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SIN: Read the first three chapters!

June 30, 2017

 

SIN: Read the first three chapters of the sinfully addictive, brand new novel in the Vegas Nights series. Coming on July 18th to all retailers.

You can find the pre-order links at the end of the post!

 

 Disclaimer: These chapters are not from the final, edited version of the book. Things may be changed or removed prior to publication on 7/18/17. Copyright 2017 © by Emma Hart. The material in this post may not be removed and posted elsewhere without the express permission of the author.

 

 

Chapter One

Dahlia

 

It didn’t feel real.

Staring at the book-themed bar that was now mine, I sighed. It was all I could think about. It wasn’t real. It was a dumb dream that I’d wake up from if only someone would punch me in the face.

I’d always known that The Scarlet Letter would be mine. The bar was a love letter from my father to my mother, and today was the first time I’d stood in the building since my father’s death. Seventeen years since my mom’s murder had flown fast—but not as fast as the three months since my father’s passing. I’d spent the weeks since his funeral staying with family in California, but two days ago, I’d gotten a call from the manager of the bar.

Someone wants to buy your bar, she’d said. He’s offering a ton of money. You need to come and handle this.

Honestly, that was the polite version. Since the manager was my best friend, the exact words had been, “Dahlia Lloyd, that’s enough of this. That cock Damien Fox wants to buy the bar and won’t leave me alone. Get your ass back to Vegas to deal with your shit, because this is your problem, not mine. I won’t fix anymore for you. Three months is long enough.”

She wasn’t wrong. She’d been running the bar in my absence, doing all the things that weren’t in her job description because I’d been hiding from the reality of my situation.

Which was this. The Scarlet Letter, Las Vegas’ most successful non-strip club, was mine.

This building with its book-nook booths and literary influence woven into every part of it was all mine.

I knew how to run it. I knew every inch of the building. I just didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do now.

“Well, hello, stranger.” Abby, my best friend, strolled into the bar, cutting off my woeful and self-pitying inner-monologue. Her fiery auburn hair fell loosely around her shoulders, contrasting perfectly against her scarlet-red dress.

She pulled me into the tightest hug known to man, squeezing for all her worth. Which, thanks to her love of Pilates and yoga, was a lot.

“Hey. Can’t breathe.” I wriggled to extract myself from her tight grip.

“I don’t care if you can’t breathe.” She squeezed one last time, as if to make her point, then let me go. “How dare you leave me here to deal with that insufferable man?”

I blinked at her. “I didn’t even know you were dealing with him until two days ago.”

“You should have known.”

“With all my psychic powers?”

Abby pursed her glossy lips.

“I know, I know.” I sighed. She could guilt-trip with the best of them. “I should have been here. I’m sorry, Abs. I just needed…”

“Time. I know. Four weeks from your dad’s diagnosis wasn’t enough time for you.”

Swallowing hard, I carefully set my purse down on the table nearest to me. It was one of the one-legged ones that was fixed to the floor, and its lone leg was a stack of fake books. It was one of my favorite things about the bar.

“It wasn’t,” I agreed with her. “I still don’t feel ready to be back here.”

“You’ll never be ready. You just have to do it. If we all waited until we were ready to do something, we’d do nothing but watch reruns on Netflix.”

She had a point there, too. I hated it when she was wise like this. It made it hard for me to argue with me.

“Well, I’m back now. I dropped my stuff at the house earlier, and I’m not going anywhere.” Somehow, saying the words made it feel realer. “You’re right. Three months was too long.”

And, if I was honest with myself, I was starting to get bored—and annoyed. I loved my family, but I had little tolerance for my soap-star cousin whose drama didn’t stay on the set. I knew moping around wouldn’t be something my dad wanted me to do. He’d made that abundantly clear the moment the doctor had looked at him and told him the tumors on his lung were cancerous and that treatment would only prolong his life.

“Don’t cry for me, flower,” he’d said, holding my hand. “I’ve done my bit with you, now it’s time for me to see your momma. It’s all yours now.”

I took a deep breath and swatted the memory away. Holding onto it would do nothing but make me cry. It was still too raw—four weeks wasn’t enough for anyone to find out they were losing a parent, especially not when that parent had raised you for almost your entire life.

Quite simply, I didn’t really know how to live without my father. It was a world I was attempting to navigate, and most days, I felt like a newborn giraffe trying to walk for the first time. As lame as that sounded, it was the truth. That was why coming home was so scary.

I’d never been here without the knowledge I could call him. Now, I was, and it stung. All I wanted to do was grab my purse and get the hell out of here, but I couldn’t. I’d neglected my duties long enough. It was time for me to pull up my big girl panties—but not too far, given that I was wearing a thong—and get the hell on with it.

“All right. What needs doing?” I stepped up to the edge of the bar.

