Seeing the new girl seated at the receptionist’s desk in Ruby’s office the next morning both angered and depressed Nick. Stephanie had been a familiar, friendly face and his only ally in the office. Her replacement fit all of Ruby’s criteria for his female employees—young and attractive. Glossy black hair framed her smooth, golden complexion and dark, almond-shaped eyes. She offered a rehearsed smile when Nick entered. He told her his name and she dutifully pressed the intercom and announced his arrival. She motioned for him to sit with a graceful wave of her hand and then sat with her head bowed, rapidly tapping on her computer keyboard.
He chose to stand and pace. The photographs hanging on the walls of Joseph Cullen and the Blood Lust band that had awed him on his first visit to Ruby’s office, now made his stomach knot.
Ruby summoned him from his doorway. The wave of heat inside the office reminded him of the flush of rage he experienced when one of the demons took over his body. He perched on the edge of the guest chair and waited for Ruby to speak.
“What do you think of Kim, my new receptionist?”
Nick shrugged and sat nervously tapping his feet.
“No opinion? I find her so much easier on the eyes than Stephanie. She’s smarter, too.”
A fiery sensation quivered inside Nick’s gut, but he bit his tongue.
“What’s wrong?” Ruby flashed his signature toothy grin. “Kim’s twenty-two, is that too old for you to pin down on your bed, Nick?”
The fiery ball inside him intensified. He spat his words. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Ah, busy schedule, hey Nick? Do you have a new book in the works or are you simply itching to carve up your fiancée?”
Nick squeezed his hands into fists. Ruby enjoyed goading him into a fit of anger so he could flick his finger and fling him across the room like a rag doll. “No book right now,” he answered in a low, measured voice. “I simply wanted to know what you have planned next.”
“A book signing. Today at one o’clock. I won’t be able to join you. I’m launching Talon’s world tour promotion. Think you can handle it alone?”
He glared at Ruby. “Did you hire more strippers to show up?”
Ruby laughed. “No. We’ll see how the herd reacts on their own today.”
“Where is it?”
“The Book Shelf, it’s downtown—”
“I know where it is.” He jumped up from the chair, eager to leave.
“Afterward, I promised Janis Ford an exclusive interview with you. She’ll meet you at the bookstore.”
Nick rolled his eyes and kept walking toward the door.
“One more thing, Nick.”
Nick paused with his hand on the doorknob and turned. Ruby curled his finger indicating for him to come back.
“Tonight, there’s a cocktail party. Seven o’clock. The penthouse of the Grande Plaza. Same hotel where I hosted the VIP. I want you there.”
“So, I can introduce you to the movie producer I’ve chosen to make the film version of your books.” Ruby’s eyes narrowed into dark glittering slits and his lips pressed into a tight smile. His expression made the sweat running down Nick’s back turn cold.
“What else do you have planned at this cocktail party?”
Ruby held up his hands, palms outward and smiled. “Drinks, hors d’oeuvres. Polite conversation.”
The Book Shelf was a small, local book shop located five blocks from Ruby’s office. A line of mostly women stretched all the way down the street. A small group of reporters stood at the front door. They shouted questions and snapped pictures as Nick entered the store.
The set up inside the store was more organized than his first book signing. A team of cashiers sold books and then directed customers to the back of the store where Nick sat at a table and signed them. The event proceeded smoothly, and the press left early, seeming bored with the large, but orderly crowd.
Near the end of the two-hour scheduled signing, Nick heard a woman scream and then sounds of a scuffle. He stood and watched as police led two women out the front door with navy blue blankets draped around them.
Janis Ford strolled to the table with her camera in her hands. “Looks like I snagged an exclusive photo. Two more of your crazed, topless fans.” She glanced at her cellphone. “How much longer will you be?”
“Until I’m done.” He nodded toward the women patiently waiting in line.
Janis heaved a loud sigh. “I’ll be in the coffee shop.”
The signing officially ended at three o’clock but Nick stayed until after four to accommodate the fans waiting at his table. He found Janis Ford sitting in a booth in the coffee shop typing on her laptop.
“Your legions of panting, under-aged groupies finally have enough of you?” Her brown eyes fixed on him in a cold stare.
“I don’t want to talk to you either, Janis.” He slid into the booth opposite her. “But since I’m forced to, let’s start with why you were nosing around my fiancée’s apartment last week?”
“Maybe you’re not bright enough to understand how this works, pretty boy. I ask the questions, you answer.”
Nick moved to the end of the seat and stood. “Screw you.”
“Not if you were the last man on earth.” She waved a packet of typed pages. “Besides, Mr. Ruby already gave me your interview to publish.”
