Read an Excerpt
Christian Holt knew the minute she entered the bar. His skin prickled in a sensation that was not unpleasant but certainly unnerving as his subconscious seemed to be on high alert for this particular woman and he wished he could find the off switch.
He didn't want to notice how her hair waved like summer wheat in a soft breeze over a gently rounded shoulder or how her face reminded him of an artist's rendition of Helen of Troy that he saw in an art gallery in Soho.
A businessman wearing a Brioni suit flagged him with a lifted finger and ordered a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic. Christian could tell by the six-thousand dollar threads the man was going to ask for the good stuff. He could also tell that the man wasn't a good tipper by the way he didn't make eye contact with him, as if Christian was beneath his notice. Christian gave the man his drink and, as expected, the businessman barely gave him ten percent. Christian smiled and nodded to the man for his patronage and then made a mental note to go light on the booze next round.
Unbidden, Christian's gaze returned to where the woman was sitting. She wasn't what he'd call a regular at Martini, the upscale Manhattan bar where he'd worked for the past three years, as she rarely drank but she was there often enough for him to notice why she came.
Martini, for all its elegance and refinement, was an excellent feeding ground for anyone with a rich palate. It was a playground for the wealthy and over-privileged, with its posh contemporary decor backlit by hidden lighting. He watched as money changed hands, deals were sealed with predatory smiles and beautiful women were never far from the action.
And this woman, with her perfect figure and equally perfect face, was one of many he saw slinking around the city for one purpose: another's entertainment.
He slewed his gaze away from her, disgust threatening to curl his lip and ruin the careful facade he put out there as the amiable professional who knew when to look away and when to quietly pay attention.
He wanted nothing to do with this woman. Or any woman of her profession.
Christian had an eye for detail that he'd honed on the raw situations that shaped his early childhood. Out of necessity he'd learned how to read people as well as any FBI profiler with a fancy education. He'd learned his skills on the streets, figuring out quite young that everyone had something to hide and sometimes those secrets were vile enough to twist a person into something ugly. So, yeah, Christian had a sixth sense about people. And he was using those skills to make a nice living as a bartender at Martini where money was no object and anything could be bought.
Including the woman at the end of the bar.
Still, as much as he schooled his gaze away from her, she crept into his thoughts as if he had a giant magnet buried in his forehead tugging him in her direction.
A busty redhead took a seat at the bar and he smiled on autopilot. "Let me guess white wine spritzer," he said, and her smile widened.
"How'd you know?" she asked, her appraising look taking careful yet casual note of his person and liking what she saw. He knew if he played it right he could get her number easily but he wasn't hunting for a good time tonight. Besides, there was too much of a distraction in his peripheral vision to truly focus on the delights of the woman in front of him.
He grinned with a shrug. "Lucky guess."
"I almost ordered a vodka martini," she said, the corners of her mouth lifting into a flirtier smile.
He cocked his head in thought. "Ah, but something tells me you're not a martini drinker and the only reason you were considering it was because you heard that Martini had the best ones in town and you wanted to try it out," he surmised to her delight, prompting him to continue. "And, if you had your preference, you'd ditch the spritzer altogether and order the champagne but you're saving that for your date." So he can pay for it.
She laughed, leaning forward in a subtle, yet playful motion that gave him an unobstructed view of her double D's as she said, "You're good. Are you psychic or something?"
He winked. "I'll never tell." But if he were psychic he'd know all the details about the woman at the end of the bar, whether he wanted to or not. And as much as he tried to ignore it, his curiosity was becoming an irritant. He returned to the woman in front of him and gestured to the door as a man entered and scanned the bar. "That your friend?"
She glanced toward the entrance and barely hid her disappointment, which told him he'd been right again. He handed her the spritzer and she reluctantly slid from the bar stool. "See you around," she said, and he just smiled. She left with a suggestive "Maybe sooner rather than later" and walked away slowly so as to give Christian ample time to check out her perfectly sculpted ass. Any other time he'd have enjoyed the view but his gaze returned to the woman he was trying to ignore.
Tonight, there was something different about her. It was subtle to be sure but there was a dark edge to her that bordered on despair, or perhaps desperation. The fingers on her left hand trembled as she played with the base of her wineglass, the white wine she'd ordered earlier untouched. Every now and again, her gaze would drift over the crowd; she was clearly waiting for someone. He noted the barest sense of relief each time her sweep revealed nothing. Whoever she was waiting for wasn't someone whose attention she wanted.
Occupational hazard, he supposed.
He ought to inquire if the wine wasn't to her liking, seeing as she hadn't tasted the pinot grigio since ordering it but he was reluctant to engage in conversation with her, even if only superficially. There were plenty of times he chatted with the regulars, flirted with the cougars and even hooked up a time or two with a hot patron looking for a good time with no strings attached, but he didn't want to create any kind of familiarity with the woman at the end of the bar.
But, she drew him just the same. Something in her life was putting the subtle wrinkle in her otherwise smooth brow and something was causing her to perch rigidly on her chair, looking brittle enough to crack with a touch. Oh, but she was doing a damn fine job of hiding whatever was eating at her. He had to give her that but he saw beyond her efforts and he wasn't happy about it. Sometimes his keen sense about people was a burden he didn't enjoy carrying.
Like right now.
His feet threatened to carry him in her direction but fate intervened and a portly man appeared at her side, eagerness and hunger in his eyes, and Christian faded to the far side of the bar. He had no wish to witness the beginning of the soulless transaction between the two. He knew that she would leave with the fat man because he had paid her to.