“Damien Fox needs to fuck off.” Abby said it so simply, like it was nothing more or less than a fact. And I guess, to her, it was a fact. He needed to. “He said he’d wait for your call to discuss a meeting, and that his lawyer is on standby to draw up papers for the sale of the bar. But you can’t call him before one p.m., because he’s up late with the clubs some nights.”

“Well, that’s a surefire way to get me to call you before one o’clock.” I rolled my eyes.

I didn’t know much about Damien Fox except for the fact he lived up to his surname and owned half of the strip clubs in the city. My father had crossed paths with both him and his father on occasion, but from the rumors I’d heard, I went out of my way to avoid the entire family.

Now, it seemed, that wasn’t an option for me. I needed to confront the cunning, smug asshole myself.

“How do I contact him?”

“His card is in the register.” Abby cocked a thumb over her shoulder and opened a folder.

Great.

I was hoping she’d say she didn’t know.

Stepping behind the bar was strange. It’d been such a long time since I’d been there, yet at the same time, it felt right. I knew what Abby had said wasn’t wrong—waiting until I was ready to come back would have resulted in me never doing it. I might have been throwing myself in at the deep end by calling Damien Fox immediately, but the situation needed handling.

I wasn’t selling The Scarlet Letter. No matter how much money he tried to give me.

I opened the register and instantly found his card, the small, black rectangle obvious on the silver tray of the drawer. It wasn’t hard, given that the register was empty because Abby hadn’t put the cash tray in there yet. Knowing her, she’d deliberately dropped the card down the side of it so she didn’t have to look at it.

Flipping the thick, dark card between my fingers and thumb, I glanced around for the phone. No way was I using my cell—I didn’t want to invite Mr. Fox to call me on my personal time.

“Under the register,” Abby said over her shoulder.

Sure enough, when I bent down to look, I found it. Each key beeped when I typed in the number on the card. I didn’t know if this number was private, business, or to one of the clubs, so I ran the risk of not even getting through to him.

“Hi,” a man’s voice said.

“Hell—”

“You’ve reached Damien Fox. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

I was going to ignore the fact I’d just attempted a conversation with an answer phone recording.

The beep was long and loud, and I swallowed hard before speaking.

“Good morning, Mr. Fox. This is Dahlia Lloyd from The Scarlet Letter. Thank you for your interest in purchasing the bar, but the business is not for sale. Have a nice day.”

The second I pushed the button to end the message, Abby burst out laughing.

“What the hell was so funny about that?” I frowned, staring at the phone. I glanced up in enough time to see her turn around and look at me.

“Really?” Her lower lip trembled. “You were so nice, then so mean, then so nice again.”

“I wasn’t mean.” Was I?

“It’s the way you said it. You were all, “Good morning, Mr. Fox!”” she trilled her impression of me in a chirpy voice that made my skin crawl. “Then, you went, “The business is not for sale,”” she continued in a sharper voice before going back to the chirpy sound again. ““Have a nice day!””

Shaking my head, I put the phone back on the shelf where it belonged. “How else was I supposed to say it? I’m not a mean person, but obviously, the man doesn’t take a hint.”

“Have you ever known a man to take a hint?”

She had a good point.

“Well, no, but still. It was my first official act as the owner of the bar, and I wanted him to know I’m not a pushover.”

“Just a little soft on the inside. Like a s’more.”

I’d been called worse.

I rounded the bar and joined her at the table where she was sitting with her laptop open. “Can I help you with anything?”

She mock-gasped, pressing her hand to her chest as she looked at me. “Are you…working?”

I hit her with my best death stare.

“Kidding. Boss.” She grinned and handed me a folder. “I’ll ease you back in gently.”

“Are we using lube?” I asked, looking at the folder labeled ‘Payslips.’ It was the one thing I’d done when I hadn’t been here—but only because the accounts were all in my name and Abby physically couldn’t sign off on anything.

“There’s been a lot of overtime this month. Your bank account will probably need it.”

It was good to be back.

Kinda.

 

***

 

Four hours sorting out my father’s office, and I didn’t feel like I was any closer to organization than I was when I’d walked through the door. I hadn’t known it before, but he’d apparently favored a ‘shove it in the folder’ method of filing papers instead of using the filing cabinets along one wall.

All but one were empty. There were five.

I couldn’t figure out how I’d never noticed it. Then again, I didn’t have time to figure it out. I was too busy sorting out and correctly filing years of paperwork.

I’m sure this method worked for him and there were copies probably filed with the lawyers and bankers and accountants and everyone else, but it didn’t for me. I needed some form of order.

And curtains. The office desperately needed new curtains, because the ones that were once dark red were so older, the color was now hinging on pink.

I sipped my iced tea and surveyed my work so far. The top of the desk was clear, and I’d already placed an order for a new desktop computer. Turning on the dinosaur that was currently atop the desk was probably going to be the most daunting task—who knew if it would even work? If it didn’t, I’d have to find some tech genius to pull off all the data, and I didn’t have time for that.

I didn’t know where to look, either. Was that the kind of thing I could ask on Facebook? Maybe Craigslist?

