Read an Excerpt
By Michele Mannon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Michele Mannon
All rights reserved.
There are to-die-for views and then there are views that can kill you. And right now, I'm standing at the precipice of both, feeling nervous and breathless and a bit overwhelmed.
"This has to be easily a hundred-foot drop," Zoey murmurs, awestruck and as unnerved as I am by the beautiful, reckless architectural feature of the one-of-a-kind infinity room we've wandered into.
"In the States, this would be a lawsuit waiting to happen," I reply.
"Yet whoo, what a view."
"Just mind your footing," I warn her, glancing at the three-inch heels my friend is wearing, their sexy affect wasted on me. Her boyfriend, Renaldo, is a friend of Juan Carlos Mendoza, the owner of Casa Bella. With a little passive-aggressive insistence from Zoey, Renaldo arranged for us to attend one of the infamous parties always being held at this luxurious estate. Though my reasons for this weeklong visit have nothing to do with socializing per se and everything to do with the host.
Less than a week after my explosive departure from The Linguistic Academy, Zoey handed me an English version of the magazine Filantrópica, featuring the absurdly wealthy Juan Carlos Mendoza. Not only is he a self-made billionaire with a head for numbers and an eye for pretty women, he evidently has a philanthropic heart.
I tried to reach my new perspective sponsor by calling his office, with no luck. So I ventured downtown to his office located in a part of the city called City Reflection, the outcome of a "regeneration" project Juan Carlos completely financed. Turns out it seemed more of a degeneration-of-nature project than anything, with the dismal absence of greenery in the area. His office was closed, its door locked, and I went home wondering why anyone would tear down centuries-old buildings and replace them with mirrored-steel structures. The intense sunlight reflecting off those mirrors does nothing for the environment. Yet I reminded myself how Juan Carlos simply financed this project. I pin the blame on his architect, who is probably just another modern-day barbarian much in need of a woman's sensibility.
Yet with Zoey's help, I didn't let things end there.
Sometimes in life you need to make your own opportunities. And didn't Juan Carlos say in the article he was "looking for his next cause?" Except a few days later, I discover I'm too early, and am forced to wait to make my pitch as Señor Mendoza isn't expected back at Casa Bella until tomorrow.
"It's awfully quiet around here. And we haven't seen any of the house staff since this morning. Are you certain Juan Carlos is even hosting a party? You don't think he'll be annoyed that two strange women have arrived so early?"
Zoey sighs, exasperated. "You've asked me this twice already. Mendoza is a playboy who loves the limelight. The first week of every month he hosts a party. Renaldo says he'll be pleased to have two gorgeous women attending."
"But a weeklong stay?" Renaldo escorted us to Casa Bella and saw to it that Juan Carlos's staff assigned us to one of several guest bungalows scattered across the immense grounds before leaving to meet up elsewhere with the billionaire. Despite my determination to see this through, it still feels awkward that Mendoza wasn't here himself to greet us and that, so far, we're the only guests here.
"It's never clear what day the party will happen. Sometimes there's several hosted in one week. Mendoza likes to keep his business acquaintances entertained. Relax, Aubrey, and try to enjoy yourself. You'll get what you came here for soon enough."
And the longer your stay, the greater the possibility of earning a private audience with the billionaire.
I relax my shoulders. My friend is right. As awkward as this is, why waste time worrying about what Juan Carlos might think? I'm here for a purpose. And while we wait, why not explore the wonders of Casa Bella?
The first being the great room, with its expensive wooden floorboards that extend out from the space, taking on more of a balcony effect and turning a modern, simplistic space into an architectural marvel. A fourth of the room is suspended over open air, the ceiling and flooring jutting out over the rocky cliffs below.
Like an infinity pool of hardwood flooring overflowing into the city lights below. Unrestricted by walls or railings.
Especially for a room that seems to be used for parties, if the disc-jockey setup is any indication. A few too many tequila shots and one hip thrust the wrong way and the last thing you'd be seeing is the breathtaking view below.
"Be careful," I warn her again, as I shift away from the death drop and move across the freshly polished hardwood to the opposite side of the room. This space is also suspended in air, looking down at the large living room below. Except common sense has led the designer to add a barrier in the form of one enormous sheet of floor-to-ceiling glass. Not Plexiglas but real glass. Freshly polished to the point where my wonder-filled reflection is staring clearly back at me.
I pause, taking in my chestnut hair, which is now streaked with sun-kissed highlights. I've allowed the freckles across the bridge of my nose and cheeks to have free rein, not caring to use concealer because of the light tan I'm sporting thanks to a day by the pool. My green eyes seem lighter, contrasted nicely by the thick coat of black mascara I've applied. I smack my lips together. The apricot lip gloss even tastes fruity. I feel pretty. In control. And dare I say a tad less pessimistic?
