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Follow: He wants her soul. Too bad she already sold it.
Year:
2017
Publisher:
Tessa Bailey
Language:
english
ISBN:
B076Z3T99Y
File:
EPUB, 269 KB
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Gz PRESS デジタル写真集 No.192 泉水蒼空

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Gz PRESS デジタル写真集 No.191 Ulala

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TESSA BAILEY





Copyright © 2017 Tessa Bailey



Kindle Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.





Dedicated to happily ever afters.



Especially for dogs.





TABLE OF CONTENTS




Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Epilogue

Acknowledgments





CHAPTER ONE




Teresa


Airports.

Some people find them romantic. Others think they’re a nasty business. I fall somewhere in the middle. Crowded from all sides by limousine drivers holding signs and loved ones cradling stuffed bears, I watch in fascination as a man and woman race toward one another. What they must be feeling is so foreign to me, I might as well be watching two manatees mating on the Discovery Channel.

The closest I’ve ever come to falling in love is sliding on the red Ferragamo pumps I’m wearing—and that isn’t changing any time soon. Unless they release the same style in pink. Then we’ll talk.

No, there is only one male alive on this planet who could get me to LAX on a busy Saturday afternoon, holding a fistful of balloons. My baby brother, Nicky. I can already picture his reaction when he exits baggage claim, duffel thrown over his shoulder, sunglasses perched on his nose to hide the inevitable hangover. He’s going to pretend he doesn’t know me, the adorable s; cumbag.

There’s a tight pinch deep inside my chest. I’ve missed torturing Nicky. We both dealt with the death of our parents this year in different ways. He went for a visit to Staten Island to revisit his roots—and, I’m guessing, ex-girlfriends.

Me? I hustled.

The money our parents left us isn’t going to last forever. Nicky still has a couple years left until he finishes college, rent in Los Angeles isn’t cheap and I have a weakness for Italian leather. My film school pipe dream is definitely last on the necessities list, which is good, because it’s such a long shot, I refuse to even hope for an acceptance letter.

Breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, I glance up to check the Arrivals screen. Nicky’s flight landed forty minutes ago. On time. Baggage claim at LAX is notoriously snail-paced, but my brother should be out by now.

“Relax,” I mutter, ignoring a look from the limo driver to my right. “He’s coming home. He promised.”

Nicky is all I’ve got. Our parents chiseled the word family on our souls, but they needn’t have bothered. I was only three years old when he was born, but I’ve loved my brother from the moment I laid eyes on him. Even when he grew up, developed a chip on his shoulder and started behaving like a prick on occasion, that love only manifested deeper. He’s my blood. And he belongs in Los Angeles with his often broke, overprotective sister. Not in New York.

Our parents moved us across the country nine years ago for a damn good reason. They’re not here anymore. And that makes Nicky my responsibility.

Swallowing hard, my gaze travels to the clock again. Forty-five minutes. In a desperate attempt to make myself feel better, I replay the conversation I had with Nicky four weeks ago, when I dropped him off in this very spot.

Chill, Teresa. I’m just going to see some friends. I’ll be back in time for school. You’ll live without someone to boss around for a month.

You love it. She’d ruffled his dark, unkempt mop of hair. Don’t come back smelling like the old neighborhood. You know what I mean.

I know you worry too much. His attention had strayed toward the security line. All right, I’m out. Don’t get used to having the toilet seat down.

Nicky. We’d traded a heavy look. Please. Be careful.

When the phone rings in my pocket, playing the old classic “Lean on Me,” my fingers go instantly numb. I let go of the balloons, watching them float to the ceiling. Intuition buzzes in my middle like a mosquito hitting a bug zapper. That’s Nicky’s ringtone. He’s been hard to reach all month, flippant when I finally pinned him down to get his flight information. Where is he? I won’t believe the worst yet. He’s not stupid enough to get sucked into the very situation we left behind. No way.

But if that’s true, why isn’t he here yet?

The buzz stops, starts again, and I stumble backward—clumsy in my high heels for once—out of the crowd. For the first time, I notice the faces in that sea of loved ones have changed since arriving. Been replaced with new features.

Horror scales the insides of my throat, and finally, I start fumbling for my phone. Cursing my skinny jeans, I manage to pry the bright pink, squalling device from my pocket. It’s Nicky. With the acrylic point of my index fingernail, I punch talk and press the cool glass to my ear. “You, uh…” I have to stop for a stuttered breath. “You tie one on last night and miss your plane, dickhead?” No answer. The airport starts to close in around me. “Typical, b-but that’s fine. It’s fine. I can go home and do laundry and watch Game of Thrones or whatever. Book another flight on the emergency credit card. I’ll be here when you land—”

“You’re rambling, Resa. You’re always doing that when you get nervous.”

His voice fills me with relief and escalating fear, all at once. If he’s calm, he’s not worried or pissed about missing his plane. “You’ve got some nerve sounding bored.” I steel myself. “Where are you, Nicky?”

Silence.

“Tell me you’re trying to sneak out of a girl’s hotel room in Atlantic City.” I start to pace, one high heel click for every ten pounds of my heart. “Hell, tell me you’re in the tombs waiting to make bail. Anything.”

A shaky sigh floats down the line. “I didn’t come home knowing this would happen. Okay? I…everyone we used to know is wrapped up in the game now. I couldn’t get away from it. It just sucked me in.”

I fixate on the first thing he said. “New York isn’t your home.”

“Yes, it is. And it’s yours, Resa.” His hardened tone makes my free hand lift, press to my throat. “It was theirs, too. Mom and Dad’s. We were living in Los Angeles, but we never really left Staten Island. You can’t.”

“You have school here. Friends.” I clear the wobble from my voice. “I’m here. We’re good together, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, Resa. We were good. You’ve always made sure of it.” A second later, his momentary warmth fades. Gone like a whistle in the breeze. Were good, he’d said. Past tense. “Go home. Watch Thrones and work on that application for film school. I’ll come visit as soon as I get a chance.”

“I already sent in the application,” I say, sounding numb. Someone bumps my elbow and I don’t even have the energy to flash them a middle finger.

“Good for you, sis.” A pause. “I’m proud of you.”

“I’m the big sister. I’m supposed to be the one who’s proud.” My mouth is dry as dust, making it impossible to swallow. I’m afraid to ask him my next question. Terrified I already know the answer. “You went to work for Silas Case. Didn’t you?”

No response.

I find a pillar and use it for support, waving off a man who asks if I need help. “Dad is spinning in his grave right now, Nicky,” I rasp. I’m seeing none of my surroundings. Just blurring colors and flashes of the past. “You know what he had to do to get out of that life? How dare you run straight back into it. How dare you throw away the new life he gave us.”

“Me? I’m throwing it away?” My brother’s voice deepens, so different from the boy I helped raise. The boy I have a bone-deep responsibility to protect at any cost. “Let’s be real, Resa. You’re not at the library at night, studying film craft. You’re not doing extra work on some Hollywood lot, either, even though that’s what you tell me. Neither of those things makes the kind of cash you bring home.”

Lies spring to my lips, but I don’t give them a voice. So my brother knows about my job. If not the specifics, then at least the illegal nature. I swallow the shame and focus on the matter at hand. “What I do, Nicky, is not in Silas Case’s league. It’s a million miles from it.” Grasping for a new tactic, I soften my tone. “Don’t you remember Dad when he worked for Silas? He was a ghost. Scared his job would get us killed. Mom was a wreck.” He makes a wounded sound and I experience a flare of hope. “You’ll have no life. It will be expendable. Everyone is expendable to that man. Nicky, please. Please. Get your shit and get on a plane.” I can no longer keep the desperation out of my voice. “If you’ve already done something, don’t say it. Don’t tell me now. Just know that I’ll be ready to move once you land. It’s not too late.”

His laughter is sad. Scared. So unlike my swaggering, gum-snapping, snort-chuckling brother. “I-I…think it’s too late, Resa.”

There it is. There’s my little brother. I can hear him beaming out through the cracks, making a plea for help. The way he spoke to me before was just a tactic. A strategy. He’s twenty years old, but with those five words, he’s gone back to being the kid who cried for three days when he found out Santa wasn’t real. My brother. The only family I have left.

The nearby ticket counter comes into focus. “I’m coming to get you.”

“No!” His shout hurts my ear. “It’s not like how I remember it when we were kids, all right? When it was just strange men coming over to speak with Dad. Or reading about shit that happened overnight in Staten Island and wondering if Dad and his friends were involved. I’m in it. It’s real. We’re not kids with only half a clue anymore. That means—”

“No sympathy. I understand the risk.”

“Then stay the hell in Los Angeles.”

“Nicky, when people give me an order, what do I do?”

His curse is creative. “The opposite.”

“Correct.” Having a course of action gets me jogging for the airport exit. “I’m going to take care of this. Try and have a smidgen of faith in me.”

“I should’ve lied.” Misery oozes down the line. “Fuck. I shouldn’t have called you at all.”

Picking up speed at the crosswalk, I brush off the hurt. “You know why you did call me with the truth, little bro?”

“Why?”

“Because you need me. That’s why. Because we’re family. We don’t just embarrass each other in public, we have one another’s backs. It’s part of the deal.” I reach the parking lot and hit the alarm on my keychain, a little trick I use to locate my car faster. “Hang tight. I’m going to take care of everything. And maybe someday I’ll forgive you for sending me to LAX on a Saturday for fuck all.”

“I love you, Resa. Dammit. I’m sorry I messed up.” His voice cracks on the last word, telling me I was right. My little brother is scared. Which is only good for one thing. Making me angry—and about four thousand times as determined to go to New York and pluck my brother out of Silas Case’s blood-covered hands.

“Hang tight, kiddo.” When I reach my car, I notice a group of Marines in uniform checking me out, so I throw them a pinky wave. “And don’t tell anyone I’m coming. I like to make an entrance.”





CHAPTER TWO




Teresa


It’s not that I don’t love Staten Island.

Okay, fine. I don’t love Staten Island. But it has nothing to do with aesthetics. Working-class heroes take pride in their homes, lawns and businesses. It’s got charm. It’s got swagger. But if you live here, you better own a pair of brass balls, because as far as the rest of New York City is concerned, you’re the bastard stepchild borough. No one is going to stick up for Staten Island except you. Which brings me to yet another truth about this place.

Shit does not change.

Standing across the street from Tommaso’s, I’m leaning against a brick wall of the deli where I bought my first and last pack of Parliaments, before my mother caught and grounded me for a month. My black hoodie is zipped up and pulled down low over my face. There’s an AM New York in my hands, but I’m not reading a single word. No, I’m watching Silas Case follow the same damn routine he followed when I was a child and used to ride bikes on this block. He’s unlocking the door to the restaurant—a place he doesn’t even own—and pacing inside to make an espresso. His first of many throughout the day, while men slip in through the back door to drop off envelopes. Tribute to the boss.

Here. Hold my eyeroll.