Ugh.

Feeling sorry for myself again wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to snap out of this and fast. I couldn’t run a business as long as I had this woe-is-me attitude. If my dad could see and hear me, he’d laugh and tell me I was made of stronger stuff than fluff and self-pity, and he was right. He always was right.

Except about filing important papers. Then he was very, very wrong.

Another cursory glance around the office had me lamenting the fact I was an only child. This would be a lot easier if I had a sibling to share this with.

Not self-pity. Just a fact.

A knock sounded at the door right as I blew out a long breath. I used the desk to pull myself up off the floor before shouting a “Come in!” to whoever was on the other side of the door.

It creaked open to reveal twenty-four-year-old Rylie Fisher. My dad had hired the young redhead two months before he’d died. She was only part-time because she was still in school studying for her Masters, but from what I knew of her, she was pretty good at her job.

“Hey, Rylie. What’s up?”

She returned the gesture and held up the phone. “Hey, Ms. Lloyd. You have a call. He’s on hold.”

A tingle ran over my skin when she said “he.” There was only one man I’d called lately, besides my uncle. “It’s Dahlia.” I smiled. “Who is it?”

“Damien Fox. Again.”

Well, shit. If even the part-time employee was saying it was him again, he must have been more persistent than Abby had given him credit for. “If you wanted to bring me a present, I recommend chocolate next time.” I grinned and took the phone from her. “Thanks. I’ll bring it out when I’m done.”

Rylie laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

I waited until the door had clicked shut behind her, dampening the noise of the music from the bar downstairs, and took the call off hold. “Dahlia Lloyd.”

“Ms. Lloyd,” came the answering voice. It was deep and smooth and very, very masculine. “Damien Fox. It’s wonderful to finally talk to you.”

I couldn’t say the feeling was mutual. So, I didn’t. “How are you, Mr. Fox?”

A light chuckle traveled down the line, and I had the feeling he knew exactly what I was thinking.

“I’m well, thank you. I’m sorry to hear about your father. How are you?”

“Better now I’m home,” I answered. “I can’t possibly imagine what you’re calling about, so why don’t we skip the rest of the pleasantries and get right to the point?”

“I received the message you left for me at some ungodly hour of the morning.”

“Ten years of Bible class ensures me that even God is up and cooking his breakfast by ten a.m. I believe Satan is the lazy one.”

Another laugh. Deep and rough. “I’d like to discuss it in person.”

“I can assure you that my stance doesn’t change regardless of how we have the conversation.”

“I like to think I can convince you.”

“You’re welcome to think so.”

“I rarely wake before midday, but as you so eloquently put it, even God is making breakfast by ten a.m. Can I assume you’ll be in The Scarlet Letter at ten tomorrow?”

Blinking, I sputtered out, “Yes.”

“I’ll see you then, Ms. Lloyd.”

I opened my mouth to tell him he most definitely will not, but the line clicked off.

It was dead. The call was over. He’d forced his way into my morning and, without waiting for me to respond, canceled the call.

Understanding of why Abby hated him was quickly washing over me.

Who the hell did Damien Fox think he was?

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Dahlia

 

“What did one wear to meet an arrogant dick?” was the question of the day.

Thankfully, I hadn’t packed most of my clothes before I’d left for California, so my ‘work’ clothes were still hanging, perfectly pressed, in my walk-in closet. Not that it made the choice any easier, mind you. Did I wear jeans and a smart shirt? A skirt? A dress?

Why did I care? I had no intention of spending any longer than five minutes with Damien Fox. I needed just enough time to tell him there was no chance in hell I was selling The Scarlet Letter and to get out of my bar.

I pulled a red dress off the rack and looked it over. It was one of my favorites, and the red-soled, black, Louboutin pumps I’d had my eye on since walking into the closet were the perfect match. I grabbed them before taking both the shoes and my dress into my bedroom to get ready.

I still didn’t know who the hell Damien Fox thought he was. I’d replayed the phone call a hundred times, and I couldn’t believe the audacity of him and his words. Was that how he conducted all his business? By ruthless, pushy tactics? Was anything he did honest, or was it all underhand?

As far as I knew, the man had never been interested in buying Scarlet until my dad died. I was as deep in the running of it as he was, and I would have known if anyone had tried to buy it. That wasn’t something Dad would have kept from me—he would have wanted me to be prepared for this exact situation.

As it was, I wasn’t. Not even the tiniest bit. Was there a way to stop someone trying to buy your business when you didn’t want to? I assumed I could eventually get a restraining order, but that seemed excessive. Even if the person in question was as persistent as a severe bout of vaginal thrush, just like Damien Fox seemed like.

I giggled at my own thoughts. Better the string of inappropriateness came out now, in private, inside my head. I doubted that particular thought would go down well if it came out of my mouth in his company.

Although, it would be worth it, just for the look on his face…

No. I was a business owner now, and I needed to be professional at all times.

