Even before she spotted him, Lainey sensed Ethan Crowl’s presence. Funny—all right, not funny—how she always knew when her stepfather was close. Not for the first time that night, she regretted giving in to her mother’s pleas to attend the party, but she could only avoid Ethan so much without it causing problems in the two-year long marriage. Thankfully, she didn’t live under the same roof as the new couple because if she did—
Don’t go there. You owe him.
“Smile, my dear.” Ethan positioned himself so close she couldn’t avoid his liberally applied cologne. She had no doubt it was expensive, but that didn’t make the stench easy on her nostrils. “Otherwise one might think you had better things to do with your time than spending it with my—associates.”
I do. Like study for midterms.
“Not at all,” her mother responded before Lainey could come up with something that walked a line between her desire to keep Ethan at arms’ length despite her debt to him and her love for her mother. Megara wrapped her long, thin, bare arm around Lainey’s shoulder. “She was just telling me how much she’s been looking forward to a break from school and work. So my dear, what do you think of our outfits? I chose them with your approval foremost in mind.”
Ethan had already started to turn away from his wife and stepdaughter. “What?” He frowned at something or someone. “You’re fine, fine.” He patted his wife’s cheek much as an owner might reward a dog that had learned a new trick. “Lainey, pale green washes you out. And the neckline—why are you so reluctant to display what nature gave you?”
The short sleeved, scoop necked, floor length chiffon and lace evening gown had been a compromise between her mother’s hooker choice and Lainey’s longing to pull on some of the leggings and sweatshirts she practically lived in. In the end she’d agreed to the body-following fabric because the skirt glided over her hips instead of putting them on display.
“That’s celadon, not green,” Megara said. “The color’s in this year.”
“Not with me, it isn’t. Now, if she’d agreed to black or red like I told you—”
“What about burgundy?” Megara ran bright red fingernails over her painfully slender hips which were plainly visible under her form-fitting chiffon skirt, complete with a slide slit that came dangerously close to her waist and exposed endless legs. “You love it when I wear something dramatic.”
Dramatic said it, all right. At forty—much as she hated giving her true age—Megara was striking. Tonight’s sleeveless gown plunged to reveal two of the finest breasts cosmetic surgery and an unlimited budget could create. The backless dress looked like it was fucking Megara.
“You’re right,” Ethan said absently. “You are stunning.”
The kind of eye candy a rich doughy man twenty years older than his wife loves to show off, Lainey thought. It was going to be a long night, mind-numbing hours tolerated in part in an attempt to educate herself about what Ethan did for a living.
Maybe something not entirely legal, not that it was her business.
But maybe it was. There was something off about a man who spent money like water while living behind high cement walls that shielded several buildings. Ethan and her mother stayed in the largest. He conducted business in a fortress-like structure at the opposite end of the oversized lot. She’d never been in it, but a lot of unsmiling men entered and left it at all hours. Most drove what she thought of as gangster cars since they were black and low to the ground. She’d be surprised if any of those men were there tonight. They seemed to be at Ethan’s beck and call, not part of this glittering event.
Worn out from trying to put the pieces together, she tried to determine what had caught Ethan’s attention. Unfortunately so many people were jammed into his six-car garage she couldn’t tell.
The way she saw it, there were only a handful of reasons for people to want to be here on a warm San Diego summer night. Either the guests were part of Ethan’s public life or they hoped to be. Either Ethan controlled them or had every intention of sinking his claws into their bank accounts.
So where does that put Mom?
Uneasy, she managed a smile as her mother dragged her to the latest addition in Ethan’s luxury car collection, a Lexus sedan that, according to its owner, went from zero to sixty in four point six seconds. She knew better than to touch the sleek surface and wouldn’t open the door unless Ethan gave permission. Not long ago her mother had admitted it felt as if Ethan cared more about his vehicles than the humans who made up his world, even his spouse.
Someday, maybe, her mother would care more about her self-respect than her public image. Tonight wasn’t that night.
“You two should model at high end car shows,” a man said. “Beautiful women draped over sexy vehicles is erotic as hell. Believe me, the image leads to sales.”
The commanding yet condescending tone was familiar. Still, it took Lainey a moment to put a name to the sixties something man wearing worn jeans, handmade crocodile-embossed calf leather boots, and a fitted satin dress shirt draped over a lean frame. Ethan’s associates made her think sleazy. In contrast, Korbin Aldrich was CEO of a private airline he’d taken from nothing to beyond successful. That achievement gave him the necessary capital to indulge in a number of financial ventures including the backing of luxury vehicle designs. He didn’t give a damn what people thought of him. Even Ethan seemed in awe when it came to Korbin’s business sense. The two didn’t appear to have much in common beyond their interest in vehicles, which probably explained Korbin’s presence that night. One thing she had no doubt of: Korbin was wealthy with a capital W.
