Excerpt

Chapter 1

Gavin

I never walk into a room without a plan. I don’t care if I’m entering a board meeting or a bar—I map out my goals beforehand and prepare to execute them. Tonight’s birthday party for my girlfriend’s roommate is no exception. Right now I’m on a mission to locate my date on the rooftop terrace, strip off her panties, and leave her believing today is her special day.

“Gavin!” The twenty-something birthday girl grabs my arm. She’s named after a flower, but hell if I can remember which one. “Now that you’re here, darling, this party is officially lit.”

I raise a practiced eyebrow. “I’m not that exciting.”

Violet—that’s her name—laughs as if I’ve told a particularly hilarious joke.

“In fact, I need to return to work later,” I add.

I want to be clear. I’m not here for Violet’s bash. Tonight, I have a singular goal, and she’s waiting on the roof.

A young hipster in a tailored orange suit saddles up to me. “New product releasing soon, Gavin? I’ve heard rumors that you’re developing new software. If you’re planning a release, I could help with the PR. I’m starting a public relations group, and I’d really love for you to be my first client.”   

And I’d love to lick my girlfriend until she screams my name.

I slap Hipster Dude on the back. “I’m afraid we want different things right now, my friend, and I’ve had a long day.”

Truth.

“Before I talk business,” I continue, stepping away from the birthday girl and her admirers, “I need a drink.”

Lie.

I’m eager to give Alexandra an orgasm, but the bar’s on the way to the stairs. I’ve been to the Brooklyn penthouse before, though I prefer having Alexandra come to my Manhattan apartment. The twenty-something trust-fund crowd leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I wouldn’t have even crossed the east river tonight, but Alexandra sent me an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

I pause beside the temporary bar set up beside the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “The birthday girl and her friends would like shots. Tequila. Top shelf.”

The bartender nods. “Yes, sir.”

“Violet!” I call over my shoulder. “It’s tequila time.”

“Shots!”

The call echoes around the room. A group suddenly crowds around the birthday girl, eager to share in the celebrating. I take advantage of the distraction and open the sliding glass door leading to a terrace. Following Alexandra’s instructions like a treasure map, I find the stairs and climb two at a time.

Overeager? Hell, yes. I want this woman. Unlike her trust-fund former roommate, Alexandra actually works for a living. Her receptionist gig at my gym pays the bills while she tries to launch her acting career. Her friends fall in the take-them-or-leave them category for me, but I’m crazy about Alexandra’s work ethic.

She understands me on an elemental level.

I grin like a fool when I reach the top of the metal staircase. I can picture my best friend’s reaction to my lofty claim. “Elemental? You just mean she’s good in bed.”

That is precisely what I mean. But Alexandra takes “good” to new levels.     

How do you tell if a woman shares your sexual kinks? I ask myself this question on every first date. Given my habit for choosing Mrs. Right Now—my best friend’s label, not mine—I’ve been on hundreds of first dates, and I still haven’t found an answer. And failure is not something I take lightly. I came from nothing, and now I’m worth over one billion dollars.

Not that I’m into anything from the Fifty Shades playbook. I’m not that kind of billionaire. But nothing turns me on like sex with the possibility of getting caught. I’m not talking public parks, or places that might lead to a night in a jail cell. I’ve had enough trouble in my life, and I’m not about to invite any more.

But a private rooftop terrace while a party buzzes below? The chance that one of the other guests or a member of the catering staff will hear my girlfriend’s moans and come investigate?

Oh, hell yes.

I spot Alexandra by the railing. She’s staring out at the night sky. Beneath the full moon’s glow, I can see the tops of the trees in Prospect Park. Manhattan’s skyline is on the other side of the building, but all I want is a view of my girl, naked and draped over her outdoor furniture.

A sideways glance confirms the lounge chair is still up here. A heat lamp that would look more at home in a restaurant or at a wedding hovers over the lone chair.

She won’t freeze when I pull her dress to her waist.

I cross the cement pavers and wrap my arms around Alexandra’s slim waist, drawing her back to my front. She can’t miss how the mental picture in my mind turns me on. The evidence is pressing against her lower back. Even in her three-inch heels, she’s a good bit shorter than my six-two build.

“I want to bury my face between your legs,” I murmur in her ear. “I’m going to lie you down on that chair, reach up under your dress, slide you panties down your legs, and—”

“I’m not wearing any underwear,” she announces in her low, sultry voice.

Her voice oozes with the promise of sex, and I would bet my BMW that men call to reserve the squash courts at the gym just to hear her purr in their ear. Until last month, I was one of those guys. After the second phone call, I stopped by the desk and asked her out.

