Release Date: September 4, 2018
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Heir to a media empire.
...And my new boss.
I could have impressed him, if not for last month's unforgettable one-night stand.
I left it with more than orgasms and a pleasant memory--namely, his wallet.
Now he's staring me down like I'm the dirt under his Italian loafers, and I'm supposed to take it.
But the thing about being Judith "Jude" Humphry is I have nothing to lose.
Heir to a stack of medical bills and a tattered couch.
When he looks at me from across the room, I see the glint in his eyes, and that makes us rivals.
He knows it.
So do I.
Every day in the newsroom is a battle.
Every night in his bed, war.
But it's my heart at stake, and I fear I'll be raising the white flag.
On her deathbed, my mother said the heart is a lonely hunter.
“Organs, Jude, are like people. They need company, a backup to rely on. That’s why we have lungs, tonsils, hands, legs, fingers, toes, eyes, nostrils, teeth, and lips. Only the heart works alone. Like Atlas, it carries the weight of our existence on its shoulders quietly, only rebelling when disturbed by love.”
She said a lonely heart—such as my lonely heart—would never fall in love, and so far, she wasn’t wrong.
Maybe that’s why tonight happened.
Maybe that’s why I’d stopped trying.
Creamy sheets tangled around my legs like roots as I slipped out of the king-sized bed in the swanky hotel room I’d been occupying for the last several hours. I rose from the plush mattress, my back to the stranger I’d met this afternoon.
If I stole a glance at him, my conscience would kick in and I’d never go through with it.
I was choosing his cash over my integrity.
Cash I very much needed.
Cash that was going to pay my electricity bill and fill prescriptions for Dad this month.
I tiptoed across the room to his dress pants on the floor, feeling hollow in all the places he’d filled in the previous hours. This was the first time I’d stolen anything, and the finality of the situation made me want to throw up. I wasn’t a thief. Yet I was about to wrong this perfect stranger. And I wasn’t even going to touch the one-night-stand issue for fear my head would explode all over the lush carpet. I didn’t normally do one-night stands.
But I wasn’t myself tonight.
I’d woken this morning to the sound of my mailbox collapsing from the weight of the letters and bills crammed into it. Then I’d failed a job interview so miserably, they’d cut the meeting short to watch a Yankees game. (When I’d pointed out there was no game—because, yes, I was that desperate—they’d explained it was a rerun.)
Defeated, I’d stumbled my way through the cruel streets of Manhattan, the early-spring rain loud and punishing. I’d figured the best course of action would be to slip into my boyfriend Milton’s condo to dry off. I had the key, and he was probably at work, polishing his piece about immigration healthcare. He worked for The Thinking Man, one of the most prestigious magazines in New York. To say I was proud would be the understatement of the century.
The rest of the afternoon played out like a bad movie piled with clichés and reeking of bad luck. I’d pushed Milton’s door open, shaking the raindrops from my jacket and hair. First, low, guttural moans seeped into my ears. The unmistakable visual followed immediately after:
Milton’s editor, Elise, whom I’d met once before for drinks, bent over one side of the couch we’d picked out together at my favorite flea market, as he relentlessly pounded into her.
“The heart is a lonely, cruel hunter.”
I’d felt mine shooting an arrow of poison straight to Milton’s glistening chest, then heard it crack, threatening to split in two.
We’d been together for five years. Met at Columbia University. He was the son of a retired NBC anchor. I was on full scholarship. The only reason we hadn’t lived together was because Dad was sick and I didn’t want to leave his side. But that didn’t stop Milton and me from crocheting our plans into the same colors and patterns, entwining our lives one dream at a time.
Get assigned to the Middle East.
Watch the sunset in Key West.
Eat one perfect macaron in Paris.
Our bucket list was etched in a notebook I’d keenly named Kipling, and it was burning a hole through my bag right now.
I hadn’t meant to throw up on Milton’s doorstep, but it was not a big surprise, considering what I’d just walked into. The bastard had skidded on my breakfast as he chased me down the hall, but I’d pushed the emergency stairway door open and taken the stairs two at a time. Milton had been very much naked, with a condom still dangling from his half-mast dick, and at some point he’d decided bursting into the street in his birthday suit was not a good plan.
I’d run until my lungs burned and my Chucks were wet and muddy.
Bumping into shoulders, and umbrellas, and street vendors in the pounding rain.
I was angry, desperate and shocked—but I wasn’t devastated. My heart was cracked, but not broken.
“The heart is a lonely hunter, Jude.”
I’d needed to forget—forget about Milton, the stacks of bills, and my unfortunate lack of employment the past few months. I’d needed to drown in alcohol and hot skin.
The stranger in the suite had given me exactly that, and now he was about to give me something we had never agreed on.
Judging by this place, though, he won’t have trouble paying for the cab to the airport.
A curved, wrought-iron staircase that cost more than my entire apartment stared back at me, leading to a Jacuzzi the size of my room. Plush, red-tufted velvet couches taunted me. Floor-to-ceiling windows dared me to drink in the view of well-heeled Manhattan with my poor eyes. And the teardrop chandelier looked eerily similar to little sperm.
And to make it through next week, Judith Penelope Humphry, you will stop thinking about jizz and move on with your plan.
I reached for the back pocket of his Tom Ford dress pants, where he’d tucked his wallet shortly after sliding out a chain of condoms, and examined it in my shaking hands. A Bottega Veneta leather creation, black and unwrinkled. My throat bobbed, but I still couldn’t swallow my nerves.
I flipped the wallet open and slipped out the stack of cash. Turned out Stranger Junior wasn’t the only thing thick about this one. I counted hurriedly, my eyes flaring as they took in all the cash.
Hundred…two…three…six…eight…Fifteen hundred. Thank you, Jesus.
I could practically hear Jesus scolding me. “Don’t thank me. Pretty sure thou shalt not steal was way up there on my not-to-do list.”
Yanking my phone out of my shoulder bag, I searched the brand of the wallet in my hand. Turns out it cost a little less than seven hundred bucks. My dysfunctional, albeit heavy heart pounded as I began to toss out plastic cards without giving them a second glance. The wallet was sellable, and as it turned out, so were my morals.
