Devil’s Contract Read Online Alta Hensley

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Contemporary, Crime, Dark, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 81621 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 408(@200wpm)___ 326(@250wpm)___ 272(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

Devil's Contract

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Alta Hensley

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
9781947559684
Book Information:


She’ll regret the day she turned me into her enemy.

She’s the princess of The Whitney, the premier hotel in New York City.
Her empire is like a fairytale. But there is no happily ever after in this story. For there are consequences for breaking a decade old contract sealed with blood, and now she must pay the price. Because of my power, connections, and our past, the Manhattan royalty has no choice but to turn to me for help.

The villain in the story.

Dangerous. Vengeful. Possessive. I’m a man to be feared in the elite underground. I’m also the only person who can save her legacy.
Locked in my clutches, she must play my wicked game of revenge.
She’ll have no choice but to fall to her knees, beg, and pull out her dark pen to sign a contract with the Devil.

USA Today Bestselling authors Alta Hensley and Livia Grant join forces to bring you a dark billionaire STANDALONE enemies to lovers romance.
Books by Author:

Alta Hensley



Chapter One

KATJA

“Welcome to the Met, Mr. & Mrs. Miller. You’ll be seated at table nine this evening.”

I give Tristan the side-eye before responding.

“That’s Mr. Miller and Ms. Belov,” I inform the flustered organizer tasked with checking in the fashionable elite to the biggest event of the year.

The panic on the chick’s face is comical. It’s unlike Anna to put such an inexperienced girl out front in one of the most important jobs at the gala.

“Em… okay…,” she says, momentarily dazzled by Tristan’s charming smile.

Of course, he’s grinning, enjoying the entertainment.

“Mr. Miller is both my husband and my guest, not the other way around.” Realizing the girl has absolutely no clue whatsoever, I finally give her my name. “Katja Belov, owner of The Whitney, my hotel, and sponsor of the entirety of table nine.”

If I wasn’t so excited to get inside, I’d laugh at the shock plastered all over her face as she sputters apologies for not recognizing me.

Stuck waiting, I notice the newbie’s hands shaking as she frantically taps and swipes the tablet.

Christ, I can find information in my handwritten notebook faster than this Gen-Z girl can on an iPad.

“Ah yes, I see it here. I’m sorry for the mix-up.”

I wave to Tristan to make himself useful by carrying the gift bags she is foisting in our direction as I sail past her.

“Mrs. Miller… em… Ms. Belov… You can’t go in just yet. We have to leave space between—”

I turn, cutting her off mid-sentence.

“Sweetie, I’ll make it easier for you. I’ve been attending The Gala for more than enough years to know how this works.”

Turning back to the gauntlet in front of me, I put on my best it’s showtime smile for the high-powered cameras that start flashing the minute we step out of the arrivals tent.

Hundreds of photographers and journalists line the mammoth staircase, jockeying for photographs of A-list celebrities in their elaborate costumes. I don’t play the game of who can wear the most outrageous gown, opting for classic opulence instead, which is more on brand for me.

“Ms. Belov! Over here!” a seasoned paparazzo at the bottom of the steps shouts. “Who are you wearing?”

“Gucci, and my jewels are Tiffany,” I purr loud enough to be heard over the clicking of the cameras. I may not be a celebrity in Hollywood, but here in New York City I’m fucking royalty and I have the gown and jewels to prove it.

Words like gorgeous, stunning, and beautiful make it to my ears as I slowly climb the stairs, stopping often to pose here and spin there. I may have never walked the runway, but my father made sure I was trained nonetheless, understanding the position our family held in NYC society.

For his part, Tristan plays his role perfectly. More handsome than the Academy Award-winning actor we’re following up the steps, the photographers clamor for his picture every bit as much as mine. Individually, we take beautiful photos, but together… it’s the main reason we’re still married. I’m not vain, it’s simply a fact.

We’re a stunning couple… at least aesthetically.

Behind the curtain of marriage, not so much.

But I’m not going to think about that tonight. I have too many people to rub elbows with to waste time contemplating how I’ve somehow ended up in a marriage of convenience in the twenty-first century.

We aren’t ten feet inside the Great Hall when we’re greeted by the first of hundreds of roaming servers peddling expensive champagne. Ever the gentleman, at least in public, Tristan grabs two flutes, offering one to me while holding out his bent arm for me.

Neither of us say it out loud, but I know we both think ‘it’s go time’ as we step into the throng of attendees. Unlike the attention hungry celebrities, I time my arrival perfectly, just shy of fashionably late. Not only does it ensure I’m not sandwiched between publicity hogs, but more importantly, it gives me the advantage of deciding who I want to stop and acknowledge as we move deeper into the room toward table nine.

“Katja, darling. It’s been ages,” the forty-something princess of a tiny micro-country in Eastern Europe says, greeting me with air-kisses on my cheeks.

“Leizel, I didn’t expect to see you here.” I hesitate before realizing why. “I didn’t see your name on The Whitney’s VIP list.”

Our parents had been close acquaintances and her family had stayed at my hotel dozens of times over the decades. Had one of my employees missed including my friend on my daily report of VIPs?

“You know Jonathon. He insists we stay at the Waldorf.”

“Oh, where is Jonathon? I’d love to say hello,” I say, glancing around for her aging husband and finding a young stud just over her shoulder instead. It only takes me a second to put the pieces together.

Our eyes meet and my friend winks, confirming my suspicions.

Taking a longer look at the muscle-bound eye candy standing bored behind her, I return to her gaze. Leaning closer, I say softly, “He looks yummy, at least with that tuxedo on. Hopefully, he’s even better with it off.”

It’s a risqué comment for polite society, but since I specialize in keeping the well-hidden secrets of the rich and famous, it’s right in my wheelhouse.

Leizel doesn’t disappoint, leaning in to whisper back, “Even better,” with a sly smile on her lips.

“Then I’m happy you’re staying at the Waldorf. I wouldn’t want your neighbors calling security for noise complaints,” I shoot back, my polite smile never wavering.

Her pale face blushes and we both giggle like teenagers at a slumber party before I remember where I am. We both do our best to regain our elegant composure before she starts to move away into the crowd.

“Be sure to pass my love on to Jonathon,” I say as she departs with a little wave. I’m exceedingly pleased with myself for uncovering a juicy secret within minutes of my arrival.

We aren’t ten feet away before Tristan says, “You’re having entirely too much fun.”

It’s annoying that he knows me well enough to parrot what I’m thinking.

“You say it like it’s a game,” I say under my breath.

“Isn’t it? And baby, you play the secret game better than anyone I know.”

My heart lurches, only making me more annoyed, this time at myself. He hasn’t used a term of endearment directed my way in months.

He must be up to something.

But I don’t have time to think about Tristan. Not when I’m walking the crowd, shaking hands with politicians, hugging celebrities, kissing fashion designers, and…

What the hell is he doing here?

I’m grateful when Tristan jumps in to carry the conversation with the small group of musicians we are chatting with, giving me a moment to calm my pulse at seeing the one man in the city I have no desire to see. If this was some fucked-up version of the game ‘one of these things doesn’t belong,’ I know exactly who I’d name the winner. His back is to me, but I know that silhouette anywhere.

As if Dex feels my displeasure from across the room, he spins around, almost catching me glaring at him. Just in the nick of time I glance away, feigning interest in Lady Gaga’s outrageous gown. I don’t dare look back again, and I don’t need to anyway. I know exactly what I’d see.

An impostor—hard masculine perfection on the outside, but a molten pool of evil brewing on the inside.

Yet as I sneak another peek his way, I begrudgingly acknowledge, at least to myself, he is a master at playing the role of respectable gentleman in public. His stylish tuxedo may be a clever disguise, but I never fall for it. I need to push memories of the private Dex I’ve known my entire life out of my mind. He’s already taken up too much room in my brain over the years and now that I’ve successfully ejected him and everything he stands for from my life, I refuse to give him even one more minute of myself.

Time ticks by as Tristan and I continue to work the room—laughing and smiling while making mental notes I know we’ll have fun chatting about over a glass of wine at home later. I run through the list in my head, making sure I won’t forget important details when I get back to my notebook.

First, the recently separated actress hasn’t announced it yet, but I notice she’s sneaking nonalcoholic beverages disguised in champagne flutes.

She’s pregnant.

I wonder if the baby-daddy is here tonight? I glance around nonchalantly, but don’t see any possible suspects waiting for her.

Even more salacious is the famously married host of the number one national news program excusing himself from our small group to head to the restroom with his best friend. As his wife prattles on, I have the perfect vantage point to see the men walk past the restroom, letting themselves into an unlocked closet just beyond. I stay facing that direction until they come out ten minutes later, flushed and sweaty.

Oh, my goodness, they’re on the down-low.

We aren’t but a few feet away when Tristan leans in to whisper, “Did you see what I saw?”

I keep my public smile plastered on my face as I acknowledge, “I did. That was a pretty bold move.”

“I’ll say,” he agrees before turning my direction. “I know you have a few other people you want to talk with before dinner. Would you like me to head to our table to be there to welcome our guests?”

We may not have a traditional marriage, but on nights like tonight I’m reminded why I’d married Tristan Miller. Unlike the devil across the room, the husband on my arm was an asset with the Manhattan elite.

“Thanks, I’d appreciate that. I’ll meet you at the table in about ten.”

After a small peck of a kiss on my cheek, Tristan heads in the direction of the dinner tables. I move deeper into the guests still congregating, shaking hands, and exchanging small talk.

By the time I make it across the venue to table nine, several of the guests I invited to join my table are already seated, chatting away. The one person I expect to be seated, however, is nowhere to be seen.

I push down my annoyance that Tristan wasn’t there talking with my guests. I’m unwilling to give anyone else in attendance a sniff of my own dirty laundry. As far as the world is concerned, I landed America’s most eligible bachelor when I married the real estate mogul and financier.

I glance around as nonchalantly as I can, careful to make eye contact with enough people that anyone observing would assume I’m just scanning the event for acquaintances. It’s hard to maintain the ruse, however, when I spot my other half in the corner of the room, behind the bar—his hand resting intimately on the hip of his newest mistress as he leans in to whisper something against the shell of her ear. Even from a distance, I can see her deep blush.

Tears sting my eyes, not because he dared to cheat on me, I’d grown used to that long ago.

But does he have to flaunt it in my face here? He’d promised not to embarrass me tonight. I’m not a religious person, but I take the time to say a silent prayer that no one will notice my shameful secret.

“Is that number eight or nine?” I hear behind me.

God has a sick sense of humor.

The gravelly, masculine voice is too close and unbearably smug.

When I don’t respond, Dex has the balls to shift forward until I can feel the front of his tuxedo brushing against my bare back. Even if he’d stayed silent, I would have known it was Dex from his trademark scent. The fragrance is about the only thing that remains constant between the public philanthropic guise and the private criminal version of the same man.

I fight to contain the full-body shiver that always happens when he’s close, unwilling to let him see that he can still affect me. Taking a deep breath, I work to keep my pulse from racing as it always does when I go head-to-head with my ex-business partner.

It isn’t until I feel his hand on my hip that I spin around, confronting him with my special brand of polished poison I try not to unleash in public. “How dare you invade my space. It’s bad enough they let men like you attend in the first place, but I shouldn’t be forced to breathe the same air as you.”

“I see you’re still on your high and mighty horse, Katja. Too bad. It’s gonna hurt like hell when you fall from way up there.”

Chapter Two

DEX

In a room full of beautiful people, she shouldn’t stand out above them all… but she does. Katja Belov is by far the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Not that I’d tell her that.

She already has a big enough head. The power she holds by owning The Whitney, her reputation, and the way she has her finger on the pulse of New York City, puts her right up there with the most feared and respected men and women I associate with daily. Though she doesn’t walk among the underground and criminal worlds like I do—disappointingly squeaky clean—she still has the notoriety of being a woman not to mess with.

And she knows it.

I try my best not to get mesmerized by the green in her eyes or notice the way her plump mouth glimmers from her lip gloss under the chandelier light. The annoyance painted on her face, with that pert nose raised slightly, causes my dick to twitch. What I wouldn’t pay to have the opportunity to tame her inner brat. I clench my fist by my side to control the urge to run my fingers through her dark locks, take hold, and pull her head back so I can taste her neck by force.

“You don’t belong here,” she says, snapping me from my wicked thoughts. Katja slaps my hand off her hip, but I notice that she allowed me to hold it there far longer than I anticipated. “You’re beneath the people in this room.”

“And you’re above them,” I counter with a smirk. “And yet, here we both are.” I glance at her ass of a husband who isn’t doing a good job masking that he’s more interested in his next mistress than anything, or anyone, at the Gala. “And you are most certainly above him.”

Katja gracefully takes a few steps away from me, turning so she doesn’t have to see her husband. “I don’t think I asked for your opinion. Now, if you don’t mind, I have other guests to—”

“Take notes on,” I cut in.

On the long list of things I both like, and hate, about Katja is just how much she’s like me in this one regard. We watch people. We study their moves, their actions, their words. We pay attention to how they interact with others, we listen to the hushed secrets, and we take notes on it all. Knowledge is power and both Katja and I know this. We were taught this at a young age by our fathers.

Watch, listen, study, and save it for later. You never know when it will become useful.

Her lips quirk. “You act like you know me so well.”

“I do.”

She blanks her face with one of her classic, and fake, smiles as she scans the room. “Just because we have a past… But no, Dex. You don’t know me.”

Our fathers were business partners before their deaths. They mixed the good and the bad. They blended the white and the black. They did it perfectly, handing Katja and me the tools to continue this legacy and yet…

Katja fucked it all up by kicking me out and pushing me away.

She changed the rules of our father’s contract, and for that… for that, she should be punished.

But Katja isn’t the type of woman you can simply ‘punish.’ She’s a woman who knows how to get what she wants and will do whatever it takes to achieve it.

“You aren’t as complicated as you think,” I say, taking in every inch of her body while she seethes in silence.

I’ve studied and watched her over the years we’ve been apart. I’ve damn near been her stalker, but that’s what I was groomed to do. To watch my opponent and figure out a way to defeat them, and she’s the one who chose to be my opponent instead of my partner.

“One of these days, the people in this room—in this city—are going to see you for the man you really are,” she says.

Katja knows high society and the wealthy like no one else. She lives and breathes the decadence, the elegance, and the opulence. This is her world, where I’ve always been a man who dances in the shadows.

“They see me. I’ve never tried to be anyone I’m not,” I counter.

Hell, Katja is right in saying that I don’t belong here. I’m the vampire that mistakenly got an invite to come inside, and now my job is to feast off the guests. I’m the devil on their shoulders hoping I can gather enough intel to defeat the angel on the other side.

I don’t apologize for who I am or what I do.

This life is a chess game, and I always win.

And whether Katja wants to admit it or not, we are the same in many ways.

“I have work to do,” she says. I can see she’s getting antsy conversing with me alone. She needs to work the room as I do. We both have a job to do.

Katja uses her information to gain favors, promises, and to climb the social ladder. I use my knowledge to blackmail, to sell to the highest bidder, and to make a lot of fucking money. I walk with the criminals, the monsters in the shadows, and the bad men that people are afraid of, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Maybe we should compare notes when the night’s over,” I suggest, taking a step closer to her, not liking the distance she’s created. “Or other things…”

She huffs as she reaches for a strand of hair and fiddles with it. She avoids eye contact with me for the briefest of moments, but I watch her swallow hard, stiffen her spine, and then stare directly at me with renewed courage. “I don’t get in the mud with pigs,” she says as sweetly as her icy demeanor allows.

Keeping my eyes locked with hers, I say, “I have a feeling you like getting dirty.”

As if she didn’t hear my last comment, she tilts her head ever so slightly and smiles. “Oh, Dex. I find it quite amusing that you actually think I… need you. Like I told you three years ago—I can take care of myself.”

Biting back the rising anger from her little reminder of just how easy it was for her to cast me aside, I calmly reply, “I disagree, my love. I think you need me very much.”

Her eyes narrow. “Really? How so?”

“The Whitney.”

“What about The Whitney?”

Not wanting to show all my cards and let on just how much I know, I offer, “I’ve noticed the awnings are fading, the exterior paint is chipping, and is the outdoor pool still closed down?” I pause to take in how her lips purse and her fingernails dig into her palms as she fists her hands. “Is it out of laziness… or… something else?”

“My contractor is simply busy on a remodel inside,” she snaps too quickly. Taking a deep breath, she regains the little composure she just lost. “But I do find it… sad,” she says in her sickly-sweet voice, “that you pay such close attention to a hotel that you have nothing to do with anymore.”

“Just stating the obvious,” I say as I put my hands in my pockets and shrug. “But you really should think of replacing the contractor you have.”

“I know how to run my business but thank you.” She lifts her chin slightly and glances around the room. “I do think, however, that you should focus more on that little motel you now reside at instead of The Whitney. What’s it called again?”

I don’t bother giving her an answer as I appreciate how flawless she is in her response. The woman truly is as skilled as the most ruthless assassin. Katja can take down her enemies by her sharp tongue alone. I love seeing her at work, even if I’m the current enemy.

“Nevermind, it doesn’t matter. Now, if you don’t mind,” she says as she clears her throat. “I need to go and—”

“Find your husband,” I interrupt. “I agree. You really should do that before the reporters get hold of this story.”

I take joy in seeing her jaw clench right before she brushes by me and storms away. The sight of her backside swishing in that perfect dress is just as beautiful as her front. It truly is a shame that all that beauty has been gifted to her. And it’s even more of a shame that my dick doesn’t agree with my mind that this woman is trouble, and I should stay away.

Chapter Three

KATJA

The limo door isn’t closed three seconds before Tristan starts complaining.

“…terrible heartburn. I don’t remember the menu being as spicy last year,” he drones on, trying to fill the three-minute drive to The Whitney as if it might prevent me chewing his ass for embarrassing me.

We’ve only been married for two years, but he can’t honestly think I’m oblivious to his pattern of deflection any time he knows he’s pissed me off. It’s almost as insulting as his behavior.

“Tom Rutherford mentioned it as well,” he continues. “Usually, they do a better job with the menu.”

“And yet, it didn’t prevent you from returning to the dessert table twice for more chocolate. Add the shot of espresso after dinner and you get what you deserve,” I retort in my icy tone normally reserved for enemies.

He deserves worse than heartburn.

“Oh, come on, I only splurge occasionally, and you should too. You didn’t even eat the cheesecake I know you love so much,” he counters.

Clearly my icy warning bounced off his playboy charm.

“Stop overcompensating and trying to pretend you actually know me,” I caution him.

“Don’t I?”

I turn to glare at him just as we pass under a streetlamp. Tristan’s eyes widen when he finally registers my anger, directed squarely at him.

“I asked one thing of you when we made this little arrangement of ours. One fucking thing. Discretion. Is that too damn hard to ask for?”

“Oh please. Don’t lecture me. Did you really think I didn’t notice Cohen hanging around you all night, following you around like a damn puppy dog?”

I know my husband couldn’t care less if I flirt with a hundred other men. He’s only trying to deflect from his own dalliances. But if Tristan noticed Dex tracking me in the crowd, that meant others might have too.

Damn all the men in my life—and yes, that includes my late father.

I push down the lingering resentment that my only parent left me to clean up all the messes he’d made by going into business with the devil.

“Dex is many things, but a puppy isn’t one of them,” I retort, realizing too late that it sounds like I’m defending the asshole.

Tristan loosens his tie, unbuttoning the top button of his tuxedo shirt, and for a brief second, I panic thinking he’s stupid enough to try seduction in a futile attempt at placating me.

“You don’t have any antacids in that tiny purse of yours, do you?” he asks as I notice a small drop of sweat running down his temple.

So, seduction is a hard no. For the first time I believe this may be more than just a ploy to distract me.

“We’re literally thirty seconds from home.”

I leave off the ‘you big baby’ just because I refuse to stoop to his petty level.

I’m saved from further discussion by the car door next to me opening as a familiar hand extends in front of me.

Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I greet the only man in my life who hasn’t pissed me off today, or more accurately, ever.

“Good evening, Ms. Belov. I hope you had a good time at the Gala.”

“Thanks, Gordon. It was lovely.”

I open my purse and pull out a stack of sweets wrapped in one of the cloth napkins I’d nicked from table nine. “They served those cookies you love. I brought you a few,” I say, shoving them into his hand before he objects.

“Oh Miss Katja, you didn’t need to do that. You spoil me,” he says, although he takes the treats, nonetheless.

Little does my doorman know the wide grin that lights up his face is one of few steady constants in my turbulent life. I’ve always found something therapeutic in watching how Gordon’s skin crinkles around his eyes when he smiles, which he does often. Those creases are like a barometer telling me all is well with the world.

“You take good care of me, Gordon.” I pat his arm affectionately before adding, “You deserve so much more.”

Stepping into the revolving door, I push through into the well-lit lobby of The Whitney, the only home I’ve ever known. My gaze scans every nook and cranny, observing… looking for anything out of place, and gratefully finding everything in order. In the distance, I hear the tinkling of piano music coming from the high-end bar at the other end of the grand lobby.

“Good evening, Ms. Belov,” the manager on duty greets me as I pass by the elegant front desk. The click-click of my high heels echoes off the marble and stone in the three-story atrium as he adds, “Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Peter. Have a good evening,” I reply with a small nod of acknowledgment.

Seconds later, I find the head of my security team waiting near the elevator.

“Everything is under control, Ms. Belov. No issues this evening.”

“Thank you for your report, Mr. Jenkins,” I say, enjoying the usual professional banter with the retired military officer I trust to keep The Whitney and her guests safe. “As I’ve said a hundred times, you really don’t have to wait for me. Go and have a nice evening with your family,” I add, knowing he’s been waiting for my return, refusing to go home until he’s given me his final report of the day no matter how often I tell him it’s unnecessary. E-mail was invented for a reason, after all.

Only after I step into the private elevator that takes Tristan and me to our penthouse suite do I start to let the tight grip of self-control loosen its hold on me. The barrier may be invisible to the naked eye, but the hard, defensive shell has been my most constant companion in life.

Tristan is uncharacteristically silent, making it quiet enough in the enclosed space to hear his stomach churning as he flexes his head to the side, massaging his neck.

“You really aren’t feeling well, are you?” I ask.

“Not that you care,” he accurately retorts.

“Francesca is still on duty. Send her down to housekeeping for antacids if you don’t have any in your room.”

I don’t know why I’m helping him. He deserves to be miserable for the bullshit he pulled with mistress number eleven tonight.

A few seconds later, the elevator opens to our private lobby. Our personal housekeeper is waiting to greet us. Not for the first time, I wonder if she spends hours waiting or if she gets an alert from one of the lobby employees letting her know I’m on my way up. I guess it doesn’t matter. All that matters is she’s here six nights a week, waiting to take care of any last-minute requests I have before retiring.

“Good evening, ma’am. Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Francesca. Any messages while I was away?” I don’t bother stopping to chat. I know she’ll follow me, always waiting discreetly in the wings.

“No messages, ma’am. I believe everyone was at the Gala with you.”

She is mostly right, although I’m expecting a call from my contractor. It annoys me that I’m going to have to track him down tomorrow and remind him that he works for me, not the other way around.

“Very good. It’s late enough, I think I’ll retire without going into my office tonight.”

“Of course, ma’am. Would you like me to draw you a bath?” she asks.

“No, thank you. Not tonight. I’ll just take my nightcap in the library.” I kick my high heels off the second I step onto the plush carpet of the bedroom lounge. It’s the only part of the master suite Tristan and I share.

I half expect him to be sprawled out on the leather couch, waiting for me. With our busy schedules, this is about the only time of day we spend even a little bit of time together. And after a party like the Gala? It’s one of the only things we genuinely enjoy doing together—rehashing the fashion hits and misses of the night while sharing any juicy tidbits we’d been able to gather on the other guests.

I push down my annoyance when I see the door to his private bedroom already closed. Like a child, he’s hiding, trying to avoid me holding him accountable for his gross indiscretion tonight.

Francesca knows me well. As I enter my bedroom, my California king is already turned down and the single Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup I indulge in each night is waiting patiently on a cocktail napkin next to my sleeping pill and a small glass of water on the bedside table.

The lights in my mammoth walk-in closet come on as I enter. I waste no time in stripping off my gown and strapless bra—throwing them over the nearest chair with the comfort that Francesca will deal with it later.

I catch glimpses of my near-naked body in the full length mirrors interspersed throughout the room, liking what I see. Despite celebrating my thirtieth birthday last month, I know my body doesn’t look a day over twenty-one. I have hundreds of hours in my home gym and a dietician that definitely wouldn’t like my nightly Reese’s habit to thank for that small miracle.

Only after sliding on my long satin robe do I finally stand in front of one of my prized possessions—a floral oil painting, housed in an antique gold-leaf frame that is as priceless as the art.

While the artwork is beautiful, it’s knowing that the famous nineteenth century Russian artist who created it had proposed to my great-grandmother that makes the art special to me. I often wonder how different my life might be had she said yes to the starving artist’s proposal instead of marrying into one of the most powerful Russian Bratva in the Old Country.

The painting is one of the only items I own that has been passed down from my mother’s side of the family, and I treasure it.

And I treasure what hides behind it even more.

Swinging the painting away from the wall on a hinge, I punch my eight-digit passcode into the touchpad before placing my right index-finger onto the small biometric reader.

The click of the lock disengaging on the hidden wall safe triggers an almost euphoric wave of excitement for me. Other women get high on drugs, or designer shoes, or rare jewels.

Not me.

My drug of choice is a juicy secret. The more salacious the better, and I give myself bonus points for information gathered on the most elite members of society.

I force myself to take the time to remove the diamond earrings, necklace, and bracelet I draped myself in for The Gala, placing each piece of jewelry in their black velvet boxes.

Only then do I reach into the bottom shelf and pull out my most prized possession.

I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside. The thick, leather cover is scratched and nicked, and there is a small burn on the spine of the heavy notebook where I accidentally left it too close to my curling iron as a teenager.

But it’s what’s on the inside that’s most important anyway. That, and the unique jewel-covered fountain pen I pull from the safe before closing it and swinging the painting back into place.

Francesca has my nightly glass of Bordeaux waiting on the table next to the chaise lounge in the reading nook of my bedroom. Knowing my preferences, she’s pulled the heavy drapes open to expose the million-dollar view of the city that never sleeps. We’re high enough that the traffic is only a distant din below us.

I sip my wine, taking a few minutes to decompress, enjoying the dichotomy of the bright lights of Fifth Avenue against the darkness of Central Park. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the view and while I’m not an overly emotional woman, it’s this time of day—alone with my wine, notebook, fancy pen, and the lights of Manhattan—that I’m at my most vulnerable.

“Can I get you anything else this evening, ma’am?” Francesca’s voice startles me.

“No, thank you. I’m good for the evening. Sleep well.”

“You too, Ms. Belov. Goodnight.”

She moves through the apartment silently, but I listen for the ding of the elevator in the distance, knowing when the doors whisper shut, I’ll finally be alone.

The jewel-encrusted pen is heavy between my fingers as I open my notebook, flipping to the last page containing my distinctive handwriting.

I take a few minutes to read my last entry. Has it really been two weeks since my discovery that one of America’s favorite actors had been using The Whitney to meet his mistress for a little extracurricular exercise?

Time can move so quickly sometimes, but I shrug it off. That guests use my hotel’s upscale rooms to get down and dirty with a side piece is not usually noteworthy. Hell, if I try to keep track of every time some guy sticks his dick into a pussy he shouldn’t, I’d need to invest in a half-dozen new notebooks—and a larger safe.

No. What makes the last entry so juicy is that the actor in question has a dark craving for power—the kind of physical power that ends with bloody sheets and screaming women. Mr. Jenkins had more than earned his expensive salary that night by making sure the abusive celebrity understood exactly how The Whitney handles assholes who love to whip their poor victims raw while sodomizing them against their will.

The two hundred-thousand-dollar payment he coughed up so we wouldn’t call the cops was much less important than getting the girl to safety, and I still feel a little dirty accepting it… even if she did beg us not to call the police. So, I instructed Peter to deposit the check, noting we could use some of the funds to get the room fixed and ready to rent again.

But as expensive as New York City is, I didn’t need the $200K to make repairs, which is why I told Peter to cut a check in the amount of one hundred seventy-five thousand dollars to the victim. She deserved the payout more than The Whitney.

I’m aware many would find it abhorrent that I kept the police out of the scandal, preferring that I throw the abuser in jail for his crimes instead, but my notebook provides my own brand of justice instead. Before throwing him out, I made it clear that if I catch even a whiff of a rumor that he’s done an encore performance with another unsuspecting woman, details of his sadistic crimes in my hotel will be the lead story on the eleven o’clock news across the country. The security footage and photos Mr. Jenkins took that night would ensure his demise.

Even if were ‘never able to identify’ the girl involved.

Looking at the fresh, blank page beside the nasty one, I let my mind turn to lighter news—remembering all the naughty secrets I’d discovered tonight at the Met Gala and documenting them, line by line, in my flowing script. Pregnancies, affairs, bankruptcies, and pending divorces—each entry makes me feel powerful, like I’m holding onto a small measure of control in an often-uncontrollable world.

The ink on my last entry isn’t dry yet when Dex Cohen invades my thoughts. Like the man himself, my memories refuse to behave. My brain barrages me with snapshot after snapshot of how fucking handsome he’d looked in his tailored tuxedo, working the room with his polished veneer of perfection.

And that scent… why did my body have to react like one of Pavlov’s damn dogs at the tiniest trace of his aroma? Even now, hours later, I can almost feel myself getting wet. As if I’d ever allow him to touch a hair on my head. I’ve witnessed firsthand how cruel he can be when he lowers the mask he wears in polite society.

I do my best to refocus on how sexy the rebooted boy band had been during their headliner performance tonight—trying to focus on their gyrating hips and indecent dance moves. But it’s no use. Just like he’d done in person at the Gala, Dex Cohen pushes himself into my thoughts, sets up camp, and refuses to leave.

It isn’t a conscious decision to let my legs fall open, stretched out on the lounge chair. Just like I don’t really choose to move my left hand inside my robe, loosening the tie to expose my skin.

My eyes are closed by the time my fingers slip inside the elastic waist of my panties, moving lower until I feel my wetness.

Anger for allowing Dex Cohen to invade this private moment threatens to dampen my pleasure, but I push it aside, placating myself with the knowledge that no one else will ever know.

Weak. Weak. Weak.

That’s one four-letter word I hate being associated with, but the zing of pleasure I receive as I brush my clit mocks me.

Images from the past mingle with the present, flashing behind my closed eyes like an old movie I’ve watched too many times before.

Teenage Dex—shirtless, working on one of the many construction projects we’d done during the time he lived at The Whitney. As an impressionable pre-teen, I’d been mesmerized at how his many tattoos danced across his muscular chest and arms as he did hard labor. Even all these years later, I remember running to hide in my bedroom, unsure why I couldn’t resist touching my private parts—sure that something was wrong with me.

My brain jumps to years later, remembering hiding in a linen closet to sneak a cigarette when Dex, home on college break, had arrived with some random chick. I’d been trapped behind the stack of linen as he’d shoved his dick down her throat while she knelt before him.

Witnessing the oral sex had been hot enough, but it was the way his eyes had met mine as he’d fucked her mouth to his roaring climax that I remembered most about that day. It was the first time he’d looked at me with something other than brotherly annoyance. I’d seen the hunger in his eyes and knew instinctively he was wishing it was me on my knees sucking him off instead of his girl-of-the-week.

That was the first time I’d ever felt sexually powerful, which is why I masturbate to that memory more than I like to admit, even to myself.

Slipping my fingers between my lower lips, I let my head fall to the back of the chaise, while I use the fingers of my other hand to press against my clit, letting a shiver of pleasure rattle through my body.

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’re thinking about me right now, isn’t it?” Tristan’s mocking voice yanks me out of my trip down memory lane in a split second.

I am mortified.

Worse than mortified, I’m still horny, left hanging without my release.

“How dare you come in here without knocking!” I cry, quickly closing my robe to hide my body.

Tristan’s chuckle infuriates me.

“I did knock. You must have been too engrossed to hear it.”

“And since when does that give you the right to barge in anyway?”

“You are my wife, if I recall.”

“Screw you, Tristan.”

“I’d enjoy that. It’s one of the few regrets I have about this little business arrangement we have. I wish I’d negotiated for at least a few conjugal rights. Even men on death row get that much.”

“Yeah, well those men don’t have a line of mistresses waiting in the wings to service them like you do.”

“I resent that. There’s no line.”

“That’s right. In your fucked up brain, it somehow makes it all okay because you only fuck one woman at a time. You’re a true prince,” I retort, unsure if I’m angrier at his indiscretions or my own impatience for him to leave me alone so I can finish what I started.

“Listen, I didn’t come in here to argue. I can’t lay down yet with this heartburn, so I’m going down to have a nightcap at the bar.”

“Fine,” I wave him away like I’m swishing at a fly. “Have fun…” I’m not sure what makes me say it, but I can’t bite my tongue hard enough to keep my “Tell number eleven I say hi,” from spilling out.

It’s an offhand comment, but the look I see in his eyes as our gaze meets tells me I’ve guessed right. The fucker isn’t going to the bar. He’s going down to the fuck-pad he keeps on the tenth floor to bone his mistress of the month.

He’s halfway out the door when I shout after him, “You’re going downhill, Tristan! Number ten was much better looking!”

Tears sting my eyes as I hear the door to the bedroom suite slam shut.

I’m not jealous. Not really. I went into this business arrangement with my eyes wide open. Tristan and I are a good match… at least on paper. I enjoy my independence way too much to ever allow a man to hold the kind of power over me that a true marriage would bring.

So why does my solitary life feel a bit like a death sentence tonight?

Chapter Four

DEX

The only reason she married that idiot was for money. Everyone knew it, and everyone knows that the reason she stays with him is for appearances. Katja can’t stand rumors and gossip being spread about her or The Whitney, but what’s sad is that she can’t keep it from happening by being married to that cheating loser. She also can’t admit she fucked up. Which she did, more than she even knows.

Am I salty? You can fucking believe it.

As my car pulls up to drop me off in front of my motel, as Katja so nicely pointed out to me, it takes all my might not to rage. It’s a pit. I know it. I just haven’t had the energy or desire to put any money or effort into it, especially since I don’t intend on staying here much longer if the plan I’ve put in motion works out as I hope.

It isn’t The Whitney and never will be.

It’s also in such an inconvenient location in New York. I left the Gala what feels like hours ago, and the damn traffic—even at night—is wearing thin on me.

“Good evening, Mr. Cohen,” Don, my front desk manager, says. The polite words seem foreign coming from the man’s mouth. His eyes are glassy and he reeks of marijuana.

I’ve been trying to groom the ex-hitman on how to interact with polite society, but the goon really belongs on the street hustling rather than working for me in this manner.

“Good evening,” I mumble, hating the smell of the lobby.

No matter how many times I complain, the housekeepers can’t fully rid the smell of piss from the cracked floor of the foyer. It really needs to be torn up, but God knows what I’d find underneath.

The sound of drunk laughter and music coming through the walls from the pub next door should annoy me, but instead it makes me thirsty for a beer. I’d much rather be over there than standing in my poor excuse of a substitute for The Whitney. O’Leary’s is the only good thing about this place. The food is fantastic, and the drinks pour heavy. The booths in the back provide me the privacy needed to conduct my business, and the patrons know better than to try and snoop. But it’s a far cry from the rooftop of The Whitney where I used to conduct my business.

“There you are,” I hear a voice come from the top of the stained, carpeted stairway. “Notice how I’m walking down the stairs? That’s because your piece of shit elevator isn’t working again,” Maxwell Ryland says with enough snark in his voice to have me clench my jaw, so I don’t reply with my own snarky retort.

The fat fucker who makes a living scamming unsuspecting elderly by offering fraudulent reverse mortgages could use the exercise.

“We’ll get maintenance on it,” I say, glaring at Don to silently tell the lazy ass to get on it.

“I tried,” Don says with a shrug. “Can’t get a hold of maintenance.”

“Then call Z,” I snap. “The man can fix anything.”

I see Don’s discomfort at the idea of calling Z. I can’t say I blame him. Z has been my right-hand man and best friend since childhood, but he’s a mean motherfucker who doesn’t like to be disturbed unless there’s a large paycheck waiting for him at the end. But I also know that he’ll help me whenever called upon.

He’s my cleaner. He cleans all messes no matter what they are.

Well… tonight I need a working elevator.

“I can’t keep staying here,” Maxwell says. “This isn’t The Whitney by a long shot. I appreciate your discretion and allowing us to do our business here, but this place is a real shit hole.”

“We’re working on fixing it up. Give it time,” I say, climbing the stairs and walking past him.

My patience is thin, and either I walk up to my room—four floors up—or I’m going to be making an enemy I don’t want. I have enough of those as it is.

He reaches out and grabs my arm—which I forgive this one time—and says, “Listen man, you are the goddamn Innkeeper. Our people respect you and what you do for all of us. But The Innkeeper’s reputation is getting tarnished by whatever you call this place. If you can’t give us The Whitney… well, figure something else out. I’m tired of slumming and want to pack my bags and stay at The Waldorf or something. I can’t bring a lady here. She’ll feel like a whore. People are talking about taking their business elsewhere.”

“Your words are heard and noted,” I say, snapping my arm away as I march up the stairs. The last of my patience has been used, and I need to get behind a closed door immediately.

He calls up after me. “I’m just trying to help by telling you like it is. We may be criminals, killers, and thieves, but some of us do appreciate the finer things in life.”

I keep walking.

Fucking Katja…

This wouldn’t be my situation if she didn’t end a contract that has been in place for decades.

Entering my room, I go straight to my desk and sit at my laptop. I need to focus on work, which is what the entire evening was about. The Gala was about obtaining information, speaking with contacts, and delivering a blackmail note to a guest—nothing more. It was most certainly not about Katja Belov. But as I begin downloading the pictures I secretly took while at the event, I can’t help but notice Katja in many of them. The woman knows how to work a room like no other.

That dress she wears paints her body like a masterpiece. Her dark hair gleams in every picture like rich ink from a fountain pen. Her eyes… her eyes pull me into every single picture I watch loading onto my computer.

Hating myself for my obsession, I stand up and walk across my stained carpet that should have been replaced in the 70s to a worn table that holds a bottle of Jack with tumblers next to it.

Drinking the first pour in one large gulp, I pour the second to savor a little more slowly. The sound of sirens down below has me walking over to my window, happy to see they aren’t coming to my hotel but instead to the one across the street. Not that the authorities would show up on my doorstep. I pay a shit load of money to the cops to make sure we are left alone. I may have a pit of a hotel now, but I still offer the same level of security, privacy, and secrecy as I have always done, and that my father before me did.

Max is right. I am The Innkeeper, and my reputation is everything, although I’m doing a good job at fucking that up lately, and I know I need to get my shit together. The money isn’t the issue… far from it. In fact, I could tear this rat-infested building down and start fresh and compete with the best hotels in the city, or even the world, but I’m resisting. I’m fighting my reality. I’m holding on to my past, and no matter how hard I try to move on, I just can’t.

Noticing that the upload is complete, I return to my desk to save the pictures in the appropriate files. I don’t have the energy to make notes on what I observed tonight but will make a point of doing it first thing in the morning when my mind is fresher, and the smell of Katja isn’t haunting my nostrils.

Katja…

I stare at one of the photos where she’s standing with a glass of champagne in her hand, her smile painted so perfectly on her stunning face. Her cleavage is highlighted by the lamps in the room, and I can’t help but imagine what’s beneath the fabric of her dress. I can tell her breasts are the perfect size and can imagine my hands cupping them, my lips kissing the flesh, my tongue circling her nipples.

I’m rock-hard at the thought, and as sick of a bastard as I am, I unzip my pants and pull out my cock for release. I shouldn’t be jacking off to a picture of Katja, but then again, I’ve never been one to do what’s right.

The wicked side of me loves how Katja would be appalled knowing I’m picturing my cum smeared all over her face as I stroke my cock.

I fist my dick, pumping it up and down, imagining Katja’s mouth doing the work for me. Her lips… yes, I know they’d be able to suck me off like no one else. The thought of deep throating her sassy mouth so she has to gag around my girth brings my orgasm closer. If she was kneeling between my legs, I’d take hold of her hair and force her face all the way to the base of my dick, not letting up until tears smear the perfect mascara she wore tonight. Imagining her mewls being muffled by my thickness shoots pleasure to my balls.