“Oh, Korbin,” her mother gushed as she planted red lips on his angular right cheek. “How delightful to see you. It’s been too long. What have you been up to?” Swaying on her four-inch heels, she kissed his other cheek. “How many movies are you financing?” She gave him a seductive grin. “Any that need famous, mature female leads?”
“I’m not sure. When I find a director I trust, I step back and let him do his job.”
“I know most of the established directors,” Megara continued in the throaty tone she brought out for special occasions. “There are so many new ones these days, all vying to make their mark in the latest distribution channel.”
Wincing, Lainey struggled to come up with a way to change the subject. However, before she could, the man to Korbin’s right snagged her attention—only snag didn’t come close to describing what she was feeling. Korbin was sexy in a mature, self-confident way while his companion—could she call him that?—struck her like a blow between her legs.
The newcomer wasn’t just sexy, nothing so simple. More like a stallion, a stud. Early thirties, several inches over six feet tall, shoulders made for swinging an axe into massive evergreens, big rough hands, thighs and calves putting his jeans to the test, thick dark eyebrows and lashes, whiskered cheeks, deep brown hair in need of a trim, and eyes—gray and deadly.
Something primal ground into her and stole her breath. Not that she minded.
“My, my, Korbin, who is this?” her mother asked, for which she was grateful because she’d suddenly forgotten how to form words. “If this is a leading man—”
“Hardly.” Korbin laughed. “He’s one of my investment counselors.”
The hell he is.
Before she could call Korbin a liar, which she wouldn’t, Ethan, who she’d forgotten existed, snaked an overly-padded arm around her waist. Perfect teeth clenched, she ordered herself not to jerk free.
“I’m delighted to see you.” Ethan directed his comment at Korbin. “Usually you can’t be bothered responding to my invitations, let alone accepting them.”
Korbin shrugged. “Only because said invitations have a way of conflicting with what’s on my agenda. So, tell me, is showing off your latest toy the only reason for this gathering?”
“Why are you asking? Jealous because I had the idea before you did?”
Even though she’d made every effort to live separately from her stepfather, Lainey could still tell he and Korbin were in competition over something. Korbin was a billionaire while Ethan’s wealth was probably in the middle of the millions. Where Korbin’s name was prominently displayed on his airline’s logo, Ethan had yet to answer her veiled questions about where his money came from. That’s why she suspected Ethan’s businesses weren’t entirely legal.
She’d even told several friends she wouldn’t be surprised if Ethan was involved with the mafia. If nothing else, her suspicions made for fascinating conversations with those she trusted. It could turn out that Ethan’s interests met the IRS’s approval, but until she’d been proven wrong, she’d continue to wish her mother had married someone else. Or no one.
Her mind drifted to Korbin’s friend. She’d yet to find a man who met more of her physical needs than her present masculine company. This so-called investment counselor was a man’s man. The kind of cock-carrying member of the opposite sex that made women turn stupid.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” the man in question said as he extended a hand made for a physical life toward her. “I’m—Daniel Johnson.”
No, you aren’t.
“I’m struck by the similarities between you two.” Daniel jerked his head at her mother. “You’re related, right?”
“She’s my mother.”
“Really? I would have guessed you’re siblings.”
“That happens a lot.” The intensity behind his dark gray gaze made speaking difficult, next to impossible.
Sexuality flowed out of whoever he was and wrapped around a hunger she hadn’t known she was capable of. If they weren’t in Ethan’s over-the-top garage surrounded by some of the city’s movers and shakers or wanna be movers and shakers, she would have jumped his bones.
Stripped off his clothes, dispensed with her own, taken his cock between her sweating palms, and—
“I was fifteen when I had Lainey,” Megara said. “It’s quite the story, one I’d love to bring to the big screen.”
Her mother had been seventeen when she’d given birth, not fifteen. A few more years of trying to hide her age and Lainey would be the first child born to a preschooler.
Daniel Johnson didn’t give a damn. He was keeping the conversation going for reasons she suspected he had no intention of divulging. Add that to the lie about him being Korbin’s financial advisor and there wasn’t anything she believed about what might be the sexiest man she’d ever been within fucking distance of.
Whoever he was, he was too damn masculine for her sanity. Too rough around the edges to say nothing of in the middle. Hard and harsh. A barely constrained wild animal.
Cheeks flushed and lungs not up to the job she needed them to do, she stroked the necklace she’d been wearing since not long after the accident that had nearly killed her. A blend of leather and metal highlighted by a metal ring at her throat, it was so tight she was made aware of its presence every time she took a deep breath. If she knew what was right and sane, she’d throw the damn thing away—or put it in the bottom of a drawer.
