Authors: Angel Payne,Victoria Blue
I found our table quickly, knowing they’d likely group the presenters near the front stairs for easy access to the stage. I pulled out Janelle’s seat and she slid into place with practiced grace, perching on the edge with flawless posture.
“Do you want something from the bar? I’m heading over. I’ll be right back.” That was as indirect as I could be, hoping Miss Street Smarts got my gist.
Stay there; don’t follow me
. I needed to limit the time I was seen with her. Already, I recognized the error of having decided to call her. As weird as it would feel to show up alone at this thing, it couldn’t feel more wrong than this.
“Champagne?” she replied. “And Drakie,
, please. Not ‘sparkling wine’.”
I gritted a smile. “Sure thing,
The smile grew as I set out for the bar—confident I’d finally killed off “Drakie”. Men in tuxedos milled around, gathering drinks for their dates and themselves. It was the same shit at every one of these things. I figured out where the line was haphazardly formed, joining in while exchanging surface pleasantries with a few people I knew. I smiled when required, nodded when necessary, even tossed out a few “appropriate” quips about everything from the Bulls’ chances in the new season to the latest episode of
The Walking Dead.
In short, I was bucking for the trophy of World’s Biggest Fraud.
I was charming on the outside…a wreck on the inside. And I couldn’t stop scanning the room, sick about the prospect of seeing them…thinking of nothing else.
I headed back to the table, whiskey neat in one hand and
in the other.
Before a twinge on my nape stopped me where I was.
I didn’t move a muscle. The tiny claws of intuition dug in again.
I turned, sweeping my gaze toward the ballroom’s entrance.
There they were.
“Natalia,” I rasped.
She clung to Fletcher like her life depended on him, lips thin, eyes wide…utterly stunning. Breathtaking. Beautiful. Perfect. No word in
pathetic vocabulary came close to describing her well enough. Her shiny sable hair was swept up in a classic twist, reminding me of a style my mother used to wear to formal parties. Her dress was the most amazing color green, setting off her olive skin, making her seem like a goddess in a room full of mortals…including me.
She consumed me. Froze me. Turned me into a completely stupid sap, standing there like some fool in a movie, gazing at the woman he’d never have. What a crock, those fucking films. They pulled you in with the soaring music and the artsy camera angles, never telling you about a heart that threatened to break through your ribs, the lungs that throbbed in their battle for air, or the legs that turned to ice, because all the blood in them was rushing between your thighs.
I dragged in air. Talia’s head snapped up as if she heard, though she and Fletch were still across the room.
And instantly found me.
Her dark eyes widened as soon as she took in my awestruck gaze. At once, my cock lurched and thickened, craving to give her that look as I slid into her wet tightness. I remembered every detail of what that felt like…only weeks ago.
No. It would be different…because she’d become more beautiful since then. Her body more sensual. Her elegance more pronounced. And damn, those electrifying, enormous anime eyes…locked onto mine, as if for dear life…
And I looked away.
Like the fucking coward I was.
But not long enough.
I couldn’t help glancing back—to learn Fletcher had discerned my location too. Without an encouraging nod from Talia, he beelined through the crowd toward me. I fired off a warning look but he kept approaching. When we stood toe to toe, I was determined to get in the first—and last—word. He wouldn’t escalate this. Not here. Not now.
I modulated my voice even lower than usual. “Fletcher—”
?” His brows jumped up as the word seethed out. “Don’t what? Give me specifics, asshole, because I’ve got a long list for you right now.”
“All of it,” I gritted back. “Just…don’t.”
His upper lip curled. “Fuck. You.”
“This isn’t the time or place, and you know it. We’re here for Kil—and the relationships we both have with most of this room.”
I didn’t give on my stance. Neither did he. But after a moment, his expression wavered. Just enough to let me see the plea behind his aggression.
It was damn near my undoing.
“Go back to your date, Mr. Ford—and enjoy the evening.” I tried—and failed—not to growl the word
. Thank God I had drinks in my hands to keep steady, and a destination for my lead legs. I turned and forced myself to keep walking away—thankfully, in what seemed the opposite direction of the table to which he and Talia had been assigned. I would have to thank Britta, Killian’s version of a talented Moneypenny, for unknowingly seating us on opposite sides of the room.