Her response? I knew you would come to your senses and take me to dinner.

Bold, confident, and sexy as hell. Maybe she’s the one. Maybe I’ve finally found Mrs. Right. 

I step forward, using my body to gently guide her across the patio to the chair.  We’ve been here before. Not on this roof-deck. Last time, we slipped away at a museum opening and found a quiet hall. No cameras. I made damn sure there wouldn’t be a recording of my girlfriend on her knees in front of me. But when I zipped up and we returned to the party, I knew I’d found a woman who saw more than dollar signs when she looked at me. 

Now she steps free from my grasp. The front of her calves bump against the lounge chair. Then she turns to face me. “But I didn’t invite you up here for sex. At least, not to start.”

I school my expression, dialing down the exasperation and the lust. If she wants to talk first, I’m in. I give her my best you-have-my-complete-attention look, the one I’ve practiced in countless business meetings.

Alexandra is special. She deserves more than a quick orgasm during a party.

“I’m listening,” I say, shoving my hand in my suit pant pockets. I want to be clear. I’m not reaching for her. Not yet.

“First, I have something to show you,” she says.

I hear a trace of nerves in her tone, and I sure as hell like her use of the word show in place of tell. Most women I’ve dated for a month or more eventually have something serious to share with me. Their feelings. Their hopes and dreams for our relationship. Or the expected size of their future engagement ring.

For the record, I’ve never bought a ring. 

Alexandra’s fingers work the latch on her clutch, and my gaze follows her movements. Her hands are trembling, hard. Finally, the latch gives, and I catch my breath.

I’m immediately turned on. My imagination’s running wild with the potential outcomes from her little game of show-and-tell. Whatever she’s hiding in her purse must be small. Something that pushes my bold, beautiful girl out of her comfort zone. Something that leaves her shaking.

She pulls out a thin slip of paper and holds it out to me.

My brow furrows. I pull my right hand free from my pocket and take it. It’s in my hand before I realize that I’m not holding a paper, but a picture. The image is old and slightly discolored, probably dating back to the days when people used cameras and then visited the grocery store to develop the film.

Like when I was a kid…

No.

My jaw tightens, grinding my molars together as I force myself to look at the image. My childhood and this picture—they aren’t connected. It’s not possible.

But a single glance tells me I’m wrong. I know that scrawny, beaten kid in the old photo. Any thought of sex suddenly takes a back seat to the dread stirring deep in my gut.

“How did you get this?” I demand, looking Alexandra straight in the eye.

She’s still shaking like a fucking leaf, but she’s holding her chin high. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me,” I say, biting out the words.

I’d thought I’d wiped all records of my humiliation off the face of the earth. But now I’m holding a picture of my weakest moment. I recognize the bathroom floor in the image. The tile matches the house where I grew up. And I should know. I spent a lot of time there, licking my damn wounds, knowing I would have to go to school the next day and face the fucking bullies again.

“There are more photos.” Alexandra nods to the one in my hand. “That one isn’t the worst.”

My grip tightens on the picture. Who is this woman? And how the hell did she get her hands on these images? I didn’t even know they existed until tonight. And I’ve spent a fortune to hide my past.

“What do you want?” I demand, lifting my gaze from the picture to look at her.

I take in her smug, excited expression. The nerves are gone, probably buried beneath the misconception that she’s won.

Fuck, I’ve been played. The thought crosses my mind, and I know I’ve come to this epiphany too late. I’ve been sleeping with the enemy this whole time, and I didn’t even have a damn clue.

“Money to start,” Alexandra announces. “One hundred million, in cash. The account information is on the back of the picture.”

“I’m not paying you off,” I snap. But I turn the image over to confirm there is an account listed. “Not for a bunch of pictures of some kid.”

I’m rationalizing now. No one would see these images and connect them to Gavin Black. If this woman tries, my public relationships company will crush her. And there is no way Alexandra knows the full story. Gavin Black had a very different childhood than the one in this picture. There’s proof. I know, because I created it myself.

“It’s not just ‘some kid.’ I know who you are,” she says. “And I’m going to share what I know with every media outlet in this city.”

“The hell you will, you—”

“Unless we come to an agreement. One hundred million suggests you’re willing to work with me.”

“Bitch,” I murmur.

My breath turns shallow. I can feel the panic rushing to my chest, threatening to take hold like a heart attack, but I fight it.

So, she knows who I am? So do I. I’m New York City’s most desirable bachelor. I’m also a capable and effective businessman.

I take one more look at the picture. I am not that kid. Not anymore. I can’t be bullied as an adult, not like the broken, scared child in the old photo.

