About the book
They are the Perfect Gentlemen of Creighton Academy: privileged, wealthy, powerful friends with a wild side. But a deadly scandal is about to tear down their seemingly ideal lives . . .
Maddox Crawford’s sudden death sends Gabriel Bond reeling. Not only is he burying his best friend, he’s cleaning up Mad’s messes, including his troubled company. Grieving and restless, Gabe escapes his worries in the arms of a beautiful stranger. But his mind-blowing one-night stand is about to come back to haunt him . . .
Mad groomed Everly Parker to be a rising star in the executive world. Now that he’s gone, she’s sure her job will be the next thing she mourns, especially after she ends up accidentally sleeping with her new boss. If only their night together hadn’t been so incendiary—or Gabe like a fantasy come true . . .
As Gabe and Everly struggle to control the heated tension between them, they discover evidence that Mad’s death was no accident. Now they must bank their smoldering passions to hunt down a murderer—because Mad had secrets that someone was willing to kill for, and Gabe or Everly could be the next target . . .
New York City
Gabe stared at the urn and wondered what had gone so wrong. One minute, life had been something resembling normal. Well, normally fucked up. The next minute, he was standing in a church full of somber shock and lilies with at least seven hundred people at his back, waiting for the proper reaction to hit him. “You son of a bitch. How could you leave like this, Mad?”
He kept his voice low, given the fact that most tabloids would love to run a story about Maddox Crawford’s best friend cursing his very name before he was laid to eternal rest.
Damn, but Mad would have hated the idea of eternal rest, of peace. The fucking bastard had never rested. He’d always been scheming up a new plan and forever instigating chaos.
He’d also left behind problems Gabe didn’t even want to think about. But he would have to in about six months, when his sister had her baby.
He stared at that ridiculously expensive urn and thought about smashing it in rage. It would serve Mad right to be vacuumed up by a hand-held sweeper.
He turned away and caught a glimpse of his sister. Sara sat in the well-polished pews of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. She was discreetly in the middle, not wanting to call attention to herself. Wearing a black Prada sheath with her tawny hair in a neat bun, she looked like she belonged amid the marble finery of the Upper East Side church because she did. Sara had been Manhattan born and bred. Unlike her older brother, she’d never been shipped off to boarding school. Even in the face of grief, she comported herself like a lady.
Her eyes might be red, but she stared straight forward, her shoulders back and head held high. And she was carrying Maddox Crawford’s baby. That fucking asswipe hadn’t kept his promises—any of them.
I’ll watch after her, Gabe. You don’t have to worry. I love her. It’s stupid but for the first time in my life, I’m in love. You’re my best friend in the world. I know I’ve been a jerk in the past, but I’ve always taken care of you. Now I’ll take care of her, too. I always will.
He’d been a dumbass to let Sara date Mad. It should have been a no-brainer that the asshole would seduce and dump her. Mad hadn’t been as faithful to Sara as he had been to his M.O. Christ, everything about their relationship had been utterly predictable—except Mad’s die-in-a-plane-crash routine, but the rest of it . . . Fuck, he could have written that book.
“Hey, I think they’re ready to start the service,” a quiet voice said from behind.
Gabe turned. There stood Roman Calder in his customary three-piece suit Gabe knew he purchased from a London tailor twice a year. He made the voyage from DC to the UK under the auspices of diplomacy, but it was really about those suits. And now that Roman was here, Gabe wanted to know one thing. “Is he coming?”
Roman sighed, his face falling slightly. “You know how busy he is. He sent me. And you’ll have me through Friday. I’m staying over for a fundraiser.”
Gabe shouldn’t have expected a different answer. Mad had been a terrifically controversial figure. In a world where the one-percenters were vilified, Mad had been the poster boy for rich, bad-boy behavior. If he wasn’t screwing some small company out of their profits, he’d been humping a super model.
Gabe just wished he’d stuck to those women and left his sister alone. “Let him know we missed him.”
He turned and started back down the aisle. There wasn’t a family pew. Mad had been the last of his line, his father having died of a heart attack two years before. That had struck Gabe as odd since he’d been sure Benedict Crawford hadn’t possessed a heart.
“You have to forgive him. You know he’s torn up. He got the news during a press conference,” Roman said under his breath. “A fucking reporter brought it up after his speech on the immigration reform bill. He was completely caught off guard.”
Gabe had seen the news clips. Hell, everyone in the country had seen the president of the United States stop in the middle of a Q and A with the press, turn, and walk away. “Tell Zack not to sweat it. We all get it. He’s got huge responsibilities.”
Roman followed him down the second pew. “You have to understand how the press would interpret his attendance. After the way Mad lived the last couple of months of his life, I couldn’t advise it. He hates that he can’t be here.”
Gabe knew exactly how the last two months had gone. After Mad had dumped Sara, he’d gone a little crazy, drinking by the gallon and painting the town red with models and actresses. But Gabe suspected what others couldn’t: Mad had been protecting someone. No idea who. His best guess was that, after dumping Sara, he’d found a new mistress and used all the other women to divert the tabloids’ attention from the new object of his desire. That had been Mad’s M.O., and he’d heavily relied on bait-and-switch tactics when he had been hounded by the press. Gabe knew he should let it lie, but he wanted to know the identity of that woman. He wanted to know if his new mistress had any inkling of the pain she’d caused by luring Mad away from Sara.
“I hate that I have to be here in the first place.” Dax stood and stuck out a hand. Like everyone else in the church, he looked grim.