My gut knotted in shame, and I felt my face growing hot. He was going to wake up and hate me, regret the minute he’d approached me at the bar. I wasn’t supposed to care. He was going to leave New York come morning, and I would never see him again.
Once his wallet was empty, and all his cards and IDs neatly arranged on his nightstand, I slipped back into my dress and electric pink—although crusted in mud—Chucks and chanced one last look at him.
He was completely naked, his groin haphazardly covered by the sheet. With every breath he took, his six pack tightened. Even in sleep, he didn’t look vulnerable. Like a Greek god, he rose above susceptibility. Men like him were too conceited to be played. I was glad there was going to be an ocean between us soon.
I opened the door and hugged its frame.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, kissing the tips of my fingers and brushing them over the air between us.
I waited until I was out of the hotel before I let the first tear fall.
Five hours earlier.
I stumbled into a bar, hiccupping a whiskey order to the bartender between sniffs and shaking the rain out of my long, dirty-blond hair.
I tugged at the collar of my black dress and groaned into the drink he slid across the bar for me. My Chucks—I’d opted for low-top pinks this morning as I’d still been foolishly optimistic when I left the house—dangled in the air while my 5-foot-2 frame sat on the stool. My earbuds were firmly tucked into my ears, but I didn’t want to taint my playlist of perfect songs with today’s shitty mood. If I listened to a song I liked now, I’d forever associate it with the day I found out Milton liked it doggy-style after all, just not with me.
I tried to give myself an internal pep talk as I gulped whiskey I couldn’t afford like it was water.
My job interview had gone horrifically bad, but my heart had never been set on working for a Christian gluten-free-diet magazine anyway.
Milton had cheated on me. But I’d always had my doubts about him. His smile always dropped too soon after we’d hung out with my dad or met someone on the street. His right eyebrow always arched when someone wasn’t in agreement with him.
As for the growing medical bills—I would find a way to tackle them. Dad and I owned our apartment in Brooklyn. Worse came to worst, we’d sell and rent. Besides, I didn’t need both my kidneys.
I was sniveling into my drink when the scent of cedarwood, sage, and an impending sin skulked into my nostrils. I didn’t bother to raise my head, even when he said, “Semi-drunk and conventionally beautiful: a predator’s wet dream.”
He had a strong French accent. Smooth and raspy. But my eyes were locked on the amber fluid swirling in my glass. I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. Usually I was the person who could make friends with a brick. But right now, I could stab anyone with balls simply for breathing in my direction. Or any other direction, really.
“Or a horny man’s worst nightmare,” I responded. “Consequently, I’m not interested.”
“That’s a lie, and I don’t do liars.” He rolled a cocktail stirrer between his teeth in my periphery, shooting me a wolfish smirk. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.”
“Cocky and full of yourself?” I inwardly slapped myself across the face for even answering him. I had my earbuds in. Why had he talked to me in the first place? That was the international signal for leave-me-the-heck-alone. Never mind the fact that I wasn’t actually listening to anything, just wanted to push away potential conversationalists. “Good thing you didn’t say you put the STD in stud and now all you need is U.”
“I take it you’ve been hit on by extremely unsophisticated men. How rough was this day of yours, exactly?” He erased the rest of the distance between us, and I could now feel the heat of his body radiating from beneath his tailored suit.
I had a feeling if I turned around and looked at him—really looked at him—he would steal the breath from my lungs. My heart, angry and wounded from earlier today, thudded dully in my chest. We don’t want any intruders, Jude.
Tall, French, and Handsome slipped a one-hundred dollar bill to the bartender in front of me. His eyes caressed the side of my face as he asked him, “How many drinks did she have?”
“This is her second one, sir.” The bartender offered a curt nod, wiping the wooden surface in front of him with a damp cloth.
“Get her a sandwich.”
“I don’t want a sandwich.” I yanked my earbuds out of my ears and slammed them on the bar, finally looking up and spinning on my barstool to stare back at him.
A colossal mistake if I’d ever made one. For the first few seconds, I couldn’t even decipher what I was seeing. He was a level of gorgeous most people were not programmed to process. I’m talking Chris Pine perfect, Chris Hemsworth mammoth, and Chris Pratt charming. He was a triple-C threat, and I was S.C.R.E.W.E.D.
“You’ll have to eat one.” He didn’t bother sparing me a look, tossing his phone on the bar. It was lighting up like crazy, with dozens of emails pouring in every minute.
“Because I’m above fucking a drunk girl, and I would very much like to fuck you tonight,” he said calmly, peppering his casual statement with a dimpled, bewitching smile that turned my guts into warm goo.
I tried to blink away my shock, still staring, cataloging his face. Deep blue eyes—tiger-slanted and dark, dark, dark like the bottom of the ocean; mud-brown hair tousled to a fault; a jawline that could give you a papercut if you touched it; and lips made for saying filthy things in a sexy language. He was a specimen I had yet to encounter. I’d lived in New York my entire life. Foreign men were not a foreign concept to me. Yet he looked like an improbable cross between a male model and a CEO.
His navy suit made him look severe. The curves and edges of his face were ruthless. Filling in between those cutthroat cheekbones and square chin were a pouty mouth and straight nose.
I averted my gaze to his fingers to check for a wedding band. The coast looked clear.
“Excuse me?” I straightened my spine. Just because he looked like a god didn’t mean he had the right to act like one. The bartender slid a hot plate with a roast beef, mayo, tomato, and cheddar cheese sandwich on a brioche bun in front of me. I wanted so badly to remain defiant and tough, but unfortunately, I also wanted to not puke up pure whiskey in about an hour.
Hot Stranger Guy leaned against the bar, still standing—six one? six two?—and cocked his head to the side. “Eat.”
“It’s a free country,” I quipped.
“Yet you seem chained to the idea that fucking a stranger is somehow wrong.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, Mr. Not Getting The Hint.” I yawned.
“Will Power. Nice to meet you. Look, you’re obviously having a bad day. I have a night to burn. I’m flying back home tomorrow morning, but until then…” He jerked his arm, allowing the sleeve of his blazer slide up as he glanced at his vintage Rolex. “I’m going to make sure whatever’s on your mind is forgotten for the night. Miss…?”