Feeling completion nearing, I lick my palm so I can pump my cock harder and faster. Am I going to picture coming on her face or her tits… or both?

A knock on the door stops me mid-stroke.

Motherfucker!

If that’s someone complaining about the goddamn elevator—

“Dex,” Z’s voice calls from the other side. “Open up. I need to speak to you. It’s urgent.”

Groaning, I tuck my cock back inside my pants and make my way to the door. Z isn’t one to pay me visits at this time of the night unless there truly is a problem I need to be made aware of or address. And the fact that he isn’t calling but rather coming to me in person means something.

I open the door and scan the hallway behind him to see if he’s alone. “What’s up?”

He takes a deep breath. “Katja.”

I open the door wider, so he can enter all the way. Closing the door behind him, I ask, “What about Katja?”

“It’s not good, man.”

A bolt of fear shoots through me. Did something happen? “Is she okay?”

He nods. “She’s okay. But I got a call just now from my contact over at The Whitney. Her husband—there’s a fucking huge issue.”

“Do I even want to know?”

“He’s dead.”

“Dead? What the fuck are you talking about? I just saw him.”

“The police are heading over to The Whitney now. It’s only a matter of time until the media does as well.”

I run my hand through my hair and go to the Jack bottle, pouring myself another glass as well as one for Z. “Well shit…”

“It’s not pretty,” Z adds. “The situation is…” He chuckles and shakes his head. “Fucked.”

“Does Katja know yet?” I ask.

“Not yet, but soon.”

“Fuck,” I breathe out. The thought of her receiving the news… “Can you go over there and clean it up?”

“It’s too late,” he says. “Or I would. But I do think she’s gonna need help. I think she’s going to need you.”

“Me?” I ask, turning to face him, surprised. “What the fuck can I do?”

Z gives me a knowing look. “You know the answer as much as I do.”

“She lost the right to my help the day she kicked me out of The Whitney.”

“Let that hate go, dude. At least right now. You know our fathers are rolling over in their graves right now.”

“Not my fault,” I snap. “And you’re damn right our fathers would be pissed. We should both still be living at The Whitney like before, and you know it.”

“Regardless, right now, Katja needs you. You know this.”

“This doesn’t involve me,” I say, pacing the room as thoughts of our past rush through my mind. “I don’t care.”

“But you do,” Z points out calmly.

“Fuck,” I say. “Fuck.”

Chapter Five

KATJA

What the hell is that pounding?

For a few seconds, I lay with my eyes closed, trying to decide if it’s a dream or not.

I get my answer in the form of a flurry of knocks on what sounds like the bedroom suite’s door.

What an asshole.

Tristan accidentally locks a door behind him on his way to fuck his mistress and then has the balls to wake me up to let him in.

“Sleep on the fucking couch, you bastard!” I shout as I readjust my sleeping mask and punch my pillow to get comfortable again.

I’m just relaxing when the pounding resumes… harder… faster.

Motherfucker.

Right on time, I hear the whisper of my mother’s voice chastising me that ladies don’t talk like that. How sad. I don’t know what my mom’s favorite song was, or what celebrity posters she had on her wall as a teenager. A million little things I didn’t have time to learn, but without fail, I hear her voice loud and clear when I do something that breaks the socialite code.

Recognizing I’m not going to get back to sleep until I let my philandering husband back in, I get out of bed. I’m tempted to open the door naked just to remind the bastard what he’ll never have but have second thoughts and throw on the robe I’d dropped to the floor when getting into bed.

“I’m coming!” I shout, walking through the darkened suite. I hadn’t checked the bedside clock but based on the dark sky outside the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, it’s still the dead of night.

“What’s the matter? You don’t have the staying power to make it all night?” I ask, reaching to unlock the door.

The door that isn’t locked.

I fling it open before it dawns on me that I should have confirmed it was Tristan before opening it, but then again, who else would be knocking on the door to our bedroom suite at this hour?

“Mr. Jenkins. My goodness, is there a security event?”

Nothing rattles Mike Jenkins. He’s seen it all over the years… especially in the years before I kicked out the devil and his gang of demons. So, the fact that Mike looks like he’s about to be ill doesn’t bode well.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you at this hour, Ms. Belov, but it can’t wait until morning.”

I wave him in as I turn, walking to the small lamp near a loveseat, and take a seat once we have enough light to see each other.

“It must be a doozy of a problem for you to come in person. You normally just phone. Did I miss a call?”

“No ma’am. I didn’t call this time.”

I don’t like his tone of voice.

“Do we have a criminal event? Employee problem?” I bite my tongue to keep from saying ‘out with it, man so I can go back to bed.’

“Neither. I’m afraid it’s a medical event. Actually, there has been a death on the premises.”

My mind goes back to the last death we had in the hotel, just two years ago.

“Please don’t tell me we have another jumper on our hands. It took me weeks to be able to walk in the section of lobby where that poor woman landed. I’ll never understand why someone—”

Something about the look on his face makes me stop mid-sentence.

“What? What aren’t you telling me? Is it someone I know?”

“I’m afraid so, Ms. Belov. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Mr. Miller has passed away.”

Mr. Miller. Tristan’s father is in London. He’s not even…

“My Mr. Miller? You mean Tristan?” My voice cracks.

I don’t wait for him to answer. I push to my feet and rush to the closed bedroom door on Tristan’s half of the suite. Crashing through the door, I flip the light switch, expecting to find him there.

Until that very second, I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that I didn’t love my husband. Hell, most days I don’t even like him that much. But standing there, letting the news sink in, I can’t deny a pain pressing in on my chest.

Physical pain.

The room sways as I struggle to catch my breath. I let Mr. Jenkins wrap his arm around my shoulders, gently leading me back to the loveseat.

I’m not sure how long we sit in silence, but I am grateful to him for not filling the air with senseless words. I need to let the news sink in before I’m able to talk.

Finally, I get out one word. “How?”

“The paramedics say it was a massive heart attack.”

Paramedics. That means it happened a while ago. Of course, it did. Mr. Jenkins lives in Queens. He had to have enough time to drive all the way back to The Whitney.

“When?” Another single word question.

“About two hours ago—just after midnight. I’m sorry to say that they pronounced him dead and didn’t even transport him to the hospital. A police detective is on-site, and the coroner has been alerted and will be here soon. I thought you’d want to know so… well, so you can… be prepared.”

Prepared for what exactly? My mind races with insane thoughts, all rushing in at one time. Tristan said he had heartburn, but it was clearly more. Maybe if he’d just stayed here to talk about The Gala, he’d still be alive. Did he sign to be an organ donor? What color flowers will he want at his funeral?

But in the midst of the barrage of silly thoughts, a more important question finally gets to my lips.

“Where?” I look into Mike Jenkin’s eyes, praying he isn’t about to say what I think he’s going to say.

“I’m so sorry to inform you ma’am, but Mr. Miller passed away on the tenth floor.”

He doesn’t need to say more. He knows that I know what happens in room 1028. Most nights, it’s just sex, but tonight it was death.

A burning fury builds in my stomach. For a second, I think I might be having a damn heart attack, too, because my heart is pounding away in my chest.

That fucker died sticking his dick in number eleven. As if it isn’t humiliating enough that he slept with more people in the two years of our marriage than I have in my entire life, he has to go out this way? It will be the talk of the town. I won’t be able to go anywhere without hearing people whispering behind my back.

“Number eleven?”

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

What was her real name? Natalie… Nancy… fuck it. “The bitch. The woman. Where the hell is she now?”

“I’m afraid she was distraught. The paramedics transported her to the hospital to be checked out, which I actually encouraged.” Our eyes meet as he finishes saying, “This way any guests who were disturbed by the commotion may believe that the ambulance was called for the lady.”

Mr. Jenkins went over and above. Not just taking care of the details but protecting my dignity as much as he could.

My brain races with all the scandalous implications of what the head of security has told me.

“Why are the police here? Surely they don’t suspect foul play.”

“Of course not. It’s routine in these matters, but… he was only in his forties and otherwise healthy, so they need to validate that he died of natural causes.”

“So, the coroner… is he…?” I can’t finish the sentence.

“Yes, unfortunately, he’s in route. The detective is staying with… the body… until the coroner claims it for the autopsy.”

Autopsies. Detectives. Ambulances. Death. All things hoteliers never want associated with their property.

“With your permission, ma’am, I’d like to get back downstairs so I can be in the lobby when he arrives. Who can I call to be here with you? I don’t want to leave you alone.”

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I have a thousand people in this city I would call a friend, most in my contact list on my phone, but none of them—not one—can I trust with this mess.

How sad.

“Katja!”

I hear my name called from the living room. Tears finally come to my eyes as I realize I’d been wrong. There is one person I can trust to be here with me tonight. He’s been here many times before in my hour of need.

The second Gordon, the doorman, steps into my bedroom, the dam holding back my emotions breaks, releasing tears over a man that has infuriated me at times, but somehow I know I’ll miss.

Being in a loveless marriage has been better than being completely alone.

Like a grandfather, the man who has been in my life since I took my first breath—who stood by me through every up and down in my life—sits down and pulls me into his arms. Gordon doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. It’s enough that he’s here, holding me as I let my new reality sink in.

“There, there, my Katja. Everything is going to be alright.”

Emotionally, I know he’s right. But financially….

“What the hell are you doing here and how did you get in the penthouse?” Gordon’s fury lashes out at someone behind me.

He never speaks like that to anyone… except… shit. Only one person brought out that much anger in Gordon Snyder.

“You need to change clothes. I’ll pick out what you should wear.” Words from the devil himself.

I have to be dreaming. Tristan dying is outrageous enough, but Dex Cohen barging into my private suite in the middle of the night… this has to be a nightmare.

I barely catch a glimpse of Dex as he marches through the lounge and into my bedroom. If it wasn’t for the tiny whiff of his scent hitting my nose, I’d swear it never happened.

Gordon lets go of my hand and stands. “Let me take care of this, Miss Katja.” Off he stomps like the guardian he’s been all my life.

I have the start of a headache by the time raised voices come from my room. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but a few seconds later, Dex emerges with an angry Gordon trailing him.

“Here, change into this black pantsuit. Then go wash your face, brush your hair, and put on just a little bit of make-up. Not too much… just enough to look presentable in the photos.” He throws the clothes into my lap.

“What photos?” I’m too confused to argue.

“The paparazzi. They were already congregating in the carport when I went through the lobby. I have Jenkins holding them at bay until you’re ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“To give your statement. You need to get in front of this before they get a chance to dig in enough to find out what really happened here tonight.”

He brushes past me, heading out of the bedroom suite.

“Now where are you going?” I shout after him.

He stops in the doorway, turning back. “To make a pot of coffee. Then to call Z and make sure he took care of the clean-up at the hospital.”

He’s making no sense at all.

“They didn’t even take him to the hospital!” I scream, losing my temper. “This isn’t some stupid crime scene you need your cleaner to fix.”

“Oh, really? So, you’ll be fine with Natalie Carrington blabbing about the trauma she suffered in room 1028 of The Whitney? She’s gonna try to hit every news outlet within the next twenty-four hours.”

She wouldn’t dare. She’s the home wrecker. The whore. Why would she want anyone to know the truth?

I feel Dex’s gaze on me. When I look into his eyes, I know he knows something I don’t.

He pulls out his phone, walking back to me before shoving it into my hands for me to read as he fills me in. “My tech team did a workup on her while I was in my car over here.

“She’s an aspiring actress. Mostly commercials and off-off-Broadway stuff. Has a reputation for sleeping her way up the ladder—directors, agents… financiers.” He didn’t say ‘like Tristan,’ but we both know Tristan was a sponsor of the arts in NYC. “I’m not exactly sure what she thought she was going to get from Miller, but I’m gonna make sure we shut her down before she tries to capitalize on tonight.”

He’s already out the door when I call out to him. “Dex!”

In a second he’s back, standing in the door, his arms across his chest, an unreadable scowl on his face.

I finally get my words out. “Why are you doing this? Helping me?” I hate how my voice quavers.

“Honestly? The hell if I know.”

And then he’s gone, leaving me with Gordon who looks as confused as I am.

It’s been three years since I kicked the devil out of The Whitney, and in a few short minutes, he’s barged back in like he never left.

Chapter Six

DEX

“Here, drink this,” I say as I hand Katja a mug of steaming brew.

Kicking Gordon out of the room so I can speak to Katja in private was nearly impossible, but he finally left. I want to leave, but I need to touch base one more time before I do.

She sips the coffee, her eyes locked on the window and the cityscape beyond them.

I can’t read her thoughts, which was something I used to be able to do so well. I’m not sure if it’s time that has caused this, or if we simply aren’t the same two people we once were anymore.

Hating the awkward silence in the room, I finally say, “I just got done meeting with the staff, and they’re aware not to speak to reporters under any circumstances. I think they’re smart enough to know that I’ll find out if they do.”

“They’re loyal,” she murmurs.

“Loyalty can disappear with the right price,” I inform, although I know Katja already knows this.

It actually pains me to see Katja so rattled, which isn’t something very many people get the opportunity to see.

“There’s no way that we can keep this from getting out,” she says, sipping the coffee and shaking her head.

“True,” I agree. “But we can try to control how big the flame gets.”

“I’m never going to be able to show my face—”

“Stop.” I glare at her. “You’re going to keep your head held high and remember that scandals are quickly forgotten. It’s how you handle them that’s important. This is not the time to melt down or show you care. Don’t you dare show this has upset you. You have an empire to run and can’t be bothered with gossip. Rise above this, even if it’s just on the surface. Your father groomed you for crisis.”

“I think this is more than gossip. And yes, he did groom me for crisis. But not my crisis. Not a crisis that I got myself into.”

“It’s gossip. Don’t let that loser husband have the power to destroy you.”

“Don’t speak of the dead that way,” she mumbles without much conviction.

“He doesn’t deserve anything better. And the truth of the matter is you did deserve better. And anyone who catches wind of what happened is going to say those exact words. You were above that man in life and now in death. Don’t let this take hold.”

I sit across from her and observe her trembling hands. A part of me considers walking over to her, taking her into my arms, and offering the comfort she clearly needs. But the thought is quickly pushed deep inside of me. I’m here to help, but I still need to keep my boundaries. This is still the Katja that fucked me over. This is still the woman I can’t trust.

I can’t repeat history. Especially history where I didn’t come out the victor.

“You’re going to have to pull it together because that’s who you are. You are the strong, respected, and classy Katja Belov.”

She nods, though not with the strength and confidence I’m used to seeing. “I know… I just feel… broken.” She glances down at the ground and swallows a large gulp of the coffee. “But yes. I have a lot to do. I need to figure out the funeral—”

“I have your concierge starting the process,” I interrupt. “I also have Z working with her to make sure the guest list is correct. You’re going to want a mix of true friends and family and then the guests who will expect an invitation. It needs to be controlled, however, and not a free for all for spectators. We went with St. Marks as the church. Being indoors will help keep the media away. They’ll be forced to stay outside.”

“I don’t want mistresses one through eleven there.” Her eyes narrow and her jaw tightens.

“Too bad. They have the right to say goodbye, and it’s part of Z soothing the waters. He’s making sure none of them talk. Allow him to do what he needs to do to make sure the silence is kept. He’s good at his job. Let him clean up your husband’s mess.”

She sighs deeply and stands up. “I’m going to go get dressed. I need to deal with the legal stuff and…” She looks over her shoulder at me. “Thank you. I mean it. I needed this. I needed you. Please thank Z for me as well.”

When she closes the door behind her, I decide my job with Katja is done. My conscience can be free of any guilt. Fuck Z for being right… He knew I needed to step in and help. My father would have done the exact same thing.

But my duty is done.

As I enter the elevator, I notice the marble tile of the floor has a crack in the far corner. The grout is dirty too, and I’m disappointed. This never would have passed Katja’s white glove inspections she used to do.

Entering the lobby, I realize the once opulent chandelier that hung as a centerpiece of The Whitney is missing. What’s in its place is a modern knock-off chandelier that any Best Western could get their hands on, instead of the antique masterpiece that once mastered the room. The crystal droplets that once sparkled from above have been replaced by LED fixtures, and it makes me sick to see. Why would Katja let that monstrosity take the place of true art? The history and stories that old chandelier cast light on are priceless. It was just as much a part of the hotel as the name itself. Yes, it required a ridiculous amount of upkeep and repair, but it came with the beauty and magnificence of a time long gone. It saddens me to see it removed.

Today is the first time I’ve been inside The Whitney in three years, and the little things I’m observing are bothering me. I see the frayed carpet in the furthest corners of the room. I see the chipped crown molding in a couple of discreet areas. Nothing is obvious, and nothing is noticeable to the untrained eye, but Katja can’t not notice these things. Her eyes are as trained as mine.

The minute the staff see me, they all find busy work to make it appear that they are hard at work. Not to say they don’t work hard, but they’re making an extra effort in appearing so for me. It’s nice to see I still have that power and authority over them, even in my absence.

“Mr. Cohen,” Gordon says to me as I approach the exit. I’ve liked the doorman since I was a kid, and because of that, I’ll excuse his behavior upstairs in the penthouse. He’s always been protective of Katja, and I appreciate that fact.

“I think you can call me Dex after all these years, Gordon,” I say, noticing how the man is scowling at me still.

“Mr. Cohen,” he repeats. “I think Katja will be just fine.”

I nod. “She will be.”

“I don’t think she will be in need of your service in the future.”

“One can hope,” I say as I spin around and take in The Whitney, which is disappointing in more ways than one. “But it seems that being left on her own hasn’t exactly been the best for The Whitney, now has it?”

I see his jaw twitch, but I can also see the skill the man possesses in keeping his composure. “The Whitney is doing just fine.”

“Is it?” I prod with a raised eyebrow. “Is it The Whitney we both once knew?” My eyes dart to a small nick in the glass window by the front door. “It doesn’t appear so to me.”

“Things have changed, true,” Gordon says with a nod. “But Katja is doing the best she can, considering.”

“Considering? Considering what?” I lean in closer to the man. “I didn’t just walk away and abandon The Whitney. Remember that. It wasn’t my choice.”

“But it was choices you made that caused her decision.”

“I didn’t do anything that my father hadn’t been doing. Katja just didn’t like it. But I wasn’t doing anything different.”

“Your father was more… discreet. The way he conducted business at The Whitney was different then. He conducted business with gentlemen, not thugs.”

I refuse to admit that maybe Gordon has a point in his observation. I did start allowing certain people through the doors that my father would have never admitted. He did have different standards, but for me… money and power trump all.

Was it wise? Maybe not. But it was necessary. I had to build my name and reputation as The Innkeeper, and not just as the son handed a legacy from Daddy.

“Yes, well… where is The Whitney we once knew now?” I question, hating the way this man can knock me down a few pegs.

“I fear the magic of the hotel died with your fathers, sadly.”

“It didn’t have to,” I snap, feeling my own composure dwindle.

“You can’t blame everything on Katja,” he says quietly, scanning the area to make sure no one is within ear shot.

“I can. I do.”

“You’re the one who got messy.”

“Messy?” I ask between clenched teeth.

“Your father kept… control. You started to make decisions that put The Whitney at risk as well as Katja. She did what she had to do.”

I swallow the lump in the back of my throat and paint the fakest smile on my face as I can manage. I reach out and pat his shoulder in a very condescending way. “Gordon, I appreciate the chat, but I think you should focus on what you’re good at and allow me to focus on what I’m good at.” I point to the closed door. “You’re good at opening doors for others. By all means… open it.”

He pauses, looks at me as if he’s about to say something more, but doesn’t.

“Good day, Mr. Cohen,” he finally says as he opens the door, biting back any retort that I know is sizzling in his body.

“Good day.”

I walk out of The Whitney and take a deep breath of the morning air. I’m exhausted, and not just because I haven’t slept all night.

I shouldn’t care.

I shouldn’t worry.

But as I picture Katja upstairs by herself, I consider spinning around and marching back up there to be by her side.

And do what?

I shake the thought out of my head as I hail a cab. I have to.

The past is the past. History belongs in dusty books placed on shelves in libraries.

I need to move forward with my life—with the plans already in motion.

I’m not the hero in her story. I can’t be.

Chapter Seven

KATJA

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll come back when you’ve finished breakfast.”

Francesca is hovering again. I know she means well, but is it too much to get five minutes of privacy in my own home?

“I’m done. Clear everything away except the coffee.” I wave my hand, wishing I could make the food—and the last three days—disappear.

“But… you didn’t eat,” she says.

I know she cares, which is the only reason I’m not already screaming at her to get the hell out.

“I’m not hungry,” I bark. When she doesn’t move into action, I add a sharp, “You’re dismissed.” Her flinch away from my shrill order prods me to tack on a more polite, “Thank you.”

I feel my blood pressure rising as I fight to hold it together. The bang of the door closing behind my departing housekeeper is like a pin popping my balloon—again. For days, I’ve had to buck myself up enough to get through the millions of tasks one inherits when their spouse dies. Funerals and flowers—music and memorials—unwanted phone calls and visitors. I’ve faced them all with the stoic resolve I inherited from my father.

Only when I’m alone do I allow myself to deflate.

The room swims as my eyes fill with unshed tears. There isn’t time for a meltdown. I just have to get through one more day, and then I can escape to France to lick my wounds. One more shitty day—the worst of them all—where I get to publicly play the grieving widow for a man who died with his dick in another woman.

It seems fitting that I get to stick him six feet under today.

A deluge of new designer clothing, shoes, and accessories crowd my walk-in closet. All the designers I rubbed elbows with at The Met the night Tristan died wasted no time in sending over an entire new trousseau. The fact that every article is mourning black ensures no one will confuse it with a honeymoon wardrobe.

God, I hate wearing black. I have ever since my mother died when I was five and my father made me wear black for an entire year. He tried to appease me by giving me black clothes for my dolls, too, but that only made it worse.

Gucci. Chanel. Dior. Givenchy. Halston. Prada.

They’re worth a fortune, and I hate them all, or maybe I just hate what they represent.

I choose the Halston. It’s the only one that has touches of silk chiffon accents with small, glittering gems sewn in. The tiny flare of bling will be my own little rebellion against the barbaric tradition.

I go through the motions, trying not to think of what lies ahead. My shower, make-up, and hair are done on autopilot. Clothes, jewelry, and shoes are meticulously donned until I finally run out of things preventing me from leaving the sanctity of my penthouse.

The knock on my suite’s outer door fills my empty stomach with bile. I’m out of time.

Gordon, my rock, is waiting on the other side of the door when I open it.

“Good morning, Miss Katja,” he says, trying to sound cheerful.

Nothing about these last few days has been ‘good,’ especially not what’s on this morning’s agenda.

“I know it’s going to be a hard day, but you’ll get through. You always do,” he reassures me.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, I know he’s right. I always get through whatever bullshit is handed to me. Today will be no different.

I’m Katja Fucking Belov.

Taking a deep breath, I grab my small, jeweled handbag in one hand and put my other hand through Gordon’s bent arm. I’m grateful for his supportive pat as we head for the elevator that will take me down to the lion’s den.

Even over the sound of my high-heels on the marble floor, the click of cameras reaches me within steps of leaving the elevator.

Showtime.

Over the last three days of public appearances, I’ve honed the perfect grieving widow look. Sad, but not broken-hearted. I hold my head high, looking into the cameras to give them the tabloid shot they’re looking for. As much as I hate to admit it, Dex’s coaching the night Tristan died has been spot on. Never, not once, have I let them see me rattled.

The sounds of the Thursday morning New York City hustle and bustle greet me as we walk under the portico. I hear my name being shouted from behind the stanchions Mr. Jenkins must have set up to keep the reporters at bay as I walk to the waiting limousine.

I had hoped for a few quiet moments alone to gather my thoughts on the way to the cathedral, but Tristan’s father is waiting in the car to pounce.

I don’t bother to greet him. Instead, I calmly let him know, “You’re in Gordon’s spot.”

“Excuse me? Since when does the doorman ride in the limo?”

I feel Gordon trying to pull his arm away, and no wonder. Thomas Miller is a condescending asshole.

“Since he is like a grandfather to me, that’s when. Please vacate his spot.”

“For Christ’s sake, you aren’t seriously going to let him accompany you to the services instead of me,” he spat.

It takes almost a full thirty seconds of an icy glare from me to get the elder Miller to move to the opposite seat facing the rear of the car. I would rather he get the fuck out, but I’ll have to settle for him moving.

Only once the car pulls away do I finally speak to my father-in-law.

“Thomas, if you wanted to play the grieving father for me today, you should have behaved last night at the wake.” I deliver the veiled observation with a voice much calmer than I feel.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he objects, sounding exactly like his son used to whenever I caught him being indiscreet.

My laughter sounds out of place, but it’s genuine.

“Just like Tristan. Deny, deny, deny. I’d hoped you’d at least wait until we got his body in the ground before you started fucking his mistresses.” My vulgar statement jars him into silence, his mouth agape as I add, “Did you really think I didn’t see you working the room last night?”

“I was only trying to comfort Ms. Carrington. She’s actually upset my son is dead, unlike his heartless bitch of a wife.”

Gordon makes a move like he might lunge across the seat to punch the pompous ass, but I squeeze his leg to keep him settled in his seat.

“Careful, Thomas. Don’t forget how we got here, after all. I’ll tell you what I told your son many times. If you want my loyalty, you actually have to be loyal in return. Since the head of my security informed me that Ms. Carrington was your overnight guest, it seems the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

“I should have known you’d have your little spies reporting back to you.”

“They aren’t my spies. They are my employees. You were in my hotel. Take comfort in knowing that it will be the last night you’ll be spied on as it’s the last you’ll sleep under my roof. I’ve already asked housekeeping to pack up your things. You can collect your bags at the bell stand after the funeral.”

“But… You can’t do that. I’m planning on staying in New York for several weeks,” he whines like a petulant child. “I always stay at The Whitney.”

“You always used to stay at The Whitney. I’m sure you’ll miss the complimentary rate. Perhaps Ms. Carrington will let you move in with her, since you two have gotten so close.”

I shouldn’t be getting as much pleasure from humiliating Tristan’s father as I am, but he asked for it the second he cozied up to number eleven at the visitation the day before.

The buzz of my cell phone inside my clutch purse is the perfect excuse to end the pissing contest with Thomas, although I can’t think of one single person I want to talk to today, particularly since I’m going to be seeing almost everyone I call a friend in less than an hour at the funeral.

Caller ID tells me it’s William Stryker, our real estate lawyer.

Definitely not a friend.

I’m tempted to let it roll to voicemail, but answer it at the last second, if for no other reason than to avoid further conversation with my father-in-law.

“Hello William. You got my message about Tristan?”

“Hello, Ms. Belov. Yes, I was deeply saddened to hear of your husband’s passing. You have my condolences.”

I bite my tongue to keep from saying what I really want to say, although it doesn’t stop me from thinking it. I’m sure he’s sad Tristan died because he probably knows I’ll be pulling all of my business from him and giving it back to the law firm my father had used instead.

“Thank you,” I mutter as politely as I can considering I don’t really care for the guy who tried to talk me into selling The Whitney in our very first meeting, even before Tristan and I got married.

“I need to see you as soon as possible. There are urgent matters we need to discuss now that Mr. Miller is deceased,” he says.

“I’m sure there are, but I’m on the way to his funeral. I haven’t even buried him yet. I think it’s poor taste to worry about the reading of the will,” I counter, not bothering to hide my annoyance.

“This isn’t about his will, at least not entirely. It’s more important to first reschedule the closing that was set for this afternoon.”

“I’ll be seeing his assistant, Mrs. Carter, at the funeral. I’ll have her reach out to push back any business meetings until after I return from France. I’m flying out tomorrow to spend a week or two in my Paris apartment. I’m sure any…”

“Um… do you have a second property in Paris?” he asks.

Some real estate lawyer he is. He can’t even keep track of our properties. Although to be fair, I hadn’t appraised Mr. Carter of all my own family holdings going into the marriage. As a Manhattan real estate financier, Tristan had insisted on retaining his own lawyer he’d been using for years. Since I don’t wheel and deal in properties like he did, his choice for our attorney had made sense.

“I’m not sure how many Tristan may own. I guess that’s one of the things I’ll have to get up to speed on now. I’m talking about my apartment on the Champs-Élysées.”

I leave off the part about wanting to get out of town so I could lick the wounds left by Tristan’s humiliating final betrayal in privacy, away from the media.

Silence.

“Hello? Did I lose you?” I finally ask, glancing at the phone to see if we’ve been disconnected.

“No. I’m here, but…”

Long seconds tick by, each one causing my heart rate to increase. I don’t know the lawyer well, but even over the phone I know something is wrong.

“What aren’t you telling me?” I press.

“You need to come into my office. We’ll discuss it then.”

“We’ll discuss it now,” I snap. “I told you, I won’t have time to see you before leaving town. I’ve already booked my flight.”

In the awkward silence, I look out the window and notice we’re pulling up in front of the church. Small groups of people are already hovering on the front sidewalk and steps. Photographers in one group, and family-friends and curious onlookers in others. The only thing they have in common is their damn black clothing, in direct contrast to the colorful flower beds enjoying the sunny day.

Mr. Stryker drags my thoughts back to reality.

“I’m not sure how to tell you this, Ms. Belov, but unless you have a second property I’m unaware of… you no longer own an apartment in Paris.”

My ears start to ring. I had to have heard him wrong. The apartment in Paris had been my mother’s favorite vacation spot. I’d been escaping there on holiday since I was a child. My father bought it for her before I was even born.

“You must be mistaken. If Tristan sold a property there recently, it must have been one of his own investments. That property is not part of his portfolio.”

“You really need to come–”

“No.” I’m officially out of patience. “You work for me. I will come to you after my holiday. You are mistaken. I’ve sold none of the properties I inherited when my father passed away three years ago.”

My finger is hovering over the END button when I hear him yelling for my attention. I put the phone back to my ear in time to hear him finishing his thought.

“I’m looking at your signature on the closing paperwork right now. It’s dated three months ago, the same day we closed on the property. I distinctly remember Mr. Miller advising me that you weren’t feeling well that morning and that you’d signed the power of attorney ahead of the official closing to allow him to provide your signature in advance.”

A few days ago I didn’t think I could get angrier at my now dead husband for the humiliating way he’d left this world.

Today I know I was wrong.

He sold my favorite holiday home, one of the few places I could still go and feel close to my dead mother. A home that was filled with precious memories.

And he did it behind my back.

Mr. Jenkins opens the door next to me, but I yank it closed again. I can’t get out yet. Not while I feel like I’m free-falling into quicksand. Fear presses on my chest. My brain feels muddled, unable to make sense of what Stryker just told me.

It’s only when my eyes connect with Tristan’s father that I understand just how grave my situation might be. Glee has replaced his previous anger and sadness.

“Ms. Belov? Are you still there?” The lawyer is almost shouting.

“I can’t do this right now,” I say, barely holding back the tears stinging my eyes.

“This can’t wait long,” he adds.

“Tomorrow. I’ll deal with this tomorrow.”

I hang up without saying goodbye. I sit frozen as Thomas opens the door next to me and scampers away to freedom before I can interrogate him. Despite the warm May weather, I shiver.

“Miss Katja… is everything okay?”

Always faithful, Gordon squeezes my hand in a show of support. I don’t dare look him in the eyes. If I do, he’ll see how close I am to melting down.

Instead, I take a deep breath and step out of the car.

Why did I answer that call? When I woke up this morning, I’d dreaded seeing mistresses one through eleven. Now, just a few hours later, I can’t bring myself to even care about them. I’m too busy worrying about what other secrets my philandering husband has been keeping from me.

Chapter Eight

KATJA

The minister drones on in the pulpit. I tune him out because I can’t stand listening to him talking about Tristan as if he was some kind of Goddamn saint. It takes all my energy to keep from jumping up and screaming that he deserves to be dead for all of the humiliation he’s brought on me. The cheating was bad enough, but now, after talking to our lawyer, any small sadness at his passing has been replaced with rage… and fear.

He sold the Paris apartment. My apartment. What the hell else has he sold of mine? And why? He used to love to remind me that he had more money than God. Before we’d married, I’d seen bank statements, investment recaps, and property deeds that had convinced me he wasn’t wrong.

Any sale wasn’t legal. I’d insisted on a pre-nup. I wasn’t stupid. I knew he wanted to get his hands on The Whitney bad enough that he’d signed up to help subsidize its upkeep as part of our marriage arrangement. But there was no way he could have sold anything of mine without my explicit approval.

Just the thought of trying to unravel what my departed husband has been up to makes my head throb. Through the long service, I manage to follow all of the minister’s directions. I stand when the minister says stand.

Sit. Kneel. Pray.

Except the only prayer I can muster is for strength to get through this day without losing it.

Over two-hundred people are crowded into the sanctuary. A few may have come to pay their respects, but I suspect more are here just to watch how I handle saying goodbye to the man who died while cheating on me. I’m not really mad about that. It’s how the New York elite works.

Through sheer will, I refuse to give them the salacious show they’re hoping for.

When the service ends and the minister invites everyone to walk the short distance to the cemetery behind the church for the service near his above-ground crypt, I push to my feet, grateful for Gordon’s steadying arm.

At first, I keep my eyes focused on the long aisle’s red carpet. I don’t want to look into the crowd, but like the same morbid curiosity that makes people stop to gape when passing an accident on the side of the highway, I can’t resist glancing around the pews, taking note of who’s here. Normally, I’d be making mental notes to record in my notebook when I get home, but nothing about today is normal.

Directly behind me sits Tristan’s father, consoling a sobbing number eleven. They deserve each other.

A few pews back, numbers four, seven, and nine stand out as they’re actually sitting together.

Ballsy move, ladies.

How ironic that I don’t know at least half of the people in attendance. The realization only makes my fear of what I may find the next day when I visit our lawyer’s office even worse. There is so much about Tristan I clearly don’t know.

As we finally approach the back of the church, following a few feet behind the casket being carried by the pallbearers, I get my first glimpse of him. Correction—them.

How dare they show their faces here.

Dex is sitting in the final row of the church, off to the side and out of the way, as if anyone can possibly miss him. In a room full of society’s elite, he stands out. Sure, The Innkeeper has on the right clothes, but he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Maybe it’s Z, his cleaner, sitting next to him that gives him away. Z may be wearing an expensive suit, too, but the tattoos snaking out from the suit’s cuffs onto his hands and crawling up his neck above the collar are impossible to hide.

I’m thankful when we leave the sanctuary. Despite the glaring mid-day sun, the ten-minute walk through the church’s gardens feels like the dirge that it is, giving me time to push down my fear and anger in hopes of making it through this final act.

But as the service proceeds, the crowd presses in closer, the minister pontificates, and I start to feel lightheaded. The combination of the heat, too little sleep, no food, and growing stress take their toll until I feel myself starting to sway just as the minister begins his final prayer.

Gordon catches me, keeping me from face planting onto the ground in front of the mausoleum’s wall of stacked tombs. But he’s frail himself and I can feel him losing his grip. My legs buckle under me just as I see white stars in the edges of my vision.

Sure I’m about to make a spectacular scene, I brace myself for the pain of hitting the ground, only the pain never comes. A strong arm wraps around my waist while another holds my elbow opposite Gordon and, together, the two men keep me upright.

I don’t need my vision to know it’s Dex. His scent gives him away.

He leans in and whispers against my ear. “Don’t you dare faint. He doesn’t deserve that kind of grief.”

My tongue is too stiff in my dry mouth to respond. My head hangs down, too heavy to hold up. Maybe the spectators will believe I’m praying.

Finally, the minister’s last “Amen” arrives and he dismisses everyone. I sense people approaching, wanting to express a final condolence. I’m shocked, and begrudgingly grateful, when Z acts like the gentleman he isn’t, politely letting everyone know I need some privacy to say my final goodbyes to my husband.

“Find her a chair,” Dex quietly barks an order to Gordon, who scurries off without a fight.

Dex easily holds me up as Z approaches with a bottle of cold water.

“Drink,” he orders as Z holds the bottle to my lips. I’m too woozy to fight him.

Seconds later, Dex lowers me onto a folding chair, staying close enough to catch me if I topple over. Z forces a few more swigs of water on me until I finally start to feel better.

As I recover, embarrassment closes in. I want to be angry at the men for coming to my aide. God knows I’ve done all I can to eradicate them from my life.

I hear Dex behind me, snapping orders at poor Gordon to have the limo pull around closer so I won’t have to walk all the way back to the front of the church. I’m sure it grates on Gordon’s nerves as much as it does mine, but he doesn’t argue, probably because he knows Dex is right.

While we wait for the car, Z kneels in front of me, holding out the water bottle again, but I wave it away.

It’s been three years since I’ve seen him. He’s changed... matured. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Remembering his recent loss, I offer, “I heard you lost your dad, Simon. I can’t say I was a fan of his, but I’m sorry. I know it hurts to lose a parent.”

A rare smile comes to his lips, making him look less like the felon he is. “You know, you’re the only person on the planet that gets away with calling me that, right?”

“I do it to annoy you. Is it working?”

“Not really,” he says, nervously glancing up at Dex who is standing over us with his arms crossed.

“If you two are finished with the small talk, we need to get moving toward the drive where the car is meeting us. The sooner we get you behind closed doors the better.”

Just like the night Tristan died, Dex swoops in and takes control.

Despite being grateful for his help, he’s going too far.

I push to my feet. Even in my high heels, he still has a good six inches on me, but I pull myself up and look him in the eye. “I know what you’re doing.”

“Oh? And what’s that?” he taunts.

“Trying to weasel your way back into The Whitney. It isn’t going to work.”

Leaning in closer until I can feel his warm breath on my cheek, Dex answers, “We’ll just see about that, won’t we?”

I’ve had a nagging question for days, and now’s my chance to ask for the answer.

“You confuse me, Dex. I’d have thought you’d love to see me make a fool out of myself today. Why would you go to any trouble at all to help me?”

Several seconds tick by and I can hear the limo pulling up not far away. I decide he isn’t going to answer and turn toward it, but then he finally speaks.

“I’m not helping you, Katja. I’m protecting The Whitney. You may have temporarily made me leave, but like it or not, The Whitney is my home just as much as it is yours, and I’m not going to stand by and let anything tarnish her reputation.”

I don’t bother to rein in my bark of ugly laughter. “That’s rich, considering you invited murderers, thieves, and assassins in. Kicking you and your gang of thugs out was the best thing I could ever do to protect The Whitney, and if you love her half as much as you profess to, you’ll never step foot in her again.”

“You’re too naive to see that you’re running her into the ground. Now that your money-train is dead, we’ll see how long it takes for you to come crawling back to me for help.”

He turns to leave before I can think of a snappy reply.

Twenty-four hours later I’m in the back of The Whitney’s limo once again. I never dreamed there could be a place I’d want to go less than Tristan’s funeral, but I was wrong. Keeping this appointment with our lawyer is taking every ounce of the little strength I have left.

The driver pulls up in front of the glass skyscraper just off Wall Street. I take a cleansing breath to settle my nerves just before stepping out into the mid-day sunshine.

Mr. Stryker has an assistant waiting for me in the lobby. We make the ride up to the thirty-third floor in silence, which I’m grateful for.

I’ve been in the high-end offices twice before today—once before we got married and once after. It isn’t until we arrive at Mr. Stryker’s reception area that I put two and two together when it’s none other than number ten waiting to greet me.

She’s William Stryker’s personal assistant.

I meant it when I told Tristan she was the most beautiful of his dalliances. We stand just a few feet apart, awkwardly unsure how to greet each other. I take the high road, reaching out my hand to address her first.

“Number ten. Nice to see you again. I missed you at the service yesterday. There was a whole pew reserved for you and your predecessors.”

She flinches. Okay, so maybe that isn’t exactly the high road. I’m not sure if the tears in her eyes are due to my insult or sadness over Tristan’s death. I’m fine with either.

After a few long seconds, she recovers enough to motion for me to follow her down the hall. “Mr. Stryker is expecting you.”

“Mrs. Miller, please… come in. I’m so sorry for your loss,” the lawyer says as I step into his office.

I wait until we’re shaking hands to correct him, making sure to look him in the eye and keep a firm grip, just like my father taught me. “You of all people should be aware that I never took Tristan’s last name. After all, you drew up our prenuptial agreement.”

“Ah yes… of course. My apologies, Ms. Belov. Please… come in and take a seat.”

I walk toward the round conference table we sat at during past visits while he goes and stands behind his huge oak desk. I raise an eyebrow to question why he’s not sitting where we can review paperwork side-by-side.

“Please, have a seat here in this chair.” He waves. “It’s much more comfortable than the chairs around the table.”