But it did things to her.
Gave out a message only a few people understood.
Helped her stay sane.
“You wouldn’t happen to be involved with the movie industry, would you?” Megara asked Daniel. “Lining up the financing, particularly for feature films, is complicated. If that’s the kind of enterprise you advise Korbin about, I’d love to hear more. I’m aware of the pivotal role actors and actresses fill because I’ve been involved in that part of the industry much of my life, but those of us the public recognizes aren’t the whole story.” She practically batted her lashes at Daniel.
“No.” Daniel answered without looking at Megara. Instead, his gaze settled on Lainey, held her really. She had the unsettling feeling he didn’t like her. Maybe hated her.
How could that be when she’d never seen him before?
A little angry and more than a little off-balance, she willed herself to return his stare. If he wasn’t what he professed to be, what label should she put on him? The way his black dress shirt hugged his potent chest, the way his no-extra-fabric slacks clung to his hips and ass made it clear he wasn’t armed. Still, she had no trouble imagining a pistol against his skin. He’d wear his with the same ease her mother did her crazy high heels. A weapon was part of him. What he needed to survive in his world.
Did his world mimic Ethan’s? Was it possible they were in competition for the same ill-gotten riches?
Don’t think of Ethan as a crook! Just stand back and observe.
“I doubt if Daniel wants to talk business tonight,” she said to get past the awkward silence. The last thing she wanted was for the man to figure out what was on her mind. “Let me guess. Korbin told you about Ethan’s addiction to muscle cars and you decided to come see for yourself.”
“Something like that.”
The man was playing with her. “What about you?” she pressed. “Are you into cars?”
He practically spat the word. More on edge than she wanted to admit, she slid out from under Ethan’s grasp and positioned herself just out of Daniel’s reach. A memory broke free, forcing her to remember how she’d felt when a pit bull mix had knocked her to the ground. She’d been somewhere between eight and ten, ignorant in the ways of street dogs. On her back with her head throbbing from striking cement, she’d dug her fingers into the powerful mutt’s neck in a desperate attempt to keep it from tearing her throat open. Girl and dog had stared at each other, trying to understand what made the other tick. Then, seeming to understand he held the upper hand, the dog had shaken free and angled his mouth in preparation for ripping her face. Fortunately, before he could, someone had hauled him off her and kicked the dog in the side. Squealing, the pit mix had fled. She didn’t know what had become of it and had been too upset to do more than sob when her rescuer helped her stand.
That memory was nothing compared to the nightmarish details of how she’d nearly lost her life.
“Daniel,” Korbin said. “Daniel.”
“Where did you go?” Ethan asked. “The way you stared at—”
“Sorry.” Daniel shook his head. “Beautiful women have a way of making me lose my train of thought.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “I’m sure you never have a problem getting women to notice you. Doesn’t it get boring?”
“I’m always on alert.”
Was that a warning? “I’m sorry to hear that. Being able to relax has a lot going for it.” She was still working on the relaxing part and might always be.
He wasn’t interested in keeping the conversation going which was just fine. Judging by her thankfully limited experience with Ethan’s parties, she’d be lucky if she could escape in less than three hours. Her mother would love it if she spent the night there, but she preferred her one-bedroom apartment. Instead of being surrounded by Ethan’s gaudy taste in furniture and design, she could leave her bed unmade and dishes in the sink if she wanted. As long as she didn’t play her music too loud, her neighbors didn’t care about her taste. She could and would spend time every day caring for her plants, snipping off a leaf here, encouraging a bloom there.
Wrapping a rope around her wrists and imagining she couldn’t get free. Bending over a chair and exposing her naked ass—
“I haven’t seen you for a while,” Ethan was telling Korbin when she forced her thoughts in a safe direction. “According to the grapevine, you spent much of the past month in Italy.”
“You need a different grapevine.” Korbin stifled a yawn. “I haven’t been out of the country in over a year.”
“Your businesses require that much of your time?” Ethan pressed. “You sure as hell don’t need more money.”
“I didn’t get where I am by sitting back and doing nothing. What about you? How are your enterprises doing? Any more races on the agenda? The last you sponsored had an unfortunate outcome.”
“That wasn’t my baby,” Ethan said sharply.
“That isn’t what I heard.” Daniel’s voice was more growl than anything. “There was a fatality, right?”
“From an engine fire. Unfortunately, the driver didn’t get out in time.”
“It was your vehicle.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Easy, Daniel.” Korbin rested a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “I’m afraid I’m responsible for that rumor. I take it I’m wrong?”