Screw it. And him. He was the kind of hot I very much doubted I’d even get to meet again in my lifetime.
I could put the blame on Milton.
And the medical bills.
And the whiskey.
Hell, I could blame the entire state of New York after the day I’d had.
“Spears.” I narrowed my eyes and took a bite of the sandwich. Darn. I flipped the napkin that came with the sandwich to check the name of the bar. Le Coq Tail. I made a mental note to return in about twenty years, after I’d finally paid my dad’s medical bills and stopped living off ramen noodles.
“Like Britney Spears?” He arched an incredulous eyebrow.
“Correct. And you are?”
I took another bite of the sandwich, nearly moaning. When was the last time I’d eaten? Probably this morning, before I left the house for my job interview.
“You’re getting on my nerves, Mr. Timberlake. And I thought it was ‘Will Power’?”
“Cry me a river, baby. I’m Célian.” He offered me his hand.
His poise unnerved and fascinated me at the same time. He was carved like a god but looked vital and warm to the touch like a mortal. It clouded my judgment, messed with my senses, and made my stomach feel like hot tongues of lust licked it from within.
“Judith, but everyone calls me Jude.”
“I take it you’re a Beatles fan.”
“Presumptuous. Your list of negative traits is never-ending.”
“Not the only long thing about me. Eat, Judith.”
“I’m not everyone.” He threw an impatient smile my way, looking like he was over our conversation.
Bossy bastard. I took another bite. “This doesn’t mean anything.”
I was pretty sure I was lying, but I was too emotionally exhausted to deny myself things tonight.
He leaned toward me, entering my personal space the way Napoleon blazed into Moscow, with the pride and discretion of a pagan warrior. He brushed his thumb along the column of my throat. A simple touch, and my entire body broke out in violent goosebumps. It was the combination of his feral, male ruggedness, his accent, and his sharp everything else—suit, scent, and features.
I was helpless.
I wanted to be helpless.
“The heart is a lonely hunter.” But my body needed company tonight.
He leaned forward, his lips close to my ear, and whispered, “Oh, but this does.”
“You’re not my type.” I grinned into the rest of the whiskey I downed.
“I’m everyone’s type,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I’ll make it good for you.”
“You don’t know what I like,” I shot back. Ping-ponging with him was fun. He was curt, sharp, and unaffected, but oddly, I didn’t find him rude.
“Bet you all the cash I have on me that I do.”
This is interesting.
“What if I fake it every time I have an orgasm and act like I don’t?” I tucked my iPod and earbuds into my bag. This conversation couldn’t possibly be weirder. He smiled a smile I’d never seen on a human face before—so predatory my insides clenched on nothing, my panties dampening between my thighs.
“Clearly you’ve never had a real orgasm. When I make you come, you’ll be lucky to keep your fucking kneecaps from snapping.”
“Save me the sass, Spears.”
Ten minutes later, we were crossing the street on the way to his hotel. I tried hard not to lose my cool when we entered the glitzy lobby. The Laurent Towers Hotel stood across from the LBC skyscraper, home to one of the largest news channels in the world. The place was buzzing with people, but we were the only ones waiting for the elevator. We both stared at it silently while my heart screamed, nearly bursting from my chest. My knees shook under my cheap black dress. I was doing this. I was really having a one-night stand. Granted, I was twenty-three, newly single, and freshly vindictive. I knew there was nothing immoral about sleeping with him. But I also knew this was a one-off I would likely laugh about years from now.
“I don’t normally do this,” I said when the doors to the elevator slid open and we stepped inside.
Célian didn’t answer. When the doors glided shut, he stalked toward me, his eyes cool and detached, his mouth pursed. He cornered me against the wall, every step more voracious than the last. My pulse wrestled inside my throat. He considered me with those cocksure eyes, and I lifted my chin, feeling my nostrils flaring.
Célian cupped me through my skirt, and I whimpered, my body arching against the wall behind me. His thumb found my clit and dug its way through the fabric, pressing hard and massaging it in lazy circles.
“Don’t try to convince me you’re a good girl,” he hissed, his breath—mint and fresh coffee beans—skating along my throat. “I don’t give a fuck.”
“Your English is very good for a tourist,” I noted. His accent was thick, but he used words like a weapon. Strategic, sparse. Each syllable a vicious strike.
He took a step back, watching me through a curtain of indifference. “I’m quite good at a lot of things, as you’re about to find out.”
The elevator dinged, and he disconnected from me.
The doors opened and an elderly couple smiled at us, waiting for us to leave the elevator. Célian looped his arm in mine like we were a couple, and dropped it casually the minute they were out of sight.
The walk to his suite was silent, but I nearly drowned from the noise inside my head. I convinced myself this was the right thing. A no-strings-attached night of pleasure with an inhumanly beautiful tourist would take the pain away. I trailed behind him, watching his broad back and lean figure. He looked like he worked out for a living, but dressed like he had no time to hit the gym. His profession, however, would remain an unsolved mystery. He was flying back to France tomorrow, and whether he was a hot-shot lawyer or an assassin made no difference to me.
Once we were in his suite, he handed me a bottle of water.
“Stop ordering me around.”
“Then stop staring at me, doe-eyed, waiting for instructions.”
He removed his blazer and kicked off his shoes. The suite was plush and tidy—too much so for an occupied room. It was huge, but I couldn’t detect any suitcases, phone chargers, a desolate shirt lying on the ground, or any other telltale objects.
On one hand, it looked suspicious. On the other, he looked exactly like the kind of psycho to not leave a trace behind. And I was in his room. Fantastic.
Note to self: After your actions today, try to base all your future decisions on fortune cookie advice. You’ll do better.
I drank the water he’d handed me without realizing I did so, then dropped the bottle in the trash like it was on fire, my rebellious soul dying a little.
It’s not too late to bail. Tell him you’re not feeling well and leave.
“I think I should—” I started, but I never got to complete the sentence.
