show up here and ask me to take part in your fucking schemes, Jeff. I don’t do that shit anymore.”
“Look, I know you’re angry that I blindsided you, but I had to be careful. We were part of the same team, remember? I thought that counted for something.”
He glares at me and folds his arms. “You know I have as much of a bone to pick with that dickhead Trey Conlon as you do.”
“Have you been sporting a bull’s eye on your ass for the past five years? I think my bone is slightly larger.”
“Can we stop talking about my ass? And your bone! What are you planning, anyway? I helped you as much as I could, but I can’t do any more than that. I don’t want to get caught in that rattrap again, Jeff. Last time, shit went really bad. I can’t risk that again. I’ve got a good gig here.”
“Ollie, there was a time when we were all in this together. It’s finally our time to collect. I won’t lie, there’s some bad blood with the others since you broke away from the group and went off on your own. But I convinced everyone you’re still our guy. Was I right? Are you?”