I suppose there have been subtle changes. Silas definitely has a lot more white hair, more molasses gooing up his step. If I were filming this scene, I would open with a nice establishing shot. Get the whole old-school, business-lined block in, before switching over to a low-angle shot of Silas. Close-up on the shuffling steps of his shiny wingtips. His wrinkled hands as he unlocks the door. A suspicious look over his shoulder toward the hooded figure across the street.

He disregards them with a grunt, though, because this is his neighborhood. And no one fucks with Silas Case around here.

In picturing the various camera angles, I realize my eyes have drifted shut, yearning tickling my belly. My mind drifts to the application to The Film Institute I dropped into the mailbox last week, my hopes and dreams sealed tight inside yellow manila.

Probably won’t happen.

Definitely won’t happen.

Focus on the task ahead. This isn’t a movie. This is real life. The man who just slipped inside Tommaso’s isn’t an innocent, doddering old relic. He’s a dangerous felon who could ruin my brother’s life. Throw him into the dire circumstances my parents fought to keep us from. If this were a movie, though, I know exactly how it would end. My brother and I sitting beside one another on an airplane, a feminine voice coming over the PA system to announce we’re headed to Los Angeles. Click. Our seatbelts connect. Fade to white.

“Quiet on the set,” I murmur, unzipping my hoodie and tucking it beneath my arm. The absence of my sweatshirt leaves me in a tank top that’s as tight as a second layer of skin. I immediately feel more in control with my body as a weapon. Not that I intend to unleash it on Silas Case. God, no. It’s more of a battlefield tactic—one that rarely fails me.

My inner confidence is less substantial than quicksand, but who’s going to notice when the outline of my demi cup is much more interesting? “And we’re rolling…” Once I’m across the street, I toss the newspaper into a dented, green trashcan and walk into Tommaso’s unannounced.

A gun barrel winks back at me in the darkness. “Who the fuck?”

Pause.

In my attempts to break into the entertainment industry, I’ve had several shitty bit parts as an actress, so I’ve been around a lot of fake guns. But I’ve only seen a real gun on a single occasion.

My father came home late one night, which wasn’t unusual. He didn’t notice me sitting in the shadows in the living room as he discarded his shoes in a plastic garbage bag, then carefully slid a gun from a shoulder holster, stowing it in the bag, along with his shoes. Loafers my mother had bought him for Christmas. As long as I live, I will never forget his expression when he turned and saw me. Devastation. Why hadn’t I just stayed in bed?

That night, we drove together to the edge of a river, filled the bag with rocks and let the current take it away. The very next day, my father approached Silas Case and demanded to be let out of the oath he’d taken.

That same boss points a weapon at me now. And it’s not a movie prop.

Get the upper hand back. Don’t let him see your fear.

“Teresa Valentini.” Hoping to hide the fact that I’m trembling, I jerk my chin toward the sputtering espresso machine. “I like a lemon twist with mine.”

“Valentini.” Silas doesn’t blink, but there’s recognition in his tone. “You been out of this neighborhood so long you forget how to have some goddamn respect?”

I raise my eyebrows, hopefully giving no indication that I’m on the verge of peeing my pants. “You’re the one pointing a gun at an unarmed female.”

“I didn’t stay alive this long by taking chances.” He dips the gun, indicating my waist, the sweatshirt tucked under my arm. “Prove it.”

Thankful I left my trusty stun gun back at the Motel 6 I checked into, I lift my hands in the air and let the hoodie drop. I turn in a circle, rolling my eyes when he makes an appreciative sound. It doesn’t even make me want to cringe. Oh no, this is familiar ground, having my body serve as a distraction. Same way I do at work, I lean into that lecher behavior and show Silas it doesn’t affect me whatsoever. I lift up my shirt, giving him a better view of my back waistband. When I’m facing him again, I even give my tits a nice little shake. “No gun. No wire. What do you say? Can we be friends now?”

His coffee-stained eyes narrow, humor curling one end of his mouth. “I remember you now. Couldn’t have been older than fourteen when your father left like a thief in the night.”

“Correction: he stopped being a thief in the night when we left. And he’d paid his dues.”

“Oh yeah?” His gaze slithers down my thighs, but I refuse to flinch. “What do you know about your father’s time with me, little girl?”

Smoothly as possible, I cover my misstep. “Only that we were all unhappy. And that he came to you and worked something out. A way that allowed us to leave in peace.” I take a long pull of oxygen. “I’m here to do the same for my brother.”

“No.”

That single word is like being backhanded, but I command myself to maintain my poker face. I’m immediately resentful that he stole the upper hand I earned by shaking my tits, though. His smile tells me he loved doing it, too. “He can’t be that valuable to you after four weeks.” A thought occurs. “Or are you still salty about my father leaving?”

“Your brother is indispensable, just like the rest of these baby birds that want to be gangsters.”

“So it is about my father?” I take a couple experimental steps into the restaurant, orbiting this man I’m hating more by the minute. “And my brother isn’t a baby bird.”

“Oh no? He’s some hidden gem, but he needs his five-foot-nothing sister to come wipe his ass?” He winks at me. “Not that I mind the scenery.”

I flutter my eyelashes. “As far as you’re concerned, this scenery is government land. And I’m the president.”

His laugh catches him off guard. After a few seconds, he lets the gun drop, and my insides unclench. “Let’s go sit down. I like to drink my espresso hot.”

I make a sweeping gesture toward the dining room. “Age before beauty.”

My feet sink into the plush, outdated, ruby-red carpet as I follow Silas toward a two-seater table. He heaves a breath—and his belly—to get into the booth side of the table. Then he sets about rearranging himself. Straightening his collar, his coat. Twisting his ring. Organizing his spoon and espresso within reach. Those sharp movements remind me he’s not some harmless grandfather. Didn’t he almost blow my head off when I walked in here?

“All right. Let’s continue.” Staten Island is packed into his voice like sardines. “Is this about your father?” He pinches his fingers together in front of his face. “Poco.” A little. “These kids…they think working for me is like a job at fucking Starbucks. They get bored and decide they want out. I can’t allow that. Not without a penalty. You let one out, they all start itching to fly the coop.”

My first thought is: this isn’t as bad as I was expecting. My second one is: don’t be naïve. There’s a shoe waiting to drop somewhere and it’s not as cute as the wedge heel ankle boots I’m wearing. “So what’s the penalty? Money?”

A smile stretches across his face. “I got money, sweetheart.”

“A job, then.”

He leans back and sips his espresso. Seconds tick by as he studies me, thoughts cranking behind eyes that have probably seen more than their fair share of gruesome sights. “You should already be dead,” he says, finally.

The hair on my arm stands up, bile rising in my throat. “My brother didn’t tell me anything. Only that he can’t come home to Los Angeles. I filled in the blanks.”

No answer as he absorbs that.

“Look, this isn’t going to mean anything to you, but…” Heat burns behind my eyelids. “My parents are gone now. Died within four days of one another. Dad first. Then Mom. He’s the only blood I have left.”

“Why wouldn’t that mean anything to me?”

“I-I don’t know.” I’m humiliated when moisture obscures my vision, so I toss my hair back in order to look up at the ceiling. “If the penalty is a job…I’ll do it. Once it’s over, we’re both off the hook.”

He inclines his head. “Do you have the Instagram?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The Instagram.” I watch from way out in left field as Silas tugs eyeglasses out of his pocket and peers down at the screen of his cell phone. “One of these squares opens it…”

Whoa. What is with the topic change?

Recognizing the pink icon across the table, I reach across the table and punch the app with my index finger. “Uh.” Ducking my head, I check his pupils for dilation. “Should I call a nurse?”

“Here it is.”

“Here what is?”

“My son. Will.” Silas faces the screen in my direction. “Looks like he’s in Texas now. Last week it was Louisiana.” The lines around his mouth tighten. “He’s driving across the country with his dog.”

“That sounds slobbery.” Leaning in, I get a good look at Will, and okay. Hell. My ovaries sit up and pant against my will. He’s what the ladies at my job refer to as foine. Yummy in a dangerous kind of way. A harsh, unshaven jaw that looks like it would leave rug burns on the insides of a woman’s thighs. His eyes are hidden by dark sunglasses, but the creases between his heavy, black brows tell me they’re hard. Discerning. In the picture, Will is leaning back against an old, orange convertible, with a giant—I mean, freaking enormous—dog sitting on the hood, tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. Will’s arms are crossed and I can’t help but zero in on those corded forearms, the breadth of his chest. God. Damn.

He’s a beast in the sack. I don’t even need a test drive to make that judgment.

I don’t test drive at all anymore. Men are fun to look at on Instagram. They can lift heavy things. The human race needs their man juice to procreate. But this vibrator-packing girl is just window shopping, thank you very much. That dog might be looking at Will with hero worship in its eyes, but within a month, that burly and apparently loaded male human would be making demands on my time and patience without giving anything in return. Except, maybe, an occasional half-hearted lay. Just like the rest of his brethren.

I might only be twenty-three, but I’ve been burned by enough men to know they share a common gene. They can’t see past their own needs and if those needs—physical, emotional and food-ical—aren’t being satisfied non-stop, they check out and start looking for the next girl who can provide instant gratification. Or an ego boost. I have zero time for it. Why am I thinking about this at all?

Sitting back in my chair, I start to ask why we’ve gone off the topic, when a thought occurs. “Wait a minute. I don’t remember you having a son.”

“My wife could never conceive.” He inclines his head. “My girlfriend did, though.”

“There it is. Lovely.” Impatience cranks in my middle. “What does your son have to do with my brother?”

“Will is the job I’m giving you.”

Without permission, my abdomen knits up tight, as if in anticipation of coming into real-life contact with Will. Silly, neglected hormones. “I don’t follow.”

Silas Case laces his fingers together, placing them carefully on the table. He seems to be choosing his words. “Will manages Caruso Capital Management—a revered hedge fund—and he’s only thirty-two.” That takes me off guard. After looking at Will’s picture, I didn’t expect him to work behind a desk. More like beneath a vintage car or in a football uniform. My musings are interrupted when Silas Case continues. “He’s throwing away everything he’s worked for in order to drive around the country with his fucking dog.”

“Why?”

He snorts. “There is no acceptable reason. I don’t care if the dog is dying.”

My heart lurches. “The dog is…dying?”

Silas tilts his head. “Don’t go soft on me now. I’m handing you a chance for your brother to walk away free and clear. And I’m giving you the chance because you don’t flinch and I like that. It’s rare these days.”

“Touching,” I say, trying to sound bored. Truth is, though, I’m still stuck on that massive pooch meeting his maker. Despite its size, the dog looks young. “So what’s the actual mission, captain, so I can decide if I choose to accept?”

“This has gone on long enough.” Silas’s fist comes down hard on the table, splashing espresso on the white tablecloth. Another reminder that the man sitting across from me is a cold-blooded mafia boss. A tyrant who has ruled this neighborhood since before I was born. “I take responsibility for what I did. But it’s no excuse to let his business fail.”

“What did you do?”

His black eyes turn glacial. “None of your business.” Battling a fierce urge to look away, I nod once and he continues. “Let’s see what it takes to make you flinch, shall we?”

Trepidation sneaks into my gut, but I shrug. “Have at it.”