He slammed me against the wall, his lips fusing to mine, shutting me up. My eyes rolled from the sudden pleasure and stars exploded behind my eyelids. I clutched the collar of his shirt as he hoisted me up in his arms and dug his fingers into my butt. My legs wrapped around his waist in no time. He gyrated against me, igniting lust in my lower belly, and when I moaned, he pinched the side of my thigh so hard I tried to fight him off, only to find sinking my claws into his skin felt a lot like drowning in an eternal kiss. His lips were crushed, hot velvet. His body stony marble, and hard everywhere.
Célian slid his tongue into my mouth, and I let him.
He rolled his hips, his hard—very hard—cock pressing against my slit, and again, I let him.
He bit my lower lip harder and growled, then sucked the pain away. I cried for more.
He slipped his hand between us, nudged my panties aside, and dipped two fingers into me.
I was embarrassingly soaked.
The sexy stranger tore his mouth from mine, staring me down. “Time to finish your sentence, Miss Spears.”
“I… I…” I blinked, flustered.
He began to thrust his fingers in and out of me—slow, so tauntingly slow—his face still dead serious.
Who was this guy? He looked so unaffected, even when an involuntary groan escaped my lips every time he dug deeper and deeper into me, his fingers curling and hitting my G-spot. His other hand traveled up to my breasts, twisting one nipple roughly.
“You said you should do something.” His hand left my sex momentarily to paint my lips with my desire for him, before returning to its new favorite place between my legs. He tasted me on my lips. “What was it, Judith?”
Judith. The way he rolled the J between his teeth made me want to die in his arms. His hot tongue was on my neck, chin, lips, and then between them again. We were tangled together like we needed each other to survive. I knew it was just one night, but it felt like so much more.
“I…eh…nothing,” I said, fumbling for his zipper between us. He pressed one of his hands over mine, pushing my palm against his huge hard-on. Now I had a whole different reason for panic. That thing could maybe fit in my gym bag. Not my vagina.
“I set the pace,” he said.
I shook my head. He wasn’t the boss of me. He slipped two more fingers into me—most of his hand—and I was so full I thought I was going to smolder. A growl escaped my mouth. He swallowed it into our filthy kiss, and I came on his fingers in an instant.
The pleasure was so intense I turned to mush against the wall, sliding along it like spaghetti. Célian elevated me back up, digging his fingers into my cheeks, holding my jaw in place and tapering his eyes at me. “You better taste as good as you look.”
He slid to his knees in one swift movement, flipped my dress up and threw one of my legs over his shoulder. His tongue drove into me with my panties still nudged to the side, and rather than licking and sucking, he started fucking me with his tongue. I threaded my fingers through his hair, noting that it was softer than mine, and rolled my head against the wall as he awarded me with the kind of oral sex I’d never thought was possible.
Milton was a generous, albeit robotic lover. This man was a walking, talking orgasm. I was pretty sure I would come if he sneezed in my direction. An intense desire to clamp my thighs around his face and keep him there forever slammed into me. My second climax soared from my toes to my head like an electric shock, sending me to heaven, and when he closed his lips over my swollen clit and sucked it with force, I was pretty sure every angel in my vicinity got their wings. By the time he stood up, rid himself of his dress pants and shirt, and ripped a condom wrapper with his teeth, I knew that whether I could accommodate him or not, I was willing to end up in the ER trying.
Célian drove into me all at once, crashing me against the closet behind us, lacing our fingers together and essentially handcuffing me to the surface. The pleasure was so penetrating I writhed between his arms, fighting his hands so I could claw and touch and rip to match him, thrust for thrust.
“Fuck,” he hissed. “Judith.”
“Célian.” It was the last thing I said to him for a while, before we both drowned in hot sex.
On the floor, like two savages.
Doggy-style on the bed while he was facing the TV—watching CNN.
Then when I told him he was about as gentlemanly as a sack of rocks (he let out a soft curse when Anderson Cooper presented an exclusive item about voter fraud that even I was half-tempted to listen to), we got into the shower and he ate me out again, this time paying extra attention to my clit.
Then we went at it again against the sink.
Finally, when I collapsed into the bed, he handed me another bottle of water and said, “I’m leaving at six. Checkout is at ten, and they don’t appreciate tardiness at the Laurent Towers.”
I wanted to tell him to: A, take a hike, and B, that it was a brilliantly bad idea for me to stay the night. But I wasn’t entirely sure I could face my ill dad after all the sex I’d been having, and not with my newly ex-boyfriend. I didn’t have to stare at the mirror to know I looked thoroughly screwed, with cracked, engorged lips, stubble marks covering every inch of my red skin, and three bite marks on my neck—not to mention my eyes were deliriously drunk, and not from the whiskey I’d consumed hours ago.
Reluctantly, I texted Dad that I was crashing at Milton’s and scooted up Célian’s bed, closing my eyes. I felt orphaned in the world. No one knew where I was, and the only person who cared—Dad—couldn’t particularly help me, as he barely left the house anymore.
That’s when I decided I wasn’t even going to tell Robert Humphry about my breakup with Milton Hayes. Dad had put all his Hope chips on my boyfriend, counting on him to take care of me once he was gone. Everybody needed someone, and other than Dad, I had no one.
Célian slid into bed behind me, his swelling cock pressing between the backs of my thighs.
He traced a rough-padded finger over the side of my ribcage, along the tattoo I’d gotten the day I turned eighteen.
If I seem a little strange, that’s because I am.
“So you don’t like The Beatles, but you do like The Smiths.” His breath caressed my shoulder blade.
I grew up with a single dad who was a construction worker in New York. Money was tight, and sitting on the floor listening to his vinyl records had been our favorite pastime. We read books about Johnny Rotten and invented deliberately misleading music trivia games to pass the time.
“Careful, you might get attached if you get to know me,” I said quietly, staring out the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking New York.
He began to drive into me from behind, silent. “I’ll take my fucking chances.”
The position reminded me of the front-row seat I’d had for Milton and Elise’s adulterous performance. My feelings tangled and knotted. My body was elated, but tears gathered in the corner of my eyes. I was glad my one-night stand couldn’t see them, though they were definitely a mixture of happy from all the orgasms and sad at the prospect of going back home tomorrow morning to face reality.
A dying father and a pile of bills I didn’t know how to pay.
