After This Night (Seductive Nights #2)(4)


by Lauren Blakely

He drummed his fingers against the counter. “What I mean is we need to talk, Red.”

“About what?” she asked, feeling like an animal crouching in a corner.

“About what you can do to repay me.”

Her eyes widened. “But the money wasn’t for me. I didn’t even know he got a loan from you,” Julia had said, her voice rising in fear, her skin turning pale.

Charlie arched an eyebrow. “That’s very funny.”

“But it’s true. This is the first I’ve heard of this, I swear. I never got that money. I never saw a dime. I had no idea,” she said, trying so hard to prove her innocence, as her stomach twisted and her hands turned clammy.

This couldn’t be happening.

Charlie cackled. “That’s what they all say. I had no idea. But now it’s time to have an idea about how you’re going to pay me. I hear you like poker. Make me a gin and tonic and I will tell you how you will be playing for me. Because what this means, Red, is that you are mine.”

She still was his, and she had no idea how much longer she would have to pay for that son-of-a-bitch’s twisted act of deception.

* * *

Julia couldn’t sleep, which bugged the crap out of her. She’d never suffered from insomnia, not even in the darkest days with Dillon. Not even in those early weeks of Charlie’s indentured servitude when she was still dazed and shocked that this had become her life. But now she lay wide awake in her king-size bed, the window open, the late night sounds of San Francisco drifting in: the occasional car horn, the faint hum of the bus that ran on electricity, the crash of a garbage can, likely knocked over by a vagrant.

Clay had seemed a bit wary of her neighborhood, and while her section of The Mission wasn’t bad per se, it hadn’t yet come into its own. She didn’t mind the seedier elements; she knew real danger didn’t lie with the guy panhandling on the street corner. But she liked that Clay had a protective side, and a helpful side, too. He’d tried so hard to get her to open up the other day and tell him all her troubles. She’d been tempted. She could see herself laying them at his feet and serving them up for him to solve.

But then her problems would become his problems, and she couldn’t abide by that. Dillon had sloughed off his garbage onto her, and she wasn’t going to hot potato it on to someone else, especially someone she cared so deeply for. Because she did care for him. So much more than she’d planned to when she said yes to that one weekend in New York. She’d thought she could jet across the country and have a fantastic getaway. Instead, she’d gone all in.

She had nothing to show for it though.

All the anger that fueled her during the game had faded, and she simply felt weary, and lonely, too, as she flashed back to the pained look on his face, to the tortured gaze in his eyes, to the way he’d reacted when she’d pleaded.

Then she cast her mind further back to the night before when he’d tried so hard to find his way into her heart. Her chest tightened at the memory, and she longed so deeply to let him in the way he wanted, and the way she wanted too.

The very least she could do was say she was sorry. She grabbed her phone from her nightstand and began tapping out a message to the man she missed more than she had ever expected.

CHAPTER THREE

As he stepped off the red-eye from Los Angeles to New York the next morning, his email burst with a flurry of messages.

First, a note from Flynn about the Pinkertons, and how the deal was coming together for their next film. Then one from his friend Michele, reminding him that they had tickets to the theater in a week. Damn, he’d nearly forgotten they were going to see an adaptation of The Usual Suspects for the stage. Next, a quick update from an actor client, Liam, who was starring in that play and also opening a hip restaurant in Murray Hill. Clay had been advising him on the deal. Liam was a busy guy and Clay liked it that way. Then a note from Chris McCormick, the TV show host he’d met with in San Francisco after spending one more night with Julia.

One unforgettable night that had as much to do with her answering the door wearing only stockings and a shirt as it did with her finally starting to open up to him.

But that had all been a lie, he reminded himself, willing his heart to fossilize when it came to her. Telling himself not to linger on the memories of how she seemed to be sharing her fears, and inviting him into her life, because that was all upended when she lied about who he was to that thug on the street.

His fingers tightened on his phone, gripping it harder, as if he were channeling his frustration into the screen. He needed to get into Manhattan as soon as possible, make a pit stop at his boxing gym, and then get his ass to work. That was his plan of attack: the way to rid Julia from his mind. Head down, nose in work, client meetings—the recipe to numb him to the effect of that woman.

He scrolled through Chris’s note, a quick summary of what he was most looking for in his next contract with the TV network that carried his show, and then he read Chris’s previous contract that the host had handled on his own. As you can probably surmise, negotiating on my own behalf is not my expertise. Happy to have you doing it for me going forward, Chris had written.

He replied quickly to Chris, eager to prove his value to his new client. That the guy was marrying Julia’s sister in a month didn’t even factor into his decision. Because he wasn’t thinking about Julia, not as he walked past security, responding to a note, not as he found his driver while answering another email, and certainly not as he slid into the backseat of a town car that would zip him into the city.

Then he saw a new email land in his inbox. From her. The subject line gave nothing away: Hi. But Pavlovian response kicked in, and he opened it before he could think. Because seeing her name still felt like a damn good thing, still held the promise of a sexy note, a naughty line, or a sweet nothing. But more than any of those options, it held the promise of her.

from: [email protected]

to: [email protected]

date: April 25, 4:08 AM

subject: Hi

Clay,

Hi. I’m lying awake in bed thinking of last night. How only 24 hours ago you were here with me. How much better it was to sleep with your arms around me, all safe and warm and snug. How much I would love to have you here again. But I know that won’t happen. And I understand. I truly understand. If I were you, I would hate me too. If I were you, I’d be suspicious as hell. And I probably wouldn’t trust me either. So I get 100 percent where you’re coming from and I wish there were another way. I want you in my life so badly that I can feel this ache where you’re supposed to be. But I know I can’t have you, and I’m sorry I can’t be open right now. You deserve more than this. More than me. All I will say is this sucks, and if I could turn back time and do certain things over there’s a lot I would change.