Gabe shook it, studying his old friend and wondering where the hell the years had gone. It was hard to believe they’d all been kids together and their worst problems had been math tests and how to sneak over to the girls’ school so they could make out. So many of his childhood memories were shared with the other men in this room. And in that damn urn. “Brother, it is good to see you. I thought you were somewhere in the Pacific.”
“I came home the minute I heard. I had some leave.” Dax’s gaze shifted as he stared at the place where Mad’s coffin lay. “Why the coffin? He’s not in there. From what I understand, there was barely enough left to cremate.”
Gabe’s stomach threatened to turn. He didn’t want to think about how Mad had died. Sure, in his darkest moments he’d thought about killing the fucker himself, but damn, he’d loved the guy, too.
Never let ’em see you sweat, Gabe. That’s the key to bullies. You walk by. You flip ’em off. If they give you real trouble, you take them down in a way that ensures they stay down. You go for the kill because that’s the way of the wild, my man.
Gabe had learned that lesson from him. At the time, Mad had been talking about the bully upperclassmen at their school, but Gabe had taken that lesson into business. If he was going to take down someone, he made damn sure they couldn’t get back up. Ever.
“The coffin is there for show. Apparently, people want something substantial to stare at during the service. That’s what the coordinator said. The picture doesn’t count, and the urn is too small.”
There was a large poster of Maddox in front of the empty coffin. He was dressed in a perfectly custom Brooks Brothers suit, smirking at the camera like a douchebag. But then, he’d always looked like that.
Would his baby inherit that smirk? That never-ending thrill for life Mad had possessed?
Damn you for leaving us behind. And damn you for what you did to my sister, but I fucking wish you were here.
He sat on the pew, his brain buzzing. He’d gotten the news five days ago and it still hadn’t quite penetrated. He kept expecting to turn around and see Mad walking toward him with that damn smirk, drink in hand. It was wrong to consider someone so alive as Maddox Crawford dead.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said. Gabe turned to find Connor dressed in a button-down and pressed slacks. Just another normal guy—except for the fact that Gabe knew he was Agency. The CIA had claimed Connor long ago, and any illusion of normalcy he donned was just a mask. “Sorry I’m late.”
No matter what he did now, Connor was his friend. Gabe stood and put his hand out. Connor took it. “It’s good to see you.”
It had been at least a year since they’d been in the same room. They kept up via e-mail and the occasional phone call where Connor never mentioned what country he was in. “You, too.”
“Do you know anything about his death?” Gabe murmured. “Have you looked into the incident?”
They all leaned in. Connor dealt in secrets. Oh, he might say he was simply an analyst, but there was no way Connor wasn’t an asset, as they would call him in the Agency. Even though they’d been friends for years, Connor had changed, become more distant, colder. Deadlier. No, Gabe didn’t buy that Connor sat in front of a computer. Connor got his hands dirty.
“I don’t know anything, guys,” he said with an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry.”
Roman shook his head. “It’s not a CIA matter. The FAA is handling it. Trust me, I’ve been up their ass about it. So has Zack.”
“I called in my contacts,” Connor said. “They told me the investigation is in its early stages. They have the black box and they’re carefully probing the wreckage. There were reports of high winds in the area where he went down. The working theory is the plane hit a storm system and the pilot lost control.”
Gabe had heard the theory. It was just difficult to think that a storm had taken down Maddox Crawford. He’d been a force of nature himself. His death didn’t seem real. Mad should have been shot by a furious husband—or brother.
“I promise, I’ll make sure you all get the final report,” Roman murmured. He nodded toward the aisle. “Is that who I think it is? What’s her name? Tavia?”
Gabe looked up. A gorgeous blonde with killer cheekbones strode quickly toward the coffin. Mad had hired Tavia Gordon—and paid her well—to be his public relations guru. And he’d kept her hopping. From what Gabe could tell, Tavia spent all her waking hours putting out the fires Mad had been prone to start. Though a bit tall and fashionably thin for his taste, she had a delicate, aristocratic face. No denying she was what most would consider an icy beauty.
He’d wondered more than once if Mad had thrown Sara over for Tavia. Because there must have been a woman. With Mad, there always had been. Had his buddy worked his playboy angle to throw the paparazzi off his PR Girl Friday/mistress so she wouldn’t be inundated? He’d wondered if Mad had been trying to protect Sara, but given the cruel way he’d cut her out of his life . . . Gabe gnashed his teeth. He couldn’t focus on that now or he’d think very ill of the dead.
As Tavia dashed to her seat, she pulled a tissue out of her Gucci bag. He’d never seen her look less than perfect, but today, her eyes were a bit puffy, her nose red.
The pastor stepped out, and the great organ began a mournful dirge. The Mander Organ, one of the most famous organs in North America, now played for Maddox Crawford. He would have enjoyed that.
“Hey, should we bring Sara up here?” Roman asked, his eyes straying back. “It looks like she’s alone.”
Oh, she wasn’t alone. Not in the strictest sense, but he wasn’t going to mention her pregnancy to anyone yet. “No, we chose to sit apart. The tabloids tend to ignore her. I’d like to keep it that way.”
They wouldn’t ignore him. He tried to keep a low profile, but Mad’s death would likely send the damn tabloids into a feeding frenzy. The last of the Crawfords gone to his just reward, marking the end of an era.
God, when had he gotten so fucking old?
