I emerged from a shaded alcove in a strapless floor-length red ball gown dress fit for a princess, layers of organza pearls and crystals weaved into an elegant updo, complementing the shoulder-length halo diamond earrings I received this morning, a thoughtful gift from Liam by signed courier service.
Party guests drift through the grandeur jamboree wearing formal tuxedos and dazzling evening dresses, sipping expensive champagne, the four-course medieval-style banquet yet to commence.
Gilded wood girandoles embellish damask wallpaper, and scintillating chandeliers cast light from the ornate ceilings. From the majestic stage, the pianist soared the crescendo of piano keys, entertaining etiquette couples dancing with extraordinary grace.
I wandered between assembled conversationalists, the heels of my six-inch shoes clicking against the Emperador marble floor, chiffon train shadowing each thoughtful step. Grey-haired and suavely debonair, the sommelier stops to refill my champagne flute. I thanked him and headed to the long-stretched bar, joining personable male dominance, chortling and holding unlit cigars.
Placing my glittering clutch purse on the stonework countertop, forgoing the red-velvet upholstered stool, I stood with a graceful but enticing posture, seemingly woeful and unaccompanied. It’s efficacious to lure unhappy, miserable married men. They see a young, companionless, depressed woman staring into her wine glass, and deem her an easy fornication target. Of course, a despondent, lonely woman like myself craves compliments and attention from a man—who loves his wife, but her unreciprocated adoration diminished as a result of numerous children and life’s countless predicaments—but, consequently, attributed to their dishonourable unfaithfulness.
Care for another drink?
Would you like to dance?
Kiss me if I’m wrong, but dinosaurs still exist, right?
Your smile lit up the room, so I had to come over.
And my favourite.
My friends made a bet that I couldn’t start a conversation with the most beautiful woman in the bar. Want to buy some drinks with their money?
I liked the last one. It worked a treat because, hey, I am here to screw you over, so get those drinks in, handsome.
While portraying Victoria, I heard every corny pick-up line and withstood shocking flattering and dramatic flirting techniques.
Most adulterous married men, although appreciating the sophistication of another woman, would trade a clandestine night of affairs for their wives affections. Realistically, it’s a sad truth when you think about it. How two people can espouse and adore each other so much but fall apart as a consequence of financial issues, lack of dating and communication, family interceding and children prioritising. I mean, the last one is a sensitive matter as you should give precedence to your child, but I wish loveless couples would see that building a family isn’t a life sentence. You can still raise and cherish children without neglecting each other and forgetting the reasons why you fell in love at the beginning.
I am young, inexperienced and somewhat ignorant. It’s easy for someone who’s never married or had children to sit on the sidelines and deliver judgment. I will, however, learn from the mistakes of others by mentally storing noteworthy advice on how to prevent my future husband from straying.
Why did Liam’s face suddenly come to mind?
I smiled foolishly to myself.
God, I wish. Liam’s the forever endgame for me, but he’s not marriage material. At this point in our vacillating relationship—that hangs on by a precariously thin string—I cannot determine or foresee a longstanding future together.
Walter Atherton, The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, set a gentle hand on my lower back as he slipped onto the available stool to my right. “Pardon my forwardness,” he said in a velvet laced voice, “but I must ask, do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk past again?”
Oh, that one was disgusting.
Resting my hip against the bar, I plastered on a fake smile. “Smooth,” I joked, eyeing him over the champagne glass. “Is that the first time you used that line tonight, or am I an exception?”
Sweeping a dark brown lock from his brow, he flashed me his pearly white veneers, accentuating a rather cute dimple. “Cynical romantic?”
“Jaded,” I lied, hearing Jace snort in my ear.
Walter’s gaze lingered on the scar beneath my eye. “May I buy you a drink?”
“Whatever for?” I mused, tapping the glass stem with a polished red fingernail. “Complimentary champagne.”
“Of course.” His tweaked eyebrows cinched as he muttered a curse. “What’s your name?”
“Victoria.” I curled my small fingers around his large ones, accepting a warm, gracious handshake. “Yourself?”
“Walter.” Clearing his throat, he tugged the collar of his shirt. “Where’s your date?”