“While I appreciate your concern for my comfort, I’m not here to relax. I’m here to understand the current state of my husband’s estate, which I assume will require poring over documents.”

“Yes… about that. There will be plenty of time for that later. I think it best for us to talk for a few minutes first.”

William Stryker has always struck me as an overbearing chauvinist, which makes his attempt at polite niceties today raise my alarm level another notch. I’d spent hours last night digging through the paperwork Tristan kept at The Whitney and come up empty handed. Like it or not, I need Stryker’s help in sorting things out.

I take the seat as requested, deciding to save my objections for more important topics.

After he takes his seat, the lawyer wastes time, steepling his fingers and fidgeting until I finally have to press him.

“Since you’re having problems getting started, I’ll go first. How do I go about having you disbarred for allowing the sale of my property in Paris without my express consent?” I enjoy watching the blood drain from his face as I continue. “As the author of our prenuptial agreement, you of all people know that I am to retain one-hundred percent control over all property I brought into the marriage. Tristan also had a long list of assets that I would not have access to that I assume will now fall into probate until his estate is settled. Have I missed anything?”

My father had not raised a helpless dolt. While I may not be an attorney, I am a businesswoman who owns multi-million-dollar properties and businesses, all located in some of the most competitive real estate markets in the world.

“Unfortunately, what you seem to be unaware of is that Mr. Miller has had several investments fail over the past few years. I’ve been warning him for months that his expenditures were far outweighing his assets. He’s been forced to sell-off several properties that he was under water on, and even then, he has taken on increasingly risky debt that I’m afraid is going to come due within days.”

Tristan disappointed me in many ways during our short marriage, but never… not once… had I thought he was failing as a businessman. He’d maintained his millionaire lifestyle without even a hint of money problems, even with me. It only makes my anger brew hotter.

The only thing keeping me from running screaming from the room is that I know I won’t be responsible for any of his remaining debts thanks to our pre-nup. It isn’t an idle threat. I will see William Stryker disbarred if he allowed my assets to get mixed-up with Tristan’s illegally.

Still, I hoped that any inheritance from his estate would help with my own cash-flow problems. It was those cash flow problems that led me to forge my partnership with Tristan in the first place. Finding out I may not be receiving a windfall is a hard pill to swallow.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but as you know, I’m not responsible for his debts. Moreover, he did not have control over my Paris apartment or any other property for that matter.”

“You are named in his will as both heir and executor of his estate.”

“Okay. As his spouse that doesn’t surprise me. But what does that have to do with the question at hand? Furthermore, that doesn’t mean I’m responsible for any debts he incurred in his business.”

“For those assets he brought into the marriage, yes, but for those procured after your wedding, I’m afraid that is not true.”

My chuckle is forced. Nothing about this is funny. “Since we did not purchase any properties jointly, it is a moot point.”

The alarm in his eyes is the only warning I get of what’s to come. Mr. Stryker opens a folder on his desk and slides a single sheet across the wood so I can reach it.

My pulse spikes as I read the words ‘Power of Attorney’ at the top of the page. The tiny print filling the page is too much to read, but the signature at the bottom is large and clear.

It’s mine.

Rather, it looks like mine.

“I did not sign this!” I raise my voice, jumping to my feet and throwing the offending piece of paper back across the desk. “I would never sign a power of attorney allowing Tristan to control my assets, and you of all people should know that. We sat in this room, and I was abundantly clear that this little arrangement of ours was going to be mutually beneficial, yet we each maintained control of our own properties.”

“Of course, which is why I called and spoke to you about the change just over six months ago. Surely you are not going to try to deny speaking to me over the phone when you were in Paris just before Christmas?”

“What the hell are you talking about? I haven’t spoken to you since the last time I was in this office, and I haven’t been to Paris in over a year. If you spoke to someone, it sure as hell wasn’t me and this is not my signature.”

It’s unclear which one of us is more shaken by the realization that Tristan had been lying to both of us.

I slide back into the chair because my legs feel wobbly.

Terror strikes as a horrible thought crosses my mind. If he messed with my property in Paris, what else had he tried to sell?

“The Whitney…” My voice quavers as I can only get out the two words. I’m terrified of what Mr. Stryker’s next words might be.

“You are still the owner of The Whitney.”

I let the breath I’m holding escape with relief.

“But…”

“But, what?” I press.

“The Whitney was used for collateral in several high-risk loans Mr. Miller took to secure funds for the East End Lofts project. Unfortunately, when the initial units did not pass city inspections, Mr. Miller was forced to secure additional financing to bring the project up to code.”

My mind races. I knew little about the Lofts project. Just little tidbits Tristan had shared over dinner here and there.

“This is ridiculous. That is not my signature and therefore not one penny of my assets can be legally at risk in Tristan’s bullshit dealings. Now, what are you going to do to straighten this all out?” I throw this problem back in his lap, and when he fails to answer, I ask, “Which bank do we need to inform that there has been a grave error in the loan paperwork?”

Where his face was pale before, William Stryker’s face turns beet red as he struggles to look me in the eyes.

“I’m afraid Mr. Miller had exhausted all avenues of credit with his bankers. The recent loans were secured from a private financing company known to make higher risk loans at much higher interest rates. As you might expect, they also come with aggressive payback schedules and steeper penalties for missed payments. In fact, there is a payment of $150,000 due next week.”

“Well, isn’t that too bad. His estate is in probate. They are just going to have to wait like everyone else while we sort all this out, now, aren’t they?”

“For many of Mr. Miller’s creditors, yes, you are correct. This high-risk loan, however, will require payments to stay current.”

“Bullshit. They don’t get to jump the probate line.”

“I’m afraid the loan in question is not part of Mr. Miller’s estate.”

“How can that be?”

“Because the high-risk loan is a mortgage against The Whitney.”

Chapter Nine

DEX

Two days is all it took.

I knew she’d be coming soon enough, but the fact that it’s only been two days shows the desperation she feels. Regardless of the fact that she enters the pub dressed in a sleek suit, black heels with just a peek of red on the soles, and her dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, she’s scared and vulnerable. Yes, she exudes business and confidence, but I can also see her taking large, calming breaths to soothe her nerves and give her the strength she needs as she approaches me.

“You’ve been a busy girl, Katja,” I say before I take a sip of whiskey in my favorite booth in the back of the room. I lean back casually and motion for her to slide into the booth across from me. “I’ve heard you’ve been calling around, looking for me.”

“I’m not used to the slums. I don’t know all the hiding spots and apparently rats are hard to find,” she spits back, but quickly swallows her sour disposition and calmly sits down.

“So why did you come to my neck of the woods?” I ask, although I already know the answer.

She releases a heavy sigh. “Do we really have to play this game? If you know I’ve been looking for you, then you clearly know why. We both know that there is very little that happens in this city that you don’t know.”

At least she gives me the credit due. And how right she is.

I motion for the bartender to bring over the drink that I ordered for her when Z let me know she was on her way over. It is a brand of wine that, to me, tastes like grape juice, but I remember how she loves it above all else.

When the drink arrives, she glances down at it with wide eyes and a twitch of her lip. “It’s not even noon yet,” she says, although she picks it up and sips from it regardless. She smiles as she does, maybe appreciating that I ordered correctly, but then her expression returns to the serious businesswoman I know she so badly wants to present to me. “You and I have always been direct with each other. So, no need to change that.”

I nod. “By all means… be direct.”

I watch as her spine stiffens. “I need a loan. A fairly large one.” Her heavy-lashed eyes glance down to her wine and then back up to mine. “But you already know that.”

“Why would you come to me? Last time I checked, I wasn’t a bank.”

“The banks are… Tristan really screwed things up.”

I nod again. “He did. And not just with the banks. The fact that you actually feel you could come to me, out of all people, and ask for help is… laughable. You have a lot of rich friends. Why not go to them?”

“I’m trying to keep the financial situation of The Whitney private. Knowing you and what you do… well… I knew there’d be no keeping this secret from you. I’ve also come to you because of your past with The Whitney. You may hate me, but you do care about that hotel. And I know you don’t want to see it fall into the hands of some corporation that will just add it to their chain, stripping the history and charm out of the place.”

“True,” I admit. “I’d hate to see it fall into the wrong hands. And I most certainly would hate to see it stripped of anything from its rich history.” She opens her mouth to speak, and I raise my hand to stop her. “But you did that on your own. The minute you kicked me and Z out of The Whitney, you stole its very lifeblood from it.”

“That’s not true. I was protecting it,” she snaps.

I chuckle as I shake my head. “I barely recognized it when I entered the other day. If that is what you call protection—”

“Dex…” She takes a deep breath and sips from her wine, no doubt trying to figure out what to say next.

She hasn’t begged yet.

But I’ll gladly enjoy it when she does.

“The Whitney’s in danger,” she confesses, her eyes once again locked with mine.

I nod. “It is.”

“I’m ashamed of what my idiot dead husband did.” Her cheeks pinken as she glances around the pub as if expecting all eyes to be watching us. “I’m just trying to handle things… secretly. I’m concerned that more people know the situation than I’d like.”

“I don’t believe many know. You didn’t even know.” Part of me doesn’t want to soothe any of her worries, but I’ve never lied to her in the past either. “But I do. Rumor has it, you’re one payment away from losing it completely, which is why I’ll help you.”

Her eyes widen and renewed light hits them. For a split second, it reminds me of our childhood.

“You will?” Her voice perks up and for the first time since she entered the pub, she appears happy.

I sip from my whiskey before saying, “Sell me The Whitney.”

It’s as if I punched her in the face because she flinches and flings her body back against the leather of the booth. “Absolutely not!” she hisses between clenched teeth. “You know I’d rather die than let that happen.”

I shrug. “I offered to help.”

“I’m not selling The Whitney!” she shouts, quickly glances around, and then lowers her voice. “I’m here to ask for a loan. Nothing more.”

“No.”

“Dex…”

I lean forward. “You did this, Katja. You pushed me away and made an enemy out of me. Not a friend. Don’t confuse my helping you after your husband died as friendship. It wasn’t. It was pity and a sick sense of loyalty to your dead father’s memory. Nothing more.”

“Fine,” she says quickly. “Consider giving the loan in his honor.”

“I did my duty. I was as nice as you’re going to get from me.” I glare at her and lock my jaw as my own calm demeanor gets tested. “After what you did to me. After kicking me out of my home, my business, and my history… if you think I owe you anything, you’re insane. I think both our fathers are rolling over in their graves right now.”

“Alright”—she swallows hard—“I’m sorry for what I did to you. I didn’t exactly handle everything perfectly. Is that what you want to hear?”

I laugh. “No, an apology is not what I want. I want The Whitney.”

“And I already told you no. It’s mine and will always be mine.”

I release a deep breath, feigning exhaustion even though I’m secretly loving every second of her torture. I have the money. I could easily give it to her, and yet… I’m enjoying making her work for it.

I rub my fingertip along the whiskey glass as if I don’t have a care in the world. “Well then… I guess this meeting is over. The truth of the matter is that I have patience. I’ll just wait for you to lose it and then come in at the final hour and make the hotel mine regardless.”

“Dex, you aren’t being reasonable. If I lose The Whitney…” Her lip trembles and her voice cracks, but she doesn’t break her ice queen exterior. She will never give me the satisfaction of seeing her cry and plead. No, not Katja Belov. “What can I do to convince you to loan me the money? You’re a businessman. I know there must be something that can convince you. A high interest loan, perhaps?”

I pause for a long moment, enjoying how Katja shifts in her seat awaiting an answer.

“How much?” I finally ask, loving how her face lights up as I do.

“I only owe $150K right now, but I need a total of two-hundred fifty thousand to get caught up with bills and to get The Whitney in a position where I can start making money again to pay the future monthly payments that will come due.”

I smile. “So, you want a quarter million dollars from me, and I get what in return?”

“Ten percent interest?”

I laugh loudly. “You’re cute. No.”

“Fine,” she says. “Tell me what you want. What are your terms?”

Here is my chance. I have been waiting for this day ever since she decided to go against everything our fathers created together.

“I want back in at The Whitney.” When she opens her mouth to argue, I quickly add, “Not to own. But to operate business as I did before you reneged on our deal, as my father did before me. I want it back the way it was. You and I both know The Whitney has never made as much money as it did when we were acting as a team. You in the light, and me in the shadows. That’s why you’ve been under water. The Whitney has always relied heavily on the lucrative dark money my side of the business provided.”

She shakes her head, though I can see she is considering the idea.

“If you don’t like that option, then good luck securing the loan some other way.” I push my empty whiskey glass away and begin to get out of the booth.

“Fine,” she quickly blurts out. “Fine.”

I pause, turn to face her and raise an eyebrow. “So, we have a deal?”

“As long as you understand The Whitney is mine,” she says.

“But The Rooftop and the thirteenth floor is mine,” I say with a smirk as I resettle into the booth. “Just like before.”

A dull ache forms in my heart at the memory of my father and me together on the thirteenth floor, or sharing a bottle of scotch together at The Rooftop bar as he schooled me on how to run a criminal meeting ground in plain sight but yet so very hidden away.

“The Rooftop is now a high-class establishment,” she says. “I won’t downgrade it to suit your sordid needs.”

“The Rooftop will be my domain just as the thirteenth floor will be. Nonnegotiable.”

Her lips purse, her eyes narrow, and I can tell she wants to tell me to go fuck myself. But she’s also a smart woman. She knows she not only needs the loan from me, but the income that my darker business will bring to The Whitney. It will keep the hotel far from foreclosure. She’s wise enough to know the minute she kicked me out and severed our business arrangement, that The Whitney suffered. I’m sure she thought her new rich husband could keep her flush—and now she knows how wrong she was.

“You rule The Whitney on the surface as you do so well,” I say. “But I rule The Rooftop, the thirteenth floor, and beneath the surface as I did so well. Those are the terms. Period, end of discussion.”

“And if I say yes, then you loan me the money?”

I nod. “And I’ll be moving back in tonight. With Z.”

She moves to get out of the booth and nods. “Fine.” She looks at me. “Should we get something drafted so we have this in writing?”

I follow her out of the booth so we’re both standing face to face. I shake my head. “No.”

“No? You’re going to give me a quarter million dollars with just a handshake?”

“We’re going to seal this deal with a kiss,” I say, taking a step closer to her.

“Are you fucking crazy?” she says, her eyes darting around the room before they zero in on my lips and then back to my eyes. “I’m not going to… kiss you.”

“But you are,” I say. “You’re going to do a lot of things I ask and not argue. The days where you play Queen and we all bow down to you are over. I’m entering The Whitney on new terms.”

“Terms where I kiss you?” she asks with a sardonic smile.

“Terms where I’m in charge when you come to me with an ask. You want a favor, then I’ll want you to realize I’m the King now.” I place my hand on the back of her head and pull her to me. “Now kiss me.”

I don’t wait for permission, because it’s not something I will ever do again when it comes to Katja. I’m in charge, and it’s damn time she knows it.

I press her lips against mine hard, darting my tongue past the sliver of an entrance before she can resist the claim. Her breath rushes out as I merge my own exhale with hers. I taste the wine and her inner essence, and the toxic effect has my dick hardening in seconds.

Feeling the need to be closer, I grasp her hip and pull her to me, our bodies merge as one. She places both her palms on my chest, maybe with the hopes of pushing me away, but she doesn’t. Instead, she kisses me back with a passion that surprises me.

I hadn’t intended for the kiss to feel so… real.

But that is exactly what’s happening.

Her lips are soft and warm, and—

I finally pull away and force a nonchalant grin on my face. “I’m looking forward to being business partners with you again.” I’m not sure if I sound as composed and confident as I hope, but my throbbing cock makes it difficult to keep the upper hand in the situation.

She opens her eyes and looks up at me, they’re glassy and—she’s so damn close to me, that I consider kissing her again.

Releasing a deep breath, and taking a single step away from me, she says, “The Whitney is mine. Remember that and we’ll get along just great.” She spins on her heels and heads out of the pub without glancing over her shoulder at me even once, and I watch her ass the entire way.

Chapter Ten

KATJA

“Maybe you should stay for another thirty minutes. Your shoulders are still tight, Miss Katja.”

Malee, the masseuse on staff at The Whitney has spent the last hour trying her best to beat the stress out of me. Little does she know, she’s on an impossible mission.

“Thanks, but I need to get going.” I sit up, grab the fluffy towel she’s holding out, and wrap myself just as the knocking starts on the spa door.

When the pounding continues, she diverts from cleaning up to see who is so impatient. I can hear Peter, the Front Desk Manager, on the other side of the wood panel.

“I’m sorry to disturb Ms. Belov’s session, but we’re having a bit of a problem at the desk that we need her assistance with.”

Malee starts to curse at her coworker in Vietnamese, no doubt blaming Peter for adding to my stress.

“It’s okay, Malee,” I try to reassure her as I push to my feet. Speaking louder so Peter can hear, I add, “I’ll be out in a few minutes and will stop by the desk.”

“Thanks, Ms. Belov. And again, I’m sorry to bother you.”

I don’t need him to tell me what the problem is. This is just the first of what I suspect will be hundreds of headaches coming my way with the return of Dex and his band of hoodlums to The Whitney. Despite the one hour deep-tissue massage, memories of this morning’s disastrous meeting with The Innkeeper to the city’s most successful felons has every cell of my body on high alert.

It galls me that I’ve had to give in to Dex’s demand for a return to our previous arrangement. I’ve spent years, and millions of dollars, eradicating any evidence of him and his criminal element from the building, only to be forced to allow his return within a week of Tristan’s death.

I hope you’re rotting in hell, not-so-dearly departed.

I hear the raised voices the second I step into the main lobby. Well-dressed groups of guests are interspersed throughout the open space. Instead of mingling over cocktails, all their attention is focused on the commotion at the other end of the lobby. As I get closer, I see Dex surrounded by several of my most loyal employees. A sliver of vindication registers as I recognize the anger rolling off him as our eyes meet.

“What seems to be the problem here?” I ask innocently.

Dex cuts Peter off as soon as the manager tries to explain.

“My key is not working for my suite. I’m disappointed in you, Katja. I thought we had an agreement,” he says coldly.

Keeping my own voice just as frosty, I reply. “Oh, and we do. I’m sure my team has already informed you that we’ve got a room at the other end of the thirteenth floor reserved for you. If you’d like help with your bags…”

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in our meeting. Things are going back to the way they were. That means…”

It was my turn to cut him off, holding up my hand like a stop sign as I cut in. “And perhaps I wasn’t clear. You will move back in, but we’ve spent a lot of money remodeling the thirteenth floor while you were away. Some of our best suites are now located there, as is our new business center. They’re reserved months in advance. We can’t throw guests out of their rooms just because you’re in a snit.”

The brown in his eyes darkens to almost black as they do when he’s about to lose his temper. I’ve witnessed it more times than I can count over the years. It used to scare me. Today it brings me joy. He may have had the upper hand this morning at that dive of a pub he’s been hanging out in, but here, in The Whitney’s lobby, I love reminding him who will be in charge.

My breath hitches as he brushes past three of my best employees, approaching me so quickly I flinch. I feel his hands squeezing my elbows as he leans in to speak against my ear.

“This is a dangerous game you’re playing, Katja. Do you really want to take this fight public?”

The threatening edge in his voice almost makes me cave… almost. I’m counting on his love of The Whitney to keep him in check.

Leaning back far enough to look him in the eyes, I answer, “You won’t make a scene. Not here. Not now.” Taking a fortifying breath, I fight the urge to look at his lips and add, “Per our earlier agreement, I’ve had my team prepare two rooms on the thirteenth floor for you and Z. You’re free to move into them tonight.

“As for the rest of that floor, I’m afraid we’ll need thirty days to contact the guests who’ve reserved The Boardroom suites and make new arrangements for their stays. Until then…”

“You have thirty minutes, not days,” he snaps.

“That’s not possible. And while we’re talking about arrangements, I’ll need sixty days to give proper notice to the restaurant staff at The Rooftop to advise them we’re closing.”

I no more than get the sentence out and I hear the chef shouting near the elevator banks. As I glance in that direction, he comes into view with a scowling Z trailing behind him. I feel my blood pressure rising with each step closer they get.

“What the hell is going on around here, Katja? This asshole just barged into my kitchen and told me we aren’t opening for dinner tonight.”

Could he have shouted that any louder? I’m not sure the people walking by out on Fifth Avenue heard him.

Dex steps away and turns, ready to deck the angry chef, but I clutch his arm, trying to hold him back as I defuse the situation.

“Let’s take this meeting back of house, shall we?” I say as calmly as I can manage.

Like Dex, Chef Bernard wants no part of my plan to move locations.

“I demand answers,” the chef commands in his most arrogant voice.

I may not be able to stop Dex Cohen from fucking with my life right now, but Jacques Bernard is an employee.

“And I demand you keep your voice down and follow me to the back office to continue this discussion. I’m sure we’ve given the guests in the lobby more than enough fodder for gossip already.” When he thankfully delays his next argument, I ask Peter, “Please lead the way to your office where we can discuss all of this more privately.”

We’re an odd collection—me in my black Chanel suit—Chef wearing his tall white toque—the front desk manager in his uniform—Z in ripped jeans, T-shirt, and tats—and Dex in his tailored slacks and button-down with just the right amount of dark chest hair peeking out of the open collar.

Stop looking at chest hair, and get your head on straight.

Once crammed in Peter’s office, the door no more than clicks shut when Dex starts barking orders. “Things are changing around here and if one of my men tells you something then—”

He halts at my shout of “Stop!”

My eyes lock with Dex in a silent showdown. With each passing second under his dominant glare, I feel my power seeping away. Tears prick my eyes at the thought of losing control of The Whitney to him. But then I remember the one thing that would be even worse.

Losing The Whitney to Tristan’s stupid creditors.

Grateful to be able to look away from Dex, I turn to Chef Bernard first. “I’m sorry, Jacques, but I’m afraid it’s true. I’m closing The Rooftop restaurant and will be converting the space.” He opens his mouth to argue, but I hold up my hand to quiet him. “I’m aware that when I hired you, we signed a two-year employment contract. I’ll buy out the remaining four months which should give you more than enough time to secure alternate employment. Please break the news to the staff and let them know they will all receive two-weeks paid severance. I’ll be meeting with HR in the morning to get the paperwork in motion.”

His face is beet red. I can tell Jacques isn’t going to go quietly. “Just like that. No notice. No discussion. Just get the hell out?”

Dex steps between the chef and me, inserting himself. “You heard the lady. My associate, Mr. Z, is going to escort you back upstairs and will assist in closing things down.”

I want to scream at his interference. He doesn’t get any say over my front of house employees, but since I no longer run a rooftop restaurant, it’s a moot point.

I step behind Peter’s desk, putting the wide furniture between us as I prepare for the next battle. I’m not giving up on the thirteenth-floor suites as easily.

After the two men depart to go upstairs, I resume our discussion. “So, you have your precious rooftop,” I point out before adding, “but I’m not budging on the thirteenth floor. I agreed that you and Z could move back in starting tonight. I never agreed to a timeline to turn over the entire thirteenth floor. We have business groups booked.”

“Then I suggest you unbook them. Either that or… I’d be happy to move into the penthouse with you instead.” His grin is predatory. The victorious glint in his eye reminds me of the kiss he forced on me earlier today. The only difference is the added scruff of beard on his jaw this afternoon, like a subtle reminder of his dangerous persona.

Having the devil under the roof of The Whitney is going to be bad enough, but in my personal space? That I can’t allow.

Peter clearing his throat ends the showdown.

I stiffen my back, refusing to let him see me cry. I feel the humiliation seeping into my bones as I’m forced to bend to his will yet again.

Turning to my trusted employee, I finally give in to Dex’s unspoken threat. “Peter, you’ve been with the hotel for over five years and I’m grateful for your loyalty and continued discretion. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Z will be rejoining us here at The Whitney. We will be resuming our old arrangements. Do you understand what that means?”

I half expect Peter to be as angry as the chef with the changes so when he smiles and welcomes Dex back with a handshake, I want to smack the polite smile off both of their faces.

Assholes.

“We’ve upgraded our computer systems since you were a resident, Mr. Cohen. I’m guessing I’ll need to get you and Z trained so you can take over control of the thirteenth-floor inventory?”

“That would be most helpful, yes,” Dex replies while smirking in my direction.

Peter practically falls all over himself trying to help the damn devil. “Would you like me to open a service call with the elevator company? I assume we’ll need to change the elevator bank to remove the thirteenth floor from the button options again, yes?”

“Correct, and while the technicians are here, make sure they program the unique key slot to accept the special key pens I will be providing to my guests. What about the private elevator for my visitors entering near the loading dock?”

“We’ve converted that into an employee elevator, but I can have that reprogrammed as well.”

Peter’s helpfulness is pissing me off.

“Oh, how will we ever thank you for your help?” I deadpan.

He flinches, realizing only one of us in the room is still smiling, and it isn’t me.

I want nothing more than to stand my ground and delay Dex’s return to business as usual. Making him wait even a week, or a few days, would feel like a small win.

“Is the Boardroom Suite occupied this evening?” I finally ask Peter.

“No, but the CFO of a manufacturing company is due to check in tomorrow afternoon.”

Dex and I are back in our stare down. I want to wipe that smirk off his too-handsome face. I’ve spent years doing my best to distance myself from the sordid legacy our fathers left us. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that in one short week all of that work is being thrown out the window.

My mind races. I could make some calls, try to borrow the money I need from wealthy friends. I can feel the blush of humiliation at that idea warming my face.

I’m backed into a corner and digging myself out is going to involve the embarrassment of admitting failure at running The Whitney entirely on my own. My only choice seems to be if I want the humiliating failure served publicly or privately.

I release the breath I’ve been holding before caving in to the devil’s terms.

“Peter, please contact all of the future guests who have specifically reserved suites on the thirteenth floor. Let them know we’ll be moving them to alternate accommodations in The Whitney. If anyone gives you too much trouble, feel free to provide them with vouchers for a free night stay in the future.”

“Sure thing,” he says before an awkward silence falls in the small office once again. “Well, I have a lot to do. I’ll have a new master key waiting for you out at the desk when you’re ready, Mr. Cohen.”

“Thanks, Peter.”

Unwilling to be alone with Dex, I fall in step to leave right behind the front desk manager. Just before I make my escape, Dex pulls me back against his chest while slamming the office door with a loud thud.

Fight or flight instincts take over. I flail my arms to extricate myself, but his grip only tightens until I find it hard to breathe normally.

“You did this to yourself, you know,” he gloats.

“Let go of me!” When his grip tightens, I struggle to fight back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The bastard has the gall to laugh against my ear just as I feel the outline of his hard cock pressing against my ass. True panic sets in, and I struggle harder to break free.

“You could have avoided that entire debacle by properly preparing for our arrival.”

“You didn’t give me time to prepare shit.” Again, I try to yank free of his hold, but he won’t budge so I add, “What’s the rush, anyway?”

“Believe it or not, Katja, until you stupidly broke the contract three years ago, The Whitney was the only home I’ve known. Like she is for you and Z, the hotel is more than my home. She’s my business—my family legacy.”

I’m glad I can’t see his face. Listening to him talk about my property as if she were his is hard enough.

“You didn’t have to move to that dilapidated motel. You have more than enough money to buy your own Whitney. Start your own legacy there.”

“Is that what you really want? Me to leave? Just remember that my money leaves with me.

“I’ve been patient. I can wait you out. It should only take a few missed payments and The Whitney will be up for sale. I’m sure one of your fashion designer friends will be happy to give you a job in retail. You might be able to make enough commission for a studio apartment in the Bronx.”

My brain revolts at the picture he’s painting of my possible future. I’m not even close to destitute, but I feel my looming financial ruin if I don’t turn things around fast. It’s a future I reject.

“Fine. You win. Things will go back the way they were. Now let me go.” I try to yank free, desperate to be away from him and he finally loosens his grip.

Relief at him releasing me is short-lived when he spins me around, pushing my back against the closed door before pressing his body into mine again.

I slam my eyes closed, unwilling to let him see the fear I know must show in my gaze. I will myself to remain calm. Dex Cohen is a dangerous man, but even he wouldn’t physically hurt me, at least not here—just a few feet away from the front desk and several employees.

“Open your eyes,” he demands. When I refuse, he tacks on a more urgent, “Now.”

I force myself to obey, if only to appease him long enough to escape this damn room. I expect to see his signature cool anger, but the heated lust glaring back at me makes my knees collapse under me. The only thing keeping me from sliding to the floor is his muscular body pinning me against the hard wood at my back—and his hard wood is poking my stomach.

My hands flail against his chest, useless. I turn my head just as he dives in for a kiss. Undeterred, he moves his lips to the tender spot where my neck and shoulder meet, drawing a full-body quiver from me.

“Stop! This has never been part of our deal!” I shout, desperately trying not to notice how good his touch feels against my skin.

“Correction,” he says, before licking a line up my neck and sucking my earlobe into his mouth. “This wasn’t part of our deal in the past… but it sure as hell is going to be in our future. My help comes at a price higher than just money.”

This isn’t happening. The kiss this morning was one thing, but his hands are on me, groping in places business partners don’t touch. The temperature in the small room is suddenly oppressive. His scent surrounds me, pulling me in. My brain screams for him to unhand me.

Funny how my voice doesn’t relay the message.

My breath is ragged, although I’m not sure if it’s from struggling to break free or because his damn lips are burning my skin.

“Dex! Let me leave!” I finally get out.

His release is so fast, I topple forward—off balance in more ways than one—away from the door and back into his waiting arms.

Before I can second guess myself, I try to take back control. My open palm makes a loud crack as it connects with his cheek. My strike is hard enough to snap his head to the side as pink lines blossom where my fingers landed.

Too late, I realize I should already be running. All breath leaves me as I’m slammed against the door once more, this time, his left hand is on my throat, squeezing as his lips crash into mine so hard it hurts. Unlike our kiss at the pub, this is a punishment. His tongue demands entrance just as his fingers tighten on my throat. I’m forced to open my mouth to gasp for air and he takes advantage, thrusting his tongue forward to duel with my own.

I have many reasons to hate this man, but in the moment, I can’t remember a single one of them. My traitorous body responds in ways it never did with my newly-departed husband. The irony is not lost on me.

The brutal kiss ends before I know what I want to say and, like a coward, I run from the room the second he releases me. The only response I get from Dex is his mocking laughter.

Tears blur my vision as I weave my way to the bank of elevators. I’m grateful I don’t see anyone I need to speak to along the way. It takes all my energy to hold it together on the long ride up to my penthouse. I refuse to give the security guard monitoring the camera feed anything to gossip about.

Only when I’m able to lock the door to my penthouse behind me do I begin to feel safe. Safe from Dex physically, and safe to let the tears I’ve been holding back finally fall.

One week ago, I was going through my final fitting for my Met Gala gown. How in the world could my life fall apart so spectacularly in just one short week?

I want to blame Tristan for all my problems, and while yes, he’d certainly put things into motion, I know I’m guilty of being too naive… too trusting. I should have been monitoring his business dealings much more closely, and I should have been checking in with the lawyer on my own once a month.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda as they say.

Malee’s massage hadn’t helped, but maybe a hot soak in the tub will help me relax enough to get a better night’s sleep.

Stripping my clothes off as I enter my bedroom, I notice my bed has been turned down already. My normal nightly chocolate is waiting on my pillow along with an envelope with Katja Belov scrolled across the front in flowing, handwritten lettering. There is no address or stamp. Had a courier delivered it?

The parchment paper is thick and textured. When I open the envelope, the single sheet of letterhead inside matches the distinctive envelope. The logo for Enterprise Investments is at the top, but it’s the short paragraph in the middle of the page that makes me collapse onto my bed.

Ms. Belov,

We were sorry to hear of the loss of your husband. Unfortunately, Mr. Miller’s untimely death does not modify the terms of his loan with our firm. Per our contract, a payment in the amount of $300,000 is due this coming Friday, leaving an outstanding balance of $3,754,025.74 before interest accrual.

Sincerely,

H. Jones, CEO Enterprise Investments

FML.

It’s worse than I thought.

Chapter Eleven

DEX

The balance of the scales is crucial this time around. I’ve been given a second chance that I didn’t see happening. I had all but given up hope that Katja and I would be in business again, but somehow it seems to be working out… for now.

But I won’t allow history to repeat itself.

Katja is a powerful woman. Her presence demands respect. Her classy elegance is nearly intoxicating. But I refuse to give her control. Her need to have the upper hand, and my allowing it in the past, is how I ended up in a damn motel with nothing but poisonous thoughts to keep me company.

This time will be different.

I’ll make damn sure of it.

My one goal when it comes to her is to burn that stubborn pride of hers to the ground. The ash of yesteryear being all that’s left.

Well… it might not be my only goal. But one step at a time. My one focus to make sure I don’t end up on the curb again. But walking the hallway of the thirteenth floor feels fucking fantastic, and no matter what happens in the future, I will never lose this feeling again.

“Dex,” I hear Katja’s voice behind me, but I swear I sense her presence even before the words leave her mouth.

I turn to see her at the end of the hallway walking toward me, her high-heeled legs demanding I appreciate their beauty. She’s wearing a suit jacket, a pin skirt, and her hair is perfectly styled without a single strand out of place.

Classic beauty. Perfect beauty. Controlled beauty. Katja Belov.

“I need to speak with you,” she says, closing the distance between us.

“If this is about yesterday,” I begin, not wanting to get into it with her. I have entirely too much to do today to get fully operational, and another battle of wills is not on my agenda.

She extends her hand and hands me a folded note. “I got this last night. It was waiting for me in my room.”

I open the note, read it, and then lock eyes with her. “Why are you showing this to me?”

“It’s asking for more money,” she says, pointing to it for emphasis. Her shaking fingers aren’t lost on me.

“I wired you a quarter million dollars yesterday. I don’t see what the problem is.”

Her eyes fall to the ground, she swallows hard, but then returns her stare to mine. “It’s asking for more money.”

I raise an eyebrow but remain silent.

“The money you gave me,” she swallows again, licks her lips, but stiffens her spine before she adds, “is spoken for. I paid the immediate loan payment, past bills, and… The Whitney was in some debt. I’m not quite flush yet, and I need some profitable months before I can make another payment.”

I cross my arms against my chest and study the way she remains steadfast, not the slightest fidget with her feet, or hands, or any movement to reveal how uncomfortable she is. You’d really have to know Katja to read any discomfort in her behavior.

Her father trained her right.

“So, are you here asking for more money?” I ask as I hand her the note back. “How much is it you want?”

“Another three-hundred thousand. Just until The Whitney gets out from under water. It shouldn’t be long, especially with your leasing payments coming in again. Then I’ll be able to make the future payments on my own.”

I inhale deeply, noticing that her eyelashes flutter as I do. She’s composed on the outside, but I can see the swirl of chaos going on inside her. I know her. I can feel her. I know…

“Do you remember that time when we were kids and we were playing soccer in the lobby?” I ask.

She nods and gives a small smile.

“We broke that vase imported from Venice. Remember?” I continue.

“Our fathers were so angry,” she adds, her smile growing bigger in memory.

“Right. They were. But do you remember that I told them both that I did it on my own, and that you had tried to stop me?”

Her smile fades, and she nods. “I do. You always looked out for me.”

“I took a belting from my dad for that, and it wasn’t the first time I was punished for taking the fall. But I didn’t mind one bit if it meant protecting you from the same fate. I would have taken a whipping every day if it meant you didn’t have to.”

Her head tilts and her eyes narrow. “Why are you bringing up this story?”

“Do you remember when you and your friends threw a party in an empty room on the tenth floor after high school Homecoming? You thought you could get away with it since your father was out of town on a business trip.” When she doesn’t say anything, I continue, “When you got caught, I stepped in and took the fall for that one as well.”

“I get it,” she says calmly. “You’ve always helped me. You’ve always bailed me out. Is that what you’re trying to get at? You’ve always had to save me. Is that what you want me to say and acknowledge?”

“No,” I reply firmly. “I’m saying I always protected you from consequences. I always took them for you, so you never had to.”

I resist the urge to say what I really want to say: The scales have always been unbalanced between us. Always.

“Dex—”

I raise my hand to interrupt her. “But I’m not going to do that any longer. There are consequences for poor decisions, and it’s time you start understanding that and paying for them yourself.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she says, and for the first time repositions her weight from one high heel to the next. Her brave facade is slowly chipping.

“I’ll give you the money,” I begin, noticing her eyes light up as I say the words. “But there will be a consequence for it. You allowed this to happen to The Whitney on your watch. Not mine. Not anyone else’s. Yours. And for that, there will be a consequence.”

“All right…” she says warily. “What is the consequence?”

“A belting.”

Her eyes open wide, but her mouth even wider. “What? Are you serious?” Her voice comes out squeaky and winded before she laughs maniacally. “You aren’t really expecting me to agree to a…to you using your belt on me?”

I don’t say anything, but harden my features, making it very obvious that I’m exactly that—serious.

Katja has been treated like a princess her entire life. She’s been surrounded by men who would throw themselves down on a sword for her. Z and I would have done anything for her, and our payment for our loyalty was a swift kick to the ass the minute she found a new man to dote on her. It was high time that our little hotel heiress learned a lesson of humility.

“Please, Dex, I’m coming to—”

“I’m not going to stand here and negotiate, or hear pleading, or anything else you’ve got swirling in that brain of yours. I’ve got a lot to do today as I’m sure you do as well. So, if you want the money wired to you today, you will accept the consequence or find the money some other way.”

Her face turns a shade of pink I’ve never seen before. “You want to... what exactly?”

“Bend over,” I say, pointing to a decorative hallway table placed against the damask wallpaper. “Lift your dress up, pull your panties down, and let me spank that ass of yours with my belt.” I give a wicked smirk which I know has her boiling on the inside. “Accept a consequence for the first time in your life.”

“Absolutely. Fucking. Not!”

I shrug and start to turn. “Suit yourself. Good luck.”

“Wait!” she says breathlessly. “Fine. Fine!” She shakes her head, nibbles her lip, and glares at the rich mahogany table. She then turns to me and asks, “Can we at least go to your room?”

I shake my head no.

“The hotel cameras,” she says as her eyes dart to where the wall meets the ceiling.

“Z and I had them deactivated on this floor this morning. My clients need privacy.”

“Z could interrupt us—”

“He’s upstairs dealing with The Rooftop.”

“Hotel guests could come—”

“The floor’s been emptied. Completely vacant. Just you and me right now.”

“The staff—”

I sigh loudly, slowly losing my patience. “Katja, I’m running out of time. Either pull that skirt of yours up and accept your punishment for allowing The Whitney to get into this situation, or allow me to go about my business.”

She takes a tentative step toward the table, her back to me, and then freezes. “Is this a joke? A test to see how far I’ll go for the money?”

“No test. No joke.” I place my hand on the buckle of my belt and wait.

With a huff, Katja hikes the fabric of the skirt up over her hips, bends over the table and reaches for the lace thong panties in one effortless motion. As she lowers the panties to her thighs, baring herself completely, my dick instantly hardens.

I didn’t think she’d do it, and I’m frankly taken aback by the sight. Regardless, I’m a man of my word, and I have a duty displayed before me.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she whispers as I unfasten my belt and pull it free from the loops of my pants.

“Another $300K is a lot of money. Especially when I just gave you a shitload only a day ago. Maybe after our little consequence today, you’ll turn over a new a leaf on how you manage money and rethink some of your decisions in the past.”

Katja’s silence tells me all I need to know.

She’s restraining herself.

Seeing her clenched fists, and the tension in the cords of her neck, she’s clearly doing everything within her power to not tell me to go fuck myself. But I have to hand it to her, she remains in position no doubt wanting to just get it over with as quickly as possible. And though my palm itches at lashing her perfect ass with red lines, I can’t help but stand and take in the view.

She’s breathing heavy, her ass on display, the muscles of her thighs and calves accentuated due to her humbling position, and the way her white lace panties shamefully rest right above her knees. I shouldn’t like this as much as I do, but I fucking love it.

I double over the leather in my hand and rest it on her ass, allowing her to feel the weight of what’s to come.

“Dex—”

Not allowing her to speak any further, I quickly lift the belt and bring it back down on her ass. She gasps loudly, tenses, but doesn’t break position. She’s no fool, and hopefully knows that I’ve only just begun.

“Consequences, Katja,” I nearly growl as I belt her again, with more force than the time before.

Her gasp blends into a muffled squeal as her lips firmly press together. I take a step to the side so I can look at her face. I try not to chuckle when I see that her eyes are shut tight and she’s readying herself for the next lash of the belt.