There's so much about Casa Bella to digest. Like Juan Carlos boasted in the article, at every turn, another surprise awaits you.
The mountaintop estate sprawls across acres of finely groomed land, with such attention to detail it's admirable. Lawns as green as new dollar bills paid to keep them that way. Fountains and stone benches, rich tropical vegetation, cobblestone pathways meandering throughout the grounds. There are four pools, five if you include the one sequestered off from nonfamily members and staff. And a dozen private guest quarters like our bungalow are tucked away throughout the expansive grounds. Casa Bella is classic textbook for all the dreamers with infinite building budgets.
Yet as much as I've been groomed to find fault, there are a few architectural accomplishments that undeniably set this place far above all others.
The infinity balcony is one.
The winding river pool I'm looking down into is another. Fed by a natural hidden spring, the river meanders throughout the open-space living room, curling around fireplaces — one that, despite the warm weather, a servant must have stoked — then winding around one cluster of sofas and leather chairs then another, finally exiting through a midsize arch in the wall. I pause and study that arch. I'd love to get a look at the waterfall from the outside. Like ice cream on a hot day, it's far too tempting to miss.
The lights flicker, then fade.
Despite the grandeur of Casa Bella, there seems to be ongoing problems with its power grid. All day long, electricity's been sketchy. It's a shame that costs were likely cut on the estate's infrastructure. Everything on the surface seems so extraordinary but if it's constantly cast in darkness, what's the good in that?
A waterfall. A river pool. Five pools in total and far too many fountains to count.
In a city facing a water crisis.
Not for the first time, I doubt Juan Carlos's intentions. But he did boast he's looking for the right cause. And ... money talks. With his, I can accomplish what I came to Mexico City to do. Balance the scales in some small way between those living the lifestyle of the megarich — case in point, Casa Bella — and the eight million people who call Mexico City's hillsides home. Within these hills is a densely populated place called Neza Chalco. A place where residents live in cinderblock houses, without running water or plumbing or adequate ventilation. A place where I intend to make a difference by implementing the sustainable housing designs I spent two years working on as a final project toward receiving my diploma.
Howie couldn't understand why I felt so passionate about this assignment. Why I'd pay a fool's ransom to execute my ideas and come all the way to Mexico City to work for the nonprofit organization when I could land a lucrative job stateside.
By now, Howie's probably gainfully employed with some fancy design firm, practicing French when he isn't puckering up to his bosses.
But puckering up is what I intend to do if it helps Juan Carlos reach deep into his pockets. If opportunity knocks, I'll be the first to answer.
"Come, sit, Aubrey. And watch the sunset. You can dangle your feet off the edge of the floor."
I cringe. Of course she's perched on the edge. Zoey thrives in dangerous situations. She's the kind of girl who acts first then thinks later. The complete opposite of me. But she'd posted an ad for a roommate at the university downtown, and I'd been in the right place at the right time. Truth is, we're still at that stranger stage because I don't see her much, Renaldo taking up most of her time. But in our brief time together, she's been a good listener. And she was the one who offered me a solution to my financial problem. So I'm eternally grateful to her for helping me.
I pause to take one more glance at the river pool below.
And that's when I see him.
A tall, dark-haired man in a suit, who has moved into the empty room and is standing over by the burning fireplace. Surprise, surprise. He's dressed for a party. Seems we're not the only early arrivals.
Where did he come from?
There's enough natural light that, despite the power outage, I get a good look at him.
God created man. And then God created man. And, even from this angle, this guy is as hot as they come.
Midlength midnight black locks of hair tumble haphazardly across his face, obscuring his forehead and eyes. Bedhead, like he's just woken up. Except his brisk, calculated movements suggest otherwise. His manner's rugged, powerful, full of purpose. I'm struck by his handsome profile, the perfectly straight aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and firm, no-nonsense chin. He's tan, like he spends a lot of time outdoors, his skin the color of café con leche, heavy on the foam.
And his body ... Lord have mercy, his hands have moved to unbutton his jacket, like he's ready to show me exactly what's hidden beneath his finely tailored suit.
He takes off his suit jacket and lays it across a plush white sofa before unfastening the buttons on his blue dress shirt. One button ... five buttons ... eight.
What on earth is he doing?
I watch, fascinated, as he kicks off his shoes and strips off his shirt. I'm speechless, probably because my mouth's gone dry at the sight of his bare chest.
My word, the man is built, with a boxer's body. Hard in all the right places. A firm, muscled chest. Well-defined arms with thick biceps. Eight-pack abs that flex as he shifts on his feet.
And oh ... he's still moving, unzipping the fly of his pants and shimmying out of the expensively tailored material.
He's not going to ... yep, he certainly is.