Silas’s attention falls to my breasts, lingering there long enough to make my arms tingle with the need to cross. “There are only three things in life that drive a man. Power, money. And women. Will has those first two bases covered, but even unlimited cash and clout couldn’t keep him from this ridiculous escapade.” He refocuses on my face. “That leaves women.”

What the hell is he getting at? “Seems to me if he’s rich and powerful, women come as part of the deal.”

“Sure. But I’m talking about a specific woman. The kind the makes a man change his plans. Rearrange everything.” He cocks an eyebrow. “You strutted in here looking like a centerfold and stared straight down the barrel of my gun. There’s something about you. I don’t change my plans for nobody, but my son isn’t like me.”

My pulse picks up. “What are you asking?”

“I won’t be the reason he throws it all away. I need him to succeed.” He smoothes a wrinkle in the tablecloth, very, very carefully. “Find Will. Convince him to give up this ridiculous escapade and go home. Back to his company.” His gaze ticks to mine. “I think we both know what I mean by convince him.”

I’m not so sure I hide my true feelings this time around. How can I when my skin is crawling with spiky-legged ants? Silas wants me to sleep with Will. Wants me to feign interest and give my body to a stranger, with the hope he grows attached to me—enough to bring him home. There’s no question about that.

My system feels jolted, top to bottom. I’ve used my body as a shiny object and form of distraction since I started filling out a C-cup. But I’ve chosen to use it as a weapon—a harmless one that I’ve never deployed for the wrong reasons. Having this man call out my secret and ask me to put my money where my mouth is? I might as well be sitting here with no clothes on. No artful makeup or pricey shoes. Nothing.

Just Teresa. A girl who works a dead-end job and has no chance at film school.

So I do what comes naturally and default to indifference. No way is he going to know he stripped off a layer of my skin. Especially when my brother’s freedom is my goal. I’ll agree to anything he wants and adjust later. “Convince him. Right.” I swallow. “So, I’m just supposed to believe this is all about you wanting the best for him?”

“Yeah,” he snaps, daring me to question him. “Is that so hard to believe?”

His motives don’t matter. He’s giving me an out. I can’t give him a chance to change his mind. “So, let’s recap. I…encourage Will to go back to his fancy-pants life in New York City. You let my brother off scot-free?”

“You’ve got a week.”

I reach deep for some bravado. “If I can get it done sooner, how about you throw in airfare?” He’s clearly not impressed with the suggestion or my charming eyebrow waggle, so I push back my chair and stand, ready to split before he takes back the offer. Now that I’ve had time to recover from Silas’s request, I’m mostly back in control. Convince a man to do something? I’ve had a harder time opening a jar of pickles.

After all, Silas didn’t specify that I had to sleep with Will. He only implied it. There’s a way to meet the crime boss’s demands without selling my soul.

Isn’t there?

I’ll be conning Will no matter what happens.

Remembering the dog’s expression of rapture, guilt climbs my neck like a ladder, but I shake it off. I can handle any amount of guilt to help my brother. “If I’m doing this, it’s going to be done right. I need a few days to plan and make my cover story credible. The week starts when I get to Texas.”

His mouth is flat, but he agrees. “Sure.”

“Any further instructions?”

“Under no circumstances can Will know I sent you. Other than that? No.” His gaze travels downward, lingering on my thighs. Between them. “You seem like an adventurous girl. I’ll leave the dirty details to you.”

Acid climbs my throat. Unable to get out of there fast enough, I swagger toward the exit, but Silas’s voice brings me up short. “Oh, and Teresa, don’t be alarmed if I send someone to keep an eye on you.” He winks at me. “Just to keep you honest.”

Smiling through my alarm, I finally make it out the door.

Texas, here I come.





CHAPTER THREE




Will


My definition of a bad day has changed.

Drastically.

In a different lifetime, a bad day used to mean a trip to the emergency room with a busted eye, so I could get stitched up. Or watching the Giants get spanked.

In this lifetime, a bad day means losing forty million dollars on a bad trade.

To be fair, the latter doesn’t happen too often, but when it does…it’s almost like it’s happening to someone else. Another man. Same when it comes to triumphs or hell, even uneventful days in the office. I’m always looking back on that other lifetime, wondering where that asshole with the busted lip went.

I draw a long breath in through my nose and let it out, staring out over the field. Neither one of those men seem to be here now.

Which one will I eventually return to?

A slimy snout presses into the palm of my hand, distracting me.

The tightness in my chest eases when I look down at my dog. His body vibrates with the leftover excitement of running in the field we pulled over to inspect, just outside of Dallas.

“Back already, huh?” I rub the top of Southpaw’s head with my knuckles. “Shit. Why are you wet? Again.”

My Great Dane responds by yawning, showing off the ridges on the roof of his mouth. He flops onto his side and rolls over, his four legs looking like highway mile markers pointed straight up at the blue sky. The mud splashed all over his white belly will be transferred to my leather car seat when we hit the road again. That’s fine by me, though. Leather can be replaced, but Southpaw can’t.

This is his vacation. I’m just the chauffeur.

See, bad days were always surmountable before. I could fix them. Or enough time would pass that I gradually forgot they existed. There’s no moving on from a day when you find out your entire damn life is a lie—and your dog is dying—within the space of twenty-four hours. There’s no way to change those things.

So I changed my priorities instead.

Southpaw makes a snarf sound and writhes on his back in the grass.

“What’s that mean? You hungry?” His tongue unfolds and dangles out the corner of his mouth in response. “Yeah. When are you not hungry, you big-ass beast? Let’s go. Hop in.”

Southpaw animates in a flurry of fur, trotting toward my Chevelle when just a month ago, he would have streaked at a hundred miles an hour. I clear my throat hard to keep a lump from forming and school my features. Call me crazy if you want, but that dog picks up on everything. And he’s truly my dog, because he’s not a fan of pity. Or cats.

We’ve been on this road trip for one month as of today. Started in New York and made our way down to Florida, before cutting west. We don’t have rules or plans. When we find somewhere we like, we stay until we get sick of it. In other words, until Southpaw drags my suitcase out from beneath the bed and sits on it until I get the hint and start packing.

Dallas has been keeping us entertained for a few days, but as we pull into the parking lot of the Drifter Motel and Southpaw gives a sigh, I’m pretty sure we’ll be gone by tomorrow. Dogs have no attention span these days.

“Come on,” I say, throwing the car into park. “Better clean you up or no respectable eating establishment will let us through the door.”

Speaking of respectable establishments, this motel doesn’t really fall into that category. The stucco is peeling, half the vacancy sign needs replacement bulbs, and guests consist of broke musicians and men of questionable morals. It’s not that I can’t afford something nicer—I can write a check and buy a damn hotel if I so choose—but even if a five-star hotel was willing to let a horse-sized dog sleep in their fancy sheets, they’re not happy about it. My overly sensitive dog loves people, so I’d rather have him surrounded by people who’ll love him back.

Case in point, someone puts their hand out for a sniff every two steps on our way to the room. Out front, a couple is getting romantic in between sips from a brown paper bag. Music blares out from two different rooms. One plays metal, Spanish opera belts through a fuzzy speaker in the other. Cigarette smoke, old and new, lingers in the air, along with the smell of lemon cleaning product and sweat.

“Home sweet home,” I mutter, reaching down to pat Southpaw on the head. He head-butts my thigh in response. Sliding the key from my pocket, I dip it into the metal reader and push the door open. “I know. You love it. They don’t mind you tracking in—”

Tits.

There are tits in my room.

Really fucking nice ones.

I’m so distracted by their unexpected appearance—any red-blooded man with working testicles would be—that I don’t take in their owner right away. And all the other equally amazing shit that’s going on. The sexy brunette has one foot propped on my bed, her hands paused on her calf where she’s been applying lotion, before I so rudely interrupted her by walking into my own room.

A gruff bark from Southpaw prompts me to double check the door. But I do it fast—we’re in the right place—because as I mentioned, there’s a really fucking nice pair of tits in my room. Sue me for wanting to memorize the shape and color of her tight, rosy nipples before she screams and covers herself.

Which she doesn’t exactly seem inclined to do.

“Can we help you?”

Up until now, a big waterfall of dark hair has been hiding the woman’s face from me. But at my greeting, she tosses that thick mane back…and reveals features that accomplish the impossible. It nudges her tits into second place for most incredible body part in the room.

Hearing male voices approach in the hallway, I kick the door shut, surprised by the fact that I already don’t want anyone else looking at her. “You going to tell me why you’re in my room, woman? Or just stand there looking hot?”

When her red-stained lips spread into a smile, I once again marvel over the fact that she’s got zero plans to cover herself. No complaints from this corner. I’m just acutely aware that she was waiting for me to react to her nudity so she could take my measure. Based on that smile and her squaring shoulders, that’s exactly what she’s done. I’ve logged nine thousand hours in the boardroom, so I know all about sizing up a potential ally or adversary. Reading people is my business. I’m usually the unreadable one—and I don’t like how easily she managed it. Leave it to a pair of knockout tits to throw a man off his game.

“You must be mistaken.” In the saddest event in my recent memory, she produces a bra and snaps it into place, before strutting slowly around the bed. Legs. For. Days. My groin tightens like a motherfucker, which is saying something considering I’ve had wood since walking through the door. She’s showcasing those thighs with a black strip of material some might call shorts, but they’re more like underwear. Or two fabric samples stapled together. As if I’m not having a hard enough time keeping my eyes off that sweet little V between her legs, she slides a card key from the front of her shorts and waves it at me. “This is my room.”

“Then they double-booked it.” My tone is challenging. She thinks she’s got the upper hand? Let’s see if she can keep it. “I’ve been sleeping in that bed for three days.”

Her throaty hum turns up the ache in my dick to full volume. “Comfortably, I hope.” Leisurely, she cocks a hip and scans the room with pursed lips. “Where’s all your stuff? If I’d walked in and seen your jeans on the floor, this peep show could have been avoided.”

I shake my head hard. “Now that would have been a shame.”

Color fills her cheeks, which seems to…annoy her? “Maybe your credit card got declined and this was their way of breaking up with you.”

I can’t quite keep the amusement from my voice. “That’s definitely not it.”

Another sexy purr. “Well, let’s solve the riddle, shall we?” She tosses me a wink on her way to the bedside table, where she picks up the phone and hits a button. Waits a few beats. “Hello, this is Teresa Smith.” Smith, my ass. “I just checked into room one-oh-seven, but the room’s rightful owner just showed. I feel a little bit like Goldilocks. Was it double-booked, by any chance?”

Southpaw drops down on the ground at my feet, so I crouch down to rub his belly. Not to get an even better view of Teresa Smith’s tush, which of course is just as mesmerizing as the rest of her. High, firm and looking to get slapped.

My life is lived within the walls of my offices, so most of the women I come into contact with are my employees. I’m only interested in their ability to bring me a winning play. On the rare occasions I get out and have the opportunity to meet women who aren’t on my payroll, none of them make my pulse trip over itself like this one. I’m kind of stunned by the force of my attraction. It’s potent and she calls to it more with every second that ticks by.