“Lone Ranger.” I am not in the mood for small-talk tonight. “Listen, Walter. We both know you are not interested in what church I attend on Sunday’s or if I wear furry yeti boots while knitting. If you are here for trivial conversing, hoping it’ll get you laid, you needn’t bother wasting your time.” Moving in, I put a hand on his chest and teased his ego with a breathless whisper. “I am more of a cut-to-the-chase type of woman. If you want me bent over a desk and moaning your name in the next five minutes?” I licked the shell of his ear with a naughty stroke. “Now is your chance.”
Brushing past him with my clutch in hand, I swayed toward the gilded double doors that verged to the office floor, feeling him close behind me.
Stepping outdoors and ambling around the corner, I glanced over my shoulder, alluring him with a deceiving smile, the train of my dress lengthening between us.
Walter, unbuttoning his shirt collar, prowled like a predator to prey, a savage glint in his heavy-lidded eyes.
Away from guests and security, he snatched my wrist, hauled me into a dark alcove and smashed his lips on mine. “You naughty slut,” he growled in my mouth, his hands, frantic and desperate, tugging up my dress. “I should put you on your knees and shove my cock in that filthy mouth.”
I feigned an erotic moan, fingers tangling in his dishevelled hair, tugging the roots. “Will you fuck me here and risk exposure, Walter? How will you tear screams from me with controlled consistency?”
“Shit,” he groaned, striving to ram his tongue down my throat. “Let’s get this ass,” he squeezed my black laced cheek for good measure, “on that desk.”
Fishing out a set of keys, he righted his trousers to alleviate strain on his groin, checked our surroundings, ensuring an all-clear, and then dragged me into the main office. He unlocked the door with trembling hands. Anxious and turned on—exactly where I wanted him.
I entered first, made a mental inventory of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves showcasing limited edition collectables, the emerald and gold stone rug blending in with the rustic green walls and panelled wood.
By the window, I tilted the blinds and stared at the shadowed vastness, a ceiling of twinkling lights canopied from lined trees, leading towards the labyrinth, maze garden.
“I want to see those tits,” he said, bolting the door behind us. “We have,” he glimpsed at his watch, “twenty minutes before the speeches.” Unbuckling his belt, he signalled for me to get on the dominating dark wood desk. “Ass in the air, Victoria. I am going to fuck you like an animal.”
Oh, he’s arrogant and most definitely conniving. I almost believed his former gentleman act. It seems respect goes out the window once the woman’s a done deal. Walter’s lucky I have Jace in my ear and not Liam because he’d be choking on his member after that salacious affirmation.
“Give me a moment.” Tossing my purse onto the tan leather high back chair, I ignored the sound of his slackening zipper, noting the time on the grandfather clock. “Can you turn around so I can tuck a condom in?”
Walter blinked in bewilderment. “I’m sorry. Did you say, a condom?”
“Yep.” I shook the foil packet I pinched from Liam’s drawer. “Protection for females,” I fibbed, “Wonderful contrivance, right?”
“Uh,” he scratched the back of his neck, looking slightly queasy, “sure, yeah, whatever. Just hurry up so I can jack one.”
Masking my disgust, I wait for him to turn, remove the flash drive from my thigh holster and insert it into the Mayor’s USB port beneath the desk. “Two seconds...” The light changes from red to green. “Almost done.” Tearing the foil packet with my teeth, I flapped out the rubber and deliberately speared my finger through the end. “Oh, shit. It snapped.”
Subtly shaking his head, Walter extracts his leather wallet, hunting for a backup. “We can use mine.”
I watched the computer light alternate from green to red at intermittent intervals. “Yeah,” I agreed, half-listening, pulse thunderous in my ears. “If not, I am sure the restrooms—”
“No, time,” he snapped, fumbling through compartments. “I’ll pull out if I must.”
I don’t think so, asshole.
The solid white light flickered, and a triumphant smile danced on my lips. “Genius,” I whispered under my breath, knowing Jace was listening.
“Got one.” Walter rounded the desk, his semi-hard shaft dangling through his opened fly. “Are you prepared for the best sex of your life, Victoria?”
His self-assurance compelled a snort. “You bet.”
Sheathing his adequately sized length, he lost his suit jacket to the floor, snatched my hips and lifted me onto the desk. Resting on my elbows, I shoved my heeled foot onto his chest, and he caught my ankle, growling kisses along my calve. “I wish I had time to taste this juicy nectar...” Someone hammered their fist on the door. “Shit,” he dropped a curse, yanking me off the desk. “It might be Fagan.”