Not to keep her waiting, I rain down upon her cheeks several more times, not pausing in between for her to get her breath or prepare for the next one. She cries out as I reach the sixth swat and begins wiggling against the table. Her bottom is turning a nice shade of pink, but not enough for me to stop quite yet.

I continue to spank her, watching the way her body takes each bite from the leather. I’m not sure who this is punishing more. Her because she’s taking the belting, or me because all I want is to be buried balls deep inside of her right now but I can’t.

I need to remain in control. I have to maintain the balance of the scales. I can’t allow Katja Belov—bare assed or not—to have power over me any longer. Never again.

I continue to whip her until her yelps and cries grow in intensity, and then I finally step back and loop the belt back into my pants while she’s still bent over the table, heaving for breath. If I don’t stop now, I’m not sure what I’ll do next, and this moment is not for that.

Yes, I’d fuck her in a heartbeat, but then that muddles the act. Right now is about humbling her. Stripping some of that pride of hers that I’ll fight against every step of the way if I don’t.

I have to remain strong even if my cock is one weak motherfucker right now.

I take a deep breath. Now… I could be a gentleman and assist her with her panties, lower her skirt, and help wipe the tears from her eyes.

But then that would be tilting the scales in her favor… so I wait and watch her recover.

Katja finally looks over her shoulder and notices I’ve put the belt back into my pants. She quickly reaches for her skirt and begins to cover her punished ass, but I shake my head and say, “No.”

Her eyes dart back to my belt, but she freezes in place.

“Keep that skirt up around your waist like the naughty girl you are. Leave those panties down and come kneel at my feet.”

The Katja ten minutes ago would have cursed me, shot daggers from those dark eyes of hers, and threatened to end my very existence. But not the Katja now. Not the Katja who just got whipped into submission.

This Katja does exactly as I ask and kneels at my feet—her leather-kissed ass still on display—and her big eyes looking up at me in anticipation of what’s next in her consequence.

Fuck… the things I want to do to her right now.

“$300K is a lot of money. Let’s hope you aren’t in this same position again, forced to take another consequence,” I chastise, struggling to not lift her into my arms and tell her everything is going to be okay. That I’d never let some stranger take possession of The Whitney. That I’d never let anyone but her and me run it.

But I can’t give her the power.

The last time I gave her the power…

“I’ll have the money wired to you within the hour,” I say, turning on my heels and heading up to join Z on the rooftop.

I don’t look over my shoulder. I don’t want to see Katja on her knees… waiting. I don’t want to fight the carnal urges that are raging through me any longer and if I look back, if I so much as glance at Katja right now… I’ll claim her as mine.

I need space. I need time. I need control. And though it’s only morning… I need a whiskey.

Chapter Twelve

KATJA

“I’m sorry, Ms. Belov, but if we’re finished, I’d like to head home now.”

I’m so focused, I’d forgotten Tristan’s previous assistant, Mrs. Carter, is still sitting across from me—piles of papers, file folders, and receipts between us.

A quick glance at my watch tells me I’ve been sitting at my long dining table for over eight hours straight, barely taking a break for food or tea.

“I’m sorry, I let time get away from me again.”

The apology is bullshit and we both know it. Over the course of working together for the last four days we’ve come to a frosty truce.

“No worries, but I do have a previous engagement this evening so I’m afraid I can’t stay late.”

I’m happy she’s leaving. I need to be alone and think through today’s newest findings. Yet, when she starts picking up piles of folders and putting them back into the banker’s boxes she’d had delivered from Tristan’s office, I reach out to stop her.

“No need to clean up. I’ll be working through the weekend, too,” I inform her, annoyed that I feel the need to explain anything to her.

“But…” Her voice drops off for a moment. “I need to take all of these documents back where they belong,” she explains, waving her arm around the heavy table.

“I can assure you, this is exactly where it all belongs.” I’d have let it drop there, but she hadn’t stopped picking up piles of file folders yet so I added, “In fact, on Monday, you can begin the process of bringing any remaining records and personal effects from Tristan’s office here to my penthouse. Feel free to hire a moving service if needed. Then you can return or sell any office furnishings.

“I’ve already contacted the building’s management company to let them know I’m terminating the lease on my deceased husband’s office space. We need to have the offices vacated before the end of the month.”

At least that stopped her from picking up. “But… I assumed Tristan’s business…”

I cut her off, annoyed by her continued use of my dearly departed’s first name. “Mr. Miller is dead. I’m the executor of his estate, and as it’s clear he had absolutely no problem borrowing from my assets while he was alive, I have no qualms liquidating any and all of his remaining belongings to help offset his excessive losses.”

I see the panic in her eyes. If only I could bring myself to give a shit. After spending the entire week holed-up, side-by-side, in my penthouse pouring through sketchy financial records, about the only thing I’m certain of is that my husband fucked even the dowdy Mrs. Carter. There is no other explanation for her weepy and unwavering loyalty to her dead boss.

A wave of weakness invades when fat tears stream down her cheeks. I try to remind myself Tristan’s failures as a businessman were no fault of her own.

Unwilling to comfort her through another meltdown of emotions, I finally add, “Of course, you’ll be paid your salary through the end of the month. I’ll also make sure you get a six-week severance package for the six years you spent as Mr. Miller’s assistant. Hopefully that will see you through to finding a new position.”

Her face brightens slightly before adding, “Mr. Miller is generous, even in death.”

Bitch, Mr. Miller is dead. I want to scream that since it will take me months to finish settling all of Tristan’s estate, every damn penny she’ll be receiving is coming out of my personal banking account. But since she’s been sitting at this fucking table with me all week, watching the profit and loss spreadsheet dig deeper and deeper into the red, she should already know that.

“In case you missed it, Mr. Miller left no money to cover any of his debts, much less any mention of a severance package for you. I’m providing that for you out of my funds, but if you’d prefer what Mr. Miller left you instead, I can…”

“No. I understand… um…thank you,” she finally gets out before scurrying away.

I sip on my now-cold cup of tea after she’s gone, trying to decide exactly who I’m most angry with. The list of candidates seems endless.

Tristan is the easiest to direct my anger toward. He’s not here to defend himself anyway.

I’ve spent the entire week hiding in my apartment, compiling the long list of those who deserved my ire. The creditors, real estate companies, accountants, and bankers are bad enough. So many people enabled my dead husband to overextend. While I’d love to blame them all, I know first-hand what a great actor Tristan was. He’d fooled me too.

Which is why my own name is at the tippy-top of the list of those who I’m furious with. How could I not have seen all the now-obvious signs?

The ding of the elevator arriving forces me to push my anger down again. I’ve had multiple meltdowns already this week. It wouldn’t do to have my head of security witness the next one.

His short knock comes as he lets himself in from the foyer. “Ms. Belov.”

“Mr. Jenkins.”

Cordial. The word sums up my relationship with Mike Jenkins perfectly and that suits me just fine.

Dropping a file folder directly in front of me, he launches into his nightly report. For five minutes I sit through his mundane recap of employees calling in sick, contractors coming and going, VIP arrivals and departures, and a million other details that I used to care about for some reason.

When I can stand no more, I hold up my hand. “That’s enough. Thank you for keeping me informed, but until further notice, I’d like to change these nightly status updates to emergencies only.” Only after I detect the harshness in my voice do I tack on a lame, “Please.”

I hadn’t bothered to ask him to sit. That would imply I wanted him to stay longer than necessary. So why is he still here?

In the awkward silence, I’m forced to finally look up to his unreadable mask of an expression.

“Is there something else?” I finally ask, praying the answer is no. I’m not sure how much more shit I can pile on my back right now.

“It’s just…” He pauses. I suspect he’s trying to determine if his concern rises to my definition of an emergency.

“You can speak freely with me,” I urge, desperate to be left alone.

“It’s just… there’s a lot of unrest among the staff.”

“Of course, there is. We had a death on the premises, and that death has had…” I freeze. I was about to say the word consequences, but ever since my little run-in with Dex on the thirteenth floor five days ago, that word has taken on a whole new level of meaning for me. Pushing aside the memory of my humiliating belting, I end with a rather lame, “…rippling effects through the entire Whitney family.”

“Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s more. It’s…”

One of the things I like most about Mike Jenkins is his no-nonsense approach to all things. It unnerves me to see him unsure.

“It’s okay. I’m not made of glass.”

“You haven’t been out of your penthouse since Monday. The staff is used to you checking on the operation every day.”

“They do know my husband died, right?” I don’t add that I’m in mourning, since he knows me well enough to know that isn’t true. It’s part of the reason I’ve stayed hidden. With all I’ve discovered this week about Tristan’s financial straits, I’m afraid of projecting just how relieved I am that my husband is dead. At least now I have a chance of turning things around.

“Yes, and that’s actually part of the problem. Mr. Miller was a larger-than-life part of The Whitney. The staff members are feeling his loss, just as you are. And worse… the arrival of Mr. Cohen has triggered a lot of change which is leading to additional uncertainty.”

I know a lot about that additional uncertainty. If I’m honest with myself, Dex Cohen’s presence is the number one reason I’ve stayed upstairs all week. Just the thought of running into Dex… knowing he’s been enjoying the memories of my humiliation at being bared and belted by him makes my stomach churn.

Unaware of my spiraling thoughts, Mr. Jenkins adds, “Perhaps you might enjoy eating in the restaurant this evening instead of here in your suite. I’ll make sure to reserve your table near the back corner where it will be quiet. Maybe stop and say hello to the front desk staff and bellmen on your way upstairs afterward. I think it would go a long way.”

He’s managing me and I hate it. But, I also appreciate it. Unlike most others in my life right now, I do believe Mike Jenkins has my best interest at heart.

I sigh before responding. “Very well, I’ll make a short appearance. I gave Francesca this evening off to spend time with her family, anyway.”

A rare smile brightens the security officer’s face. “That’s great news. Would seven work for you?”

“Sure,” I reply, already regretting my decision. The only positive thing is I can pretty much guarantee Dex will be much too busy entertaining his band of thugs on his rooftop domain to be hanging around the lobby on a Friday night.

I step off the elevator into the lobby at precisely seven o’clock. I’ve spent the week hibernating in my penthouse, barely eating and showering, let alone dressing in my normal designer fashion wardrobe. Ironically, the clicking of my heels on the marble tile actually calms my nerves.

Glancing around at the opulence that is my hotel—my home—I realize my error in hiding. I may be shaken up by the changes of the last few weeks, but I’m still standing. With each step I lift my chin, stand straighter, forcing myself to remember who I am, and the power I still hold.

Mr. Jenkins was right. My absence isn’t hurting Dex. In fact, he probably loved having me MIA all week so he could seize control of decisions he has no right to make.

By the time I enter the lobby-level restaurant, I’m feeling better than I have all week.

Marilyn, the maître d’, greets me. “Good evening, Ms. Belov. I was happy to hear you’d be joining us this evening. We’ve missed you this week.”

“Thank you, Marilyn.”

“Let me show you to your table,” she says, moving before I can tell her I don’t need a guide in my own restaurant.

When she takes a turn into the heart of the restaurant, I reach out to tap her on the shoulder.

“I’d like to sit in the back corner tonight, please.”

I see the confusion on her face when he turns back in my direction. “But…”

She doesn’t finish her sentence, or if she does, I don’t hear her. I’m too distracted by the sight of Dex Cohen seated in the middle of my restaurant… leaning close to laugh with some woman I’ve never seen before who is hanging on his every word.

I’ve been stuck on a fucking rollercoaster of emotions since Tristan’s death and a fresh wave of fury washes over me. It’s bad enough he’s taken over control of his portion of the hotel again, but he has no right to bring his long line of floozies into my restaurant.

Brushing past a stunned Marilyn, I beeline it to Dex’s table, glad he can’t see me until I’m next to him.

“How dare you bring your flavor of the week here,” I seethe, keeping my voice low enough to avoid announcing my arrival to the entire restaurant. I motion around the room with my hand just as he glances up at me from his seated position. “I’m sure your companion would be much more comfortable upstairs mingling with your kind of guests.”

A sharp intake of breath is the only response to my insult, and it comes from the woman sitting to Dex’s left. I pay her no attention. I’m too busy trying to figure out why Dex has a small smile playing on his lips.

Why isn’t he bothered? Better yet, leaving?

Ignoring everything I’ve said, he instead waves his hand toward an empty chair, his glare never leaving mine. “Ah, here you are. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Why in the world would you wait for me? I’m not now, or ever, having a meal with you, and especially not in my restaurant. I don’t eat with criminals.”

The small smile doesn’t leave his lips, but I see a new warning glint in his gaze. My words have hurt him.

Good. I need to keep reminding him he doesn’t have all the power in this business arrangement.

Dex finally breaks our showdown, glancing at the woman still sitting silently, before returning his cool gaze to mine. “Katja, may I introduce to you Marcia Littleton, editor and chief of Lifestyle Magazine.” His voice is chilly, dousing my heated fury from minutes before as his words sink in. “Marcia wanted to spend some time with you. She’s hoping to make The Whitney the cover story for their October issue.”

Lifestyle Magazine. Editor. The Whitney.

Fuck.

I don’t look at her. I can’t. A new level of humiliation sinks its claws into me when I realize how rude I’ve been. Usually the queen of etiquette, I stand frozen, my tongue tied in knots. Under normal circumstances, I might be able to recover, but absolutely nothing in my life has seemed normal since Tristan died in room 1028 with his dick inside another woman.

I feel a wave of panic approaching. Coming downstairs was a mistake. I need to retreat.

Dex pushes to his feet just as I start to feel lightheaded. I step back when he reaches out to me, spinning around to march away from him, trying not to run from the restaurant. At the entrance, I crash into the hotel manager, Peter.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, Ms. Belov. I was looking for you. Are you okay?”

He tries to hold onto me, but I shrug loose, retracing my steps across the lobby, desperate to be alone again in my penthouse. I pick up my pace when I hear Dex calling out behind me.

My palm slams the elevator call button over and over until the door finally opens. I end up pushing several floors in my rush to get the damn doors to close before Dex can make it to the elevator. They close just seconds before he can stop me from leaving. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to center myself.

What just happened? Why is Dex meeting with magazine editors? And why hadn’t he warned me?

The only answer I can come up with is that it’s all part of his grand scheme to cut me out of The Whitney.

As soon as the elevator doors open to my foyer, I rush forward, anxious to put my heavy penthouse door between me and the rest of the world—especially Dex Cohen.

Only when I’m safely alone do I allow myself to collapse into the first chair I come to. Laying my head back, I close my eyes, sipping air in an attempt to calm my nerves.

I’m overreacting. I know I am, but the stakes are so high in this twisted game Dex and I are playing. Every single time I see him I feel like I’m going to war, and so far, I’ve lost every battle.

I hear the elevator ding its arrival, grateful I’ve had Mr. Jenkins changing the entry codes to my suite to ensure my privacy. I hold my breath, listening as Dex tries to gain entry, half-expecting him to start pounding any second.

So, when I hear the lock disengage and my door fling open, I let out a squeal. Jumping out of my chair, I rush across the room toward the huge table holding all of Tristan’s files and receipts, putting the expanse of wood between us as I shout, “Get the hell out of my house!”

I hate that he’s got me rattled. I’ve worked so damn hard not to let him see me lose my cool.

“That was quite a show you put on, Katja,” he taunts, taking measured steps closer and closer.

“You did that on purpose! Why in the world would you set up an appointment with Lifestyle Magazine and not even tell me?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I thought I was helping,” he says, glancing down at the piles of papers spread around my laptop on the table. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

“Screw you, Dex. You set me up. You wanted me to make an ass of myself!”

He has the nerve to chuckle. “Baby, you did a spectacular job of that all on your own.”

“This is all just a big game to you, isn’t it? And if you hurt me in the process, even better.”

His glare turns intense, and I feel his growing anger. “If I’d wanted to set you up, I never would have stopped by the front desk and asked Peter to phone you to see if you could join us. Apparently, he couldn’t reach you, so he came to the restaurant looking for you.”

“A likely story!”

“Listen, I’m sorry I tried to help you get some positive press for The Whitney for a change,” he scoffs.

“This wasn’t for me. You did this for you. It’s always about you.”

Despite the huge table between us, Dex flinches as if I’d slapped him. We’re caught in a stare down for several long seconds before he lifts his hand, throwing a previously unnoticed shoebox onto the mess of the table.

“I guess this is just another one of my selfish mistakes,” he grinds out before spinning and marching back toward the door, slamming it closed behind him with enough force to rattle the items on the nearest bookshelf.

Curiosity draws me to the box, not sure if I want to know what’s inside or not.

I finally lift the lid, pulling apart the crinkled tissue paper until I uncover a small crystal encrusted picture frame I never thought I’d see again. My breath hitches.

Inside the frame is the last photo taken of me and my mother before she died. The five-year-old girl in the photo looks so happy. Little did she know things would change too soon. Unwanted tears fill my eyes at the unexpected gift.

Lifting the frame out of the tissue, I find the small, pink, pearl-covered jewelry box my mom gave me on our last Christmas together. My fingers tremble as I lift the lid, exposing the delicate ballerina who begins dancing in a circle to the tinkling sound of the music box waltz.

How? These were some of the treasures I was sure I’d lost when Tristan sold my Paris apartment. Mike Jenkins had even investigated and told me there was nothing to be done. My treasured keepsakes were gone.

Outside my apartment, the elevator dings its arrival. Without thinking about what to say, I rush across the room, opening the door to my penthouse just as Dex steps into the waiting lift.

Our eyes meet as the elevator begins to close and I step forward, thrusting my arm out just in time to re-open the doors, leaving us just a few feet apart.

I hate how off-balance I feel every time I’m in his presence. Just when I think I know what to expect, he surprises me.

My mouth feels dry but I finally find my words. “How did you do this? My contacts in Paris… they said everything was already gone.”

“It’s what I do, Katja,” he says matter-of-factly. He isn’t boasting or bragging—just stating a fact.

“Dex… I don’t know what to say. I mean…” The lump in my throat is growing, but I refuse to cry in front of him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. I settle on a simple, “Thank you.”

The elevator door tries to close again, but I hold it open, waiting for what, I’m not sure. Dex closes the distance between us, reaching out to place a hand over mine, helping to hold the door open. I can feel the slight calluses on his fingers as he strokes my hand gently.

A new fear takes hold and won’t let go. In the awkward silence, I finally ask. “And what is this little favor going to cost me?”

I swear, the skin on my ass is tingling just thinking about how it paid the price for the last favor Dex did for me. That was bad enough. I just prayed he’d never find out how damp my panties get every time I think about the belting he delivered on my bare ass.

His broad grin scrambles my insides as he gets in his parting comment. “I’ll just add it to your tab.” He pauses, the smile falling from his handsome face before he adds, “Have a good weekend. But be aware, next week we’re going to sit down and hammer out the new contract between us.”

My mind struggles to digest what he’s saying. “What new contract? We’ve reinstated our previous arrangements. Isn’t that enough?”

“That’s not even close to enough. Circumstances have changed. The new contract we draw up between us will acknowledge those changes.”

I can’t formulate words fast enough. He steps back, letting the elevator door finally start to close.

He gets in the final word with a simple, “Good night, Katja,” just as the doors shut between us.

Chapter Thirteen

DEX

“Tell me again why you were so hell bent on getting back in The Whitney,” Z says as he walks beside me down the long hall toward the conference room on the thirteenth floor. “I’ve never worked so many hours in my life.”

“It’ll be worth it,” I answer, trying hard not to agree with Z’s feelings.

We’ve both been working every waking hour to rebuild the empire our fathers had—that Katja destroyed when she kicked us out on our asses. Though I still have the respect of leaders in the criminal world, corrupt political scene, and even the different mafia families, The Whitney itself needs an overhaul. I need to make this the top destination these people choose when it comes to doing business in the darker corners of the world.

“Katja’s working my last nerve,” Z says as we enter the conference room and sit in front of piles of papers that I still need to sort through.

I don’t blame Z for being grouchy. He’s not usually the paper pusher in this partnership we have—his skills are much more useful in the cleaning department—but we need operations to be fully up and running, and I need his help.

“She needs time to adjust,” I weakly defend, more focused on the now. I have too much shit to deal with to add Katja and Z’s relationship to the to-do list.

“She’s poking around.” He leans back in his chair and runs his tattooed hand through his hair. “The question is how much do you want her to know about what we do on this floor and the rooftop.”

“She doesn’t need to know anything. She has her responsibilities and we have ours.”

Z chuckles. “Well, I think you need to inform her of that then. Because she’s been up my ass all weekend. I preferred her when she was locking herself in her penthouse mourning her husband and how he fucked with her life.”

“I’ll take care of her,” I say as I release a deep sigh. “Where are we on the secured network? Mr. White is in room 1312 and refuses to use The Whitney’s WiFi that’s available to all the guests. I can’t say I blame him. We need to make that happen pronto.”

Z’s jaw locks. “Katja got in the way of that too. But don’t worry, I think it’ll be solved by the end of the day.” His eyes narrow at the papers I’m sorting, and he lets out a breath. “I know how badly you want things the way they once were. But your father and Katja’s father had a business deal that was unbreakable. My father was a loyal friend and business associate. The trio were dynamic in how they did things. Katja, you, and me, are not that trio. I don’t think we ever will be. And since I’m your friend, I’m gonna be frank. What’s protecting us from repeating history and being kicked out and put right back on our asses? It’s clear Katja doesn’t want us here.”

“She wants my money,” I snap.

“Yeah… well, what happens when she starts making her own money again? She’ll only be down on her luck for a short time, and you know it. We’re helping her get The Whitney back on its feet, and knowing Katja… we’ll be back in the slums running biz out of a low rent motel again.”

Growing rage, caused by the visual of his words, sizzles through my veins. “That won’t ever happen again. I’ll make sure of it.”

I look down at my watch, annoyed that Katja is ten minutes late. She’s never late, so I know she’s doing this on purpose. Her display of disrespect, and her trying to show me that her time is more valuable than mine is causing my blood to boil. But I also refuse to give her the satisfaction of knowing she has the power to cause such a reaction in me.

“We’re out of Montblanc pens,” I say, trying to stay on task. “I sent them all out in the initial invite wave.”

Having possession of one of the most expensive pens in the world was the only way to gain access to the thirteenth floor and the rooftop. No pen, no admittance. It was also our internal way within The Whitney to distinguish Katja’s guests from my guests.

“We went straight to the supplier,” Z answers. “I can’t find any more to purchase in regular stores any longer.”

“We need them now.”

“Yeah, well…” Z glares at me, and I can see I’m pushing him too far.

“I’ll add it to my list,” I offer, not intending to piss him off.

I’m just so focused on the now, and if I’m being honest with myself, the situation with Katja is throwing me off. I can’t get the woman out of my head. I can’t get the way her ass looked—bare and punished—from my every waking second. I also can’t help fantasizing what it’d be like to do more.

So much more.

But, I’m a wise man. I know I’m fucking up by caring. I’m fucking up by letting even the tiniest bit of emotion get involved. I have to remember that this woman fucked up my entire life. And regardless of our past, regardless of how I once cared deeply for her and would have given my life in exchange for hers… she’s not that same woman. I need to listen to Z’s warnings and take his irritation and concern seriously. The man isn’t good at what he does by being careless. He’s smart, aware, and has a finger on the pulse of every situation. He’s not letting feelings control him, and I need to take a note from his book.

I look into his eyes and nod. “I’ll take care of the pens, and I’ll take care of Katja.”

“I hope you do,” Z says as he tilts his head toward the window of the room that shows the hallway. Katja is making her way toward us. “I’ll leave the two of you alone. I have enough shit to do to keep me busy for a lifetime.”

Katja opens the door as Z is leaving. “Hello, Simon,” she says. I know she’s aware of how much Z hates the use of his real name, and I also know she loves pushing his buttons when she can.

“I need to go deal with the crappy Internet here,” he says, not acknowledging how she got under his skin.

“He seems pissy.” She takes the seat across from me, crossing her arms, stiffening her spine, and tightening her lips in a straight line as if readying herself for war.

“Overworked,” I state simply. “You’re late.”

“No,” she says calmly. “I came when it suited me. I got your email—or should I say dictate—on when you expected me to be here for our meeting. Let me remind you that I’m not a staff member. I don’t work for you, and I most certainly won’t be dictated to.”

My eyes lock with hers, challenging her to say more, but also silently warning her to stop with the attitude. “There’s a lot of work to be done around here. I know you’ve been distracted lately and not working for a while… possibly even years by the look of things.”

“I haven’t been distracted,” she snaps, leaning forward, not breaking the stare we hold in the slightest. “Yes, Tristan made financial mistakes. Yes, I foolishly allowed it. But don’t for a second accuse me of not having a work ethic. I have worked my ass off running this hotel while you were drinking in the pub next to your pit of a place. So don’t you dare—”

“What? Don’t I dare help you? Don’t I dare bail your ass out? Because that is exactly what I’ve been doing.” I take a deep calming breath. “Are you even aware that you lost our seafood distributor? Your lack of payment got us canceled. I can’t serve my Russian guests lobster tonight unless I want to go to the damn grocery store down the street and buy it myself.”

“It’s temporary—”

“You keep making excuses. I’ll keep fixing and actually running The Whitney the way it deserves to be run.” I redirect my attention to a manila folder that holds the information on new windows for the thirteenth floor and move it across the table to her. “We need to discuss the windows.”

She pushes the folder back at me. “I already said no to Z when he told me your plans.”

“We need bulletproof windows for our guests. They need to be assassin proof,” I state, feeling no desire to shield her from the real reason why.

Her face pales. “Absolutely not. And if you for one second think a guest here is going to get assassinated…” She barely squeaks out the last word. “Then that guest is not welcome at The Whitney.”

“The guest list—my guest list—is not up to you. And since you brought up Z, I want to discuss that as well. He’s operating under direct order from me. What he’s doing is what I want. Stop getting in his way. Stop questioning him, and stop telling him no. Are we clear?”

“You don’t get to call all the shots,” she spits as her eyes narrow and her teeth clench.

“Since I’m paying the damn bills—”

“Does not give you the right to run my business. My hotel. Not yours.”

Feeling the need to take control of the situation that is spiraling due to emotions, I lean back in my chair and casually state, “You own the hotel for now. I give you another week or two until you’re forced to file bankruptcy. Maybe another month after that before you come to me begging to buy The Whitney so it doesn’t get bought out by Hyatt or Marriott.”

Her facial expression instantly morphs from fury to… fear? Sadness? Her wide eyes divert to her lap, and she swallows hard. Her fluttery hand movements practically beg to be held and stroked in comfort. For a split second, I consider reaching out to her and embracing her in my arms, kissing her forehead and promising all will be fine. Swearing that I’ll do whatever it takes to protect her, guard The Whitney, and make sure she never has to worry about money again.

It’s a split second.

Momentary insanity.

I have to remain strong and remember what she did to me. She didn’t think twice about me or my future when she dissolved a long-standing partnership that my father left me. No matter how much my heart constricts as I watch her discomfort, I have to put myself back in time. I must remember the day she literally turned her back on me.

“Clearly I struck a nerve,” I press on, being an asshole. But I like that I’m back in the driver’s seat again.

Katja Belov has one hell of a temper. And when she’s fired up, she can become lethal with her tongue. But a beat down Katja, a worried Katja, and a broke Katja is so much easier to handle.

“I’m not going to file bankruptcy and risk losing The Whitney. Ever.”

I shrug. “It seems to me that your loving husband left you with few options.”

“That’s true. He used The Whitney as collateral for almost every bad deal he made,” she confesses. Her eyes look back up at me. “So, no. Bankruptcy is not an option. Losing The Whitney will never be an option. I’ll do whatever it takes to save my legacy.” She clears her throat and stares out the window. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is okay, because it’s not. Far from it. And I’m furious with myself that I allowed this to happen while choosing to be blind. And that’s exactly what I did. I chose to be blind. I chose to close my eyes to everything Tristan did. I don’t know why exactly, other than it was easier.” She gives a light chuckle and shakes her head from side to side. “I’ve actually prided myself on just how well I observe other people. I have a notebook full of all my observations. Nothing could get past me. I could spot a secret a mile away. I could smell corruption or blackmail in the air. I saw all. I heard all. And yet… I chose to be blind when it came to my own husband and my own life. He distracted me with his infidelity. Little did I know, that was the least of his sins.”

“He was an ass.”

She nods sadly, still staring blankly out the window. “He was. And yet, I chose to ignore that. And my actions are catching up with me now. I risk losing everything that ever meant anything to me because I chose an easier route rather than facing a failing marriage and failing life head on.”

“How bad is it?”

“Bad,” her eyes dart my way for a moment but then return to the window, not willing to settle on her reality. “Far worse than I expected.”

She takes a deep breath that wavers as she inhales. “I can’t afford the new windows. I can’t afford the more secure network. I can’t afford the seafood. I’m not saying no to Z because I’m being a bitch. I’m saying no because the money isn’t there.”

“Well, The Whitney needs to come first,” I say. “And since these expenses are due to my part of the business, I’ll cover them.”

Her eyebrow raises as she looks at me. I see her neck stiffen and the cords become visible as she asks, “For a price? One of your consequences? Because if that’s the case, you can take your money and shove—”

“It’s my part of the business, therefore my expense,” I interrupt. “But I get the feeling that you need more money now. A lot more. Am I wrong in sensing that desperation?”

“You aren’t wrong.” She looks down at her hands that are fidgeting on top of the table. “With news of Tristan’s death, his collectors are hounding me, and The Whitney is used as collateral for many of them.”

“How much?”

“A lot.”

“How much?”

“I need $475,000 to settle the more pressing debts. There are more, but I think The Whitney will be able to pay off the rest once we get back on our feet. I’ve already seen a growth in revenue—”

“Since I’ve been here,” I interject.

She nods. “Yes, since you’ve been here.”

I get up from my seat and pace back and forth in front of the mirror with my hands behind my back. I can feel Katja’s eyes on me, but I don’t look at her. Not yet.

“That’s a lot of money,” I say quietly.

“Yes.” Her voice is soft, not pleading or whining, but very soft.

“If I give you this money…” I stop pacing and look at her directly. “I’ll expect our contract negotiations to come to an end. I’ll expect you to meet my terms.”

There’s a long pause, but then she says, “Yes.”

I walk over and stand in front of her while she sits and waits. “And there will be consequences.”

She looks up at me, unmoving for a few long, contemplating moments.

She eventually nods.

“Say it,” I demand.

“Yes. I’ll accept the consequences.”

Chapter Fourteen

KATJA

My heart is pounding so hard I’m sure Dex must be able to hear it in the otherwise eerily quiet room. I train my gaze on his expensive shoes to avoid looking into his eyes. I can’t bear to see the victory I know I’ll find there now that I’ve agreed to his dreaded consequences. The skin across my ass tingles in some kind of sick anticipation.

“Look at me,” he growls. It’s as if he’s heard my thoughts.

It takes all my effort to keep from bolting from the room, but I refuse to give him the satisfaction. He’s stepped between my chair and the heavy desk at his back. My peripheral view catches him leaning against the wood. I force myself to raise my gaze, trying not to get hung up on his bare, muscular forearms folded across his chest directly in front of me.

I focus on his expensive watch until he barks, “Eyes.”

Like a damn puppy dog, I obey his command. I’ve known the man in front of me my entire life so it rattles me when I can’t get a read on his hard glare.

Only when I start to feel a bit light-headed do I realize I’ve been holding my breath, waiting for him to command me to assume the position for my consequences. I glance away again, releasing my pent-up air in a whoosh. I’m about to snap at him to just get on with it so I can get my belting behind me when he gives his next order.

“On your knees.”

My eyes fly back to his and this time the victory I’ve been expecting is glaring back at me.

“But… I thought…” I stutter.

I hate letting him see me flustered. I’d prepared myself for another belting before even stepping into the elevator today. Now he’s changing the script on me.

“Oh, you thought I’d give you another lame belting? Is that it?” he taunts.

That was exactly what I’d thought, but I’m not going to tell him that.

He fills the silence with words that terrify me. “That belting was a mere appetizer, Katja. You’ll find that I’m a firm believer in escalating consequences until they start to have the desired effect.”

My mind scrambles to read between the lines. The belting the week before had been humiliating and painful. What could be worse?

Several long seconds tick by before Dex pushes up from the desk, forcing me to crane my neck to keep looking him in the eyes. The dominance glaring back reminds me of how much trouble I’m really in.

“I’m a busy man, Katja. I don’t have all day. If you want my help, you’ll fall to your knees in the next three seconds. If you don’t, I suggest you head back up to your penthouse and start packing. I’m sure you have personal items you won’t want confiscated when The Whitney moves into bankruptcy.”

Something close to hatred registers as I realize just how much control Dex has over my life now. That it’s my own fault only makes it worse.

Before I can talk myself out of it, I uncross my legs and slip as gracefully as I can from the leather chair to the floor, grateful for the plush area rug under my bare knees. The only good thing about my new position is that I’m now too close to hold the uncomfortable gaze with Dex’s eyes.

As the seconds tick by, I glance to my left and then right to avoid staring directly at the outline of his cock just a few inches away. It gets harder to ignore as his growing erection becomes more visible by the second in his perfectly tailored dress slacks.

Dex’s chuckle from above infuriates me. Of course, he’s enjoying humiliating me, but that little voice in the back of my head knows this is just the beginning, and that terrifies me even more.

“Reach out and unbuckle my belt, Katja,” he instructs.

So that’s his game. Fine, I can take his belt out for my consequences.

My fingers tremble as I work at the metal clasp, doing my best not to brush the front of his pants. Only when I start to pull the one-inch leather from the hoops holding it in place does his true plan take shape with his next order.

“I won’t be needing my belt today. Open the button and pull down the zipper—then pull out my cock. It’s going to be providing today’s lesson.”

I have to hear him wrong. Without thinking, I press my palms against his muscular thighs and push away from him while struggling to get to my feet. Before I can succeed, I feel his fingers thrusting through my hair, easily holding me on my knees.

“Let me go!” I call out as I slap his legs. I hate the panic in my voice, knowing how much he enjoys it. I came prepared for a punishment. Surely not even Dex would force sexual favors from me for the money?

His tsks above my head irk me.

“Such a disappointment. I thought you said you were prepared to start paying the consequences for your mistakes, yet at the first test you fail.”

“Fine, spank me. Belt me like your father did to you as a kid. Whatever. But a punishment can’t be sexual in nature. That’s not how it works,” I retort.

“Correction. Maybe that’s not how it works between parents and children, but I am definitely not your father. Maybe if your own father had been a bit stricter with you, you wouldn’t be in this position today.”

My mind races to understand what he’s saying.

“Time for you to decide just how much you want my help, Katja. If my cock isn’t out of my pants in the next ten seconds, we’ll have our answer.”

I feel lightheaded as my mind races to latch onto some way out of the humiliating scenario being forced upon me. As precious seconds tick by, the desperate truth settles into the pit of my stomach. He still has the upper hand.

The room feels oppressively hot as I contemplate my options. By the time I feel him beginning to move away from me, my desperation spills out in the form of hot tears pouring down my cheeks. If he sees them, they don’t sway him in any way.

With trembling fingers, I unbutton his slacks before lowering his zipper as slowly as I can. I suck in a deep breath before weaving my fingers through the opening of his boxer briefs. Something close to an electric spark makes my fingers tingle as I come into contact with his hardness for the first time. His pants fall a few inches, giving his shaft the room it needs to spring free into my palm.

Despite being a married woman until just a few weeks ago, it doesn’t escape me that this is the first erection I’ve held or even seen in close to a year—maybe longer. A little voice inside me recognizes that Dex is hard for me, and I can’t deny the zing of pleasure that brings me.

Determined to get my punishment over as quickly as possible, I fist his erection and start stroking the velvet soft skin—up and down his rock-hard shaft. He’s long and thick and my core cramps with an unwelcome wave of desire. I’m tempted to close my eyes, but I’m too fascinated to see the few drops of pre-cum forming at the tip of his length.

Memories of an almost equally awkward moment in our complicated history hit me as I remember this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Dex’s cock. Heat burns my cheeks as I remember hiding in a housekeeping storage room to sneak a cigarette as a fifteen-year-old teenager. No one had been more surprised than me when Dex had dragged his girl-of-the-week into the same storage closet for a quickie.

Hidden behind a stack of linen, I’d had a front row seat for watching my first blowjob. Much like today, he’d pushed the girl he’d been with to her knees as he’d taken the first penis I’d ever seen in person out of his jeans. At the time, I’d been too naive to know just how rough he’d been with her as he’d thrust his cock into her mouth so deep she’d gagged. I’d stood there as silently as possible, watching. I’d tried so hard not to let him see me as I had fought the urge to touch my own pussy.

Dex reinforcing the grasp he has on my hair drags my attention back to my current situation. Desperate to finish what we’ve started, I tighten my grip, moving my hand up and down faster and faster.

His voice sounds gravelly as he says, “As nice as this feels, it’s time for your face fucking. Open wide, baby.”

Before my brain registers his raunchy words, his hips thrust toward me as uses his hold on my hair to yank me against his crotch. My mouth isn’t open so my face mashes against his shaft. Breathing is getting harder.

“If you want to keep The Whitney, you’ll open your mouth… now…” he growls.

Survival instincts kick in as I open wide, taking his hard length so deep in one thrust that I gag. Even as I sputter around his flesh, he pulls back enough to allow me a deep drag of air through my nose. I push with my palms against his muscular thighs, trying to put distance between us, but he’s too strong. What begins as a sporadic thrusting of his hips quickly escalates to a fast and furious blowjob, with each drive moving deeper down my throat.

Waves of humiliation wash over me as I hear the obscene slurping and gagging sounds I’m making in the otherwise quiet room. It’s a toss up if my unwanted tears or my spittle spewing from around his cock are making a bigger mess as they drip down onto my now-heaving chest. He may have a front row seat to those embarrassing fluids, but I’m grateful that at least he can’t see how wet my panties are getting as my body betrays me by flooding my pussy.

In between his thrusts, I taste those drops of pre-cum I’d admired earlier. The masculine scent of him surrounds me, flaming my own growing need. As the tangy taste grows stronger, Dex’s grasp on my head tightens, holding me in place as he truly fucks my throat for his pleasure. I’m not sure if I’m more lightheaded from the lack of air or from the sexy growls now emanating from above me as he chases his orgasm. A wave of sick pleasure courses through me as I acknowledge my effect on him.

It’s a toss-up between my throat and jaw for which is sorer by the time his thrusts start to lose their steady rhythm. Thanks to the barrage of tears and phlegm, it’s getting harder to breathe because now my nose is running. I do my best to push down my rising panic.

“Oh shit… sorry man.” Simon’s apology comes from the doorway behind me.

I want the floor to open up and swallow me. That Dex has a front row seat to my humbling embarrassment is bad enough. Having Z in the room as a witness is too much.

My palms pound against Dex’s legs as I try my best to pull away from him so I can stand. He only doubles down, yanking me back against him, his rod filling my mouth and throat.

“Don’t leave, Z. I’m almost done teaching Katja an important lesson in consequences. Considering she’s been giving you so much trouble, I think it’s only fair you get to enjoy watching.”

In my panic for air, I entertain the idea of biting down. Oh, the satisfaction I’d get from castrating the asshole. Just in time, a deceivingly gentle stroke of his thumb across my cheek, swiping away some of my hot tears, calms me enough to allow a gasping breath.

Dex’s thrusts resume, hard and fast. His primal growl is the only warning I get of his impending climax. I taste the first drops of his cum just before I feel my mouth filling with the first hot rope of his seed. I swallow again and again, trying my best not to choke on the thick liquid and when I fail, I feel a line dribbling down my chin, plopping a glob of wetness onto my chest.

His shaft is starting to shrink by the time he finally pulls out of my mouth, allowing me to finally flex my aching jaw. My knees hurt almost as much, and I fall back with a whoosh to sit on my heels. I train my eyes on the floor as I try valiantly to catch my breath, fighting back the urge to burst into humiliating sobs.

I feel his fingers below my wet chin, lifting my head until I’m forced to crane my neck backward. There is no escaping his heated gaze. I slam my eyes closed again, squeezing more hot tears out.

I feel his thumb smearing the mess down my cheek just as I hear his quiet, “So beautiful.”

Not trusting my voice, I bite back the urge to call him a liar. I’m a hot, humiliated mess, but then again, that was his goal all along, wasn’t it?

Before I push to my feet, Dex uses his fingers to scoop up a remaining blob of his cum from my chin. Instead of using a tissue or napkin to clean the wetness, he instead moves his hand lower, smearing his spent seed across the exposed skin above the neckline of my prim and proper business dress.