Dax settled in. “Why here? I never imagined Mad having a church funeral. I always thought when he went, we’d give him a Viking funeral in the swimming pool at some swanky hotel in Vegas. Seriously, I looked up how to loop those pool noodles together to make a proper raft for his corpse. I was thinking of killing him at the time. It was right after he hired those hookers, then stiffed me with the bill for both of them.”
Connor’s lips turned up briefly. “That send-off sounds fitting. Mad never wanted to be predictable. Or we could just have an Irish wake. But I can’t believe he wanted all this pomp and circumstance in a house of God.”
Only because the others hadn’t known that deep down Mad actually adored all the attention from reporters and TMZ. He’d laughed when the paparazzi chased him down Park Avenue. The man had never met a scandal that hadn’t flipped his switch. He’d also had a deep devotion to history. Sort of.
Gabe snorted. “Jackie O’s funeral was held here. You know he always thought he should have been born a Kennedy. Since he hadn’t been, he decided to one-up her with more spectacle.”
Roman groaned. “Dumb ass.”
Connor took a deep breath, obviously stifling a laugh. “He always did think he was American royalty, the bastard. So are you giving a big speech?”
“No. Since Mad planned this whole shindig before his death, he farmed that out. His lawyer hired a Broadway star to read the letter he left behind to the world. Can you believe that? The fucker wrote his own eulogy and hired a Tony winner to read it.”
Roman looked down at the pew, repressing a laugh. “I thought I recognized that guy. God, Mad was such a douchebag. I miss him already.”
“The priest is going to say a couple of things, after which I was supposed to persuade Christina Aguilera to sing a moving hymn. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Apparently she’s got a career or something. So Mad will have to settle for the Met’s new diva. She was available—but not cheap. I ignored his request for a burlesque dancer and an open bar in the sanctuary.” Gabe rolled his eyes, not even asking what Mad had been thinking. Anything to raise a brow . . . “The good news is, there’s no reception line and none of us has to speak. We can keep a low profile.”
“Maybe he knew what we’d say if given a mic and the chance,” Connor muttered.
Someone shushed them, and that had them all grinning. It was good to know that twenty plus years later, they could still get into trouble.
Gabe sighed as he caught sight of the urn again. They’d always been good at getting into trouble. Now Gabe would have one last opportunity to clean up Mad’s mess.
* * * *
An hour later, Gabe settled his sister into a limo. The crowd was finally starting to thin out. So many people, and they were all a blur to Gabe. He’d kept his head down, hoping he didn’t have to talk too much. Funerals, he’d discovered, annoyed him mightily. Just when he needed to be alone to mourn and think, he found himself surrounded by others. He didn’t need to comfort a bunch of people who hadn’t really been close to Mad. He needed to comfort the one who had been the closest.
Or at least she’d thought so. But his sister was overwrought and battling morning sickness that seemed to last long into the afternoon, so he was letting her go.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay out at the beach? I can’t leave the city for a couple of weeks. There’s too much to do. I’m meeting with Mad’s lawyer tomorrow. At the very least, I’m going to have to deal with the foundation or whatever group he left the company to.”
Sara nodded. Her demeanor appeared perfectly calm, but he didn’t miss the way her hands fisted around the handkerchief on her lap. “We’ll be okay. The Hamptons are quiet this time of year. I think I’ll stay for a while and think things through. After the news has died down, I can come back and have the baby. If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a fling when I traveled to Paris on business in June.” Her eyes took on a faraway look. “I just can’t believe he’s dead. He always seemed so much larger than life, as if nothing could take him down.” She frowned, then smoothed her expression. “I really believed that if he had time to think, to miss what we had, he’d come back. That will never happen now.”
“Sara, I know you loved him, but he was just a man. And not always a good one.”
Tavia Gordon racing from the building snagged his gaze. Vaguely, he wondered how she all but ran in those towering shoes. Shaking his head, he stepped between Sara and the woman to block his sister’s view. He didn’t want her hurt any more by coming face-to-face with Mad’s possible mistresses.
Sara frowned, the cool breeze tugging at the tendrils of her golden hair. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. You go ahead. Take care. I’ll call you after I meet with the lawyer.” He needed to figure out how big the clusterfuck was. Crawford should go to Mad’s heir. Gabe intended to fight the will to ensure his niece of nephew’s future.
She nodded. As Gabe closed the door, she turned to the driver. Then the limo pulled onto 84th Street. As he watched the car roll out of sight, another woman caught his eye.
She stood out in the crowd. Short and curvy, with a massive amount of wavy strawberry-blond hair, she was like a sprite amongst the elven supermodels. Every other woman walking down the street looked emaciated and fashionably plastic to him, but Little Red was obviously not a devotee of surgical beauty. No, those breasts were real.
Gabe couldn’t take his damn eyes off them. They weren’t huge but a nice handful, he estimated. They would be soft. He could tell from the way they moved. She wore a black dress with tiny white dots and a Tiffany blue belt that cinched her waist, showing off her hourglass figure. He pinned her age at somewhere close to twenty-five, maybe a year or two older, but something about her—maybe her fair skin and curls—drew him in.
“Hey, I thought I lost you.” A young man in a stylish suit caught up to her and slid his hand into hers.
Had she been in the church? No. Surely he would have noticed her. Besides, he knew high quality clothes when he saw them and hers, while pretty, were mass produced and inexpensive. Her shoes were well made but not designer, and her purse looked a little like a burlap sack. Doubtful that she was one of the label whores exiting Mad’s funeral.