I set Janelle’s champagne flute in front of her on the table. She was deeply engrossed in a gossipy conversation with two other women at the table, and that was fine by me. Better than fine. I was content—or the closest thing I could get to it tonight—flashing a curt smile and parking my ass in silence until this rodeo started. A glance at my watch confirmed that wouldn’t be long now, thank God. The sooner I gave my presentation, the sooner we could leave.
As the thought hit, I jolted a little. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant.
We could leave.
Well, why not? There wasn’t a law keeping me here. No chains locking me in for the night. And only a fool hung out in the torture chamber if he wasn’t chained.
I leaned over, tugging Janelle away from her chat for a second. She looked a little peeved—some “blow job skank” in Hollywood had just screwed somebody over for a part, after all—but she changed up as I spoke.
“I don’t want to stay long.”
Her purr went along with she-cat eyes. “Mmmm. I knew you’d change your mind.”
“No. That’s not what I meant. I just don’t want to be here any longer than necessary. After I give my speech, we’re slipping out that door.” I nodded toward the object of my statement, making certain she followed the trajectory and understood.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Newland.” Her gaze sparkled more brightly, already full of mischief.
I picked up my fresh drink and tossed it back in one gulp.
The whiskey burned twice as hot as the shot I’d taken in the limo, scorching my throat and stomach. That was good. Very good. Finally, pain to endure from somewhere other than my heart.
I contemplated a refill, but the emcee strolled on stage. He was some local news personality, known for his quick puns and vast compendium of Lake Michigan jokes—in short, a perfect leader for this vanilla cookie crowd. Thankfully, he kept the opening banter to a minimum, and quickly called Killian to the podium. My part in the program was after his, and since the man was known for his merciful brevity, I’d hopefully be sprung from the torture chamber inside another half-hour.
Wandering eyes will only make it hurt worse.
“…and now, to tell us more about all that, is a man you all probably know. He’s not only a respected businessman in this fine city, but a man I am honored to call my friend. Please join me in welcoming one of SGC’s finest board members, Mr. Drake Newland.”
The crowd applauded politely as I approached the mic. Killian leaned in to my ear and dropped his own version of a threat.
“Whatever you’re doing, man, pull your head out of your ass. She’s disintegrating over there without you. They
I pulled back, funneling my shock to my gaze. “How the hell do you know—”
“How does anyone
know, who cares about you guys?” He curled the enigmatic smile for which he’d been nicknamed, as camera flashes formed a lightning storm around us. For the benefit of those photographers, he also added a hearty smack on my back. I was the only one who knew he’d thumped hard enough to make it punishment. “Get your shit together, Newland. Life’s too fucking short to waste on misery.”
“Fuck off,” I muttered.
“I love you too, honey,” he gritted back.
My speech was well rehearsed, and I delivered it without a skipped beat despite my personal induction into the basket case club. The crowd was attentive and quiet as I talked about the new facets in Stone Global’s crown, and how many exciting things were in the works for the company. The investors had their checkbooks in hand by the time I’d finished—in Janelle’s book, a great excuse for hysterical clapping as I made my way back to the table.
“Ohmigod! You were amazing!” She gripped my arm, lunging in for an attempt at a kiss. I pulled back at once, inciting snickers from a few of the other ladies at our table. No way did I intend on embarrassing her, but I’d been fair and forthcoming about what the night would and wouldn’t be. Pawing, kissing, all but marking with the lipstick paint? All on the
I backed the mandate with a firm glare, making her face forward and listen to the next speaker, a droning Old Man McGraw, with a rebellious pout.
. She had no idea who she was dealing with. I’d just set the girl of my dreams free in order to preserve her honor and self-respect, and Janelle thought a
would change my mind? It was so rich, I almost laughed.
Instead, I angled back over, cupping her nape in a move that appeared gentle. In truth, I pressed in my fingertips hard enough to snap her attention back over. “What?”