“There… that’s perfect.”

“Hand me a tissue,” I finally croak out of my sore throat.

“No tissues. Not until you get back to the penthouse. It pleases me to see my mark on you.”

Furious, I struggle to push to my feet. Like the gentleman I know he’s not, Dex lends a stabilizing hand up. I try to push away from him as soon as I’m standing, but he hugs me against him, forcing our faces only a few inches apart.

Flustered, I finally whisper, “I hate you.”

We’re close enough I can feel his warm breath on my cheek as he lets a slow smile play at his lips. Of course, he’s enjoying his victory over me.

“No, you don’t. You may want to hate me, but I can smell the proof that at least a few parts of this luscious body of yours are far from hating what we just did.”

One of his hands slips lower, cupping my ass and yanking me harder against his body. Conflicting emotions rage through my mind. I’m desperate to leave… to put distance between us… to try to regain even a small measure of my dignity.

I force a deep cleansing breath before speaking again. “I hope you’re happy, Dex. It must make you feel like a big man turning me into nothing more than your whore, forcing me to trade sexual favors for money. Our fathers would be so proud.” I’m grateful that my sore voice doesn’t quaver.

I hear his sharp intake of breath as his eyes turn a shade darker. My words hit home.

Dex releases me as fast as he’d grabbed me. I stumble back, struggling to stay on my feet as I spin around, desperate to escape the room. Unbelievably, I’d forgotten Z was still there. He’s standing in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, blocking my exit. Our eyes meet just long enough for me to see his sick satisfaction with his boss’s treatment of me.

Asshole.

“Move!” I shout at him, trying to tamp down my growing panic that they might want to put me through another round of fucking consequences before I can escape. What scares me the most is acknowledging that at least a fragment of me craves just that.

Mocking me, Z steps aside, waving his arm gallantly as he allows me to pass. I’m almost out the door when I hear Dex calling after me.

“I’ll be by later to finalize the new contract.”

Chapter Fifteen

DEX

“You’re flying too close to the sun,” Z says, shaking his head with a smirk on his face.

Collecting the papers that I was working on before my… meeting with Katja, I say, “I don’t need your opinion on this.”

“No? Just my audience?” He takes a few steps around the table so I have no choice but to see him. “That was fucked. I really don’t want to see one old childhood friend sucking off another, thank you very much.”

I shrug. “Bad timing on your end walking in.”

Z leans forward on the table, his fingers splaying across the expensive wood surface. “Keep your head in the game, man. We have a lot of shit to deal with and address. We’re growing faster than expected and struggling to keep up. The last thing I need is to lose you to a haze of pussy.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Really? Because what I just witnessed…” He sighs heavily. “You and Katja are messy to begin with because of the ghosts haunting your past. And you’re making it even messier.” He waits until I lift my eyes from my busy work and look at him directly. “I’m a damn good cleaner, but even I can’t clean up the mess you both have the potential to make.”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re gambling with The Whitney,” he warns. “Being vengeful can make you stupid.”

“Who says I’m being vengeful?”

“I see you,” Z says. “I see this sick game of revenge you’re engaged in. But you’re underestimating your opponent and the hold she has on you.”

“She doesn’t hold anything over me.”

Z rolls his eyes. “Tell yourself whatever you want. I know what you both had in the past, and I can see it now.”

“Bullshit,” I snap. “I’m focused on The Whitney. Business. Nothing more.”

“Listen man—”

“Don’t worry about me. Don’t worry about Katja. I got this under control,” I say, grabbing my file and leaving the room without saying another word or looking at my friend who’s shooting daggers of judgment from his eyes.

I can’t focus on his words right now. I can’t…

After spending some time cooling down in my room, I know I’ve kept Katja waiting in the penthouse long enough. I need to act while submission is still running through her veins. Sure, she’s going to be pouty, pissed even, but the fact of the matter is she just had my cock resting heavy on her tongue, and her body will still respond to me even if her mind wants to rebel.

When I walk into the penthouse, not bothering to knock, and using my key instead, I prepare myself for whatever battle is about to come my way. I have the upper hand, and for that I’m grateful. Katja is a mighty opponent, however, and I need all the advantages I can get.

“You can’t just march in here like you live here,” she spits as she wraps her robe around her body tightly.

I can see she’s recently taken a shower, no doubt to try to calm the storm raging in her body. She’s running her fingers through her damp hair that lays wavy on her shoulders. I like seeing the natural and vulnerable side of her, but I can see she’s uncomfortable with her state of appearance with me being in the room.

“I just did,” I say casually. “We weren’t done with our meeting from earlier.”

She fidgets with the rope around her waist. “Alright then,” she says, taking a step toward her bedroom. “Let me get dressed, and we can meet in the conference room in ten minutes.”

“The penthouse will be fine,” I say, walking over to the dining table that is covered with papers and past due bills. I can see the red final warnings bleeding all over.

She scurries to the table and begins cleaning up, trying to shield my eyes from just how bad her reality is.

“Give me all those bills,” I say, extending my hand. “I’m going to pay them all.”

She pauses, her heavy lashed eyes lifting to mine. “You want to pay all of them?”

“That’s what I just said.” I wiggle my fingers to show that I’m waiting for them.

“In addition to the money you’re giving me?”

I extend my hand even further. “Yes. Hurry and give them to me before I change my mind.”

She piles them up, her fingers trembling as she does. “Fine. I suppose now is a good time to discuss your leasing fee for the thirteenth floor as well as the rooftop.”

She hands me the bills and our fingertips connect for the briefest of moments. I watch her soft features harden right before my eyes and she clears her throat, stands up straight, and the cold ice queen facade quickly returns.

“You actually haven’t been loaning me the money,” she begins. “You haven’t paid me your leasing fee yet, so the money you’ve been giving me is actually what is owed. I’m aware we haven’t agreed to a price, and no contract has been signed, but considering what you once paid—”

“Yes, what I once paid,” I interrupt. “But that was then. The past. Things are going to be different this time. There won’t be a leasing agreement.”

Her eyes widen, and she takes a step back. “Excuse me? Of course, there’s going to be a leasing agreement. Our fathers had one, and—”

“You’ve proven to me that you and I will never have what our fathers had. The minute you kicked me out on the street going against everything our fathers built, you proved to me that you can never be trusted again.”

“And we’ve agreed to rectify that.”

“Yes, we have. But not by signing a leasing agreement. I’m not going to risk repeating history and giving you the power to sever the agreement and land me back on the street once you get back on your feet or get a chip on your shoulder again. I’m not a fool. I’m not going to let that ever happen again. I’m in The Whitney, and I never plan to leave it again,” I state, keeping my voice calm and even regardless of the fury raging inside me at the memory of what Katja did to me and just how helpless I was.

Never again.

I will never be that man again.

“I gave you the thirteenth floor. I gave you the rooftop—”

“And you’re going to give me a percentage of The Whitney. A true partnership.”

“Never. Nonnegotiable.” She crosses her arms and stands her ground. “I’m not signing any contract with those terms.”

I look around the room and smile. “I also want the penthouse.”

She laughs. “Absolutely not. I’m not moving.”

“I’m not asking you to move,” I say. I point to the room that is across from hers. The room that belonged to her dead husband. “There’s plenty of room for the both of us.”

“You’ve lost your mind,” she says, her eyes darting to the empty bedroom. “I’m not living with you.”

“You managed to cohabitate with your loser husband. Therefore, you can do it with me.”

“No.”

“The thirteenth floor is already full. We need my suite for a paying guest.” I hold up the bills she just handed me. “Clearly we need paying guests.”

“Dex,” she says as she licks her lips and takes a deep breath. “The penthouse is also off the table. This is not up for negotiation.”

I put down the pile of bills and clear the distance between us so that I’m standing inches from her. I can smell the fruity essence of her shampoo, and my fingers itch to tug on the rope around her waist. I know there’s nothing beneath the robe, and it would be so easy to…

“I’m standing here offering to fix everything for you,” I say, my voice low but firm. “I have the means to take all this debt away. You deserve to go one day without the worry of money hanging over you. But in return, you have to accept I’m here to stay.” I lean in even closer. So close that I can kiss her if I want. “Forever.”

“I’m not asking you to leave The Whitney,” she says on an exhale. She takes a few steps away and turns her back to me. “But what you want in this new contract is unacceptable. You aren’t my business partner, and you are not my roommate.”

“Yet.”

She spins to face me with fire in her eyes. “Ever.”

“But you want my money.”

“I needed a loan. A loan and nothing more.” I watch the courage and fight return to her body as if an injection of strength is being given through her veins. “And I don’t need you to fix everything. I can fix it myself.”

I walk over to the wet bar and take it upon myself to pour a scotch. I can feel Katja’s eyes burning the back of my head, but she doesn’t say a word as I take my time preparing the drink.

I finally speak after a long, awkward moment of silence. “There’s plenty of room for the both of us in the penthouse, just as there is plenty of room for us both to own The Whitney,” I say as I take a sip from my drink.

“When I agreed to let you come to The Whitney—”

“Correction,” I cut in. “When you needed me to come to The Whitney.”

“At no time did I ever consider living with you,” she continues. “So, you can get that thought right out of your arrogant and delusional head.”

There’s a knock on the door, and I take the opportunity of Katja walking to answer it to head over to the couch to make myself comfortable. I don’t bother to even look over my shoulder to see who’s at the door.

I already know.

I hear Katja ask, “What is this?”

“Mr. Cohen has asked for all his belongings to be moved to the penthouse,” the voice of the bellman answers.

“What? Dex!” The screech that comes from such a usually composed woman amuses me.

I finally glance over my shoulder and motion for the bellman to enter. “Bring everything to the room across from Ms. Belov’s.”

The bellman moves past Katja and pulls the cart with the beginning of my belongings into the room. He’s a smart enough man to know to do as he was originally asked and to act oblivious to the tense energy in the room.

Katja storms over to me and whispers between clenched teeth. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

I love the fact that she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of the staff. It’s keeping her in check. Otherwise, there’s a chance she’d try to claw my eyeballs out.

I kick off my shoes and lean back fully into the fluffy couch pillows. Smiling, I say, “Moving in.”

Chapter Sixteen

KATJA

This is ridiculous. I’ve been standing in my closet, making tiny changes to my outfit for thirty minutes. As meticulous as I am with my appearance, even I’m not normally this indecisive.

I’m hiding.

There. I admitted it to myself, except it doesn’t make me feel any better because it just means I’m letting Dex Cohen have the upper hand in this little game we’re playing.

He barged his way into living in the penthouse four days ago and while we may technically be living in the same suite, we’ve barely seen each other, which suits me just fine. The problem is that even when he’s not here, the threat of him returning at any moment hangs over my head, keeping me on pins and needles. It’s like having to be battle-ready at all times.

I hate it.

This is my home. I shouldn’t have to worry about running into my enemy when I’m just grabbing a cup of coffee or getting a book from my library. Thankfully, my bedroom has a sitting area so I’ve been able to stay closeted away for the most part when I wasn’t up to going to war, but this isn’t sustainable.

Worse, the asshole went behind my back and canceled all of the normal services I had arranged with the staff. No more morning coffee delivery. No more nightly turndown with Francesca, or afternoon housekeeping touch-ups. Hell, Dex even canceled my standing dinner order with Chef, forcing me to either leave the penthouse or phone for service each time I need something.

It’s ridiculous, and I’m prepared to tell him so the next time I see him, which at the current rate could still be days away.

I take a deep breath and pull open my bedroom door, mentally prepared for a fight.

The joint sitting room space between my room and Dex’s new bedroom is quiet. I shed a tiny bit of the anxiety I’ve been carrying around since finding out Tristan had died.

To be fair, my brain knows I was in just as much trouble when he was alive, it’s just that Tristan did a spectacular job of hiding all the financial danger from me. But admitting it’s better to have the truth out in the open doesn’t make facing my situation any easier.

I weave through the suite, past the small library nook and the guest bath. The June sun shines in through the mammoth windows with a gorgeous view of Central Park on full display. A ray of light catches the crystal vase full of fresh-cut flowers on the grand piano. They hadn’t been there when I’d gone to bed. In fact, I’d canceled such frivolous luxuries during my financial drought, and I resent the sliver of pleasure I feel at their return because I know they are only here because of Dex.

Just like yesterday, and the day before, the smell of freshly brewed coffee greets me as I enter the kitchen. I know Dex is responsible for the small gesture, but it’s just another way he refuses to let me ignore his presence.

There’s one small difference I notice this morning and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Waiting next to the pot of coffee is a small plate filled with an assortment of flaky croissants.

My favorite pastry.

An ancient memory I’d long forgotten floats to my brain as I remember telling him my preference years before when we were still just kids and our father’s had Sunday Brunch together each week after my mother died. I reject the idea he would have remembered such a small detail. It has to be a coincidence.

Unable to resist the unexpected treat, I take time for a quick breakfast, anxious to get down to my office. I’ve been working out of my suite while trying to sort out Tristan’s disastrous finances, but I’ve resumed my normal management duties this week. Despite the untenable new living arrangements, running my beloved property has helped me feel like my life might have a glimmer of a chance at getting back to some kind of normal.

The second I step into the elevator I notice that the deep scratch that’s been etched into the brass wall for months has been repaired. I hadn’t prioritized the expensive restoration, but that it’s fixed is just another sign of the influx of cash Dex has provided.

The whir of some kind of machinery greets me as the elevator doors open at the ground floor. I’m only a few feet into the lobby when I see a work crew set up near the bell stand, pulling up the marble tiles that had been damaged over a year ago by falling scaffolding that had been setup to hang Christmas decorations. The broken tiles had bothered me a lot… just not enough to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to have them repaired.

Conflicting emotions war inside me. As wonderful as it is to have these small imperfections fixed in my beloved hotel, the fact that Dex Cohen is financially responsible for their resolution pisses me off. I hate that I need his money in the first place, but worse, I’m mortified by his humiliating treatment of my body with each new rush of cash. I don’t think I can bear another round of his consequences.

“Katja!”

The shout comes from across the lobby. I swing my gaze in that direction in time to see one of our most affluent guests, Rowan Worthington, waving at me wildly from the escalator coming down from the mezzanine level.

Shit. I’ve been avoiding her since Tristan’s death, not because we weren’t friends, but more because we were close enough that I knew she was going to ask me questions I wasn’t ready to answer yet.

I suppose it’s too late to pretend I didn’t see her.

Rowan took up residency at The Whitney months ago when her wealthy parents started major renovations of their Park Avenue penthouse. The elder Worthington family members were ‘roughing it’ at their Hampton estate until they could return to Manhattan, but at twenty-three, and very single, Rowan would rather die than be out of the NYC nightlife for that long.

We’d enjoyed lunch and shopping together many times in the past, but I’m just not prepared to talk about all the horrors I’ve discovered since my husband’s death.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she gushes as she reaches the bottom of the escalator.

Okay, I’m confused.

“You’re welcome,” I say, still having no clue what she’s so happy about.

Rowan thrusts her diamond-covered hands in my direction. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that you were reopening the salon! Hazel just finished my mani-pedi and I’ve already spent a small fortune at Tiffany’s. When is the Coach store opening?”

Every one of our previous retailers had moved out of The Whitney over a year ago, not long after I’d had to raise their leasing costs. I’d been subsidizing the stores over the years for the convenience of my guests, but when the revenues got tight, I’d made the hard choice to close down the half-dozen or so exclusive boutiques and salons previously housed on the mezzanine level because they just weren’t bringing in enough revenue to cover my costs. I think Rowan, the consummate shopper, had taken their departure harder than the shop owners themselves.

Thankfully, she rambles on with enough excitement to cover the fact that I’m literally speechless because I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.

She babbles on as I fight a new war inside myself—half relief at again being able to provide the much-needed shopping options for my guests—half furious that Dex clearly put this into motion behind my back without the slightest input from me… again. He’s gone too far.

“Can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” Rowan gushes.

“Yeah, well the return of the retail shops has been a well-kept secret around here,” I answer truthfully.

Rowan is pulling at my arm. “Let me buy you lunch to say thank you.”

Since she already knows more about the changes than I do, I decline. “I’d love to, but I’m late to a meeting,” I improvise. “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Fine, fine. But I’ll hold you to it. I’ve missed you.”

I find it hard to believe that Rowan doesn’t have a thousand other well-connected friends to share lunch with, but I agree to meet her at the restaurant the next day just to wrap up the conversation so I can go investigate what other changes are happening in my hotel without my approval.

It’s a relief when she sees someone else she needs to chat with, finally giving me the opportunity to take the escalator up to a transformed grand hall. A busy buzz fills the space where there were closed shops just days before. The high-end salon and Coach store look to be the only returning shops, but popular retailer signs are being installed where their unprofitable predecessors had been. Gucci, Michael Kors, Tiffany & Co, J. Crew, Samsonite…

Angry tears threaten. How did Dex arrange all of this in such a short time? More importantly, why the hell is he sticking his nose into making changes in my part of the hotel? Doesn’t he have enough to worry about with running his expanding criminal concierge business?

Several of my long-time hotel engineers nod in my direction, looking happy to be assisting with the reopening of the shops.

I pass a small group of housekeepers in the stairwell on the way down to my office. They stop their excited chatter long enough to say hello and “Thank you for purchasing the additional linens, Ms. Belov,” as they pass by.

More expenses I didn’t approve. The only good thing is my employees seem to be happy, even if I’m not.

By the time I’m finally hidden behind my closed office door, my hands are shaking. I’m grateful my office is big enough for me to pace back and forth, working through my conflicting emotions.

For weeks, I’ve felt like I’m at war, fighting for The Whitney’s survival. As horrible as it’s been, it’s easier to point my anger at Tristan and even Dex. But today, the war feels more personal—it’s with myself.

My brain knows I should be happy with all the positive changes around the property, and on some level I am. I just hate that I wasn’t able to make the much-needed investments on my own, without any help from the devil. Worse, it’s impossible for me not to associate the visible changes in the property with the private humiliation Dex has put me through. While a belting and blowjob may not have cost me money, his damn consequences are costing me something more valuable—my dignity.

But my core clenches with a sick sexual ache every time I think about being on my knees, his cock choking off my breath—and, well, that’s the worst betrayal of all… and that’s all on me.

The sharp knock on my door forces me to wipe my face of all emotion. “Come in,” I call when I’m finally composed.

Peter pokes his head in. “Sorry to disturb your office time, but a courier just dropped off an envelope for you at the front desk. I signed for it. I hope that’s okay,” he says, pushing the sealed envelope through the opening in the door.

My first instinct is to refuse the delivery. Nothing good has come by courier in weeks.

“Thanks, Peter,” I finally say, moving close enough to accept the envelope.

“Of course, Ms. Belov.” As soon as he closes the door, I throw the delivery onto a stack of paperwork on my desk. I spend fifteen minutes valiantly trying to focus on more important tasks that need my attention, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t put it out of my mind.

“Oh, for crying out loud. Don’t be a baby,” I admonish myself.

Ripping open the end of the pouch, I pull out a familiar looking stack of papers on the distinctive letterhead of my husband’s loan shark. With each sentence I read, my pulse increases until I finally drop the paperwork like it’s on fire.

They need more money. A lot more money.

I swear if Tristan were to somehow come back to life, I’d have absolutely no problem killing him all over again. I’m furious that he was so careless and even more upset that I have absolutely no idea what the insane payment schedule is on this jumbo loan.

Dex said he was going to take care of it, so why are the letters still coming? He needs to spend less time trying to do my job and more time finding whoever is behind this under-the-table loan and make it just go away. But, even as I think it, I have to acknowledge he has very little motivation to make the payments stop since me needing his money is the biggest leverage he has over me in our situation.

So, who else can I call to help me? My lawyer and accountants came up empty handed. I asked my head of security to check into it as discreetly as possible, but Mike Jenkins hasn’t been able to locate who is behind the loan either. Hell, for all I know this is one big scam.

For the hundredth time, I contemplate going public. I could sue. Take them to court to force the lender’s hand into producing contracts that Tristan may have signed. At least then I’d know the full scope of what I’m up against.

I’m just not sure I can bear the public humiliation.

Then again, I’m not sure I can handle much more of Dex’s brand of private humiliation either.

Whether I like it or not, I’ll have to take the newest demand to Dex, but I’m not going to ask for money again. He promised to help get to the bottom of who is behind the loan and make it go away and while I don’t usually approve of his less-than-legal methods, in this case, I don’t really care what he does to make this nightmare go away.

Unable to focus on work, I grab the evil envelope and head to the elevator. As much as I hate the idea of another round in his office on the thirteenth floor, better there than in the penthouse where it will be much harder for me to escape him when our business is done.

When I arrive, his office is empty. So is the boardroom where I assume he holds meetings with his guests.

“Are you looking for Mr. Cohen, ma’am?” A housekeeper pushing her cart asks from down the hall.

“Yes. Do you know if he’s in the hotel?”

“I believe he and Mr. Z have gone up to The Rooftop for lunch, ma’am.”

The Rooftop. His den of criminal elite.

Also, a public venue that will prevent Dex from introducing any of those dreaded consequences of his into our conversation.

“Thank you,” I reply, waving at the housekeeper as I head back to the elevator.

Before I can second guess myself, I use my master key to take the elevator up to the secret floor my guests think has been closed for good. As I step off the elevator, I take a deep breath.

Time for our next battle.

Chapter Seventeen

DEX

“Gentlemen, we are back in business,” I say, drawing on the cigar one of my rooftop guests brought from his trip to Cuba. “We’re still ironing out some kinks, but the thirteenth floor is operational, The Whitney has been getting a much-needed facelift, and The Rooftop will be open for all of your needs—whatever they may be.”

“We might need some more reassurance before we start hosting meetings here,” Bane Vorsky—a Russian arms dealer I want to please—says as he leans back in his chair examining the newly-upgraded rooftop bar.

“Whatever you need,” I say. “I know there was a gap in service, but I can assure you that The Whitney is everything my father once promised you all and even more. Z and I have personally overseen every single detail of the security, the privacy, and the elements of the hotel you’ve always loved.”

“And what about Katja Belov?” Harley Crow—an ex-assassin from New Orleans—asks. “She got in the way years ago, so what would stop her again?”

“Exactly,” Atlas Giannopoulos, art thief extraordinaire and one of my oldest friends adds. “And you’ve told me she’s up to her eyeballs in debt. That has to affect The Whitney.”

“I have both Katja and the finances of The Whitney under control,” I reassure.

As I finish my sentence, I notice the doors of the bar open and Katja walks in. I can’t remember her ever visiting the rooftop before, at least not since she was a kid and came with her father on the occasional Sunday. She’s always felt it was beneath her to be seen with people like us.

I try not to allow her beauty to distract me as she finds me in the mix of these less-than-reputable men and locks eyes with mine.

“How about I go get us some shots to celebrate the upgrades? We can toast to new beginnings built on old traditions.” I stand up and make my way to the bar, signaling with my head for Katja to join me where the guests can’t overhear our conversation.

I walk behind the bar and pull out a bottle of vodka and enough shot glasses for all. I’m grateful that we aren’t open for business yet, so there isn’t a bartender that I have to shoo away.

“Why are we blessed to have the princess visiting us in the dungeon?” I ask.

She looks around, scowling at the men chatting at the table, and then back at me as she pushes a letter across the bar. “It’s asking for a lot more money.”

I don’t open the letter, but ask, “How much?”

“Does it matter at this point? A lot. And they keep coming.”

“Then pay it.”

She huffs. “You know damn well I can’t yet. And you said you were going to take care of this. Why aren’t you making it go away? Can’t you figure out who is sending these and… end it?”

I smirk.

“I’ve been doing some digging and came up with nothing,” she adds. “We’ve got to put a stop to this. I have no way to know what the repayment schedule is or what will be due when.”

“So, that’s why you came up here. Not to say hello. Not to see how business is improving. Not to oversee the profitable side of The Whitney. No. You came up here to beg for more money from your sugar daddy. And to top it all off, you want me to use my resources—that you don’t approve of—to make it all go away.”

“You’re far from my sugar daddy.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Really? I think I meet the definition perfectly.”

Katja walks behind the bar to join me so she can keep her voice low. “You know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have to.”

I lift my eyes from the shot I’m pouring. “And why wouldn’t you ask?” I put the bottle of vodka down and position my body so I’m facing her. “Because of your pride? Because you hate stooping to my lowly level? Because my money is dirty? Or…” I give a wicked smile. “Or because you’re afraid of the consequences?”

She raises her chin as her eyes narrow. “All of the above.”

I take hold of her hip, tugging her to me. She spins just as I press her between my chest and the bar, trapping her. My lips are so close to her ear that I know she can hear every inhale and exhale I take.

She doesn’t resist, but instead says, “I know me coming to you for continuous loans must be tiring. It’s like a merry-go-round of hell. But trust me when I say I’m determined to get off it.”

I press my hardening cock to her ass, hating the amount of clothing that stands between us. “I’m not tired. I don’t mind the ride at all.”

Trying to move her ass away from the pressure of my cock, she stiffens and her eyes dart to the men at the table. “We don’t want to make a scene,” she says. “We don’t want them to see us this close. It gives off the impression that we’re—”

“Fucking?” I growl as I nip her ear. “I like that impression.”

I take hold of the fabric of her dress and begin lifting it up.

She slaps at my hand, the bar hiding our movements. “What are you doing? Stop.” She whispers her demands, and by the way she’s watching the rooftop guests, it’s obvious she doesn’t want them to see what’s happening behind the concealing counter of the bar.

I continue to lift the dress, ignoring her weak demand. I bunch the material on her hip, and then take hold of her panties and tug.

“Lower these,” I whisper in her ear.

Her body stiffens even more. She’s still staring at the men drinking and laughing, not paying attention to us… yet.

“Not here. Please.” The softness in her plea actually makes me take pause, but I push the feeling away as quickly as it came.

“Lower these.” I pull on the panties, considering tearing them off her if she doesn’t obey. Although I want her submission in this act, so I wait.

“Please don’t embarrass me in front of them.” I watch the smooth movement of her throat as she swallows hard. “Do whatever you want to me downstairs. Just not here.”

A spark of rage ignites inside. As hard as I’m trying to move past the old feelings, they still haunt me. “Did you care about how it would embarrass me when you threw my ass out on the street? Did you worry about those men at the table when all of a sudden, they were asked to leave The Whitney never to return? Did you care how it made it appear as if my balls had been chopped off by a spoiled rich girl princess who thought she could run an empire better than her daddy?”

Katja remains quiet, her eyelashes fluttering as she licks her lip. She then takes hold of her panties and lowers them over the curve of her ass, leaving them at her thighs.

If any of the men were to look over my way—which they will eventually, wondering what’s taking so long in me getting the shots—all they will see is me pressed up against Katja’s back. Clearly the position is intimate. But just how much? They won’t be able to see that her bottom half is now completely exposed to me.

“Good girl,” I whisper in her ear as I rub my fingers along the bare flesh.

“How long are you going to keep making me pay for the past?”

I dip my finger into the seam of her ass and touch her anus. “I’ve just begun.”

Her breath hitches and she raises up on her toes to try to avoid the threat of invasion. “Please.”

“Please what? Please help you? I think that was what you came up here to ask, correct?”

As I apply pressure to her tight hole, not breaching quite yet, she hisses, “You’re cruel.”

“As are you. We’re the perfect match.”

I remove my finger from the entrance of her ass and slide it lower until I touch the wetness of her pussy.

“But I feel merciful,” I say, rubbing around her heat. “I do, however, plan on finger fucking you right here. Right now. But I’m going to allow you to choose where. Do you want me to finger fuck your pussy or finger fuck your ass?”

Her eyes widen and she holds her breath when Z looks over at us and asks, “Are you coming over with those shots or what?”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I call out, circling Katja’s clit as I do.

Katja picks up the whiskey bottle with shaky hands and pours one of the shot glasses with a painted smile on her face. When all the men turn their heads to see what the holdup is, all they can see is a woman trying to do her job while I’m pressed up against her. Yes, they can imagine why my lips are whispering into her ear, but no way could they know that I’m about to have a finger shoved up one of her holes.

“They’re watching,” she says, making a mess as she tries to pour but instead splashes the expensive liquid onto the counter.

“Why do you care?” I shove my finger into her pussy just once. “You’ve always felt that they’re nothing but sewer rats contaminating The Whitney. So why should you care what rats think?”

I push my finger inside her sex again.

“Dex, please.”

“Answer me. Do you want me to finger fuck your pussy or ass? If you don’t answer me, I’ll assume you want both.”

“Pussy,” she snaps as she fills the final shot glass to the rim.

It’s hard not to laugh at the fact that Katja is doing her damnedest to appear as if it’s business as usual and she’s not standing behind the bar with a naked ass and a finger shoved up her cunt.

I add a second finger to the one already inside her. “You’re wet. You’re making this easy for me.”

“Fuck you,” she says on a gasp as I shove my fingers all the way inside.

“No, fuck you.” I begin thrusting my fingers in and out with more force on each push. “Fuck you hard.” I add a third finger for emphasis, reveling in her quiet mewl as she raises up on tiptoes to try to ease the bite of the spread.

I push in, and pull out, widening my fingers as I do. She moans quietly, trying her hardest to control the level of noise that comes from her body.

“Do you like your pussy being fucked? Being spread?”

She shakes her head in denial, but the expression on her face is one of lust. And her pussy grows wetter with every thrust of my finger.

“Yes, you do. I feel just how much you do. I can smell it.”

She opens her mouth to no doubt tell me to go fuck myself, but a tiny gasp releases instead as I press all the way, knuckle deep, inside.

“Tell me you’re a dirty girl who likes her pussy spread,” I command.

When she doesn’t do as I say, I pull out my fingers and spank her pussy. She tries to conceal the noise by picking up the bottle and putting it down on the counter as if pretending the noise came from that instead of my wet fingers on her punished pussy. She then reaches for a pile of napkins and begins organizing the pile as if she’s just simply working behind the bar and nothing else is happening.

I spank her pussy again. “Say it.”

She jumps, bites her lip, but then whispers, “I’m a dirty girl who likes to have my pussy spread.”

I insert the three fingers back inside her as a reward. “That’s my dirty girl.”

“Do you need some help over there?” Z calls out.

Katja tries to break away from my hold, but I keep her in place.

“I don’t know, do I?” I whisper into Katja’s ear, shoving my fingers even deeper inside her.

“Please,” she whispers back. “I’ll do whatever you want in the privacy of the penthouse. Just not here. Please don’t embarrass me. I’ll beg if I have to.”

The thought of her on her knees pleading, my cock resting heavy on her wet tongue, is a vision I can’t get out of my head, but I resist the urge of making it come to fruition right now. Bottom line is some of the men at that table are fucking assholes and sick perverts. I don’t want them seeing Katja’s bare ass, her wet pussy, or any part of her body.

I possessively want to keep every inch of her to myself.

“I’m good,” I call back to Z. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

The guests are beginning to snicker and crack jokes at Katja’s expense. Even though this little game began with me not giving a shit about what the men thought, I do fucking care. I don’t like for one second that they are starting to watch and God only knows what their fucked up imaginations are coming up with. Their side eyes are like daggers to my core. I’m growing more furious, and more primal in my urge to protect this woman up against me.

Stop looking, I want to shout out.

She’s Katja Belov. Not just the princess of Manhattan, but a motherfucking queen. The pedestrians around that table who like to pretend to be kings are nothing. Nothing and nobody when it compares to Katja.

I’m growing murderous with every look our way. They know something is happening behind the bar. They know.

I pull out my coated fingers, pull up her panties, and lower her dress. “Go to the penthouse.”

I don’t say anything more as I put the shots on a tray to return my attention to business. I need to focus. No more distractions.

Katja wobbles on her heels for a minute, blinks up at me, and then nods. She’s smart enough to not open her mouth and tempt me to change my mind with a snarky remark. She’s an intelligent woman and knows something changed quickly and drastically inside of me. But for her, it works to her advantage, and she takes the opportunity to flee.

Chapter Eighteen

KATJA

The sound of the elevator’s ding serves as the starting bell for a fight I’ve been waiting for. Unfortunately, I was in prime condition hours ago. After spending the entire afternoon and evening waiting for Dex to arrive, I’ve managed to work myself into a hot mess. As the hours ticked by, the fury I’d felt as I’d rushed from The Rooftop with the men’s catcalls chasing me had dimmed, replaced with anxiety and embarrassment.

Which is exactly why Dex left me stewing all day.

But I won’t let him win this time. I push to my feet, ready to go into battle.

Dex scans the living room the second he walks in. The asshole has the nerve to grin as he calls out a jovial, “Honey, I’m home!”

“Don’t honey me, and this is not your home.”

“I missed you too, princess. How was your day?” he taunts, his tanned face still smiling as he throws his leather briefcase down on the first sofa he comes to.

He’s taken off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, which along with his five o’clock shadow makes him look more dangerous than ever.

“I can’t believe you kept me waiting here all day. Didn’t you see my texts? You know damn well I need to talk with you,” I remind him.

Ignoring me, he walks past me to the huge dining room table where he starts lifting several plate covers hiding the uneaten meal delivered hours before.

Dex turns and pins me with a more serious look. “Why haven’t you eaten?”

His question confuses me. “Why do you care?”

“Because I ordered this sent to you hours ago when I knew I wouldn’t be able to get free until late.”

“Why in the world would you do that?” I ask, genuinely baffled.

Instead of answering, he picks up the plate of chef’s lasagna and heads toward the kitchen. I stand dumbfounded listening to him put it in the microwave. Several minutes go by as I listen to clinking sounds and with each passing second, I get angrier.

“Are you coming back any time soon? We need to talk!”

Like an accomplished waiter, he emerges from the kitchen, a bottle of red wine and two empty glasses in one hand, a plate of pasta in the other.

“Sit,” he demands, setting the food on the table.

“I’m not hungry,” I lie. I’ve been hungry for hours, I’ve just been too upset to eat the heavy food.

Almost as if he hears my inner thought, he uncovers the Caesar’s salad and sets it at my place before grabbing the bottle opener and getting to work opening the wine. It isn’t until he’s filled two glasses with the deep red liquid that he repeats his order. “Sit… eat.”

Our eyes lock in a showdown for several long seconds. I swear I can see his blood pressure rising with each second I ignore his demand and my own pulse spikes in return. I know I’m playing with fire, but after how he treated me at The Rooftop today, I don’t really care.

I stand up straighter, pulling in a deep breath for confidence before letting him have it. “You need to listen, Dex. You don’t just get to come waltzing in here and act like nothing happened today. You went too far!

“I know humiliating me in front of your criminal friends had to be the highlight of your week, but this is still my hotel they’re staying in, and I deserve to be treated with respect. These fucking games you’re playing are going to end. It was bad enough that you debased me in private, and then in front of Z, but what you did to me today was unforgivable.”

I hate that my voice quavers with emotion. The absolute last thing I want to do is let him know how much he affects me.

I wish I’d moved farther away from him before my rant because as I stand here watching for his reaction, I catch a whiff of that pure masculine virility he exudes. It surrounded me like a haze of pheromones up at the bar earlier, clouding my judgment—I can’t think of any other plausible reason why I stood there and let him finger fuck me in public.

“Did I, or did I not, make it clear that my help comes with a price?”

“Screw you and your consequences. This isn’t some game!” I shout, hating the shrill, almost panicked edge to my voice. I take a deep breath, trying to maintain my cool so I can get through laying down my demands for the stupid contract he’s going to force me to sign.

Breaking eye contact, he reaches to pick up his wine glass, lifting it in a silent toast. He makes me wait as he takes a leisurely sip, probably meant to show my words haven’t impacted him in any way.

He steps close enough that I can smell the wine on his breath. “It may not be a game to you, but I can promise you this—I’m going to win.”

He’s tall enough that I’m craning my neck to maintain eye contact. “Only because you don’t play fair.”

Just inches away, the smile on his lips doesn’t reach his eyes. “I never said I would play fair. What’s the fun in that?” he taunts, his eyes going another shade darker before adding, “I don’t remember you playing fair when you broke the decades old contract between our families. You kicked me and my entire enterprise to the curb without blinking those beautiful little eyes of yours. I’m just making sure I return the favor.”

I can feel the panic rising in my chest. I’m a strong woman but going toe-to-toe with Dex Cohen has always tested me. It’s at least part of the underlying reason why I insisted he leave The Whitney in the first place. I can’t handle being around this level of intensity every day.

Taking a step back, I try to rally my argument. “You didn’t leave me a choice. You were taking crazy risks doing business with the kind of clientele that would never blend in here at The Whitney. If you’re honest with yourself, you know I’m right. Your father never would have allowed that gang of street thugs to move in like you did. My father was in the hospital, on his death bed, and you were already breaking all the rules he and your father had lived by for decades. I could see the writing on the wall of what it would be like after he was gone. You gave me no option but to pull the plug.”

“No option? You didn’t even come to me and try to negotiate changes. Like a scared little girl, you ran off to your father’s long-time lawyer and gave him some sob story to get him to nullify everything our fathers had built together. You purposefully waited until I was in Europe on business and had some company move my entire life out of the only home I’d known and into some fucking storage unit in Queens!”

I’ve always known how dangerous Dex Cohen could be, but he’s always been more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing—staying outwardly cool while danger brewed inside him. But tonight feels different. His cold mask has fallen and in its place is a frightening fury. His dark eyes have a wildness I’ve never seen there before and I catch myself stepping back, pulling a dining room chair between us.

“And that’s exactly why I knew we couldn’t be in business together!” I shout back. “You always saw me as a little girl—hell, you were the closest thing I had to a brother growing up, at least until you went away for college. You came back changed. Harder. Too much like your father.”

“Hell yes, I changed, but baby, so did you. Newsflash! I haven’t thought of you like a sister since the day you watched me get sucked off by some random chick in that linen closet when you were sixteen. And don’t you even try to pretend that day didn’t happen because I saw you. Playing with yourself under your prim and proper school uniform as you watched. Your big green eyes overflowing with lust. Tell me, Katja. Did you come that day watching me with another woman?”

Ancient memories I’ve tried to forget crash in, spiking my heart rate. I’m desperate to keep my secret hidden—that I’ve masturbated to that memory more times that I can count.

“I can’t believe you’re bringing up that day now. Fifteen years after it happened! And what does that have to do with anything?”

Dex picks up the chair between us and practically throws it out of the way, sending it to the floor with a bang as he rushes toward me. I stumble backward, my shoulders colliding with the wall of windows facing Central Park.

I’ve never seen Dex look this frightening—dangerous—breathtaking. His hard body slams into me with enough velocity to take my breath away. Fight or flight instincts invade, and I lift my hand to slap him away, but he grabs my wrist, trapping it above my head against the glass. He moves his other palm to my throat, pressing just hard enough to constrict my breathing.

Our faces are inches apart, making it easy for me to watch the small smile grace his lips.

“You feel that, princess?” He crushes his hips against me, gyrating to make sure I feel his hard cock. “Does that feel brotherly to you?”

My mind races for something to say to de-escalate things. I come up empty, giving him the chance to continue.

“This, right here, is the real reason you kicked me out years ago. You were too afraid to acknowledge the chemistry between us. Once you lost your father as your buffer, you tucked your tail and ran the other way. Well, I got news for you, baby. You’re done running—from your financial mistakes—from your disastrous decision to marry Tristan, a beta male you could boss around—and from me, your…”

His voice trails off, as if he’s trying to find the right word to describe what the fuck this connection is between us. Many confusing labels have fit us over the years—childhood friends, pseudo siblings, business partners—but more recently ‘enemies’ was most accurate.

“Your what, Dex?” I whisper. I’m unsure why I’m pressing him for an answer to a question I’m pretty sure I don’t want the answer to.

Several seconds tick by. I’m getting lightheaded, not from lack of oxygen, but from his proximity. I’m hyperaware of every connection. His slightly calloused hand on my bare neck reminds me of how hard he works for all he has. His scent invades my senses as his hard body has my body softening in response—melting with an unwanted wave of sexual need.

I need to get away from him before we do something really stupid.

I muster the courage to whisper, “Let go, Dex.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

His mouth crushes mine in a savage kiss. The glass behind me is his accomplice, holding me in place while his tongue licks the seam of my lips, demanding entry. I taste the wine just as my knees give out beneath me. The weight of his body keeps me from falling as he moves his hand from my neck down to squeeze my ass through my business skirt, pulling me against his body.