As they walked by, she smiled up at the man, her unabashed affection hitting Gabe straight in the gut. How long had it been since a woman just looked at him while her obvious joy lit up his world? Maybe never. The women he dated always had their eyes on a prize: moving up in the world. No matter how nice they seemed, they were ambitious females on the prowl, always looking for more money, more power, a better social position. They didn’t want him; they wanted the life he could provide. Which meant that the women he dated didn’t hold hands as they walked down the street. Nor did they smile up at him brilliantly with undisguised sensuality. They sure as hell didn’t have soft, real breasts that bounced gently with every step.
Gabe watched as the couple made their way down the sidewalk and disappeared around the corner. He hissed. She had a spectacular ass, too. Simply watching her curves made his whole body heat up. He couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.
Sex had become a rote activity, something he did because he needed it. But watching the girl with the strawberry-colored hair, he realized how long it had been since he’d simply wanted a woman because she flipped his switch. He hadn’t seen her at the funeral, so he had to think she was just another pretty girl taking in an autumn afternoon in Manhattan.
He stared at her empty space for a moment. If she hadn’t been holding hands with another man, he probably would have been a schmuck and followed her. It was just as well since he had a job to do.
Gabe sighed and started back up the steps. The others were waiting for him at a bar down the street. A good deal of Mad’s friends and co-workers were meeting for a few hours of drinking and storytelling and trying to forget that Mad was gone forever. He stepped back into the church and was assaulted by the silence. So quiet now. He could hear his footsteps as he crossed the floor.
The cathedral was beautiful with its marbled arches and bronze doors, but it seemed cold to him. Pretty and empty without people to animate it. A little like his life had become. Materially, he had everything a man could ask for, and he was starting to wonder if any of it was worth the work. He’d gone numb. That girl on the street was the first time in months that he’d felt something beyond anger, anxiety, and sorrow.
No matter what had happened between Mad and Sara, the grief over his friend’s passing lodged in his gut—for the man he’d known half his life and for everything that should have been.
Damn, he wished the last words they’d ever exchange hadn’t been said in anger. He couldn’t help but think that in his final encounter with Mad, he’d told his best friend that he wanted him dead.
That night, he had been.
Gabe stepped into the chapel, searching for the priest who had performed the service. Tradition required the family of the deceased to make a “donation” to the church. Mad hadn’t had any remaining family, and he’d written Gabe a letter with the directions for his funeral, should anything happen to him. As pissed as Gabe had been at the man, there had been a time when they’d been closer than brothers. Executing this duty was up to him, so Gabe had a check for ten thousand in his pocket for the priest. He just had to find the man.
As he trekked inside and looked up the aisle, he stopped because he wasn’t as alone as he’d thought. A man in a dark suit stood in front of Maddox’s urn, his head down. His shoulders moved, and he turned slightly so Gabe could see his square jaw and the set of his brow.
An odd sense of relief swept through Gabe. He’d come. Somehow, even though he’d been told otherwise, he’d expected all his friends to be here to mourn the loss of one of their own.
“Mr. President, your detail sucks. I could have snuck up on you just now.”
The president of the United States straightened but didn’t turn. “I think you would find that task difficult to say the least. My detail is surprisingly attentive.”
That was when he noticed three red dots of light on his chest. He scanned the sanctuary and found the snipers. Yes, he could be dead in about two point three seconds. “Damn, Zack. Could you tell them who I am and not to shoot?”
Zack turned and flashed one of his rare grins. The quiet man had been cold and shut down since his wife’s assassination three years ago. Gabe couldn’t think of the event in any other way. Joy Hayes had been cut down during a campaign rally. He’d been standing in the crowd with Dax and Mad. Sometimes, he could still hear that shot and the resulting screams. He could still see Zack’s face as he realized Joy was gone. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he saw Zack holding his dead wife to his chest while the Secret Service did their damnedest to haul him away. He’d won the election in a landslide three days later.
It was good to see his old friend smile again.
“Gentlemen, this is Gabriel Bond. I doubt he’s here to hurt me. Please don’t take out one of my oldest friends.” Zack strode down the aisle and the grin faded. He put out his hand. “We’ve already lost enough today.”
“We certainly have.” Gabe took Zack’s hand but hauled him in for a manly hug. “Damn, it’s good to see you.”
Zack stepped away, his eyes tired as he put a hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “You, too. You have no idea. How are you holding up? I know you two weren’t on great terms when he died, but this has to be hard on you. You were the closet to Mad.”
Gabe thought about lying but he couldn’t. “It’s fucking hard. I’m struggling to believe that he’s really gone. I looked at myself in the mirror after I got the news. Do you know what I saw? A man who learned how to properly knot a tie because Maddox Crawford taught him. I kissed my first girl because Mad engineered the situation.”
Zack nodded. “And I found my first real friends because Mad sat next to me in class one day and cheated off my pre-algebra exam. That was the first time I sat at your lunch table. He told me he could use me so we might as well be friends. At least that’s what he said. I found out later the asshole was a mathematical genius and he hadn’t cheated at all.”
“I figured his scheme out when we were in college. He came up with a reason for us to hang out together until we were all tight. Mad gathered us all together. He wanted a family since his didn’t give a shit about him, so he made one for himself. It’s interesting that he chose outsiders. I guess he always considered himself one of us, even after we became the popular kids. Maybe because he knew he could count on us.”
Gabe needed a freaking drink. Or twelve. God, he needed to sit and bond with his pack, to remind himself that he belonged somewhere.
