Uncontrollable rage furrowed inside of me, the beast’s claw ripping at my insides. I didn’t usually allow my fury to get to this point. It didn’t suit my business or my reputation. However, the urge to beat the man to death remained strong. Instead, I took a deep breath, holding it in while the pompous prick stared at me with hazy eyes.
In his quest to render my family obsolete, he’d made several missteps, which had allowed me to realize that he was on the take. While I’d located his offshore accounts, recent deposits indicating he’d fallen from grace, the amounts weren’t high enough to provide a clear indication just how far into the quicksand he’d been sucked into. However, my discovery had been the final prompt to dangle the bait I’d thought about for weeks.
Offering him a continuance of his life in exchange for leading me to his benefactor.
“You’re going to kill me,” Gregory stated matter-of-factly.
Instead of responding, I glared at the man standing in front of me, determine to control my bloody cravings to tear him limb from limb. Normally, by the time I entered a room, anyone considered an enemy had already succumbed to pleading for their lives. Gregory Hampton’s arrogance and self-assuredness prevented him from what I’d heard him call on television more than once ‘kowtowing to a lowlife.’
Even though he appeared collected, as if he didn’t have a care in the world, I knew better. Fear had a distinct odor, a combination of sweat, piss, and testosterone, the acrid stench lingering long after I’d handled a difficult situation.
I took my time walking closer, keeping my hands in my trouser pockets. “I assure you, Gregory, that if I wanted to kill you then you’d already be dead.”
His smirk was short lived but noticeable. I would enjoy destroying him slowly, savoring every moment of his demise.
He was considered the best prosecutor in New York, a man who scared the shit out of many of my associates. He was highly respected, well connected, and a pain in my family’s ass and had been for years. Until recently, he’d stayed in his lane, but the last few months he’d made it his personal vendetta to handle the prosecution of every single infraction involving my businesses that had crossed his desk. Almost all of them had resulted in some jail time, even for minor infractions, some the result of Gregory’s unscrupulous actions.
The man was as dirty as he claimed my organization to be.
I’d had enough.
“Are you trying to scare me?” he asked, his usually strong voice holding the slightest quiver.
“Are you frightened of me, Gregory?”
“Fuck you. You can’t touch me, and you know it.”
Chuckling, I shifted my gaze toward his attire. A tuxedo at four in the afternoon. His wedding day, the event of the season. I’d paid attention to his professional and personal life over the last few weeks, enjoying the show as he preened for the cameras. The media loved him. Unfortunately for his lovely bride, he could only love himself. Then I’d scrutinized every decision he made, the associates he’d communicated with, convinced I was right about his greed.
Everyone had a price.
By all rights, I should have taken him out weeks before, but it wasn’t in my best interest to start a war between what few members of law enforcement weren’t on the take and the Kozlov Empire.
I reached into my jacket pocket, pulling out the few pictures I’d selected to prime him as well as an email I’d been privy to, laying them out on his desk in random order. “It’s your lucky day, Gregory. I have a proposition for you.” I stepped away, moving toward the window and admiring the view of his backyard. He’d done extremely well for himself by using his influence in order to successfully blackmail very powerful people.
It was his day of reckoning, the man required to make a choice.
“What the hell is that?”
“Take a look for yourself.” I waited as he decided whether to take the bait. When he walked to his desk, a smile curled on my upper lip, but his hand was shaking as he selected one of the photographs.
“What the… Where the hell did you get these?” Now his voice held the kind of fear as well as understanding that he’d fucked with the wrong people.
“As you might imagine, I have various sources across the country and all over the world. They provide me with priceless information.” Every man had a secret, a platform of needs that eventually couldn’t be denied. Gregory was no exception. Unfortunately for him, he’d been careless in his activities, his greed and penchant for dark proclivities becoming his undoing. There was nothing I enjoyed more than delving into a man’s shadows.
The quiet in the room pleased me but I was running out of patience. Besides, I had a wedding to attend.
“What do you want?” At least he was finally resigned to the fact I had the upper hand.