A far away voice in my head tells me how dangerous this is, but the rest of my body is quickly surrendering to the wave of desire he’s been stoking for weeks with our little game of cat and mouse.

His fingers are back under my skirt, right where they left-off hours before at The Rooftop.

I move my only free hand to his arm. My brain shouts to push him away, but instead, I grasp his suit jacket for dear life just as his fingers pinch my clit.

It’s impossible to stop my obscene moan of desire as he shoves his fingers inside me hard enough to lift me to my tippy-toes. I’d love to blame my desperate craving to come on my long bout of abstinence, but we’d both know that was only part of the truth.

Dex pulls out of our kiss, giving us both a moment to catch our breath while he demonstrates his expert knowledge of a woman’s anatomy. Within seconds, he has me on the brink of orgasm, and God help me, I want him to finish.

“Open your eyes,” he barks.

In my precarious state, it takes a moment to make my eyes comply. The sight of his too-handsome face, full of a dominant lust, takes my breath away.

“You feel it too. I know you do,” he taunts.

Is he being obtuse? Of course, I feel his shaft through his pants. It’s impossible to miss.

His voice sounds gravelly as he adds, “It’s like a fucking magnet—pulling us together. You’ve tried desperately to push away, but the pull will always send us crashing back together. It hit me this afternoon, after you left The Rooftop. We’ve spent the last fifteen years in one long game of foreplay. Tonight, foreplay ends, and the real game begins.”

His words jar me out of my sexual haze enough to douse my climax. My brain understands the words he said, but I still grapple with their deeper meaning.

In one quick motion, Dex steps back, releasing me to fall forward, directly into his arms as he scoops me up and carries me a few feet back to the dining room table. There’s a loud clatter of dishes and silverware as he uses one arm to swish the place setting, food, and wine out of the way.

I feel myself falling as he lowers my body to lay against the hard wood. I try to push up to my feet in a feeble attempt to escape, but he’s too strong. My lower legs hang off the edge of the table, my bare feet dangling uselessly.

Things are moving too fast. We need to stop before we do something we can never undo.

“Dex, don’t do this,” I mutter with absolutely zero conviction. He has my body too primed to put up much of a fight.

In a daze, I watch as he stands over me, shrugging out of his suit jacket. I’m relieved when he stops his undressing there, until he reaches out to me, roughly shoving the hem of my skirt up to my waist.

I try to push up from the table just as he rips my panties away. My struggle dies quickly when he bends and lunges forward, his tongue where his fingers were moments before. I collapse back to the table just as I feel his hands grabbing my ankles. Dex proves he can multi-task as he masterfully feasts on my slit and lifts my feet to the edge of the table to spread my bent legs wide, exposing every inch of my bare pussy to him.

Physically, his attention feels like heaven. Unfortunately, conflicting emotions make it impossible to forget that it’s Dex Cohen who’s responsible for my growing arousal. What bothers me the most is that this should feel all wrong, but instead, it’s never felt more right.

He puts his fingers back in use, curling inside me—expertly finding that perfect spot that normally only my vibrator can find. I explode like a firecracker with a short fuse, bucking my hips up off the table as I cry out. Dex rides my body, never letting his mouth leave my clit as his fingers twitch and flick inside me, dragging my orgasm out so long I’m panting when I eventually start to come back down from my peak.

When he finally releases my body, I lay collapsed against the table like a wet noodle. I don’t remember having a more explosive orgasm than the one just delivered by my enemy. I want to be angry at him for clouding our already complicated working relationship with escalating sexual tension, but I just can’t muster the energy.

It isn’t until I hear what sounds like the jingle of a belt buckle that I finally open my eyes. I’m just in time to see he’s taken off his shirt and is already stepping out of his pants.

In my panic, I use my feet still at the edge of the table to shove myself farther down the table as I start to roll on my side in an attempt to put space between us.

He’s too quick, grabbing my ankles and yanking my bottom back down to the edge of the table. As I struggle, he cracks his hand against my naked ass, lighting an explosion of fire across my butt.

“This is going to happen, Katja,” he warns as he rolls me to my back again. I kick my feet, but he’s too strong to fight.

He releases my legs and moves his hands to the front of my blouse. Too impatient to work the buttons, Dex rips it apart and I hear the small buttons clatter across the top of the table.

The look on his face reminds me of a predator, stalking his prey—me. I see a dark hunger in his eyes I’ve never seen there before as he roughly shoves my bra up over my breasts, exposing my curves to his view. A zing of power shudders through me as I revel in the knowledge that he wants me so much that he’s shedding some of that mask of control he normally wears.

His hands are unrelenting as they squeeze my breasts, kneading and pinching. I feel his hard shaft brushing against my core as he leans down to suck a nipple into his mouth so forcefully I’m sure he’s going to leave a mark.

Despite coming hard just moments before, my body can’t help but react to his irresistible skills. A wave of inevitable surrender washes over me as I weave my fingers through his thick hair, holding his mouth in place against my breast as if my life depends on it.

A bite of pain explodes on my nipple as Dex nips my now erect bud with his teeth before diving over to devour its counterpart. I feel his hands roaming down my body, exploring his way back to my core.

Dex lifts his head just enough groan out, “Christ, your body is perfect,” before feasting on my nips once again.

I hate the warm rush of pleasure his compliment brings. This is wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this, yet I’ve never felt the urge to be taken more than in this moment.

Only when I can feel the tip of his shaft at the entrance to my pussy does he finally lift up from sucking my tit. My fingers pull at his hair, holding his face just inches away from mine. For the briefest of seconds, I catch a glimpse of a new emotion shining in his eyes, but it’s gone before I can identify it. The look of pure lust that replaces it is easier to label because I’m pretty sure I’m mirroring the same yearning in return.

Dex pierces my pussy with his shaft in one hard stroke, filling and stretching me so fast I cry out from the pinch of pain. Like the gentleman I know he’s not, he holds still, buried inside me, letting my body grow accustomed to his girth enough so when he finally pulls out and strokes inside me again, I only feel pleasure.

The intensity of the moment is too much. I squeeze my eyes closed, losing myself to the confusing mix of pleasure and pain—dominance and submission. I turn myself over to his mastery, surrendering to the inevitability of it all. I may have no idea how tonight will impact our future business dealings, but even I can admit we’ve been kindling this fire for years, and tonight is bonfire night.

“Open your eyes.” It’s an order.

I obey.

“So tight,” he says, grunting as he slams in and out of me. The sound of our bodies slapping together fills the room as he pulls my upper body up off the table into an intimate hug. The bare skin of our chests collide and I move my hands from his hair to around his neck.

The embrace feels intimate as he pulls my entire body off the table, his cock still buried deep inside me. I wrap my legs around his waist as he carries me the few feet back to the wall of windows.

This time when my back slams against the glass, it’s his erection penetrating me instead of his tongue. Dex uses the new position to fuck me harder, driving deep inside me, hitting places never touched before.

I cry out his name as a wave of sexual ecstasy washes over me. He fucks me through the pleasure before taunting me with, “Such a good girl coming all over my cock. Let’s see if I can make you come one more time tonight.”

Satiated exhaustion hits me hard. Thankfully, Dex has enough energy for both of us, holding my limp body against the windows as he chases his own climax. Despite multiple orgasms, I feel a kernel of need growing again, blossoming into a full-fledged craving.

He lowers his head to my shoulder, licking the sensitive line where my neck meets my collar bone, nipping at the tender spot with his teeth. Without a plan, I lunge forward to reciprocate, sucking his bare neck until he starts to mewl. His hips piston me again and again until I feel the first jet of hot cum filling me. His obscene grunt as he comes tips me into another wave of bliss.

Moments pass as we each catch our breath. As the reality of what’s just happened sinks in, I start to wiggle, sure he’s going to put my feet back down to the ground. Instead, Dex maneuvers me back into his arms and starts walking toward the wing that houses our bedrooms. I lay my head on his shoulder, eager to avoid looking in his eyes for fear of the victorious gloating I’ll see there.

The suite is dark, but he navigates through the sitting room with ease. Never one to let a door stop him, Dex crashes into my bedroom, finally dropping me onto the end of my bed with a small bounce.

I’m suddenly desperate for him to leave. I need alone time to figure out what the hell just happened, and more importantly, what it means to our complicated future. Still, when he walks away without a word, it hurts more than I want to admit.

As confusing as that emotion is, I’m unnerved when he soon returns with a warm, wet cloth and proceeds to tenderly wipe away the messy cum dripping from my pussy. After cleaning me up, he silently works at divesting me of my disheveled clothing, one article at a time.

“You don’t have to do this. I can undress myself,” I finally object.

Undeterred, he finishes his task by removing my bra before reaching down to remove his only remaining clothing, his socks.

Too stunned by his gentle care to protest, I watch as he pulls back the covers at the head of the bed to make room for me to sleep. Hoping to speed him along so I can be alone, I push up to sit at the end of the bed but before I can stand, I’m back in his arms, being carried to the opening in the sheets. The coolness of the linen feels good against the still smoldering heat Dex lit all over my body.

I quickly roll to my side, facing away from him in hopes he’ll just slink out, leaving me to analyze what happened. Instead, I feel the bed behind me sinking under his weight just before he presses his naked body against my back, spooning me in a tight embrace.

“What are you doing?” I snap, trying to wiggle free from his bearhug grip.

I’m hyper-aware of every place our bodies are touching. His hard muscles surround me as he flings his top leg over mine, pulling me even closer. His right arm is under my neck, serving as a pillow.

It’s too intimate.

“Dex, you can’t sleep here,” I protest, still trying to pry myself from his hold.

“The hell I can’t. Now, go to sleep, princess, before I decide we need to go another round.”

It feels like I’ve been teleported into an episode of The Twilight Zone when I feel his lips on my shoulder, leaving small tender kisses all the way up to my neck. I shudder under the soft caress, more confused than ever.

I have no idea how long I lie there, silent and still, before I hear Dex’s soft, even breaths of slumber. How the hell could he go to sleep? My mind is too busy remembering—worrying—to relax.

I know one thing. As phenomenal as the sex was, this can never happen again.

A dark thought takes hold as it dawns on me that this was probably just one big negotiation ploy on his part. Tear down my defenses and make me have feelings for him until I meet all his demands. Then he’ll throw me to the curb, just like I did to him years before.

As much as that idea hurts, the alternative scares me even more.

What if we really are stuck together like magnets?

It’s a long time before I finally succumb to my exhaustion, following him into slumber.

Chapter Nineteen

DEX

There’s something about standing naked in front of floor-to-ceiling windows with my dick out for all of New York to see. Success surges through me as I look down from the penthouse to the people walking below.

I earned this place. I worked hard. Yes, the business was handed to me by my father, but Katja stripped it all away, forcing me to rebuild—even stronger. In a sick way, I should thank her for pushing me to become the man I am today. She’s made me stand on my own two feet without my history to back me up. I lost my kingdom when she evicted me, but I built an empire because of it.

I press my palm against the cool glass and take a moment to acknowledge all the shit I’ve been through… and actually feel proud of myself. Proud for never giving up. Proud for bringing The Whitney back from near ruin. Proud of what I’ve done for my father’s legacy.

And, if I’m honest, I’ve got more than a little pride at all the sounds I was able to wring out of Katja last night.

I glance over my shoulder at the infuriating and intoxicating woman in the bed. The fluffy white comforter hides her from my view and it’s as if she’s an angel wrapped in clouds. Although the woman I fucked last night was far from an angel, and I have a feeling I’ve barely touched just how dirty this girl can get. I’ve finally found someone who can make me want more than just a one-time fuck—which surprises me more than anything else. Our bodies just meshed so damn perfectly. It’s like her cunt was molded for my dick.

Katja groans and rolls away from the window. “Close the curtains,” she mumbles. “It’s too early.”

“I like the view,” I reply, leaving the curtains open as I move back to the bed and slide under the covers, reclaiming both her body and my big spoon position. She stiffens when our skin connects, but as I wrap my arms around her and kiss her shoulder, she softens and relaxes into our connection.

Connection.

That word is bugging me this morning. We’ve always been connected—by our fathers, by The Whitney, by our shared pasts—but this is something new. I felt the first flickers of it yesterday behind the bar of The Rooftop, and it grew a little stronger every time she came for me last night… and then a little more when she didn’t kick me out of bed.

Sure, she argued a bit, but I’d expected the feisty princess to put up a much bigger fight than a weak wiggle and telling me I couldn’t sleep in her bed. Fuck, I’d been prepared for her to flip out over fucking someone as beneath her as me—but she didn’t. She settled against my chest exactly like she is right now, with the scent of her shampoo lingering in her hair and some other soft, feminine smell on her sheets. Lotion or perfume or something like that mixed with… Katja.

If Z was here, he’d be calling me out on my obsession with her. He’d call me an idiot, mock me for taking deep inhales of her hair and pillow, and he’d probably hit me over the head for thinking I can have anything with Katja Belov that doesn’t involve outright extortion.

And he’d probably be right.

I just can’t shake the way she looked at me last night, or the goddamn sounds she made. It was better than I’d ever fantasized, and while I’ve seen her effortlessly spin lies at fancy parties—I don’t think she’s that good of an actress. Maybe all the fucking money and effort I’ve poured into The Whitney has finally opened her eyes about me. Made her see me as more than the low-life criminal she’s painted me to be. Maybe she’s even accepting the necessity of my business?

Maybe even accepting me?

It’s not the first time the thought has wormed its way into my brain since I came back to the hotel, but I’ve always shut it down. Today though… today could be different. Because of last night. Because we’re both different now. Because I’ve proven that I give a shit about The Whitney… and her.

Taking a deep breath, I decide to start small as I drag my thumb in small circles over her stomach, pulling her back from the edge of sleep. She huffs and tries to hide her face from the light, and I find myself smiling.

“Wake up, princess. I want to take you to breakfast downstairs,” I whisper, kissing the shell of her ear.

“No,” she grumbles. “Let’s just get room service and sleep while we wait for it to come.” Her voice is husky, and my smile widens at the fact that my Sleeping Beauty is so resistant to waking up with the sun.

“Nope. We’re going to get dressed and eat downstairs. It’ll be good for the staff to see us dine together anyway,” I say, running my fingertips along her hip, trying to ignore my hard cock that’s demanding a repeat of last night despite my mind’s alternate plans.

She rolls onto her back so she can look at me while squinting against the light. “Why?”

“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but putting the staff in the middle of our little war hasn’t been very effective for morale. This will be good for The Whitney, and I’m hungry.”

“Good for The Whitney,” she repeats, and I can’t tell if the wrinkle between her brows is still due to the morning sun or if she doesn’t believe me anymore than I do.

“Yeah. Do you have a problem eating breakfast with me downstairs?” I press, feeling my empty stomach clench.

“They’ll gossip,” she says, a pink glow rising in her cheeks.

I chuckle. “Trust me. They already are.”

“They shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t encourage it. It’s none of their business what happens between you and me.”

I laugh again. “Our business is their business, and you know it. Since I moved into the penthouse, most already assume we’re a couple, or at the very least that we’re fucking.”

“Which we haven’t been.”

“Until last night,” I correct, tracing the pouty curve of her bottom lip as I fight against the urge to take her mouth—and then taste her nipples, followed by her sweet pussy, just to hear her come again so she’s soaking wet when I bury my cock inside her. Christ, her eyes have that same sultry glaze to them that made her impossible to resist last night and I give in. To the kiss, anyway, but tasting her mouth is fucking dangerous. That sinful little mewl has my dick aching with need, and I know just how easy it would be to shove her thighs apart and fuck her until she screams my name again… but I already know how good the sex is between us.

This morning is about something else, and I want to see if she’ll jump through the hoop.

“Time to get up.” It’s not easy to break the kiss but forcing out the words helps even though I catch her wicked little grin as I lean up beside her. I’m about to ask her about it when I feel her fingers wrap around my shaft and squeeze.

“Seems like you’re already up,” she teases, gliding her fist up and down my length in a move that’s guaranteed to shut my brain down in seconds—so I grab her wrist.

“Nice try, but I said it’s time to get up, and I meant it.” Using the hold on her wrist, I flip Katja onto her stomach and shove the sheets back to land a spank on her perfect ass. Her yelp is sexy as fuck, but I ignore the pleas from my cock and balls to have more fun and shove myself out of bed instead.

“Dex!” she snaps, reaching for the sheets to cover herself again, but I yank them down to the end of the bed. “Stop it! If you want to go eat breakfast, go ahead. I’m going back to sleep. No one gets up this early.”

“I do, which means you are too.” Crossing my arms, I grin when I catch her gaze drifting down my abs to my dick before she quickly lifts her chin to meet my eyes. “If you’re a really good girl at breakfast, I’ll let you touch it again.”

“Ha. Ha.” Katja glares at me and I can see the gears in her brilliant mind turning over the situation in front of her, looking for an out—not that I ever leave her one.

“I’m going to start the shower, and if you’re not in the bathroom in one minute I’m going to come out and get you.” Tilting my head toward the bathroom door, I let my grin spread. “And trust me, princess… You’ll like this morning a lot more if you obey.”

I’m halfway to her bathroom when I hear her scoff.

“Is that what this is all about? You want to see if I’ll still come when you call?”

“Baby, I know exactly how to make you come, and it has nothing to do with a call.” I meant it as a joke, but when I turn around there’s no humor in her face. Dammit. “I’m trying really hard not to be an asshole right now. Can you work with me?”

“Bossing me around isn’t a great way to wake me up, Dex.” Her sassy tone gets under my skin in the way only she can, and I feel my temper flare.

“Jesus Christ, Katja, I simply want to have breakfast with you downstairs like two adults who just spent the night together. What’s wrong with that?”

“In front of everyone,” she adds, her voice still too sassy, and it makes my palm itch to light her ass up, but I push the urge away.

Instead, I drop all the bullshit and go right for the question I’ve been dancing around this whole time. “Do you have a problem being seen with me?”

“Are you planning to humiliate me in the restaurant?” she asks, deftly avoiding an answer.

“I’m planning on eating breakfast with you, because I’m fucking hungry, and I don’t really care if I’m seen with a woman I happen to think is pretty fucking hot.” Spreading my arms wide, I add, “And we might even talk about what happened last night and whether it was as fucking amazing for you as it was for me.”

Her cheeks are a little brighter as the fight seems to drain out of her, the tension in her shoulders melting when she sits up and drags a pillow onto her lap to hide her pink slit. “It was pretty good.”

“Pretty good?” I repeat, lifting my brows.

“Fine, it was fantastic. Better?”

“For now. You can elaborate over breakfast,” I say, grinning at the way her mouth drops open like she might argue, but I’m already throwing open the door to her bathroom. “You have thirty seconds now, princess.”

I’m not sure Katja should be drinking any more coffee. Her hands are already trembling around her mug as she takes another sip. She’s jittery, and her eyes keep darting around the restaurant as she scans and takes mental notes of everyone seeing us together.

I reach out for her hand when she puts the mug down and squeeze it reassuringly. “Relax.”

She swallows hard and looks at our hands but doesn’t break the connection.

There’s that damn word again.

“I’m relaxed. Why wouldn’t I be?” The way her voice trembles would give her away even if her hands weren’t shaking. “I just don’t like being the center of attention, and I feel like all eyes are on us.”

“They are,” I reply with a chuckle, stabbing one of the grilled peppers and a bite of egg with my fork.

“I just prefer to be the one watching, the one taking notes,” she says.

I take a sip of mimosa to wash down the food and nod. “Ah yes, your infamous notebook full of all the dirty details of every power player in New York.” I pause and drink again. “Actually, the world.” Setting my glass down, I glance at the ceiling where many, many floors above us her notebook is hidden somewhere. “I want a peek. What does it say inside?”

She shrugs playfully. “I’ll never tell, and I definitely won’t show you.”

“You don’t have to show me. Just tell me… what does it say about me in there?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.” She gives a wicked raise of her eyebrows and a smirk, and I want to grab a fistful of her hair and kiss her—before doing a whole lot more to her.

“You really do like playing with fire, don’t you?” I shake my head, suppressing a smile as I point at her food. “Go on, eat your breakfast.”

Katja wrinkles her nose. “I’m not hungry.”

“I don’t care. It’s yogurt, fruit, and muesli, not a grand slam. Take a bite.”

“I’m usually not even awake at this hour, and I rarely eat breakfast,” she says, picking up her spoon to push the items around in her bowl without eating any of it. “Is this how you’re always going to be now?”

“You mean giving a shit about you eating? Like the food I ordered for you yesterday that you never even touched?” I shrug. “Yeah. I can be kind of a dick when someone I care about doesn’t bother taking care of themselves.”

Her spoon freezes and it takes me a second to replay the words in my head before I realize why.

“I’m someone you care about? So… does that mean you don’t hate me anymore?” she asks.

“What? I’ve never hated you, Katja. Even when I really, really wanted to,” I reply, setting my fork down to meet her gaze. “Do you hate me?”

In the softest voice she answers, “No. I don’t hate you.”

“Well, then we—”

“I mean, I should hate your twisted, bossy, dominating, and infuriating morning-person self, but I don’t.” The corner of her mouth lifts a little and I find my lips mimicking hers.

“You like me dominating,” I whisper, enjoying the return of the pink to her cheeks. “Admit it.”

“What happened to not humiliating me at breakfast?”

“Do I need to repeat the question louder?”

Her eyes widen. “No. I heard you the first time.”

“Then answer me.”

She hesitates, pushing her spoon through the yogurt in little patterns until she quietly says, “You already know the answer.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“Dex.” She snaps my name out in a harsh, exasperated whisper, but I don’t back down.

“I can make a scene if you want me—”

“Yes, okay?” she says, sighing. “Yes.”

“Yes, what?” I tease, grinning as she clenches her jaw, a little muscle in her cheek twitching from the effort.

“Yes, I like your… your dominating personality,” she finally whispers, before adding, “Sometimes.”

“Good girl,” I praise quietly, pointing at her bowl again. “Now take a bite before I pull my chair over there and feed you myself.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

I grin. “Try me.”

Katja acts like I’m forcing her to eat something disgusting instead of perfectly ripe fruit with organic muesli and pasture-raised, organic, and whatever-the-fuck-else yogurt. I find it more than a little satisfying as she eats three small bites and a whole blueberry before reaching for her water. “Happy?”

“I’ll be happy when you actually make some progress on the bowl, but that’s okay. We have time. Plus, the longer we sit here enjoying each other’s company, the more staff and guests will get the chance to see us,” I say, noting the way her back straightens just a little further, the tension returning. “And we have plenty to talk about anyway.”

"How much do I need to eat?” she asks, glancing around us again.

“Enough.”

“So helpful,” she snarks. “Fine. What do you want to talk about?”

“Us.”

“Us?” she repeats. “Is there an us?”

“That’s an excellent place to start. I think we proved last night that there are certain aspects of a relationship where we work together well.”

Her blush intensifies, and she takes a bite to avoid responding, which is fine. She needs to eat.

“It’s the other parts that we haven’t really tested.”

“Such as?” she asks without looking up from her bowl.

“I don’t have a list, but there’s something between us. Something far more than just two stubborn people trying to win a battle of wills. Don’t you agree?”

Katja doesn’t answer me as quickly as I would have liked, but she eventually nods. “Yes, but I don’t know how that could ever change.”

“We control that.”

“Exactly.” She sighs, setting her spoon down again to scan the room before finally bringing her gaze back to mine. “We’ve never been able to avoid arguing with each other, or competing, or… whatever all of this has been.”

“But aren’t you tired of playing these games?” I ask. “Because I am. I’m done acting like we’re two generals at war rather than partners with the same goals.”

“I don’t think last night counts as a mutual goal.”

“I mean The Whitney.” Reaching across the table I offer my hand and my heart is racing as I wait for her to slip her hand into mine. I squeeze, brushing my thumb across her skin until she meets my gaze. “We both love this place. It’s home for both of us, and I know we’ll treat her much better if we work together than if we’re on opposite sides.”

“So, business partners?” she asks quietly, and I squeeze her hand tighter in mine when she tries to pull it back.

“I think I’ve made it pretty damn clear I want more than that. The question is if you do.”

“Dex…” She sighs, staring down at her lap, and I feel my stomach tense, threatening to return the omelet I’ve eaten as I prepare for rejection—trying and failing to build up walls inside that might keep the pain out—but after a minute or so I hear the quietest sniffle.

“Look at me.” I manage to keep my voice quiet, but there’s no question it’s a command, and when Katja lifts her head, I can see the shine of unshed tears in her eyes. “I’ve never seen you back down from anything in your entire life, so what the fuck are you running from now?”

“I’m not running.”

“You’re not answering me either.”

“I don’t have an answer. How can you expect me to have one? Yesterday you did… that on the rooftop,” she says, looking around as she avoids using words that would definitely pique someone’s attention. “And before that was the other stuff. And, yes, last night was good, and while you’ve been bossy this morning, you’ve reminded me a lot more of the Dex I used to know… but I can’t… I won’t be treated like that.”

“What if I said I won’t do those things anymore?” I ask, but quickly correct myself by adding, “In public spaces, I mean.”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay.” I take a deep breath and release her hand, dropping mine into my lap. “Forget everything else that’s happened. I know that’s hard, but take the money off the table, ignore all of it except what happened last night. If nothing else mattered, would you want to pursue something?”

“Of course, I would, but that’s not—”

“Stop.” Raising my hand, I cut her off so that I can hold onto the ‘maybe.’ It’s not like I’m completely sure about this, I still have questions, doubts… but I also can’t imagine going backward. Not now that I know how perfect she feels in my arms. “Fuck the rest of breakfast. We need to be somewhere we can actually talk.”

“Dex, let’s just—”

“Wait.” I push my chair back and get up, moving to her side of the table to offer my hand once more. “Come up to The Rooftop with me. I got new tiles put in around the hot tub, and I want to go check on the craftsmanship. Plus, we’ll be alone, and even if you don’t want to talk at all, it’s worth it just for the early morning views.”

Katja is thinking again, and while I’ve always respected her brilliant mind, right now I really wish she’d stop overthinking this.

“Please.” It’s not a word I’m accustomed to saying, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever said it to her, which is why I think it actually works.

She stays silent, but she takes my hand and moves her napkin to the table as I help her up and lead her toward the elevators. We don’t speak the entire way up to The Rooftop, and as the doors open, I gesture for her to exit first.

“You redid the floors,” she says as we take a few steps out of the elevators. “I didn’t notice yesterday.” She’s looking the tile over, her expert eye examining every inch. I hadn’t planned on this being some kind of inspection, but I should have known better. When it comes to design, hotel decor, and class, no one is better at it than Katja, which is why she shocks the hell out of me when she says, “They look really nice. You always did have good taste.”

“You think I have good taste?”

“Aesthetically, yes. It’s always been your taste in friends that was lacking.”

Ouch.

“Taking the gloves off already?” I walk past her toward the hot tub, but the clicking of her heels as she follows gives me a sliver of hope.

“That came off harsher than I meant it. I was trying to make a joke.”

“Hilarious.”

She grabs my arm and pulls me to a halt, turning me toward her. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m really not a morning person, and that was rude. I want to see what you’ve done up here.”

“Okay.” I hold out my hand again and can’t ignore the thrill I feel when she willingly slips her hand into mine and steps closer to me as I walk her around the remodeled items. The best part of it is that Katja really cares. Z never wants to listen to my opinion on tile materials or textures or why colors matter in a space, but Katja isn’t just willing to listen—she wants to hear it. The tension between us fades as she asks questions, makes suggestions, and even compliments a few more of my ideas.

We end the walk around the rooftop near the bar, and I know both of us are thinking about what happened behind it less than twenty-four hours ago.

“We’re still waiting on the new countertop for the bar, but that had to be imported from Rome and it’s held up on some freight right now,” I say, avoiding the memory of her exposing herself for me by focusing on the transformation I’ve almost completed. I feel proud as I look around. The place has never looked better.

“Your guests are going to love it up here,” she says, but I notice her gaze lingering on the table where my ‘friends’ were yesterday, and some of the warmth has leached out of her tone.

“Ah, right. My guests that are a side effect of my poor taste.”

“I told you I didn’t mean it like that, it was just a—”

“But you did,” I interrupt, noting how she quickly avoids my eyes. “I think we should be honest with each other, don’t you?”

“Let’s not do this right now.”

“This is why we came up here. We’re all alone, there’s no one spying, no one watching, so you don’t have any excuses,” I say, facing her even though she’s looking at the skyline instead of me. “We have to be honest with each other, and there’s no time like the present. I’ve laid my cards on the table, and I think I’ve made it pretty fucking clear that I think we have something here. I think we could be great together… do you disagree?”

“I have no idea what I think.”

“Then let’s figure it the fuck out. We’ve both done some fucked up shit to each other, but you admitted you enjoyed last night. You admitted you like my dominating personality—”

“Sometimes,” she inserts.

“Right,” I acknowledge, blowing out a breath as I drop my hand on the bar and try to get my words together. “My point is that I don’t want to be at war with you anymore. I don’t want this massive divide between us. It’s not good for The Whitney, and it definitely isn’t good for us.”

“You’re talking about your… business… up here,” she says, and the hint of disgust in her tone makes me clench my fist.

“That is exactly what I’m talking about, Katja. You’re still looking down on me and what I do, even though it’s my money that’s keeping you and The Whitney afloat. Do you really not see the blatant hypocrisy in that?”

“You know I wouldn’t have taken your money—or done any of the things I’ve had to do for it—if I had any other option that wouldn’t hurt this hotel.”

It feels like I’ve been slapped, and all those lingering thoughts that made me feel hesitant come roaring back. “After everything I’ve done to improve The Whitney, you still see me as trash, don’t you?”

“Dex…” She groans, leaning back against the bar as she buries her face in her hands, making her voice come out muffled as she says, “I don’t think you’re trash.”

“You sure about that? You’ve been pretty open about your opinion of me and my so-called ‘friends’ that clearly disgust you unless it’s helping you pay the bills.”

“That’s not fair!” She turns to face me. “You were groomed for this life. I wasn’t.”

“You think that makes your hands clean?” I laugh. “You may not have been taught the same things I was, but your side of the equation isn’t innocent. Your father knew everything my father did here at The Whitney. They were partners, Katja. Sure, your dad ran the hotel side, but do you really think The Whitney would have survived all the economic shit in the last decades without my father’s side of the business?

“No. And what do you do the second your father puts you in charge? You kick Z and I out on our asses. Like we were disposable. Useless. You act like we’re beneath you, like I’m some kind of monster. You’ve always looked down on me with that mix of fear and disgust, and I used to get off on it because it was a lot easier to make it a turn-on than to recognize how shitty it made me feel. But here’s the truth, princess, there is no Whitney without what I do. Even if I stopped today, all those ‘friends’ of mine would continue doing all the shit they do—they’d just do it somewhere else. Someone else would get a cut of the pie and The Whitney would just become just under chain hotel. So, yeah, I deal with criminals. Maybe I even am a criminal in your eyes, but there’s one big difference between us. I’ve never pretended to be an angel because I’ve always had my eyes open about where the money comes from… you just preferred to believe the fairytale.”

I’m so pissed that I can’t even enjoy the look of shock on her face. Pushing away from the bar, I pace across the rooftop, my heart hammering against the inside of my ribs because I don’t know if I just fucked up permanently. Part of me is glad I said all of it, that I finally called her out on her shit, but the other part is remembering how good it felt to wake up with her beside me and I know just how cold the bed will feel tomorrow morning if she isn’t there because of this.

Fuck.

I’m so tense that I jump when she touches my arm, and it bothers me that she flinches back. I have never hit her, or any woman—not like that anyway. A belting or a spanking, sure, but to see the wary, wounded look in her eyes makes me feel more like the thug she’s accused me of being than anything else.

“Katja, listen—”

“Dex, I want—” she stops because we both started talking at the same time, but she continues before I can. “Wait. I want to apologize.”

“You do?” I don’t have to fake the surprise in my voice.

“Yes.” She takes a deep breath. “You’re right. I have looked down on you, and I have treated you badly, and I’m sorry for that. My dad never let me see the other side of the arrangement he had with your father and Simon’s. I knew that sometimes scary people spent time with your fathers, and as I grew up and learned more about it, that’s all I focused on. I had this naïve idea that I could make The Whitney”—she waves a hand around, obviously searching for a word until she finally settles on—“pure. I know how stupid that sounds, and I clearly failed spectacularly. I even married a man that was supposed to make that idea possible, and instead he made everything ten times worse.”

She takes one step forward, and then another, closing the gap between us until she has to tilt her head back to meet my eyes.

“But, no matter what I thought of you, when my life fell apart… you showed up.” She slowly glides her fingers down my arm before finally linking our hands together. “You were an asshole, but I know that if you hadn’t been there, things could have been a lot more… messy.”

“I—”

“Hold on,” she says, squeezing my hand and I nod. “Then, when things got worse and I realized The Whitney was in jeopardy, I knew without hesitation that I could come to you. Even though I viewed you poorly, I knew you loved this hotel more than you might have hated me.”

“I never hated you.”

“I see that now, and I know I never truly hated you either. No matter what thoughts or opinions I may have had about you.”

“Past tense?” I ask, reaching up to trace the line of her jaw where the rising sun has highlighted her in gold and pink. “Does that mean you don’t think it anymore?”

“It means I’m a little more aware of my own prejudices, and privilege.” A tiny smile tugs at her mouth.

“Does that mean you’re willing to make this a real partnership? Combine the light and the dark sides of the business, so we can work together to make The Whitney successful?”

She doesn’t answer right away, and it almost feels like she’s searching my eyes for some hidden truth, but I don’t press her. I can be patient, especially for her.

I do take the chance to move my free hand to the small of her back, pulling her closer, and it’s nice that she doesn’t hesitate at all.

“I promise I'm not trying to be rude, and I'm not saying no... I just don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable being around men like that.”

“I wouldn’t like that either,” I say. “If they looked at you wrong I might alienate more than a few business associates by tossing them off this roof.”

Her laugh breaks the tension between us, and I can absolutely see the angel in her as her beautiful smile is bathed in warm, golden light.

“I mean it,” I insist. “I’m not asking you to sit at the table with me and Z, or even know about every deal we make. I just don’t want to feel like your shameful secret.”

“I think I could handle that.”

“What about me? Do you think you could handle being seen with someone so beneath you?” I squeeze her hand and bite back a smirk. “Can you handle people seeing us hold hands in the hallway?”

“You’re not beneath me,” she says softly, lifting up on her tiptoes to place a gentle kiss on my lips as she adds, “In fact, I definitely prefer you on top of me.”

“Is that right?” The thrill of her acceptance has me scooping her off the ground, and I love the way her skirt rides up as she wraps her legs around my hips while I carry her to one of the tables closer to the edge of the roof. I almost trip over a chair when she steals another kiss, and I practically growl when her little tongue teases mine.

We’re making out like teenagers, and I’m seriously contemplating tearing her panties off to fuck her under the morning sky in full view of the New York City skyline, but I need to hear it one more time.

“So, you’re willing to try this? To see where it goes between us?”

“Yes,” she says, nodding. “I want it. I want to see if we can make this work. In private, and in public.”

“I hope you mean it," I say, reaching under her skirt to grab her panties and yank them down her thighs. “Because I’m not waiting until we get back downstairs to taste you again, and I don’t give a fuck who has a view of this rooftop.”

Chapter Twenty

KATJA

“Good morning, princess.”

As long as I live, I’ll never be a morning person, but even I have to admit I could get used to these early Dex Cohen wake-up calls. His gentle nibbles along my shoulder start to tickle when he gets to the crook of my neck.

“That tickles!” I complain with an uncharacteristic giggle as he pulls my body flush against his and I can feel his morning hard-on poking my ass.

“Christ, I love to hear you laugh first thing in the morning,” he says, never fully taking his lips from my skin. His nibbles turn into a small bite, delivering a zing of pain before adding, “Happy Anniversary, baby.”

Anniversary? I try to reboot my brain enough to figure out what he could be talking about.

“Anniversary of what?” I ask, still fighting the urge to go back to sleep.

“Are you kidding me? If I would have told you a few months ago we’d be celebrating a week-long ceasefire in our war, and that we were trying out an actual relationship, you would have told me I was insane.”

He isn’t wrong. There are moments I still have trouble believing Dex and I have been able to put aside our years’ long feud. Even while meeting with our lawyers to work out the minute details of the new contract between us, the negotiations have been almost uneventful. We’re on track to sign on the dotted line sometime next week.

That our newly formed business arrangement seems to be working out is surprising enough. It’s our personal relationship that feels more like a fairytale. That his favorite nickname for me is princess completes the illusion. As I’ve fallen asleep in his arms each night—well-fucked and cared for—I find myself dreaming that we might have a shot at our own happily ever after.

“Come on, time to jump in the shower and get our day started. I have a lot of work to do today before our big night tonight.”

It takes me a few seconds to realize I have no clue what he’s talking about.

“Um… what’s happening tonight?” I mumble, worried I’ve forgotten something important.

Dex rolls me onto my back so he can pounce on top of me. Just the sight of his sexy as hell face inches away has me spreading my legs wide, allowing him to nestle that growing cock of his against my core.

“You’re looking at the guy who was able to score two balcony seats to the newest show that opened last week on Broadway. We have dinner reservations at Antonio’s at six-thirty, and we can’t be late, or we’ll miss the opening curtain.”

“Wait… you mean the new musical?”

“I think so. It’s the one I heard you talking to Rowan about in the lobby. It sounded like you wanted to go.”

“Who are you? You look like the same dangerous Dex Cohen I’ve known all my life, but I think you must be an imposter,” I tease, only I’m not really joking. This past week I’ve seen a side to Dex that I never dreamed was hidden inside the dark and dangerous exterior he usually shows the world.

In a flash, Dex jumps out of bed before reaching back to drag me from my nice warm cocoon of covers.

“It looks like you need a little reminder of just how dangerous I can be,” he says as he flings me over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold.

I do my best to wiggle away, but the hard slap on my bare ass gets my attention.

The last two days I’d sweet-talked him into letting me sleep in until after he’d showered, but it looks like I won’t be that lucky today.

“Put me down! I’m not ready to get up yet,” I cry as he carries me into the bathroom.

Dex doesn’t stop until we’re in the mammoth shower. Cold water sprays down on us in a rush from all three showerheads.

“It’s freezing!” I cry out.

His chuckle pisses me off. “I think you’re being a bit melodramatic, don’t you?”

Thankfully, the jets of water are already starting to warm up. “This is not how I like to wake up,” I complain, still over his shoulder.

“Oh? Well then, maybe I can come up with a better way to make sure you’re awake.”

I feel myself slipping off his wet shoulder as he leans over, helping to guide my feet to the floor. I squeeze my eyes shut under the barrage of water cascading down on us, which makes it harder for me to know what he’s up to before it’s too late.

Dex roughly pushes me to my knees, the hard tile beneath me. I try to wipe the water from my eyes just as I feel the tip of his cock pressing at my lips, demanding entry. I gasp for air and he takes advantage, shoving his hips forward while yanking my head toward him. His shaft chokes off my airflow just as he emits a guttural groan of pleasure that bounces off the tiled walls.

“Now this is how I love to wake up in the morning,” he gloats, pulling out just enough to let me get a sip of precious air before filling my throat once again.

As much as I’d like to be angry with him, the truth is I love this side of him.

Since our rooftop blow-up, he’s let down his guard with me more than I thought possible, showing me a nurturing side along with a fierce protectiveness of both me and The Whitney. These moments where he dominates my body, pushing me beyond my comfort zone, help calm me in an odd way. They remind me this is still the Dex I’ve always known—a man who takes what he wants.

It doesn’t take long to bring him to the brink of his orgasm, but now that I’m fully awake, I think it’s time to take back a little bit of my own control.

With one hand, I cup his balls, massaging and squeezing until he moans with pleasure. While he’s distracted, I snake my other hand up his thigh, reaching to grab his ass.

Dex’s thrusts become erratic as he chases his orgasm. The first jet of hot cum sprays down my throat, making me cough and sputter. For once, I’m glad we’re still in the shower as I feel drops of his jizz spilling down my chin and onto my left breast.

My knees are sore by the time he helps me to my wobbly feet. I’m grateful for his embrace, helping to hold me up as we each catch our breath.

“As much as I’d love to stay here with you all morning, I need to get moving,” he says, stepping away to grab the bottle of his shampoo to lather up.

“Hey, no fair. You make me wake up and then you don’t even take care of my needs?” I pout playfully, scrubbing his muscular chest with the foamy soap spilling down his perfect body. I’ve only seen him workout once in the hotel gym since moving back into The Whitney. I honestly don’t know how he maintains his Adonis physique without working out more often.