“Is there any way you can ditch the snipers and come down to the pub with us?” he asked. “We’re meeting at this place down the street. All of us. Me, Roman, Connor, and Dax. The guys would love to see you.”
Gabe didn’t mention that he needed Zack, needed the gang together even though they would never be whole again. What had happened? He’d thought they would go to each other’s weddings. Dax had eloped in Vegas, and none of them had been there, though they had thrown him a divorce party two years later. Zack had been the only one of them who had gotten married with proper pomp and circumstance, before it had ended in horror.
Now Mad had suddenly met his maker after a tragic, unexpected death. They needed something good.
Zack’s grin was back. “Roman won’t be happy to see me. In fact, he’ll be perfectly dismayed, but I think if we go in the back way, we can manage an hour or so. Maybe two. I’m not due back in DC for a bit. What do you say, Thomas?” He looked to his left.
Gabe followed his line of sight and saw a tall African American man in a black suit. He was at least six foot five and built like a linebacker. Even indoors, he wore mirrored aviators and looked like the badass he certainly was. “I think you’ve gone insane, Mr. President.” He smiled, showing even, white teeth. “You also know I love a challenge. Give me five to scope the logistics and then we’ll move. I got you in here without the press noticing. I’ll get you in there, too.” He brought a cell phone out of his pocket and hit a button. “The Professor is thirsty, boys. We’re going to get the boss a drink.”
Zack sighed. “The Secret Service loves me. I hope this bar has a back room.”
“If they don’t, we’ll make one, Mr. President.” It was still surreal to think his boyhood friend was the most powerful man in the free world.
Zack shook his head. “Don’t. Please call me Zack, Gabe. Just let me pretend to be Zack for an hour or so.”
Gabe knew just what Zack needed. “Oh, if you want to feel like one of the guys, we can do that for you. We’ll be happy to remind you of when you were just a dumbass kid, Scooter.”
Zack groaned, but at least the desolation in his eyes was gone. “Don’t call me that, either. It’s bad enough that my Secret Service call sign is the Professor. I don’t need to be reminded about that damn scooter incident.”
But the scooter incident had been so much fun. “I promise nothing.”
* * * *
Everly Parker looked around the swanky bar and felt out of place. This wasn’t her crowd, even though she worked with some of these people. She wasn’t a big bar hopper. She didn’t watch the clock and wait for five p.m. so she could hit her favorite watering hole. No, she was a work-long-hours-and-go-home-to-a-good-book-and-hot-bath kind of girl. But tonight she wanted to be someone else—anyone who hadn’t buried her mentor and friend an hour ago and wasn’t now staring down the possibility of losing both her job and the roof over her head.
“Hey, are you going to nurse that drink all night long?” Scott leaned over and gave her a wink. He was on his third margarita. “Because I think you should down a few glasses of wine and be my wingwoman. Harry from accounting is here and I swear I’m going to die if I don’t go out with that hunk of man soon. He’s the only truly beautiful boy at work. He should be mine.”
Everly smiled. After she’d started at Crawford last year, she’d met Scott during her orientation. Initially, she’d mistaken his playful nature for a come-on. But he’d finagled her into having coffee with him shortly thereafter and apologized for giving her the wrong impression. He’d admitted that he hadn’t been himself because he’d just been through a rough breakup with his boyfriend. Scott sometimes used his happy-go-lucky face to mask his somber moods. To finally see him let go of his lost love and dip his toe in the dating pool with a hot guy thrilled her.
Honestly, Everly wasn’t sure she believed in true love. Attraction and affection, yes, but love? Her father had been burned by the concept. He’d taken the shock and sorrow of his wife’s abandonment to his grave. Her mother had always seemed so distant, as though she’d spent her life up until the moment she’d walked out on them longing for something else.
She shook her head. “Scott, I don’t even know what a wingwoman would do.”
He sat back and thought about it for a moment. “Well, first you’re going to have to go over there and talk me up. Tell him how perfect I am, what a great guy I am, then slip him a roofie so I can have my wicked way with him.”
She rolled her eyes. Sometimes Scott had a vivid imagination. “Sure. I’ll get right on that.”
“I tried,” he said with a long sigh, his gaze trailing to the back of the room.
Everly’s stare followed. A waitress in a female version of a tuxedo carried what looked to be a cheese plate past a large black man wearing a nondescript suit and aviators. He guarded a door that led to what she could only imagine was a VIP section.
“See that? I heard a rumor,” Scott whispered in her ear. “While you were in the bathroom, Marty from processing stopped by and told me the craziest story.”
“You shouldn’t listen to him. He’s a horrible gossip.”
“Do you want the scoop or not?”
She was kind of afraid that the next big scoop after this one would be “Wonder Girl Gets Fired After Kindly Employer Dies.” She’d shot through the ranks like a comet, and now she was going to hit the ground with a great big thud. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do when the new boss came in and found out his or her head of security was a too-young-for-her-position hacker who everyone except Maddox Crawford thought couldn’t handle the job. Maddox had been her champion, her mentor in this crazy corporate world. He’d also been a surprising friend.
At first, she’d been devastated by his death. But now, almost a week later, her brain had begun working overtime, and she had questions—the sort no one seemed to want to answer.
Maddox Crawford had been an experienced pilot. Had his death really been an accident?
Not according to that mysterious, inexplicable e-mail she’d received last night.
“Sure. What’s the big scoop?” Everly decided to disregard her own advice. She would listen to any gossip that took her mind off her troubles. She needed one good night before she faced whatever crap tomorrow would bring.