“What do I want?” I repeated. “You’re going to leave town for two weeks immediately after I’ve left. During that time, you’re going to repent your sins. When you return, you’ll make a public statement that you’ve decided to step away from your role in law enforcement, which will give you time to seek counseling for various concerns you have regarding your mental health. Then you’re going to provide me with a list of names.”
“Of every man or woman who holds your lease in their hands.”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“Perhaps.” I laughed as I studied him, his body slumping against his desk.
“You fucking bastard. I won’t stand for this! You’re out of your mind.”
I moved toward him quickly enough he jumped. “The choice is entirely up to you. If you don’t, the information I’ve just provided will begin to trickle out to the public. Soon, it will develop into a firestorm. I daresay that you’ll be ruined within three weeks, your connections drying up faster than the Sahara Desert.”
The anger in his eyes was immediate but it was quickly followed by resignation. He knew I had him by the balls and violence hadn’t been needed.
Yes, this would be a more enjoyable experience than putting a bullet through his brain.
“I’m getting married today. I can’t just leave.”
“And you and I both know you’re using your lovely bride, Gregory. She’s become just another tool in your toolbox. That’s evident by several of the rather vivid photographs. Don’t you think? You certainly do get around with women. Think of it this way. You’ll be doing her a favor.”
I was curious to find out if the lovely Stephanie Morgan had any idea that her fiancé had been cheating on her for years. If so, it was likely the hunger for money and power that had kept her in the relationship. I did so enjoy a woman with spunk, capable of breaking through the ‘all boys’ veil that continued to shroud politics and law enforcement.
I also loved a challenge.
What he didn’t know is that I had every intention of ensuring that he kept his end of the deal. One way of doing that was by enticing the soon to be jilted bride. What little I knew about the femme fatale prosecuting attorney had presented an additional layer of concerns. I would go under the assumption she’d been made aware of his upcoming plans, especially those involving his number one target for destruction.
I’d watched her. Fantasized about her.
In some ways, I’d become obsessed with her, learning what made her tick. My cock ached at the thought of what I would do to her.
It was possible she wasn’t the angel she purported herself to be as well. I would find out exactly what the beautiful woman had learned before tossing her aside.
Then I’d yank the rest of the justice system into a stranglehold, ensuring they never fucked with my organization again.
And if there was another entity involved, they would face my full wrath, one torturous moment at a time.
He shook his head and glanced down at the pictures for a second time, yanking the email into his hand, the piece of paper by far the most damning evidence. After he swallowed hard, his entire demeanor changed. “You’re going to pay for this. One day, I’ll send you straight to hell.”
“I suggest you get in line early, Gregory. Now, I am a busy man. What is your decision?”
I could tell he was churning the threat over in his mind. There was no choice. He knew it. I knew it.
I nodded and headed for the door. “I’m glad to see you’re a reasonable man. As long as you keep your end of the deal we just made, the evidence will never see the light of day. However, if you fuck with me, I assure you that you won’t like the consequences.”
“How do I know you’ll keep your end of the deal?”
“Because I’m an honorable man. If only I could say the same about you.”
“Be careful, Alexei. Your end is near, both yours and your savage family’s. And I will enjoy every minute of watching you bleed.”
I moved to within an inch of him, taking several deep breaths before slamming him against the wall, shoving the barrel of my weapon against his temple. “I suggest you reconsider threatening me, Gregory. I’ve just given you a gift, which doesn’t happen very often. If you so much as vary from the plan I laid out for you, there won’t be a single rock you can crawl under and hide.”
Fear had a distinct stench and his was ripe.
I wanted the man afraid.
That would lead him into making stupid decisions. His arrogance would allow me to find out who’d been pushing his buttons and for what price.
Then I would strike.
“I hope I find my Prince Charming,” Sarah had mused as she stared out the window like she usually did.
“You will, but you’re far too young,” I’d told her, remembering how many times she’d talked about finding a knight on a huge ebony horse, the rugged man coming to rescue her.
Sighing, I stared into the mirror, the thoughts of my younger sister crowding my mind. If only she could be here. If only the monster hadn’t taken her away.