Taking the picture in both hands, I tear it in half. Then I rip the halves into smaller pieces. I look my girlfriend in the eye as I let the shredded remains fall to the ground.

Her mouth forms a half smile. “You’re angry and you’re lashing out.” She speaks to me in a tone I barely recognize. It’s the same sultry voice, but she sounds like a teacher from my worst nightmares. “I understand.”

“The hell you do,” I growl, careful to keep my voice low.

I refuse to draw the drunken revelers up here and make a scene. In part, because she’s right. I’m very close to losing control. I need to get out of here. Now. Turning on my heels, I walk toward the metal stairs.

“I’m not going away!” she calls after me. “I’ve waited too long for this.”

Who the hell is this woman? Why was she waiting to blackmail me all this time?

I file the questions away and focus on making my way through the drunken melee in the penthouse. My cell is in my hand by the time I reach the exit. In the hall, I pause to text instructions to my driver. I need the limo downstairs by the time the elevator hits the lobby. My ride better be ready for a road trip, because there’s no way I’m going back to the office. And I’m not calling my publicist, or any other members of my elite, expensive PR team.

Not until I talk to my best friend.

The elevator arrives as I pull up the number and hit “call.” It rings over and over. Then the doors open, revealing a sleek, marble lobby as a familiar voice asks me to leave a message.

I step out into the crisp November night. “Kayla, I’m two hours away from you. I’ll be there at midnight. Be ready, because I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long, long time.”        

 

 

Chapter 2

Gavin

Ninety minutes later…

 “I need your help.”

I haven’t used those words since I was a teenager. They feel strange and unpleasant, echoing against the limo’s mirrored interior. Asking for help suggests weakness, and it’s been a long time since I felt like a vulnerable, defenseless kid.

Even longer since I admitted to sinking feetfirst into that emotional pit labeled “hopeless.”

I close my eyes. I am not anywhere close to that pit now. Not yet.

Hell, it was only one picture…

One image attached to a career-ending threat from my girlfriend.

Ex-girlfriend.

I have a rule about sleeping with people who blackmail me. Or at least I do now. 

Pull yourself together, Gavin. You can fix this, dammit.

“Help me, please.”

I practice my opening line again, the one I plan to deliver the minute I see Kayla Greene’s face. I’ve known her since kindergarten. My best friend is the only one who will let me in and hear me out in the middle of the night, but a sincere “please” will go a long way to winning her sympathy.

Not that I need a shoulder to cry on. I’m still too far away from the “hopeless” pit to be that fuc—freaking—I mentally catch myself—vulnerable. Curse words turn Kayla into a thin-lipped second grade teacher. She actually was a teacher once upon a time, back when she was still married to Mr. Mistake. But that’s firmly behind us now.

Suddenly the left front wheel hits a pothole you’d expect to find on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I hear Samuel cursing from behind the wheel. He wasn’t planning on a midnight drive to the country.

“We’re almost there,” I assure my driver. “Turn left at the stop sign. You’ll see a big red barn. The driveway is on the other side.”

Samuel has never been to my country house deep in the woods, or to Kayla’s place near the road. I usually drive myself. But I was in a rush tonight. Plus, crashing my BMW on the Palisades Parkway wasn’t how I planned to put an end to Alexandra’s blackmail threat.

The limo slows and lurches to the right as Samuel navigates the turn. I can see the stone farmhouse up ahead. Lights glow from the kitchen windows.

Thank God. Kayla is more likely to listen to my pleas for help if she’s awake.   

The side door leading to the kitchen swings open. I spot a figure running across the grass. It’s her. I would recognize that long, wild black hair anywhere. The bright summer moon illuminates the outline of an animal in her arms.

I let out a laugh, because when isn’t Kayla cuddling a lonely puppy or kitten? 

The limo grinds to stop on the gravel drive. I reach for the door and my fingers freeze on the handle. Kayla rushes through the headlight beams, and I see bright red splotches on her face.

My stomach turns over. What are the chances my best friend was sitting at home covered in blood in the middle of the night? Unless one of her rescue pups bit her…

I fling the door open. “What the hell, Kay?”

Bloody hell.

Literal blood. I was right about those red splotches. Then a sixty-pound mass of fur and misery lands on my lap. I instinctively wrap my arms around the pup and draw her close. And great, now I’m cradling the bloody dog against my thousand-dollar suit.

The fury of hell isn’t far behind. Kayla scrambles into the car and slams the door closed behind her. “Help me!” she cries.

Dismissing the fact that she’s stolen my plea for help, I turn my attention to the yellow Labrador mix in my arms. “Where to?”