Christian's mouth tightened as a different memory intruded.
Mennot quite so refined in their tastes or heavy in their pocketbookbursting through the door of the motel where he played with his action figures. Old fat men or young strung-out men, their hands shoved up his mother's blouse, squeezing her breasts and grunting with anticipation as they tumbled to the bed.
"Christian baby, go get yourself a soda or something," she instructed breathlessly, the hot, feverish glaze of her eyes burning into him as he bolted for the door. He knew the drill. His mom would need at least an hour to get the job done.
He closed his eyes and shut the door behind him, wishing he could wipe away that imageand a hundred others before itand jump into someone else's life where moms didn't earn the rent money on their backs, home wasn't a sleazy motel on the bad side of town and hunger didn't follow you like an unwelcome shadow because there was never enough to eat.
Christian came back to the present with a jerk, annoyed that such a crappy memory had burst free from his mental lockbox. He never thought of those days anymore. His life before eleven years of age was shitty enough the first go round, he didn't need to revisit it in memory. His gaze found the woman as she left the bar, grace personified on the man's arm, and muttered a curse under his breath.
He didn't care what her problems were.
And there was nothing that could make him care.
Skye D'Lane tried hard not to stiffen and arch away from the touch of her date as his palm burned a hole into her lower back as they walked to the awaiting Town Car idling at the curb.
Her thoughts returned to the bartender at Martini. He'd make a good escort, she thought wryly. Rich women would no doubt pay a good sum to get their manicured hands on his lean body. She was surprised Belleni hadn't gotten a hold of him yet. Belleni had a way of drawing in the beautiful ones; it's what made him so powerful. He offered the best to his clients and they paid him well for the privilege of booking a date with Belleni's elite stable. She remembered when Belleni had approached her, his benign smile hiding a multitude of sins, and she'd fallen for the easy lies that he parceled out like fine morsels to a starving person.
She'd been broken inside and he'd capitalized on it. Before she knew it, she'd been snared by a net of her own making.
Dreams were a dangerous thing in New York, Manhattan specifically. The glitz could blind you. She should know. She resisted the urge to massage the phantom ache in her knee that always bloomed when she thought of her own hopes and dreams. The injury had healed but her career as a professional dancer had not.
She resigned herself to an evening that by the end, she knew she'd want to forget.
She tried to find that place inside of herself that enabled her to forget what she was about to do and pretend to be the gracious, accommodating escort to whomever had paid the exorbitant price Belleni required for her services, but tonight it eluded her. Her fingers shook as she clasped her beaded clutch, swallowing as she squeezed her eyes shut for a brief second, reaching desperately for that inner strength but her conversation with Belleni only an hour earlier kept coming back to her, shattering her calm.
He was never going to let her go. Not while she remained his Number One girl. Belleni's hold on her was resolute. He held her most precious possession as collateral.
Their four-year-old son.
Skye exhaled softly as the maddening ache of despair arced through her and she knew she had to put that aside for the moment. Her dateCarlton Essex IIIwanted Skye D'Lane, gorgeous, sophisticated, with a willing disposition, on his arm and likely, in his bed by the end of the evening if the price was right. The thought caused bile to sear her throat but she gave no indication of her true feelings.
"You do not disappoint, Miss D'Lane," Carlton murmured into her ear as the car pulled away, his hand resting a bit too closely to her inner thigh. The eagerness in his voice was downright disgusting. His gaze drifted over her silver metallic sheath and his breathing quickened.
"Neither do you," she lied easily, hoping the evening ended soon. The client had booked her for a charity event at the Four Seasons where he would be donating a large sum to a center for rehabilitated prostitutes. Skye found the irony sickening, though she supposed in her own small way she was helping, too.
"Your skin is like smooth silk," he said, his tongue sliding along his lower lip as if he were already tasting her. She withheld a shudder. This one would likely leave marks on her tender breasts. In a perverse way, she hoped he would. Belleni didn't take it lightly when a client left marks on his girls; healing time caused downtime and downtime cost Belleni money. He began running his hand up her thigh, slowly lifting the hem of her dress. "So perfect "
She wanted to scream Don't touch me, you filthy pig, but instead she simply laughed and gave his hand a gentle nudge with a smile she didn't feel and reminded him of the rules. "I'm sure Belleni explained our arrangement, yes?"
Carlton narrowed his already beady eyes and drew back with a displeased grunt. "No touching in public," he answered. He paused a minute to adjust his girth in the well-tailored suit but his gaze skewed back to her with a glint that she didn't trust as he said, "But we're not in public and I want a preview of what I paid for."
So crass. It was no wonder the manas wealthy as he washad to pay someone for company let alone sex. She managed a light laugh. "So impatient. The anticipation will sweeten the experience. We wouldn't want to be late to your event."
"They'll wait. I want to see why you're Belleni's most expensive whore."
She didn't like the hard light in his eyes. Malice rolled off him in waves. Her pulse quickened as she considered her options. She chose her words carefully. "There are rules to follow if you don't wish to find yourself on Belleni's bad side," she warned him, hoping it was enough to cool the hot lust in his stare.
But Carlton didn't heed her warning. Hell, the subtle threat seemed to incite him further. He jerked her to him in a swift movement that Skye would've thought impossible given his size, squeezing a pained gasp from her even as she pushed against him. "What are you doing?" she tried demanding with some sort of authority, but in truth, fear had replaced her calm bravado. "This isn't the way Belleni does business. You're risking more than you know if you don't follow the rules."
He ignored her and directed his driver to pull around to the back of the bar, out of sight, tucked into the dark alley.