Holy hell—he was looking right at her. His eyes were blue, the color of sapphires, the color of the Caribbean at dusk, and he stood some distance down the busy street watching her, one hand in his suit jacket pocket. He spoke into a cell phone. Myka couldn’t hear the words, but his stare was so intense that he could hardly be focused on his conversation. The humid evening breeze ruffled his black hair and she couldn’t look away. Tucking a stray lock of her own reddish-brown curls behind her ear, she smoothed her black miniskirt down her lean hips and took a deep breath. She needed to go talk to him. She had to get closer—
“Myka!” A cutesy scream interrupted her thoughts, and probably those of everyone within the block. Myka turned to Kylee Miranda, the world’s hottest young pop star. The girl stood like a sun at the center of a milling entourage, the hub of her own blazing universe, which hovered outside one of L.A.’s hottest nightclubs. “Did you hear me before? I can’t find my lucky lip gloss. Check my purse?”
Blinking, Myka took the beaded handbag that hit her in the stomach and rummaged through expensive compacts and countless gum wrappers, half of which were filled with desiccated lumps of pink. By the time she located the item and handed it over, Kylee seemed to have lost interest.
“Myka, can you hurry? We’re going into the VIP.” Kylee waved her hand and wrinkled her nose at the slender mauve tube, and Myka settled it back into its nest of trash. Then, unable to resist, she turned to look again, ignoring the noise and the traffic, the stream of luxury cars washing past like molecules of the city’s own cologne.
The man was still there. Their eyes met and locked, and Myka felt a surge of adrenaline. That gaze—it was nothing casual. And when he smiled, a slow lazy smile, his eyes inspecting her with approval, she felt a rush of butterflies.
The entourage moved forward like one animal with dozens of legs, an unsteady vaguely outlined mass of shifting ectoplasm, a school of fish, and Myka was sucked into the creature’s belly. When she extricated herself to look backwards one more time at the man, he was gone.
“Riesling again?” asked Dax, the trendy bartender behind the solid wave of glass and steel. He leaned in to speak below the reverberating bass that shuddered in the air around them. “You order it every night I see you here, girlfriend, so I figure you’re a sure thing for the German grapes.”
“You got it,” said Myka with a smile. “Nice nose-ring. Is it new?”
Dax’s dangle was a strong metal loop with a diamond pendant; it matched the jewels in his ears and lower lip.
“From my boyfriend,” Dax replied, deftly pouring Myka a glass of wine and patting her hand. He glanced to the flashing floor. “Your bitch is on fire tonight.”
They both looked at the VIP dance zone, where Kylee undulated with elite L.A. locals. The singer tweaked her hips in her signature provocative move in the middle of the light-spangled room, looking like honey and sex. Her ever-present bodyguards hung back, solid yet invisible. Kylee emerged from the body cluster and gestured; Myka couldn’t hear her over the music, but read the motion: Come on.
Waving back, Myka raised her glass in an apologetic half toast. Kylee nodded and merged back into the seething miasma of sexy limbs, for a second resembling a melting goddess with multiple arms, a deity of overindulgence.
Myka wondered if there was a Goddess of Difficult Jobs in the vicinity. The truth was that she was only three months into this contract, and already she was second-thinking it. Sick of her eight-to-five routine and not sure what she wanted next, she’d initially figured that a part-time traveling gig doing IT and computer work for a famous rock star was a dream come true.
The problem, she decided, sipping at the wine, was that it was someone else’s dream. It could be the fantasy life for a person who enjoyed being treated like an errand girl instead of an expert coder. Or maybe it was the wish of a different twenty-eight-year-old woman, one who though it would be neat to feel out of place because she was at least seven chronological years older than the other women in the entourage, and light-years different in personal philosophy and ideology.
If only there was not such a steep financial penalty for early termination. It might be worthwhile to talk over the options with her manager, anyway—surely if she found and trained a solid replacement, they wouldn’t force her to stay for the entire year? If she could just get her personal consulting business up and running, she wouldn’t need to care about this job so much, but right now it was part of her master plan.