Nick grabbed for the papers, but Janis snatched them away.
“So, why even bother with this damn interview?”
“I’m allowed to add my personal observations to the piece. Which right now are an arrogant, conceited asshole in need of anger management classes.” She sneered at him.
He sat and leaned across the table. “I need anger management? What is your deal? Are you that bitter because I won Ruby’s contest and you didn’t?”
Janis studied her laptop screen. “Let’s just say if I had won, I would have accomplished a hell of a lot more than getting shit-faced drunk and screwing everything that walked in front of me.”
“You don’t know jack shit about me or Ruby. You’re so gullible and desperate for a story, you take whatever crap he hands you and then run with it. If you knew the truth, you’d be celebrating that you lost his fucking contest.”
Janis’s head snapped up. “What truth?” Her tone, while cold, sounded civil for once.
“Publish whatever trash Ruby gave you. I don’t give a shit.” He stood and walked away.
“Wait! What do you know about Ian Slaughter and Joseph Cullen?” She hurried to catch up with him. “How about Bethany Grant or Lee Woods? Do you know anything about them?”
Nick quickened his pace and shouted over his shoulder. “You’re Ruby’s lap dog. Ask him.”
Ruby had reserved the penthouse of the Grande Plaza hotel for the cocktail party. A smiling young woman dressed in a black and white uniform greeted Nick as he entered the luxurious suite. She offered a silver tray of hors d’oeuvres.
“No, thank you,” he said, waving his hand.
Scanning the spacious room, he immediately spotted Talon. She stood a head above everyone else in the crowd. Her skimpy, red sequined gown molded to her body like scales on a snake. The fabric shimmered with her every movement under the dim lights in undulating shades of red. She dwarfed Victor Ruby, who escorted her with his arm around her waist. The two stopped and greeted a slender, middle-aged man with a clean-shaven head and narrow-framed, tinted glasses.
Nick maneuvered through the small groups of elegantly dressed guests who stood talking with drinks in their hands and wound his way to the closest portable bar. Fortified with a drink in his hand, he reluctantly joined Talon and Ruby.
“Nick. Right on time,” Ruby said with a smile. Talon wound her arm through Nick’s. He could feel the sinewy muscles in her arm flex against his forearm like a boa constrictor, tensed and ready to tighten its suffocating grip at will.
“This is Jason Myriad,” Ruby said, motioning to the bald man. “Myridian Productions. I trust you’ve heard of it, Nick.”
Nick shook Jason’s hand. “Yes, of course.” He had seen the Myridian logo at the beginning of almost every horror movie he’d ever watched.
“Victor has me intrigued about this epic vampire story of yours, Nick,” Jason said. “He tells me it would translate quite well to film. Of course, I hope you’re not one of those writers who’s convinced a movie will never capture the true essence of their work.” Jason’s lips jerked up at the corners in a feeble attempt at a smile. His eyes remained fixed and cold, shielded behind amber-colored lenses.
“Not at all,” Nick said. “In fact, I admire how much visuals and special effects add to a story. Especially in the horror genre. Those are the kind of things an author can only hope a reader envisions in their minds when they read the book.”
Jason raised his eyebrows and nodded at Ruby. “I’ll look forward to reviewing the screenplay.”
“We’ll have it to you next week,” Ruby said.
“Are you writing the screenplay, Nick?” Jason asked.
Before Nick could respond, Ruby answered, “Nick’s overseeing the project. I’ve hired a screen writer to expedite the process. I’d like to see the film in theaters by this time next year.”
The corners of Jason’s mouth twitched again. “Victor, even if I decide I want to produce this film, that’s optimistic, but, not at all realistic. There’s casting and—”
“I have investors eager to spend money, Jason. A shit-load of money. If not with Myridian, then with another production house. After our long and fruitful relationship, I wanted to give you first pick. Nick is making a big impact in the industry. A movie based on his books is a guaranteed box office hit.” Ruby winked at Nick. “Especially with my unique promotional skills behind him.”
Jason bowed his head and stared into his drink. “I do appreciate our relationship, Victor. But, as you know, I’ve been branching out beyond horror movies. I have several serious projects in the works.”
“If it weren’t for my films, you wouldn’t have the money for your so-called serious projects.” Ruby craned his neck, looked past Jason and waved. A young girl of fifteen or sixteen in a short, baby blue dress waved back from the other side of the room.
“I so enjoyed talking to your daughter this evening, Jason.” Ruby grasped Jason’s arm, his claw-like nails dug into the sleeve of the suit jacket. “She’s blossomed into a real beauty. And, she told me she has aspirations to be an actress. It can be a rough industry for a young, innocent girl. I’ve offered to represent her. And, as a personal favor to you, I promise to pay extra special attention to her.”