No, I needed more time. I glanced at the USB, listening to Jace prattling protests in the earpiece.
Walter, panicked he might lose his job, stuffed the condom in his trouser pocket and tucked himself away. “You might need to hide.”
I am sick of hiding for the sake of unwanted visitors—the door knocked once more, and my anxieties shot through the roof. “Nath?” I mumbled a cough, adrenaline soaring to a feverish pace.
“Thirty seconds,” he bites, his fingers tapping furiously in the background.
“Walter.” Grasping a fistful of his shirt, I opened my mouth, scampering for a diversion. “Kiss me.” I pressed a long kiss to his lips, his rigid body relaxing. I felt nothing, completely numb and devoid of any emotion as his soft hands held my cheeks, mouth slowly tasting mine. Jace whispered the all-clear in my ear, and I dropped my hand to extract the USB from the port, hiding it in a clenched fist.
“I think whoever swung by left the building,” Walter joked, smiling against my lips. “Can I find you after the speeches? I’ll book us a hotel instead so that we can fuck in peace.”
He started so well. If I were interested, I’d take his proposal in a heartbeat, but he’s stolen enough of what doesn’t belong to him tonight. “Sure,” I lied for the final time, wiping red lipstick from his mouth. “I’ll be at the bar.”
Combing a hand through his hair, he neatened his tousled look, led me to the door and, in a moment of silent discombobulation, he stared at the masked man in the hallway, unable to decipher his tall, muscular frame, all-black attire and balaclava concealment.
Walter’s face burnt crimson. “You—”
Quicker than lightning, the guy snatched Walter’s throat and drove him back into the room, locking the door behind him.
I put my back to the wall, a pang of guilt knotting my stomach. The men wrestled for leverage, and Walter’s back met the attacker’s chest, throat shrilled beneath a winding, unyielding arm, legs jerking, kicking blindly to escape asphyxiation.
“Close your eyes,” Jace whispered in my ear.
I couldn’t look away. I watched the masked man tighten a hand around Walter’s hair, using extreme force to draw his head back. In a swift but forceful movement, his arm bowed under Walter’s chin, and the sound of a loud snap resounded in my ears.
Acidic bile ruptured the lining of my stomach. In sheer horror, I witnessed Walter’s lifeless body collapse in the man’s confinement, arms and legs drooping idly at his sides.
Elevating Walter by the waist, the attacker walked backwards, hauling the dead body with him. Without care or thought, he flung open a closet door, hurled the Walter inside and slammed him into darkness.
Powering towards me, the guy disarmed himself, yanked up his mask and familiar whiskey coloured eyes greeted me. “Brad,” I said, then jabbed him in the shoulder with a curled-up fist. “A heads up next time, asshole. Nobody told me you were going to kill him.”
“It’s nice to see you, too.” He dipped his head, invading my humid breathing space. “Alexa.” The corner of his lip ticked, mischievous eyes dancing through strands of unruly blond strands. “Blue eyes suit you.”
My thrashing heart decelerated to a reasonable rate. I lifted the USB stick between us. He wrapped his gloved hand over my knuckles, holding me for a comforting few minutes.
“I like you, Alexa. And I’m pretty fucking stoked that you rose from the dead an all,” he half-joked, giving me one of his signature winks, “but don’t fuck with the boss’ heart again, sweetheart. I don’t like it.”
Brad wasn’t angry or hostile. His warning, though lined with menacing aptitudes, came from a good place. Brad, much like the other Suits, adores his boss. It’s his job to look after Liam’s interests. “You have my full permission to castigate me if I do.”
He nudged my chin with his knuckles, adjusted the balaclava. “You need to get back to the main room. Warren’s on the prowl.”
I opened the door and peered into the darkness. “Where is he?”
“He’ll find you.” Brad faded in the opposite direction, tucking the stolen data inside his heavy-duty boot.
Drifting through the intersecting halls, I clicked the earpiece. “Where are you?”
“Changing location,” Jace confirmed, the sound of his hurried footsteps droned. “I only have forty-five minutes to break through servers.”
“Nath,” I whispered, resting my back to a wall. “Thank you for helping.”
Jace has the skillset to access encrypted government software. Much like Nate, he’s capable of the incapable, but Liam needed his elite men for tonight’s bombardment.
When I first raised the idea to Liam, he shut me down, refusing to let Jace assist. I persisted, though, knowing it’ll earn Jace some brownie points, or, if nothing else, an act of clemency.