“Ahh,” Teresa says, nodding over her shoulder at me. “I see. No, that’s fine. Thank you for your help.” After dropping the phone into the cradle, she starts gathering things off the bedside table I didn’t notice on the way in. A cell phone, a pair of earrings, some loose change. “They gave me the wrong room. I’m next door.”

Giving Southpaw a final pat on the stomach, I rise. “You’re going to put a shirt on before you head into the hallway.”

“Was that a question or—”

I shake my head.

Temper flashes in her eyes, but it doesn’t reach her tongue. “Sure.” Teresa saunters closer, all graceful-hipped and sultry-eyed. “You want to help me out with that shirt idea?” She bends down to scrub a hand over Southpaw’s head and the dog pants with rapture. If she notices the lump on his front, right paw, she gives no indication. Laughing softly, she steps over him carefully, bringing us inches apart. With a low sound of interest, she lays her hands on my pecs, rubbing them in a slow circle, finding my top button with her fingers. Unhooking it. “I’d hate to go digging through my luggage when you’ve got a perfectly nice shirt right here.”

“Only thing is, I’m wearing it,” I rasp. Fuck. Up close, she’s nothing less than extraordinary. She barely reaches my shoulders, but the little woman packs a punch. Her eyes are gray-green. Is that even a color? Her skin is just a hint sunburned, but the red sits on top of a golden glow, making her look rosy. Ripe. Everywhere. My cock is all but growling for freedom behind my zipper, wanting contact with that skin. Wanting to conquer it.

She flicks open the second button. “Can’t I wrap myself in it for a while?”

I catch her wrist before she can undo the third. Southpaw yelps inside his throat, but I shh him. “Who are you?”

There’s a line between her brows, those gray-greens racing all over my face. I’ll be damned if there isn’t buzzing static rippling back and forth between us, taking us both for a ride. “Teresa Smith,” she murmurs. “At your service.”

Just like before, I’d love to call bullshit on her last name. One thing at a time, though. “A strange man seeing you mostly naked doesn’t bother you, Teresa?”

Me saying her name delivers some kind of jolt. I feel it travel through her arm and slide up into my shoulder. Around to the back of my neck. And I can tell the precise moment she decides to tell the truth, instead of going with some patented bullshit I’d see from a mile away. “Acting like something doesn’t bother you is easier than admitting it does, right?”

There’s a sharp pressure in my chest. What the hell is going on here? “Yeah.” Reluctantly, I let go of her wrist, but only after I apply some pressure to her veins and watch her lids slide down. “Yeah. A hell of a lot easier.”

Keeping her in front of me with a look, I open the rest of my shirt, drape it over her shoulders, then re-do the buttons. All the while, she watches me like I’m the mystery in the room. I should be smug, shouldn’t I? Girl shows up topless and does her damnedest to turn me into a sputtering jackass. She didn’t quite succeed, even though having her look me over, neck to belt buckle, is giving my dick the consistency of iron. So how come all I want to do is tug her close and run my thumb along her bottom lip? To ask her what else bothers her that she doesn’t find easy to admit.

Jesus. If someone told me this morning a woman existed who could make me feel protective, jealous, horny, challenged and curious in the space of five minutes, I would have laughed until my fucking face turned blue.

“How about you return that shirt later when we have dinner?”

“I have plans.”

My hands do their own thing, curling in the shirt and dragging her closer. “Break them,” I breathe against her mouth. “I want to…talk to you.”

Her laughter puffs out. “Yeah, I can feel how badly you need to talk.”

“Come on now. You’ve been strutting around naked looking hotter than fuck. You’d be offended right now if my dick wasn’t hard.”

Humor twinkles in her eyes. “Good point.”

“Dinner, woman.”

Turning her head, she presses those soft lips against my ear. Breathes in and out. “I’ll think about it.”

Before I can formulate a response, she sidesteps me, taking the handle of a rolling suitcase, which has the strap of a laptop case wrapped around it. Without missing a beat, she glides toward the door. I should let her go, right? She’s in the room beside mine. And I’ve just made her acquaintance, but I already know she’s a woman who makes up her damn mind only when good and ready.

I can’t simply close the door and let her simmer for a few hours, though, because those male voices I heard earlier? Their owners are posted up right outside my door, passing a joint back and forth. Maybe it’s due to the marijuana or they’re just plain stupid, but they don’t even see me. Or they can’t manage to take their stunned eyes off Teresa’s bare legs long enough to acknowledge my presence.

“Damn,” says Moron Number One. “Hey there, pretty thing.”

And never count out Moron Number Two from chiming in. Moron number twos can never help it. “I’d ask to get inside your pants, but you’re not wearing any.”

A paint splatter of black obscures my vision, heat sinking into my veins. Especially when Teresa takes a backward step, her eyes searching for me over her shoulder. Behind me, Southpaw starts to growl, but I’m already on the same page. It has been a while since this man, the one I used to be, was invited to come out and play, but it’s like riding a bike. The immediate transformation supports the theory that I’ve been pretending to be someone else for too damn long. Brushing past Teresa in the doorframe, muscle memory and disgust bring my right fist down in the center of Moron Number One’s face. He hits the floor and stays down, so maybe he’s not as stupid as I originally thought.

Moron Number Two, however, is just as moronic as his first impression gave. He telegraphs his punch in stoner slow motion—it takes so long I could make a fucking sandwich—so I sidestep and let him stumble against the far wall, before spinning him around and pinning my forearm against his jugular. “A woman walks out of my room, wearing my shirt, you don’t speak to her. You don’t even look at her. You got that?” He lets out a strangled yeah, man. “Matter of fact, you’re not getting a second chance. Pick up your asshole friend and get the hell out. I don’t want to see you back here again.”

When I let Moron Number Two go and he scrambles to collect his buddy, I glance over at Teresa and I’m surprised to find Southpaw guarding her, lips peeled back to show off his teeth. Has he ever done that for anyone but me? Granted, I’m a complete loner so he’s only got me most of the time, but still. It makes me study her harder. Makes my gut kick.

She looks back at me with a sardonic tilt to her lips. “All right, all right. I’ll go to dinner with you.” After giving Southpaw a scratch behind the ear, she saunters past me toward her room. “You can stop showing off now.”

By the time her door clicks shut, I’m laughing.





CHAPTER FOUR




Teresa


Listening for Will to reenter his room after the hallway altercation, I finally hear the door snick shut. Footsteps traveling down the hallway, man and dog. After meeting him, I have no doubt he’s going to double check my story with motel reception, but I’m safe. They’re disorganized enough to think they truly made a mistake and definitely won’t suspect I simply climbed the first-floor balcony and jimmied the flimsy lock.

Entering the bathroom, I barely recognize myself in the mirror, my neck flushed from the encounter with Will. I grip the sink edge and blow out a shaky breath, attempting to get myself under control. It doesn’t work. My hips sway forward and press against the cheap imitation marble, my head falling back on my shoulders. Without consent, my butt muscles flex, grinding me closer—and wow. Nothing to see here, I’m just humping the sink. Christ.

I’ll admit that after Silas showed me Will Caruso on Instagram, I scrolled through his feed…all the way to the end. Purely for research purposes, of course. And yeah, he is potent on a tiny digital screen, but nothing compares to real life. Nothing comes close. For one thing, I can smell him. Can smell nature hugging him closely, laced through with undertones of menthol aftershave.

Part of me was wondering if Will’s vamoose from New York was some rich boy emo quest to discover himself. After spending a few minutes around him and Southpaw—seeing the way they react to one another—I have to admit it’s the real deal. Whatever happened between him and Silas might have contributed, but as his Instagram account implies, he’s on the road to give Southpaw a treasure trove of final memories. A man showing genuine affection for something other than himself must be the reason I’m so damn attracted.

Good thing we’re incompatible.

I’m not talking about physically. Because, hello, I’m grinding against a sink and if someone ran into my nipples, they would impale themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever been this hot for a real-life man, have I? The closest I’ve come in recent memory is seeing Magic Mike XXL in theaters after two mango margaritas.

We’re incompatible for three reasons. One? He’s a man, which definitely doesn’t work in his favor. Two? I’m here under false pretenses. Three? Silas expects me to sleep with Will.

I can’t give that evil man the satisfaction.

In another world, if Will and I had a chance meeting in a bar, I would let my libido get some exercise and strut away without looking back. But my goal is getting Will back to New York, right? As I’ve discovered too many times before, as soon as sex ceases to be the big, mysterious driving force between a man and woman, he starts to lose interest. I have to keep that interest.

And that means sex is a no-no.

Easy peasy, right?

I fan my heated cheeks.

The most important thing I noticed about Will during our first meeting is this: he’s as sharp as a samurai sword—and not the prop kind. I don’t have long to accomplish this mission before he smells something rotten in Denmark. As every reality show villain in history says, I’m not here to make friends. I need to remember that next time I’m faced with all that keen intelligence and scarred, rugged muscle in one huge, animal-loving package.

Don’t. Don’t think of his package. Or the way he came to my defense and then acted so freaking cool about it. Smiling as I passed. Instead of crushing a beer can on his forehead like most guys after the tiniest squabble.

I fan myself harder, but the added wind doesn’t help. Admitting defeat, I drop my right hand, sliding it into the front of my shorts. As soon as my middle finger grazes my clit, I cinch my tights around my hand on a moan. Eyelids drooping, I remember how his thick shoulders rolled as he removed his shirt, that muscle popping in his jaw. And that dusting of black hair decorating his stomach. Not the abdomen of a man who flexes and preens all day in the gym, but goes extra hard on the weights when he needs to burn energy. Making him rock solid beneath a tight layer of rough, no frills, glorious bulk—

My cell phone buzzes on the sink. A frustrated whine breaks past my lips at the interruption, but when I look down and see my brother’s name, I whip my hand out of my shorts faster than drug stores discount heart-shaped candy after Valentine’s Day.

“Shit. What…uhh…” I run my hand under the tap and dry it on a threadbare towel before answering. “Nicky. Hey!”

Congratulations, that sounded totally natural.

“Hey, Resa.” Traffic competes in the background amid honks and humming engines. “You go back to LA?”

“No.” Aware of the thin walls, I shut the bathroom door and sit down on the closed toilet. I’m also aware that Nicky’s phone line isn’t a smart way to communicate now that he’s running with Silas Case—it could easily be monitored—so I search for a way to keep things vague. “I had to take a little vacation. To handle everything.”

“A vacation.”

“Yeah.” Not having total control of my brother’s safety makes my right leg jiggle. Why did he have to go to New York in the first place? I should have worked harder to keep him from leaving. God. When my parents left us, I swore to myself I’d be his rock. Turns out I’m less rock, more slippery slope. Fix it. “Just…lay low for a while, all right? Real low. I’ll be coming to get you very soon.”

“How soon?” His tone is part impatience, part nerves. “I know you’re probably doing everything you can. And this is my fucking fault. But…nothing has changed. I’m still working. He called me personally and reminded me to show up as usual. No exceptions. He’s never done that, you know?”