“I’m seventeen! And I’ve never been kissed.” As she’d turned to me, she’d batted her long eyelashes, giving me her famous pouting look. Then we’d both burst into laughter.
That had been the last time I’d seen her alive.
The ugliness of the arduous months after her murder had haunted me, guided me. It seemed like yesterday when it had been years before. I could still see her face in my mind, could hear her laughter as she’d been excited about getting accepted at Columbia. While I’d only been a few years older, I’d taken on the role of parent and guardian after our parents’ death.
“Are you okay?” Amelia asked. She was my maid of honor and had done everything in her power to make this day special, even if she’d told me more than once I was an idiot.
She squeezed my shoulders, her expression one of knowing. She’d been my shoulder to cry on more than once.
“I look like a freaking giant sugar-coated donut,” I growled as I glared into the mirror. Nothing about the dress or anything else about the day pleased me. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the reason.
You shouldn’t be marrying the pompous asshole in the first place.
Amelia glanced over my shoulder, shaking her head as she’d been doing since the minute that I’d stepped foot inside the room of the church. My darling fiancé had insisted that we be married in the church his parents attended.
“You look beautiful. Doesn’t she, girls?” Amelia asked.
“You look marvelous, darling,” Jessica cooed.
“Perfectly edible,” Suzi added.
“He’s going to swoon the moment he sees you,” Maggie rounded up the words of bullshit, the expression on her face exactly like the others.
They all hated Gregory.
That’s because he’s lied and treated you like shit.
My inner voice was right, which pissed me off even more. While I’d yet to prove it, I could swear the man was cheating on me as well. In addition, he’d been acting cagey lately, as if every single question I asked was an annoyance. We were both professionals, prosecutors in the same office, for God’s sake, yet I’d been reduced to nothing more than an aggravation. Really? That wasn’t like me.
As I glared at my reflection, my instinct told me that not only was something terribly wrong, but that I was a fool to go through with this. No more.
“Cut the crap, ladies. This is ridiculous.” I yanked off my veil, tossing it aside. All of sudden, I wanted to be the runaway bride, flying off to an exotic island and getting lost for a few weeks.
“Okay, I’ll ask the question all of us have been trying to gather up the courage to do. Why the fuck are you marrying that son of a bitch in the first place?” Maggie moved toward the cooler she’d smuggled in, yanking out one of three bottles of champagne.
“I’m pretty certain you’re now going to hell since you used profanity inside the church,” I teased.
She snorted. “As if that wasn’t going to happen already.”
“I have to agree that you could do so much better,” Suzi lamented. She’d seen more than her share of his nasty attitude and bad behavior.
Sadly, so had I.
I thought about the question as I walked to the window, peering out on the perfectly manicured grounds. I’d loved him once, but that seemed like a lifetime ago. Hell, I’d worshipped the man when I’d met him, gleaning every scrap of information and style from the most famous prosecutor in all of New York. We’d been a team, both in and out of bed, but lately he’d been aloof. Maybe we both had been.
Lately? We’d been basically platonic for over a year at least.
Girl. Get your shit together. You deserve better than this.
“I don’t honestly know,” I said.
“Then let’s get out of here. We can still catch a flight to St. Martin,” Amelia suggested, only half teasing.
Gregory Hampton the third had insisted that we go to Paris for our honeymoon. Really?
“Sounds tempting.” I heard the pop of the bottle and sighed, pressing my fingertips on the cool glass. Everyone had said we’d make a great team, a powerful couple to be reckoned with. Once, a long time ago, that had mattered. Not any longer.
“I love the sound of St. Martin. Imagine the sexy Frenchman you could meet. And fuck.” Jessica’s laugh was boisterous.
The girls were right. The love I’d felt had ended a long time ago. I’d tried to break up with him three times, only to allow him to woo me back. Why? Because I didn’t have the self-confidence to stand alone? Hell, no. I’d been mostly alone for years, losing my parents before I’d finished college. Being a parent to my sister had precluded dating. Maybe my relationship with Gregory had all been about the promise of power and influence.
So I’d given him another chance. And another.
