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It wasn't every day a woman got to see her naked self coated in chocolate and being licked like an ice cream cone by a dozen people. Apparently hot fudge was the syrup of choice for an orgy.
Cringing, Sierra Donovan peered at the grainy black-and-white eight-by-ten photo starring her and her twelve new best friends. Struggling to be objective instead of giving in to the terror taking hold in her belly, she forced herself to consider whether the pile of naked bodies was supposed to be sexy.
She was no orgy expert, but wouldn't it be a little hard to get off when you had no idea who was groping what? Cellophane crinkled loudly in the silence as she clenched another piece of candy in her fingers. Unable to deny herself the sugary comfort, she unwrapped the butterscotch sweet and popped it in her mouth as she squinted at the picture. Which body was supposed to be hers? Was she the one between the three guys or was she holding the dripping spoon in her hand?
"Sierra, have you got a second?"
She managed to stifle her scream by crunching down on the butterscotch candy. But she couldn' t stop her heart from pounding so hard it had to be stretching her bra strap. Coughing a little, Sierra tossed the picture into her desk drawer and slammed it shut. Giving her best friend a stiff smile she tried to pretend she wasn't having a total freak-out. "Sure," she said. "What do you need?"
Belle Forsham was Sierra's partner in Eventfully Yours, the premier event planning company in Southern California. She was also one hell of a savvy lady. She took one look at Sierra's cheesy smile, hands clasped schoolgirl-perfect on the desk, and the pile of candy wrappers overflowing the trash can. Then sheraised a platinum brow and sauntered over to the desk, tucking the files she carried under one arm.
"Give," she said, holding out her hand.
"Have I told you lately how great that rock looks?" Sierra said to stall answering and gestured to Belle's sparkling new engagement ring.
"It is gorgeous, isn't it?" Belle agreed with a sappy smile, taking a second to splay her fingers in order to catch the light with her diamond. If Sierra wasn't a total cynic, she'd have been a smidge envious of her friend's happiness.
But envy was pointless. Besides, finding long-term romantic happiness was as rare as being hit by lightning. In Belle's case, she'd missed out the first time around, then freakishly had a second chance. Belle and the man she'd left at the altar six years ago were now basking in the glow of happy-ever-after.
It gave Sierra a warm, cuddly feeling. Which was bizarre, since she was definitely not a warm, cuddly type of gal. But for her best friend? She'd take up knitting sweaters for teddy bears to prove her happiness.
Belle sat in the cushy chair on the other side of Sierra's cherrywood desk and tucked the files next to her. Kicking off her Jimmy Choos, she curled her feet under her and settled back like she was ready to chat.
The rock-hard tension in Sierra's neck and shoulders eased just a little. Whew, the distraction with the ring had worked. Sure, they'd probably have to talk wedding plans now, but Sierra's forte was planning fancy events so that wasn't much of a hardship. She held back on the sigh of relief, though. No point tipping Belle off.
"I've changed my mind from pastels for the bridesmaids to jewel tones," Belle mused, excitement clear on her doll-like face. "I think you'll look great in sapphire or amethyst silk." Even though the wedding was only three months away, she was still changing things around daily. She arched a brow. "Of course, you look good in anything. Or nothing. I take it you're naked in this picture, too?"
Sierra blinked twice. Then she sighed. So much for distraction.
"Does it matter? So some idiot got their hands on a photo editing program. Obviously they need a lot of practice. Yesterday my head was on sideways, remember?"
The photos, all sexually explicit, all poorly composed with Sierra's face pasted in, had started arriving two months ago. At first, when only one a week showed up, she'd hidden them from Belle since her partner was dealing with a big job and even bigger romance. But for the past two weeks they'd been coming daily. And the perv behind them was getting good enough with photo editing that the photos were starting to make Sierra queasy. Orgies were bad enough, but yesterday's picture had involved farm animals.
Today he'd added commentary.
Soon everyone will know there's nothing sweet about you, was digitally typed over the image.
She was terrified.
But she wasn't about to admit it. Not even to Belle. Nope, Tough Girl 101. To maintain control, all vulnerability had to be hidden. Even if these stupid pictures were to blame for her new two-tube-a-week concealer habit to hide the dark circles brought on from sleep deprivation.