Dammit. I come to my feet without realizing it and start to pace. “There’s nothing to worry about. That was probably just to put pressure on me—”

“Pressure on you? Resa, that’s never good coming from this man.” I can practically see Nicky snatching the ball cap off his head and jamming it back on. “I can’t believe I dragged you into this.”

I take a deep breath to combat the pressure in my throat. “Nicky, do everything you can to stay clear of trouble until I get back. I’m working on it as we speak.” Heat blooms behind my eyes, my arms shaking with the need to hug my little brother. The irresponsible shithead. I’m too far away to hold him, but there’s no way I’m ending this call with him sounding so scared. “Hey. Remember that summer I tried to recreate E.T. shot for shot with my first camcorder?”

“How could I forget?” He snorts. “You wrapped me in a sheet and made me be E.T. when I wanted to be out playing ball.”

“Right.” The memory of him sitting on the bathroom sink while I colored his index finger with bright red Sharpie makes my throat hurt. “I showed that recording to your first girlfriend, remember? Consider this payback.”

“I would never. But that was pretty fucked up.”

My laughter is halting. “Yeah, it was.”

There’s a long pause. “I’m more worried for you than me, Resa. Whatever you’re doing, be careful.”

I wave a hand, even though he can’t see me. I can see myself in the mirror, though, and there’s no mistaking the conflict in my eyes. “Trust me. I already got this half in the bag.”

An hour later, I have one foot propped on the bed while I lace up my chocolate-colored gladiator sandals, quietly thanking Lilly Pulitzer for the added reminder that I’m here to win. Losing could cost my brother everything.

A knock at the door brings my head up.

This is a job. Eyes open. Take it seriously.

And since Silas issued me an indirect warning, I’m giving him the mental bird by remembering one small but important fact.

He said I need to get Will back to New York.

He didn’t say anything about keeping him there.

*

Will

Pausing in the act of refilling Southpaw’s food bowl, I pick up my ringing phone. “Mom,” I answer. “Everything okay?”

“Sure, sure. Just watching my programs.” In the background I can hear the little dings signaling Vanna White to turn the letters on Wheel of Fortune. Such a familiar scene. One I haven’t visited since shit hit the fan in New York and I left town but remember like the back of my hand. “I just wanted to see how the road trip was going.”

I think of the woman on the other side of the wall. “You could say it’s getting interesting.”

“Oh. Well, that’s…nice to hear.” I straighten at her obvious disappointment. “Have you talked to anyone?”

There it is. Never fails. At least it took her a full thirty seconds this time to ask. “Who would I have talked to?”

Ding. Ding. More letters being turned. “Your father, maybe?”

Biting down on my tongue, I resist the urge to say he’s not my father. He is, though. Denying it is pointless. “No, I haven’t heard from him, Mom. I never did. He showed up the same time every year, no calls in between.”

Her laughter is light, dismissive of the truth. “But I thought things could be different now. Since there are no more secrets.”

“Those secrets are why I want nothing to do with him.” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “I don’t understand why it isn’t the same for you.”

“He’s a man. All men make mistakes.” Her voice wobbles when she adds, “He shared so much with us over the years. Shouldn’t we forgive and forget?”

Ironically, this is one of the major reasons I’ll never forgive the bastard. My mother is too trusting by nature and he took advantage of that. As far as I’m concerned, he still is taking advantage, leaving her to wonder if he’ll ever come back, now that we know his true identity. The alternative is having him break off their odd relationship, though, and I don’t know if she could handle that, either. “Listen to me carefully, Mom. He’s a criminal. He’s not the good man you thought he was—and you need to stay away.”

I leave out the part about me warning Silas to stay away from her, in our one and only phone call, before I left New York. Not that I have a lot of faith in him listening.

“I’m a grown woman, Will. I decide how to spend my time.”

Knowing from experience there’s nothing I can do to make her budge, I take a breath and move on. For now. “I don’t want to argue with you.” I clear my throat. “Are you okay for money?”

“Yes, yes,” she rushes to say, sounding equally regretful over us trading words. “It’s really not polite to talk about finances over the phone, though.”

“You just summed up what I do for a living.” When she laughs, I can’t help but smile. “I’ll call soon, Mom. Take care.”

“You too, Will.” Silence stretches. “I’m…you take care. Bye now.”

We hang up.

My mother being enamored with Silas is nothing new. It’s something I’ve been around my whole life. Her effusive praise and excuse making. I know what he really is, though. I’ll be here for my mother when she realizes it, too.

Minutes later, when Teresa opens the door to her room, the phone call is forgotten. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved she’s wearing more clothes this time. Hell, it’s possible she’s just as edible in that little flimsy, floaty outfit as she was mostly naked. I’ve had over an hour to digest our first encounter, however. Long enough to realize she likes knocking me off balance with her looks. The question is, why does she want me off balance?

She slides a hand up the doorframe, and the hem flutters higher up her thigh, that smooth skin begging for a man’s hands. Mine.

“Hi,” she murmurs. “Ready to go?”

Fucking right I am. Just say the word. “In a minute.” I prop my own forearm on the frame and step closer. “I’m taking you in.”

A touch of irritation highlights the green in her eyes. But since I’m a gambling man, I’ll bet she’s annoyed because I throw her off balance. Not just because I’m a presumptuous cockhead. After a short stare-down, she shakes back that thick mane of hair, revealing the sweet slope of her neck. “Well, gosh. Don’t let me stop you.”

I smile.

She narrows her eyes.

Look, I’m the first to admit I like putting everyone on notice that I’m not an easy customer, whether it’s the mailman or the hotel clerk I interrogated earlier. Teresa’s story about the room mix-up checks out as much as possible in this shit-show establishment, but I’m still wary as hell. Today wouldn’t be the first time a rival hedge fund played dirty, trying to find some ammunition against me. I’ve never been part of the blue blood boys club and they don’t like my wild card image. Don’t like that they can’t find a formula for my stock plays. They can’t match my level, so they prod for weaknesses.

My only weakness in their eyes is a working-class upbringing. A reputation for settling disputes with my fists, instead of lawyers.

Growing up in Jersey City, being the biggest guy made me a target for every punk in the damn neighborhood. So I learned early how to be prepared. How to fight. Intimidate. Battles are backhanded in the New York financial market, though. They’re not the kind of fights I grew up participating in and they often get personal. However, both types of battles require determination. And my determination to succeed meant nothing was going to hold me back when it came to putting my fund on top.

Landing on the Forbes list next to men I’ve never heard of wouldn’t have meant a damn to me if it hadn’t been for my father’s influence, though.

Resentment curls in my stomach. I use the term father loosely. While I was growing up, he visited me exactly once a year, on my birthday. Yet his name was synonymous with Jesus Christ in our house. My mother never stopped singing the God-man’s praises. After all, he was the one keeping the lights on. Paying for us to eat. Live.

Over the last few years, I’ve settled into a less volatile way of life, having learned the hard way that investors don’t give their money to a fund run by a hothead. My new lease on life hasn’t stopped those rivals from attempting to undermine me, though. On two occasions, competitors have sent a belligerent, insulting drunk to my table during dinner meetings, hoping I would take a swing and make a public scene.

There has never been a woman used as bait, though.

If Teresa was, in fact, sent by a rival, what purpose would it serve? I’m not in the habit of whispering market values in between sweet nothings. Fuck, I don’t even know what a sweet nothing sounds like. But I’m having a hard time buying this dynamite girl showing up in my room, in a shitty Dallas motel, with no shirt. If someone was hoping to make me look like an unstable fund owner, now would be the ideal time. Investors are already skittish over my extended leave of absence from New York. Kicking me while I’m down could be a nail in the coffin. With Southpaw’s and my movements documented on Instagram, it wouldn’t be difficult to find me, either.

So it would be wise of me to stay away from Teresa, right?

See, caution really isn’t my style. I’ll get to the truth one way or another. In the meantime, I’m almost curious to see what she’s got in store. If she has been coached, I’ll see through it right away and she’ll get nothing of value out of me. I’ll have no choice but to walk away if she’s lying to me—lies are kind of a recurring theme in my life lately and I’m finished being on the receiving end. That being said, caution means staying in my room knowing this knockout exists on the other side of the wall. And that simply isn’t happening. I don’t have to remind myself to keep my wits about me, either, because they never take a vacation.

“Are you finished taking me in yet?”

Not by a damn sight. My suspicions do nothing to stop me from being turned on. She looks like a sin I want to commit. Frequently. “You can’t put a feast in front of a man and expect him not to gorge himself.”

She tilts her head. “There’s not going to be any gorging tonight, sweetheart.”

“No?”

“Nope.”

“I bet you call all the boys sweetheart.”

Her laugh catches her off guard. She jerks a little, before dropping her hand from the doorframe. “Actually I call them more trouble than they’re worth. That doesn’t bode well for you.”

This is another reason I didn’t do the cautious thing and stay away. It doesn’t hurt that she’s sexy as a motherfucker and twice as fascinating. But if she wanted to get me in a compromising position or attempt to get insider secrets out of me, would she be wasting time by playing hard to get? “I won’t deny I can be trouble.”

She brushes a hand against her pocket, probably checking for the room key, before stepping out. The door shuts behind her, the move bringing us up close and personal. A breath apart. “What kind of trouble?”

“I’ll tell you.” I settle a hand on her hip, easing her back against the door, watching her lips for protests. “Now that your door is closed, do you feel more secure that I won’t try and back you into the room?” Our hips meet and she whimpers, low and needy at the evidence of what she’s inspired. “I can kiss you without doing that. I’m kind of a prick, but I won’t take more than you offer me.”

“I wasn’t worried you’d back me in.” She’s staring at my mouth, too, her voice verging on breathless, and her interest makes my ball sack ache. “If you were that type of man, you had your opportunity earlier.”

Those protective instincts that fired to life earlier ride back in on a wave of irritation. She shouldn’t be so trusting. Even of me. “And if I’d changed my mind? Or decided dinner was too much trouble?”

Green-gray flash up at me—and at the same time, cool metal presses to my neck. “I live in Los Angeles. Both times, I’ve had my stun gun.” A flutter of lashes. “Sweetheart.”

Surprise filters in as I turn my head slightly, getting a good look at the object she’s holding. It looks like a flashlight, but the sharp points and divots along the surface tells me it doubles as something more hardcore. “Good girl.”

Her chin comes up. “Good girl? That’s it?” A wrinkle forms between her eyebrows. “Most guys would have called me a crazy bitch or something equally offensive by now.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“Not disappointed. Just…”

“Contrite over lumping me in with most guys?”

“Not even close.”

Heat licks at my veins, my groin. Where the hell has this girl been hiding? The honest truth is, if she confessed to being a plant right here and now, I’d still be interested. While that’s a hard pill to swallow, I think walking away would prove more difficult. Pressing her into the door, I lean in to absorb her rushing exhale. “Are you going to use that stun gun on me if I kiss your sexy little mouth?”

There’s conflict and lust battling in her eyes. She doesn’t want to enjoy the way I talk to her, but she does. A lot. And if that gentle rock of her hips is any indication, she likes being plastered to me even more. “N-no. I won’t use it.”