“I’m curious. Have you seen Gregory wandering the halls?” I asked, noticing a man standing barely fifty yards away still on church grounds. While the glare of the sun prevented me from identifying him, there was no doubt he was staring into the window. A cold shiver trickled down my spine. As a well-known prosecutor, I’d had my share of threats and weirdos, but for some reason this bothered me more than any of the others. The man was well dressed, as if he was attending the wedding ceremony.
“I’ll go check,” Amelia chirped in her happy little voice.
The mystery man wasn’t moving, just… staring. Even as a few latecomers moved past him, he didn’t budge.
“Here’s some bubbly, girl,” Maggie said, shoving a champagne flute into my hand. “What are you looking at?”
She peered around me. “What’s he doing?”
“That’s just it. I don’t know but I don’t like it.”
Maggie huffed. She was the kind of girl who would wrestle an alligator. “You want me to kick his butt?”
I gave her a hard look and she winked. “Let’s not ruin your pretty little party dress.”
“At least he’s gone.”
I’d only turned my head for a few seconds, but she was right. He’d disappeared. I remained unnerved, reminding myself that it was a symptom of my profession.
Amelia returned to the room, a real smile on her face. “He hasn’t arrived yet.”
“Huh. What time is it?” I took a sip then a gulp of champagne, almost knocking back the entire glass.
“Five minutes to go. His groomsmen are out there but Gregory hasn’t arrived.”
“He’s always fashionably late,” I snarled. I’d planned on ruining his day in person, but at this point, I just wanted to get it over with. Yes, it was horrible timing and yes, I should have done this a lot sooner, but at least the wedding presents could be returned. I’d paid for a good portion of the expenses, Gregory only insisting he pay for the reception. We were even going to share the cost of going to Paris. I needed to have ‘dumbass’ tattooed to my forehead. No more. “Will one of you beautiful ladies please hand me my phone?”
“What are you doing?” Suzi asked, giving me a sly look.
“Something I should have done a long time ago.”
All four of their squeals echoed in the room. I was certain the entire congregation had heard them as well. Why should I care? They were mostly his family and friends. His colleagues. They weren’t mine. The handful of friends I had were standing in this room and my father would likely roll over in his grave if he knew I’d planned on marrying a man like Gregory.
I dialed his number, tapping my foot on the carpet. When it went to voicemail immediately, I was surprised. He always answered his phone. “Gregory. Look, it’s Stephanie. I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk, but it would seem you’re busy.” Busy. I knew what his kind of busy meant, at least lately. I was no fool. I’d gathered a whiff of someone else’s perfume more than once, had noticed him being defensive about his phone calls. I’d been the idiot to ignore the signs.
“I think we both realize that we weren’t meant to be together. Before we do something that we’re going to regret, I think we should call it off.”
When the girls started jabbering, I waved my hand to try to keep them quiet. It was a lost cause.
“If you don’t get this before arriving, well… I’ll wait here and maybe we can tell our guests together. I’m sorry, Gregory. I really am.” I ended the call, feeling confident I’d done the right thing.
“Brilliant, girl!” Jessica stated, giving me a high five.
I wasn’t certain what the repercussions would be, but it was time I stopped living a lie.
Five minutes passed.
When I heard the knock on the door, I took a deep breath before nodding toward Amelia, who immediately allowed the guest inside.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Stephanie, but your guests are becoming… concerned.”
The minister had been very nice, although I’d only talked with him for a few minutes. “He’s not coming.” I said the words without emotion because there was no sadness. However, within seconds anger began to rise from the depths of my being. How dare the motherfucker do this to me? At least he could have had the courage to come face to face. The humiliation was disgusting, and the man was reprehensible.
He seemed shocked by my calm admittance. “I’m certain there’s just a small problem.”
“No, it’s a very large problem because the man is an asshole.” My words floated across the room through the open door as the anger turned to rage. The look on the minister’s face was priceless.
“I think you should call him.” He was uncomfortable as hell.
“He’s had plenty of time.” I gathered up my ridiculous train, tossing it over one arm. “It’s about time I take control of everything.” I gave the girls a look. Then I winked. “However, we’re still going to have one hell of a party.” As I headed out of the dressing room, a quiet calm settled in.