Dax hurried back up and down the bar, delivering drinks with panache. After a few minutes, he stopped in front of Myka. “Brought your book this time? Wow, you really aren’t into the dance scene here, are you, my girl.”
“That’s right,” Myka confirmed. She hadn’t bothered to hide the cover, which depicted a shirtless man with ripped muscles kissing a nearly naked woman. In a departure from the standard romance, the woman was blindfolded and her hands were tied behind her back with black rope. Myka was no expert, but reading about BDSM was her newest thrill.
“Nobody here strikes your fancy for a little jitterbug? Things are so bad that you’re turning this place into the library?” Dax did a slick dance move and a twirl.
Myka clapped for him once and laughed, but shook her head. “I did see this gorgeous man outside the club, but I didn’t even get to talk to him. So tonight it’s just me and—this guy.” She tapped her book cover and laughed, but her mind rushed back to that sexy, well-dressed stranger on the street who’d looked dark, dangerous, and utterly desirable, and she felt a surge of disappointment that he had disappeared so abruptly.
Dax gave Myka a sideways look from under his long lashes. “You ever heard of Club Dark Sin? It’s one of the most popular BDSM clubs here in the area. If this place isn’t your cup of tea, cupcake, maybe you should try something with higher octane content. I’m only asking because of your unique literary taste.”
Myka flushed. “I’m not into it. Yet. I’m just reading. For fun, you know?”
Dax smiled. “Tourist? Well, make sure you go with a good guide. The place is intense, especially for a newbie.”
“Do you go there?” Myka was curious.
“Well, I like a good dance club as well as anyone,” said Dax. “But on my nights off, I play with a more eclectic crowd.”
Myka was fascinated. “And at this club. Dark Sin. Do people actually do—the things in these books?” She touched her paperback.
Dax held up a finger in the ‘just one minute’ signal, flew back up the bar for more clients, and was back. “I can’t say I’ve ever read one of those books, sugar. But I will tell you that people do anything and everything you can imagine, and then some. So brace yourself.” He smiled. “Listen. If you ever want to indulge your curiosity, I’ll take you around.” He pulled a card from his pocket and slid it to her over the bar, and Myka smiled at the bold label: ‘Dax Chase, Bartender Deluxe.’
He disappeared back up the bar, leaving Myka pensive. Dax was right: she was not turned on by the surface glitz and slick sugar coating of Kylee’s preferred clubs. Lately she fantasized about something darker; she was browsing kinky websites and devouring the same fiction. So far she lacked the courage to actually visit such an establishment, but that didn’t mean she had to force herself to keep coming here, a place where she felt hollow.
“I’ve decided,” she called down the bar to Dax. “This is the last time I come to a dance club. In the future, I’m going where I want, even if I go alone for coffee. I mean it!”
“If you meet a man who is not a poet, do not show him your poem,” she added under her breath, reciting a line of her favorite Zen aphorism, looking at all the frenetic people with whom she felt zero connection.
“And if you meet a man who is a master swordsman, show him your sword,” commented a smooth voice next to her, with a tinge of an exotic accent, completing her quote.
Myka looked up, startled, into the same blue eyes framed with thick black lashes that she’d stared at in the street, and her heart skipped a beat. He was easily the most gorgeous male she’d ever seen—strong shoulders, lean hips, the hint of muscles under his expensive suit. His hair was thick and black, styled well, and his face held enough lines and planes to make it rough and sexy. “It’s you,” she murmured without thinking.
He smiled. “And you.”
She raised her glass and shifted her weight, thrusting one hip forward. She hadn’t forgotten this dance of flirtation, and her heart raced when he smiled back. He paused and joined his glass to hers, and Myka felt a shudder of anticipation from having his fingers so close, almost brushing hers. She flipped her hair back. “It’s refreshing to meet someone who can recite more than Top Forty lyrics.”
“I’ve never been a follower of what’s trendy,” he said, his eyes locked onto hers. He smiled and added, “I treasure the unique.”