After we both finished, he kissed the back of my neck, turned over, and went to sleep. And me? I had a direct view to his dress pants and the outline of his fat wallet, which seemed to glare back at me.
My heart was a lonely hunter.
Tonight, I’d let it feast.
Three Weeks Later.
“How do I look?”
“Nervous. Anxious. Sweet. Pretty. One of those ought to be the right answer, right?” Dad chuckled, rubbing my arms.
I had put on a white pencil dress and my black Chucks. Classy. Understated. Plus, I was going for serious and professional today. My dark blond hair was styled in a loose chignon, and I’d streaked my hazel eyes with a dramatic eyeliner. This wasn’t my usual attire of flannel shirts, skinny jeans, and faux leather jackets. Then again, it was my first day at my new job, so not looking like a Tokio Hotel dropout was a priority.
I stroked Dad’s bald head—forsaken patches of white hair scattered around it like sad dandelions—and kissed his cheek, where his veins stood out through pale, bluish skin.
“You can call me any time,” I reminded him.
“Oh, yes. My favorite Blondie song.” He grinned.
I rolled my eyes at his dorkiness.
“I’m feeling fine, Jude. Are you coming home after this or staying at Milton’s?” He ruffled my hair like I was a kid, and I guess to him I was.
He launched into another coughing fit mid-sentence. Which is why I felt slightly guilty for the lie. He thought Milton and I were still together. My dad had stage three cancer in his lymph nodes. He’d officially stopped attending his chemo sessions two weeks ago. Time was slipping through our fingers like sand.
His doctors had begged him to continue treatments, but he’d said he was too tired. Read: we were broke. It was either refinance our house or give up treatment, and Dad didn’t want to leave me with nothing—no matter how hard I fought against that decision. Now I was guilt-stricken, walking around with my lonely, worry-soaked heart, carrying it like a chest full of gold—so many precious, heavy, useless things inside.
My voice was gruff from yelling at him to just sell the damn apartment. I’d finally stopped when I realized I was just putting him through more unnecessary agony and stress.
“Back here.” I kissed his temple and waltzed to the kitchen, pulling out the meals I’d made him for the day.
“You don’t spend much time with him lately. Everything okay?”
I nodded, pointing at the Tupperware in front of me. “Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. There are fresh blankets on your bed in case it gets cold. Did I mention that you can always call me? Yes. Yes, I did.”
“Stop worrying about your old man.” He mussed my carefully done hair again as I exited the kitchen, walking to the door. “And break a leg.”
“With my luck, I don’t doubt it.” I grabbed my shoulder bag, watching as he groaned when he settled in his armchair in front of the TV.
He was wearing the same PJs I knew I was going to see him in when I got back from work God-knows-when. Most people wouldn’t have invested in Netflix when they were neck-deep in debt, but my dad barely left the house. Up until very recently, he’d always been suffering from nausea and felt extremely weak. Chemotherapy killed not only his cancerous cells, but also his appetite. The only thing he did have were shows like Black Mirror, House of Cards, and Luke Cage. No way was I going to deprive him of his only entertainment, even if I had to pick up another job on top of this one.
And this is the part they don’t tell you about losing a loved one to cancer: They’re not the only people being eaten alive. When they get it, you get it. The cancer nibbles away at your time with them, feasts on the happy moments, feeds off every second of bliss. It devours your paycheck and savings. It nourishes itself on your misery and multiplies in your chest, even if you don’t have it.
I lost my mom to breast cancer ten years ago.
Now my dad was next, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan was long, and I didn’t have my iPod with me. That’s what you get for being a shithead and stealing from a stranger. I’d left it, my earbuds, and my morals back in the hotel suite. No matter. The money had paid two red electricity bills and covered our weekly grocery shopping. And now I had time to read through all the material I’d printed out in advance about the Laurent Broadcasting Company. LBC was headquartered in a gigantic high-rise building on Madison Avenue. They were one of the top four news channels in the world, alongside MSNBC, CNN, and FOX. I’d accepted a job as a junior reporter in their beauty and lifestyle online blog division, which wasn’t exactly my lifegoal. Then again, not drowning under past-due bills was pretty high on my to-do list.
I was grateful for the opportunity, and had almost toppled over when I’d gotten the acceptance phone call. My chance at the newsroom would come. I just needed to work my way up.
For now, I had to make sure I kept this 75k-a-year job. It wasn’t only a great way to get my foot in the door; it could also help me convince Dad to give chemo another shot.
The lifestyle blog—aptly named Couture—was located on the fifth floor of the building, the same floor as accounting.
“They don’t treat us as real journalists,” I’d been warned by Grayson, AKA Gray, the chatty guy who had hired me. “The toilet seats in this place get more respect than the beauty and entertainment blog. They also get better ass, I’m sure. There’re literally no hot people here in accounting.”
I’d come in the day before to get my tag and electronic card and to fill out the paperwork. The job offered kickass health insurance and free gym facilities. In short: if I could marry this job, I would make sure it was happy and give it a foot massage every evening.
I was over a half-hour early, so I made a donut stop and bought enough sugary goodness for the entire floor. The receptionist, an auburn-haired girl around my age named Kyla, was already behind her desk, typing away when I came in. I offered her a donut, and her timid eyes scanned me as if I was trying to sell her an unregistered gun.
“They’re good. I promise. My mom and I used to come all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan every Saturday just to have them.” I smiled.
“People are not nice here at LBC, though.” She tapped her desk nervously.
“Well, I am. So…” I shrugged.
She plucked a chocolate-glazed donut and showed me to my office. It wasn’t an actual office, but a cubicle on an open-space floor: beige on white and clinically depressing with its uniform plastic dividers and creaking office chairs. Each cubicle had four desks. I’d share mine with Couture’s staff. We’d be three people in total.
“Gray should be here any minute,” Kyla said between moans of pleasure.
I dumped my mismatched backpack under a chair that faced one of the desks without photos and knickknacks, and looked out the window. I had a direct view of the Laurent Towers Hotel, where I’d spent the night with Célian. Three weeks later and it still felt surreal that a man I didn’t know had been inside of me multiple times. Even stranger was the sharp pang of regret that pierced my chest every time I thought about the money I’d stolen from him. I vowed to never do it again, and tried to tell myself that entire night had been out of character for me.
