Dawn came earlier than I wanted. With it, however, came a scenario that I never expected. But damn was it nice.
Opening my eyes a crack, I realized I was cocooned in Kit’s arms. My head lay over his heart as he snored, the two of us sleeping on the couch. The pleasant scent of street food emanated from him, almost as if he’d absorbed the smell from sitting in a kitchen too long. Though loathe to move considering how comfy it was with his arms nestled around me, I knew better than to linger.
Gently shifting off him so he wouldn’t awaken, I couldn’t help but notice how handsome he was. He even had dimples from how much he smiled. Despite my best efforts, I’d grown fond of him. The realization hit me and plummeted in my stomach. The question now was how we would proceed. With everything I learned last night, things had grown exponentially complicated. The task now would be gathering intel on the Forge, considering nobody wanted to talk.
Heading into the bathroom to change out of the evening dress I’d slept in, I was less than thrilled to see that Ryan left a vibrantly purple hickie on my neck. I errantly wondered what it’d be like if Kit kissed me like that; if his hands had been the ones on my body.
The thought was entirely too delicious.
After splashing water on my face and giving myself a sharp reprimand for thinking such things, I headed back out to face him.
One couldn’t help but be disappointed as I discovered Kit gone and Teagan sitting where he had been; a breakfast tray beside him. As it was, his foot was jiggling as he sat, looking like a cat with an irritably twitching tail.
“Expecting someone else?” he asked acerbically. His expression soured further as I refused to broach the subject and shrugged. I was sure he knew that Kit had never made it upstairs and he severely disapproved. “I brought breakfast in to share.”
The sight of eggs and oatmeal had never been so welcomed. As I approached, he muttered while monitoring my reaction, “We need to discuss last night. We both know this won’t end well for either of you.”
That I knew. Despite Kit’s assurances, the Tourney would get him in the end. But as Teagan shoved the entire plate at me and forestalled my attempt to divvy up the plate, I muttered under my breath, “I need you to quietly gather intel on my aunt’s murder.”
The mood solidified between us as his eyes narrowed. Judging by his reaction, he was completely aware of the true murderer.
Before he could reply, however, he abruptly snatched the fork out of my hand as we both heard the clicking of heels. As Elena tottered in, I hastily picked up the hunk of grapefruit and held my tongue. A part of me that longed to demand if she knew of Auntie Lola’s true murderer, but I knew better.
Elena seeing me eat seemed to be the least of my troubles, however. As her eyes landed on my neck, she snapped out, “For Heaven’s sakes, cover that up! What will your fiancé think?!”
Fiancé? Did she mean Ryan? Teagan appeared likewise astounded, so I wasn’t the only one caught off guard. “I’m engaged?”
Elena rummaged through her purse and pulled out a joint, not paying my trepidation any attention. “You’ve been using Haynesworth to get your quota of affection, but don’t lead him on any longer. Get yourself presentable. We’re going to the club.”
And with that, she clacked back out in her stilettos.
Teagan and I just stared at each other. Considering Elena approved of Ryan not even twenty-four hours ago, something had drastically changed. The question was who the chosen candidate was now.
“Remain armed at all times,” Teagan ordered as he stood, moving into action. “I’m not complacent about your dressing room visitor. Be aware that Haynesworth’s men recovered surveillance footage and identified the woman. She’s a well-known Forge supporter…”
So now I was suspected of colluding with her. The hint was left hanging as a warning. “Just how close is the rebellion to us?” I asked frankly, not caring if we were overheard. “Nobody will tell me.”
“They’ve been gaining traction,” he admitted, giving me a suspicious once over. “It’s a slaughter to anyone who gets involved… and on either side.”
Before I could question him further, he hoisted up his pant leg. I gulped as I saw a wicked looking scar over his ankle. “Anyone in the line of fire of the Forge is at risk. While I was in the service, I stepped on a landmine they’d left outside a building,” he said bluntly. “Now got a titanium rod holding my ankle together. This enemy will randomly strike wherever they can.