Myka felt her cheeks warm. “You’re in the wrong place, then,” she replied, glancing around the room, her eyes landing on the hip-thrusting Kylee.
A hint of a smile played on his lips. “I’ve often found the most exotic things in the most banal of places.” His eyes moved along her curves.
Myka flushed further. “I suppose it depends on how hard you’re looking.”
The way he gazed at her, undressing her leisurely with his eyes, suffused her with excitement. For the first time in months, she felt vibrantly alive. She set her glass down next to her book, and they both glanced at it. He met her eyes and smiled, then shook his head. From the dance floor, Kylee reemerged and waved. Myka pointed to her glass of wine, and Kylee disappeared into the fray.
“I take it you’re with the band?” the man said.
Myka nodded. “In a manner of speaking. I’m the lead IT tech and computer expert for the light show programming. I tour with them for the big shows. I also manage the website.”
“So you’re a technical expert? You’re good at what you do?”
“That’s right.” Myka sipped her wine. “I’m the best.”
“The best.” He raised his eyebrow. “That’s a very bold statement.”
“I’m very good at my job,” Myka replied.
“I’d like to hear more about it,” he said.
Myka wanted conversations that had nothing to do with programming. “I’m not here to talk about work,” she told him, taking another mouthful of wine and enjoying the flavor before swallowing. “Technically speaking, these clubs are meant for enjoyment.”
“Technically speaking, if you work at the right thing, then your whole life can be enjoyment,” he rejoined, his voice smooth.
“If only everyone could be so lucky,” Myka said in a light voice.
“I don’t find it’s a matter of luck, but planning,” he retorted, narrowing his eyes.
“Well, of course. But sometimes plans have to be more long-term than you prefer. You’ve heard of the concept of the end justifies the means, surely?” Myka ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “There’s a certain amount of suffering necessary, sometimes, before one reaches the plateau of perfect satisfaction. The trick is to keep going and do what you need to, until you reach your goal.”
“Do the ends justify any means, then?” His voice was curious, even a little sharp. His hand tightened on his glass as he examined her.
“Of course not any means. I’m not talking about doing things that are immoral. It’s a matter of sacrificing a current pleasure for a future satisfaction.”
“And you are doing this how, exactly?”
“I’m working at a job I don’t love, but I’m also spending the time and energy to build my private IT consulting business on the side. So while I’m not killing puppies and smashing mailboxes to get ahead, I’m tired and overworked. I’m doing what I need to do to get to that future goal.”
He laughed. “So you don’t consider yourself a modern-day Machiavelli.”
Myka shook her head. “I’m definitely driven by my interests and my goals. And long-term I want that ultimate happiness, and I’m willing to put up with a little pain along the way. I won’t squash other people to get there, though. Definitely not Machiavelli.”
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” He took a sip of his drink. “Jeremy Bentham. Does that sound like you?”
Myka rose to the challenge. “He believed happiness is defined by the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain.”
“That very one,” he murmured with a wicked grin, but also a trace of something else, a new level of respect. “So do you agree that life is about maximizing pleasure… and minimizing pain?”
Myka tilted her head. “You have to take the long view, in my opinion. Yes, as long as delayed gratification counts as pleasure.” She drank some wine, then looked at him. “How about you?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I especially appreciate one thing Bentham said. He believed that the true value of a pleasure is its intent multiplied by its duration. So it’s not just the absolute number of pleasures that matter. It also depends on their strength and frequency.” He raised his glass. “In certain circumstances, I consider the pleasure of others with nearly every decision I make.”
His gaze was predatory, and Myka felt hot; she tried to keep her voice confident. “Spoken like a true gentleman. Ladies first, I assume?”
“First, yes. Also a second and third, if possible,” he murmured, and Myka blushed hard and clenched her hand, making the wine in her glass swirl up and kiss the rim.
He laughed and put his hand on hers to calm the storm and prevent a spill, their fingers working together to prevent disaster. “Listen. I think we agree on sacrifice and hard work. I’ve done plenty of it to get where I am today. And we also agree about pain being a necessary, even intrinsic part of pleasure.”