I might feel humiliated for a little while, but in the end, I would get over it.
“Woo hoo!” Jessica squealed as she moved around the dance floor, her fourth drink in her hand.
At least watching my friends have a great time allowed me to feel better. I remained sitting near the bar, amazed that so many of the guests had decided to attention the reception turned girl-with-a-broken-heart-blowout. Of course there’d been whispers in the shadows, eyes watching me, waiting for me to fall apart.
At least I hadn’t been forced to wear the freaking dress Gregory’s mother had insisted on for an additional five minutes after the announcement. I’d rushed back to the hotel in the limo with my friends to change. I’d sweet talked the very handsome driver to play rock and roll music as loud as he could tolerate while we were indulging in copious amounts of champagne. I didn’t think he minded, his heated gaze flicking into the rearview mirror on several occasions.
My selection for the festive after-the-revelation event? A shocking red body-hugging dress that left very little to the imagination. Now I was indulging in the most expensive bottle of cabernet on the menu. At least I only had to slide into the elevator, heading for one of the suites on the top floor after I had my fill of dancing and small talk.
“You know what I think?” Suzi stated as she slid into the chair next to me.
“Should I be afraid to ask?”
Her laugh could always make me smile. “Don’t be silly. I think you should pick out one of the very handsome men and take him to your room.”
“Ha!” Even though I acted as if I wasn’t interested, I glanced around the expansive ballroom, noticing at least three handsome hunks that might be a delicious present to myself.
What are you thinking? That’s not you.
No, that wasn’t the girl I’d been. However, things had changed.
“We shall see how the night goes.”
Suzi lifted a single eyebrow, her stubborn look something I was used to. “Nope. That’s exactly what you need. Let me see what the girls and I can do.”
She moved away before I had a chance to stop her. I took another sip, finally getting to my feet.
“I’m so sorry, Stephanie. I don’t know what got into him. Just cold feet. But he shouldn’t have done that to you.”
The same plastic smile remained on my face as I faced the Markums, the man a noteworthy judge, his wife the kind of woman who volunteered for several charitable organizations. They were a powerful couple, not the kind Gregory would want to go up against. Maybe karma would eventually bite him in the ass. “I think you know Gregory almost as well as I do, Maggie. The truth is that he’s a jerk, the kind of bastard that I certainly wouldn’t want your daughter to become involved with, although sadly, I suspect that’s already happened.”
Yes, my words were caustic, but I was finished with pretending that what I’d shared with Gregory had been anything but another powerplay for his benefit.
Maggie gasped, Jefferson grabbing onto his wife, both staring at me as if I’d just grown two heads. I smiled, touching her on the arm. “Don’t worry. I’m certain he’s moved on from her by now. You know how it goes. The flavor of the week.” I quickly moved off before I said anything else I might regret, moving through the crowd of people and swaying to the music.
At least the band Gregory had hired was damn good, their selection of music lively. I stood on the outskirts of the dance floor, pretending I was having a good time. Maybe a small part of me was, the feeling of freedom from the tight reins forced around my neck exhilarating.
However, a small part of me was sad that it had come to this.
I’d have my say with Gregory, ensuring he knew that if he ever bothered me again, I’d ruin him. Suddenly, a surging bolt of electricity stymied my breath.
“Such a beautiful woman standing alone on a dance floor is a crime.”
The deep voice from behind me penetrated my ears, sliding straight to my core. Sultry. Seductive. The slight accent was one I couldn’t place. I remained where I was, allowing his velveteen voice to wrap me up like a soft blanket. “I’m not technically on the dance floor.”
When an arm stretched over me, taking the glass of wine from my hand, I didn’t resist.
“That’s easily taken care of.”
The moment he wrapped his long fingers around mine, a part of me knew I should resist. After all, he was a stranger, but the slight touch was powerful, leaving me tingling inside. The mystery man moved in front of me, pulling me only a few feet until we were both on the edge of the dance floor. The moment he turned around, taking my other hand into his, a strange sense of knowing filtered through me even though I’d never seen him before.