My soapy hand moves lower, enjoying washing the part of him that was just in my mouth. With each stroke, I can feel him growing harder and harder.

“Katja,” he warns, leaning his head into the spray of water to rinse out the shampoo.

I take the opportunity to lean in and suck one of his nipples into my mouth, making sure to nip at the tip until he growls.

“You’re playing with fire, dirty girl.”

God, why do I love it when he calls me that?

In a fast second, his arms are around me, grabbing both my ass cheeks and lifting my whole body off the floor until I have to wrap my legs around his waist to keep from falling.

Dex takes a few steps, putting my back against the tiled wall of the shower. Our faces are inches apart, giving me a front row view to his growing desire. I can feel his shaft getting harder, pressing against my pussy.

“Such a naughty girl, trying to make me late this morning.”

“Guilty as charged,” I tease, wiggling to try and get more pressure against my clit.

“It sounds like you’ve earned a punishment then, doesn’t it?”

My core cramps with the kind of dark desire I never knew I needed until Dex introduced me to his special brand of dominance. In such a short time, I’ve learned to crave a bite of pain with the pleasure he so expertly delivers.

“Dex… please…” I beg.

“I know exactly what you need this morning,” he barks just before releasing me so that my legs fall back under me.

He spins me around until I’m facing the shower wall just as he drags the teak shower bench closer.

“Bend over. Hands on the wood. Do not lift them up until I give you permission. Do you understand?”

Holy hotness.

“Yes,” I answer.

The crack of his hand spanking my wet ass gets my attention.

“Yes, what?” he barks.

My mind is scrambled. All I can think about is how much I want him inside of me.

“Yes… sir?”

“Good girl. You remembered.”

His palm rains down on my ass a half dozen times, building my fire both inside and out. I’ll never admit it to him, but the few times he’s disciplined me in the last week have led to the hottest sexual encounters of my life. My brain hates the idea of losing control, but my body is starting to long for it.

The spanking is almost at that point where it hurts too much when his swats stop.

I move my feet a few inches farther apart, subconsciously opening myself up for Dex to claim me from behind. My pussy is primed and ready, so when I feel his fingers moving between my back cheeks just before pressing against my tight pucker, I bolt upright.

“What are you doing?” I shout, swatting his hand away from my ass.

He tsks. “Oh no. Did I give you permission to take your hands off the bench?”

I can’t see his face, but I don’t need to know he’s got an evil grin plastered there. My heart rate shoots up as I start to put his plan together.

I move toward the jets of water. “I think you’re right. We’re late. We better get ready.”

His rich laughter bounces off the walls of the shower. “That was a quick about face, baby.” He pulls me back into his arms again before adding. “I really do need to get upstairs to The Rooftop for a breakfast meeting, but I promise you…” He hugs me closer as the water sluices down our bodies. “Tonight, before we leave for our night out on the town, I’m going to lube up a butt plug and shove it up that tight, virgin asshole of yours. You’ll wear it for me all night—in public—knowing that as soon as we get home, I’m going to take it out and shove my cock deep inside you instead.”

“Oh, no…” I feel my knees wobbling under me just thinking about his dirty promise.

“Oh, yes… And I guarantee, you’re going to love every second of it.”

I highly doubt that.

“Now, as much as I’d rather stay here with you, I need to go. The guests I’m meeting are not the kind of men who are used to being kept waiting.”

Dex leans in and places a soft kiss on my forehead before opening the glass door and leaving me to finish my shower alone and horny as hell.

An hour later, I’ve enjoyed a cup of the coffee Dex took the time to brew for me before leaving for his meeting. I also ate not just one, but two, of the flaky croissants that have magically become a morning staple in our kitchen.

Our kitchen.

How quickly life has changed since the night of the Met Gala.

In the few quiet moments I’ve had to myself in the last whirlwind week, I’ve tried my best to keep a few protective walls up around my heart, but Dex’s playful affection has made it hard to stay guarded. Each day spent working together has brought us closer together. And each evening eating dinner… watching movies… fucking like rabbits…

It scares me how often I think of him when we aren’t together. I tell myself we’re moving too fast, but then I remember we started down this path decades ago. Dex was right when he said we’ve been in a fifteen-year game of foreplay.

Enough thinking about Dex.

While finishing my shower, I decided this morning would be a good day to pull my neglected notebook out of my safe and add a few updates. Knowing Dex is in important meetings that will keep him busy for a few hours ensures I’ll have the privacy I need.

I lightly stroke my hand across the worn leather cover of one of my most prized possessions. I open the thick ledger to the last page with my handwriting. The date on the entry is from the night of the Met Gala.

The night I became a widow.

How odd that such a horrible night has led me to such happiness. I stop short of feeling happy that Tristan is dead, yet I don’t try to deny the sense of relief at realizing my disastrous marriage has come to an end.

I shudder thinking about just how close I came to losing The Whitney, hell to complete financial ruin for that matter. I can’t imagine how different my life would be if Dex hadn’t been able to help me pay off Tristan’s irresponsible loans with his creditors.

I feel another inkling of shame that I ever treated him badly just for doing what his father raised him to do. The things he said to me on the roof were harsh, but I needed to hear them. He was right, and more than once I’ve caught myself looking at pictures of my dad and I in new ways. I think it’s normal for kids to idolize their parents, and when my mom died he was all I had, so I think it was even more intense for me.

Which is why I willfully ignored his part in how The Whitney was really run.

Dex and Simon’s fathers were just as important to the success of this hotel as my own father was. It seems so simple and obvious now, but I know that my father wasn’t an innocent bystander—and I’m not either.

Sure, he’s promised that I’ll never need to know the gritty details of what he and Simon do, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have to accept both sides of The Whitney. More than just accept it, I’m finding myself grateful for Dex’s connections to the underworld. They helped him ferret out who was behind the letters demanding money, and he’s assured me the payment demands are a thing of the past. When I pressed him for more information, he refused to tell me what he had to do to make the loan sharks slink away for good.

And, if that wasn’t enough, he even helped me locate investors willing to buy me out of the troubled real estate projects Tristan had left in ruins. Once we close on that deal, my bank account will once again be flush with cash. All thanks to Dex’s help.

To think that I ever viewed him as beneath me, less-than, or detrimental to The Whitney seems insane to me now.

The ring of my cell phone makes me jump and I glance down to see it’s Rowan calling. I’ve been so busy playing house with Dex that I’ve been avoiding her.

I tap the answer button. “Hey there. How’s it going?”

“It’s about time you answered your phone. Haven’t you seen my texts?” she complains.

“Yeah, well I’ve had my hands full these last few weeks.”

“That’s why I’m calling! Please tell me all of the rumors are true.”

I chuckle. “I guess that depends on what rumors you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play innocent with me. Are you really dating Dex Cohen?” she asks.

This is why I’ve avoided her. I’m not prepared to talk about Dex and me yet.

“Define dating…” I finally say with a small chuckle.

“That’s it. You’re joining me for lunch. I need the whole scoop. And you aren’t going to leave out any of the juicy details. That man is like sex on a stick. Seriously.”

“I really should get into the office.”

“You can work after lunch. Come on. We’ll go to that new Thai place that just opened. Lunch is on me.”

I relent when I realize it might be good to have a friend to talk to about all the changes happening in my life. “Fine. I’ll meet you in the lobby at eleven-thirty.”

It’s after two when I get back from lunch. Despite getting almost no work done today, I’m glad I went. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to talk with Rowan. She may be a few years younger than me, but we have a lot in common—particularly knowing the unique challenges of growing up as Manhattan royalty.

Gordon is waiting to open the door when my hotel limo pulls to a stop.

“Welcome back, Ms. Katja,” he says, reaching in to assist me from the vehicle. When the ground sways under me, it dawns on me that perhaps I shouldn’t have had the third Cosmo with lunch.

“Hello, Gordon. Thanks.”

“It looks like you and Ms. Rowan had a nice lunch,” he observes with a smile.

“We did,” I say, doing my best to not to wobble on my heels.

“If you don’t mind me saying, it’s good to see you happy again.”

I would never feel comfortable talking about my personal life with most of the employees, but Gordon has always been so much more to me. I know he’s been worried about me since my father died.

“Thanks,” I reply. “I am happy.”

And I am. I can acknowledge at least that much. After losing my father and then my disastrous marriage to Tristan, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this light.

Gordon’s grip on my arm remains, keeping me from going inside. I turn, trying to understand what’s happening.

The doorman looks conflicted as he opens his mouth, but no words come out.

“Is everything okay?” I ask.

“Yes… I’m fine. It’s just… I’ll always be loyal to you and to The Whitney. You know I’ve been critical of Mr. Cohen in the past and well… I wanted to let you know I think I might have been wrong about him.”

You and me both, Gordon.

I try not to think about how much trouble, and money, I could have saved both Dex and myself if I’d never severed ties with him in the first place.

“I appreciate you saying that. You’ve been part of The Whitney my whole life, so your opinion means a lot to me.”

Gordon breaks into a broad smile before patting my hand and then finally releases me so I can get out of the heat. As I push through the revolving door into the air-conditioned lobby, an irrational urge to see Dex comes over me. It’s crazy, but I feel like a giddy teenager, unable to wait for my Friday night date.

I’d planned to get a few hours of work in, but thanks to my long lunch, the idea of sneaking in a little afternoon delight with my newfound sex-god sounds like a much better idea.

It only takes a few minutes to get up to the thirteenth floor. The boardroom is empty, and the lights are turned off as I pass by on my way to Dex’s office. His door is closed and as tempting as it is to barge in to surprise him, I’m very aware he holds the kind of business meetings I really shouldn’t burst into unannounced.

I knock but the rap of my knuckles goes unanswered. I press my ear to the door to see if I can hear anyone talking inside, but all is quiet. Disappointed, I’m about to head up to the penthouse when the door across the hall opens and a guest who looks vaguely familiar emerges.

“Oh, hello. I wasn’t expecting anyone,” the tall man says. Despite his expensive tailored suit, I’m not fooled into thinking he’s in the city for sight-seeing.

“I’m sorry if my knocking disturbed you. I’m looking for Mr. Cohen,” I reply.

The man with a large scar above his right eye looks me up and down before answering. “I just left Dex up at The Rooftop. He was saying goodbye to some of his guests after our meeting concluded, but I know he’s planning on heading back down here soon. Would you like to wait inside?” he asks, stepping aside and waving his arm toward the interior of his room. “I could make us some cocktails while you wait.”

My heartrate spikes. I’m not used to feeling unsafe in my own hotel, but I don’t like the predatory look in the man’s eyes as he takes a step closer to me.

My back bumps against Dex’s office door. I try to keep some distance between us without being obvious enough to insult him. My fingers fumble inside my purse to find my master key and I finally find my voice. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll just wait for him in his office.”

As relieved as I am to hear the click of the door unlocking, I won’t relax until I have a locked door between me and the man who is currently ogling me as if I’m his next meal. As soon as the door opens, I scramble into the office to the sound of his mocking laughter behind me.

Once inside, I lean my back against the heavy door, trying to calm my nerves.

What the hell just happened? I feel like a naïve idiot. He hasn’t told me more than I’ve been willing to hear, but Dex has been honest that more than a few of the ‘guests’ he deals with aren’t exactly safe to be around. It’s part of the reason their floors have always been set aside from the regular guests at The Whitney—for their privacy, and everyone’s safety.

Still, I’ve been honest about my hesitancy to be around them too, and getting cornered by one of them is definitely not on my top ten list of experiences to repeat.

Pulling my phone out of my purse, I shoot Dex a text, asking how long he’s going to be. When five and then ten minutes pass by with no reply, I give up on waiting.

Feeling playful, I decide to leave him a note to let him know in obscene detail about all of the sexy things he missed out on doing to my body by not arriving in time. I glance around his desk for a notepad to write on. Finding none, I open his top desk drawer and pull out one of the fancy Montblanc pens he gives to all of his guests.

It isn’t until I open the bottom drawer of his desk that I find a pile of paper I can use. Pulling the top sheet out, I put the pen to the paper and freeze.

I swear I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. I sway on my feet again, but this time it has nothing to do with the number of Cosmos I had at lunch.

Part of me wants to run from the room and pretend I never opened the drawer, but that’s what the old Katja would have done—the naïve woman who was fooled by her lying husband.

In slow motion, I lean down and pull the drawer open again, this time lifting out the entire stack of paperwork from inside.

The urge to throw up is strong. I swallow down the bile rising in my throat as I leaf through the stack of heavy linen stationery on top. The distinctive letterhead for Enterprise Investments, the loan sharks that had been so aggressive about repayment, swims before me as unwanted tears flood my eyes. I swish them away before digging deeper into the pile of envelopes and folders.

There are bank statements showing large deposits and withdrawals. Deeds to several properties with Tristan’s signature scrawled on the bottom.

My hand is shaking by the time I open an envelope full of photos. A tear finally falls onto a picture of my Paris apartment with a post-it note stuck to it containing the date and amount it had been sold for.

The new owner is Enterprise Investments.

My mind races, trying to come up with any explanation for why these items would be in Dex’s desk. He’s told me he handled things with my creditors. Is that all this is?

Not until I get to the bottom file do I get my answer.

I pick up the certificate of incorporation for Enterprise Investments, holding it next to the pile of blank letterhead—comparing the information. Everything matches up until I get to the signature box at the bottom of the official ownership certificate.

I collapse into his chair, my legs unable to hold me up.

There, in black and white, is Dex Cohen’s signature.

Dex was behind it. He was behind all of it.

Chapter Twenty-one

DEX

I get off the elevator on the thirteenth floor, and the first thing I see as the doors open is Katja awkwardly carrying a red container of gasoline. It’s a foreign sight, it’s bizarre, and it makes no sense why she would be lugging gasoline from the maintenance room to this level, and why she’d be doing it without any staff assistance.

I run up to her and try to take the container from her to offer some help. “Hey, what are you doing?”

She jerks the container from me and meets my eyes with a fury I’ve never seen before. “I’d rather see this fucking hotel burn to the ground than see you have one part of it.”

I freeze and confusion washes over me. This isn’t the woman I left this morning. Something happened. Something—

“Katja? What’s going on?” I try to stay calm, but I can feel a buzz of panic trickling into my veins.

“Fuck you,” she spits as she opens the cap of the gasoline, preparing to pour.

Not wanting to replace the new flooring I just had installed, I lunge forward and yank the gas from her hands before taking several steps back to place it down next to me. “I need you to talk to me. What has you so upset?”

“Your office! I was in your fucking office.” She’s struggling to breathe and get the words out, but I don’t need her to explain. I should have been honest on the roof when we were laying it all on the table… but I’d been afraid—and now it’s too late. She pushes me out of the way and storms past me down the hallway before spinning on her heels to face me head on. Her hands are on her hips, her eyes are narrow, I can see the veins in her neck, and I’ve never seen such a terrifying sight in my life. To say the woman is furious would be a gross understatement.

“It was you all along,” she accuses. “You wrote those letters to me demanding the money. It was you!”

Fuck. I inhale deeply and slowly let the air out. “Yes.”

Her mouth falls open for a moment before she recovers. “Wow, you aren’t even going to try and deny it?” I see the fury in her eyes morph to sadness for a moment, but the rage quickly returns. “You’re a sick motherfucker.”

“I’m a vengeful motherfucker,” I admit. “I’m not going to deny that fact.”

She moves forward as if she’s going to charge me, but then stops herself. “You extorted me for money out of revenge? Because I kicked you out of The Whitney?”

All I can do is tell the truth even though my heart feels as if it’s being constricted by chains. “Yes.”

“That’s all you have to say? Yes, I’m vengeful, yes. Really? Nothing more?”

“I’m trying to be honest with you.”

“Oh, really? Now you want to be honest?” She laughs bitterly. “You expect me to believe you? You expect me to believe you’re not hiding more from me? After everything we’ve talked about! After everything you’ve done! What do you have to say for yourself?”

“What else do you want me to say, Katja?”

“I want you to explain yourself. I want you to make sense out of this madness. I want you to tell me that this isn’t as fucked up as I think it is. Tell me I have this all wrong, and there’s a good explanation. Tell me something to make this right!” The way her voice breaks feels like a knife twisting in my gut.

“I can’t, because I’m not going to lie to you.”

“Are you going to try and apologize at least? Try to beg for my forgiveness?”

I feel helpless, empty, wrecked, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “Would it make it better if I did?”

Her eyelashes flutter and her lip quivers, but she quickly composes herself and any sign of devastation vanishes once again. She glances around the thirteenth floor. “So, this was all part of your plan, huh? Trick me into believing I’m going to lose everything, make me beg for money, humiliate me with your consequences, and then force me into bed with you?”

“Originally, yes, on everything except forcing you into bed. You were a willing participant when it came to that.”

“Fuck you!” she shouts.

I know Katja’s emotions are out of control. She’s not one to curse like this, but I’m clearly making her feel as if there are no other words to say. I don’t blame her one bit.

“You tricked me into believing there was something between us. You said you wanted a partnership, you said you wanted me, that you wanted us…” She reaches for a vase on a table, picks it up, but then pauses. Taking a deep breath, she puts the vase back down and adds, “Congratulations. Your plan worked perfectly.” I can hear the pain in her words and I hate it.

“That’s not true,” I admit. “Nothing went according to plan.”

She laughs sardonically as she looks at me, her eyes cold, her jaw locked. “Is that so? To me, it seems like everything you wished for happened. Goals achieved. You wanted to fuck me over and make me pay. You wanted to hurt me. Success.”

I nod slowly. “Yes, when I started all this I wanted to hurt you. I wanted you to feel what I did when you forced me out. I wanted you to feel the betrayal, the pain, and what it’s like to get screwed over.”

She opens her mouth to speak, but I raise my hand to silence her.

“And I know you’re feeling all of that now. But my plan was also to rebuild The Whitney, which is well underway. I knew I needed to fix a lot of damage that you allowed Tristan to do. But I didn’t expect to get back in here, to be back working with you and… I didn’t expect to feel how I did all those years ago. I didn’t expect to feel the need to protect you again. The need to care for you again. And I sure as fuck didn’t expect to fall in love with you. That wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Love! Are you going to stand there and declare your love for me after what you did? How fucking dare you! If you even had an ounce of love for me, you wouldn’t have done what you did. You bought up all the assets from Tristan just so you could fuck me over.”

“No. I bought up all the assets I could because if it wasn’t me doing it, someone else would have. Would you rather some stranger have stepped in and seized everything?”

“Yes, actually. Anything would be better than what you’ve done to me.”

“I understand your anger—”

“Don’t patronize me,” she interrupts. “Don’t stand there and act like you have any idea how I feel.”

“You feel like I did!” I shout, for the first time raising my voice back at her. “That punch to the gut feeling you have right now… yeah, I’ve been living with that feeling for years.”

I see her features soften for a second—maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part—but then the look of anger quickly returns. “So, explain this to me,” she begins in a much colder, yet calmer, tone. “Why would you make me borrow money from you just for me to give the money back to you? What did you gain from that?”

“Your bare ass before me, you on your knees, and your begging and pleading,” I confess, feeling no urge to hide the truth any longer. “It was to see you pay for what you did. It was to make you need me. For you to realize that you had no one to turn to but me. For you to see just how foolish you were and recognize the situation you put yourself in. Frankly,”—I put my hands in my pockets and reposition my weight—“it was to teach you a lesson you’d never forget.”

She’s still for several moments, her face completely expressionless. The awkward silence is almost too much to bear, until she finally huffs and walks to the elevators with her head held high. As she passes me, she pauses just long enough to meet my eyes and say, “Trust me, I’ll never forget.”

When the elevator doors open, she looks at me one last time and opens her mouth to say something, but then quickly closes it.

I see everything she wanted to say in her eyes.

Pain. Betrayal. Humiliation. All the same feelings I felt and wanted her to experience.

My goal achieved.

Except her pain, betrayal, and humiliation are ripping my soul to shreds. And the way she looked at me… the way she wouldn’t dare let me see a tear shed…

What the fuck have I done?

I stand here on the thirteenth floor. My thirteenth floor that I worked so damn hard to regain. Alone.

I storm to my office and see my desk drawer open. It’s clear how Katja found out about everything. But does it really matter how she found out? She knows all.

I should have told her myself. I should have found a way to word it properly, because it was only a matter of time until she found out anyway. She’s smart, savvy, and well… my guard has been down.

I suppose love can do that to a guy.

Love is a goddamn distraction, and I was—still am—head over heels in love with Katja Belov. Not that it does me any good to realize that now. I had a chance at love and just watched it slip from my grasp.

I glance down at the contract for our business partnership on my desk and realize how close I came to having it all. The hotel, the girl, the happily ever after I never thought I’d have in my life.

But the villain in the story doesn’t get the happily ever after.

I should know better than to think I could.

Taking hold of the contract that Katja and I were ready to sign, I storm up to the penthouse. Though we may not get our happy ending to this story, we sure as hell deserve some kind of ending. Or at least Katja deserves an ending.

When I reach the penthouse, I ready myself to see her packing my belongings, or possibly shredding them to pieces with a butcher knife. What I don’t expect is to walk in and find her sitting in a chair facing the floor-to-ceiling windows with a glass of wine in her hand. She doesn’t turn to face me when I enter. She doesn’t scream for me to go fuck myself or demand I leave—which she has every right to do.

No. She simply stares at the skyline in silence, which somehow seems even worse to me.

I walk over to where she’s sitting, towering over her, fighting back the urge to take her into my arms and refuse to let her go no matter how much she resists me. But that wouldn’t be fair to her. And frankly… I’m done taking. I’m done forcing.

Katja doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t even acknowledge that I’m standing right next to her. It’s as if I’m a ghost from her past and she can no longer see me.

But who the fuck am I? A vengeful motherfucker, that’s who I am.

“Katja,” I say softly.

“Don’t,” she snaps, still staring straight ahead. “I don’t want to discuss this any further.”

I place the contract on the arm of the chair she’s sitting in. “This is for you.”

She glances down at it for a split second and then back at the window. “From now on, all business matters will go through our lawyers,” she says.

I sigh and then decide to say what I should have said the minute she confronted me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the second I realized we could be more than enemies. I’m sorry that The Whitney brought us together, but it’s The Whitney that’s destroying us as well. I’m sorry that I hurt you. I’m sorry that I lied. I’m sorry for so much of what I did. But there is one thing I won’t ever apologize for and that’s for loving you. Because, Katja, that is one thing in all of this that is the truth. I do love you. I think I’ve always loved you. And for that…” I pick up the contract and tear it into pieces. Katja looks up and watches me do it but doesn’t say a word. “I’m not going to make you sign this contract. I won’t force you to work with someone like me. I won’t make you sign a deal with the devil.”

I turn and walk toward the door of the penthouse with no intention of ever returning.

Opening the door, I pause before I leave and say, “The Whitney is yours. Your debt is cleared.”

Chapter Twenty-two

KATJA

My debt is cleared.

The only problem is… the price had been too high.

The sun has shifted lower in the sky, bathing me with warmness in direct conflict with the chilling numbness I feel deep in my bones.

It’s six-thirty. My heart lurches, realizing Dex and I should be sitting down to eat dinner for our big date night tonight. Dinner and a show. Romance and hot sex.

But it was all a lie. Every damn minute of it.

My gaze falls to the pile of torn papers still lying on the floor next to me, right where Dex dropped them before he walked out.

The Whitney is safe—and she’s all mine again. I should feel relieved, but I don’t and that might be what pisses me off the most.

I’ve been such a fool, making mistake after mistake. From the minute my father died, I’d done nothing right.

I’ve spent hours today sitting in this damn chair, reliving every fucking one of those mistakes again and again. As each hour has passed, the fury I directed at Dex earlier has boomeranged back on me.

Looking back, I know it was a mistake to kick him out of The Whitney, more than just because of the things we discussed on the roof. It hardened him, turned him into a true enemy. I know I was naïve, I panicked because he scared me back then—I can admit that much. The invisible pull of the magnet between us was already affecting my confidence around him. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to keep him in check where The Whitney was concerned, and to some degree, I had been right to be afraid. But maybe if I’d negotiated with him then… laid down rules we could both have lived with, maybe we could have… what?

I still don’t have an answer to that. I’m not even sure we could have come to an agreement back then, which is why I rushed into mistake number two… Tristan Miller. I actually felt guilty early in our marriage knowing that not only did I never love him, but I attached myself to Tristan for his social and financial stability. I bet he got a good laugh lying in bed with his many mistresses, knowing it was my money funding his playboy lifestyle all along.

But those mistakes pale in comparison to me naively allowing Dex back into my life the night Tristan died. He swooped in like he owned the place and in the shock of it all, I let him. It must have been like child’s play for him after that. He had access to me… the staff… He plotted and planned and then all he had to do was execute.

I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Had Tristan even borrowed money from him in the first place or was it all part of the big lie? How much of my late husband’s financial ruin was his own doing and how much had been Dex pulling the strings all along?

Just thinking about it has the pressure in my chest so heavy, it makes it hard for me to catch my breath. After finishing an entire bottle of wine, I let the empty wine glass slip from my fingers, falling to the carpet next to my chair. The final drops of red wine splattering across the cream carpet are the perfect metaphor for my heart bleeding out from the pain of Dex’s betrayal.

And my damn bleeding heart was my biggest mistake of all. Like an idiot, I let myself trust him. I let down my guard…

I fell in love.

The realization pierces my heart.

He said those words to me earlier, but I’m not stupid enough to believe for one minute that he meant them. He’s done nothing but lie to me for years and that’s all today was… more lies. He just said what he thought he needed to in order to keep manipulating me. He’s a master at playing the long game, he’s proven that perfectly. His profession of love and then tearing up the contract is all part of that same game.

Well, I’ve fallen for his lies for the last time.

I stumble to my feet. I’ve been sitting in the same chair for hours, wallowing. The problem is I honestly have no clue what I’m supposed to do now. The rug was figuratively pulled out from under me and now I feel like I’m free falling, and yet everything I want to grab onto for support is gone. My father… Tristan… Dex…

Tears cloud my vision, but I swish them away. I am not going to cry. I refuse to fall apart. That’s what he wants—me to fall to pieces so he can come in and rescue me again.

Well fuck that, and fuck Dex Cohen.

The bath water is cold and my fingers are pruned. I locked myself in the bathroom hours ago, as if the flimsy door and lock might keep Dex out if and when he comes back for his next round of lies.

Only he hasn’t come back to the penthouse.

That should make me happy.

It doesn’t.

My stomach growls, upset that all I’ve fed it since lunch with Rowan is alcohol. It dawns on me that for the first time since Dex moved into the penthouse, no dinner has been delivered. He’s pampered me by making sure I got my morning coffee and croissants and by ordering healthy meals every evening. I’ve loved having fresh-cut flowers around and falling asleep in his arms.

These small details have meant so much to me, but now, I see them all for the manipulation they were. He did none of those things because he cared, only because they were a means to his end game—revenge.

The distant sound of a door slamming breaks the silence. I pique my ears, trying to keep my heartrate down as I listen for Dex’s movements. The sound of the door to our suite crashing open comes next and although I locked the door to my bedroom, it dawns on me that perhaps I shouldn’t lay naked in the tub just in case he breaches the door.

I push to my feet, grabbing a towel and wrapping it around my body as I step out of the tub and onto the rug. I don’t have time to dry off before the pounding on the bedroom door begins. Heavy fists slam against the wood and for a second, I’m afraid. The playful Dex I woke up with this morning would never truly hurt me, but now I know that version was just an illusion and a real fear takes hold. Just how far is he willing to take this dangerous game of revenge?

When the pounding finally stops, I frantically glance around the bathroom, opening a few drawers until I find a pair of scissors. I catch the reflection of myself in the huge mirror and almost laugh at the hot mess I see. Wouldn’t the tabloids love to get a picture of me now?

They’d caption the story with something like ‘the princess has fallen off her high horse’ and for once, the salacious story would be true.

I throw the pair of scissors into the sink after I remember Dex Cohen is the king of the criminal elite. He’s already proven that if he wants to hurt me, he will, so any weapon short of a gun will be useless against him.

In the distance, I can hear movement in Dex’s old bedroom, the one he hasn’t slept in for a week because he moved into my room. Half of me is relieved he’s decided to leave me alone. Unfortunately, that leaves the other half of me crushed… longing for him to knock down the door, take me in his arms, and make me forget about the horrific things I learned today.

I’ve only just turned around to head toward my walk-in closet to grab my robe when I hear the door knob rattling. I spin back around just in time to see the door fling open wide. A furious looking man blocks the exit, only it’s not the man I was expecting.

“Get the fuck out of here, Z!” I scream, pulling my towel around me tighter as I stumble a few steps backward, trying to put more distance between us.

Z holds up a long metal tool that looks a bit like a key. “You do realize that lock is a complete joke, right?”

“Only for hardened criminals like you and your boss,” I retort, proud of myself for thinking of the insult fast enough.

He takes a few more steps into my bedroom and I clutch the towel closed at my chest while holding my right hand out like a lame stop sign.

I’ve known this man since he was a baby. Hell, for the first few years of his life, he was like the baby brother I never had. Tonight, all traces of that bond are gone.

“What the fuck did you do to Dex?” he demands.

“Me? That’s rich. Don’t pretend you don’t know what the fuck Dex did to me. You were his accomplice!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, you have no idea what the hell that man has done for you, do you?”

“For me? Don’t you mean to me? He lied to me. Plotted and planned against me. Humiliated me. Made me fall in…” I choke back the word love just in time. I won’t give him the satisfaction of saying it out loud.

“Yes… he did those things, but only after you fucked him over first after your father died. Years… he has wasted years of his life obsessed with whatever the hell this game of cat and mouse is between the two of you. It clouded his judgment, keeping him here in New York when our business has been growing all over the globe. He could have taken his millions and started over in any number of cities, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said it was because of The Whitney and his father’s legacy, but I always suspected he’s been lying to himself just as much as he was lying to you.

“Then, your asswipe of a husband bites it and all of a sudden he’s ready to swoop in here and play house with you instead of keeping his eye on business where it belongs. And now, after all the work and money we’ve invested in finally getting things back online here, he tells me we’re moving out again? Well fuck that shit!”

Z is shouting by the time he finishes, his face ruddy with fury. I try to think through what he’s said logically, but my rollercoaster emotions are making it hard. Dex told me The Whitney was all mine, but I hadn’t believed him for a minute. Now, seeing how angry Z is, I start to question everything.

“I guess he should have thought of that before he put his vengeful plan into motion. He’s gotten exactly what he set out for… revenge.”

“Bullshit. All he’s gotten is another kick to his balls and it’s all because you’re too stubborn to admit that it was your damn mistakes that put every part of the last three years into motion.”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one who created a fake company to extort millions from the woman I claim to love!”

“He didn’t extort a dime. He bailed Tristan out of failed investment after failed investment. He bought up the things he knew you loved when your husband put everything on a fire sale just to make a buck. You can try to spin this if it makes you feel better, but you need to at least get your facts straight. Dex may not have been living in The Whitney these last three years, but he’s been taking better care of it from afar than you have while living here. It’s his money that’s made repairs and upgrades while keeping other creditors at bay. That was money he should have been investing in his own business.

“So, by all means, cut him out of your life again, but know that this time, you’re gonna truly be on your own because I’ll kill the bastard myself before I let him throw the rest of his life away out of some misplaced guilt for hurting your feelings.”

Z’s words are like a knife, cutting into me with the brutal sharpness of truth. An awkward silence stretches between us for a moment, and I’m too busy processing everything he’s shouted at me to think of any retort.

He must have said what he came to say because he spins around and stalks out of my bedroom as quickly as he arrived.

Just in the nick of time, I call out to him. “Simon!”

He freezes just outside my door, not bothering to turn and look at me.

“Please… I…” The words choke off. I’m too afraid to ask the question I need the answer to more than my next breath.

He finally turns, a small smile on his face reminds me that inside the tattooed and muscled cleaner of the underworld, he’s still the same kid I used to play with as a child.

“You know you’re literally the only person on the planet I allow to call me that name, right?”

“It is your name, is it not?”

He doesn’t answer, but instead waits for me to speak again.

“I have to know… the truth, please… Can I trust him?”

He pauses a second before walking slowly toward me, only stopping when he’s a few inches away. He’s close enough that I can see the flecks of caramel in his brown eyes.

“Dex Cohen is not a perfect man. He’s made mistakes, but I promise you… he would lay down his life for you, Katja.”

Answering him is impossible over the lump in my throat. I choke back a pent-up sob of relief just as Z spins back around and leaves me standing alone, still wrapped in my towel.

The second the door closes behind him, I let my knees crumble beneath me, falling to the carpet as I finally allow the grief I’ve pent up all day pour out of me.

I cry for all I’ve lost, and all my mistakes, but mostly, I cry because I know without a shadow of a doubt that Dex Cohen is the only man I’ll ever love.

I just don’t know if our love is enough to erase the pain we’ve caused each other.

Chapter Twenty-Three

KATJA

The sun is coming up as I take a fortifying breath and step out of the elevator on the thirteenth floor. I haven’t slept a wink all night, too busy replaying the last few weeks over and over, trying to decide if I’m brave enough to trust Dex again or not.

I have no idea where to find him, but I’ve decided to start at the disastrous scene of our big blow-up the day before. As I stand outside of his office, I put my ear to the closed door once more, listening for signs of life inside. Hearing none, I pull my master key from the pocket of my yoga pants and unlock the door.

The room is dark, but I can see that it’s completely trashed. I remember losing my temper and throwing some papers and folders the day before, but I know I didn’t do this. Glass items are broken, lamps are on the floor, books have been trampled and ripped, and chairs tipped over on their sides.

It isn’t until my eyes reach the couch that I see him, curled up on his side, his arm hanging over the edge above an empty bottle of bourbon on the floor.

My heart lurches in my chest, recognizing the pain he took out on the items in the room. Still, a small part of me feels relief because his pain is a sign that he and Z just might have told me the truth.

Moving closer, I take this unguarded moment to study him. He’s always been incredibly handsome, with a wicked wit, but seeing him asleep reminds me of the boy I used to know. The one who took the blame, and the belt, for so many of my antics. The same man who apparently has been watching over me even though I kicked him out. I can still feel the ache in my chest that first appeared when I found the truth in his desk, but it’s changed. It’s not just about the secrets he kept, or the fact that he didn’t tell me himself… it’s the idea of being without him.

It’s heartache.

We’ve done so much damage to each other over the years. We’re still messy and imperfect and carrying more than a little baggage—but he’s my other half. My partner. The dark to my light, and the only person who could ever make the pain in my chest go away.

I lean down, softly swishing a lock of his hair out of his face. Dex stirs in his sleep, and I gently palm his cheek. As he starts to wake, I watch for his reaction to my presence. Disorientation gives way to clenched eyes and a wince of pain.

“What time is it?” he mumbles.

“Early.”

It only takes him a few seconds before he bolts up into a sitting position, his eyes wide with surprise.

“You’re here,” he says, a mix of disbelief and hope in his voice.

“I’m here.” I gesture around us. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

A sad smile comes to his sexy lips. “You were preparing to burn it down yesterday if I’m not mistaken. I just finished the destruction you started, sans fire risk to the rest of the hotel.”

“Touché,” I reply, looking him over while he’s seated on the couch. “You look like shit,” I say and I mean it. I’ve never seen Dex Cohen as disheveled and broken as he looks right now.

“Yeah, well I haven’t got much sleep,” he counters.

“This is a hotel you know. We have rooms and those rooms have beds.” I’m not sure why I’m being playful with him. I’m still furious for how he played me, but I’m not exactly innocent either and I’m just so tired of fighting.

Dex pins me with a heated glare. “There’s only one bed in this hotel I want to sleep in, and it wasn’t available to me last night.”

“Oh, and why is that?” My pulse is climbing, knowing how much we both have at stake as we tiptoe through the minefield of mistakes we’ve both made.

“Because I fucked up,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Yes, you did.” I pause briefly before adding, “But so did I. I never should have kicked you out the way I did after Dad died.”

I hold my breath, waiting to see what he’ll say to my confession. I don’t have to wait long.

“No, you shouldn’t have.” I can hear a grain of hope in his voice.

Recognizing this as my chance to say my piece, I add, “I’m not going to thank you for humiliating me or for lying to me but… I know you saved The Whitney… and my Paris apartment, and who knows what else. So… thank you.”

Dex finally pushes to his socked feet, teetering just a bit before finally standing. To his credit he doesn’t come any closer as he answers me. “I don’t want your thanks, Katja.”

My breath hitches again before I whisper, “What is it you want then?”

Pain fills his eyes as he almost begs with only two words. “Your forgiveness.”

Dex is many things, but in that moment, I just don’t believe he could possibly be this good of an actor. His pain is as real as my own.

Taking the biggest leap of faith of my life, I rush into his arms. “I do forgive you. Can you forgive me?”

“Already done, princess.” His bear hug is so tight I have trouble taking a deep breath.

“Are we going to be okay?” I ask quietly.

“If anyone can, it’s us,” he answers, and I believe it. I can feel it in the strength of his arms as he holds me against him, clinging to me like a lifeline. Minutes pass while we silently hold each other, trying our best to glue our shaky relationship back together again.

As our bodies sway, our undeniable sexual attraction reignites. A sigh of desire passes over my lips when I feel his thick shaft growing, pressing against my body.

“I need you,” he whispers.

I nod against his chest, so desperate for the connection that all I can get out is a single word. “Please.”

Dex only loosens his hold on me long enough to grip me at the nape of my neck, capturing my lips in a searing kiss. Our tongues duel as his other hand falls to squeeze my ass. My knees give way under me, but he’s there to catch me, holding me against his body as I become lightheaded from the overflow of emotions.

This feels right, here in his arms. As he kisses me breathless, his hands roam down my body, stopping to squeeze my breasts through my thin top just as I unbutton the dress shirt he’s had on since yesterday. We’re both rushing, desperate to reconnect in the most intimate of ways.

Dex pulls out of our kiss long enough to bark an order. “I need you out of these pants, baby.” Ever helpful, he moves his hands to my waist to help yank away my clothes and I toe off my shoes as he bares me.

My fingers go to work unbuckling his belt, pushing his pants down far enough for his semi-hard cock to spring free. Wrapping my hand around his length, I start stroking the velvety skin faster until the core of his shaft is hard as steel. My pussy clenches, anticipating how good it’s going to feel to have him inside me again.

Dex’s motions are demanding as he spins me around, shuffling us together until we close the distance to his desk. Impatient, he reaches out with his left arm and swishes everything on the desk to the floor.

I don’t have time to worry about the mess because his other hand is already pressing against my back, bending me until I have to plant my hands on the desk to catch my upper body as he lines up behind me, using his foot to spread my legs nice and wide for easy access.

“Hang on tight, princess. I’m going to make sure you feel this tomorrow.”

His raunchy promise is the only warning I get before he’s balls deep inside me. His hands grip my hips so hard it almost hurts as he yanks my body back while he thrusts forward, crashing into me again and again until I cry out my first orgasm.

He is a man on a mission. There is no finesse. Only brute force as Dex claims my body as his again and again. With each stroke, I’m getting wetter and wetter until the sound of our bodies slapping together becomes the X-rated soundtrack in the air.

“Dex!” I call out as he moves one hand to my hair, yanking it so hard that my head snaps back. I arch as he maneuvers his shaft even deeper with our new angle.

His lips are on my neck, nibbling softly in direct contrast to the almost brutal rutting of his cock.

I feel his breath against the shell of my ear. “Your pussy is perfect, baby. So tight. So wet.”

I flush with pleasure at his dirty compliment. His thrusts become more erratic as he nears his climax, and I want it more than anything. In our short week as lovers, I’ve started craving the hot as hell moans he makes just before he loses control and shoots his cum inside me. Today, he calls out my name just as he peaks, finally holding his hips still while his twitching cock stays nestled deep.

We cling to each other as we catch our breath. I feel empty when he softens and slips from my body. I know we’re making a mess when our combined wetness drips down my inner thighs, but it feels so good to be back in his arms, I don’t care.

His lips are back on my body, nibbling along my bare shoulder and up to my neck. Then he spins me in his arms until he can lower his lips to mine again, this time in a softer, more reverent kiss. By the time he pulls out of our kiss we’re both breathing hard. He leans down, intimately resting his forehead against mine.

I keep my eyes closed as I finally speak again. “Dex… I’m scared. How do I know I can trust you?”