Liam reluctantly agreed but swore he’d never accept Jace or our friendship. I hadn’t argued the matter. Baby steps, I concluded—this all occurred outside Heather’s bed-and-breakfast from his luxurious Bentley. Once the stubborn man relented, I coaxed his moody backside into the backseats and fucked him senseless. Tonight will be the first time we see each other since our agreement.
“Vick, It’s all good. I’m kinda hoping it’ll keep Warren off my back for a beat.” I heard shuffling. “Listen, I got to bounce. Do you still need me in your ear?”
“No, I think we’re good to go.”
“Okay, I’ll be at the maze in an hour.”
“Bye, Nath.” Muting the earpiece, I pushed myself away from the wall, turned the corner and returned to the pompous extravaganza.
Snatching a champagne flute from a passing waiter, I tilted my head back and swallowed bubbles in one, waded through the elaborately detailed dinner setting, feeling him everywhere. I slowed down, silencing loud conversations and harmonious piano-music. At a funeral pace, guests sailed past in their ostentatious glamour, leaving pleasant smelling fragrances in their wake.
Goosebumps dusted my skin. He’s close. I can feel him.
“Alexa,” Liam whispered behind me, his breath warm to my neck. He fisted the back of my dress, tight, a growl falling from his lips. “You look fucking beautiful.”
And this is why platitudinous flirtations, butter-soft hands and restrained kisses fail to cooperate with my heart. I craved coarse palms on my flesh, fiercely intoxicating kisses that leave me in a dazed state of breathlessness. I needed those possessive claims whispered in my ear.
I closed my eyes for a second, the repetitive thump of my heart, responding to his rough voice.
Tailored in a Brioni grey primo suit and black shirt, Liam’s imperial height veiled a shadow over me. I craned my neck to look at him, wanting nothing more than to fall into his arms and steal a kiss from those full lips. “Mr Warren.”
Norlan whiskey glass in hand, he lifted the delicate rim to his lips and sipped, all while penetrating me with those captivating ice blues.
My gaze, not once, strayed. I watched him watching me, an impossible smile on my lips.
Watchful eyes veering over my shoulder, he lowered his head, mouth millimetres from my ear. “There are a lot of women here tonight,” he rasped, reciting the very words that claimed my heart. “Yet my eyes found you.” He laid a firm kiss to the column of my neck, lips lingering on my pulse.
“Liam,” I breathed, aligning our eyes.
He made a low growling noise. “I am in love with you.” His kiss to my skin set a scorching rosiness to my cheeks as we separated.
Masquerading my impression, I proceeded to the bar, pondering how long it’ll be before the mayoral team perceived the Chief of Staff “absquatulated.” I made a reckless decision. While ordering a refill from the bar, I sought out Liam. Amidst a group of champagne socialists, he involves himself in lengthy conversations, often nodding when agreeing, unable to split his attention between numerous suited men. I know its façade, a misconceiving display, but seeing his arm draped around Hellen’s waist sickened me.
Pure rage and jealousy reddened their ambience.
I considered myself decent until she arrived. Her long, slicked-back wet-hair fell straight. Iced diamonds pearled her neckline, ears and wrists, the sexy, off-the-shoulder slit dress glittered and reflected off the lights, drawing so much bastard attention.
As if sensing my troubled thoughts, Liam, while his mouth moved to discussions, raised his gaze to find me. His face, inexpressive, but those dangerous blue eyes identified my perturbation. I gave him an indiscernible yet reassuring smile. Judging by the tension in his jaw, though, he knows I am a far cry from comfortable with their closeness.
Hellen throws her head back in a fit of laughter, melting into his side. When she lifts off her feet and welds her mouth to his, I snap the champagne stem, the shards nicking my fingers.
Elegance in the trash, I fling the broken glass onto the countertop and meander through packed tables. I will not torture my heart with that gruesomeness. If I don’t remove myself, then I can’t promise I won’t stab a fork in her eye.
In slow motion, I spied Nate coasting behind Roman-style columns. No drink, companion or arsenal. He blends in with socialists, passing smiles, tapping shoulders, the occasional handshake. His forest green eyes caught mine as he gravitated closer. Wordless, he brushed an inked hand over my chest, thumb edging the bodice of my dress, and then he ghosts me, vanishing into the crowd.
What in the world?