I smoothed my dress down my stomach and looked in the mirror. Indigo-blue eyes partially hidden by dark-brown bangs blinked back at me. The red lipstick slicked across my lips matched the dress almost perfectly, but none of that hid the nerves that were rolling around in my stomach.

There was no different between my nerves and an elephant doing a roly-poly. Both were as unsettling as the other. Not that I’d ever been in the presence of an elephant doing a roly-poly, but I could imagine how uncomfortable that would be to be around.

I stepped into my shoes and gave myself one more stare in the mirror.

Goddamn this, why was I nervous? I was Dahlia Lloyd. Despite my name, I was no shrinking flower. I never had been, and I wasn’t going to start now just because a Fox wanted me to submit to his demands.

The sooner Damien Fox learned that, the better it would be for him.

I nodded at myself in the reflective surface, grabbed my purse, and went in search of my things.

And my bravado.

 

***

 

The Scarlet Letter was deathly quiet as I entered through the back door. It was so early that not even Abby was here yet, and that was for the best. She’d become fiercely protective of me after my dad’s diagnosis, and I hadn’t even told her about this meeting this morning.

If I had, I knew she’d march herself down here despite her late night just to make sure Damien Fox was handled.

He would be handled—by me. I’d become certain of that in my drive over here. He had no right to call me up and assume I’d meet with him, much less to assume that said meeting would lead to me selling him my bar.

He could go to Hell on a first-class ticket with a martini in hand, for all I cared.

And I didn’t. Care, that was. All I cared was that he took himself the hell out of my life and let me get on with getting back to my new normal. This wasn’t what I’d planned on upon my return. Granted, I’d still be in Cali if it weren’t for his constant going on, but still. Semantics.

It was whatever.

I locked the door behind me, grabbed the phone, and headed up to my office. I had a little time before Damien showed up, and all I could do with it was attempt to make my office a little tidier.

Not that it would make a big difference, because not much could make this office tidier than it was. A hurricane could blow through this mess and make it better than it was right in that moment.

I’d barely put a stack of papers back in the right pile when the phone rang. The time flashed as nine-fifty, but the number was unknown. This was Damien, no doubt.

“The Scarlet Letter,” I answered. “Dahlia speaking.”

“Ms. Lloyd. I’m at the front of the building.”

“You’re—” my attempt at telling him he was early was cut off by what was quickly becoming his trademark hang-up move.

I slammed the phone down on the desk.

If I’d been in a better frame of mind, I’d have left him waiting for fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in that frame of mind. I wanted to get this crap over and done with so I could carry on with my life.

“Sonofabitch,” I muttered, pushing off the desk.

At least I knew my make-up wasn’t smudged. I hadn’t had a chance to have coffee yet, and I paid good money to ensure that my lipstick didn’t come off with the sip of a glass of water.

I tugged my dress down as I headed down to the bar. I had to walk through the entire bar to reach the front door where he was waiting for me. Keeping my temper in check was harder than I’d imagined it would be—annoyance crawled over my skin, twisting and turning it into goosebumps I couldn’t will away.

Stopping in front of the double, wooden doors that made up the front doors to the bar, I did my best to school my expression into one that didn’t give away how I was feeling. Judging by my inability to not purse my lips, I was failing.

Abysmally.

Whatever. If he didn’t want to annoy me, he should try leaving me alone.

I unlocked the door and opened it. I’d seen Damien Fox before, but never in person, only in pictures. And in a fact that pissed me off even more, the photos I’d seen apparently didn’t do the man justice.

He was devilishly handsome, from his dark hair to his dark, calculating eyes. The stubble that coated his strong jaw was trimmed short, but just long enough to be the perfect length to rub your fingers over.

Not that I wanted to rub my fingers over his anything. It was just an observation.

“Dahlia Lloyd, I presume?” His voice was just as deep and rumbly as it was on the phone. Better, actually. If horniness had a sound, it would be his voice.

Damn it. I was not one of those women.

I straightened my spine and met his gaze. “Were you expecting me to be anyone else?”

“A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have sufficed.” His eyes glittered with amusement.

“Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer, Mr. Fox. Come on in.” I stepped to the side for him to pass.

He joined me inside the bar. I locked the door behind him and waved him to follow me.

“Please excuse the mess in the office. I’m in the middle of sorting it out.” I rounded my desk and offered him the seat on the other side.

His dark gaze cast around the room as he sat. A rectangle shape the size of a phone pressed against the fabric of his dark, gray pants, and the matching jacket he wore seemed to stretch across his broad shoulders as he got comfortable.

I knew what he was seeing. Boxes upon boxes, random stacks of paper and folders, and an empty Coke bottle.

Whoops.

“Would you like a coffee?” Why was I offering him a drink? I didn’t want him here long enough to finish one.

Thankfully, he shook his head. “I just had one, but thank you. I’d like to get straight to the point.”

“I’m not selling The Scarlet Letter.” What? He’s the one who said we needed to get to it.