“Put it away.” I brush our lips together, and Jesus Christ, she’s so soft. So giving. There’s a vibration inside her that matches my own, only I can’t remember ever being aware of mine before. “You’re about to get excited and I don’t want your finger on the trigger.”

Her head falls back in unspoken invitation and I accept, raking my tongue up the silky skin of her throat. The stun gun is lowered to her side. That tight body molds to mine, writhing against my waiting cock, even as she says, “Confident, are we?”

“If I wasn’t, woman, you’d have already chewed me up and spit me out.”

“I still might,” she breathes, her eyes bright with excitement. With challenge. That response sets off a corresponding pound of need so loud, it almost drowns out what she says next. “You’re not the only one who’s trouble.”

Fuck. I’m so worked up, I’m beginning to sweat, just from talking to her. If this was a jerk-off fantasy, I’d rip off that short skirt and bang her to kingdom come, right here in the hallway. This is real life, though. She’s vetoed my motion to gorge—for now—and I don’t second-guess women with stun guns.

So I drop my head and fuck her mouth, instead. It’s meant to be slow and thorough, but the second our tongues twine together and she whimpers, my restraint fizzles out like a torch dropped into the ocean. I’ve witnessed how assertive she is, but she submits to me, face turned up, arms slack, mouth mine. It’s a deadbolt clicking into place. Because God knows, I’m as dominant a man as they come. Yet I’ve never experienced this raw a level of satisfaction being the aggressor before. My senses are trying to find an anchor and can’t, being driven crazy by this mysterious woman who holds a stun gun to my neck one minute and gives me carte blanche with her sweet mouth the next.

I allow us to break for air, before we collide back together, one of her thighs lifting to hug my hips. If I wrap the other one around me, I’m not sure my cock will forgive me when we stop, so even though I catch that leg and keep it tight and elevated, I focus my hunger on her mouth. The texture, the way she matches my rhythm. Our lips open wide, my tongue slides in, finds hers for a lick, retreats out, followed by incredible slanting suction. Shit. Shit, no one has ever tasted this good.

Teresa moans into my mouth, her palms slapping my shoulders, and I realize we haven’t come up for breath in a while. It’s so bad my lungs are burning and I didn’t even notice. I’m having trouble thinking around her. “Look, woman,” I pant, rubbing our damp lips together. “I can’t help it if you taste better than oxygen.”

There’s a catch in her breath, confusion joining the arousal in her eyes. “If that wasn’t gorging, we have different definitions of the word.”

I wink at her. “Mine is better.” Feeling her retreat a little, I push some loose strands of hair from her face. “We don’t have to compare notes tonight.”

Her exhale is shaky. “That’s more than enough euphemisms on an empty stomach.”

We share a quiet laugh, our gazes connecting. Holding.

If you’re here under some false pretense, Teresa, just tell me.

I almost say the words out loud but manage to keep them to myself. There might even be some small part of me that doesn’t want to know just yet. “I’ll go grab Southpaw and we’ll head out.”

Teresa nods once and I steady her before stepping away. Just before I open the door for Southpaw, I look back to find her staring into space, a frown marring her pretty features. When she realizes I’m watching her, she meets my gaze head on, her expression half bemused, half serious…and I can feel a barrier forming that wasn’t there a moment ago.

I’ve known this woman less than a day.

But I’m going to knock that barrier down.





CHAPTER FIVE




Teresa


Way to keep your eyes on the prize, idiot.

What happened to This is a job. Eyes open. Take it seriously?

It got scrambled up by earthy man smell and hairy, corded forearms. And that mouth. Mother of God, that mouth. I can’t even imagine how many women need to be kissed to achieve that expert level of skill. I don’t want to know, either, because it makes me want to smack him, which is scary in itself. I’ve dated players who might as well have mounted their notched bedposts on their mantles and I never gave a flying squirrel about their pasts. Yet I’m jealous over a guy I’m supposed to be conning?

Paging common sense. Come in, common sense.

We’re crossing the twilight-draped parking lot, heading for the tavern. There is a dozen or so motorcycles parked outside, Queens of the Stone Age blaring from its dark depths, smokers congregated in a circle near the entrance. Will wanted to take me to a nicer place downtown—maybe an outdoor café where Southpaw can cool his heels while we eat—but what little common sense remains in my hollow head told me that was a bad idea, so I suggested the tavern. I need a quick escape route to my room, where I can lock myself in the bathroom if he comes on to me again. And he will.

Sex—or at least, the promise of it—is going to be part of this job. I kind of encouraged that idea by introducing my nipples to Will before telling him my name, didn’t I? Resisting the pull for more, for all, wasn’t supposed to be so difficult, though. I never expected to feel this level of attraction for Will. Nor did I expect these currents running between us to be so…personal. I can’t really describe the way we look at one another, because I’ve never had anyone look at me like Will does. Like he’s dying to get to the bottom of me. Metaphorically and physically.

Who was the girl who went all limp and needy in the face of his aggression? I don’t know her. I’m not interested in meeting her, either. Especially now, when there is so much at stake. How my brother lives his life. Maybe his life in general. So maybe that kiss was a good thing. A warning shot. If I let him physically overwhelm me, mistakes could be made. I could slip up and say something that would clue him in to why I’m really here—and that kind of mistake would lead to Will getting in touch with Silas. I won’t be in New York to protect Nicky from the fallout if I fail Silas. Not to mention, a mistake could screw up Will’s relationship with his father even more than it already seems to be. Which would put a big ugly target on my back.

When I look at Will, I need to remember that he’s just a man. He might be smarter than the average bear and sexier than hell, but his species is genetically predisposed to disappoint. Or get bored. Or bounce just when things look optimistic. I’ve been there, done that, and this stupid flutter he gives me in my stomach isn’t going to distract me from the task at hand.

Will tosses a chewed-up tennis ball up in the air for Southpaw. He leaps for it, landing on the asphalt with a happy grunt. He charges Will, ducking down to head-butt his owner’s thigh, then drops the slobber ball between his boots. “You want to give it a whirl?” Will asks, holding up the dripping green object. “I can give you a tetanus shot later.”

“Ha. Um…” I start to decline. Not because I don’t want to throw the ball, but because I’m finding it hard to even look at Southpaw. I’m not supposed to know he’s got a date with death, but I do. And my cold, dead heart apparently isn’t quite as cold and dead as I thought, because I want to cradle his big, dirty head and sing Angel by Sarah McLachlan at the top of my lungs. I swallow hard and paste a smile on my face. “Sure.”

Will lobs me the ball. Southpaw bounds toward me, his nails clicking on the ground, tongue lolling out. If it weren’t impossible, I would swear his expression says, let’s see what you got, lady. So I fake him out. He turns in a circle, yips and returns with a look of utter outrage.

“Sorry, couldn’t help it, big guy.” After a quick, contrite scratch of his head with my free hand, I toss the slobber sphere up, up—and it bounces off a beat-up Buick, setting off the car alarm. Southpaw still makes the catch, trotting back toward me and a laughing Will looking all smug, as if to say, what now, humans?

“I think that’s our cue to leave.” Will’s arm snakes around my waist, tugging me toward the tavern, his breath warm in my ear. “We’ll work on your throw, baby.”

A traitorous pulse starts thrumming between my legs. “I was just testing his versatility. He passed.”

“Sure.” Will holds open the door to the tavern, leaving only enough room for me to squeeze past, Southpaw at my heels. My breasts rub along Will’s chest, setting off the jerking flex of his jaw. “Stay close to me in this place.”

I raise an eyebrow. “You’re not giving me much of a choice.”

His smile is the furthest thing from repentant as he takes a firm hold of my hand, leading me deeper into the loud, rowdy establishment. On the way to an open spot at the bar, I give fate the side eye. I’m definitely not looking for a man. But leave it to fate to throw one into my path who digs my attitude and stun gun, when nothing can come from it. Not even a fun, guilt-free diversion.

Will slides out a wobbly stool—the only one available—and tests its sturdiness. Or at least, that’s what I think he’s doing, until I see his eyes. Directed at the men around us, they’re full of dark warning. He passes on some kind of caveman don’t even fucking think about approaching her signal to each of them, one by one, and I’ve never been more aware of getting wet in my entire life. It’s like someone pressed a warm washcloth to the juncture of my thighs and rubbed side to side. By the time he slaps the split leather seat, indicating I should climb on, I’m flushed head to toe.

As soon as I’m seated, legs crossed, Southpaw takes up residence between me and the closest male customer. Will and I reach down to pet him at the same time and our hands collide. We share an intimate look over my shoulder and I think he’s going to kiss me, but instead, he pushes aside my hair, leans in and breathes against the back of my neck. The warm washcloth feeling intensifies, my most intimate muscles squeezing hard. Harder than ever.

“I wondered if it was a fluke. Southpaw being protective over you earlier in the hallway.” His thumb traces up my nape slowly, all five of his fingers burying in my hair. Tugging gently. “Not a fluke, though. He likes you.”

Your dog is a bad judge of character. “He’s protective, huh?” He tugs my hair again and it turns my voice to a rasp. “Like father, like son.”

His low, rumbling laugh breaks goosebumps out down my arms. “Yeah. It’s unusual on both counts.”

“Is it?”

Another tug, this time a touch harder. Enough to bring my head back, our gazes colliding. “Yeah.”

“Apparently you both like to mark your territory, too,” I say, turning in my seat to face him. His hand drops from my hair and no longer having it there, I can’t deny a kick of disappointment.

As if me making the accusation out loud allows him to drop pretense, his eyes go hard and rake over me. At the end of their journey, his head drops, that skilled kisser’s mouth pressing to my ear. “Those legs could start a fucking riot, woman. A man who doesn’t lay claim to them…and all the sweetness you’ve got attached…isn’t worth a damn minute of your time.”

His smoky drawl has turned my nipples to certified spikes. “Are we going to have an actual conversation or spend the whole night…gorging?”

“What are you doing in Texas?”

I’m so startled by his abrupt question that it takes me a beat to realize throwing me off was his intention. At least partly. His wide, powerful body is still exuding a monster dose of lust. We’re practically nose to nose, both of us breathing heavy, and I get the distinct impression he’s scrutinizing every blink, every lick of my lips. I’m finally meeting the millionaire hedge fund manager. Unofficially, of course.

I have a story all ready to go about visiting a friend on the east coast. About wanting to see the country along the way. But when I open my mouth, guilt catches me off guard and I find myself sticking much closer to the truth than I intended.

“I needed to get out of Los Angeles for a while.” Taking a sip of my freshly delivered beer, I choose every word carefully. “I make decent money at my job, but there’s some…danger involved. It was making me claustrophobic. Scared, too, I guess.” His thumb strokes my neck, like he can’t help but comfort me even though his narrowed eyes are zeroed in on me, weighing, analyzing. “Anyway, my friend in New York invited me to visit and I jumped at the chance. Figured I’d see the good old US of A while she gets the couch ready for me.”

“New York.”

Making my expression fathomless, I nod. “Yeah. Never been to the Big Apple. I’m excited.”