“They failed to nab you outside of the restaurant the other night, so they’ll try again,” he added, seeing my sorrow as I focused solely on his ruined foot. “Mortimer and I don’t think you should leave the mansion at all, but we’ve been overruled. As it is, Kit’s just lucky he hasn’t been spotted ‘dropping in’ and gotten shot by security patrols.”
So the Forge were the ones who tried to nab me the other evening? No wonder nobody would answer my questions about it.
He dropped his pantleg, hiding the damage from my view and prodded the plate toward me. “You need to realize how risky this is.“
“Don’t leave me alone with Ryan again,” I ordered, shuddering at the thought. “He doesn’t take a hint…”
A sound of disgruntlement came from him as his eyes lingered over the hickie. “Eat. Mortimer will have my hide if you don’t.”
Forty minutes later, I was in front of the house waiting for the limo to pull around. Teagan lingered behind me like a silent watchtower, arms impassively crossed as we waited. The both of us knew today wasn’t going to be pleasant. Supposedly I’d be meeting my future husband.
A few yards away, I was surprised to see Kit standing with the other contestants. They were coming to the club as well, likely as a perk for competing in the Tourney. I stifled a chuckle as the reality star wannabe made another crack about the outing not being anything special for her since she was already a member of the club.
“Yes, we get it. You’re wealthy,” Kit drawled loudly and massaging his head like he had a migraine, earning looks of agreement from the other competitors. None of them seemed to like her and I didn’t blame them. She was a spoiled brat. “Can’t you see we’re just seething with envy…”
As Elena stepped out of the house, I abruptly decided to head as far as possible from her proximity. Stalking past the other group, I knew Teagan was following. Coming to the edge of the drive, I peered beyond the hedge to the iron gates as I reapplied my lipstick. Seeing nothing, I almost yipped as I found that Kit had also followed along behind me. Despite Teagan glaring at him from a short distance away, he said jovially to me, “So is the lipstick for me or the gringo to ruin?”
“No. Now there’s a third gringo. Elena announced this morning that I’m engaged,” I said flatly, seeing Kit’s lazy smile disappear. As Teagan politely turned his back to us to give us space, I added, “No idea who.”
“Great. Another cream puff,” he drawled, wiggling his fingers in a taunting wave toward Elena since she’d spotted us. He blew her a kiss to top it off, seeing her flush mottled red at his sheer audacity. Despite the solemnity of our discussion last night, he’d returned to his usual flirtatious demeanor. And with gusto.
“You’re looking for trouble,” I said.
“No, I found trouble the day I laid eyes on you,” he said, squinting up at the sun as the clouds parted before shooting me a devious smile. “I rather enjoyed waking up with you this morning. What can I do to get that kind of sugar during waking hours?”
Meeting his gaze, I shot him a pointed look. “I’m more concerned with getting you out of here alive. Drop out of the Tourney. The vultures are circling.”
The bait wasn’t taken as he took a step up to me. His eyes glinted with mischievous intentions. “I’ll bet you were wondering what it’d have been be like if it was me instead of Haynesworth…“
As he reached out to touch my cheek, I blocked his hand. “Stop trying to distract me. I’ve had all the moves laid on me before and I never fall for them. I’m serious-”
“That just means none of them have successfully managed to light your fire,” he chuckled over me, refusing to give in.
“I’ve been kissed by plenty of men, thank you!”
He just laughed over my indignant reply. “Obviously not like you should’ve been.”
On some level, he was getting a bang out of needling me. I crossed my arms. “Did you used to speak to your wife this way?”
His expression shuttered off in an instant, losing his teasing edge. “No. We were childhood best friends. Then one day we became something else. We were married a year later.” He smiled sadly, looking at the pavement. “Being with her was like breathing; easy and natural.”
Kit’s eyes flashed up to mine, smoldering with an internal fire. “You’re different. Everything about you calls to me. Much like a galgo, I’m drawn in by the lure. And there isn’t a more tempting lure out there.”
“There are plenty of other women.“
“Not like you,” he corrected, leaning into me to drive his point home. “There’s never been anyone like that for me. You are the flames to my gasoline. And I want to burn. Even better, the feeling is mutual…”
“Perhaps, though it would be pointless to speculate,” I said, looking away. Not with the new fiancé in question.