He arched one dark eyebrow. “You haven’t heard what I have to say yet.”

“Quite frankly, Mr. Fox,” I said, resting my forearms on the desk in front of me, “I don’t feel the need to hear it. I can’t imagine that anything you say will make me change my mind.”

“It’s a deal that would benefit us both.”

“The only thing that could benefit us both is you hearing what I’m saying.”

“I’m hearing it, I just wonder if you know what you’re doing.”

My eyebrows shot up. Did he really just say that to me? Did he just imply that I don’t know how to run a bar? “Excuse me?”

If he’d recognized my anger, he didn’t let on. He rested his right foot on his left thigh and gripped his ankle. “You’re awfully young to be running a bar. You’re only twenty-five and barely out of college.”

“That happens when you go back to complete your Masters.”

“Fancy degrees don’t run businesses, Ms. Lloyd.”

“I didn’t think dumb people could either, but here I am, looking at you.”

He stared at me.

“I’m not quite sure who you think you are, Mr. Fox, but I can assure you, I’m sure as hell not who you think I am.” The sharp edge to my voice made him sit up a little straighter. “While you seem pretty certain that a Masters in Business Studies won’t run a business, you’re neglecting to realize that I’ve been running this bar with and for my father for the past seven years while I’ve been studying. My age has nothing to do with my ability to keep this bar as successful as it is. I’m telling you that I’m not selling the bar, and even if I were, to sell it to someone who has zero respect for me would be an insult to my parents.” Not to mention to myself. “I can’t possibly see what else is there is to discuss, so I apologize for you wasting your time coming here this morning, but I think you should leave now.”

I was furious. I’d known he was rude from the phone calls, but to sit in front of me in my building and tell me I was incapable of running the very thing I’d grown up being taught to run was beyond anything I’d ever known. The audacity of him was on another level.

He didn’t move until I stood and held the door open pointedly. Then, in the same silence he’d adopted for the past few minutes, he followed me to the front doors where I unlocked them and held that one open, too.

Damien Fox stepped in front of me into the doorway and stopped. With his attention on me, he ran his gaze along the length of my body, not pausing to linger anywhere until our eyes met. Dark brown with hints of gold, his eyes were mesmerizing.

It was a shame his personality didn’t match his looks.

“You’re really quite fascinating, Ms. Lloyd,” he said in a low voice that probably would have made me shiver if I weren’t so angry.

“So is the Crime and Investigation channel,” I shot back. “It would be a better choice of your time.”

He laughed.

He actually laughed at me.

“You would think.” A wry smile stretched across full, pale pink lips. “I’ll see you soon, Ms. Lloyd.”

I sincerely hoped not. “We’ll see.” I returned the smile and was about to shut the door when I saw Abby heading this way.

A scowl formed on her face when she realized who was standing in front of me. Ignoring him completely, she said, “Morning, Dahlia.”

“Morning, Abs. The coffee’s on.”

She gave me a thumb up before disappearing inside.

“Abs,” Damien mused. “Abby, right? Your manager.”

I couldn’t help my smirk. “She doesn’t like you much. And now, I understand why.”

That smile reappeared on his face. It was a cross between a cocky grin and a sexy smirk, and I had a feeling it was one he saved for difficult people. “There’s plenty to like about me, Ms. Lloyd. You’ll find that out soon enough.”

God, he was arrogant.

“Ten points for trying, but I have to get back to work now, so…” I trailed off and gave him a pointed look.

So, get lost now, please.

He inclined his head toward me, and then, I noticed something I’d missed before.

He had a scar, right beneath his right eye. It was faded, but it had caught in the sunlight that bounced off his face. About two inches long and relatively thin, it added a ruggedness to his overly-polished appearance.

How had he gotten that scar?

And why did I want to know?

“We’ll speak soon.” His voice pulled me out of my thoughts.

“No, we won’t. We’re done here.”

“We’re far from being done,” he murmured, his eyes dropping to my lips.

My answer was to shut the door. Slam it, actually. In his face.

If only the door were soundproof, I wouldn’t have to listen to that rich laugh of his through it.

I turned to find Abby standing next to the sweeping, circular bar, shaking her head.

“He’s such a jerk.”

It was hard to argue with the truth.

 

 

Chapter Three

Dahlia

 

I hefted the heavy box of paperwork off the desk of my dad’s old office. The home office was just as bad as the one at the bar, and I felt like I’d already shredded an entire forest’s worth of paper.

Unable to shake my annoyance from yesterday morning’s meeting with Damien Fox, I had a permanent eye on my phone. He’d left too easily and too quietly. As much as I wanted to be done with this shitshow, I didn’t need his promise that we weren’t done to know that he was coming up with another plan to pry the bar from my hands.

Whatever his reason was for wanting The Scarlet Letter, I was more certain than I had been before that the only reason he was trying to buy it now was because he’d assumed I’d sell. He wrongly thought I’d be a pushover and that he’d own it by now.