She took a healthy gulp of the Sauvignon Blanc she’d ordered. Scott was right. She needed to live a little before the hammer came down on her head. If things went the way she suspected, she would be lucky to afford box wine next month.
“You know how the Great Crawford had some seriously powerful friends, right?”
She didn’t follow the gossip rags the way everyone else did. In fact, she purposefully avoided that tripe. Why fixate on the problems of celebrities when she had so many of her own? Besides, when it came to people like Maddox, more fiction than truth filled the tabloids. They wanted a good story, and real life tended to be too boring. The Maddox she knew had worked hard—ten and eleven hour days, often six days a week. He’d cared about his employees. She bet no one reported on that. “He knew a lot of people. Men in his position often do.”
“But he also knew one very powerful person,” Scott whispered.
She wasn’t sure what he was insinuating. “I don’t doubt that. He was in a very lofty position, Scott. It’s not so surprising he knew key players.”
Scott huffed, his frustration evident. “Damn it, don’t you know who I’m talking about? Zachary Hayes, the president of these United States, the hottest man to ever hit the White House. They were friends as teenagers, according to rumors. I’ve heard the president is a sentimental man. I think he secretly attended Crawford’s funeral and is even now somewhere in this bar.”
Maddox had told her once that he’d attended the same prep school as the current president and that they’d been close back in the day. The two of them had been part of a small group of friends who had dubbed themselves the Perfect Gentlemen. Everly wasn’t sure if they’d meant the name to be ironic, but she suspected so, given Maddox’s less-than-polite reputation. The rumors of their hi jinks had been the stuff of legend . . . and they’d come up in some really low-blow campaign ads against Hayes.
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes, the president of the United States is here. I’m so sure.”
Scott looked pointedly back toward the VIP room. “Have you seen the surprising number of men in black suits hanging around here?”
“Scott, it’s a wake. The majority of people in this bar came straight from the funeral. Are you really shocked they’re wearing dark suits?”
“And the sunglasses?” Scott shot back. “How many people besides crazy, scary feds do you know who wear sunglasses inside a crowded bar at dusk?”
She turned and caught a glimpse of two overly large men standing by the entry to the back room. When a woman stumbled toward them, they gently but firmly turned her away. Everly caught a glimpse of metal. Maybe Scott was onto something. “Holy shit. I just saw a SIG Sauer.”
Scott’s brow rose. “A what?”
Clearly, Scott hadn’t been raised around firearms. “It’s the weapon the Secret Service uses. I know because my father was a cop and a complete gun nut. I knew how to shoot practically before I could walk. I don’t know if that guy is actual Secret Service, but he’s carrying a similar piece.”
Scott stared at the doorway being guarded by the aforementioned black-suited, aviator-wearing bodyguards. “Think about it. The hottest of all the commanders-in-chief might right now be sitting in that room, downing shitty tequila.”
“Somehow, I think they’d give him the good stuff. And it’s probably not him. More than likely, it’s some pretentious CEO or trust-fund playboy Mad knew. Surely, the president would go someplace more secure. Besides, if he was here, the press would be crawling everywhere.”
Scott shrugged as if he saw Everly’s wisdom but still liked his own theory better.
Grinning, she canvassed the room to see who else from Crawford Industries had come to pay their liquid respects to Mad and noticed Tavia coming her way. The stunning, polished executive dashed toward them, her standard professional smile in place.
“Good to see you here, dear. I thought you’d go back to Brooklyn after the service.” Like many raised on the Upper East Side, she said the word Brooklyn as if it was a virus she didn’t want to catch. Those poor deluded people thought the city only existed between Midtown and Harlem and wouldn’t dirty their designer shoes by walking on the rest of the island. But in every other way, Tavia had proven personable, if a bit high strung. The woman couldn’t sit still.
“Scott convinced me to stay for a while.” It hadn’t taken much. Her loft had been so quiet for the last five days. The silence had become intolerable. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d come to depend on her boss’s friendship.
For the last couple of months, he’d shown up on her doorstep out of the blue and uninvited with some project to talk about. They’d spent hours gabbing and eating. At first, she’d worried that she would have to fend off a lecherous boss, but he’d actually been surprisingly sweet. Kind, even. He’d taken a profound interest in her, but not as a lover. Somehow they’d fallen into a comfortable companionship, as if she’d known him all her life. There had not been a single spark between them.
She was going to miss him so much. The ache she felt at not seeing him again definitely hurt. Everly took a sip of wine, wishing again that she was someone else and somewhere else. Escape sounded great about now.
Tavia tapped a Prada wedge against the floor. The shoes might be a few years old, but they still looked sleek and classy. “Hey, I wanted to pass on a little insider info. Crawford’s lawyer is meeting with the executor of his will Monday, so it looks like we’ll have some news about the company’s future soon.”
Scott went a little green. “So the pink slips could go out in quick order. God, I don’t want to look for another job. It took forever to find this one.”
Tavia shook her head, her pale hair jerking over her shoulders. “There’s always a shake-up after someone new takes the reins, but you should be fine in the executive development program. They usually take out the players at the top. The new guy tends to like to bring in his own leadership team because he’s sure he can trust them. It also serves to show everyone who’s the boss. If anyone’s going to get the boot, it will be me and Everly.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “It could be any of us. I’m not exactly a peon, thank you very much, just rotating through all the departments until the program ends.”
Three margaritas and a funeral had left Scott prickly and morose.