“Who needs to speculate?” he pushed further, stepping up to me and leaving an inch between us. “I already know how you feel. Can see it; feel it. You’re just holding back because you think we’ll never be. So I push all your buttons and…” He leaned in to hiss in my ear, his breath tickling my neck. “Watch you get hot. Hot for me.”
The spark between us was electric as his dark amber eyes dared me to disagree. Every zing of chemistry was blatantly obvious. I could feel the heat radiating off his body as he hovered over me, eyeing my lips with open desire. The urge to press myself against him was inescapably tempting. To feel his hands on my body. For his lips to land on mine.
“You wish,” I hissed back, pushing him back with one finger as he leaned in for the kill.
He stepped back, putting his hands up as the limo pulled round. “Careful, querida. If you don’t blow off some steam, you’ll overheat. Or even better, you’ll explode.”
“And if you explode first?” I drawled in return, letting the words drip with a dare.
He only grinned with a wicked edge in response as the limo pulled up. His smile was purely male; a sensual promise of things to come between us. This was by no means the end of our standoff.
But as Elena walloped him with her bag as she swept past into the car, he only laughed and strutted off toward the other contestants. That and smirked at Teagan tauntingly, seeing his disapproval.
The ride to the club was mercifully short, especially as Teagan kept his gaze averted the whole way. I reflected on how I should proceed in the meantime. Anything I saw or heard would be filed away in my mind, keeping any knowledge about the rebellion at the forefront.
It was especially worrisome as I saw protesters through the window of the vehicle, lining street corners and attempting to block traffic. There was no way of knowing what they were protesting either, especially considering they seemed so disorganized. None of their signs seemed to match each other, the protested issue seeming to be more about the collective government than an actual current event or policy.
And the police force stood in lines in front of them, imposing the peace. But a good number of them were looking between each other, not knowing what to do. There were hundreds of people, if not thousands, spanning several blocks.
I personally felt sorry, knowing the futility of their actions. A shift in regime was what they wanted. But I doubted the change they desired would be achieved by the means they were using. The elites would lay low for a few weeks and then appoint another figurehead.
Nobody would win.
They were shrouded from my view as we pulled around the block, though their outraged shouting was still audible.
The contestants rode in a second limo, the vehicle pulling up behind us as we parked in front of the large, white clubhouse. Once inside the absurdly opulent club, I was less than thrilled to see that the place was packed. And especially with all of my father’s male elite friends. I.e., those who held the true power over our city. The puppeteers of the shadow government.
With brown leather couches surrounded by red walls and black and white checkerboard floors, the place gave me the creeps as it always did. Cigar smoke clouded the air as I stepped inside with Teagan close behind. All eyes turned to me, those of the masculine variety. I felt acutely uncomfortable in my sundress with the straps of my bikini exposed.
Father was sitting with an older man that I’d seen before but never paid attention to. The only thing I knew was that the fellow religiously attended the Bilderberg conferences every year. And that was never a good sign.
“George,” Elena said warmly, extending a hand to him and kissing him on the cheek. “It’s so good to see you! You remember Anna.”
Judging by the look George shot me, I truly hoped he didn’t. I wasn’t into being anyone’s sugar baby and that speculation was the kind of look he gave me. “Of course. She’s blossomed into such a lovely lady, just like her mother. How are you, Anna?”
Freaking out but good while wondering if he was the one I was engaged to, I inclined my head to him. “Well, thank you.”
He nodded dismissively, much like the usual tendency of the members of the club. “I don’t believe you’ve met my son, Yaron.”
So that was who the arrogant-looking fellow on his other side was. “No, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure. Well met, Yaron.”
A true charmer, Yaron barely cast me a glance as he took a sip of his drink. While he was good-looking enough, something told me that in Yaron’s eyes, he was his own cat’s meow.
As he stood suddenly and towered over me, I felt awfully small and for no reason to do with size. While he was over six feet, that wasn’t what daunted me. The feeling was somewhat akin to prey being inspected by a much larger predator. Like an owl surveying a rodent it’d just caught. All inner musings of my gut told me to run away from him as fast as humanly possible.