He’d underestimated me, and I had a feeling that was why he’d left so easily. He needed to rethink his plan of attack. Going in, guns blazing and batting his stupidly long eyelashes at me hadn’t worked the way he had hoped.

Was I entering a tactical war to keep hold of my bar? There was no way in hell that he was giving up that easily. Hell, he hadn’t even acknowledged my mini-rant. He hadn’t said a word until he decided to tell me I was fascinating.

A fact I, of course, already knew.

I wished he didn’t, though. I couldn’t shake the thought that the reason he was going to keep coming back was to find out more about me.

What if that was how he’d had his success? Was he the kind of person who tore apart your life to find your weakness to use against you?

The only weakness I thought I had was an enthusiastic love of chocolate ice-cream.

He scared me.

I knew nothing about him, yet he knew a little about me. He knew I’d not long left college and how old I was. Neither of those things were something Abby would have told him, so he had to have found them out by himself.

I knew it was a common thing to do, but the fact he’d been looking me up made me shiver. What else did he know about me that I didn’t know he knew?

Why didn’t I know enough about him?

I needed to change that, and I needed to do it now.

I moved another box to the door for recycling—I’d had enough of shredding, it could go as it was—and looked to the clock on the wall. I didn’t have to be at the bar until three, so I had time to do a little digging. And I knew exactly where to start.

I grabbed my phone and dialed my friend, Mia’s, number as I walked to the kitchen. The sunlight almost blinded me as it streamed in through the vast, sliding glass doors, and I muttered a curse right before Mia picked up.

“Hi, stranger. A little birdie told me you’re home.”

I smiled. “I am. How’s married life?”

“Same as it was before, except neither of us can decide what to do about the business.” She laughed. “West wants me to rename it, but I don’t know if I can be bothered to go through all the steps to change it from O’Halloran to Rykman. If I’m going to do that, I may as well name it something else all together now there’s a whole team of us.”

“That would get my vote,” I told her.

“But what?” I could almost hear her roll her eyes. “Never mind. I’m just going to ignore him until I can think up something. How are you holding up?”

“I’m doing good, actually. It’s nice to be back and settling into work again. I’d be happier if I didn’t have to sort through all dad’s paperwork.”

Mia laughed. “Remember when I did that small marketing campaign for him online? It took him two weeks to find the info from the last woman he hired to give to me. It was a good thing he booked me so far out.”

I did remember, and she wasn’t exaggerating. Maybe his filing system didn’t work for him, either. “I do remember. I actually have a favor. I need some info.”

“Fine, but it’ll cost you a drink.”

“Done. Do you know much about Damien Fox?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Not many people do, but I probably know the most. He’s friends with West. Why do you need to know about him? I didn’t think you knew each other.”

I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see it. “We didn’t until his persistence brought me home.”

“Are you…dating him?”

“If by dating you mean plotting his murder, then, yes, I am.”

“Uh-oh.”

I gave her a quick rundown of the situation. “He seems to know a lot about me, and I get the feeling he isn’t going to give up anytime soon. I need a head-start.”

“Now that, I can help you with. I’ll see you at seven.”

 

***

 

I walked into the bar at two-thirty. The bar was dead. There was a group in the corner, a couple in a booth, and a table full of girlfriends who were laughing happily. The music was low and soothing, unlike later where it’d be turned right up in keeping with the party mood.

The versatility of the bar was why I loved it so much.

Charley, one of the waitresses, banged out of the doors that connected the bar to the kitchen with a tray resting on her shoulder. The smell of the cheesy-bacon stuffed potatoes we had on the appetizer menu made my nose twitch. They smelled so good, and now, I was hungry.

I’d skipped lunch to continue my Damien Fox information hunt. I hadn’t found anything except the string of strips clubs he owned and articles about his charity and functions or some crap. I’d read one and given up. It was nothing but singing his praises, and I didn’t give a shit about his praises. I gave a shit about something that would be useful to me.

I walked up to the bar and approached the giant bouquet of flowers. White and pink lilies stared out at me. “Hey, Abs.” I softly ran a finger across the edge of a lily petal. “You got an admirer?”

She blinked at me and then the flowers. “Me? No. Those are yours.”

I frowned. Mine?

“There should be a card in there somewhere. They were delivered about a half hour ago. I knew you would be here early so I didn’t bother calling you.”

“Yeah, the text of “Are you getting your ass to work today?” covered that.” I flashed her a smile before looking for the card. “Who sent them?”

She put down the glass she’d been cleaning and walked over to me. “Here.” She bent and picked something off the floor. “It must have fallen out when I transferred them into the vase.”

“Did you read it?” I took the small envelope from her and set down my purse.

“Nope. I can guess who they’re from, though.”

I stopped, mid-way through opening the envelope. “No.”

Her grin was evil.

There was no way these flowers were from Damien Fox. Was there?