I’d been around gorgeous men all my life, those exuding power simply by the way they walked into a room. However, nothing had prepared me for the man’s stunning, chiseled face and strong jaw. Dark, wavy hair kissed the edge of the crisp white shirt that was mostly hidden under the guise of his perfectly tailored tuxedo, the fit unable to hide his sculpted physique. I could only imagine the solid mass of muscle hidden beneath the expensive suit.
As he pulled me closer, his scent assaulted me, musky and potent, the fragrance filtering directly into my inner core. The way he held me was possessive, his fingers tightly wrapped around mine.
“Stephanie Morgan.” He stated my name as if he’d known me for years, only the husky tone was less about familiarity and more about his hunger. I could feel myself falling into a dark fantasy, sinful and filthy yet more satisfying than any I’d had before. I wanted to ask how he knew my name, but it was obvious given I was the unlucky bride.
“You have the advantage of knowing my name. It’s only proper if I know yours.”
“Are you really about being proper at this moment?” His question was laced with insinuations regarding the next few moments or even longer, his words holding an edge of raw passion.
“Hmm… You entice me with mystery; however, you don’t know me.”
“Perhaps that should change.” There was something utterly carnal about the way he gazed down from my face to the bodice of my dress.
“Perhaps,” I repeated, butterflies tickling my insides as his hot breath created goosebumps dancing along several inches of skin. As he swept me around the dance floor, it became easy to feel comfortable in his arms, allowing him to lead when I normally hated the primitive notion.
He kept his heated gaze locked on me, his voluptuous lips forming a slight smile. There was no reason for me to become breathless or nervous around him, but I remained jittery from the delicious experience. He was tall, towering over me even in my four-inch heels, his physicality indicating his strength and power. His features were well defined, his strong jaw so attractive I envisioned sliding the tip of my index finger from one side to the other.
Even though there was no reason for me to sense danger, everything about him screamed of power and darkness, both extremely attractive for no other reason than they seemed forbidden. I was the girl who followed all the rules, never allowing an attraction to anything or anyone to derail me.
He remained silent as one song turned into another, the choices the band made far too romantic. When he drew me in even closer, our bodies pressed against one another, I realized I was digging my fingers into his forearms. Being locked in his arms gave me the fleeting feeling of being his prisoner, but I had no desire to escape. He lowered his head just enough our lips were inches apart, the slight action building a level of hunger I didn’t even know I had.
The stranger radiated heat, white hot and suffocating, my breath catching as he moved easily around the dance floor. As I stared into his eyes, I realized they were the color of black opals, yet there was a slight shimmer around his irises, golden in color. They were also soulless, an indication the man was indeed dangerous.
I pressed my hand against his chest, taking shallow breaths as the touch ignited a fire deep within. I’d never felt this way about any man upon a single meeting, yet the blind understanding that two people could be attracted without knowing anything about the other remained a powerful draw. When the song finally ended, I was lightheaded, uncertain of what to say.
“Have a drink with me,” he stated, not as a question but as a clear demand. While the stranger let go of one hand, he kept his fingers wrapped around my other, leading me away from the dance floor, not bothering to grab my glass of wine. When he led me to one of the smaller tables near the floor-to-ceiling windows, a part of me knew I should object, but the other wanted to find out more about the man.
Almost instantly, a waiter approached, acknowledging the stranger before giving me a respectful nod.
“Chto vam prinesti gospodin Kozlov?” the young man asked. I found it fascinating that he was nervous.
“Cabernet. Caymus from your special reserve,” the stranger answered, barely looking at the waiter.
Caymus. The cabernet from Napa was extremely expensive and certainly on the menu. I recognized the dialect as Russian, yet my illustrious companion spoke English. I found that curious, although it added to the mystery. The fact he didn’t want me to learn his name should send up red flags, but I sensed he was playing a game to entice me. Perhaps to pull me from my own level of darkness given the afternoon’s occurrence. Why not play along?