 “Vet,” she barks, as the limo lurches into reverse.

Samuel’s caught enough to know that we’re going somewhere. Now.

“Her office, not the hospital,” she continues. “I called, and she’s expecting me. I was getting ready to carry Luna to the car when you pulled up.”

“What’s the address?” I ask, glancing through the partition at Samuel.

Good man, he is already reaching for his phone, ready to call up directions and guide the limo’s return trip down the unforgiving, pothole-ridden dirt road.

“15 Main Street,” she calls out to Samuel. Then she turns to me. “Want me to take her?”

I look down at the panting dog. Her eyes are open and she’s looking right at me. I’ve always been a cat person, but right now this sweet girl is melting my heart. “I’ve got her.”

“But your suit—”

“It’s ruined,” I confirm. Still staring into the dog’s brown eyes, I add, “What happened?”

“Someone shot her,” Kayla growls.

“What the fuck?”

I clamp my mouth shut before a stream of curse words fill the limo. But now I’m studying my best friend and trying to piece together the events of her night. I thought mine was a train wreck, but Kayla’s evening has somehow led to gunshots.

Her wild mane flows over her shoulders, and the tips are matted in blood. Her formerly-gray pajamas look like she spent the wee hours of the night filming Scream Fifteen—or whatever number they are up to now—in her very own backyard.

The top two buttons of her V-neck top are also undone, revealing a helluva lot more than the swell of her full breasts. I look long and hard at that exposed skin, because there is blood splattered across her nipple.

I’m going to kill whoever did this.

The thought pops into my head. I wouldn’t do it with a gun—I don’t own a weapon—but with my bare hands. I have no training, and I’m not a Navy SEAL or some shit like that. And last time I checked, admittance to the tech-genius billionaire club did not come with a license to kill.

Might try, anyway.

But I shake off the thought. The blood on Kayla’s nipple shouldn’t be the reason I lose my fucking mind tonight.

But someone still shot at her.

What does it matter if the breasts on the top of my do-not-touch list are splattered with her dog’s blood? It will wash off in the shower. But I’ll never be able to escape the what-if-that-bullet-had-hit-Kayla fear pulsing through my veins. It taste worse than my blackmail-by-my-crazy-girlfriend experience earlier.

Worse than damn near anything. 

“Tell me what happened,” I demand.

“I let Luna out for a quick nighttime walk. She peed in the house the other night, so I’ve been careful to take her out just before bed,” Kayla explains, her gaze fixed on the dog in my lap. “It sometimes takes her a while to find her spot. She likes to milk the fact that I’m treating her to a nighttime outing without the other dogs.”

Her lips form a wistful hint of a smile. But then her expression hardens into pure anger. “We reached the bottom end of the cleared field. You know the one in back of the house?”

She spares me a glance, and I give a curt nod.

“Then I heard a rustling in the woods. There was enough moonlight to see a deer running through the trees. Luna started barking, and then, BAM. Gunshot.” She waves her arms through the air, as if she can show me what it sounded like through wild hand gestures. “Some idiot decided to walk onto my property in the dead of night and hunt. Hunting season doesn’t even start for another two weeks. It’s October, for goodness sake. And no one in his right mind hunts at night! If I find out who did this—”     

“I’m going to kill him,” I interrupt. “And not just because there is blood on your breasts.”

She glances down at her top and reaches for the buttons as the limo turns onto the main road. Now on pavement, Samuel pushes past the speed limit. By the time Kayla covers her chest, we’re pulling into the strip mall’s vacant parking lot. Though “strip mall” might be a stretch for the complex, which features a liquor store and a pizza joint.

The vet’s office is wedged between the two stores. A narrow green door with the picture of a dog, a cat, and an exotic bird mounted on the front sets it apart from the other establishments.

Samuel parks the stretch limo across four parking spaces, with the rear passenger side door facing the vet’s office. There’s a light on inside, even though the parking lot is otherwise empty.

“Hold the door for me,” I say, shifting toward the limo’s exit. “I’ll carry Luna inside.”

I slide across the leather seats and maneuver out the car door. Kayla races ahead of me and pulls open the entrance to the vet. Then she stands back, waving her hand to hurry me along. But I take careful, measured steps.

“I don’t want to jar her,” I say.

Luna closed her eyes the second we left the limo, and she’s panting hard now. I’ve also heard a few whimpers from her. I don’t know much about dogs, but that sound can’t be a good sign. Even if this isn’t a life-or-death situation, Luna is in serious pain. But then I think, shit, gunshot? How can this not be a life-or-death scenario?