“You sure as hell are,” Ethan ground out. “The cops tried to pin the accident on me, but they couldn’t. Same thing with the vehicle’s ownership. I don’t even know what kind of car it was.”
“Then how did you know about an engine fire?”
“Damn it, word gets around.”
Made uncomfortable by the tension between Daniel and Ethan, she looked around for someone, anyone to talk to. When she’d decided to try to educate herself about where her stepfather’s money came from, she’d clung to every bit of information she could get, but he wouldn’t reveal anything important in a public setting. Telling Daniel he was wrong when it came to aspects of the fatal accident was as close as he ever got to exposing what he was thinking.
Hoping he wouldn’t notice, she studied Daniel. He’d moved out of Korbin’s reach and had fixed his gaze on Ethan. Something, anger from the looks of it, escaped from his guarded expression. No doubt about it, one of his buttons had been pushed.
After an awkward moment, Korbin said something about the possibility that interest rates were going to be lowered. Instead of adding his opinion like she thought an investment counselor would do, Daniel stayed silent. Her unease kicked up. If the man wanted nothing to do with Ethan, why was he there? Maybe he needed a stiff drink or three. She supposed she could get him one, see if he’d acknowledge her existence. Whoever was catering tonight’s event had set up a liquor bar at the back. Three attractive young women were taking and delivering orders. They wore identical black dresses so tight she wasn’t sure the seams would survive. Plunging necklines and short hemlines left little to the imagination.
When two of the women reached the bar at the same time, the bartender whispered something to them. They stood unmoving long enough for Lainey to take note of what might be reluctance on their part, then they headed toward her group.
“Gentlemen,” a tall blond with dangling gold and silver earrings said, “what can we offer you?” Her gaze held on Daniel.
“Yes.” The other hostess addressed Korbin. “We don’t want you thinking you’re being ignored. We apologize for being occupied delivering orders to guests who arrived before you did. We’re free now. At your disposal.”
“Accept their apologies,” Ethan said. “Otherwise they’ll worry, with reason, that they haven’t been living up to their obligations.”
That was Ethan all right, lording it over anyone he considered his inferior. Her teeth clenched, Lainey waited to see how Korbin and Daniel handled things. Looking as if he could care less, Korbin told the woman who was looking up at him that he’d take whatever whiskey was on hand.
“What about you?” the blond asked Daniel. “You strike me as a man who prefers brandy.”
“What makes you say that?” Ethan snapped. “Don’t ever prejudge a man’s preference when it comes to liquor.”
Wincing, Lainey clenched her teeth to stop from telling Ethan he didn’t need to get involved. The blond kept smiling, but her flared nostrils said something else. She was intimidated, maybe afraid.
“Beer,” Daniel said.
The blond nodded. “Oh? Ah, of course. Any particular brand?”
She glanced at Ethan, then stepped closer to Daniel. Her smile widened while her eyes remained guarded. “I’ll make sure it’s nice and cold—and if there’s anything else you need now or later…”
Daniel went from barely acknowledging the woman to giving her his full attention. “How old are you?”
“Too young to be serving alcohol.”
When the woman ducked her head, Lainey was put in mind of a child trying to explain why she’d been out after curfew.
“I don’t think it matters,” the blond muttered. “It’s a private party.”
“Is it what you want to be doing?” Daniel pushed.
“Of course,” she said after a silence that went on too long.
“Seriously?” Daniel spun toward Ethan who stood with his arms resting on his belly. “Did you ask your hostesses’ ages before hiring them?”
“Why would that concern you?” Ethan demanded. “The young lady is offering you enough to satisfy most men. I’d think nothing else would matter.”
“Our host is right.” Korbin planted a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “We’re here to admire some of the finest automobiles in this part of the country. The last thing I expect you to be interested in is how our host conducts his business. Besides, I dare say Ethan didn’t personally handle the hiring.”
Judging by how Daniel tensed when Korbin touched him, Lainey wouldn’t have been surprised if he pushed the older man’s hand off him. Instead, he shrugged.
“There you go,” Korbin said. “Let this engaging creature get you a beer. Then we’ll see if we can talk Ethan into letting us sit behind the wheel or wheels.”
Not bothering to pretend she wasn’t interested in what was going on beneath the surface, Lainey watched as the two women wove through the crowd on heels taller than any she’d ever worn or wanted to. The way they leaned toward each other, Lainey had no doubt they were carrying on a whispered conversation.
This wasn’t the first time Ethan had brought a roomful of powerful men and attractive hostesses together. The way the hostesses conducted themselves, she was certain they understand they were here to be ogled and pawed.
In effect Daniel had asked the question she’d been wanting to—were the women here willingly? And if not, what compelled them?
Even more to the point, why did Daniel care?