“Why would he send me flowers?” I blinked at Abby.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the answer to your question is in the card you’re holding.” That grin was still in place.

“What? Oh. Right. Of course.” My cheeks heated.

“You’re blushing.” She dropped the grin—and her jaw. “Why are you blushing? He’s a dick!”

“I’m blushing because I forgot I was holding the card. I’m shocked.”

“Flustered. You’re flustered.”

“I’m shocked.”

“Flustered.”

“Ugh!” I ripped the envelope open the rest of the way. She was right—I was flustered. This didn’t make any sense. Nobody had any reason to send me flowers. I’d had tons of them after my father’s death, but they were all long dead.

I pulled the thick card from the envelope. It was plain white on the front, but inside, the note was written in clean, capital letters.

 

Ms. Lloyd,

My apologies.

Damien Fox.

 

I stared at the card. That was it. That was all it said. Our names and the most half-assed apology I’d ever read in my life. Sure, it’d come with the flowers, but compared to the flowers…Who the fuck would send what had to be a hundred-dollar bouquet of flowers and combine it with this card?

I hadn’t meant to call him dumb yesterday, but maybe I wasn’t too far off the mark, after all.

“What?”

I looked up at Abby. Wordlessly, I held out the card for her to read.

She pulled it from between my fingers and read it. A loud laugh barked out of her, and she threw the card down on the bar with a shake of her head. “Just when I think he can’t surprise me anymore, he does that.”

That was one way to put it.

I dug around in my purse for my phone. Easier said than done. I had everything and its twin in there, so it took me a minute to clasp my fingers around the smooth Samsung and pull it out. Abs looked over at the screen as I pulled up my messages and started a new one with him as the recipient.

 

Me: Why are you sorry?

 

Someone came to the bar to order, so my best friend had to dart away, but not without snorting at my message to him.

What else was I supposed to say? Thanks for the flowers but your note was a pile of shit?

Well. Maybe that was the way to go.

 

Me: The flowers are gorgeous. Thank you.

 

There. Now I didn’t look like I was ungrateful, because I wasn’t. They really were very pretty—the mix of red, white, and pink lilies and roses scattered with other flowers I didn’t know the names of were the kind of flowers you could look at all day. He probably had an assistant pick them out and do the card, but whatever.

My phone buzzed in my hand, so I unlocked it.

 

Damien: You’re welcome.

 

Another buzz.

 

Damien: I apologized because I underestimated you.

 

Well, I could have told him that.

It was interesting, though. Of all the things he could apologize for—there were many—he picked that. That told me he wasn’t giving up. He wanted my bar, and for some reason, he wanted it badly.

 

Me: I would have gone with being rude and pressuring as the reason for the apology, personally.

Damien: But I’d be lying.

Me: You’re not sorry you were rude and borderline harassing with your behavior?

Damien: I’m trying to be sorry for that, but you’re just too fucking hot when you get annoyed. It’s endearing.

 

What?

 

Me: You know I’m torturing you in my mind when I’m angry with you, right? That’s not typically hot.

Damien: Like I said, you’re fascinating.

Me: Only because you assumed you could walk into my bar and purchase it without a fight once I’d seen you. I didn’t drop to my knees and agree to let you buy it.

Damien: Touché.

Damien: Buying bars isn’t usually what I’m doing when a woman is on her knees in front of me, though.

 

He got worse and worse, didn’t he?

 

Me: Charming.

Damien: Come to dinner with me.

 

My eyebrows shot up. Go to dinner with him? I’d rather sleep on hot coals and be sat on by a sumo wrestler. Not to mention his last text and the fact he didn’t ask. He told me to go.

 

Me: No.

 

I put my phone back into my purse and zipped it up. Of course, the urge to see his response was overwhelming. Because there would be one. A response. He was like a dog with a bone. I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d take my answer and leave it.

It wasn’t like I wouldn’t go. I’m almost certain I would. I wanted to know why he wanted my bar as much as he did, so I couldn’t not go. The only problem was, I didn’t like to be dictated to, and Damien Fox was very, very good at dictating to me.

Case in point with the dinner message.

“He wants me to go to dinner with him.” I picked up my purse. “He told me to go.”

Abby coughed to hide her laughter. “Please tell me you told him what to do with that demand.”

“I told him no, straight up. I’m going upstairs to do some more in dad’s office and do some paperwork. Do you need me to do anything?”

She nodded. “The schedule for the next month. Finley leaves next week.”

Damn. I’d forgotten that. Finley had worked here for five years but was opening a bar in Reno with a friend. He was damn good at his job, and I knew we’d struggle to replace him.

“All right. I’ll get that done and put some ads out.” I left her in the bar and headed up to the office. It was much quieter here, but there was a problem—no Abby.

Which meant the first thing I did as soon as I shut the door was check my phone like a loser.

Just like I knew there would be, there was a message from Damien, but it didn’t say what I expected it to.

 

Damien: You’ll go to dinner with me. One day.