“Indeed,” he replied in a deep voice that filled with an unexplainable foreboding. He extended an arm to me. “Let us get to know each other. Walk with me?”
It was barely a request. I accepted the arm, now knowing exactly who Yaron was. Judging by the pleased expressions on Elena and my father, this must’ve been hubby to be.
Escorting me away from them and further into the halls of the club, I could feel myself visibly shrinking. Yaron gestured for Teagan to remain behind, so I was stuck alone with him. I wasn’t sure what it was about Yaron that gave me the willies, but everything in my subconscious was screaming at me that he was bad news.
As he turned his luminescent eyes on me, I gulped.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he mused, guiding me into a secluded room away from public view.
The last thing I wanted was for us to be alone. “Oh, I’m just –“
“No, it’s a good thing,” he said reprovingly, dropping his arm as we stopped. His eyes never left me, making me squirm. “I like my women quiet. Makes for easier relationships.”
Was I supposed to agree with that? All indicators pointed to the negative, but I said with forced pleasantry, “I’m sure. Now what is it you do, Yaron? Perhaps we have something in common.”
“I doubt it. Most women don’t enjoy talk of arms sales. I won’t waste my breath,” he said dismissively, turning to me fully. “Now I want you to know I never intend to have children. My brother can carry on the family legacy. I don’t have time for such things.”
That was good because I never intended to share his bed in the first place.
“I expect you to be attentive to me when I am home, however,” he added, expecting me to listen. “I have needs and they will be met. Strip for me. I want to see what you look like.”
My mouth ran dry. He wanted to inspect me? Was he serious? Did women put up with this kind of behavior from him usually? Deciding to test him, I crossed my arms. “And if I refuse?”
The hairs on the back of my neck went up as his eyes darkened. While he didn’t move, it was almost as if his pupils narrowed. “I don’t think you’ll like it…”
Now it came to me that he might well be the son of the arms dealer I’d heard about previously. The son whose girlfriends wound up roughed up and battered before ultimately being silenced. Hastily deciding not to antagonize him considering I had a bathing suit on under my dress, I just dropped it to the ground. Adding to my mounting disgust, he gestured with two figures for me to turn for him. As I did, he nodded his approval. “You’ll do. Don’t lose or gain any weight.”
“My doctor told me-“
I cut off as his hand twitched toward my face.
“Don’t,” he said with a ringing finality, turning for the door. “Now go swim. I have other things to be doing…”
As he walked out, my knees shook. Fear didn’t describe the effect the idea of being married to him had on me. Bracing my back on the wall, I felt dizzy as the true desperation of the situation hit me. Just the way he visually scrutinized my body left me feeling dirty and used.
Footsteps approached from outside so I hastily stooped to pick up my dress. Teagan poked his head around the corner and I huffed out a sigh of relief. His eyes traveled over me worriedly. “Everything okay?”
“It will be,” I said, shimmying the dress up over my torso and pulling on the straps.
Just by the set of his eyebrows, I was sure he’d deduced exactly what I had. And overheard everything. Especially as he added, “Don’t worry. Between Mortimer and me, we won’t leave you alone with him.”
“Yeah, and when we’re married?” I snapped, trying to shake off the shivers still running down my spine. The room was spinning and beginning to shrink, a sure sign an anxiety attack was headed my way. “Need to get out of here. Going to deck someone if I don’t –“
Further adding to my good humor, Elena came stomping in and waved her clutch at Teagan. “You get out! And what are you doing in here?! You’re supposed to be with Yaron!”
Acting as if Teagan didn’t exist since she’d told him to get out, Elena charged up to me with a half-deranged edge. “What did you do?! Did you make him angry?!” she demanded, coming over to stick her face in front of mine. “If you’ve screwed this up-“
“He decided I’d do.” As she visibly calmed, I snarled, “So this pleases you? I doubt you’ve ever even met him before!”
She shrugged. “It’s not my place to feel one way or the other. I’m not the one who picked him and it’s not my problem either.”