“I never said that.” Myka pursed her lips, breath catching at the electric sparks from the touch of his fingers.
“Didn’t you, though? You’re motivated to improve your situation because you’re feeling the pain of an unsatisfactory job right now, so the discomfort—while it’s not desired per se—is actually a big part of allowing you to grow and achieve your future happiness. You might say that the pain and the pleasure are inextricably linked. One enhances the other, allows it, even.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” said Myka.
“Perhaps it will make your reward all the sweeter, don’t you think? Experiencing the pain first?” His voice was light, but his expression intense.
Myka suddenly felt overwhelmed by their banter and his sensuality, by the undercurrents to the conversation. “At this moment, I’d like the undiluted pleasure.”
“Undiluted pleasure.” He raised his eyebrow and smiled. “This moment does call for it, I think. Dance with me?” It was more a demand than an invitation. He took the glass from her hand and placed it on the bar next to her book, then put that same hand onto the small of her back.
Myka sucked in her breath at his touch, and allowed him to lead her toward the dance floor, where a loud pop tune was playing. He leaned in and brushed his lips against her neck in the faintest whisper of a kiss, and propelled her to the exit.
“But—the dance?” Myka looked at him, confusion in her gaze.
“Does this place really suit you?” he asked, running one finger down her jawline to her lips, his eyes flashing. “Or me?”
Myka felt desire course through her, but put one hand on her hip. “You’re bold for someone who hasn’t even told me his name.”
“Gabriel. Gabriel Chevalier. I’m thirty-five years old, a businessman. I consult, I write, I speak Spanish and French and I cook like a dream.”
He looked at her with humor in the curve of his lips. “Does that help you decide?”
Myka narrowed her eyes back. “And don’t you want to know my name?”
“But I already know it. Myka.”
Myka stiffened. “How—?”
He chuckled. “I’m sorry. I was outside on the street and I heard the entourage approaching the club. Your pop star called your name. I saw you.” His voice was like a caress. “Didn’t you notice me, or was I wrong?”
“Oh, I saw you,” she countered. “I noticed.” She took a breath, taking one step back and losing the physical contact. “But I don’t know if I’m ready yet to find a place that better… suits.”
He shrugged, put his hands into his pockets, and shook his head. “I’m sorry if I’m coming at this the wrong way. It’s been a while for me, Myka. I’m out of practice at—this.”
“At clubs? At quoting philosophy? Be more specific.” She smiled, teasing him, but also on guard.
“At meeting someone in a club, like this.” His eyes were intent on hers. “Like you.”
“Did you just break up with a long-term girlfriend, then?”
“In a manner of speaking. Yes.” He watched her, but didn’t reach out again, and Myka wished she hadn’t moved away. She didn’t understand why her heart exulted to hear that he was available.
“Then how about we find a place that partially suits, and take it from there? Your choice,” he offered.
“We’ll go for—coffee.” For a second, after all the talk of pleasure and pain, Myka had a crazy fantasy of suggesting that they visit the BDSM club. She wouldn’t admit it to Dax, but she’d researched it online. It was only a few miles from here but it was light-years apart in intent and focus.
Visions of standing naked before this man ran through her mind—maybe kneeling before him. Serving him. Her face burned at the images. Just because she was mentally dabbling didn’t mean he—or anyone else—was likewise interested. It was definitely a niche pleasure, not for the mainstream. Although this man seemed anything but ordinary.
“Everything all right, Myka?”
She refocused, smiled. “Yes.”
“Well, then?” He held out his hand, a question in his stance, and Myka took it, attraction pulsing through her. He had an air of command, but Myka liked the way he deferred to her caution, respecting her boundaries.
“There’s a coffee shop I like a few blocks away,” Myka told him, as he took her hand. “We got dropped off in limos,” she explained. “Kylee always wants her entire group out dancing with her every night. It’s her thing.” It was thrilling to leave, and for a second she felt like a prisoner escaping through a tunnel into freedom.
Kylee won’t even notice I’m gone, she consoled herself. She’ll get lost in the dancing, like always, then head back to her luxury suite to crash.