 

I didn’t respond. What was I supposed to say to that? It was obvious he was the kind of man who was used to getting his own way. He was essentially an adult-sized toddler. I was already getting fed up with his attitude, and unbelievably, every message he sent or word he spoke just made it even worse.

How could anyone be so cocksure of themselves? He was acting like he was the king of the universe or some other freaking bullshit.

How much longer was I going to have to put up with this?

 

***

 

I pinned the month’s schedule to the board in the giant staff room and sent everyone a text letting them know to make sure to check the board in case anything needed to be changed. I hadn’t made much headway in the office since phone calls came in left, right, and center, but I’d sent out the job advertisements so Abby could get to interviewing for Finley’s replacement.

“Knock knock.”

I turned at the sound of Mia’s voice in the door. “Hey! Come in.”

“Abby sent me back. Is that okay?” She tucked her auburn hair behind her ear.

“Sure. And she got you a drink.” I grinned at the wine glass in her hand. “It’s probably easier to talk back here anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if Damien Fox has someone stalking me.”

She laughed and sat down with me on one of the large, squishy sofas. “Is it that bad?”

“He demanded me for dinner earlier.”

Her raised eyebrow said it all.

“Yeah. And those are from him. An apology for underestimating me.” I pointed to the flowers.

“Wow. I only know him as West’s friend and even then, it’s more business than anything, but that sounds exactly like the Damien I know.”

I sighed. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. “I know nothing about him except that my father refused to do business with any of the Foxs. He wouldn’t even talk about them, and I’d never spoken to him in my life until I got back.”

“I’m not gonna lie, Dar, but this isn’t the kind of place I expected him to try to buy. It’s not exactly his usual business deal.”

“Exactly. Aside from a couple restaurants, he exclusively operates strip clubs.”

“Maybe he wants to turn this into a strip club.”

“But, why? We run a crazy profit here because it’s different. He has to know that.”

Mia shrugged and sipped her wine. “Damien is used to getting what he wants. Kind of like you with your dad, he was groomed into taking over the family business. I think his dad is still involved, but only in ownership. From what West told me before, Damien’s dad was pretty ruthless and had some less than legal dealings.”

“The mob, you mean.”

“I don’t know for sure, and West didn’t say, but I’d go with that. Something major happened that made Damien’s dad change his ways, and as far as I know, as soon as the contracts ran out, that was the end of it. So, now the business is all clean, but the connections are still there on a personal level.” She paused. “There’s a rumor that when Billy Jo’s shut down, that was because a friend of Damien’s paid Billy a visit. Not long after that, Damien bought it and converted it into Dark House.”

“I remember Billy Jo’s shutting down.” It was one of the most popular Western-style bars in the area, and it made no sense for it to shut down. It had shocked everyone, but now, it made a whole lot more sense. It was prime real estate, too. “Damn. Is that what I can expect if I don’t sell out to him? A gun in my face?”

Mia smiled and shook her head. “He’s an asshole, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s ruthless, but he cares a lot about his family. I don’t think he’d send the mob around to get this place. West thinks he’ll push his luck until he gets bored and then move on to something else.”

“Great. I’m essentially a new toy for him to play with.” Maybe my earlier toddler analogy wasn’t too far off.

“You cannot just barge back here!” Abby shrieked from the other side of the door. “Mr. Fox!”

My eyes widened.

“Oh shit,” Mia whispered, clutching her glass tightly.

Oh shit was pretty accurate, actually.

“Mr. Fox! This part of the bar is for staff members only. I won’t ask you again to get back to the bar!” Abby was seconds away from having a heart attack.

I got up and yanked the door open. “What the hell is going on?”

Damien Fox stopped a few feet short of me, and Abby took her chance. She stepped around the side of him, squared up to him—which was pretty funny because she was at least eight inches shorter than him—and jabbed her finger in his chest.

“You aren’t the exception to the rule, Mr. Fox. Staff only back here. Get back into the bar now before I call the police for your trespassing on private property.”

That was a little extreme.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him, meeting his gaze. “I think I’ve made my stance very clear.”

He held up his hands. “I came to talk to you.”

“You wasted your time. I’m busy.”

“Don’t let me stop you.” Mia got up and grabbed her purse. “Hi, Damien.”

She was a traitor.

He did a double-take between me and her. “Mia,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t know you were friends.”

“Why would you?” she said brightly, coming up behind me. “I’ll wait at the bar for you to get done here, Dahlia.”

Me glaring daggers at her didn’t diminish her bright smile at all. She simply grabbed Abby’s arm, whispered in her ear, and dragged her away.

But not before Abby could shoot Damien a look so hard that if it could kill, he’d be dead on the spot.

I waited until they were both out of earshot and focused on the man standing in front of me. Today, his suit was navy blue, but it fit him just as well as the gray one had yesterday. I didn’t let myself linger on that, though.

I swallowed. “What do you want to talk about?”

A slow, sexy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You.”

 

 

 

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