“Which means you’ll be valuable, Scott,” Everly assured her friend. “You know something about every part of Crawford, having spent six months in most of the major departments. You’ll be fine.”
“Exactly,” Tavia agreed. “But before I’m kicked to the curb, I need to make sure the new boss understands the importance of the foundation’s work. It’s excellent PR, and we all know Crawford Industries needs that now. With all the turmoil, our stock is down substantially. I’m hoping the new head honcho will think it looks bad to fire me two weeks before the annual fundraiser. If he keeps me until then, I’ll have a little time to convince whoever takes over that I’m worth what Maddox paid me.”
The fundraiser was the most important social event of the year at Crawford. Two weeks didn’t seem like a long time to sway a new boss, but Tavia was right. Crawford Industries’ support of her International Women and Girls Education Foundation was a true public relations gem. For a playboy like Maddox to give generously to fund educations for females in third-world countries had bought him a lot of good press and goodwill.
So why had Maddox told her privately that he wasn’t going to the gala this year? Everly frowned. He’d said it casually over dinner one night when they’d been going over her plans to strengthen their cyber security systems. He hadn’t exactly explained other than to say it was complicated. Then again, everything was complicated with Maddox Crawford.
He’d spent time with her, but he hadn’t trusted her with his secrets. And she’d understood that—right up until his plane had gone down and she’d received that mysterious e-mail.
Before his death, Everly had suspected he was hiding something. Now, she was almost certain of it. She wished she’d asked more questions and pressed harder because she needed answers now.
But she wouldn’t be able to unravel all his mysteries tonight. Starting tomorrow, she’d probably have lots of time to figure out what Maddox had been up to . . . and find a new job. Tonight, she just wanted to get blitzed enough to sleep through the night.
One white wine wasn’t going to accomplish that.
“I’ll be right back.” She gulped the rest of the vino in her glass, then stood and scanned the place. The bar was packed and seemed hopelessly understaffed. It wasn’t likely the waitress was going to make it back any time soon.
Everly couldn’t help but notice a couple of well-dressed waitstaff coming in and out of the back room, but they didn’t stop to help anyone else. If she wanted another drink, she would have to fend for herself.
Everly moved past the tables of co-workers. She stopped and said hello to some, but could barely handle the speculative stares of the rest. She knew what they thought. She wasn’t stupid. Despite the company being a large, multinational conglomerate, the corporate office of Crawford Industries still functioned like a small town. Gossip abounded, and there was no one they liked to gossip about more than the boss.
She’d been linked to him from the moment she was hired. Her first day on the job, he’d shown her around personally, sparking the rumors that she was Crawford’s mistress. When he’d bumped her up to head of security after only six months on the job, the chin-wagging had become unrelenting. Though that made her job difficult, Everly had put her head down and worked. She’d stopped a corporate spy and helped the FBI track down a ring that had used Crawford subsidiaries for phishing expeditions. Still, no matter how effective she’d proven herself, the employees still speculated that she’d slept her way to the top.
Everly sighed. That was a joke. She hadn’t slept with anyone in well over a year, and her long dry spell didn’t look like it would end anytime soon. At least the tabloids hadn’t printed the rumors of her torrid affair with Maddox. She had to be thankful for that small miracle.
She elbowed and nudged her way up to the crowded bar and tried to get the bartender’s attention. Unfortunately, she only counted two people working.
She held out a hand as one headed her way. “Can I get a drink?”
He walked right past her, but he did stop for the two blondes at the end of the bar. They were thin and gorgeous. Story of her life. She’d always been short and slightly more plump than fashion dictated. Damn it, that didn’t mean she didn’t need a drink as much as the skinny chicks.
The bartender turned and headed her way again.
“I’d like a glass of wine, please.”
Nothing. Not even a “hey, I’ll be with you in a minute” that she wouldn’t believe. He just walked to the opposite end of the bar and started prepping what looked like Cosmopolitans. The female bartender walked by, even more dismissive than the first.
The male walked by again and delivered the drinks to the two supermodels at the end of the bar. This time she was ready. She leaned over because maybe he just hadn’t heard her the first two times.
“Hello, could I get a glass of…”
He started to stride past her again, but a large hand zipped out beside her and over the bar, stopping him in his tracks. “I believe the lady needs a drink. I’d appreciate it if you would help her now.”
That was the deepest, sexiest voice she’d ever heard in her life. It was attached to a really masculine-looking hand.
The bartender’s eyes widened. “Of course, sir.” He finally turned his attention to her. “What can I get you, ma’am?”
At the moment, Everly wasn’t interested in wine.
She glanced over her shoulder at her rescuer. The sexiness didn’t end with his voice. Vaguely, she noted that while she’d had to shove her way through the crowd, the mass of humanity had seemingly parted for him. He stood alone, though closer to her than strictly necessary. Tall and broad, with close-cropped golden brown hair and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, her Good Samaritan stared down at her with a bit of a smile. Her tummy knotted.
“He needs to know what kind of wine you’d like. Let me guess.” He gave her a considering stare. “A sweet red?”
She shook her head. “No. Um, a Sauvignon Blanc. I prefer white wine. Red tends to upset my reflux.”
Way to go, Everly. That was a super sexy comeback to the hottest man she’d ever met. Of course he wanted to know about her digestive issues.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that.” A hint of amusement lurked in his voice. “The lady will take a Sauvignon Blanc, and I’ll have a Scotch. The Glenlivet twenty-five.”
The bartender immediately went to work.