I gasp as his slacks hit the floor.
"Aubrey, you okay over there?" I hear Zoey's voice. But I can't seem to tear my eyes away from the strip show going on below. One in progress for my eyes only.
According to Cosmo, there are two kinds of women. Those who love boxers and those who love briefs. Boxers imply that his package might be too big to be contained by all that material. But briefs do not lie. Briefs say "Take a gander, sweetheart; the proof is in the pudding."
But my stripper turns his back to me, so the verdict is still out. Still, his briefs pull tight across his finely shaped ass.
You're objectifying, Aubrey. Such a shallow thing to do.
I grin. A second guilty pleasure of mine is replaying on TiVo the dance clips from Magic Mike. And the man standing in his briefs below is a darker, more ruggedly handsome version of Channing Tatum.
Art. In. Motion.
He scoops up his clothing, and I blink. What the heck is he thinking?
"Crap," Zoey mumbles.
I turn, worriedly.
"I lost a heel."
"For the love of God, be careful," I reply, hastily refocusing my attention on the stranger below.
His suit is gone, yet before I can wonder about its disappearance, he goes and tucks his thumbs into the waistline of his briefs.
I feel hot, like the full force of the Mexican sun is beating down on me. Swallowing hard, I place an open hand on the glass wall, dizzy and light-headed and breathlessly anticipating what happens next.
He slides the waistline of his briefs over his hip bones.
Oh. My. God. This is crazy.
"I've never heard someone get so worked up about architecture before. What's going on over there? Did you just figure out that there's a waterfall flowing out from the living room wall? Yes, it is crazy," Zoey says. "Crazy expensive. Crazy flamboyant. Crazy cool. Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?"
"Never in my wildest imagination," I murmur. And the man below is definitely someone who'll be hard to forget.
The hunk pauses, turns and, as if sensing my thoughts, looks over his shoulder and up.
I freeze, caught red-faced and red-handed, with my mouth open and one palm pressed up against the glass, spying on him. Okay, eye-fucking him.
It's not my fault. The man's one tug away from stripping down to his birthday suit. Right out in the open-concept living room, for Pete's sake. Not exactly Mr. Conservative, who's my typical kind of guy.
No, this guy is Mr. Bold as Brass.
Or better yet, Mr. Crazy Pants. I mean, who does such a thing? What kind of man takes an impromptu skinny-dip in a living-room river pool?
He stares at me and I suddenly feel nervous. Like I fully intended on invading his privacy, as if I'd do such a thing intentionally.
His eyes narrow, or I think they do. Hard to tell at this distance. Yet, unbelievably, I can't seem to draw mine away.
I gasp as he slides his briefs lower, daring me to keep watching him. Sexier than anything I've ever seen or even dreamed about. Why he's doing such a thing is way beyond the realm of logic and comprehension, way out of my comfort zone and miles away from my ability to think straight.
"Ahhh," Zoey screeches.
I anxiously spin in her direction. The danger of that drop along with the fact she's tempting fate by dangling her legs over the ledge causing me to fear the worse.
"I lost the other heel." She clambers up and onto her bare feet. "You ready?"
I nod. But ready for what? I think, my gaze drawn back to the stranger below.
Just in time to see the two pale globes of his ass midair, before he disappears in a neat dive into the river pool.
I spy his dark head seconds later, as he resurfaces closer to the arched opening in the wall.
"Another power outage," Zoey says, sighing and drawing up beside me. "Paradise isn't perfect, after all." She stands, peers down at the living room below, then makes a whistling sound between her pursed lips. "Would you look at that pool? This place is certainly full of surprises, huh?"
I nod, thinking about explaining what just happened with the stripper. No, there's no rational way of explaining that.
"I wonder what other surprises Mexico City has in store for us?" Zoey continues.
"I wonder," I murmur, my eyes skimming across the water in search of him. Yet, as if he were only a mirage, a handsome figment of my imagination, he's disappeared from sight.CHAPTER 2
"Is this incredible or what?" Zoey shouts between the pause in rap songs.
"Or what!" I holler back. Incredible is too dull a word to describe the dance party presently in progress. I'm surrounded by handsome, dark-haired men in suits. Powerful men with a subtle don't-fuck-with-me edge to them.
Ibiza, meet Mexico City.
Anything goes at a party such as this. If only Juan Carlos would put in an appearance ... I hastily skim the room, fearful I might have missed him.
Zoey leans into me. "Renaldo says Mendoza isn't coming. But there'll be another party so not to worry." She clinks her shot glass against mine, sending a good portion of the amber liquid onto the large windowpane I had the foresight to position us near. That drink is the only thing I want spilling off the dance floor.
Excerpted from Hit Man by Michele Mannon. Copyright © 2016 Michele Mannon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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