“My car is in valet,” he pointed. “Feel safe letting me drive?” He studied her. Myka hesitated, and he nodded. “We’ll walk, then. Give us a chance to talk, yes?”
He squeezed her hand and shot her a grin, and Myka felt her insides liquefy. What was it about him that had her so worked up? She’d never felt such instant attraction to a man.
The streets were full of beautiful bodies and the promise of sex, the flash of lights, and the atmosphere gave Myka a heady feeling of exultation and abandon. She held Gabriel’s hand tightly, liking the way he walked close.
“So how did you learn Spanish and French?” she asked, curious about his accent.
“My father is from France and my mother from Spain,” he answered. “I grew up in Paris until I was fifteen, then we moved to New York. The languages have helped in my consulting business.”
“What exactly do you do?”
There was a pause. “Well, my PhD was in astrophysics,” he answered in an even voice, and Myka was about to laugh when she realized that he wasn’t joking.
“You’re actually a rocket scientist? Who knows Zen?”
He laughed. “I don’t work in the aerospace industry anymore, Myka. I did for about ten years, and I patented a dozen devices for rocket engines. That’s how I made my fortune, so to speak,” he said, looking at her directly.
“Now?” He paused. “Now that I’m independently wealthy, I can focus on different passions.” His voice held a smirk.
“What kinds of passions?” Myka urged.
“Well. I write, for one,” he replied, “technical writing for some aerospace journals. Options trading. I do some consulting work on project management and team building. And I run a private club.”
“Wow.” Myka nodded her head. “Impressive, Gabriel.” She liked the way his name felt on her tongue.
“It’s my turn,” he said. “Tell me why you spend time in that neon box, a place that doesn’t bring you joy.”
“How do you know about my joy level?” Myka’s voice was tight.
“I don’t yet, apart from your Zen quote about choice. You didn’t seem at ease, and when I first saw you in the street, you had an air of grudging acquiescence, not excitement. Did I get it wrong?”
Myka paused and bit her lip. “I imagine you’re right. It’s just hard to talk about, especially following your rocket science and passions.”
His voice was low but soothing. “The part about following passions is available to all of us, yes? The rocket science, that may be a little more difficult. Maybe not for everyone.”
Myka laughed once. “Yeah. I’d guess so. Well, I love programming and web work, and I’m good.”
“The best, right?” His face was an enigma.
“Hmm. Yes,” Myka continued. “I did say that. I hated my normal job; it was so routine, and the hierarchy of the company was stifling. And then this opportunity came up—to be the lead IT manager for Kylee’s tour. It was a huge coup to get it. I figured I’d see the world. And here I am, stuck programming for hours, doing boring busy work, or out supporting Kylee’s whims in clubs I can’t stand. When I’m actually on the tour, there’s no spare minute. When I’m back in town, there are chunks of vacant time, and I want to fill those up with something meaningful.”
She shook her head. “I’m improving things, though. Like I said, I’m working in my spare time to start building the scaffolding of my own business, so once I’m done with my rock and roll days, I can run my own consulting firm.” Her voice rose with passion, and her hand gripped his.
“Good for you,” he said, and Myka felt a warm rush at his words, which could have been patronizing, but weren’t.
“In fact, I even have a big interview Monday,” she confided. “It’s a part-time IT consulting job with a client who needs some serious programming work. I’ve been preparing for weeks. It would be my first solo consulting gig and would be perfect for my resume.” She smiled. “This is a funny coincidence, but it’s also for an aerospace company. Hey, maybe you can help me shine up my spare rocket ship so I’m totally prepared.”
She hoped to make him laugh, but he looked away, his face tightening, and Myka wondered if she’d said something wrong. Had she upset him? But his face cleared, and she relaxed.
“You have time to manage the tour work and a critical consulting job?” His voice was skeptical.
“Yes. I talked to the manager on the phone; they know about the tour, and they only need me part-time. I can make it work. I don’t care what I have to do.”