Eyebrows meeting in a miffed scowl, I smoothed a palm over my pounding heart, feeling a foreign object attached to the encrusted rhinestones, a silver antique style brooch to my dress, the red diamond cloaking the tracking device.
I watch Liam prowl towards an older gent near the bar. He tapped the man’s back, encouraging him to turn. The guy looked over his shoulder, The Mayor, neglected his Royal Doulton and offered Liam a white-knuckled handshake. Both men, face-to-face, calm but guarded, small-talk, curt and sharp.
The Mayor’s lips grimaced each time Liam spoke, and his squared posture told me he loathed the man I love. Larry felt my distant scrutiny. He flicked me a stone-cold stare, and an intense undercurrent alights my pulsing veins, vessels straining to pump blood flow. Examining me from head to toe, he rolled his eyes at something Liam said, resuming his conversation.
I had no concept of what Liam had in store for that man or this pretentious onset, but nauseating dread strangled my erratic heart. Mouth salivating with insufferable trepidation, I turned on my heel, fisted the trail of my dress and sprinted to the restrooms. In less than ten seconds, I am, without a doubt, going to ruin these regal floors with vomit.
Pushing my way into the female bathroom, I picked the first cubicle and fell on my knees in time to mitigate my stomach. Catching my breath between violent intervals, I put a hand to the tiled wall for support, sobered up within seconds. “Holy shit,” I moaned, wiping sweat from my brow.
I blew out a calming breath, dabbed a tissue on my lips, chucked it down the toilet and pulled the flush.
Perched on the closed seat, I gathered my scattered thoughts, heard the bathroom door crash into the wall as somebody abruptly stormed inside.
My ears perked up to listen, but the woman—well, I assume it’s a female as it’s the ladies’ room; stranger things have happened—didn’t use the toilet facilities. In fact, it was too quiet, so quiet that I knew this person was waiting for me. Two guesses who that could be, I thought, straightening out my dress.
Why couldn’t she corner me before my unbecoming puking episode?
I opened the door and came face-to-face with an unappeased Hellen Bennett.
You do not want to pick a fight with me.
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners?” Extending an arm, she snatched my hand, squeezing with the intent of snapping my fingers. “Hellen Bennett. I don’t believe we’ve met.” Her condescending scorn irked me. “And who might you be? I organised the guest list.” Coking her head to the side, she sliced her angry eyes. “I don’t recall putting you on there.”
I shouldered past and washed my hands at the sink. “Victoria,” I lied, checking my reflection in the mirror. Opening my clutch, I fossicked for war paint, unscrewed lipstick and painted my lips red. “And I received a personal invite from the mayoral team.”
Her beautiful eyes ebbed heavenward, considering the plausible possibility. “Who?”
If I said Walter, then his death will have my name all over it. “Are you, like, part of management or something? I don’t need to answer your questions—”
“I saw him with you,” she snarled, hands curling into fists. “When I first arrived, Liam entertained you. Why?”
If that’s her idea of entertainment, then she’s dumber than she looks. “I don’t know who you’re referring to, Hellen. I don’t recall a man by that name.” I popped a chewing gum in my mouth. “Now if you’ll excuse me—” Her hand seized my forearm. “Remove your hand. Now.”
“It’s you,” she spat, manicured fingernails denting my skin. “I recognise your perfume from the penthouse.”
“What are you babbling on about? Seriously, Hellen. I think you had too much to drink.”
“Do not take me for a fool.” Pointing an accusing finger in my face, she tried to intimidate me, but with these heels accentuating my height, I towered her frame. “Liam Warren is mine. Now, I don’t know what tawdry cave you exited, but I will not stand back and allow you to hinder my relationship.” Her nose virtually touched mine. “You do not want to trial my capabilities.”
With spiteful truths, I could snap her heart in two. “Take whatever pathetic threats you geared-up to lunge at me and get the fuck out of my face before I remove the nine-millimetre strapped to my lace garter and make you choke on it,” I snapped, backing her up against the wall. “You think having a powerful man on your arm ensures your safety, but I promise you, not even Liam Warren himself could stop me from wreaking devastating chaos.”
Hellen’s nose crinkled in disdain. “It’s my father’s assembly. You must leave the building effective immediately, or I’ll have you arrested.”
“Good luck,” I tsked, flung open the bathroom door and exited to the sound of her piercing shriek.
That woman’s certifiable.