If it weren’t for the fact I’d be drugged over it, I’d have punched her right there. The urge to nail her over my new problem was inescapable. It would even ruin her latest nose job. Deciding that vacating her presence was the best route to self-preservation, I stomped out.
“Where are you going? I didn’t dismiss you!”
With her following hot on my heels, I decided escape was the best option. I started trying door handles as I darted down the hall. With her behind me and Teagan somewhere behind her, I was in no mood to deal with any of it. “Anna, come back here this instant!”
Hell no. Finally finding a handle that turned, I threw open the door. Quickly discovering the office far from occupied and, in fact, had quite the furry infestation going on, I froze. Two pointy ears and an alarmed set of glowing amber eyes turned in my direction as I slammed the door shut, realizing I’d just inherited myself a whole new quandary.
Elena stood in front of me as I remained thunderstruck. “What?”
“Mouse,” I lied, running with the most mundane excuse I could think of. “Ran across the floor. Look, I need some space. Getting married is such a big prospect that I can’t even begin to… thank you for such a… gift. God bless you.”
She just stared at me with blank surprise at my turn of tone. Since she’d already had a drink, she didn’t notice as I growled it out through my teeth like a malediction. Then with a shrug, she accepted the switch because it suited her. “Fine. You’re welcome then.”
Grinding my teeth together further as she sauntered off around the next corner, I looked back at Teagan who was hesitating ten feet back. “You guard the door.”
Before he could stop me, I slipped back into the office and snapped the door shut. Locking it for good measure, I turned to the new problem at hand. “You…”
The Lynx now lay sprawled across the desk’s papers with his legs crossed and his head propped up on one arm like a male pinup model. He grinned at me, puckering his lips facetiously at my perfectly livid tone. “Me. Hola, senorita. We meet again.”
“You’ve got to be insane to be in here,” I snapped, throwing my hands up at his perfectly irreverent tone. Though the voice changer masked his true voice, his sass wasn’t marred one bit.
In the brighter light of the office, I saw that his costume was simply a black shirt and black pants, offset by a cheap costume cape. The mask-like helmet, however, was more complexly structured. While the ears were shaped just like a real lynx’s, it appeared that some kind of electronic sensors lay within them.
He waved me off, unbothered by my alarm. “Security only guards what they think has value.” As he sat up and eyed me, he added with further amusement, “Nice bikini.”
Looking down at myself, I realized that I’d only gotten one strap of the dress up before Elena had accosted me. I hurriedly pulled it up. “You need to get out of here.“
“We talk first. I know you got my message yesterday,” he said conversationally, lazily adjusting his ears, which apparently were able to independently move, over the mask. They’d both turned toward me to follow the sound of my voice. “And what say you? Yay or nay to my offer?”
“I’m not interested in joining the Forge.“
“I’m not with them, though you’ve already figured that out,” he said, gesturing humorously at a perfectly round hole in his cape. “They took potshots at me earlier, so definitely not. As for you, I’m not interested in your taking a stand for us either. With your precarious position, spying for me has a much better ring to it.“
“Deal,” I said without hesitation, seeing his eyes widen. The rest of his face was hidden down to just below his cheekbones. “But I have terms…” I hesitated, wondering how much I should divulge. “I want out of the Hacienda.”
“You want to leave the Hacienda entirely?” Blank shock showed on his face despite the mask. “A new identity?”
“I’m not becoming Yaron’s wife. I’ll spy up until the wedding date. Then you get me out,” I demanded, striding up to him and putting my hands on either side of him on the desk. “I don’t care what you think of me. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Desperation was driving me to these lengths, but I didn’t care. There was no other way out otherwise. The Lynx cocked his head, eyes tightening in thought. “They’re giving you to Yaron?”
Judging by the intense loathing in his voice, he knew exactly who I was referring to. “God knows when.”
He nodded slowly. “I accept. I’m aware of his –“
“I have one more term,” I said, cutting him off.
He crossed his arms. “Another one?”
“You get Kit to go the hell home,” I said with utmost vehemence, seeing his eyebrows rising. “I don’t care how you do it, because they’re going to knock him off. If they’re pushing me at Yaron, they’re going to make definitively sure he’s nailed in the next competition. For all I know, the next event could be tomorrow. If you two are friends, prove it.”