“Very good, sir.” As soon as the waiter moved away, my companion settled into his seat, crossing one leg over the other, his eyes penetrating mine as he gave me his full attention. “Tell me, Stephanie. What do you fantasize about?”
I’d paid so much attention to his full mouth and strong jaw that it took me a few seconds to realize what he’d asked. Under any other circumstances, I would be insulted, but he was purposely trying to push my buttons, to see what I was made of. He had no idea that even though I appeared the jilted bride, my spine was as strong as steel, my unforgiving past producing a strong backbone.
“I’m not certain that’s polite conversation, especially with a stranger.”
“Think of it this way. You’re likely to never see me again. That should make confiding your utmost desires at least tolerable.”
Tolerable. As I gazed at him, I felt a sense of relief, untethered by the need to toe some imaginary line.
I leaned forward, sliding my fingers across the thick linen tablecloth. I was feeling daring so why not? “To be tied and required to surrender.”
“Please, do go on. I find that fascinating.”
“Why, because most women act as if they desperately need to have full control? If that’s the case, then they are lying to you. There isn’t a woman out there who wouldn’t enjoy being taken roughly by a man, stripped of all ability to make demands or issue orders. The thought of being incapable of breaking free from tight confines is sinful, filthy, and completely desirable.”
His slight smirk was an indication my answer had pleased him. He leaned further forward, allowing me to catch another whiff of his exotic aftershave. “Very few women have the courage to submit to a monster.”
“Is that what you are, a monster?”
“Yes.” He elongated the word, the deep bass of his voice forcing a series of trembles.
“Then should I be scared of you?”
He took a deep breath, holding it while the waiter presented the wine. While I was vaguely cognizant the young man was saying a few words, I was caught in a strange vacuum, far too attracted to the stranger when I knew the hunger swelling within me wouldn’t go anywhere decent.
The wine poured, his lifted his glass, waiting for me to do the same. “Yes, Stephanie. You should be very afraid.”
“You might be surprised what frightens me. I’m very much a product of my sign, a Leo.”
“Ah, a lioness. That does suit you, Stephanie.”
Even the way he over-enunciated my name was a powerful aphrodisiac, drawing me into a deeper layer of darkness.
I found his statement as alluring as the man, allowing me to remain in the dark fantasy as I sipped the rich wine, savoring the taste before swallowing. My companion studied every move I made, completely relaxed in the environment. The air was suddenly sucked away from me, his aura overpowering. I sensed his hunger increasing by the way his nostrils flared. Even though he did nothing overt, it was obvious he was undressing me with his eyes.
While I was flattered, I also realized this couldn’t go anywhere decent, even if the thought of exploring passion with one of Gregory’s friends was tempting.
“Tell me about you, Stephanie.”
He said my name in a way that left me tingling, my heart beating erratically. “What would you like to know?”
When he dared to lean further forward, my breath was taken away for a few seconds. He had that kind of power, which left me apprehensive even though he’d done nothing but ask me to dance.
“What makes the most beautiful woman in all of New York tick?”
The smoothness to his voice, the delicate yet pronounced accent was the reason I licked my lips, the slight motion noticed, his eyes twinkling. How could a man be this good looking? I eased back in my seat on purpose, refusing to give in to his overt advances. “Making a difference in the world.”
“Ah, you’re one of those.”
“One of what?”
“Women who believe they can control evil.”
“Does that mean you believe otherwise?”
“What I believe is that you are either born with a light infused in your system or a darkness and that nothing can change your path in life.” He made the statement sound so eloquent, as if the obsidian blackness he mentioned was more appealing.
I swirled my glass before lifting my gaze. “Then we agree to disagree.”
He lifted his glass a second time only I couldn’t read his expression as he stared at me. “To a stunning, formidable woman. It’s rare that I meet someone of such perfection.” When his phone rang, his expression turned to one of annoyance.
I looked away as he answered it, noticing all four of my friends were watching us intently. My mystery man spoke in Russian, the language unable to hide his anger at being interrupted. I was surprised I continued to tingle. Maybe it was the effects of the wine or the difficulty of the day.