Quietly, he reaches past me to retrieve his beer, taking a deep pull, before setting the half-empty glass back on the bar. “Tell me about this dangerous job in Los Angeles.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Why did you mention it, then? You had to know I’d bite.”

The conversation is moving too fast, so I uncross and recross my legs, drawing molten eyes toward the action. “Aw, you don’t bite too hard, I hope.”

“The hardest. And you’ll love it.” He tips my chin up with two big fingers. “Let’s hear about the job.”

I wasn’t lying when I said my job was dangerous. And it’s the craziest thing, but I want to tell Will about the den. How I’ve wanted to escape it for a long time, but the money was too good. Too needed. It’s all true. And I’ve had no one to confide my fears and frustrations in. Even before Nicky went on his trip to New York, I never spoke to him about my job, lest he worry. What’s the harm in talking to Will about my job, when it has no bearing on my mission? “I…”

His fingers are still lifting my chin. “Teresa.”

“A gambling parlor. An illegal one.” Weight topples from my shoulders. “I’m a hostess of sorts. Trading money for chips, watching for collusion and reporting it to the boss. Soothing damaged egos with free drinks. Managing the books. Sometimes I deal if we’re short-handed.”

A series of beats pass. “That’s not what I was expecting.” Distaste twists his mouth, his fingers dropping from my chin. “I don’t like it.”

His tone tells me he’s just made the understatement of the year. Having him on my side is…nice, though. I graduated with my accounting degree around the same time my parents passed, so I’ve been carrying this burden alone. The burden of knowing I ended up in an illegal profession, despite my father’s efforts to give us all a clean life. Despite the fact that I yearn for something different.

I refuse to let Nicky fall into the same trap I’ve fallen into.

Girls who make deals with gangsters don’t end up in film school.

Noticing Will’s scrutiny, I default back to a flirtatious smile. “Blah. I don’t like my job neither.” With another sip of beer, I keep going, hearing catcalls and shuffling chips in my head. “New York for a while just seemed like a good idea.”

“How long are you planning to stay there?”

I shrug. “Not sure. Long enough to figure out what’s next.” Not liking the weight of the lies on my tongue, I straighten my spine, letting him see what his attention has done to my body. My breasts. “What about you? Are you headed east, too?”

Will’s muscles tighten, his hands seeming to move on their own as they settle on my thighs, kneading. “No.” His unreadable gaze lifts to mine. “I’m going in the opposite direction.”





CHAPTER SIX




Will


Three things aren’t sitting right about Teresa’s story.

One, she isn’t being completely truthful with me. And after the lies that just came to light about my youth—coupled with the fact that she might be headline bait—that should make me want to walk away. I don’t put up with lies anymore. Yet here I am, my palms chafing the hem of her skirt up and back along smooth thighs, growling at the way her lips part on uneven breaths. Here I am wanting to get her beneath me in the dark, wrists pinned over her head so I can dominate the full truth out of her.

There’s an instinct growling deep in my belly, reminding me of what clicked into place back in the hallway outside her room. During that kiss I can’t for the life of me stop thinking about. She doesn’t seem to hold any part of herself back when we’re touching. If I drove my cock deep between her legs and threatened to withhold her pleasure unless she revealed herself, would she thrash around and claw me until finally coming clean? Would she pout and moan and try to fuck herself on me from below with little writhes of her sweet ass?

What’s your real last name, baby? Tell me and I’ll bang you so long and hard, you’ll forget the answer. Good girl. Doesn’t that feel so good? Grab the headboard. Good. Now, why are you here? Tell the man who’s got your pussy so full you can’t think straight. I’ll take care of everything. You’ll have nothing to be scared of.

Goddamn. It’s an addictive possibility…and one I’m surprised to be considering. I’m an aggressive man, but this level of intensity is exerted only in the boardroom. I’ve never had a connection with a woman that would make me push this hard if I thought she was lying to me. Especially now, after discovering my upbringing was founded on one massive fabrication, I would cut my losses and walk away from someone I suspected of being deceitful. But my gut is telling me there’s too much to gain here, headline bait or not.

There’s…her. The woman looking back at me like she can’t decide whether she’d like me to fuck her or fuck off. She’s got me by the balls, this one. She had me the second I walked into my room and she flipped her hair back.

Second thing not sitting right about Teresa’s story? She wasn’t lying about her job being stressful. Unsafe. I heard the anxiety in her voice, witnessed the strain. It made me want to fly to her hometown and knock heads together. Whether she’s here to screw me or not, there’s no way she’s going back there. Period. But if she’s really from Los Angeles, how is she connected to my competitors in New York?

Lastly and most troubling, Teresa is going east. Southpaw and I are on our way west. My reaction to this is split. Panic over her slipping away on one side. On the other, I’m hopeful. If she really means to move on in the opposite direction, there’s a chance this meeting is just one sexy coincidence.

“When are you leaving Dallas?” I ask her.

“Tomorrow morning.” Her fingers lazily toy with one of my shirt buttons, as if she didn’t just slap us with a deadline. “So, what’s your story? What are you guys doing in Dallas, besides destroying innocent tennis balls?”

“Exploring.” I take a doggy snack out of my pocket and drop it into Southpaw’s waiting mouth, unable to stop my grin when he licks his snout, begging me with desperate eyes for another. Maybe it’s the dark atmosphere or the fact that Teresa just let herself be vulnerable in front of me a moment ago, but I find myself ripping off a Band-Aid. One I’ve never ripped off in front of another person. “The first few years of his life…I didn’t necessarily take him for granted, but I worked long hours, so he saw more of the dog walker than me. I’m trying to make up for it now.”

She runs assessing eyes over my faded jeans and lack of a shave. “You pay someone to walk your dog?”

“Used to.” I pick up my beer and take a swig, watching her features for any form of recognition. “I pay a lot of people.”

“Do you.” Her fingers travel south to one of my lower buttons. An invitation for my hands to move higher up her thighs? I’m powerless not to take it. Setting my beer back down, I grip her mid-thigh until she gasps, then circle my thumbs on that soft inner flesh and watch her cleavage shudder, her complexion transforming to burnished rose gold. “What d-do you pay them for?”

“Working at my company.”

“Are you being purposely mysterious?”

I lean in and capture her mouth in a hard kiss. “Are you?”

She breathes heavy a moment. “It’s called flirting. And if you don’t want to tell me about your profession, star sign and idea of a perfect date, that’s fine by me. We’re both moving on tomorrow, anyway.”

“You’d just get on a bus and go?” Can’t help it, I hook my hands beneath her knees and yank her to the edge of the seat so I can feel her pussy against me. Have her mouth near mine. “You’d leave, just like that?”

“I’m sorry…” Her voice is a scrap of nothing. “Was there another option?”

Maybe, just maybe, she’s the real deal. My job—hell, my life—has turned me into a paranoid motherfucker who assumes the worst in everyone. It’s possible, isn’t it? With her delicious breath pelting my mouth and her hot cunt pulsing against the fly of my jeans, I want like hell for that to be true. “I’ve got a hedge fund in New York. A large one. I’m usually in a suit and tie. And I hate it.”

That last part wasn’t meant to slip out, but it seems to be the bit that makes her smile. “That’s too bad. I love a well-dressed man.”

Jealousy crackles in my belly. “You love a man dressed exactly like me, baby. And nothing else. How does that sound?”

“Tricky.” She hits me with a guileless look. “What if you decide to wear socks with sandals?”

It’s unbelievable. I go from wanting to pile-drive every man in the place, to having the insane urge to laugh. No one has ever made me feel like I’m swinging from vine to vine before, each better than the last. “You’re something special, woman, you know that?”

The rhetorical question was intended to be a compliment, but it makes the corners of her mouth dip, creates an almost imperceptible distance in her gaze. She stops playing with the buttons of my shirt, opting to mess with her hair instead. I’m about to request she put her hands back on me where they belong, when she asks, “So, we kind of got off the subject.” Her expression warms as she looks down at the dog. “You don’t take Southpaw for granted anymore?”

“No. I don’t.” Sharpness prods my jugular, remembering what led to the change. That one fucked-up day full of life-changing news. “Little over a month ago, I’d just found out something. A family secret that had been kept from me.” Again, I’m surprised that I continue to confess to Teresa, especially when I should have my damn guard up, but I can’t seem to help it when her attention soothes me. “Southpaw had an appointment the same day with the vet. My assistant was scheduled to take him, but I needed to get out of the office and clear my head. So I took him instead.”

I sense Teresa holding her breath, but I can’t seem to recount all the ugly details yet—at least not out loud. But I hold her attention for a long beat and watch moisture pool in her eyes.

“Did you ever have a moment where everything feels bigger than whatever bullshit you’re hung up on?”

She blinks at the ceiling and comes back to me with dry eyes. “No. Sometimes I think I’m chasing that moment, though.” Her soft laugh is halting. “And looking for it in all the wrong places.”

My fingers find her chin, lifting her face to bathe it in the dull bar lights. “You saying I’m one of those wrong places?”

“Maybe I’m a wrong place for you,” she whispers, so low I can barely hear her. “Have you considered that?”

“Yeah. And I can’t quite buy it.”

The bartender appears to our left, throwing his meaty forearms on the bar. “You folks ready for another round?”

Teresa takes her chin away and faces the man, her hands restless at her waist. “Yeah. Sure.” He starts to walk away, but she stops him. “Oh! Any way we could get a bowl of water for the dog?”

Oh, now she’s done it.

This woman isn’t getting away just yet.

Oblivious to the fact that she just sealed her immediate fate, she turns back to me, tucking some stray hair behind one ear. “So the thing that was more important than your bullshit…it was Southpaw?”

I’ve never put into words what I’m doing on this trip, apart from a bare bones explanation on the Instagram account where I’ve been documenting our stops, so I have to think about what I’m going to say. Everything I say to this woman seems to matter. “Forty years from now, I’m not going to remember the best investments I made or my most lucrative short. But I’ll remember this trip. I’m more satisfied watching him chase a squirrel or swim in a lake than I ever was shifting the market.”

The bartender sets down a new beer and I drain half of it.

“This dog…he was trying to be a constant in my life and I was too busy gambling on numbers some analyst pulled out of thin air. Coming home late. Letting someone else walk him.” Resentment sinks into my stomach, remembering why I ever landed behind a desk in the first place. Why I was so driven to be there. “I’m not going to miss the next good thing that comes along. I’m not going to take the good things for granted ever again.”

Christ, am I actually self-conscious? Yeah. I think I am. As I tug my phone out of my pocket and pull up my Instagram account, handing it over to Teresa, I realize I’ve either been recognized on the road by followers or communicated through two-word replies. But I’ve never actually had to show anyone the product of the last month in person. “That’s, uh…turns out, making those memories for him is what’s more important than my bullshit.” I exhale. “He’s sick.”

There’s no more explanation required. I can see she knows what I’m telling her and I’m relieved when she doesn’t ask for details. She wants to. But instead, she simply breathes with me for a few moments, then says, “I’m so sorry.”