His expression softened. “You care for him.”
“Obviously,” I snapped, knowing time was growing shorter by the minute. “Well?”
He smiled real tightly. “I doubt convincing him will be of much trouble considering you’ve decided to bail. And if you go with him, then absolutely not. I’ve overheard your conversations.”
It was my turn to be surprised. He had bugs in my room? “How?”
His smirk turned lopsided. “I have my methods. But what I overheard earlier between you was of most interest to me. I believe it was a discussion on seduction.”
I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what the hell he was getting at. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“’Speculate’ was the word you used,” he teased, reaching up to toy with a lock of my hair. “So very ironic coming from an attractive woman like you.”
Now he was coming on to me? I stared at him, wondering just what he was angling for. “Are you on drugs?”
He laughed under his breath, putting a finger to my lips. “Perhaps I believe it’s in your best interest to educate you. That way you’ll know the difference when my buddy Kit finally gets you to surrender.” Before I could object, he snaked one arm around my waist to pull me closer. “To know what it should feel like…”
As he eyed my lips with want, I sucked in a shocked breath. What was it with everyone today? It was like everything had suddenly gone on acid. While the idea of letting him kiss me wasn’t overly repugnant, I moved convulsively. I put both hands to his chest. “Don’t.”
“Why not?” he said silkily, his expression daring me to let him.
“Because you’re not…“
As the words slipped out, I realized with a start what I’d been about to say. The Lynx’s smirk turned a tad more lopsided as I bit back the words. “Because I’m not Kit?”
Precisely. The stark truth struck me square in the gut, realizing that I didn’t only like Kit. I’d fallen for him as well. The revelation struck me dumb, seeing just how badly I’d now screwed myself. I loved him? How was that possible?
To my surprise, the Lynx relinquished me and sat back. Even weirder, he seemed all the more smug that I’d rebuffed him. “Good. He’s lucky to have your loyalty. I’ll bid you adieu for now. We’ll work on getting you out. Kit can relay messages for me. In the meantime, stay sweet, senorita.”
Considering my nerves were completely shot, I skittered back as he produced some kind of gun and shot it up at the ceiling. Getting the idea a bit too late, I saw a line attach itself to the inner metal of an exposed open grate. So that’s how he’d gotten in here.
“Go find Kit and see just what it’s supposed to be like; to be loved,” he hissed to me, tracing my chin with his fingers before being hoisted up.
In a flash, he was up inside the vent system. He moved the grate back into place, making it appear as if he’d never been there at all.
“Cocky bastard,” I muttered.
A ghostly laugh echoed down at me, letting me know that I’d been heard. Then he was gone.
Deciding not to linger around, I darted for the door. Once outside, Teagan was nowhere to be seen. Wondering where he’d gone to considering I knew he’d never voluntarily abandon me, I jogged through the halls. Again, they were strangely empty. The whole place was suddenly putting off a very eerie vibe. Where did everyone go?
As I made it to the main reception area, I found it likewise vacant. I could hear voices, but I wasn’t sure where they were coming from. Perhaps everyone had gone outside to the pool but I couldn’t be sure.
The odd part was that a strange ticking was emanating from the shelf above the desk. It sounded like a clock, though with a more sedate rhythm. Approaching it, I was forestalled as Kit’s voice came up behind me. “Ah, there you are. Been looking for you…“
“Can you hear that?” I asked, reaching for the cardboard box to get it down as it went from ticking to beeping.
Kit came up behind me as I placed the box on the counter, seeing that the top of it was taped shut. The thing beeped and then went silent as we stared at it, the both of us perplexed. Then comprehension set in.
Terror crossed Kit’s face as he yanked me back before I could touch it. “Get down!”
I had no time to protest as he threw me to the floor and covered with his body. Just as my back hit the ground, a white light blinded me and a gale force wave of wind hit me across the face. My ears blanked out as a deafening boom sounded overhead.
All went dark as my head hit the wood.
Until next week my dear readers… Things are about to get hot…
Copyright 2020 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel