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Dark Bargains - A Romantic Suspense Serial

 

Dark Bargains

Part One

 

Olivia Blake

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters in this story are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locales, or events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Olivia Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this eBook may be reproduced in any form or by any means, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

Summary

I’m the mistress of a rich and powerful man who delights in pain and humiliation. It’s a life I chose, and there’s no going back from it now. Marcus owns me, body and soul, and I’m his until he uses me up. I used to pray that day would come quickly, until I met his brother, Lucas.

Now I just pray that I can have five minutes in the arms of the man who is everything I’ve ever dreamed of, everything his brother could never be.

My brother calls her his fiancée, but I know that’s a lie. No woman in her right mind would consider marrying that psychopath, and Diane isn’t insane. No, I’m the one who’s crazy, obsessing over the hollow-eyed beauty who haunts my house during the day and my dreams at night. My iron-clad rule is to never get involved, but I’m about to break the hell out of it.

I just can’t figure out whether I really want to save her, or if I just want to make her mine.

  • * *

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[] TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Dark Bargains

 

Bonus Material

 

The Winter Billionaires

 

With One Word

 

Lessons in Love

 

About the Author

 

[] Dark Bargains

Diane’s first thought as she stepped out of the plane onto the jet bridge was to run. How hard would it be to lose herself in the crowded airport with hundreds of people all around? It would be the perfect time to vanish without leaving a trail.

A blast of dry, burning air scorched her through one of the gaps in the bridge, and she paused to squint out into the brilliant, white glare. Above the runways, the air shimmered in the brutal August heat, and she felt a pang of sympathy for the crews she saw working outside. How did they stand it? She was already drying out in the desert air, and she wet her lips while her tongue still retained a little moisture.

With a murmured apology to the people waiting behind her, she hurried up the bridge and into the gate area. As she emerged into the open, a riot of noise hit her from all sides. People swarmed about like ants hurrying in all directions, intent on their own business and barely taking notice of the others around them. She was practically invisible.

Run.

The herd of other passengers from her plane appeared to know where they were going, so she followed along behind them. Even if she did run, where could she go? She didn’t know anyone here, and she didn’t have any money—just credit cards that would leave a trail a blind man could follow. And Marcus was far from blind.

Besides, the cards were all in his name with hers just added on as an authorized user, subtle chains to keep her bound to him. While they were disguised as access to more wealth than she’d ever had in her life, they left her completely at his mercy. If she bought a plane or bus ticket with them, he’d have the cards shut down by the time she reached her destination, leaving her stranded and helpless.

Knowing Marcus, she had probably been watched from the moment she got off the plane anyway. Her suspicions got a boost when a clean-cut man in a dark gray suit plucked her off the escalator at the baggage claim area.

“Miss Blanchard? Mr. St. Cyr sent me to meet you. If you’ll come with me, I’ll take you to the limo.”

“But my baggage,” she objected, waving towards the carousels.

“We have someone picking it up, and he’ll bring it to the house as soon as it comes out.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s all right, Miss. Most likely it will be out in just a few minutes, but if there’s a problem he’ll take care of it so you don’t have to wait around at the airport for them to sort it out.”

Even if she’d wanted to argue, there would have been no point. At best she’d cause a public scene with a man who was simply doing his job, and after it was over she’d just end up going with him anyway. She nodded in resignation and followed him towards the doors. What else could she do? Running had never really been an option.

Her escort guided her to the limo outside with a gentle hand on her elbow, then opened the door and made sure she was well in before shutting it behind her and climbing in on the opposite side.

“There’s bottled water in the console.”

“Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Glen Fischer, Ma’am. I work for Mr. St. Cyr’s father.”

“Thank you, Glen.”

He apparently had nothing to say after that, and they spent the thirty minute drive in silence. Diane was just as glad to be left alone. She knew she’d have little enough peace and quiet once Marcus arrived later. With a grimace she sank back against the buttery soft leather and took a long drink of ice-cold water. If their time in Bossier City was any indication, Marcus would be out all night every night dragging her from casino to casino until she was so exhausted that she wanted to do nothing but sleep for a week.

She hardly saw the house at first. It was tucked below the roadway and hidden behind a lush growth of palms and acacias so that at first nothing was visible except glimpses of the reddish-brown roof tiles. Behind it, the glassy waters of Lake Las Vegas stretched out like a heat mirage to the barren shores in the distance. Other splotches of green cropped up here and there, but for the most part the far banks looked as lifeless as the Moon.

As the limo turned off the road onto the private drive, the rest of the house opened up. The circular driveway and sidewalks were of multicolored brick, while the house was a Mediterranean style of mixed orange stucco with cut stone facings. Gravel-lined beds of hardy desert plants lined the walkway to the front of the house, which was shaded by the overhanging branches of two rows of tall trees.

“Wait here while I unlock the door, ma’am,” Glen told her. “No point in both of us frying out there.”

He disappeared briefly inside the deep, arched entryway then leaned out to wave for her to follow. Opening the limo door was like peeking into a hot oven. Even in the shade the dry heat seemed to suck at her skin. A pair of iron doors with tall glass panes stood invitingly open, and Diane hurried into the refreshing cool of the interior. Her heels echoed loudly on the polished red granite floor until she clattered to a halt and stared around, dumbfounded.

It wasn’t until that moment that the true wealth of the St. Cyr family truly sank in. Sure, Marcus had money to burn and they’d driven around in limos and stayed in luxury suites at the best hotels in Shreveport, but she’d been in limos a couple of times before, and while some of the hotel rooms had been pretty spectacular, they were still just hotel rooms. This was a house. The St. Cyrs owned this. And it wasn’t even one of their main residences, just a place that they used when they didn’t want to stay in their suites in their hotel on The Strip. Marcus had told her that their father had snapped it up at a steep discount when the owner went bankrupt a few years back, but that didn’t make it any less breathtaking.

This wasn’t a house—it was a palace. The decorations in the foyer alone probably cost more than her parents’ house with everything in it, and it spread out into an immense open living area with vaulted ceilings easily twenty feet high. A long series of tall, wood-framed windows faced out onto the red and brown expanses of the desert, while off to the other side a curved staircase of stacked stone blocks wound up and around to the second floor. In recessed alcoves spaced around the room life size bronze statues stood in various poses, while exquisite paintings hung in the spaces between. The furniture was all of wood, dark and elegantly carved, or expensive stuffed leather of the sort that Diane had often lingered over with hopeless longing in showrooms.

Diane stared and forgot to breathe. She’d never seen anything like this, not even in the movies. They were going to live here?

“There’s no one else here?”

“The St. Cyr’s don’t generally have staff here, ma’am. This is where they come when they want to be alone and get away from it all. When they want maid service and such, they call the hotel and someone comes out.”

“I see.” Alone with Marcus. Who said Hell couldn’t be beautiful?

“Mr. St. Cyr’s plane was delayed, so he won’t be in until later tonight. Will you be all right by yourself?”

“Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Feel free to explore—you’ve got free run of the house. The kitchen is back around to the left, all fully stocked, and if you need a bathroom, well, there are six or seven of them so I imagine you can find one without too much trouble. The big living room is around on the other side, and the bedrooms are all upstairs if you’re tired after your trip.”

Glen started to leave and paused. “Oh, don’t worry about letting in the man who brings your luggage. He’s security and has a key.”

“All right.” She started to reach into her purse, and realized that she didn’t have so much as a dollar in cash. “I’m sorry,” she said, blushing, “I don’t have any…”

He cut her off with a surprised laugh. “You don’t tip me, Miss Blanchard. My boss does that.” His eyes fastened on her as though really looking at her for the first time, and when he spoke again his voice was softer and a bit friendlier. “Where the hell did Marcus find you?”

“Vinton, Louisiana.”

“Well, Miss Diane Blanchard from Vinton, Louisiana, take care. Especially around Marcus.”

Her throat went tight and she looked away. She hardly needed any warnings about that. For a moment Glen stood there looking as though he wanted to say something else, but then he turned and strode away. The massive iron doors closed solidly behind him, and Diane was alone. It took about twenty seconds for the silence to become deafening.

First thing to do was take care of her aching feet. She slid out of her heels and sighed as her soles touched the cool stone. Much better. The dryness of her mouth sent her down the hallway in the direction where Glen had told her she could find the kitchen.

“Oh, wow,” she breathed.

A long, granite-topped breakfast bar stretched across half the room. Stainless steel appliances gleamed mirror-bright, and endless rows of cherry cabinets glowed under the soft accent lights. On the far side of the room a cozy breakfast nook nestled within its arc of tall bay windows. Diane’s heart gave a little flip as she saw it. That had always been one of the centerpieces of her dream home. It took her a second to realize that the bay windows looked onto a giant atrium rather than the outdoors.

The atrium ran almost the whole length of the house from front to back, with a glass roof covering the whole thing. From the front wall a swimming pool extended most of the way to the back, where a raised marble fountain splashed and bubbled. To either side of the fountain, glass doors led out to the enormous stone deck, where there was yet another swimming pool and a path which appeared to lead down to the lake. Up on the second floor, a balcony stretched all the way around the atrium, and Diane could see other windows facing into the pool from the opposite side of the house.

Eager to explore now, she retrieved a fresh bottle of water from the refrigerator and headed towards the back of the house with her heels dangling half-forgotten from her hand. Around the corner she found a door to the atrium, and she couldn’t help bending to run her fingers through the water in the pool. It was just cool to the touch, and her parched skin ached to slide into it and soak, but she didn’t have a swimsuit and she still wanted to see more of the house.

Unlatching one of the back doors, she stepped back out into the heat of the day. The covered deck had a lovely view of the lake, and the swimming pool was a crystal blue confection edged with rough desert stone. To one side, just within the eaves of a stand of desert willows, a tall, rocky waterfall sent water crashing into a pond. Past that, a sandy path led down to the lake’s edge where a wooden pier jutted a dozen yards out to a white and black pontoon boat sitting high in the water.

A boat, too? It was all so perfect. Once Diane would have given anything to live in a house like this that incorporated so many of the things that she’d daydreamed about while knowing that she’d never have them. Now it all seemed like a cruel joke. She could have the things she’d wished for, but the price was far more dear than she’d ever imagined.

That thought drained the joy out of her surroundings, so she trudged back inside, dutifully closing the door behind her. For a moment she considered walking through the other side of the house, but all enthusiasm for exploring had fled so she returned to the kitchen instead. What to do now? There was no telling when Marcus would show up, and she had no idea what to do with her free time. With a sigh, she dropped her heels at the end of the breakfast bar and climbed onto one of the high, leather stools. She had a couple of bikinis in her luggage, so at least when that got there she’d be able to go for a swim. There had to be clean towels somewhere around the place.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Diane jumped out of the chair with a startled squeak and spun around, her fist squeezing the plastic bottle in her hand until water ran down her fingers. Emerald-green eyes glinting with gold and framed with thick, sooty lashes bored in on her, and she couldn’t look away. Mesmerized, her heartbeat shifted from its panicked stutter to a slower, primal throb that pulsed down into her fingertips and toes.

“Do you not understand English?”

His words broke the spell, and Diane finally took in the rest of him. Glossy, black hair framed an angular, arrogant face which was regarding her with open displeasure, and the body wearing the tailored Italian suit that cost more than she made in a year seemed to shout, ‘I deserve this!’ She would have been hard pressed to argue. That solid, six foot frame had the kind of powerful shoulders and arms guaranteed to make a woman feel tiny and secure in their grasp, with a narrow waist and flat stomach, trim hips and powerful thighs, and…

Diane’s mouth went dry and her eyes flickered back to his face, where his annoyance now seemed tinged with amusement. Her cheeks flamed in embarrassment for the second time that afternoon. When was the last time she’d been busted for checking out a guy so brazenly?

“I’m Diane Blanchard,” she said around the thick wad of cotton that seemed to be filling her mouth. “I’m waiting for Marcus.”

The man went very still. “Marcus?”

“Yes. We were supposed to fly in together, but he got held up with something at the casino so he sent me ahead. Glen said his plane had been delayed so he wouldn’t be here until late this evening, though.”

“Glen?”

“Glen Fischer. He’s the one who dropped me off. I believe he said he works for Marcus’ father.”

A little of the tension faded from the man’s shoulders. “Then it sounds like you’re supposed to be here. Even if you’re not supposed to be here.”

That didn’t make any sense to her, but she didn’t really care. He made every part of her feel alive, awake and tingling as though she’d downed six double espressos. So long as he’d stay and keep talking to her, he could say anything, anything at all.

“I’m Lucas St. Cyr.”

Except that.

  • * *

The meetings in Macau had been a bitch, and it had taken all of Lucas’ negotiating skills to get the Chinese investors and regulators on board with his father’s new casino project. By the time he’d gotten all the signatures he needed, the trip had drained the life out of him and he badly needed to recharge. A week or two relaxing in the quiet solitude of the family’s lake house was the answer, and he’d called his father earlier in the week to make sure that the place would be unoccupied when he got back.

When Lucas was this bone-tired he got cranky, and he didn’t want to be tripping over other people and taking out his foul temper on the innocent. That call to his father should have ensured that house was empty, which was why his temper had flared almost out of control when he walked into the kitchen and found a stranger sitting there. Well, the fact that from behind she bore a striking resemblance to Sandra didn’t help matters, of course, and was probably the real reason for his outburst.

Hell, he hadn’t meant to scare her, but seeing the spitting image of Sandra sitting there in a house that was supposed to be empty had nailed him right in the gut. When she leaped up to face him the resemblance had faded, although from her hollow-eyed despair she might be every bit as damned. Ghostly blue eyes stared at him like she’d never seen a man before, snaring him in their depths until her gaze shifted and she looked him over in a way that made it clear that it was precisely as a man that she was examining him.

Suddenly he didn’t feel nearly as tired.

Marcus’ name drew him up cold, though. His younger half-brother’s taste in women was invariably as low as his tastes in everything other pursuit he enjoyed. Damn it, he’d come to the lake house to relax and be alone, not put up with the stupid antics that Marcus and his drunken “girlfriends” got up to whenever they stayed. Why couldn’t the asshole have checked in with their father before sending his whore alone to their house?

Still, it wasn’t her fault that Marcus was an inconsiderate jerk, and he had no business taking his frustration out on her. He could understand that she’d be pissed at him after scaring her that way. But why had she suddenly gone from openly drooling over him to looking at him like something nasty that had crawled out from under a rock as soon as he told her who he was?

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, and that was unforgivably rude. The house was supposed to be empty, and finding you here was something of a surprise. Can we start over? I’m Lucas St. Cyr, Marcus’ older brother. Half-brother,” he amended.

He offered her an apologetic smile and held out a hand. Diane stared at it for a moment before gingerly accepting it, much the way she might have reacted to someone holding out a snake. Her small hand was warm and impossibly soft against his palm, and he found himself oddly reluctant to let go.

“Diane Blanchard,” she sighed. “I work—worked—at the St. Cyr casino in Vinton.”

“And that’s where you met Marcus?”

“Yes. I was a CPA in the business office.”

That rocked him back on his heels. She was a CPA? What the hell? A waitress or croupier he would have understood, but a CPA? The Marcus he knew hooked up with slutty-looking party girls, not quietly lovely women with advanced degrees. Of course looks could always be deceiving. Not that it mattered. The kind of women Marcus slept with was none of his concern—and neither was she.

“At any rate, you have my apologies for my… abruptness. Please make yourself at home while you wait for Marcus.”

“Thanks,” she said softly, her eyes busy looking anywhere but at him.

With a shrug of annoyance he turned away. Screw it, he’d apologized and made an effort to be polite. If she didn’t like him, that was just too bad. Very soon she’d be gone, and he could get on with his rest and relaxation binge—just as soon as he got Marcus alone and chased them both out.

It wasn’t that easy, though. His mind insisted on flickering back to her as soon as his attention wandered even a little. Wide, pale blue eyes set in a face that he wouldn’t at all have minded looking at from across a pillow, with a wealth of rich, chestnut curls that he could already imagine brushing with silken electricity across his bare skin. She’d been dressed stylishly, even modestly for one of Marcus’ women, in gray slacks with a simple cream blouse and a black jacket. But the way those slacks had clung to her legs and hips had left him intensely aware of the body that she had tucked so demurely away—just as she seemed to be aware of his.

A smirk hovered on his lips as he remembered the way she had looked at him, and it widened at the way she had blushed when she realized what she was doing and that he’d noticed. So again, what the hell was she doing with Marcus? None of the women his brother normally dated had blushed since they hit puberty.

But Diane hadn’t actually said she was with Marcus, had she? She’d only said she was waiting for him. Perhaps…

He quelled the thought before it got good and started. Her superficial resemblance to Sandra had caught him off guard, found a chink in his armor that he hadn’t realized was there. Now he was making up excuses to fantasize about a woman who had the incredibly poor taste or judgment to hook up with Marcus. No matter what Diane had said or not said, there was no way Marcus would have sent her to the family lake house if she wasn’t his current fling.

That sparked a brief surge of anger that swiftly died to embers and ash as he remembered that first look into Diane’s eyes. Maybe he ought to consider letting them stay after all. How long could it take for her to get thoroughly tired of Marcus?

Afternoon had faded to evening before Lucas ventured out of his room. He’d tried to sleep, but had only managed a restless doze that did little to take the edge off of his weariness. He kept envisioning Diane as he saw her when he walked into the kitchen, her resemblance to Sandra nearly stopping his heart. Damn. He was never going to sleep at this rate. Grumbling in frustration, he climbed out of bed and changed into a pair of comfortable jeans and a navy blue t-shirt that wasn’t too wrinkled.

A couple of beers on the deck enjoying the stars and lake ought to help bring him down. If he ran into Diane, that was her problem. Maybe he’d freaked her out at first, but he’d apologized and tried to smooth it over. He’d be damned if he’d avoid her in his own house just because she seemed to be afraid of him.

He stepped out of his room onto the balcony which looked down onto the pool in the atrium. Overhead, the purple of dusk was rapidly deepening into full dark, and a scattering of stars twinkled in the gloom. The house around him was dark and silent—he’d forgotten to set the automated system when he came in, and everything was programmed for the house to be empty.

Except it wasn’t exactly silent. At the edge of his hearing, so that faint he wasn’t sure that he wasn’t imagining it, Lucas thought he heard a woman crying. An icy weight settled on his chest and he held his breath, straining his ears. Was it real, or just his mind playing tricks on him from lack of sleep? At the opposite end of the balcony, a dim wedge of yellow light trickled from beneath the door to the bedroom situated furthest from his own. Lucas wet his lips, still listening, and stared at the light. After standing there for what seemed to be an eternity he made a move as though to take a step towards it, then shook himself and headed down the stairs instead.

He didn’t want to know. But whether it was real or not, he was going to have his hands full just dealing with the memories that Diane’s presence had resurrected.

Later, when he was in the kitchen digging another beer out of the fridge, noises from the front of the house made his ears prick up. It had to be Marcus. A fresh wave of anger propelled him to the foyer, where he found his half-brother locking the front door. As he saw Lucas approaching, Marcus drew his lips up in an insincere smile.

“Lucas, how good to see you. I thought you were still in Macau.”

“Bullshit.” He crossed his arms and frowned at the younger man. “I told Dad three days ago that I was going to be here, and checked in again before my flight landed this afternoon.”

Marcus gave an unconcerned shrug. “I guess I forgot to touch base before coming. My bad.”

“So go stay in your suite. You know how this works. The house is mine for the next two weeks.”

His brother rolled his eyes. “Jesus, will you lighten the fuck up? This place is huge. There could be eight of us here without bumping into one another.”

“That’s not the point,” Lucas bit out.

“You’re overreacting. As usual.”

“And for the record, I don’t appreciate you dumping one of your—” His lips had already formed the word whores, but a sixth sense warned him that Diane was standing on the stairs behind him and he censored himself to, “—girlfriends off here unannounced, either.”

“She’s my fiancée,” Marcus said.

Lucas stared at him, then gave a bark of laughter. “Like hell.”

“I don’t really give a damn whether you believe me or not,” his brother replied with a careless shrug. “She is my fiancée, and I brought her to the house because I know she’ll be happier and more comfortable staying here than in my suite at Illusions. Now, can we all pretend to be adults and coexist peacefully for a few days? Since Diane is going to be your sister-in-law, it might be nice for you to get to know her.”

He was going to grit the enamel right off of his teeth if he wasn’t careful. The truth was that he very much wanted to get to know Diane—but not as his brother’s wife-to-be. Had that not been the case, he probably would have been more graceful about the whole thing from the outset. As it was, Marcus had put him in a position where he had no choice but to give in or look like an ass in front of her, which he no doubt had already managed quite nicely.

“All right,” he conceded. “Under the circumstances, you’re welcome to stay. Diane,” he said, turning to the slender shadow on the stairs, “my objection had nothing to do with you. Marcus and I don’t always get along, and when my father bought this house he agreed that either of us could use it with the stipulation that we made a reservation with him ahead of time to avoid little confrontations like this. I’m sorry you had to see it, and I assure you that you are welcome here.”

“At least one of us is,” Marcus remarked drily.

“I doubt you want me to remind you of the many reasons for that in front of your fiancée.”

“And I doubt that you could tell her anything she doesn’t already know. Yet she stays with me anyway.” He winked at Lucas then strode up the stairs, passing Diane along the way. “Come along to bed, my love. I do believe we’ve imposed on my brother enough for one evening.”

Diane flung one last look over her shoulder at Lucas—desperation, resignation, he couldn’t tell—and then bent her head and followed Marcus upstairs. To Lucas she looked more like a condemned prisoner walking to her execution than a woman reunited with her new fiancée.

It wasn’t until she disappeared that his heart resumed beating.

Come along to bed. His stomach twisted. He had to get out. Snatching up his phone, he practically sprinted to the garage where he’d parked his 488 GTB. Under the fluorescents, the dark red paint and black trim of the Ferrari gleamed like a giant, deadly wasp about to strike. Lucas still had his phone in his hand, and he quickly dialed a number.

“Hi, Stephanie, it’s me. Yes, I just got back this afternoon. Would you like to get together for a drink? Sure, at Fever would be perfect. I’ll meet you there in about half an hour.”

He kept a light foot on the accelerator until he got up onto the open road, and then he punched the gas. Behind him, the engine wailed as the RPM needle jumped, and the tires bit into the asphalt to hurtle him into the night. He’d driven the road a thousand times, could probably do it in his sleep, but he kept his unblinking eyes glued to the road in his headlights. As he came to the arroyo his gaze never wavered—only a muscle twitching in his clenched jaw gave any indication that he was aware of it as he roared around the curve and over the narrow bridge. Then it was past, and he backed off the gas as the Ferrari settled onto the smooth, two-lane highway going into Henderson.

Fever was an upscale bar in the casino level of his father’s hotel, Illusions. Lucas wasn’t surprised to find Stephanie already waiting for him when he got there. The tall, blonde model had gotten more than a few very lucrative contracts by being in the right casino at the right time, and spent a good bit of her downtime on The Strip enjoying the ambience. She smiled and slid a glass towards him as he took the seat next to her.

“Hello, stranger. How was Macau?”

“Rough. I got it done, but I’d just as soon not have to go through anything like that again for a while.”

“Well, congratulations.” She clinked her glass lightly against his.

She’d started off as Sandra’s best friend, and then she’d become his friend, and they’d been friends with benefits for the last two years. It was easy with Stephanie—she never demanded more, never pushed him. They enjoyed each others’ company and enjoyed one another in bed, but neither seemed to feel any pressure to take the next step. For the last two years that had been enough for Lucas.

He told her about his trip while they watched the parade of people moving past, and then ordered another round while she filled him in on her life during the weeks while he’d been away and too busy to talk.

“So,” she drawled, “you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?”

Her fingers brushed lightly along the back of his hand. “How long have we known each other, now? Come on, spill it.”

Lucas let out a slow breath. “It’s been a bad night. Marcus showed up at the lake house with a woman he claims is his fiancée. And the memories have been bad today.”

“Is she crazy? No woman in her right mind would marry Marcus.”

“I don’t think she’s crazy. I’m not sure what she is.”

Stephanie went very still. “Is she the reason for the memories?”

“She looks a little like Sandra. From behind. Same hair, similar build, the way she carries herself. When I got home she was sitting in the kitchen, facing away from me. I thought for a moment… Fuck, I don’t know what I thought.”

Her fingers squeezed his hand. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. I just needed to get away for a while.”

“I understand.” She looked at him, pity mixing with tenderness in her soft, brown eyes. “Would you like to go upstairs? Or you could spend the night at my place, if you prefer.”

As often as not, when they met for a drink they either ended up in his suite or her apartment. Tonight, though, the idea held none of its usual appeal. He wasn’t about to tell her that it was not so much that he wasn’t in the mood as it was because he couldn’t seem to get those haunted, pale blue eyes out of his head.

“I’m not in a good place tonight, Steph.”

“You’re welcome to just sleep, you know,” she told him softly. “It doesn’t have to be about sex.”

“I know. I just… Not tonight.”

Not when his mind would be consumed with someone else. That wasn’t fair. He could never do that to her, even if they weren’t serious about each other.

“Well, in that case, did you hear about the guy they busted scamming the slots at Monte Carlo? Turns out he was one of the original programmers and managed to sneak in some kind of back door over five years ago.”

Lucas followed along with half his attention while the rest of his mind drifted back to those hypnotic blue eyes. Just who was Diane Blanchard?

  • * *

Diane had crawled out of bed as soon as she woke up, tiptoeing around the room while she gathered her things so she wouldn’t rouse Marcus. Two doors down the hall she found a bathroom that looked like it came out of a high class spa, and she spent almost half an hour luxuriating in its giant waterfall shower.

By the time she finally felt clean again, her stomach had begun to rumble. She’d skipped dinner the night before, hiding out in the bedroom she was sharing with Marcus and pretending to sleep in hopes that she’d avoid having to deal with either of the St. Cyr brothers for at least a while. Unfortunately, that had only lasted until Marcus got tired of drinking in front of the television downstairs and came looking for other entertainment.

With a shudder of revulsion, Diane finished drying off and pulled on a comfortable pair of printed shorts and a plain, white tank top. She wasn’t interested in impressing anyone today. If she wasn’t up to their dress code, the St. Cyrs could just take a long walk off that pier behind their house. Maybe she’d get really lucky and she wouldn’t see either of them all day.

The day before Glen had told her that the kitchen was fully stocked, but when she started looking around her hopes fell. Half the refrigerator was taken up with various imported beer, while the freezer was crammed with frozen pizzas and egg rolls and other assorted junk food along with a couple of dozen bags of gourmet coffee beans. That last part she could at least get on board with. After peering at the labels she selected one that said it was from the Galapagos Islands and opened the bag to take a cautious sniff. Wow. If Heaven had a scent, it was in that bag of coffee beans.

There was a coffee maker on the counter, and after some scrounging she turned up a grinder in one of the cabinets. A couple of minutes the later the smell of Heaven was filling the whole kitchen while she dug eggs and bacon out from their hiding place behind the beer. She was going to have to insist that Marcus let her go shopping for some real food if they were staying here more than a couple of days. It wasn’t that she minded eating out, but they kept different schedules and she was not going to subsist on frozen pizzas during the day while Marcus slept off his drinking binges.

The morning was still cool enough that Diane decided to have her breakfast out on the deck. What was the point of staying at a house on the lake if you sat inside the whole time? She carried her plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast out to one of the glass-topped tables and stretched out with her feet propped up in an empty chair. An early morning breeze turned the lake into a pool of rippling gold, and Diane sipped her coffee with satisfaction. Apparently even Hell had its perks.

She’d just finished off most of her breakfast when she heard the door behind her open. Turning, she saw Lucas emerge in a pair of cutoff denim shorts and a black t-shirt that molded to his upper body as though it was painted on. Diane’s mouth went dry. The guy had to do some serious working out to get arms and thighs like that. Remembering how she’d gotten caught checking him out the day before, she quickly dragged her eyes away from his body and up to his face.

He was actually smiling at her, and the mesmerizing green of his eyes had softened. Diane’s heart gave an odd little flutter, sending a wave of panic rushing through her. No, the last thing in the world she needed was flutters, especially over a St. Cyr. She had enough problems in that department already. The way her mind and body reacted to his mere presence terrified her more than anything Marcus could do to her. No matter how sexy Lucas was, no matter how beautiful his eyes were, to her he was nothing but a disaster waiting to strike.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” he said. “Do you mind if I join you?”

She did mind and wanted to say so, but it wasn’t her house. “Go ahead.”

He took a seat across from her, making no attempt to intrude on her space, and took a sip from his coffee mug as he slowly took in the view of the lake. “I always come out here for my first cup of the morning,” he told her. “Thank you for making it, by the way. The Galapagos was an excellent choice.”

Diane hid her face behind her own mug, oddly pleased and flustered. “You don’t have to thank me. It’s your coffee.”

A smile toyed with his lips. “Yeah, but it always tastes better when someone else makes it, right?”

That flutter came back with a vengeance. She should not be staring at his lips. No matter how full and soft they looked. God, she was losing her mind. Not that it was surprising, under the circumstances, but she would have thought she’d last longer than a month. Taking a deep breath, she tore her gaze from his face and focused on the barren hillsides in the distance.

“Diane.”

The way he said her name sent shivers of a longing she didn’t understand trickling down her spine, and her eyes turned back to him of their own accord. She found herself trapped in those emerald orbs again, wondering if it truly was a bad thing.

“We got off on the wrong foot yesterday. I’m really not that big of an asshole most of the time. It’s not an excuse, but I’d been in Macau working eighteen and twenty hour days trying to get a contract taken care of for my father. When I walked in the door and snapped at you, I’d just spent almost twenty hours on a plane flying home. I was exhausted and jet-lagged, and I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not at my best when I’m running short on sleep.

“Do you think we can chalk it up to me having a bad day and start over?”

There was no way she was going to be able to resist that smile. Or those eyes. This wasn’t a disaster, it was a catastrophe.

“We all have our bad days,” she heard herself say. “It’s too beautiful a morning to hold a grudge.”

His smile inched towards a grin, and a mischievous gleam awakened in his eyes. “In that case, is there any chance I can talk you into making some more of whatever you made earlier? The kitchen smelled absolutely amazing.”

Diane had to struggle not to smile. “I made eggs and bacon and toast. It’s not exactly rocket science.”

“Look, if you can cook it in a microwave, I’m your man. I’ll admit I’ve never tried making scrambled eggs in a microwave, but I suppose I could give it a shot…”

He really was too much. Rolling her eyes, she heaved a put-upon sigh. “What’s in it for me?”

Lucas tapped a fingernail against the glass tabletop as he pretended to consider. “Have you ever driven a Ferrari?”

“How do you like your eggs?”

  • * *

On the way home from meeting Stephanie the night before, Lucas had promised himself that he was going to stay away from Diane. She was Marcus’ fiancée, and she disturbed the hell out of him. That resolve had lasted right up until the second that he was walking downstairs and smelled the coffee she’d brewed. The thought of seeing her again made his pulse do crazy things, and his chest had swelled with a nervous excitement he hadn’t felt in ages.

Damn it, she was Marcus’ fiancée. But as he sat across from her and watched the wind play with her sun-kissed curls while he tried to keep from falling headlong into those skittish, sky blue eyes, it was getting harder to remember that. Or to care. There was certainly nothing brotherly about the longings he felt when he let his eyes roam over the lightly tanned skin of her shoulders and arms, or when his mind began assembling an image of what her body looked like under that tank top.

He wanted to sit on the deck drinking in her soft beauty and talking to her all day long. He wanted to make those kissable, pink lips smile while he found out every detail about her. And then he wanted to take her upstairs to his bed and see if the reality lived up to his very active imagination.

But Diane belonged to another man, so he wasn’t going to do any of those things.

“Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take a rain check on breakfast,” he said, standing up from the table. “I’ve got a meeting with my father about the Macau trip.”

It was only stretching the truth a little. He did need to meet with his father at some point, but they hadn’t scheduled a time and it wasn’t urgent, because Roland St. Cyr had been kept apprised of every detail of the negotiations for his new casino hotel as they occurred. But it served as a convenient excuse to get Lucas away from the house and out of her presence before he slipped up and did something really stupid.

A slender eyebrow lifted skeptically. “You sure you’re not just afraid I’m going to get girl cooties on your car?”

Girl cooties? He grinned down at her. “I quit worrying about getting cooties around the time I started to appreciate girls. I think I was six.”

“Precocious, weren’t you?”

Their eyes met in an invisible shower of sparks. “I haven’t stopped appreciating them since then, either.”

Diane dipped her head to hide her face and pretended to take a sip of coffee. Had he made her blush again? Why had he said that? What the hell was he doing, flirting with her? That was way out of bounds. It was definitely time for him to go. But he couldn’t just walk away.

“I promise that you will have a chance to drive my Ferrari before you leave.”

She still wouldn’t look up at him. “All right.”

It didn’t sound as though she believed him, either. Well, she’d learn. He always kept his word, and this was one time he intended to thoroughly enjoy himself while doing so.

“Is there anything you need before I go? Marcus seems to have left you at loose ends.”

“Is there a store nearby? I’d like to pick up some things.”

“You’ll have to go into Henderson. It’s about a fifteen, twenty minute drive from here. If your phone has a GPS, it’s a straight shot in.”

Her head drooped lower. “Oh. I was hoping for something in walking distance.”

A very ugly suspicion nagged at him. “Diane. There are two Mercedes parked in the garage. The silver one is Marcus’.” When she didn’t react, he added more softly, “The black one is mine. The keys to both are hanging in the garage, along with the remotes to the security gate and the garage door. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t need to ask for permission or forgiveness.”

A hint of blue peeked at him through her eyelashes. “Thank you.”

“Sure. See you later.”

His jaw clenched as he took the stairs two at a time up to his bedroom, even more convinced that there was something very wrong going on here. The only thing that kept him from yanking his half-brother out of bed and demanding answers was his firm rule not to get involved in other peoples’ problems. If Diane stayed at the lake house more than another day or two, though, that rule was going to go flying right out the window.

Damn it. Why couldn’t they have kept him tied up in Macau for another week?

The secretary waved Lucas straight through when he got to the office, and his father rose to greet him with a warm smile and a hug that would have shocked most of the people around them. Roland St. Cyr wasn’t openly affectionate with anyone except Lucas, his only child by his beloved first wife. Since her death he’d been serially marrying much younger women, then divorcing them when he got tired of them. Marcus’ mother had been his second wife, who’d had some dreams of breaking their prenuptial agreement and walking away rich. Lucas had two other half-sisters by yet another wife, but they had been disinherited and no longer had much to do with the St. Cyrs.

“Congratulations,” the older man said. “You made a good job of a bad situation. I couldn’t have done any better if I’d gone to handle it personally.”

“Thank you.”

Roland sat back down and propped his feet on the edge of his desk. “So what brings you by? I wasn’t expecting you to come in until Monday.”

“Marcus showed up unannounced at the lake house. Or rather he sent a woman unannounced, and he showed up later. I’m giving myself some space.”

“He never bothered to check with me. Do you want me to throw him out?”

“No. It’s just odd. He said she’s his fiancée.”

His father blinked. “What woman in her right mind would marry Marcus?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. But she doesn’t seem crazy.”

“Well, there must be something wrong with her. Otherwise… At any rate, if you’re wondering whether he’d mentioned anything to me, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“It’s just damned odd.”

“That’s Marcus in a nutshell, though, isn’t it?”

Lucas nodded. “Yes, but she’s not anything at all like his usual fare. She’s quiet, pretty, and actually has a brain. She told me she was a CPA working for us in Louisiana.”

Shocked, the other man sat up straight. “You’re joking.”

“Nope. Diane Blanchard.”

“Hang on a second.” Roland’s fingers danced over his keyboard. “I’ll be damned—there she is. Handed in her notice four weeks ago. She’d been with us for the last three years and worked her way up into that CPA slot.”

“Does it say why she left?”

“Just personal reasons. Her manager was sorry to see her go, too.”

Lucas frowned. “Maybe she’s trying to marry up.”

The words left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he didn’t want to believe them. Hell, he didn’t believe them. Would a woman with Diane’s capabilities really tie herself to Marcus just to get her hands on a bit of money?

“Maybe so,” his father said. “She certainly wouldn’t be the first who wanted to cash in on the St. Cyrs.”

“No. You’re right about that.”

“Well, have you got lunch plans?”

“My calendar is free.”

“Let’s go downstairs and see how the renovations are going on the new nightclub, and then we’ll get some lunch. Afterwards we can go over the Macau deal and save you from having to make another trip on Monday.”

“Sounds good.”

It would keep him busy and away from Diane for the rest of the day, which was exactly what he needed.

Yet when he pulled into the lake house’s garage late that night, all he could think about was seeing her again. Was she still awake? Just as he was about to step into the house, he paused and went back to the box on the wall where he’d hung his keys. There were two sets of Mercedes keys hanging up there as well, but the ones to his weren’t as he’d left them. She’d taken his car out, not Marcus’. The jolt of pleasure, of satisfaction he got from that couldn’t be a good thing.

Lucas found her in the den watching television with the lights out, curled up on the couch in a long robe of purple satin. Channels flipped by, one after another in rapid succession, as she surfed her way down the list. She never paused, and her eyes never showed the slightest flicker of interest. It was an act of pure boredom.

In his mind he could see himself walking over to her, kneeling beside her and taking her into his arms. Her skin would be softer than the satin she wore, and warm beneath his hands. She’d smile, turn up her face, and he’d taste those rose petal lips until he was drunk on her. Desire quickened in him, and his blood surged in a hot pulse of longing. Every instant of it was achingly familiar, like he’d already done it a thousand times until it was programmed into his soul.

Because he had—with Sandra.

Lucas breathed a silent curse. She wasn’t Sandra, and she wasn’t his—not to hold, and not to fantasize about. If he didn’t get himself squared away, he was going to drive himself crazy. God only knew what he’d manage to do to her. What he needed to do was turn around and march himself upstairs to his room and go to bed. She’d never even know he’d been standing there watching her.

He tapped lightly on the doorframe. “Diane?”

Her head jerked towards him, and although it was only there for a moment, he could have sworn he saw relief on her face.

“Oh, hi. I thought you were Marcus coming in.”

“He’s not here?”

She shook her head. “Someone came and picked him up a few hours ago to go hit The Strip.”

“You didn’t want to go?”

“I was all casinoed out before we left Shreveport, so I pled a splitting headache. I’m really not much of a gambler.”

“As someone who has worked in the casinos in one way or another most of my life since I was eighteen, I can tell you that’s definitely a good thing.”

“Yeah. So, that must have been some meeting with your dad.”

Her voice was like being caressed in velvet, the lightly teasing tone sending prickles along his skin. “I was with him until mid-afternoon, and then a friend called and found out I was back in town. We met for dinner and drinks.”

Her teasing woke her smile. “Would this be a female friend?”

“And what if it was?”

As fast as the playful mood had come on her, it seemed to vanish. “Never mind, Lucas. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business, and I shouldn’t tease you.”

“You don’t think I can take a little teasing?” he asked lightly. “As it happens, my friend is a guy I went to high school with. He comes into Vegas every few months on business, and we get together to catch up.”

“That sounds nice.”

It had been, although it would have been better if he could have kept his mind on Jeremy instead of daydreaming about Diane the whole time. He’d apologized, but Jeremy had laughed it off.

“I’ve known you for over twenty years, Luc,” his friend had said, clapping him on the arm. “I know when you’ve got a woman eating at you. Let me know how it turns out.”

Lucas sighed. How could it possibly turn out?

“Been entertaining yourself in here all night?”

“Oh, I swam in the pool and stargazed on the deck for a long time before I came inside. This place is amazing. I don’t know how you can bear to leave it to stay in the city.”

The mental image of Diane in a bikini was enough to send blood pounding through him, and he groaned inwardly. It was going to kill him if Marcus didn’t get her out of here soon. Of course that might kill him, too.

“Well, we just get to use it. That’s why I got mad at Marcus yesterday—we’re supposed to call Dad and make sure it’s available before we show up. He instituted that rule about ten years ago because—no offense to you or anything, but Marcus and I don’t get along very well.”

“I never would have guessed. Sibling rivalry?”

“No, we just can’t stand each other. Look, he’s your… Anyway, I shouldn’t go spouting off about him to you. We don’t get along. That’s all.”

Her smile came back. “One of these days I’ll get the story out of you, if I have to—”

She was interrupted by a loud bang from the front of the house as the iron doors crashed open. With a look of terror she jumped up from the couch, and Lucas instinctively moved closer to her to put himself between her and any danger.

“Diane!” Marcus’ voice echoed through the house. “Where are you?”

With a little moan she gathered her robe in her hand and ran towards him. “I’m here, Marcus.”

Cursing under his breath, Lucas followed her to the foyer. His brother was crouched on the floor with Diane kneeling beside him and trying to help him back to his feet. He was obviously drunk, his face flushed and eyes glassy and not tracking well. They lit up when they landed on Lucas, though.

“Why, Lucas. I didn’t expect you to be here. How very cozy.” He turned his head towards Diane with a leer. “Were you keeping each other entertained?”

“No, Marcus,” she replied quietly. “Lucas just got home and we were talking.”

“Oh, I’ll just bet you were.” His oily voice went stern. “Help me up.”

As she rose gracefully to her feet, Marcus grabbed her. Even though Diane’s arms were covered by her robe, Lucas could tell by his brother’s white-knuckled grip that he must be hurting her. Before he could do anything, though, Marcus dragged himself up, almost toppling Diane in the process.

“Something else you’re good for,” he chortled as he wrapped an arm around her waist. “Help me up to bed. Then maybe you can do as good a job entertaining me as you did ol’ Lucas, there.” He began dragging her towards the stairs, whispering overly loud suggestions of exactly what he had in mind.

Rage exploded in Lucas. Like fuck he’d stand here and put up with her being treated this way. “Marcus!” he barked, and he’d taken two steps forward before Diane turned her head towards him.

“Leave it alone,” she murmured. “It will only make things worse.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Her whispered response was so low that he had to read her lips. “I chose this.”

No expression showed on her face, but those soft, blue eyes bled anguish and fear as she turned away to guide Marcus up the stairs.

Lucas stared after them until they disappeared on the landing, his heart pounding so wildly he was amazed his ribcage could contain it. Son of a bitch. His hands clenched and unclenched with the need to smash something. No one had any right to treat her that way. He was going to rip that worthless sot a new asshole the next time he saw him. And god fucking help him if he hurt her. He’d beat Marcus to death with his bare hands if that happened.

Slowly the fire burned down to icy fury, and he went to close the heavy, iron doors and reset the security system. Not one single piece to this puzzle fit. What in the hell was going on here? Diane didn’t love Marcus, so what was she doing with him? Why was she putting up with this crap? She seemed like a nice girl with a really good career and prospects for going far in her profession. He just didn’t buy that she was after Marcus’ money. None if it made any sense, but after what he’d seen tonight he was by god going to get to the bottom of it.

It took what felt like hours for his anger to drain away so he could sleep, and as he lay there in the darkness he kept imagining that he heard Diane’s voice crying out. He knew better, knew that their rooms were too far apart for that to be possible, but each time it happened a fresh burst of temper seized him and got him worked up all over again. Finally, after endless tossing and turning and promises to himself to do whatever it took to figure this mess out, he drifted off.

He was sleeping hard when the harsh buzzing sound cut through the heavy shrouds of slumber binding him, and he rolled groggily up on his elbow. His cell phone. Who in the hell would be calling him at three-thirty in the morning? If it wasn’t an emergency, Marcus wasn’t going to be the only person getting reamed in the morning. He fumbled the phone onto the bed and swiped his finger across the screen to answer while his bleary eyes were still trying to make out the name of the caller.

“Lucas.” A woman’s soft voice.

“Hello?” He didn’t bother trying to hide his irritation.

“Lucas, why did you do it?”

As a stream of low, brokenhearted sobs came from his phone, Lucas froze in shock.

“It’s so cold here.”

His staring eyes focused on the caller name with laser-like precision. Sandra St. Cyr. Blood turned to ice in his veins, and he flung himself off of the bed and away from his phone.

What the fuck?

Please don’t leave me here in the dark,” the voice on the phone sobbed. “I swear I’ll do better this time. I swear. Just don’t leave me here.”

Lucas bent over and snatched up the phone while he struggled with lungs that didn’t want to work and the bile rising in his throat. “I don’t know who you are,” he rasped, “but if you think this is funny, if this is your idea of a joke—”

The phone went dead in his hands.

A deep shudder ran through his whole body, and he let the phone slip through numb fingers to tumble to the carpet. A moment later his knees sagged and he crumbled to the floor beside it. Although he stared at it until his eyes began to burn, sickly afraid that it would ring again, the screen remained mercifully dark.

Lucas swallowed past the hard lump in his throat and pushed himself back upright. It had been a dream. Just a dream. He’d gotten himself all worked up over Diane because she reminded him a little bit of Sandra, that was all. He was upset and still tired from his trip, and with everything going on his imagination had run wild. Once he got caught up on his sleep he’d be fine. He’d sleep late and be back to his old self in the morning.

Slowly he bent down and picked up the phone. It never flickered as he opened his bedroom door, walked out onto the balcony, and flung it far out into the dark ripples of the pool below.

  • * *

After showering the next morning, Diane headed straight for the atrium pool. The water was deliciously cool against her skin as she eased herself down the ladder, and she held herself there for a while letting it soothe her aching body before diving down to tap the bottom then floating back up to the surface. Memories of the night before threatened to overwhelm her and she shook her head sharply, sending a cascade of droplets pattering down across the pool. Taking a deep breath, she kicked off and forced herself to stroke through half a dozen laps without a break. Hard exercise was often effective at clearing her head.

When she finished and hung panting from the rungs of the ladder, Lucas was sitting nearby watching her. Her heart quailed at the sight of him, and she wanted to swim away. Maybe she could hide at the bottom of the pool. How long could she hold her breath?

Knowing it was useless to try to avoid him, she climbed up out of the water. Did he have any idea that she was more terrified of him than she was of Marcus? The worst Marcus could do to her was kill her. What Lucas could do to her held her balanced on a knife’s edge between fear and excitement—it would take very little for him to wreck her. In that state, she wouldn’t survive long with Marcus.

The swim hadn’t eased all of her soreness from the night before, so she walked slowly and tried hard not to let the hitch in her hip show. Lucas did see the bruises on her arms, though, and his eyes narrowed as his jaw clenched. His anger over it, his protectiveness of her, awakened a tension low in her belly. If only she dared to believe that he was real. He looked at her without saying anything, and she wasn’t at all sure how to read the complex mix of emotions on his face. It was more than concern for her, more than the desire she’d seen simmering in the depths of his eyes. What was it that he saw when he looked at her?

“You’re up awfully early today,” she said, feigning cheerfulness as she wrapped herself in a fluffy, yellow towel that conveniently covered up the marks on her upper arms.

Lucas let out a long sigh, as though he’d been holding his breath the whole time she was in the pool. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill him,” he said hoarsely, his eyes still fixed on her arms.

“Because it would create more problems than it would solve.”

“Can you tell me why?”

She wanted to, wanted to trust. But he was Marcus’ brother. “No.”

“Technically what happened last night is none of my business. And I don’t like getting involved in other peoples’ affairs, because I think they’re almost always better off working out their own problems.” He leaned towards her, his eyes alight with a naked, pleading look that squeezed Diane’s heart. “But Diane, if you’re afraid of him and you need help, I will fight Heaven and Hell to get you away from him.”

Looking in his eyes, she had no doubt that Lucas meant every word. Diane’s heart begged her to trust him, to just let go and take what he was offering. Her mind still wasn’t ready to take the risk, though. She didn’t dare trust him so soon, not when so much was at stake. But she wouldn’t push him completely away, either.

Carefully she knelt beside his chair and took one of his hands in both of her own. “I appreciate what you’re offering, truly I do. You have no idea what it means to have someone actually care, right now. But it’s like I told you last night—I chose this.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I can’t tell you anything except that I’m sorry.”

He stared deep into her eyes. “If he hurts you again, I’m not going to just sit around and watch him do it.”

“Do what you have to do, but that’s between you and Marcus. I’m not asking you for protection.”

“That doesn’t mean you won’t get it,” he growled.

“Fair enough.”

Some of the tension eased from his face. “Got plans for the day?”

“Oh, lots. There’s channel surfing, messing about in the pool, quite possibly a nap. I don’t know how I’ll possibly fit it all in.”

Humor glinted in the gold-flecked depths of his eyes. “If I were to come up with something more interesting, would you be up for it?”

She was already interested—no matter what he came up with. That was the problem. “Such as?”

“I was thinking of taking the boat out on the lake for a while, and then heading into town for lunch. Have you been to Vegas before?”

“Once,” she admitted. “One of my friends from high school got married here, and I was a bridesmaid. We stayed in one of the off-Strip hotels and spent most of our time playing penny slots downtown where everything is cheaper. First time I ever had margaritas at nine in the morning—just because we could.”

“Spend the day with me, then. Unless you need to stick around to wait on Marcus?”

“No. He came back downstairs last night and drank until almost dawn. He’ll be unconscious until late this afternoon.” She smiled, shy and nervous and excited all at once. “So yeah, I’d love to spend the day with you.”

“Great. I’m going to go change clothes, and then we can take the boat out for a while.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

He stood up and started to go, then paused with his gaze fixed on the pool. “Umm, Diane? Can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Since you’re already wet, would you mind getting my cell phone? I dropped it in the pool last night.”

“Oh, no! Where is it?”

He pointed. “See the dark thing over there?”

There was a glittery, black thing lying practically at the center of the pool. Diane’s eyebrows rose. “You dropped it? How could you have dropped it there?”

Lucas gave her a bland look. “You don’t have to answer questions, neither do I.”

“All right, fine. Go change your clothes.” She dropped her towel and headed back towards the water. “I sure hope you don’t expect it to work after this.”

“It was broken already,” he said quietly.

The St. Cyr’s boat wasn’t overly large, but then neither was Lake Las Vegas. Its lounger seats were comfortably padded, though, and the sun deck overhead provided welcome shade from the blistering August sun. Lucas lifted a cooler full of drinks over the rail then held Diane’s hand to steady her while she got on board. Once she was in, he untied them from the pier and hopped in after her.

Diane was surprised at how quiet the engine was, and more surprised that Lucas kept their speed down as they headed west along the shore. They were moving just fast enough to get a cool breeze off the water, and she leaned back in her seat and stretched out to get comfortable. Somewhat to her surprise, it really was relaxing. The hum of the engine, the breeze on her skin, and the gentle rocking of the boat lulled her and soothed away the last remnants of her agitation from the night before.

“I could get used to this in a hurry,” she said.

He grinned back at her. “I can go faster if you get bored. It’s not a speed boat, but when I bought it I made sure the engine would scoot if I kicked it.”

“It’s yours? I figured it belonged to your father, like the house.”

“No. Dad doesn’t do boats. I love being out on the water, though, and I couldn’t see having a lake house without a boat to put on the lake.”

“Makes perfect sense to me.”

Lucas turned the wheel to maneuver around another pier and smiled. “When it’s a little cooler, I like to come out at night and stop right in the middle of the lake. I lay up on the sun deck and let the boat rock my stress away while I look up at the stars.”

“That sounds really nice.”

“Maybe in a couple of months we could… Ah, well, you and Marcus will probably be gone by then.”

“I honestly don’t know, Lucas. I’m sure Marcus will have to go back to work at some point, but he doesn’t feel the need to let me in on details like that. We’ve been on a random sort of vacation for the last two weeks, and from the amount of time he was with me when we met, he wasn’t spending a lot of time working before then.”

“Why did you quit your job at the office in Vinton?”

She cocked her head and looked at him. “Been checking up on me? I don’t blame you, I guess. I’m a CPA, and shacking up with the boss’ son leaves me wide open to accusations of conflict of interest. Ethics violations are taken very seriously in my field.”

“I can understand that. Do you plan on going back to work?”

Did she? Could she? If things went wrong, she was going to be lucky if anyone would hire her to wait tables, much less to work as a CPA. “I don’t know. It all depends.”

“On what?”

Diane shrugged. “On how life turns out. On what little surprises are waiting for me just over the horizon. Things are very up in the air right now, and I’m not making any long-term plans.”

“Except your wedding.”

She didn’t answer him. “So tell me about Lucas St. Cyr.”

“Marcus didn’t already fill you in?”

That earned him a snort of laughter. “Marcus barely let out that he had a brother named Lucas. He also mentioned two half-sisters, but didn’t bother to name them.”

“Madeleine and Marie. They’re from Dad’s third marriage, and they’re persona non grata right now. About a year ago they were working at our casino on The Strip and security caught them stealing and trying to scam the slots. Dad personally fired them, disinherited them, and told them if they ever set foot in Vegas again he’d file charges.”

Diane stared at him in shock. She could only imagine what kind of man Roland St. Cyr would have to be to take such a harsh stance with his own daughters. How much worse would their fates have been if they’d only been regular employees?

“Dad came from the Louisiana bayou country, you see,” Lucas explained. “Family is very important there—you’ve lived there, you know. To him, what they did was stealing from the family, so he had no choice but to come down hard on them.”

“Are you close?”

“To the girls? No. I was starting high school when they were born, and I’ve hardly seen them since the divorce. Their mother is a ballet dancer in New York, and she moved back when they split up.”

Diane’s brow furrowed. How did that fit in with family being so important? “How many times has your father been married?”

“He’s on number six, now,” Lucas sighed. “It’s not that he’s a bad person or anything. My mother was his first wife, his college sweetheart, and after she died he never let himself fall in love again. He marries women he finds interesting and exciting, and when he gets bored with them they get divorced. He’s always up front with them about it, but each new one that comes along is convinced that she’s going to be the one who breaks the streak.”

She propped herself up on one arm and wrinkled her nose at him. “You don’t have a long string of ex-wives like that, do you?”

“Of course not. I’m far too young to have racked up a score like Dad’s.”

“You know what I mean.”

His eyes shifted from the lake back to Diane and lingered until she started feeling tingly all over. “I’m afraid I don’t have even one ex-wife to my name,” he said.

 

“Good for you.” Why was she so relieved? It couldn’t possibly make any difference to her if Lucas collected wives like a Saudi Arabian prince. “But you still haven’t told me about yourself.”

“Let’s see. I grew up in Shreveport, and got a degree in management from Tulane, with a minor in finance. After that I spent eight years working at various St. Cyr businesses around the country and learning everything there was to know. Since then, Dad has been using me as his main troubleshooter. If there’s a problem, I go get it unstuck.”

“And that’s what you were doing in China?”

“Right. Dad’s been wanting to expand there for years, and finally got a foot wedged in the door about a year ago when he got the opportunity to grab a property at a bargain basement price. He sent me to oversee the final negotiations and to make sure that the government didn’t throw any wrenches in the works. He used to handle things like that himself, but his health isn’t what it was.”

“It sounds like an exciting job.”

“Sometimes. Living out of hotels all the time does get old after a while, though, and I never know where I’m going to be from one week to the next so it’s hard to make plans. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Fair is fair. Let’s hear about you.”

She tossed her head. “If you must. My family is from New Iberia, but we moved to Vinton when I was in second grade. I went to LSU in Shreveport, but I moved back to Vinton after I graduated to help my parents out because my dad got cancer. That’s how I ended up working at the St. Cyr racetrack there.”

“Ah. How is your dad?”

“He went into remission, but the cancer came back last year. They’ve got him on some experimental drugs now that are helping.”

“That’s good, at least. So are you an only child, or should I worry about there being more of you?”

Diane tipped her head back and laughed. “Oh, you should definitely worry. I have an evil twin sister.”

“Seriously? You’re a twin? Is she a CPA, too?”

“Cyndia?” She almost choked on laughter. “Oh, good lord, no. We may look alike, but she’s nothing at all like me. She dropped out during her sophomore year at LSU to ‘find herself’ and hasn’t settled down since. She’s a big time party girl—she sticks with a job or a boyfriend until that interferes with her partying, and then it’s on to the next one. Right now she’s a cocktail waitress at your casino in Shreveport.”

“Do you two get along?”

“We don’t dislike each other or anything. We just don’t have a lot in common.”

“And you’re identical?”

“She’s ten pounds lighter, and her hair is a bit longer and she straightens it. And yes, she does currently have a boyfriend. He works in the casino, too.”

Lucas shook his head. “Not interested. She doesn’t sound like my type.”

His inflection on ‘she’ made Diane’s heart flutter. “So what is your type?”

Some of the humor left his eyes. “I don’t know anymore. With the job, I don’t stay in one place long enough to need to worry about it much.”

“Well, what was your type before?”

Lucas’ eyes slid away from her and back to the lake. “A lot like your sister, I’m afraid. From a male point of view, there’s a definite allure to that type.”

She snorted. “You don’t have to tell me. Cyndia stole every boyfriend I had when we were growing up.”

“That didn’t piss you off?”

“Sure, but it wasn’t anything she did on purpose. It was just what she was. And that’s not what I wanted to be.”

“What did you want to be?”

“That’s easy. I wanted not to be my mother. She got married right out of high school, had kids, and now she has to work three jobs to pay their bills because she never went to college and never learned how to do anything outside of the house. I love her, but I wanted more than that. I wanted options.”

But now she was with Marcus and more firmly trapped by her choices than her mother had ever been, while Cyndia was still free. So which one of them was really the wiser?

After that their conversation wandered to lighter topics, sometimes fading away to long periods of silence which Diane found surprisingly comfortable with Lucas. His presence nearby was like having a space heater warming her heart, and she didn’t feel the need to fill every moment with conversation. Was it that way for him, too? Or was he simply so lost in his own thoughts that she faded from his mind until she spoke?

They spent almost three hours drifting along with Lucas running the engine just enough to keep a breeze flowing over the decks. Other than a few raucous flocks of birds that came down for a drink and a bath, the day remained quiet. A feeling of serenity settled over Diane, an inner peace that drew strength from Lucas’ presence so close to her. He radiated safety and stability, and she was in dire need of both.

Of course that made him a far greater danger to her heart, but at the moment Diane didn’t care. She just didn’t want it to end.

“Are you starting to get hungry?” Lucas asked. “We should probably think about getting ready for lunch.”

At the mention of food, her appetite lurched awake and her stomach growled. “I didn’t eat breakfast, so lunch would be nice.”

“Let’s head back then. I need a shower before I go anywhere. By the time we get ready and drive into town, it will be noon and we’ll both be starving.”

Diane dithered over her outfit. She shouldn’t have cared what Lucas thought about her appearance. It shouldn’t have mattered at all—but it did. The pale lavender peasant blouse would bring out the blue in her eyes, and the denim Capri pants fit snugly to her curves. If he was looking, Lucas was sure to notice her in those. While it was wrong, she did want him to notice her. She couldn’t have him, but at least she could take a crumb of comfort from knowing that he liked her and found her desirable.

It would have to be enough.

When she got downstairs Lucas was already there, idly toying with the cell phone she had fished from the bottom of the pool. At the sight of her, his eyes lit up and sent a rush of pleasure through her. Oh, she was so playing with fire here.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“Nope,” he replied, setting it back down on the table where she had left it. “It’s a paperweight.”

“Do you want to get it replaced while we’re out?”

He shrugged. “It can wait until tomorrow. I’ve got to run some errands anyway. Let’s go.”

When his fingers landed on the small of her back to guide her towards the door to the garage, every nerve in her body flared to life. If he ever touched her bare skin, she was liable to spontaneously combust or something. Hopefully he couldn’t feel the wild throbbing of her pulse through his fingertips. She was a little disappointed when he opened the door of his black Mercedes for her.

“No Ferrari today?”

“I only take the Ferrari to The Strip when I want to attract attention.” His grin teased her, adding a couple more degrees to the temperature inside the car. “Since I’m already going to lunch with a beautiful woman, I’d rather not risk it in that traffic.”

Then he slid into the driver’s seat and she forgot all about his other car. Her mind was too busy trying to process the man sitting so close to her, trying to absorb all of him at once—the powerful shoulders filling his chambray shirt, the broad hands so confident on the steering wheel, the hard line of his jaw with its hint of blue-black stubble. If Lucas wasn’t the sexiest man she’d ever seen in her life, she’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone to top him. Not that her brain was functioning particularly well at the moment. The spicy, masculine scent of him which permeated the car was doing a great job of shutting down the rational part of her mind. All she wanted to do was lean over the console and bury her face against his shirt.

Somehow she didn’t think he’d mind.

Half an hour later they were in Las Vegas, and she turned her attention to the building in front of them. The tower looked like something out of The Jetsons, and she leaned forward and peered up past the roof of the car so she could see it all.

“Is that where we’re going?”

“Yep—the Stratosphere. There’s a restaurant up at the top, and of course the view is amazing. Don’t tell my dad I said so, but it’s probably my favorite place to go when I’m in town.”

When they stepped out of the elevator after the long ride to the top and she got her first glimpse through the wraparound windows, Diane could understand why. The view unfolded as far as she could see under the azure desert sky, from the bustling city itself to the red and brown vistas of the dry, rugged mountains. Helicopters buzzed around like giant dragonflies, and a constant stream of jets gleamed like multicolored jewels as they wheeled in the dazzling sunlight above the airport.

Diane went up to the glass and looked straight down, her stomach dipping as her gaze fell almost a thousand feet to the ground below. There was nothing at all between her and a long, long fall to the pavement except for that pane of glass, which suddenly seemed all too thin. With a gulp she took a quick step backwards—right into Lucas’ arms.

“You want to watch that first step,” he murmured against her ear.

Her breath caught, and a tremor ran through her as electricity crackled across her skin. He had to have felt that. But all too quickly his arms slid away, leaving her feeling abandoned as a baby bird pushed from the nest. She ached to turn and fling herself at him, to wrap herself around his hard body until he had to fold her in his arms again, but instead she forced a smile and let her feet wander around the curve of the building to see what was on the other side.

She could feel him walking behind her, like he was radiating heat or something that her skin could sense. It was all she could do to block it out so that she could concentrate on the view through the windows. The Strip stretched out into the distance out to the glistening, black pyramid of Luxor, the streets filled with milling crowds daring the midday heat. Despite the heat waves dancing in the air, Diane was pretty sure it was warmer inside the Tower where she was standing, though.

“What do you think?”

With a smile that she hoped masked the turmoil inside, Diane turned back to Lucas. “It’s amazing.”

“I’ll have to bring… You’ll have to come up at night, sometime. It’s even better, then. That light from the Luxor blasting up into the night sky, all the neon on The Strip—there’s nothing else quite like it.”

“I’d like to see that.”

“Are you ready to eat? The restaurant is just above us, and the tables are all window seats so you can look out while you eat.”

“Okay.”

Between the food and the view, Diane was able to tear her focus away from Lucas long enough to regain some equilibrium. Perhaps he sensed how unsettled she was, because he shifted the conversation to neutral topics that avoided anything of their personal lives. While they ate, he pointed out landmarks around the city and related histories and anecdotes about them, and then talked about the renovations underway at his father’s hotel-casino, Illusion. When they finished up their coffee and returned to the viewing level, she almost felt at peace again.

“Would you like to see it from outside? Those stairs go up to the exterior observation area.”

She shook her head and stepped up to the window, her toes pressing up against the glass as she peered down at the microscopic people going in and out of the casino below them. It was easy to imagine that the glass wasn’t there at all, and that one tiny step forward would send her plunging to the ground.

“I don’t think so. I rather like having the window there.”

Lucas moved to stand beside her, his arm almost brushing hers. Slowly she tilted her head to look up at him. His eyes were on her rather than the city below, dark and smoldering with barely leashed passion. Her breath caught and she swallowed hard, the pulse at the base of her throat beginning to throb as she teetered between panic and longing. Unthinking, she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue.

Then somehow his mouth was on hers and he was kissing her. For the space of a heartbeat she froze in terror, and then she flung herself into the abyss. Their bodies met, one of Lucas’ arms curving behind her back while his other hand cupped her jaw, his fingertips pressed against the pulse hammering in her neck. With leisurely self-confidence his tongue flickered across the crease of her lips, and she welcomed him with an eager whimper. As they met, sliding together with dark, wet heat, desire exploded in her veins.

Aching with need, Diane pressed her body closer to his. She was on fire for him, clenched inside as moisture flowed between her legs. Lucas seemed content to take his time, though, savoring her mouth the way he might have sampled some expensive gourmet wine. His tongue teased hers until her nipples were hard and her knees turned to Jell-O, but although she could taste the hunger on his lips he held himself back.

Finally his lips left hers and drew away just enough to allow them both a chance to breathe. He didn’t let go of her, though, and that was a good thing because Diane was pretty sure that her legs wouldn’t have held her up on their own.

“I’m not going to apologize for that,” he breathed. “I’ve been wanting to do it since the first time I saw you.”

“Okay,” she agreed shakily. “Not going to argue. I felt it, too, and we’ve been moving towards it like two trains on the same track. But it can’t happen again. We can’t happen.”

“Can’t we?” Lucas didn’t sound remotely convinced. He sounded amused.

“No.” But she wasn’t so sure, now, either. What if? Oh, what if?

Taking a deep breath, Lucas loosened his hold on her so she could slip away. “All right. But when you change your mind, let me know.”

“It’s not that simple,” she said miserably.

“Maybe it isn’t. But maybe it could be, if you let it.”

Diane didn’t have a good answer for that. For all she knew, he could be right. But however good it felt, especially because it felt so good and she couldn’t trust herself, she didn’t dare let herself trust him.

They were both silent on the way home, wrapped up in their own thoughts, and her first instinct when he parked his Mercedes in the garage was to flee.

“Where are you going?” he called as she practically sprinted towards the door to the house and safety.

“I, um, I was going to check on Marcus.”

His eyes danced as he shot her a mocking smile. “I thought he was going to be out until late this afternoon?”

“Well, I probably ought to…” She floundered, unable to think of a single thing she needed to do.

“Too bad,” he said, shaking his head.

She needed to get away from him, needed to get some distance before her last defenses crumbled. No matter what he said, she couldn’t listen to him.

“I thought you wanted to drive my Ferrari.”

The keys dangled from his fingers, hypnotizing her like a swinging pocket watch in a cartoon. Even from twenty feet away her eyes locked onto the black horse stark against the shiny yellow of the key fob. Oh, the man did not play fair. She stopped with her hand stretched out for the door knob and bit her lip as she struggled with herself.

Sanity versus desire. That’s what it seemed to come down to with Lucas.

Lucas jingled the keys enticingly. “Want some candy, little girl?”

Her hand dropped to her side. “You are so evil,” she sighed.

A grin flickered across his face, her only answer. She held out for half a dozen more seconds, but they both knew she was going to cave. Hating herself for being so weak, she trudged back across the garage to where he waited with a smug look on his face and plucked the keys from his fingers.

“How fast does it go?” she asked.

“Let’s find out.”

Two hundred and five miles per hour. They’d driven south past Boulder City to where there was a long, straight stretch of highway 95 and Lucas told her to open it up. Actually, what he’d said was, “Punch it.”

So she had. They’d been cruising at seventy already, but when she mashed the accelerator the car leaped ahead as though they’d been standing still. Her heart pounded as the engine howled behind her and the speedometer climbed higher and higher. When she saw the curve coming ahead she’d eased off, but the car had already topped out and she let the engine compression slow them back down to highway speeds without having to do more than feather the brakes. To her right, Lucas remained lounged back in the passenger seat, unconcerned as though he did this every day.

“I don’t… I haven’t… I have got to get one of these.”

His low laughter fed the humming of her blood. “That was fun, but you haven’t lived until you’ve taken it up on the mountain roads.”

She had an image of narrow, two lane highways twisting along steep inclines and vertical drop-offs plunging to rocky canyons far below. “You’re crazy. Or suicidal.”

“Keep going south,” he told her. “When you get to I-40, head west. There’s a road through the Mojave National Preserve that runs into I-15. We’ll just make the circle.”

She could keep driving this lovely beast? It was too good to be true. “Are you sure?”

“I told you that I’d let you drive it. And I always keep my promises.”

They stayed out for over an hour, and Lucas appeared to be in no hurry to either get home or take over the driving. He contented himself with giving occasional directions and watching her. At first his gaze had made her nervous and more than a little self-conscious, but the thrill of driving the Ferrari quickly drove all other thoughts from her mind. When she finally pointed them back towards Lake Las Vegas, she was head over heels in love with the car.

As far as the gorgeous guy with the bad boy grin sitting in the passenger seat, she was pleading the Fifth Amendment.

“Keep it slow,” he cautioned when she turned onto the two lane road leading down to the house. “The bridge is coming up, and it’s got that curve just on the other side.”

She backed off the gas, and the car glided smoothly around the curve as though it was on rails rather than a road. Diane shivered with a frisson of appreciative lust. That was it. She wasn’t getting out. Lucas was going to have to get a crowbar to pry her from the driver’s seat, and she was going to kick and scream every second.

“We can take it out again tomorrow, if you like,” he told her as she eased into the garage. “Or pretty much any day you want while you’re here. With all my traveling I don’t get to drive it much, and it’s nice to see someone get some enjoyment out of it.”

Her eyes burned, and as her vision blurred Diane scrambled out of the car and bolted towards the door to the house.

“Diane, wait!”

But she didn’t dare wait, and she fled upstairs to the safety of one of the enormous bathrooms which had a door that she could lock behind her. Huddled on the cool tile, the tears broke loose and she sobbed so hard that her chest hurt.

In her worst nightmare she’d never dreamed that it would be so hard. All her life she’d been the girl who sucked it up and did what she had to do, and when Marcus came along she thought she’d be able to handle him the same way. However distasteful, it was necessary and she would simply do it. She would endure.

But she hadn’t counted on Lucas. How could he be so wonderful and compassionate and thoughtful when his brother was Marcus? And why did he have to come along now, when she was most susceptible to what he was offering? She was drinking up every drop of his kindness like the desert outside soaking up a spring rain. Even though she knew it was wrong, even though she knew that this was a disaster brewing for them both, she couldn’t help herself. And it was going to kill her.

It had been hard enough to bear Marcus before. Now that she’d been in Lucas’ arms, it was pure heartbreak. The mere thought of letting Marcus touch her again made her want to throw up. She had no choice, though. It was the bargain that she had made, and no matter how wonderful Lucas’ kiss had been, nothing had changed.

Even though everything had.

She managed to avoid him the rest of the day by the simple expedient of keeping herself locked either in the bathroom or in Marcus’ room. However much he might want to come after her, she was pretty sure that Lucas wasn’t going to follow her into either. It was all she could think of to save herself. If she spent any more time with him she was going to shatter under the strain.

Unfortunately that left her vulnerable to Marcus. She was trying to lose herself in a book she’d downloaded to her phone when he stirred and flopped over on the bed.

“What time is it?” he mumbled.

“Five-thirty.”

His eyes popped open and he stared at her. “What are you doing here?”

“Reading.”

“You’re never here when I wake up.”

She certainly tried not to be. “I wanted a quiet place to read.”

Marcus gave a disbelieving snort. “Quiet? This whole place is like a mausoleum. Or is it?” He peered at her through bloodshot eyes. “Has Lucas been disturbing you?”

Lucas disturbed her to her very soul. “No. I just didn’t want any company, so I came in here.”

“Women don’t usually seem to mind Lucas’ company.”

Raw nerves frayed the last strands of her temper. “Maybe I’m just not susceptible to the St. Cyr charm. It certainly doesn’t work for you.”

Marcus’ eyes went cold. “Get dressed. We’re going out to dinner. Wear something… hot. Something that your sister would go out in.”

With her stomach knotting and sick despair squeezing her throat, Diane set her phone down and started looking for an outfit. There would be no arguing with him—he wouldn’t change his mind, and there would be no excuses allowed tonight. One day she’d learn to keep her mouth shut around him. Throwing attitude with Marcus brought nothing but grief, and he was sure to make her pay for every word later. He always did.

The sleeveless, turquoise lace mini dress was actually one that Cyndia had picked out for her when Diane first started going out with Marcus. It fit her like a second skin, and she owned t-shirts that covered more of her thighs that its skirt. With a pair of strappy, silver stiletto heels she’d be all set for a night as Marcus’ arm candy.

She applied her makeup like armor, and in a way it was. If she pleased Marcus, he might go easier on her. That was her job after all—to please him. Her hair was still damp and she left it down, the deep, reddish brown curls providing a strong contrast against the bright turquoise of her dress. A pair of silver hoop earrings and a trio of slender, sterling bangle bracelets completed the ensemble. With a final glance in the mirror, she stepped out to face the night ahead.

A limo picked them up at the house, and even before they got out of the driveway Marcus was into the bar. That was never a good sign. Most nights he didn’t start drinking until after he started gambling, and if he won then he took it easier on the alcohol. When he lost he drank more, and she invariably woke up sore and bruised and wanting to scrub her skin off with sandpaper to remove all traces of him from her.

By the time the limo dropped them off at the Rio, she knew it was going to be a bad night. Marcus was manic and laughing at his own wit, while his hands wandered all over her body. She was surprised he didn’t try to fuck her in the back seat—he’d done that in Shreveport, deliberately leaving the privacy screen down so that the driver could watch the whole thing. To her relief, this time he merely settled for some heavy-handed groping while he bragged about how he was going to break the bank.

As they walked through the casino, he kept a possessive hand firmly on her ass even while he openly leered at other women they passed. It was just one more deliberate strike at her self-esteem. Marcus seemed to love humiliating her as much as he loved hurting her, although he much preferred doing both at once. With a painful squeeze, he steered her to the left towards the roulette tables.

Her stomach fell as though it had been pushed from the top of the Stratosphere. Marcus never won at roulette, which only made him play more desperately, and when he lost his temper became truly vile. She was in for a long, long night.