Grayson arrived twenty minutes later. He looked like the lovechild of Kurt Hummel from Glee and your best friend’s hot brother, and he dressed like Willy Wonka. The deep maroon velvet blazer he had on today would’ve looked like a crime scene on anyone else. He waved his hand theatrically as he entered, his eyes still curtained by his huge Prada shades. He sipped his Starbucks as he showed me around the floor, which was beginning to fill with personnel. The accountants and secretaries nodded at me grimly as we passed them by.
“Feel free to erase every single person and face I’ve introduced you to from your memory and use that space to remember Dua Lipa’s beauty ritual, because none of them talk to us or acknowledge our existence. We were illegally and brutally deported from the sixth floor—AKA the newsroom—after the incident-that-shall-not-be-named last year.”
He fell into his executive chair and ran his fingers through his raven hair. “This made Couture extremely difficult to work on, but we still manage.”
“What happened?” I propped my elbows on my knees.
“The big bosses lost someone important.”
“What did it have to do with you?”
“That someone was our boss, and every time they look at us, they see her. Which is why they never look at us.”
I reached out and squeezed Gray’s hand, just as my second and only colleague in Couture strutted in.
“Ah, my fellow lepers and partners in being-pretty crime.” She offered me her hand, her fingernails brushed in blue and green. “I’m Ava.”
I shook her hand. She looked to be in her late twenties like Gray, and dripping chic from head to toe. With tan skin, big curls, and cat-like eyes—plus a red leather mini dress and vintage yellow boots—she could give any pop princess a run for her money.
“Is this dress up as a bipolar nurse day?” She scowled at my white dress. I opened my mouth to explain I was about as fashionable as her keyboard, when she broke into a grin and Grayson laughed from his desk, shaking his head.
“A wrap dress and Chucks? For real?” She wiped tears from the corner of her eyes.
“Which part is more disturbing to you, the thrift-shop dress or the Chucks?” I poked at my lower lip.
“Pretty sure the part where you look like a kid high on Jamba Juice who raided Mrs. Clinton’s closet. Do you have a name?” Ava swiped her gaze along my body.
“Judith. But people call me Jude.”
“Hey, Jude.” She winked.
“Sure she hasn’t heard that one before, Av.” Grayson swiveled his chair to his Apple screen, double-clicking the envelope icon.
The kids in my neighborhood had decided I was too much of a tomboy to have such a feminine name when I was about seven, and that’s how Jude was born. Judith died a slow death, coughing signs of vitality every time I needed to fill out an official document.
“Jude can touch the tip of her nose with her tongue and make fart noises with her armpits.”
“Jude can teach us how to skateboard.”
“Jude knows how to make water bombs.”
“Speaking of disturbing things, Mr. Laurent will be making an announcement today at three, so maybe it’s a good thing little Miss Reese Witherspoon is covered up in a dress so ugly it should be illegal.”
I shot Ava a look, and she snapped her gum in my face. “He likes the ladies, but worry not. His son puts him on a leash.”
Hours ticked by, hoovering the minutes and sucking them into an entire sun-deprived day. I spent them researching the many disturbing ways you can freeze, melt, and scrub cellulite to death. When the clock hit three, the elevator dinged chirpily. But that was the only chipper thing about the occasion. Time stopped. So did the clicking of keyboards, and the radio stations blasting over the floor along with the general chitchat. By the way the air hung and dangled like a sword above my neck, I guessed that Mr. Laurent, the owner of Couture and LBC, had arrived.
Grayson pushed off his desk and motioned for Ava and me to get out of our cubicle. I wiped the cold sweat on my palms over my dress.
“Main attraction’s here. Let’s hope Laurent Senior doesn’t grope anyone and Laurent Junior doesn’t fire us all because he’s on his period.” He catwalked to the main lobby of the floor, hips swaying.
I chuckled. So the infamous New York royals, the Laurents, were a pain in the butt. Hardly made any difference to me. I very much doubted they worked on this floor or that I’d see much of them. I knew of Mathias Laurent, the French mogul. He sounded too important to hang with us mortals on the fifth floor, crunching numbers or trying samples of new, gluten-free perfumes.
The minute we stepped into the already-full reception area, my jaw slacked. It fell to the floor, and my tongue rolled out like a red carpet, cartoon-style.
I could practically hear Jesus in my head, waving his fist. “Stop using my name in vain every time you remember a sin you’ve committed.” He had a valid point. At this rate, I needed to say so many Hail Marys, I wasn’t going to be done until my thirtieth birthday.
Standing in front of me was the hot French tourist who’d done unholy things to my body three weeks ago, looking no less god-like than he had that night, with one exception—now he looked a whole lot scarier.
Célian wore pale gray slacks that seemed like they’d been sewn directly onto his body, a white tailored shirt, and a formidable scowl. He looked ready to behead Kyla and feed her limbs to the crowd of people who’d gathered around him. Beside him was a white-haired man an inch shorter than he was.
Mathias Laurent had small, black, vacant eyes—the opposite of his son’s deep indigos. But they had the same disapproving frown that made you feel like the dirt under their Bolvaint shoes.
And probably the same amount of authority to fire yours truly.
“Let’s cut to the chase. Technically, this is an issue for accounting, but we’ve decided to throw Couture into the mix since you guys are a money pit deeper than Kidd Mine,” Célian began, the icicles he called irises still focused on his phone screen.
My eyes rolled inside their sockets as my knees threatened to buckle.
He had an American accent. Not French. American. Smooth. Familiar. Ordinary. He fired out sentences at the speed of light. I heard him, but I couldn’t listen. Shock gripped my body as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. My dirty one-night stand was my boss. My lying, American boss. And now I had to deal with that—hopefully for a very long time, because I desperately needed this job.
Someone snapped their fingers, and my gaze shot from Célian’s face to Grayson.
His forehead had crumpled into a frown. “You look like you’re trying hard not to cry or having a really intense orgasm. I’m hoping for you that it’s the latter and some kind of a weird-slash-awesome condition. You okay?”
