After This Night (Seductive Nights #2)(3)

by Lauren Blakely

“I didn’t say a thing.”

“What did you say that made him figure it out?” Charlie pressed, dropping his chopsticks next to his plate of pork dumplings at the Chinese restaurant underneath the apartment where the game was held. The restaurant was empty. It had closed an hour ago.

“I told you. Nothing.”

“I don’t need all of the VCs knowing our game is rigged. He and his friends come to my restaurant every Friday for lunch. Their employees eat here too,” he said, stabbing the table with a finger. “I had some of his friends from Steiner Hawkins coming to the next game. They just sold a social media startup they backed for $50 million. They are flush with cash. You know what that means?”

Julia shook her head, fear rippling across her chest. “No.”

Charlie pushed back from the table and rose. He stalked closer to Julia, forcing her to back up against the wall. He crowded her, caging her in with his hands on each side of her head.

“Let me explain what it means, Red,” he said, spitting the words on her face. “It means they’re not coming. They’re not playing my game. It means I won’t get their money. And that also means the next time you play, you take a fall.”

“What?” She furrowed her brow in disbelief. “How does that help any of us?”

“It sends the word to the street that my games are fair. You take a fall. And you are in my debt, Red.”

“I won tonight,” she said, trying to insist. “I won $6,000. I’m close. I’m almost there.”

“You didn’t win $6,000,” he said breathing on her. The scent of fried pork coming from his mouth curled her stomach. “You cost me $6,000.”

She wanted to sink to the ground, to crouch down and hug her knees and curl up in a corner. She felt like she’d been smashed with an anvil. Every time she got closer, he moved the finish line.

“It’s not even my debt,” she said, her voice bordering on begging.

“It is your debt. I have seen your pretty little bar, with your pretty little bartenders, and my pretty little money that you put into it. And let me remind you of what happens if you ever think I will forget that you owe me.”

He grabbed her by the hair and yanked. She stifled a scream, and her mind flashed to how different it felt when Clay pulled her hair or boxed her in against the wall. When he did those things it was fair and it was wanted, and it was part of the way they played with each other. There was no game with Charlie. He played to hurt, and he gripped her hair so tight she believed he had the strength to tug it right off her scalp.

He jerked her through the empty restaurant, out the door and into the foggy night, then down the block, stopping in front of a pub. He let go of her hair, and she wanted to cry with relief. “This bar? See this bar? Picture it as yours. It’s Cubic Z, and if we’re not clear by the end of the next month, it’s mine.”

“No!” she said, trembling from head to toe. She had employees; she had a co-owner. She was responsible for them all, for their livelihood, even for the little baby growing in Kim’s belly.

“Yes,” he said with an evil smile as he nodded vigorously. “Yes, it will be mine, and I have not decided if it will be Charlie Z or if I will simply take great pleasure in running it into the ground and then having my way with you.” He stopped talking to coil a strand of her hair around his index finger. “I might be starting some new businesses with some very pretty women who can make money for me the old-fashioned way. Would you like that, Red? To be on your back?”

Every cell in her body screamed as fear plunged its way through her veins. “No,” she said, her voice shaking.

“I didn’t think so. Now get out of my sight.”

He turned her around and shoved her hard on her spine. In her skyscraper heels, she stumbled and the sidewalk loomed ominously close, but she gripped the doorway of the bar in time, and walked away from him. When she reached her building, she stopped at the mailboxes in the lobby and grabbed bills, flyers and coupons. She quickly sorted the letters, tossing credit-card offers and carpet-cleaning deals in the trash. Then she spotted a letter that would make any citizen groan.

From the IRS.

She slid her finger under the flap as she trudged up the stairs, wondering what the government could want from her. She paid her taxes on time every year. She unfolded the letter and scanned it—a letter of inquiry. The IRS was asking if she knew where Dillon Whittaker was living these days since he hadn’t filed his taxes for the year before.

She scoffed as she unlocked her door. If Charlie didn’t know where Dillon was, the IRS sure as hell wasn’t going to find him.

* * *

Later that night, the hot water from the shower rained down on her head and her mind returned to Dillon. When they’d met he seemed like the easygoing photographer, the funny guy with a quick wit, and a sweet word.

But he was so much more. He was insidious in ways she never imagined he could be, because he’d figured out how to leave town with $100,000 scot-free, and no strings attached. Tra la f**king la. She could still recall the moment when her world came crashing down. She and Dillon had already split, and she wasn’t keeping tabs on him so she didn’t know he’d fled the country. She’d been mixing a pitcher of margaritas for a bachelorette party when Charlie strolled into the bar, parking himself on a sleek, steel stool. He steepled his hands in front of him, and cocked his head to the side. “How is the expansion going?”

“What do you mean?” she asked curiously. She knew Charlie, had met him once before through Dillon, but they’d never broken bread or toasted together.

“I understand you needed some money for your bar. Dillon asked me for a loan on your behalf, and since he’s been good and loyal to me, and was willing to pay 15 percent, I happily said yes. And seeing as Dillon has left the country, it seemed the right time for you and I to get acquainted.”

The saying you could hear a pin drop took on new meaning as the sound in the bar was vacuumed up. She could hear everything, from the chatter of nearby patrons, to the waiters placing drinks on low tables, to the frantic beat of her heart and the blood roaring in her ears.

“What do you mean?” She carefully set down the pitcher she was holding. If she held it a second longer she’d drop it, and it would shatter and break. It would be her tell, and if there’s one thing she knew from the mobster movies she’d seen, you don’t let them smell your fear. When they do, they pounce.