Jason’s Adam’s apple moved up and down in his throat. “She’s only sixteen. Still in high school. She doesn’t know what she wants. I planned for her to attend college. I don’t want. . ..” A thin sheen of sweat coated Jason’s bald head and face.
“Of course, you don’t. But it’s so difficult for a single father to keep tabs on a teenage girl. They can be quite impetuous, can’t they?”
Jason gulped his drink and glared at Ruby. “I’ll read your screenplay as soon as it arrives. I’ll make it my priority.”
“I’m so glad you’re enthusiastic about the project.” Ruby smiled and held his hand out to Jason. “I’m positive it will be quite lucrative for everyone involved.”
Jason accepted the handshake, excused himself and then hurried off toward his daughter.
Talon withdrew her arm from Nick’s and wrapped both arms around Ruby, drawing his face close to her breasts. “You were spectacular, Victor!” She bent at the waist and planted her mouth on Ruby’s. Nick turned away from the two when Ruby’s long tongue flickered from between his lips.
“Nick, stick around,” Ruby said. “I hired several photographers. I want your picture taken in the Hollywood circle. It’ll be great PR for your transition from print to film.”
Nick ordered another drink and strolled to the expansive wall of floor to ceiling windows with double French doors leading outside to a tiled balcony. Holding his glass, he leaned on the iron railing, and looked out across the city. Shit, all I need is a freaking cigarette and I’m Cullen, he thought.
His cell buzzed indicating a message. Ray texted he dropped Katie off at her apartment. As usual, the text ended with we need to talk. Nick pocketed his phone, turned and studied the crowd while he sipped his beer. A few couples, arms entwined, stood gazing out over the balcony admiring the colorful array of lights glimmering in the night sky. They spoke in hushed tones and smiled at each other. Some kissed. He missed being part of a couple. He missed Katie.
A young woman stood a few feet away, alone, with her back to him. His eyes drifted from her long, slender neck down her bare back. A voice, not his own, whispered, let’s get a piece of that. He averted his eyes and focused his thoughts back on Katie. Ray had seen her safely home. Nick ached to be making love to her in her bed and far away from Ruby’s lurid world of parties and publicity. His mood darkened as he dwelled on how Ruby had destroyed his relationship with Katie and ruled his life.
Classical music provided by a solo pianist drifted outside. Above the din of conversation and tinkling notes, he heard Ruby’s distinctive laughter. He watched him lead Talon around the crowded suite like a jockey showing off his prize filly. He glowered at Ruby through the glass wall and fantasized about choking him to death with his bare hands.
The young woman in the backless gown stared at him.
Nick shook off his murderous thoughts and forced a smile. “Hi, I’m Nick,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Mary, uh, Bethany.” She barely touched his fingertips and then withdrew her hand. She clutched a small purse in her arms which she kept folded tightly across her chest.
“I saw you at the VIP party. You’re a movie actress, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Her gaze dropped to her feet. “You’re that writer. I saw your book signing on the news.”
Nick grunted. “Yeah, well, Ruby stages a lot of things for the publicity.”
“Yes.” Her light blue eyes blazed with anger. “I’m familiar with Victor Ruby’s tactics.”
“So, your real name’s Mary. Ruby changed it, right?”
“Victor despised my name. Said it reminded him of someone he hated. It was the first thing he changed about me.”
“The first thing?”
She shook her head and turned away. “Nice meeting you,” she said over her shoulder. She stood with her back to him again. He noticed thin dress straps dangled from the material at her waist, the ends frayed.
Nick leaned back against the railing. A young, blond man sneaked up behind Mary and grabbed her roughly around the waist. She let out a short scream. People turned to look. The man laughed and waved off their curious stares. “It’s nothing. A joke.” He whispered into Mary’s ear.
Mary whirled around to face him. “I told you, I’m not doing it.”
“And I’m not gonna let you screw up my future.” The man jerked Mary’s wrist. “Let’s go.”
“Stop it, you’re hurting me.”
He wrenched her right arm away from her body. The bodice of her dress drooped on the right side.
Nick walked to Mary’s side. “Is everything all right?”
“No, it’s not,” she said, using the interruption to free her arm from the man’s grasp. She yanked up the bodice of her gown and crossed her arms to hold the material in place.
“Mind your own business,” the man said to Nick. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
A blaze of angry heat shot through Nick. He instantly disliked the cocky, little man. “Nick Tera,” he said, not offering his hand.
The man rubbed his smooth-shaven chin. “Oh, yeah, that new writer. You’ve got a sweet deal. Naked girls throwing themselves at you all the time, huh?” His mouth formed a leering grin and he moved his eyebrows up and down as he jutted his thumbs in the air.