"Give," Belle demanded.
With a grimace Sierra yanked open her drawer and tossed the eight-by-ten across the desk. She watched the glossy paper slide toward her friend, the image even more bizarre upside down.
"Oh my " Belle's lips moved as she silently counted. "Twelve at once? How do they keep from getting squished, do you think?"
"Good lower body strength," Sierra deadpanned.
Not wanting to watch Belle analyze the creepy picture, Sierra flicked her mouse to take her laptop out of hibernation. Pretending the words weren't blurred and shaky, she tried to focus on her Outlook schedule. They had three events scheduled this week. Two birthday celebrations and a store opening on Rodeo Drive. A signing meeting with a publisher determined to launch with a bang and a pile of billing to get out. Her favorite outlet store would get a delivery of basics on Wednesday, too. With this many events, she needed to keep up appearances, and for her that meant scouring sales. Busy, busy.
She blinked and let the jobs run through her head, the details calming her like no platitudes or assurances could. This she could control. And control was primary for Sierra. Ambitious, outspoken and self-confident, she knew she was damned good at what she did. Her gaze slipped over to Belle's perusal of the latest pervy pic and she clenched her jaw.
These pictures weren't something she could control, though. And they were fast spinning from a minor irritation into a major source of anxiety. If she wasn't careful, she'd end up having panic attacks.
"Sierra, we need to take these to the police."
Yep, there it was. Panic. Sierra's vision blurred to black around the edges, and she felt her heart sprint into high gear. No. She wasn't doing this. Two deep, calming breaths while she focused on her wiggling toes, lovingly encased in the prized pair of red suede Manolos she'd scrimped and saved for eight months to buy. That helped her push away the fear.
"No. This is just some dumbass perv playing games, Belle. I'm not giving him the satisfaction of running to the cops."
"This isn't a game," Belle insisted. "There's a motive behind it. Someone is going to a lot of trouble to terrorize you. Now they're adding threats."
"Commentary," Sierra contradicted, as if it didn't matter. "Look, it's probably just one of our competitors trying to shake us up, you know? He'd have started on you except you have that hottie fiancé you're busy keeping company with."
They both knew that was a slim possibility. The pictures had started to arrive before Belle hooked up with Mitch. While she'd been working on his account, as a matter of fact.
Belle didn't call her on it, though. She just gave Sierra a long, considering look. "How do you know the perv's a he?"
Sierra sneered and poked her finger at the picture still in Belle's hand. "Look at the size of those boobs. Not anything under a C cup there. Totally guy-fantasy crap."
"I agree that it's probably the competition," Belle said. "We're taking over Southern California and kicking ass." Then she tilted her head and added, "But he is getting serious. These pictures are coming daily."
Sierra shrugged, trying to blow off the concern. She couldn't, though. Not all of it. After all, just knowing Belle cared enough to worry about her meant she owed it to her friend to do whatever it took to assuage those fears.
"Serious or not," Sierra said, "I'm not letting some freak push me around. What am I supposed to tell the cops, anyway? That someone is sending me dirty pictures? And now he's added captions?"
They'd probably say it was an ex-lover trying to get some kind of revenge. And since she was a healthy twenty-seven-year-old woman, she had a nice list of ex-lovers to choose from. None were stupid or tasteless enough to pull a stunt like this, though. After all, she prided herself in being extremely selective about who she let into her life. Or her bed.
"When did you get your hair cut?" Belle asked.
Sierra blinked again. Usually Belle was much better at the tactful subject changes. Telling herself she was glad to move on and not hurt that her best friend had given up so easily, Sierra brushed her fingers over the blunt edges of her sable hair. "Last week. Tuesday, I think."
After years of flat ironing, special shampoos and blow-dries to pamper her long hair, she'd gone for a shoulder-length style that actually worked with her waves. She'd been afraid it would be too casual, but instead it softened her sharp features and added an air of approachability she'd never had before. If it snagged more clients, it worked for her.
"Tuesday?" Belle repeated flatly.
"Right, why? What's the big deal?"