As they chatted in the coffee shop, trading stories and asking questions, Myka found herself enthralled with his words, and also with his easy masculine grace, his strong hands, and his eyes. More than once she wanted to reach out and touch his lips, to get up and stand behind him and run her hands over his strong shoulders, to push her breasts into his back and make him gasp, to kiss his neck, to whisper dirty desires into his ear. He wanted it too, she could tell, and the one thing that held her back from giving the nonverbal ‘go’ signal was a craving to savor this part, the chase, this most delicate dance of arousal and desire between two people.
But as the minutes flew by, passion start to overwhelm reason. She’d never been so attracted to a man before, and the one before her was utterly fascinating, alluring, and overwhelming. Their body language became increasingly bold—their hands met across the table, with Gabriel caressing hers; their eyes met for longer periods.
Myka parted her lips and licked deliberately, pleased and rewarded at the flicker in his eyes, the harsh intake of his breath. She wasn’t a one-night-stand girl, but all she could think about was having this man as hers, in her bed. Visions of him pushing her down and taking her filled her mind.
Gabriel leaned forward over the table, and Myka leaned in too, without planning it. His voice was low and his smile intense. “Do you feel it?”
Myka didn’t need to ask. Her voice was soft but firm. “Yes.”
“Myka, I—” He broke off and took her hand in his, stroking the palm with his fingertips. “I’m not like the men you usually date when it comes to—”
Her phone trilled and she checked the screen: Kylee. She cursed mentally at the singer for ruining the moment, and sighed. “I’m sorry. Have to get this. It’s my little boss.” She rolled her eyes, but was dying to say, “When it comes to what? To what, Gabriel? Tell me.”
“She calls you off hours?” Gabriel took a breath and settled back in his chair. The interruption made him a little more distant.
Myka nodded. “Yes, it’s—” But she couldn’t explain now. She answered the phone. “Kylee?”
The young woman’s voice was high and fast. “Myka! I think I’m having another one. I’m in the bathroom at the club. I looked at the bar and you were gone. Where did you go? I’m breathing too fast and my heart is racing.”
“Kylee.” Myka kept her voice calm. “Deep breaths. Do you have chest pain? Left arm pain? Is your pulse erratic? Are you dizzy, weak, nauseated?”
“None of it. I’m just freaking out! Like last week. I need you to come!”
“Okay. Go sit at the bar and ask for a glass of ice water. I’m coming right over. Take two aspirins from your purse, just in case. But you’re not having a heart attack.” Myka hung up and stood. “I have to go. I’m sorry. She’s—she needs help. Again.”
Gabriel sounded concerned as he stood. “Do you need help? I can come with you. I have a friend who’s a doctor and can treat her confidentially. Or is this an ER matter?”
“No, it will be fine. Thanks. This has happened before. Oh, God, please keep this confidential.” Myka shook her head, thinking of the field day the press would have if they found out about Kylee’s issues. But she trusted Gabriel.
He put a firm hand on her arm. “Of course. Are you sure you can do this alone?”
“I’m sure. I need to go right now, though.”
He looked at her for a few seconds, his gaze intense, then he nodded. “Will you call me? I want to make sure everything is all right.” His voice lowered. “Also, I would like to continue our… conversation.” His smile was confident as he leaned in. “And I think you do too, yes?”
Myka’s heart quickened. “Don’t ask unless you really want to.” She was still uncertain, even though desire showed in his eyes. He was so—everything: powerful, rich, educated, sophisticated, handsome.
Gabriel kissed her lips, and the touch was electrifying. “I only do what I want. And I can’t think of anything I want to do more.”
Myka nodded, feeling sparks, and Gabriel took her phone and entered his information. “There,” he said, handing it back, his hand caressing hers. He led her outside and hailed a cab. “Call me immediately if you need help tonight. Promise,” he demanded, his voice almost fierce, and Myka found herself responding, “Yes. I promise.”
“Good night,” he murmured, releasing her hand. “I can’t wait until we meet again,” and Myka heard his voice in her head all the way back to the club, and fantasies of his body and hers tumbled through her mind before she had to turn her thoughts to the matter at hand.