“Who are you?” Nick asked.
He stuck his chin out when he answered. “Lee Woods, Bethany’s co-star in Night Birds, the new vampire movie.”
It explained Lee’s pale, powdered face and black eyeliner. His hair swooped upward from his forehead into a tall, platinum-streaked pompadour.
“You and Mary having a problem?” Nick asked. She stood a few feet away watching them. Lee snorted and pointed at Mary. “Her name’s Bethany, and she’s the damn problem. We’ve got about a week left to promo the movie before the big premiere.” He moved closer to Nick and lowered his voice. “The tabloids and cable have been running stories about her and me having this hot, kinky affair. Mr. Ruby arranged a special photo op tonight. We get caught naked in a bedroom.” Lee snickered and slapped Nick on the back. “I’m a method actor, know what I mean? But she refuses to play along.” Lee squinted his eyes and his upper lip twisted into an ugly snarl. “That icy bitch is going to ruin—”
“Maybe she’s just not that into you.” Nick smirked back at Lee, aware he towered over the actor and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds.
Lee cocked his head back, eyeing Nick through half-closed lids. He held out his hands, palms up, flipped his fingers inward and taunted Nick to come closer. “C’mon, big man. You wanna get into it? I’m a state kick-boxing champion. I’ll chop you down like a fucking tree.” Lee circled around Nick, kicking the air and striking various martial arts stances. The guests standing near them backed away and stared.
Nick’s anger flared into a fiery rage. He waited until Lee circled back to face him and then threw one hard punch. His fist made a sickening, crunching sound when it smashed into the actor’s face. Lee let out a high-pitched scream and fell backwards. He rolled and moaned on the patio floor with both hands clamped over his face. Blood seeped between his fingers, dripped down his neck and dyed his white shirt with bright red.
A chorus of ‘oohs’ rose from the people on the balcony. Reporters and photographers swarmed in, shoving Mary and Nick closer together. Flashes of light punctuated their chorus of rapid-fire questions.
“Nick, are you and Bethany having an affair? Is that what the fight’s about?”
“Bethany! Is it over between you and Lee?”
Nick grasped Mary’s elbow. “You wanna get outta here?”
She nodded. Nick put one arm around her and used the other to push his way through the clinging throng of press. When they cleared the balcony, he grabbed her hand and they ran for the exit. As they entered the elevator, one of the reporters caught up to them and wedged his foot in between the doors. Nick shoved the man back and the doors slid closed.
Mary crouched in the corner of the elevator, catching her breath.
“Where’s your car?” Nick asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“I’ll drive you home, if you want?”
“No. I already have enough scandals. If I’m seen with you—”
“You’ve already been seen with me. The reporters will follow us downstairs. You can either come with me or deal with them.”
The elevator bell rang, and the doors opened. “Oh, fine.” Mary ran alongside Nick until they reached his Mustang. Bursts of camera flashes blinded them as he sped out of the parking garage of the Grande Plaza Hotel.
“The tabloids and television will have a field day with this,” Mary said.
“It’s a set up. Either with that asshole Lee, or me. Ruby probably planned it.”
“I know what Ruby planned for me with that disgusting pig, Lee.” She tightened her arms around her chest and stared out the window. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. Where do you live?”
“The Grande Plaza. At least until after the premiere. Ruby said he’d find me an apartment. But . . .”
“I can’t take any more of this charade. I just want to go home. To Florida. Would you drive me to the airport?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” He braked at a red light and turned to face her. “Don’t you have a contract with Ruby?”
Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “Y-yes.”
They snaked through the heavy downtown traffic without speaking.
“Would you pull over?” Mary asked. “I need to buy clothes. I can’t get on a plane like this.”
Nick slowed, pulled past a space on the right side of the street, shifted into reverse and then steered into the spot.
Mary opened the door and got out. “Thank you. I’ll call a cab from here. I appreciate you helping me get away from that party.”
“I thought you wanted a ride to the airport?”
She glanced up and down the block. “No offense, but you work for Ruby. I can’t trust you. At the least, you’re hoping for another conquest, at the worst, you’d take me right back to him.” She turned, ran down the street and disappeared into a department store.
Nick waited in case she changed her mind. He didn’t blame Mary for not trusting him. God only knew what evil Ruby had threatened her with and his new tabloid reputation with women didn’t exactly inspire trust. Twenty minutes later, a yellow cab double-parked a few car lengths in front of him. Mary sprinted from the store, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, and slid inside the cab.
Good for you, he thought. Get as far away from Ruby as you can.