“Thanks.” She felt herself blushing. She probably looked like an idiot schoolgirl to him and could only hope she hadn’t drooled. She’d never seen him before, but she would bet he occupied the VIP room. Maybe he was an actor. He certainly looked good enough to be on the screen. “I couldn’t seem to get him to hear me.”
Mr. Gorgeous’s lips curved up as he leaned against the bar. “I don’t think his ears are the problem. The man seems a bit blind to me.”
Everly wasn’t sure what that meant, but she found it impossible to look away from him. “I guess he’s really busy tonight. The place is packed. I even heard the strangest rumor that the president is here.”
The man laughed and sidled closer. “I’m sure the leader of the free world can get better booze at the White House.” He held out that big hand of his. “Name’s Gabriel.”
Like the archangel except in a really well-cut suit. His name was fitting. She put her hand in his, and he immediately covered it with his other. He swallowed her hand between his palms, the heat from his skin warming her own.
“I’m, um . . . Eve. It’s nice to meet you.”
She didn’t like the idea of this man calling her the same thing as all her business associates. Only her family and closest friends called her Eve. Tonight, she didn’t want to be the woman worrying about her job and how she was going to afford her loft. She’d rather be someone whose only pressing concern was to flirt with a hot guy. This conversation was likely to go nowhere, but she could fantasize about the handsome stranger.
Everly knew she was something of a wunderkind computer geek, but maybe Eve could be a flirty seductress. Eve could drink her wine and pretended that the gorgeous man beside her saw her as an irresistible woman.
Yes, she would like to be Eve tonight.
“It’s nice to meet you, Eve. You live around here?”
She shook her head. “No, I have a place in Brooklyn, close to where I grew up. How about you?”
“I was born on the Upper East Side, but I get out as often as possible.”
The bartender put the drinks in front of them. “Here you go, sir.”
Gabriel passed him what looked like two hundred-dollar bills. “Keep the change.”
So he was wealthy. It wasn’t surprising since he’d admitted he’d been born in this part of town. She sipped her fifteen-dollar glass of wine. “You’re a generous man.”
He took a healthy swig of Scotch. “Not really. This is very expensive booze. I can’t help it; I’m a Scotch snob. I like it to be a single malt and at least able to vote. I’m more flexible on my other tastes.” He cast a sidelong glance back toward the table she’d been sitting at. “Is that your husband over there?”
Everly looked back, and Scott was sitting by himself again, Tavia now engrossed in another conversation at a nearby table with some of Crawford’s other management, gesticulating as quickly as her lips moved. “No. He’s just a friend. I’m not exactly his type.”
“Then every man here tonight is blind it seems.”
She could almost feel his gaze like a physical caress, moving from her eyes to her chest. His stare lingered there for a moment before he shook his head as though he was correcting himself. At his inspection, she stifled the urge to shiver. “Are you with the VIP party that’s occupying all the waitresses?”
He grimaced, though it did nothing to mar his beauty. “I’m afraid I am, but I needed to get out for minute. I thought I’d stretch my legs and fend for myself. Now I’m happy I did. I saw you on the street earlier.”
“Really?” He’d noticed her?
Gabriel nodded. “You were walking down Eighty-fourth. I suppose you were coming here. Were you with the crowd at the church?”
Nope, she’d hovered near the back, not wanting to see the casket that represented the death of a friend she would long mourn. She didn’t want to talk about the funeral now. Since Gabriel lived in the area, he’d probably been doing something happier today. Why bring down his mood, too? Besides, tonight she was Eve—a woman without problems. “I was in the mood for a drink.”
“Well, I was, too. Maybe we can share a couple. This place is crowded though.”
Was he merely making an observation or actually suggesting she leave with him? Her heart rate tripled. Yes, she knew she shouldn’t run off with a stranger. Serial killers could be beautiful, too. And yet, the idea of getting to know this man intrigued her.
”Gabe? Come on, man. We’re waiting on you. They found the cigars, but Zack won’t light up until you come back.” A tall, muscular man with chocolate eyes and black hair in a buzz cut joined them, glancing at her with a smile. “Hello. My name’s Dax. What’s yours?”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed and he put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Her name is I Saw Her First.”
Dax put his hands up as if to concede the point. He looked terribly amused. “Well, that’s a lovely name, but Gabe needs to go see our old friend, who won’t be here much longer because he has important things to do. He’s leaving in twenty minutes. Something about a crisis in the Middle East. Like that won’t be there tomorrow.”
“All right.” Gabriel sent her what seemed to be a regretful smile. “It was nice to meet you, Eve. I don’t suppose you’re hanging out here all night?”
She didn’t want to let him walk away, but apparently her little fantasy was going to end sooner than expected. And it was probably for the best. Running off with a stranger for a hot fling while her life was in turmoil wasn’t smart . . . though the escape would have been nice. “No. But it was nice to meet you. Thanks for the drink.”
Before she was tempted to blurt out her phone number, Everly turned away and rejoined Scott.
“Who’s the hottie?” He watched Gabriel and Dax disappear into the back of the bar. “Or should I say hotties, plural? I didn’t get a good look at them, but you can tell a lot from a man’s backside. Tell me one of them is gay and we’re about to get lucky.”
She sighed and took another sip of what would likely be her last glass of wine for the night. “Nope. We’re definitely not getting lucky.”
The kind of luck it took to snag gorgeous Gabriel only seemed to happen to other girls. She took another drink and wished she’d been able to play Eve just a little while longer.
Copyright Black Oak Books 2015