“I do apologize, Stephanie, but I have business that requires my attention. Please enjoy the wine knowing I’d planned on sharing every drop with you.” When he moved to his feet, I kept my hand wrapped around my glass, studying him in the dim light. I had a feeling I’d never see him again, which bothered me more than it should.
He leaned over, catching me off guard by pressing his lips against my cheek. That very second, I was stunned by a powerful jolt of electricity swelling from the deepest parts of me. My breath was caught in my throat, my pulse quickening. I closed my eyes for only a few seconds and when I opened them again, he was already gone.
Exhaling, I almost knocked my glass of wine over. When the girls rushed toward the table, I finally took another sip, my hand shaking.
“Who was that?” Amelia asked. There was something different about her question, more mischievous than I was used to.
“I have no idea. Obviously, a friend of Gregory’s.”
“I noticed him at the wedding,” Maggie said, giggling afterward.
“It’s funny. I didn’t.” That was a complete lie. I’d noticed a lone man sitting in the very last pew, leaving just after I’d made the announcement.
Jessica sighed. “He was the kind of man I wouldn’t mind spending a night or five with.”
“You’d spend the night with any man,” Suzi teased. “However, he was one hot man, Stephanie. Just like I told you before.” Her last sentence was a direct push to follow her suggestion. Damn if her eyes weren’t twinkling, as if planning something nefarious.
“Yes, he was.” I took another sip then rose to my feet. “However, this is a party and that’s exactly what I intend on doing.” I backed away, beckoning for the girls to follow. I’d paid for the reception. I might as well enjoy it until the wee hours of the morning. What did I have to lose?
I backed against the elevator wall, clutching my heels in my hand as I stared at the panel of numbers. Exhaustion had finally taken over my senses where alcohol should have by now. I was wired, more on edge than normal. At least I had two weeks of vacation, which should be enough time to figure out what I was going to do about my job.
I certainly couldn’t stand to work side by side Gregory any longer. My thoughts drifted to the gorgeous stranger, trying to imagine what role he played in Gregory’s life. I’d considered myself to be extremely observant, able to detect the criminal element from across a room, but the mysterious man was unreadable. Perhaps he was a criminal who’d snuck into the reception.
A drug dealer.
No, an assassin. He was certainly dressed for the part.
Perhaps an art thief.
It was a game I’d played as a child. That it had suddenly manifested itself tonight meant I was completely exhausted. I hugged my stilettos against my chest, still able to detect a slight whiff of the brutal hunk’s scent. As I closed my eyes, the elevator music was close enough to the last song that I was able to fall into a beautiful fantasy, imagining the way he looked without his clothes. And the way his muscles would feel underneath the tips of my fingers, the red-hot heat he’d radiated likely to sear my fingertips.
Shame on you, Stephanie.
Shame on me indeed. When I heard the slight ping, I was yanked out of the delicious fantasy. I shifted my fingers into my clutch, still fumbling to find the card key even though there were only three items other items located inside. My lipstick. My driver’s license. And a small bottle of perfume. I also laughed at the ridiculousness of it. If that’s all I thought I’d need after the wedding, I’d been out of my mind.
Or just snowed by a master of hype and bullshit.
Another wave of anger rushed into me. I should be upset with Gregory. No, I should remain enraged, making certain every single colleague, politician, and everyone on the streets of New York knew what a disgusting, arrogant prick Gregory Hampton truly was. That would certainly go a long way in allowing the level of humiliation to fade.
I sashayed down the corridor, humming the last tune the band had been playing before I’d slipped out of the party. If I remembered correctly, they’d done a throwback to the eighties. ‘It’s Raining Men.’
If only that were true.
When I slipped the card inside the slot, I shook my head. “Good riddance.”
After walking inside, I didn’t bother turning on a light. There was no need. The drapes and blinds were wide open, allowing the twinkling lights of the beautiful city to cascade into the room. I tossed my things onto the floor, hoping the mini fridge had a split of champagne or two.
Then I felt a presence a split second before a hand was wrapped around my throat, long fingers squeezing. Then I heard a voice so deep, the words so brutal that I froze.
“Don’t try and scream or you will be punished.”