I nodded, scraping up a smile. “Sorry. Zero orgasms happening under this dress. I just zoned out for a second.” Lies. I was about to orgasm just remembering how good Célian had felt parting my thighs with his big, callused hands and dipping his tongue into my slit.
Then words stopped streaming down on everyone’s heads like a scalding shower, and I realized that indeed there was something worse than hearing Célian speak in his perfect American English. And that was not hearing him speak at all. Because now the icicles were pointed at me like a cocked gun.
I glanced up to meet his gaze. He stared at me for exactly one second before his focus snapped to Grayson. “Am I understood, Gregory?” he asked.
“Crystal clear, sir,” Grayson bowed, his voice trembling at the edges.
Célian jerked his chin toward me. “Your cover girl material is going downhill.”
God. Damn. Bastard.
He recognized me, and I knew it. His eyes had kindled, melting the ice and growing darker the minute our gazes mingled. He remembered, and maybe it killed him that I was here in the same way it buried me.
I want my iPod back, my gaze told him. I had over three thousand songs on that thing, and they were all too good to be wasted on that jerk.
“Jude Humphry. Junior reporter. It’s her first day,” Grayson highlighted, almost pleadingly. He shifted in my direction, as if he might need to physically protect me from the sharp-tongued, suited monster.
I suppressed a smile when I realized I’d told Célian my last name was Spears. Well, he certainly wasn’t a Timberlake. He was a Laurent. An American monarch through and through. A billionaire, a powerful force, and judging by our one and only encounter—a raging playboy.
This man was inside you, I internally shrieked. And not just once. His cock was buried so deep in you, you screamed. You can still taste the salty, earthy flavor of his cum. You know he has a freckle on his lower back. You know what sound he makes when he empties inside a woman.
I internally thanked my mind for ruining my panties in public, and nodded. “Pleasure to meet you, sir.” I offered him my hand, my face flushing with embarrassment at my choice of words.
Everyone was looking at us, and there were at least fifty people in the room. Célian—if that was even his name—ignored my outreached hand. Instead, he turned his face to the man beside him. “Mathias, any other words of wisdom?”
Mathias? Wasn’t that his father? Just how cold was the man with the icy blue eyes?
“I think you touched everything,” said the big boss—and he did have a heavy French accent, so at least the lie had a seed. Mathias stared at me placidly, like he could read the secret his son and I shared on my face.
Célian spun toward me, uncuffing his cufflinks and rolling his sleeves up his veiny forearms. “Accounting can go back to their unfortunate line of work. Couture is excused from this meeting—though not forgiven for their horrid blog. Miss Humphry?” He snapped his fingers impatiently.
He was already waltzing down the narrow hallway, knowing I’d chase him like a puppy, and no doubt taking pleasure in that fact.
“I have a bone to pick with you.”
Bone, boner—same difference, right?
I shot Grayson a please-save-my-butt look. His eyes said, I would but I still have a life to live.
I followed Célian down the hall, my Chucks slapping the floor in a hurry. He sliced through the throng of accountants, then stopped at a corner office, opened the door, barked “Out!” to the man inside, and tilted his head for me to go in. I did. He closed the door, and it was just the two of us.
Two feet of empty space between us.
His eyes said war.
Which didn’t bode well for me, since he had bombs, and I barely had sticks.
“Where’d your accent disappear to?” I asked through a painted smile.
“Where’d my fucking cash disappear to?” He answered in the same light tone, but the smirk on him was different. Sinful.
I felt my expression fall. I was so disoriented by seeing him here, I’d forgotten that had happened, too.
“I took it.” I swallowed hard.
“Well, I faked it.” He meant the accent.
“Coincidentally, so did I.” I didn’t mean the accent.
I just remembered the bet we’d had at Le Coq Tail. If he didn’t make me come, I was allowed to take all his cash. Truthfully, I’d never come so hard in my life, but I wasn’t going to admit that. Not after he’d made me feel like a fool for the second time that day, faking a stupid French accent to shake me off his back in case I wanted to exchange numbers.
“Miss Humphry.” He tsked with pity, like I was adorable and exasperating at the same time—a puppy pissing on his two-grand loafers. “It’ll be a long time before you stop thinking about my cock every time you masturbate at the end of a long workday under your cheap covers.”
I was going to kill him.
I knew it right there and then.
Maybe not today and perhaps not tomorrow either, but it was going to happen.
I blew out air and folded my arms over my chest. “I’m sorry I took your money.” It hurt to apologize to him, but I had to do it for my conscience, not to mention my employment status.
He stared through me, like I’d said nothing. “I expect you to keep your lips sealed about our little…” He ran his eyes over my body, but not like he wanted me. More like he wanted to get rid of me.
I batted my eyelashes. “Cat got your tongue, sir?”
“No, but close.” He leaned his shoulder against the door, making shoulders and doors everywhere pale in comparison to how sexy he looked. “Your pussy got my tongue—several times, actually—but also my cock, fingers, and frankly everything else in that suite I could fit into you. I’ll spare you the sordid details because A, you were there, and B, we’re going to keep it strictly professional from here on out. Understood?”
Jesusjesusjesus. The mouth on this guy.
“Lady, if you don’t stop using my name in vain, I’m taking my complaint to a higher level,” Jesus grunted in my head.
“Aren’t you going to apologize, too?” I parked my fists on my waist.
“What for?” He sounded genuinely interested.
How old was he? Thirty? Thirty-two? He didn’t look so young anymore, now that I was sober and watching him through a curtain of red anger and sheer embarrassment.
“For lying to me,” I raised my voice, on the verge of stomping my foot. “For faking an accent and telling me you had a flight back home. For—”
“Not that it’s any of your business.” He lifted one hand, cutting into my stream of words. “And not that I will ever provide you with any more personal information, seeing as you’re officially an employee, and a junior one at that,” he reminded me coolly. “But I actually did fly out to see my mother in Florida. Home isn’t here. But it’s not in France, either.”
“And the accent?” I wished I could club him over the head with a stapler and still keep my job. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure HR would frown on that.
He tugged at his collar, his smile wolfish. “I have a taste for simple, meaningless fucks.”
“No. You made sure I wouldn’t ask for your number or try to give you mine.” I had zero control over my voice at this point, and I think he knew I was a step from punching him square in the face.