Belle turned the paper so it faced Sierra and tapped one French-tipped nail at her image. "Apparently you blew off dinner at my place to spend this last weekend in a kinky dogpile, then."
Sierra's stomach lurched and breath stuck in her throat. Well, shit. She'd been concentrating so hard on not being concerned, she'd totally overlooked the fact that her orgy debut featured her new hairstyle.
She sucked in her lower lip and tried to find an explanation. But her mind was blank.
"I'm calling the cops," Belle stated adamantly. "This guy is straight up stalking you."
Sierra rubbed a lock of dark hair with her fingers. Before, she'd tried to write the pictures off as irritating and a little obnoxious. She really had figured it was a competitor trying to shake her up. Or, worst-case scenario, a guy with a twisted way of leading up to hitting on her. But now? She didn't know why she was more worried now, but she was.
She should warn Belle it wouldn't matter, though. Cops never believed her. Especially when it came to anything sexual. It was as if they took one look at her and figured she was a liar. She'd never understood why, either. She didn't dress provocatively, she didn't flirt randomly, and as much as she liked sex, she could hardly be termed promiscuous.
But when she'd been sexually harassed by her uncle? God, how many times had she called the police as a teenager, asking for protection against the nasty man's advances? His creepy comments, his filthy suggestions and offers. His attempts to corner her, to touch her. She'd dodged him as often as possible, and when dodging hadn't been possible
Well, suffice it to say, the one time he'd actually managed to shove his hand down her top, she'd shoved him down the stairs. The cops hadn't thought much of that, either. Believing her aunt's assertion that she was a mouthy brat, troubled by her mother's recent death and acting out, they'd arrested her for assault. Sierra hadbeen troubled, heartbroken to lose her beloved mother at thirteen. But she'd also been so terrified of being abandoned, she'd acted the perfect child when she'd gone to live with her aunt and uncle, despite their accusations to the contrary.
She snatched another candy from the dwindling dish and popped it into her mouth, letting the sweetness coat her tongue, distract her. None of that mattered anymore. All that mattered was that the police weren't going to believe her.
Especially not if they checked her record and saw the accusations her relatives had used in her arrest. Luckily, before she'd died, Sierra's mother had arranged and paid for Sierra to attend a prestigious boarding school starting in ninth grade. The only reason her aunt and uncle had let her escape at fourteen was that it wasn' t money out of their pocket, and the possibility that Sierra might blab to the country-club set about her uncle's advances made her even less welcome in their home. Boarding school became her haven. And once she'd met Belle there, her home.
She knew calling the authorities about the photos was useless, but somehow the idea still made her feel as if she were doing something. So she didn't say a word as Belle dialed.
"Okay, the guy I talked to is coming by the office," Belle said as she hung up the phone. "You have all the pictures in a file, right?"
"All there in the drawer," Sierra said, barely concealing her shudder as she unwrapped another piece of candy. If this kept up, she'd put on ten pounds.
Belle glanced at her watch, then grimaced. "I'm supposed to meet the CEO of Family Publications in a half hour to discuss photographers and push her to finally sign this next round of contracts. Let me make a few phone calls and I'll rearrange the appointment."
Sierra was shaking her head before Belle even finished talking. "No way," she protested. "This picture geek isn't going to upset, change or interfere with Eventfully Yours in any way."
Belle's green eyes rounded at the fierce tone. Her open-mouthed shock made Sierra sigh.
But dammit, she had too much riding on this deal. She'd hooked an account big enough, wide-reaching enough that Eventfully Yours hit it big as a marketing planner as well as an event planning company. But more importantly, the income from this job would make her feel like she'd finally kicked in her part, financially. When they'd started the company five years ago, Belle had fronted the start-up money. She'd never blinked or hinted that she minded, but it still bothered Sierra. After all, Belle was the party girl, Sierra was the organized brain. They each brought a vital element to the business, complementing each other's style and strength. But being able to organize a party for two thousand and arrange seating wasn't enough to pull her weight. Sierra needed to pay her way, too.
All her life, she'd been the rich little poor girl. Wealthy family, very little money of her own. Fancy boarding school, hand-me-down uniforms. Even now, to keep up with her rich friends and their lifestyle she shopped with coupons, scoured outlet sales and vintage stores.