“Let’s go.” I mouthed it more than said it. I couldn’t arrange to teleport out of the damn room, but could get as close as mortally possible—though Janelle’s glare again proved the fly in my stealthy ointment.
“Are you serious?”
Her whine was like fingernails on my mental chalkboard.
“Yes, dammit. I told you—”
“But we haven’t even had our main course.”
“You really came tonight for the food?”
Her cat eyes turned spiteful. “And do you really have to ask that?” She smoothed the napkin in her lap. “But since I’m not getting what I originally came to…eat…then yes, I’m going to actually enjoy the food.” She tilted a little glance back at me. “Besides, darling, even a raunchy bitch like me knows it’s
bad form to leave before dessert.”
I let my hand drop. Exhaled heavily. As much as my skin crawled to admit it, she had a point. I’d just given Fletch the verbal Taser for barely respecting the event, but had been more than ready to do the same thing.
I was a goddamn mess. Navigating blindly through a mine field—and unsure whether I even wanted to survive the ordeal.
“Fine,” I finally growled. “We’ll go after the meal.” Which turned out to be as nondescript as I’d anticipated, despite the legendary name on the doors outside. At least it filled the void in my stomach. If only fate would help out with the ache about eight inches higher. And twelve inches lower.
The waiter swept in, removing the empty plate from in front of me.
As I turned to thank him, I crashed stares with my best friend.
Or perhaps, by this time,
best friend. The ire in Fletch’s eyes certainly confirmed as much, though his voice conveyed nothing but pleasant cordiality while leaning in and murmuring, “Mr. Newland…a moment, please?” He quirked a sociable smile to my right. “Well good evening, Janelle. Interesting running into you here.”
The woman’s eyes lit up like it had just become Christmas morning. “Interesting is only the
He sidestepped her grappling hook hand, continuing the megawatt smile around the table. “Jim, Audrie; how are you? And Mark, I heard about that round you knocked out at Medinah last week.
nice swinging, buddy.” He had something charming for everyone at the table, making sure all eyes stayed focused on our exchange.
He had me in a corner and knew it.
I disguised the clench of my jaw behind a tight smile while excusing myself from them all, including my “date”. My gait wasn’t so subtle, defined by wide, furious steps as I followed Fletch to the foyer.
“Nice move, asshole.”
“Learned from the best.”
I stood stock still, refusing to rise to his bait. This was just the start of the assault. I had to conserve resources. This clash was going to take every ounce of strength and control I had. This man knew me better than anyone—every back door into the fortress, every goddamn button to push, and exactly how hard. I had no doubt he’d do it too—if he had to.
He spun around to face me. His wing tips stuck out from his slacks, reflecting the muted hallway light. “Janelle?” he spat. “Really?”
I snorted out a laugh. “That’s your opener, huh?”
“Shut up. Shut the
up.” He looked like he was tempted to stab a finger out to punctuate but knew that’d just piss me off. He wasn’t out for that. He wanted deeper pain. “Of all the people, D.” His voice dropped to reveal a savage pain of its own. “Do you know what that did to Talia? What it’s still doing to her?”
Remorse razed across my heart. Of course I knew. And
known, with every punch of Janelle’s digits into my phone. But I’d gone there, anyway—perhaps to just prove that I could. Maybe reverting back to the old Drake would erase everything about the new. Everything of the man I’d become from Natalia Perizkova’s love.
I knew it now—but like hell was I admitting it, especially to Fletch. “That’s not of consequence to me at this point.” My voice, like my heart, was on
setting. I had to throw up the shields. Had to protect whatever the hell I had left of a heart and soul.
Fletcher stumbled back by a step. His face scrunched. “‘Not of consequence’?” he shook his head slowly. “Who…who
you? I don’t…know you.”
I jerked my shoulders, supposing it passed as a shrug. “Also not my concern.”
” He stared harder, lips curling, stare stabbing. “I dragged you out here to try connecting with my best friend. My
. Where did he go? What the
has gotten into you? You’re tearing us apart, Drake. You’re tearing