He looked at me flatly. “Crazy is not a good look on you, Spears.”
“Well, consider yourself lucky, because I have no intention of exchanging anything with you, be it numbers, fluids, or pleasantries.” I turned around, ready to storm out the door. I took the first few steps, but Célian grabbed my wrist and spun me in place. His touch sent a jolt of electricity straight to my groin, which only proved that my mind was savvy, and my heart was lonely, but my body was just a dumbass.
“Keep quiet,” he warned.
I rolled my eyes. Like letting my boss screw the living hell out of me was something I wanted to send a press release about.
“Yes, sir.” I shook his touch away. “Anything else, sir?”
“Watch your attitude.”
“I’ll make your life very miserable. And enjoy it, too. Not because we slept together, but because you stole my cash, wallet, and condoms.”
To be fair, the condoms were inside his wallet, and I’d simply forgotten to discard them. Which gave the whole thing an extra layer of embarrassment. I knew I was skating on thin ice, and I didn’t want to crash my way to the bottom of the unemployment ocean. I decided to change the subject.
“I forgot my iPod in the suite. Did you happen to find it?”
Damn. “Am I excused?”
He took a step back. “I hope to see very little of you, Miss Spears.”
“Duly noted, Mr. Timberlake.”
I slapped my forehead the entire way back to my cubicle, thinking things couldn’t possibly get any worse. The future owner of LBC looked royally vindictive, regally pissed, and majestically explosive. Because of me. I knew he was going to avoid me at all costs. And it embarrassed me that I was saddened by that, because his scent, voice, and the insanely inappropriate things leaving his mouth fascinated me no less than they infuriated me.
When I got back to my cubicle, my first instinct was to drown myself in perfume samples. But as soon as I walked in, I realized I had some explaining to do. Grayson and Ava sat side-to-side, cross-legged, staring at me like I was a National Geographic special. All they needed was popcorn.
Grayson jerked his thumb in the elevator’s direction. “Explain.”
Ava butted in. “Mr. Laurent Jr., AKA the news director slash executive producer of the prime-time news show and Lord Assholemort, never offers people eye contact, let alone talks to them.”
He doesn’t, now? Shocker.
“You better start singing like it’s American Idol and I’m Simon Cowell, girl.” Grayson snapped his fingers, wiggling his ass in his seat. “I want to know the how, when, where, and how long. Especially the long part. Inches and all.”
I guess I deserved this. Célian had no business seeking me out and having a private conversation with me on my first day. Besides, these were shaping up to be the only friendly faces in all sixty floors.
I stared down, my toes squirming in my shoes. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. We’ve met before. Briefly. At a…social function.” What’s more social than sucking each other’s privates? “I think we were just surprised to see each other is all.”
The way the lie slid effortlessly from my lips scared me. First stealing his wallet, and now this. Célian Laurent sure brought the worst out of me.
“So you’re saying you don’t know each other.” Ava tilted her chin down, inspecting me like I was a Russian spy.
“I’m not even sure what his first name is.” This was actually true.
“It’s Célian. Now, question—did you listen to anything he said in that meeting?” Grayson raised an eyebrow.
“I…” I searched for words.
Normally, I was far more eloquent. Debate had been my favorite subject at school. I’d gone head to head with my articulate, overtly opinionated, politician-wannabe classmates at Columbia—sons of lawyers and daughters of judges. But just like any woman determined to be taken seriously, I had an Achilles heel. Being caught getting freaky with the boss and salivating all over him was going to make my career freefall like a shooting star.
“Let me help you with that.” Grayson waved his hand. “Mr. Laurent said they’re slicing the budget of Couture by at least ten percent, which may not seem like much, but our blog is virtually running on fumes as it is. I thought this was the extent of it. I was wrong.”
“I’m not sure I’m following.” I frowned.
Grayson leaned forward, catching my gaze. “I’m going to ask again—how do you know the Laurents?”
“Why?” I felt my heart thudding against my chest. Now we were talking in plural?
“I just got this email.” He turned his monitor around so the three of us could huddle in front of it and take a look.
From: Mathias Laurent, President, LBC
To: Grayson Covey, Editor, Couture Online Magazine
Dear Mr. Covey,
As per our earlier discussion and in line with the recent cuts made at Couture, we shall be needing further assistance in the news department.
We will be transferring one of your employees to the newsroom starting tomorrow at nine a.m. Seeing as you and Miss Jones have worked together closely for the past two years, the person reporting to the newsroom will be Miss Humphry.
“What’s going on?” I swiveled Grayson’s chair, grabbing his shoulders.
I was mildly elated and a whole lot frightened. Working in a newsroom had been my dream for as long as I could remember, but working under Célian was sure to be a nightmare. My feelings were at war, fighting and tugging between joy and abject horror.
“I have no idea. Mr. Laurent Senior has never addressed me in person. I wasn’t even sure he knew my name.” Grayson rubbed his forehead, looking disoriented.
“You think it’s got something to do with Célian?” Ava asked.
Célian was about as readable as a blank sheet. He was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He’d seemed pissed at me, sure, and he’d been clear he didn’t want to see me again.
“Doubt it. As I said before, we don’t know each other,” I parroted myself.
Grayson darted up to rub my back. “It’s okay. You’ll be fine. Célian made a name for himself as the cruelest man in the business, which is why we’ve actually been leaving CNN and Fox News to eat dust the last couple years. But at the end of the day, there will be people around. He can’t maim you.”
A ping sounded from Grayson’s computer, and our eyes shot back to the screen.
From: Célian Laurent, News Director, LBC
To: Grayson Covey, Editor, Couture Online Magazine
You were expected to send us the Swedish royal wedding piece two hours ago. Unless you’re fond of long unemployment lines and downgrading to a Bronx apartment with unreliable electricity, I would advise against testing my limit when it comes to punctuality.
They’re called deadlines for a reason. If you fail to deliver the piece on time…
Grayson double-clicked the little X on the right-hand corner of his monitor, closing the email program.
“About the maiming thing…” He cleared his throat, looking skyward and shaking his head. “Wear a helmet tomorrow morning, just in case.”