He leans back, using his thumb to gently brush my cheek until I open my eyes. Once he’s sure he has my attention, he answers. “The same way I’m going to trust you not to kick me out again the first time we disagree, and believe me… we will disagree at times.”

I know he’s right, but I also know he loves The Whitney as much as I do.

“I think we should sign the new contract today.”

An expression I can’t quite read passes over his face just before he adds, “Not yet.”

My pulse spikes. After all we’ve been through, is he backing out now?

A sexy grin lights up his face before he adds, “I want to negotiate one more thing.”

I hear the playfulness in his voice so I answer in turn. “You’re being greedy,” I accuse, hugging him tighter.

“Yep,” he agrees.

“So, what is it you want now? I’m already giving you half ownership of The Whitney.”

Dex lifts me off my feet and I’m forced to wrap my legs around his waist to hold myself up just as he gives me my answer. “You. In my bed every night for the rest of our lives.”

If I had any doubts about how I really feel, they disappear in that moment. All the pain and betrayal from the day before falls away, leaving only love in its wake.

“Deal,” I reply, and it feels like an ‘I do,’ as I smile at him. “But… only if you let me sleep in every once in a while. I may love you, but I’ll never love getting up at the crack of dawn.”

“You love me?” he asks, an odd vulnerability in his voice.

I wipe the smile off my face, getting serious again before answering truthfully. “I think I’ve always loved you in one way or another. I was just too afraid to admit it, even to myself.”

“No more being afraid, for either of us, okay?” he prompts.

“I’ll try,” I answer truthfully.

My insides flutter as his face lights up with the devilish smile I love. “You’d better try, or I might have to come up with some new consequences to help convince you how much I love you.”

Not ready for the romance to end yet? Keep reading to get a peek into Dirty Ledger, Book Two in the Dark Pen series. Dirty Ledger will be released on May 16, 2022 but is already available for preorder!

Dirty Ledger Preview

ROWAN

As the taxi pulls into the portico of The Whitney, my friend Laura makes one last-ditch effort to change my mind. “You sure you don’t want to come back to my house? We could keep the party going?”

I love Laura dearly, but spending time at her place also means spending time with her older brother, James, and that is a hard no.

“I’m tired,” I lie, and I’m sure she knows it. It’s barely after one in the morning, which is an early Saturday night for us. I feel a little guilty, so I offer an olive branch. “Call me tomorrow when you get up. We can go to Sunday brunch. My treat.”

“Fine,” she pouts. “But I totally know the real reason you’re ditching me. There are worse things than marrying my brother you know. It would make us real sisters,” she says as the doorman opens the door next to me.

I turn to her and give her a hug before looking into her eyes. “You’re already like my sister, and for the last time, I’m not marrying your brother. He isn’t my type.”

She giggles, still tipsy from the drinks we pounded at the last club. “I hate to tell you, but your parents will disown you if you try to marry one of the guys that are your type.”

She isn’t wrong, but that’s a problem for another day.

The lobby is nearly empty at this hour and I’m relieved by the calm as I spin out of the revolving door. In the distance, I hear the music coming out of the lobby bar. Glancing at the time on the phone in my hand, I see it’s already one-fifteen. They’re only a few minutes from last call.

It’s a long shot, but I divert in the direction of the music. The last thing I need is more booze, but I wouldn’t mind bumping into the sexy-as-hell friend of the owners of the hotel, Katja Belov and Dex Cohen. I’ve tried several times to get Katja to set us up, but for some unknown reason, she refuses, which of course only makes me that much more interested in him.

The click-click of my high heels echo through the three-story grand lobby of the hotel I’ve lived in for the last six months. If it were up to me, I’d never move out. I love everything about living at The Whitney from the location, to the amenities, to having an entire staff of people at my beck and call twenty-four seven.

But move out day has been set, thanks to my father pulling the plug on my hotel funding at the end of the month. He hasn’t minded paying for me to stay in the city over the summer while my parents ‘roughed it’ out at The Hamptons, but now that they’re back in our newly remodeled townhouse less than a dozen blocks away, he’s balking at footing the bill for my continued independence. Even though I have pointed out it’s a lot cheaper than a loft of my own.

The lights are dim in the opulent bar, but as I scan the nooks and crannies of the space, disappointment sets in. It was a long shot.

The cute guy with the tats and muscles doesn’t spend much time in the public areas of the hotel. Hell, the only thing I’ve learned about him from some of the housekeepers willing to gossip with me is that they call him Z. I haven’t even been able to find out what the Z stands for yet. We’ve done little more than exchange small talk, but the way my pulse shoots up when he’s around, I’ve been hoping we might get to know each other a bit better—in my bed, between my sheets.

I sigh, spinning to head toward the elevator bank but I run smack into another guest standing right behind me.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I apologize, taking a step to my left just as he takes a step in the same direction. We both chuckle.

“Want to dance?” he asks.

I glance up to see a dark haired, tan man leering down at me. I can’t put my finger on it, but my spidey sense activates.

“Sorry,” I answer. “I’m all danced out for the night.” It’s the truth and I’m anxious to get my feet out of these shoes.

“Oh? You didn’t have fun tonight at Club Paradise?” he asks, moving even closer instead of letting me pass.

“Oh, I had fun— wait… were you there?” I ask, knowing I would have remembered seeing a man with a wicked scar like he has over his right eye.

“Naw, not tonight.”

“Then… how did you…” Internal alarm bells start to go off.

He reaches out, boldly laying his hand on my arm. “I follow you on IG. Loved the pictures of you and your friends tonight. I was kinda hoping you’d post another video of you ladies grinding against each other like you did last weekend.”

The skin where he’s touching me starts to crawl as his mouth forms a predatory smile. I may not be A-list famous, but I have more than enough online followers to be considered a powerful influencer on social media. Still, this man isn’t my typical follower. I doubt he’s interested in my make-up and fashion advice or photos of the cuisine I sample around NYC.

Yanking my arm out of his grasp, I try to recover. “I’m sorry I bumped into you. Have a nice night.”

Stepping around him, I hurry across the lobby, determined to get to the elevator and then behind the closed door of my suite. He has me rattled.

I wave at the front desk agent as I walk past, using the opportunity to glance over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being followed. When I get to the elevator bank and have the lift to myself, I take a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves as the doors whisper shut.

By the time I step off the elevator on the sixth floor, I sigh with relief at escaping the stalkerish guy in the lobby bar.

My cell is in my hand as I approach my door and I love that an app on my phone acts as my electronic key since I go literally nowhere without my phone. Pushing open the door, I see the soft lighting the turn-down housekeeper left on when they touched up my room while I was out.

I’m just reaching down to take my shoes off my aching feet when I hear the door behind me hit something soft instead of banging closed like normal. I don’t even get the chance to turn around before arms encircle me from behind, squeezing me so tight it knocks the air out of my lungs.

The door finally bangs shut just as I recognize the same chuckle I heard a few minutes ago in the bar.

Fight or flight instincts take over and the self-defense moves I learned in high school PE come to life. I lift my foot to stomp down on my attacker and then fight to turn my body so I can slip from his grasp, but it fails.

“I knew you’d be a feisty one. My favorite kind.”

It’s tempting to panic, but I know fear won’t help. My mind races through my options. Realizing I still have my crossbody purse on, I reach down to open the zipper as I continue to flail to break free. I feel around until I can grab the small canister of pepper spray I carry and yank it out.

It takes all my effort to force myself to relax enough so that my attacker finally loosens his hold on me, probably thinking I’m giving up. As soon as my body has enough freedom, I spin around, aiming the nozzle directly into his eyes.

His scream of pain is satisfying, but I’m still not out of the woods yet. Moving closer, I lift my right knee and connect with his balls, bringing an even louder bellow of pain from him.

Relieved, I rush around him, desperate to get out into the hall where I can run to safety. My hand is on the doorknob when my entire body convulses. A sharp stabbing pain explodes in my neck just as a deafening buzzing sound surrounds me.

It’s as if my legs have fallen asleep beneath me as I crumple to the tile floor just inside my suite. For a few seconds I don’t understand what happened, but as the wave of pain spreads through my muscles, I see a plastic gun fall to the floor next to me.

The fucker tased me.

My brain tells my arms to move. I need to push to my feet… escape.

“You little bitch!” he shouts. “I just wanted to have a bit of fun, but now you’re gonna really pay.”

I can hear him in the guest bathroom not far inside my suite. He’s left me alone. Now is my chance, but the best I can manage is to roll from my side onto my back. My muscles are not cooperating.

Real panic is closing in. If I can’t get my body cooperating, this is not going to end well.

My phone. It has to be close. Through sheer willpower, I get my arm to move enough to feel around, desperate to find my phone. That search fails, but my hand does connect with the small decorative table where I usually leave my purse and other small items I don’t want to lose.

I don’t have time to pull myself up with the table before he returns, standing over me with red eyes and a wet cloth looking furious.

Still unable to push to my feet, I watch in horror as my attacker pulls a knife from his suit pocket, flicking it open with the push of a button. Even in the dim light, the blade is terrifying—six inches long. Until that moment, I was afraid I was about to raped. Now… I’m sure I’m going to die.

Odd thoughts flit through my brain as I lay there immobile while my attacker uses his knife to cut my mini-dress off my body from hem to bust.

My head throbs from the effect of the zap of electricity, bringing a barrage of thoughts.

How ironic. Laura’s brother was looking better by the minute. Hell, if only it were a few weeks in the future, I’d be safely in my bedroom at my parent’s house right now.

But none of those things are my reality.

The painful tingling in my limbs is just starting to subside as my attacker picks up my right wrist and drags my still limp body across the floor of the foyer and deeper into my suite. The tile is cold against my bare skin and I’m grateful he hasn’t cut off my bra and panties yet.

Desperate, I reach out with my free hand, trying to grab onto anything that I can use to stop his progress.

My fingers wrap around the foot of the decorative table, but it’s too light to stop us and it topples to the floor with a loud crash. Would my neighbors hear and maybe call in a noise complaint? The thought helps me pluck up the energy to scream.

“Help me! Call the police!”

My attacker is there in a second, straddling my body as he stoops down, yanking my head off the floor by my long hair. His breath smells like stale cigarettes and booze as he warns, “You better shut up, bitch. And stop pretending you don’t want it.” Spittle flies from his mouth as he adds, “You’re a fucking cock tease and tonight you’re gonna get what you have coming to you.”

He’s waving the knife around wildly with his free hand just as my own flailing hand comes into contact with the glass vase that toppled to the floor when the table tipped over.

It takes all the strength I can muster to lift the vase high enough to send it crashing against the side of his head, splintering it into dozens of pieces.

Under different circumstances I might have laughed at the shock in his eyes when he realizes he’s bleeding. But his shock quickly turns to raw fury, and I hear the clatter of the knife falling to the floor.

I’m grateful that, while I’m still in pain from being tased, my muscles are cooperating enough that I can scramble to retrieve his weapon before he can.

We wrestle for control until a fresh pain explodes as he backhands me across my cheek. My neck snaps to the side as stars explode in my vision as his fist punches my stomach. Bile rises and I fight down the urge to puke. While I’m recovering, he leans down to pick up the knife, pointing the blade at me with a wild look in his eyes.

I’m trapped beneath him. Unwanted tears blur my vision. I’ve put up a good fight, but he’s just too big… too strong. I don’t want to die… not like this, but a wave of despair washes over me as I lie on the cold tile.

It’s brief, and as everything seems to move in slow motion I know I can’t give up.

I’m no quitter. I never have been, and I’ll be damned if I’m going out like this. I flail my free hand around again until I feel a large shard of the broken vase. I pick it up and just as he lunges down with the knife, I stab the shard into his face. My offensive move knocks his knife to the side, but I still feel it slicing open my left shoulder.

Blood squirts from his eye where the ceramic is buried, and his high-pitched scream almost makes me laugh. I struggle, trying my best to get away from him, but he collapses to his knees, straddling my waist and pinning me to the floor. I’m vaguely aware of a throbbing pain in my hand and shoulder. I see blood flowing out, realizing I cut myself on the same shard I stabbed him with.

For a few long seconds he’s more focused on his face than me, giving me a second to catch my breath. Both of us pause, confused and unsure what will happen next until I see him lifting the knife again. I wrap my hands around his, fighting to point the sharp edge away from me. Drops of my blood drip down my arm, distracting me, but I don’t let go.

In our struggle, my attacker leans closer just as I use my last surge of strength to shove my arms up.

I feel the knife plunge into his stomach as he falls on top of me. The handle is still sticking out of him and slams into me so hard I cry out in pain as his entire body blankets me with his heavy weight.

We’re back in a wrestling match, both injured, both fighting for our lives. I’m finally able to roll him off of me, but it backfires as he now has the space he needs to pull the knife out of his body.

As I look up at the blood-soaked blade he’s waving in my direction, a rage like I’ve never felt before consumes me. He’s clearly losing his strength now, allowing me to reach up and yank the knife free. On autopilot, I turn the weapon back on him with a flurry of stab wounds puncturing his torso until he collapses on top of me again.

Warm wetness drenches me as my attacker groans in pain just before his heavy breathing starts to rattle and gurgle next to my ear. I have a front row seat as he gasps for air a half dozen times just before a final long hiss escapes before he passes out.

After our loud struggle, the silence that follows is deafening. It’s hard to catch my breath as I take stock of my injuries. Lying crushed under his weight, the sound of a honking taxi down on Fifth Avenue below breaks through my shock.

I have to get out of here. Who knows how long he’ll be unconscious? Getting free is not easy. It takes me several long breaths to find the energy to wiggle myself out from under the asshole, trying not to cut myself further on the broken vase shards surrounding us.

When I finally crawl free, I press down on my shoulder to stem my blood loss as I glance back at my attacker. Only when I see that his unstabbed eye is open and lifeless does it dawn on me what really happened here tonight. Moments ago, I was sure death was in my future, and I guess I was right.

I say a small prayer of thanks that it was his death and not my own.

A new hum rings in my ears. Grateful it didn’t happen earlier, I feel a true panic attack coming on. I crawl, doing my best not to kneel on the broken vase. Through my unshed tears, I feel around until I find my dropped phone.

Blood from my injured hand smears the front as I unlock my cell. I dial 911, but just before I hit the green SEND, I pause. In that split second, I catch a glimpse of the future headlines.

Rowan Worthington raped at The Whitney. They won’t care that I stopped him before he succeeded.

Social Media Influencer kills stalker.

Rowan Worthington arrested for murder.

My panic makes each headline worse than the one before.

My father is going to be furious. He’ll say he told me so about it not being safe for me to stay in the city on my own. He’ll blame The Whitney’s security for failing to keep me safe.

I’m spiraling. Spots are appearing in my vision. I’m close to hyperventilating. I need to call for help.

My fingers tremble as I search for Katja’s contact info in my phone. It’s her hotel, and she’s closer than the police. As the phone rings, it dawns on me that I’m calling her in the middle of the night.

“Rowan?”

Tears I didn’t know I was holding back flood my eyes at the sound of my friend’s voice.

“Katja… I…” I can’t get the words out around the lump in my throat as a sob finally escapes.

“What’s wrong?” The owner of The Whitney prompts, panic rising in her voice to match my own.

“Attacker…” I finally get out a single word that sums it up.

“You’ve been attacked?” When I can’t answer her, she adds, “Where are you?”

I hear her calling out to Dex, her boyfriend.

“My suite,” I finally get out with a shaky voice.

“What? You’ve been attacked at The Whitney?” she asks incredulously.

“Need you… please,” I beg, praying she arrives quickly. She’ll know what to do.

“Honey, Dex and I are in Paris on a holiday. I’m not in New York.”

True panic takes hold. Living through the attack was bad enough. I don’t know how I’m going to get through dealing with the police… and my parents… and the media… all on my own.

“Rowan? This is Dex. Tell me what happened.”

His demanding voice snaps me out of my spiral long enough to answer. “A stalker… approached me in the lobby bar… followed me upstairs. Forced his way in… and…”

And what? I couldn’t bring myself to say the next words.

“Is he still there? Are you in danger?”

Tears are flowing harder. “He’s dead,” I finally get out on a sob.

“Dead? What the fuck…” Dex pauses only a second before taking charge. “Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna make a call and in less than three minutes I’ll have someone there to help you figure this all out. Okay?” When I can’t answer through my hiccupping tears, he adds a softer, “Rowan, honey… can you hold it together for just a few more minutes?”

Can I?

I don’t really have a choice.

“I’ll try,” I finally get out.

“Good girl. Katja’s gonna take the phone back. She’ll stay with you while I make a call, okay?”

The only reply I can muster is a humming, “Uh ha.”

Katja’s voice returns to the call. Now that I know help is on the way, the burst of adrenaline that saved my life is deserting me. I don’t really hear the words she’s saying, but I let my friend’s voice serve as my lifeline.

Help is on the way. I just need to hold on a bit longer.

Time passes in fits and starts during a crisis. As I collapse back on the floor, getting more and more light-headed, fatigue hits hard. I lose my grip on my phone, letting it drop to the tile. I hate that the stench of cigarettes reminds me of how close my attacker’s dead body is to my own.

I jump at the sharp pounding on my door. My brain knows it’s someone here to help me, but that’s when I realize I’m nearly naked and covered in blood. I try to push to my feet so I can open the door but I’m grateful when I hear the click of the lock just before the door bursts open.

I’m in shock. I’m hallucinating.

“Fuck… What the hell…” my rescuer exclaims as I collapse back to the floor.

He’s on his knees, next to me, placing his arm behind my neck, and lifting me up as he cradles my broken body. His concerned face is just inches away, making it impossible for me to be mistaken.

My vision turns to spots, slowly wiping out the handsome face above me. My last thought is that at least I finally got Z in my room.

Don’t miss reserving your copy of Rowan and Z’s story, Dirty Ledger, now available at all vendors. After you grab your copy, be sure to come back here to keep reading the amazing bonus scenes from when Dex, Katja, and Simon were kids growing up in The Whitney.

Bonus Scene #1

Katja - Five Years Old

There’s a small box sitting on my bedside table when I wake up. I jump out of bed, excited to open my present, except it isn’t wrapped in paper like on Christmas morning or my birthday.

And there’s no card.

I take the top of the box off, ripping through the tissue paper inside until I uncover the mystery gift.

Tears fill my eyes, and a now familiar pain makes my tummy hurt. In a rush, the bad memories from the last few weeks come back.

I’ve had so many firsts this past week.

My first funeral.

My first time seeing Daddy cry.

The first time I had to wear all black clothes.

I don’t like black, but Daddy says that’s what people do when someone they love dies. I tried to tell him Mommy wouldn’t like it. She doesn’t like that color. She always wears pinks, and purples, and reds.

But Mommy isn’t here anymore.

I know my nanny, Jessica, made the new black clothes I find in the box, all miniature versions of my own meant to put on my Barbie.

But Barbie doesn’t like to wear black either.

“Oh good, you’re awake. I see you got the gift Jessica left for you,” Daddy says from just inside my bedroom door.

“I don’t like black,” I remind him, pouting.

“I know, sweetie, and I promise you don’t have to wear your new black clothes in the penthouse. Only when we leave home. Like… this morning.”

More bad news. I don’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.

I just want my Mommy.

“You said once we finished the funeral that we could stay home.”

“I know, but I still need to take care of The Whitney, don’t I?” he asks, not even giving me enough time to answer before adding, “I have an important business meeting up at The Rooftop restaurant. Let’s get you dressed. I’m sure Chef will make you the Mickey Mouse pancakes you love.”

I had to hear Daddy wrong.

“Mommy says I’m not allowed to go up to The Rooftop. It’s off-limits to little girls.”

I watch Daddy’s face get really sad and realize that always happens when I talk about Mommy now.

“Your Mommy was a smart lady and I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy that I’m taking you there for breakfast this morning, but Jessica is visiting her family for the next two days, so that means you need to come with Daddy for Sunday brunch. It will be alright. I promise.”

“Do I really have to wear the stupid black dress?”

Daddy hesitates, but finally agrees. “Since we’re staying in The Whitney, you can wear whatever you want to the restaurant, princess.”

I’m not sure if it’s because I get to wear my favorite Cinderella gown or if it’s because he called me his princess, but I feel better already.

Even though I’m with my father, I still feel naughty stepping into the elevator, knowing we are going to the only place in the hotel higher than our penthouse. It’s also the only place in the entire building off-limits to me… until today.

Mommy made sure to teach me my letters and numbers. I can even read a lot of words, and that’s how I know how secret The Rooftop is. There is no button to push to get there. No sign explaining how to get to the restaurant Daddy told me has the best view in the city. Daddy even has to use a special key that looks like a fancy pen to make the elevator go up.

When the doors slide open, a part of me is excited to explore the forbidden, so when we walk into a huge open room the size of our entire penthouse, I can’t help but be disappointed.

It doesn’t look very different from all the other restaurants in The Whitney, at least not at first.

There are tables and booths—a long bar with lots of bottles filled with things I’m not old enough to drink yet.

But as Daddy weaves us through the half-filled tables, nodding at the guests as he goes, I start to notice what isn’t at The Rooftop.

There are no kids… or mommies. In fact, I don’t see a single lady unless you count the one on her hands and knees next to a table with three scary looking men seated at it.

She must have lost something on the floor.

Unlike the other restaurants where we eat most of our meals, I don’t recognize any of the waiters up here. They don’t even have on the same kind of uniforms.

The farther into the room we go, the harder I squeeze Daddy’s hand.

A bald man with lots of tattoos smiles at me, but I look away.

I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.

Daddy finally stops when we get to the very last table in the corner. It’s one of those round booths that Mommy always makes me scoot in first, so she doesn’t mess up her dress.

Finally, there are people I recognize.

“Hi Dex!” I call to my friend, the only other kid that lives in The Whitney like me.

Dex taught me to play Uno last year. I wanted to play Chutes and Ladders, but he said that was a baby game.

Daddy waves his arm to have me scoot into the booth ahead of him. Once I’m next to Dex, I ask, “Did you bring the Uno cards with you?”

“Why would I do that? Girls aren’t supposed to be allowed up here,” he says, sounding kinda mean.

“Well, my daddy says it’s alright and he’s in charge.”

“Not up here he’s not. My dad runs The Rooftop.” He makes a funny face at me that makes me feel anxious.

“You’re wrong! My family owns this whole building!”

“You’re just a baby. What do you know?” he says.

“Dexter Andrew. Enough,” his dad growls.

I look down at my hands in my lap, picking at a loose string on my Cinderella dress.

Dex’s father scares me. He always seems so mad at everyone. Mommy told me it was because he was just lonely after Dex’s mom moved away, but that makes me even more afraid.

Now that my mommy is gone, will my daddy start getting angry like Mr. Cohen?

I don’t have time to worry about it because Mr. X arrives and he’s carrying a, “Baby!” I shout.

“Katja, no yelling young lady,” my daddy admonishes.

I’m too excited to let it deter me. “Can I hold the baby?” I ask boldly.

Mr. X looks across the round table at me and only then do I regret asking. Dex’s father seems like Santa Clause compared to Mr. X. Mommy told me to never go anywhere with that man, so when he sits down at our table and reaches over to hand me the sleeping baby, I’m so torn.

Mommy would never allow this. I glance at Daddy for permission. His face looks red, but he finally nods.

I reach out and Mr. X almost throws the baby into my arms. He—at least I think it’s a he because he’s wrapped in a blue blanket—is so much heavier than my American Girl doll, Molly. I rest him on my lap and hold his head up like Jessica taught me with my dolls.

The baby makes funny faces while he sleeps. I’m watching him so closely I’m not paying much attention until Mr. X raises his voice so loud, I can’t help but listen.

“…bitch tried to hide him from me. I knew something was up when she left town without a word last year, but Johnny saw her last week at her father’s butcher shop in Queens. She was pushing a stroller and gave him some song and dance about taking a job as a nanny, but I had Quido dig into it for me. All this time, I’ve had a son and didn’t even know it.”

Daddy glances at me, and I can tell he is nervous, but he doesn’t say anything so neither do I, until my question just bursts out. “What’s his name?”

“The bitch—” Mr. X stops mid-sentence, looks at my daddy and says, “Sorry, I’m not used to having kids around.”

I’ve heard bad words before. Mommy and Daddy use them sometimes when they have an argument, and once I even heard Mr. Cohen use a word that started with an f and Mommy yelled at him. When I asked Mommy what it meant, she said to mind my own business and never use that word.

“Anyway, his mother named him Simon or some pansy name like that. I’ve decided to change his name to just Z.”

I like the name Simon. One of the kids in my ballet class is named Simon.

My arm is getting tired from holding up the baby’s head by the time my pancakes arrive. Even with my arms free, I struggle to cut my own food, but with one arm full I just look at my plate and wonder how I’ll be able to eat.

The fathers are wrapped up in some boring conversation, not noticing my problem.

Without a word, Dex uses his fork and knife and starts cutting up my pancake.

“Do you like butter?” he asks.

“Lots of butter.”

Seconds later, “Syrup?” he asks, nodding at the glass bottle in his hand.

“Lots of syrup,” I say softer, careful not to wake up baby Simon.

I’m surprised Dex is helping me. He seemed so grumpy when we got here.

I’m even more surprised when he uses my fork to poke a bite of yummy pancake and then lifts it to my mouth.

Part of me is angry. I’m not like the baby. Not even Mommy or Jessica feed me anymore.

But part of me is happy because Dex is being nice to me. I’d always wanted Mommy to give me a baby brother, but now that she’s gone, that will never happen.

Maybe I’ll have to settle for having Simon as my little brother and Dex… well he can be the big brother I never had.

After I swallow my first bite, I am careful to say, “Thank you, Dex.”

“Don’t get used to it,” he growls, but I see the small smile on his lips.

It’s nice to have a sort-of brother.

Bonus Scene #2

Dex - Twenty-one Years Old

“I’ll have your car brought around to the front portico, Mr. Cohen. We’ll have your belongings loaded up for you as soon as you’re ready to leave.”

“Thanks, Terrence. I appreciate your help.”

I pull a fifty out of the pocket of my jeans and hand it to the head bellman. His broad grin does little to bolster my sour mood.

After the heavy door to our suite slams closed, I beeline it to the wet bar. I have a four-hour drive ahead of me, but that doesn’t stop me from pouring myself a shot of bourbon.

“You plan on picking up a DUI today?” My father’s booming voice fills the room from the doorway.

I throw back the shot, enjoying the slow burn as it goes down to my empty stomach before he can stop me.

“I’m twenty-one now. It’s legal,” I counter rather lamely.

I half expect him to give me shit, so his request of, “Pour me one,” catches me off-guard.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I take the opportunity to pour two more shots before turning and meeting the old man near the couches.

Taking his shot, he waves his other hand toward the open chair. “Have a seat.”

We’ve done nothing but argue for the last two weeks so I’m not really in the mood to go another round.

“I need to get on the road before rush hour.”

“Sit.” It’s an order. No one, including me, ignores an order from Hans Cohen.

After taking my seat, my father raises his glass. His “Salute,” is followed by a fast downing of the high-end liquor.

I follow suit, more than happy to get in another shot before I head back to college where cheap beer will be my daily beverage. It’s just one of the top ten reasons why I tried to get out of returning to campus this fall. I learned all the damn place had to offer. I belong in NYC, next to my father, learning the only business I care about from him.

He doesn’t agree.

We sit in silence long enough I start to wonder if the old man is losing it. I’m about to push back to my feet when he picks up a previously unseen folder from the cushion next to him and tosses it across the coffee table to me.

I pick it up, slowly opening the folder. Inside is a stack of paperwork with a single photo of a pimply-looking kid on top. He looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place him.

Glancing up at my father, I silently wait for him to explain. I don’t have to wait long.

“You know Sebastian Korvic?”

It’s a stupid question. The man is only one of the most notorious art thieves across multiple continents. He’s damn-near royalty in my father’s world having acquired multiple pieces previously thought to be theft-proof for his exclusive clients. For the right price, he is said to be able to deliver almost any piece of art. That he’s never been convicted makes him a legend in my father’s circles.

Since NYC has no shortage of high-end pieces for his acquisition, he’s been my father’s guest at The Whitney more times than I can count.

“What’s this kid have to do with him?”

“I know you don’t want to return to Harvard for your senior year. You’ve made it clear to me that you think spending another year there is a waste of time, but like I told you when we chose your school, there’s a lot more at stake than grades and graduation. Not only are you gaining the education to take our financial enterprise to a whole new level, more importantly, you’ve done well making dozens of connections with some of the most influential families in the country.”

He pauses as a small kernel of satisfaction sparks in me. My father is a hard man, and his little speech is as close to a compliment that I’ve gotten from him in a long time.

I don’t have much time to enjoy the feeling as he continues on. “This year, I’d like you to shift some of your focus to this young man.”

I glance back down at the kid’s picture, a feeling of dread growing. I’m not a fucking babysitter.

“Who is he?” I ask again.

“He’s Sebastian’s illegitimate son and technically the heir to his extensive estate. As you know, the Korvic family is practically European royalty. Sebastian’s extra-curricular activities aside, he is the head of his extended family now that his grandfather died, and while he has three daughters with his lovely wife, and many nieces and nephews who will fight to carve up the legitimate side of the family wealth, he is hoping to mold this young man into a worthy heir for his more lucrative acquisitions business.”

Trying to read between the lines, I still have no clue what my father is asking me to do.

“And what does this have to do with me?” I ask.

“His name is Atlas Giannopoulos. His mother is part of a wealthy Greek shipbuilding family. Her father was less than happy when she turned up unwed and pregnant at seventeen. She got sent off to London and has raised Atlas there, trying to keep him sheltered from getting sucked into either the Korvic or Giannopoulos family dramas, and for the most part, she’s succeeded.

“Sebastian has provided for them financially over the years, but he made paying for the kid’s college education contingent on him studying in the States, away from his mother, in hopes of molding him into a proper Korvic, if you get my drift.”

So, he really is asking me to fucking babysit.

“And let me guess. He’s going to be a freshman at Harvard this fall.” I don’t pose it as a question. I don’t need to.

“I know this is a heavy ask, but you need to look at this as an excellent opportunity to solidify not only my relationship with one of our best clients, but more importantly, for you to build your own partnership with not just one but two very powerful families. Sebastian came to me to specifically ask for our help. You’ve obviously done something right because you’re on his radar and he chose Harvard for his son, not because of the school’s reputation, but because you will be there.”

Conflicting emotions war inside me. The idea of having a fucking freshman on my coattails all year makes me dread returning to campus even more than I did an hour ago. Still, that Sebastian Korvic has specifically asked for my help and is trusting me to mold his son’s education helps that earlier kernel of happiness grow into real pride.

A reluctant sigh escapes as I ask, “And what is it exactly Sebastian would like me to do with the kid?”

My father’s gaze pins me as he answers. “Turn him into a man. Apparently, his mother has coddled him. Sebastian needs to know if the kid has what it’s gonna take to inherit the darker side of his business or if he needs to start making alternate plans.”

My old man doesn’t realize it, but he’s just paid me another compliment. He has ridden my ass so hard all summer, I’ve become resentful because he’s still treating me like a fucking kid. Clearly, if he’s asking me to turn the Korvic kid into a man, he’s indirectly saying I’m now a man in his eyes.

I mull the request over before I poke for more answers. “Anything more specific? Does this kid even know I exist or am I supposed to be pulling his strings from behind the curtain?”

“I’ll let you ask those questions of Sebastian in person. I gave him your contact info. He’s arriving in Boston tomorrow and will be in touch.”

My pulse escalates. I’ve had dinner with the man many times over the years with my father, but he’s paying me yet another compliment by trusting me to meet with Korvic alone.

Before I can ask any more questions, my father adds, “Not only is this an opportunity for you to build on our business relationships, but I transferred the fifty grand Korvic offered for your help into your personal account this morning. It sounds like it’s just a down payment for your assistance. Depending on how the year goes, there could be more coming your way at the end of the year.”

I know how lucky I am. Money has never been something I’ve been short of. Still, as a twenty-one year old, I won’t turn down an extra 50K in my personal account. It will help me upgrade from cheap beer to high-end bourbon for my senior year.

Funny. I’m suddenly much less apathetic about the coming semester.

Bonus Scene #3

Dex - Twenty-one Years Old

It’s late. I needed to be on the road hours ago, but the little talk with my father was too important to cut short. Glancing at my watch, I curse, knowing rush hour traffic is easily going to add an hour to my trip back to my off-campus condo in Cambridge, just outside Boston.

I rush out of the elevator as soon as it hits the ground floor of The Whitney. My friends at school give me shit for living in a hotel but, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all I’ve ever known and glancing around at the opulent lobby, a wave of homesickness hits and I haven’t even left yet.

One more year and then I can stay home for good. I’ve put in three years already. If it were up to me, I’d drop out and just stay in the city to work full-time alongside my father in our family business. But despite turning twenty-one over the summer, my father reminds me often that staying home or going back isn’t up to me, and this morning’s revelations about my added goals for the year only make it more important for me to return to Harvard.

“There you are! I was afraid you’d left without saying goodbye.”

The feminine squeal belongs to Sara, one of the many front desk receptionists at The Whitney. Little does she know, I had absolutely planned on leaving without seeing her again.

I feel her grabbing my forearm, pulling me to a stop in the middle of the grand lobby. I made the mistake of fucking her once at the beginning of summer break and she hounds me for repeat performances every chance she gets. While not the biggest problem in the world, I prefer to do the hunting when it comes to sexual encounters.

“Hi Sara. I don’t really have time for long goodbyes today. I should have been on the road a couple hours ago.”

“But I thought you said you were going to come down to say goodbye last night when I got off shift,” she pouts.

I hate clingy women. The only thing that has kept Sara in my good graces is she’s never tried to bring emotions or commitment into the equation. She’s only interested in being my fuckbuddy… and there’s a part of me that respects her for that.

“Yeah, well I was busy packing my shit to leave today.” I try to pull my arm free again, but she’s determined.

“Well lucky for you, I just went on my lunch break. How about you let me send you off with a smile on your face?”

This little partnership of ours has more than run its course, but regardless, I am a healthy twenty-one year old man. While I have no problems finding women to fuck when I’m in the mood, finding partners who don’t have an ultimate goal of getting a ring on their fucking finger is starting to get a bit harder.

I glance at my watch. It’s already too late to get out of the city before the Friday afternoon exodus north. Why the hell not.

I grab her hand, pulling her into motion toward the elevator, nodding at the bellman we pass on the way there, a grin on his face as he knows exactly what we’re up to.

Only when I push the button to the tenth floor does she finally complain. “Why are we going to ten? Why don’t you ever take me to your suite?”

Hell, if I’m going to tell her, it’s because she works for the Belov side of The Whitney and my suite is in the Cohen part of the hotel. We may do business under the same roof, but our clients and employees do not co-mingle. Ever.

“We only have time for a quickie, that’s why. Do you want to do this or not?” I ask, ready to walk away if she bitches any more.

“Fine.” She pouts as the doors open to the tenth floor. I know every detail about what happens under the roof of The Whitney and that’s how I know the housekeeping team is long gone from this floor, leaving the large supply closet locked and closed. When we get to the door at the end of the hall, I take out my master key and open the electronic lock with a quick swipe.

The houseman had left the lights on and for a brief second, I worry someone is still working on the floor, but the shelves are fully restocked with linen, towels, and cleaning supplies. All personnel should be gone until the turndown team comes back in a few hours. The lingering smell of a cigarette hangs in the air, no doubt from one of the employees smoking on their break.

Wasting no time, I throw my backpack to the floor and grab Sara by her biceps, pushing her to her knees in front of me. The grin on her face reminds me how much the little whore loves rough treatment, just another reason I haven’t kicked her to the curb already.

My fingers are on my belt, unbuckling it and yanking my jeans and boxer briefs down in a fast motion. My cock is already expanding, looking forward to the unexpected treat Sara’s mouth is about to provide.

Like the greedy little slut she is, she lunges forward just as I thrust my hips, filling her throat with my growing erection in the first plunge. My low groan of pleasure is involuntary as Sara puts her tongue to good use on the underside of my shaft.

Carnal pleasure pushes all other thoughts out of my brain. My hips move in a fast rhythm as I chase my growing orgasm. If I wasn’t such a dick, I’d slow down and try to reciprocate some of the pleasure, but I never said I wasn’t an asshole. And anyway, I’ve played this game with Sara often enough to know that she’s already got her hand up her skirt, flicking that little clit of hers so she’s ready to explode herself by the time I shoot my wad down her throat.

Several minutes pass where the only sounds filling the room are the slapping, gagging, slurping, and groaning brought on by the blowjob in action.

Close to my climax, I’ve closed my eyes, but the unmistakable sound of something falling on the other side of the rack of linen has my eyes flying open. Are we not alone?

Sara must have heard it too because she’s trying to pull her face away from my body. But I’m too close to coming, and I realize I don’t really give a shit if one of the housekeepers sees us in action. Every one of them knows who I am and the power I hold here at The Whitney. It would be career suicide for them to complain.

A few long seconds pass without any more noises. I’ve almost convinced myself I was hearing phantom sounds when a flicker of movement catches my attention from behind the rack of clean linen.

I smile. Knowing we have an audience only enhances my pleasure as Sara continues deepthroating my shaft. The rhythmic gagging along with her regular gasps for air push my desire higher.

It isn’t until I see the jet-black head of hair in the opening that I start to worry about who our spectator might be. My suspicions are confirmed when none other than Katja Belov, only daughter to the man in business with my father, pops up higher, clearly trying to get a closer look at the sexual favor already in progress.

Fuck. I pause my thrusts, my cock still shoved down Sara’s throat.

Katja is just a kid. She’s too young—maybe fifteen—to have a front row seat to a blowjob. Hell, she’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to an annoying baby sister.

We should abort. I know it, but I’m so damn close to shooting off I hesitate, giving Sara the chance to gasp for a few breaths.

I keep my eyes trained on Katja’s location until she pops up again. This time our eyes meet in a heated gaze from across the room. Eyes wide, her cheeks are pink with embarrassment, betraying just how innocent she really is. My brain shouts to put my dick back in my pants, but it’s no surprise to find that my brain is not in charge… my dick is, and right now, its throbbing with the need to come.

I’m just starting to pull my hard-on out of Sara’s mouth when Katja sticks that pink little tongue of hers out to wet her lips unconsciously. Even with a few feet separating us, I see her eyes glazing over with a soft sexuality that in that moment feels like my kryptonite.

Seconds later, I see her panic at being seen by me, erasing the beautiful submission I saw seconds before—and I hate it.

When she glances away, eyeing up the door as if she’s going to run, I grind out one word.

“Eyes.”

Perhaps Sara is looking up at me from her knees, but I’ll never know because Katja has obeyed my order. It’s easy to forget that I’m supposed to feel brotherly toward her since she’s broadcasting nothing but raw sexuality through those big green eyes of hers.

Our gaze is intense. When she tries to glance away, I shake my head, silently warning her to stay still.

It’s a fascinating feeling to have one woman sucking my dick while making love with another woman in my head, but I don’t even try to deny that’s what I’m doing. I’ve always known Katja was going to be a beautiful woman one day, I just didn’t know that day was today.

I know I only have a few minutes before she’ll bolt from the room so I decide to see how far I can push my luck.

“Touch yourself,” I order, gazing directly into Katja’s eyes.

They widen as she realizes I’m talking to her. It’s tempting to reach out and yank the linens from the shelf between us. I don’t want anything hiding her from me, but I also know she’ll run if I take away her cover. Regardless, I know she’s following my orders when that pretty mouth of hers forms a perfect O and her eyes flutter, glazing over with a beautiful wave of innocent bliss.

Just knowing her fingers are touching herself—and at my demand—has ropes of cum shooting down Sara’s throat in seconds. The sound of her gulping me down almost covers the quiet whimper coming from behind the linen as I enjoy watching Katja close her eyes while she clearly enjoys her own orgasm.

Time stands still for a few long seconds as all three of us recover from our exertions. I’m watching Katja’s face as Sara demands from her knees, “Okay, it’s my turn.”

Her voice ruins the moment and I’m stuck there watching as Katja emerges from her sexual haze and bolts for the door. It’s stupid, but I want to call after her for some reason. To explain to her that Sara means nothing to me, but then I realize how stupid that sounds. Katja’s just a kid. She doesn’t mean anything to me either.

But as I make my excuses and ditch out, like an asshole, without reciprocating in any way, I know it’s a lie. I do care about Katja, like a brother should, except the feelings barraging me as I finally start my long drive to Boston don’t feel very brotherly.

It’s a good thing it will be a few months before I see her again. Maybe by then, I’ll get my head screwed on straight again.

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