Her eyes drop to Southpaw, before dragging back to my cell phone screen, her fingers scrolling and hovering—but not actually tapping on—the pictures. “Good for you, Will. Doing this for him.” Her scratchy voice seems to startle her. She clears it. “Most people don’t realize something like that until it’s too late. You didn’t even have to be visited in the middle of the night by three apparitions.”

I take my offered phone back, the right corner of my mouth twitching. “Are you making fun of me for taking my dog on a vacation?”

Her spine snaps straight, making her tits jiggle and my palms itch to steady them. “No. I’m the furthest thing from making fun of you. I’m envious.” Her mouth opens and shuts, right knee bouncing. “I’m, um…proud of you, too. Isn’t that ridiculous when we just met?”

Something warm and unfamiliar sweeps through me as I stow my phone. High school, college, my career. All of it was done to make my absent father proud of me. To make myself worthy in his eyes, when he didn’t deserve that consideration. And that feeling of worthiness never came, either. Any pride I’d earned from him stopped having meaning, too, when shit hit the fan. So maybe my methods of reaching the top were effective, but I wasn’t at the top of the right place. I’ve never felt more right than I do with Teresa starting up at me—granted, looking a little shell-shocked—and telling me she’s proud. “Nothing about this is ridiculous.”

I lean in and kiss her mouth, long and thorough enough to have her ass scooting closer to me on the seat, her pussy settling in against my junk, but I stop at the sound of her stomach growling. My laughter blends with hers, low and damp.

“Whoops,” she breathes at my lips. “Guess I’m hungry.”

“Guess we both are.” After signaling for menus, I bring our foreheads back together, drag my thumbs up the insides of her spread thighs. “Spend the night with me, woman. Let me feed you dinner. Then I’ll feed you that cock you can’t stop rubbing your pussy on.”

Her head falls back on her shoulders, before she straightens, using my shoulders for balance. “Oh, Will.” She searches my face, her eyelids drooping with lust. “Not a fucking chance.”





CHAPTER SEVEN




Teresa


Not a fucking chance.

If I was directing this scene, it would be followed by a record scratch. Maybe a sigh from Southpaw and some ohhhs from our neighbors at the bar.

To Will’s ever-growing credit, though, he throws back his head and laughs. Not the kind of laugh a man makes to hide his humiliation or worse, transfer embarrassment to the woman. No, it’s pure enjoyment. It’s appreciation of me. And against my will, I’m absolutely transfixed. The deep, rolling thunder sound brings to mind musky cologne, flannel sheets and worn-in leather. I just turned down his proposition for sex and he’s not butt-hurt about it at all. God, that’s attractive.

It’s making me wish I could just say yes. Maybe that’s his master plan?

That theory doesn’t hold water, because he’s not the one with the plan. I am.

I’m the wrench in his leisurely no plans vacation.

Saying yes and spending the night with Will would be exactly what Silas wants, but even that isn’t enough to deter me anymore. Doing so would bungle my strategy, though. I’ll never lure Will back to New York if I sleep with him. If I’m going to use this attraction to maneuver Will halfway across the country, I need to dangle myself like a carrot. And in the meantime, try not to be tempted by his carrot. His very thick, flesh-colored carrot.

Yes, I’m avoiding getting beneath Will because of a strategy. It has nothing to do with the fact that I…kind of like him. In a way that is exclusive to how he manipulates my lady regions. Don’t be an idiot, Teresa. There’s only one of two ways this ends. I disappear as soon as I fulfill my end of the bargain with Silas. Or Will figures out he’s been played somehow and hates me.

I’ll take disappearing for $400, Alex.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, dragging me out of my clouded head. Will is occupied with the menu, but I’m still careful to keep the screen turned away as I open a text message from my brother—and find a picture of him and Silas. They’re standing side by side, a grinning Silas’s arm thrown around my brother’s shoulders.

Nicky isn’t smiling. Was he forced to take this picture? Was he forced to send it?

“Teresa?”

I try to speak, but my heart is blocking the path. “Um. Yeah?” I finally manage.

Concern draws Will’s brows together. “Do you know what you want yet?”

“Oh. Yes.” Realizing the menu has been sitting on the bar to my left for long minutes, I barely glance at it before murmuring a burger order to the weary bartender. Will orders the same, while I command myself to pull it together. This is what bad men like Silas do. They apply pressure until good men, like my father, almost buckle under the strain. But I have a week. A whole week. I can’t let the picture unnerve me, like it was designed to do.

“Everything okay?”

“Uh huh. Totally fine,” I respond, smiling. “I want to know more about where you’ve stopped since leaving New York, though. Tell the truth, you and Southpaw are really a duo of bank robbers on the lam.”

My joke succeeds in sidetracking Will—I think—as he tells me more about Southpaw as we eat. How the dog likes to sleep on the bathroom floor because of the cool tile—which leads to an affronted look when Will needs to handle his business in the middle of the night. How there’s a spot on Southpaw’s belly that—when scratched—turns his right, back paw into a lethal weapon. And how the dog howls through the opening riff of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who.

While Will talks, Southpaw laps from his bowl of water, but mostly stares up at his owner with heart eyes. When the bartender comes back to take away our empty plates, I realize I haven’t tasted a single bite. Have I been looking at Will the same way as Southpaw, looped into every sincere word that comes out of his mouth? My heart pounds out a staccato rhythm in my chest, dread flooding me when I think how this could end.

I need to regroup. To get my head back in the game. The beer definitely isn’t doing me any favors, either. Ever since I told him we wouldn’t be sleeping together, he’s stayed close but hasn’t touched me. A way of letting me know he heard me loud and clear. But every second I spend in this bar, wrapped with him in a dark cloud of intimacy, the more I want to loop my fingers in his belt buckle and tug him back into the V of my legs.

Will jerks a thumb at the bartender. “You want another drink?”

“No.” I push back the stool and stand, brushing imaginary crumbs off my skirt. “I think it’s a good idea if I head back.”

I dig two twenties out of my skirt pocket and start to hand them over, but he stays my hand. “I got this, Teresa.” His thumb strums the pulse at my wrist. “Wait for me to pay and I’ll walk you back.”

It’s only been thirty minutes since the last time he touched me, but my body reacts to that little brush of his thumb like a desert after a storm, soaking in the wild tingling sensation it sets off. “No expectations?”

All cool and loose, he plucks the wallet from his front pocket and takes out a foursome of bills, tossing them on the bar without taking his eyes off me. “Can we agree on one kiss?”

“Are you using your hedge fund negotiation skills on me?” I wet my lips, drawing his dark interest. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

“This hard-on I’ve got for you isn’t fair.” He adjusts the tented denim at his lap. “I’m going to handle it like a man, but a fresh memory of your mouth will help get me finished faster.”

I can’t stop a whimpering laugh from escaping. “Are you telling me you plan to jerk off when this date is over?”

“Soon as I’m inside the door.” He steps closer, wrapping me in earthiness and beer and man. “And I’ve got some news for you, baby. You’ve never been on a date that didn’t send the guy home to jerk off like a horny high school kid afterwards.”

Those words, plus imagining Will’s flexed forearm and gritted teeth while he rubs one out, makes muscles I only discovered today squeeze between my thighs. Before he can press that advantage and pull me under the surface, I breeze past him toward the exit. Carrot. You’re a carrot. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Good. That’s how I meant it.”

Will’s long strides mean he keeps up easily, reaching the door in time to hold it open for me. As we pass through—Southpaw’s silky hair grazing the outside of my knee—he lays a firm hand just below my waist, that warning look back in his eyes as we pass a group of men outside. Most of them sport cowboy hats, but one has a white baseball cap, the brim pulled low over his eyes as he nurses a cigar. The men smirk at Will but keep their interest in me to one, abbreviated glance…and it’s obvious they all think we’re going back to his room to have sex. Five minutes from now, they’ll assume I’m naked beneath Will, my nails leaving bloody, half-moon indents on his thrusting ass.

With a rush of forbidden excitement, my go-to fantasy sneaks in and spikes my pulse. The men think he picked me up over in the bar. Because that’s what happens in places like this. Men go out searching for women to give them release. Sometimes they even…pay them. Do those men think he’s paying me? My three-beer buzz does me no favors, a low thrum of heat stealing through my middle.

“Here we are.”

My face heats over being caught even imagining such things. We’re at my door and I have no recollection of entering the motel. Come on, Teresa. Stop letting this guy get to you so bad. “Right.” I fish for the key card in my pocket, but cease all movement when Will brushes his fingertips down my arm, then trails them back up. Slow. And all the while, he invades my space, eliminating inches at such a leisurely pace that I’m panting by the time our mouths are a breath apart.

“What are you going to do when I close this door behind you, Teresa?” He grazes my bottom lip with his teeth, making me gasp. “You going to get undressed in front of the air conditioner, thinking it might cool you down after teasing my cock for over an hour in the bar? It won’t. I give you five minutes before you’re face down in bed, riding your own fingers.”

My knees threaten to buckle. “That’s my business.”

“Make it mine.”

Mayday. Mayday. “Will—”

He stops my admonishment with a drugging kiss, his tongue stroking in and out of my mouth. His hands grip my elbows, lifting me up on my toes in desperate degrees, meshing our bodies, our lips, until I’m moaning, letting him have rough intercourse with my mouth. Just when I’m on the verge of giving in and begging him to take me up against the door, he steps back, eyes glittering, wiping away the moisture on his mouth with a wrist swipe. “I’ll be out on the balcony. If you’re going to finger yourself in my honor, I want to listen.”

I stand there like a gaping fish as Will opens the door to my room and nudges me inside, closing it behind me. The In Case of a Fire map stares back at me so long, it starts to blur, need ravaging me from the inside out, making my skin feel like it’s going up in a blaze. This is safe, isn’t it? Going out on the balcony and getting rid of this ache to the sound of Will’s scratchy baritone? Technically, we wouldn’t be having sex. We wouldn’t even be touching each other, leaving all carrots untouched and continuing to dangle.

Enough thinking. I kick off my sandals and move through the pitch-black motel room, not even stopping to turn on a light. When I slide my door open, an appreciative male growl greets me from the other side of the thin wall, which separates my balcony from Will’s. We’re on the same floor as the lobby, so there’s no drop. I could hop over the safety bar and land in the scrappy field running behind the motel without hurting myself. It also means either of us could join the other on their balcony, but some part of me knows Will won’t try it. I’m positive he won’t.

This is safe. This won’t wreck my plan.

Plan? How long has it been since I even remembered I had one?

“Come over to the wall, Teresa.”

The command sends a tremble running through me, and that tremble increases as I obey, reaching the barrier and resting my forehead against the coarse stucco. “I’m here,” I say. “Can anyone else hear us?”

“Everyone in this place is out getting drunk. It’s just us.” I’m not a trusting person. Growing up I was taught to sleep with one eye open. Yet I believe Will when he says no one will hear us. That we’re alone on the backside of the motel in the dead fall of night. “You still wearing that skirt, baby?”

My eyes close on their own. “Yes.”

“You know it would only take me a second to shred that pretty thing in my hands, don’t you?” On the other side of the w