I glance up from the dog, prepared to scream for the vet, but she’s standing five feet from me, wearing gray pajamas with dancing cats beneath a white lab coat. Still, the PJ look isn’t too different from Kayla’s long-sleeve cotton ensemble—minus the blood.

For now, I think. Because in another second, the vet will take the gunshot victim from my arms and rush her into surgery…right?

Dr. Kitty PJs remains frozen in place. Her lips are parted, and she manages a weak “hello,” but she doesn’t move.

I’ve seen this before. I wasn’t expecting this reaction tonight, during an emergency vet visit, but I know what I look like in a suit. Tall, broad shouldered, with a dark, well-trimmed beard, I could play James Bond—if Daniel Craig ever gives up the role. Add in the fact that most people recognize me from the endorsement deals I’ve landed since rocketing to fame in the billionaire tech space, and yeah, I’m familiar with the vet’s driven-to-distraction look.

My ex-girlfriend gave me that look.

But holding a bleeding dog is not the time to think about Alexandra and her crazy scheme.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the vet’s expression. Kayla’s been here before, too. My best friend steps in front of me now, determined to draw Dr. Kitty PJ’s eyes to the bleeding pup before the vet tries to hand me her panties.

I’m not being vain, either. It’s happened before. Not while I was holding a Labrador with a gunshot wound, but once at this benefit—

“Where do you want Luna?” Kayla demands.

The vet blinks, and just like that, the spell is broken. “Exam room one. I’ll give her something for the pain, and then try to extract the bullet.”

“Follow Marianne!” Kayla calls out the order, and I obey.

I can hear my friend’s footsteps behind me. I enter the cramped room filled with high-tech machines that scream “hospital,” and gently lower Luna to the metal table.

Kayla reaches out to pet her head.

“It’s probably better if you wait outside while we work,” the vet says.

Kayla nods. Then she leans forward and kisses the dog’s head. She turns away and I reach for her, pulling her close against my chest. She’s held it together up until this point, but everyone has a breaking point. This is hers. I’ve seen it before. She’s amazing during a crisis, but after the worst is over, she falls apart.

That’s where I come in.

“I’ll take her to the waiting room,” I tell Dr. Marianne and her young assistant, who materializes out of nowhere. Like everyone else I’ve seen in this town tonight, the vet’s aid is wearing pink striped flannel pajama pants and a white t-shirt. But the dude hasn’t spared a glance in my direction. He’s too busy pulling on rubber gloves and selecting a big-ass needle from a cart lined with bigger-ass needles.

And that’s our cue to leave.

I steer Kayla into the cramped waiting room. There’s a line of metal chairs next to a rack of pet brochures. I lead her to one with a mostly intact cushion. The others look as if they’ve been attacked by a swarm of angry cats.

And that’s probably not far from the truth.

She sinks into the chair and draws a deep, shaky breath.

Oh, shit. She’s on the verge of losing it completely, and there’s not a damn thing I can say to make her feel better. Her dog will probably be in surgery for a while. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to Kayla than her pack of misfit rescue animals. Her heart will undoubtedly break open right here in the vet’s waiting room if something goes wrong, and I won’t be able to pick up the pieces.

No, I need to stop the heartbreak, or at least delay it, until we hear from the pajama-clad vets. I draw a deep breath, then reach over and take her hand.

“Kayla.”

I wait for her to look at me. Her eyes are brimming with tears. I need to act fast, or she will soon be lost to her own weepy despair. She needs a distraction. Thankfully, I am ready and able to give her just what she needs…if that’s what she wants. That’s a damn big “if,” judging from the size of those teardrops waiting to grace her freckle-covered cheeks.   

“I can either distract you,” I say. “Or hold you and let you cry like crazy. Your call.”

She straightens, drawing her spine up and making the most of her petite five-foot-four-inch frame, all while sitting on the rickety old chair. “Distract me.”

I nod. “I’m in trouble. My girlfriend is blackmailing me. Well, she’s my ex-girlfriend now. But that doesn’t matter.”

I hold her wide-eyed gaze and push ahead. I’m making a mess of this, but at least she’s not weeping about her dog.  I give her hand a small squeeze, but I don’t break eye contact. I can see her surprise turn to doubt. She’s wondering if I’m bullshitting her with this sob story, reminiscent of a teen drama, simply to keep her from crying.

“It’s the real deal this time,” I continue, searching for the words I practiced in the limo. “The blackmail.”

Her brow furrows, and I know she’s putting the pieces together. The midnight visit. The suit. She knows I’m not making this up.

So I add the line I practiced on the limo ride up from Manhattan.

“Please, Kayla. I need your help.”