He had her sit to his right and gave her a stack of chips which she dutifully bet on either red or black at each spin. By the third round his hand was up her dress, and she’d started drinking as well. She usually didn’t, but tonight she was desperate for the mental and physical numbness. While she didn’t dare get drunk, she could at least get to where she couldn’t feel how her skin crawled when he touched her. That was the best she could hope for, these days.

  • * *

He should have stayed in the pool. He’d been trying to wear himself out by swimming laps until his arms wouldn’t move, but even when he dragged himself out of the water and collapsed in a wet heap on the tile, he couldn’t stop thinking about Diane. Then he’d looked up and she’d been there, coming down the stairs wearing a dress that practically wasn’t there, her sleek legs perfectly curved and impossibly long. All his earlier efforts went to waste as his body quickened at the sight of her. She was breathtakingly lovely, and she moved with a fluid, sensuous grace that was entirely unconscious. The woman had no clue that she radiated sex with every movement. While Lucas had never seen her sister, he was confident that Diane had nothing to fear from any comparison.

Every part of him screamed at him to stop her before she stepped through the front door with Marcus. He wanted to grab her in his arms and crush her to him while he kissed her senseless, then carry her up to his bed and rip that ridiculous scrap of a dress off of her with his teeth. All that stopped him was the nagging sense that by taking her away from Marcus he wouldn’t be saving her—he’d be damning her instead.

The woman was driving him mad. Since she’d appeared in his life he felt more alive than he had in the past three years, even while he died a little inside every time he thought of her with his half-brother. She’d chosen to be with the sick son of a bitch, and she wouldn’t tell him why. Damn it, he could see the way she looked at him, and she’d responded to his kiss with every bit of enthusiasm he could have hoped for. It wasn’t just his imagination getting carried away. Diane wanted him just as much as he wanted her.

So why the fuck was she with Marcus?

As soon as they were gone, he dragged himself upstairs and took an ice-cold shower to chill the desire sizzling in his blood. If that didn’t work, he was going to have a truck deliver a couple of tons of ice to the house and dump it in the pool. After that, there was always Antarctica. In a thousand years explorers would dig him out of a glacier and marvel at his still-spectacular erection.

He pulled a t-shirt and sweat pants over his damp skin and trudged downstairs to lose himself watching television. Agitation wouldn’t let him sit still, though, and he squirmed and shifted positions while skipping through the channels until he shut the television off and dropped the remote with a snarled curse.

She belonged to another man. That was her choice. He was just going to have to live with it, that was all.

Stalking over to the bar, Lucas poured himself a double shot of bourbon and tossed down a fiery slug. Television wasn’t his thing, anyway. Briefly he considered calling Stephanie, but he wasn’t in the mood for company, and he certainly wasn’t ready to explain Diane to her.

It was still really warm outside, but stretching out on the sun deck of his boat and staring up at the stars seemed a better way to spend his time than anything else he could think of. Shoulders slumped, he trudged towards the back of the house where his boat waited. He took the bottle of bourbon with him.

Sometime much later, he blinked up at the stars and rolled to his feet. Lucas had no idea what time it was, except that according to the stars it was well into the morning hours. His brother and Diane still hadn’t come back—or at least he didn’t think they had. He’d dozed a bit a couple of times and couldn’t be completely sure. Judging from the amount of bourbon missing from the bottle, he probably shouldn’t be too sure of anything. That was a really good sign that it was time to call it a night and head for bed.

Stepping into the house was like walking into an icebox after the heat of the August night, and he shivered a little as he padded around the edge of the pool in the atrium. Water splashed and gurgled, filling the air with its bubbly mirth as rippling reflections from the lights chased each other around the walls.

Lucas stopped in mid-stride as he realized that the water wasn’t the only sound in the room, though. It was quiet, but the unmistakable sound of a woman weeping rose from the shadows. They must have come home already, and he’d been too out of it to notice. If Marcus had hurt her again, Lucas was going to bury him in a shallow grave in the desert.

“Diane?”

When there was no answer he stepped forward to investigate, and then he wished he’d gone the long way around to his room instead of cutting through the atrium. His cell phone lay on the glass table where he’d left it earlier, the screen glowing dimly.

That wasn’t possible. It was dead—the damned thing had been at the bottom of the pool all night, and it hadn’t so much as flickered when he’d tried to turn it on after Diane retrieved it.

But it was on now. Soft, heart-wrenching sobs came from the speaker, a sound of utter hopelessness. Lucas staggered as his knees went wobbly, but he kept to his feet and moved closer, inexorably drawn by the keening. He knew the voice, knew it all to well.

“Sandra?”

There was still no answer, but the weeping continued as though all joy had left the world. His temper flared, dull red because of the bourbon. Why now? Why fucking torment him now? Hadn’t he suffered enough? Wasn’t she satisfied with the agonies he was going through now every time he thought of Marcus’ hands on Diane? Did he really need this when he was already dying inside?

“Leave me alone!” he snarled, and brought the edge of the bottle down hard on the phone.

The glass screen starred and dimmed, but the crying continued. His second blow cracked the screen in half, and on the third one the bottle broke and the phone spat and crackled as the bourbon pouring through its guts finally short-circuited it. Lucas dropped the shards of the bottle onto the table and walked away without looking back.

“Let’s see you make it work now,” he muttered.

The next morning he got up early, despite the lingering aftereffects of the bourbon. There were two errands he needed to run as soon as he cleaned up the mess in the atrium. A little over an hour later he was on his way into Las Vegas, where his first stop was to get a replacement phone. Unwilling to admit the truth, he simply told them that he lost it, paid for the replacement, and let it go at that.

His second stop was at his father’s hotel. He went in through the employee’s entrance, using his key card to make his way to the security offices. People nodded pleasantly as he passed, and he offered perfunctory smiles in exchange until he found the office he wanted.

“Come in,” a voice responded to his knock.

Shoji Tamura was a couple of years younger than Lucas, but he’d already worked his way up to head of cybersecurity for St. Cyr Enterprises. In his early twenties, he and a college friend had started a company which firms all over the country hired to poke holes in their computer and network security systems. Over the next few years Shoji had become a world-renowned blogger on the subject, and was a regular speaker at white hat hacker conferences. Eventually Roland bought the company so he could keep Shoji on as his staff security guru.

Lucas was in his office because the man had fingers in everything as part of his job, and knew how to get at information other people couldn’t imagine.

“Lucas! How are you? I heard about the job you did in Macau.”

“I’m good, thanks. You?”

“Things have been quiet. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s giving me a chance to get caught up on some routine maintenance.”

“As long as they don’t let you get bored. Shoji, I came to ask a favor.”

“What can I do?”

“First, I need you to track down some phone records. There was a call made to my cell phone early this morning, and another early the morning before. I need to know who called me.”

“Can’t you look that up through your service provider?”

“There’s no record of the calls there.”

Shoji raised an eyebrow. “Are you into something I need to know about?”

“I’m not into anything at all. They were crank calls, but particularly vicious ones and I want to know who’s doing it and why they don’t show up in the call logs.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Second, I need you to find out everything you can for me about a former employee named Diane Blanchard, and a current employee named Cyndia Blanchard. I know their background checks are clean or we wouldn’t have hired them, but I need to know anything you can dig up.”

Shoji frowned. “Just how far down the rabbit hole do you want me to go with them, Lucas?”

He shrugged. “I don’t care who their first grade teachers were, and I don’t care if they cheated on a math test when they were twelve. Basically get me anything you can find out about them after they graduated from high school.”

“All right. Do you want me to hire an investigator to talk to locals?”

“Find out what you can on your own, first. If it looks like we need to follow up, then we will.”

“It’s going to take at least a couple of days to pull things together. I’ll give you a call when I’ve got something worth reporting.”

“Thanks, Shoji.”

As he pulled onto the highway which would take him downtown, Lucas sighed and allowed himself to relax just a little. If there was anything to find, Shoji would turn it up. Now all he had to do was wait.

  • * *

She hadn’t seen Lucas all day. After having such a good time together the day before, his absence was like having a missing tooth. They’d known each other such a short time—how could she miss him so much already? She’d half-expected him to be up when she came downstairs, then while she made breakfast she kept thinking he’d show up at any moment to tease her and claim a share. But he never came, and disappointment and loneliness gnawed at her until she lost her appetite.

It was her fault, of course. She’d pushed him away and run away from him when she couldn’t take any more of his kindness. How could she explain to him that in her situation, niceness was nothing but cruelty? It only made her yearn for what she couldn’t have, and she simply couldn’t give in to what they both wanted. Already near the breaking point, her heart would crumble to dust if she gave herself to him then had to go back to Marcus.

After breakfast, she’d gone to lay out in the sun for a while then swum in the warm water until the heat glaring down on her became too much. Her eyes kept cutting back to the doors at the rear of the house, hoping that Lucas would appear with an offer to go back out on the lake, but there was no sign of him. With a growing emptiness inside, she wrapped herself in a towel and went to stretch out on a deck chair in the atrium.

Was this to be her life from now on? Empty days spent doing nothing but killing time, waiting in dread for Marcus to wake up? Nights of drinking herself into a stupor so she could bear the touches of a man she loathed, with her sleep haunted by dreams of a single kiss shared with Lucas to make her waking hours even more bitter? How long could she survive that way?

Her only hope was that Marcus would grow tired of her and let her go. It wasn’t much of a hope, though. He knew how much she hated him, how he disgusted her, and he fed on her willing submission to him. He exulted in the power trip, and delighted in inflicting new humiliations and indignities on her. That was why he’d chosen her, after all.

Lunchtime came and went, but she still had no appetite and didn’t bother with a meal. For a while she tried to read, but she couldn’t keep her mind on the words and gave up. Eventually she wandered back outside, unable to bear being alone in the house with Marcus any longer. She’d completely given up on Lucas by then, so when the door behind her quietly opened, she almost jumped out of her skin thinking that it was Marcus.

At the sight of the older brother, her heart turned over and her bones turned to jelly. She was still in her bikini, and his eyes turned to emerald embers as he drank her in. The naked desire in his gaze left her throbbing and achy.

“I missed you at breakfast,” she told him.

He gave her a teasing little smile. “Maybe tomorrow we can order up room service and have breakfast in bed.”

A quiver sang through Diane’s belly at the thought of spending the night in his bed. “Did you get your errands taken care of?”

“Yeah,” he replied, sliding into a seat near her. “And now I’m at loose ends again until Dad needs me for something. But after that last trip, he’ll give me a few more days to unwind before sending me off again.”

“No plans for your vacation?”

His eyes landed on hers. “Oh, I have definite plans. I’m just waiting to see how they pan out.”

A wave of guilt swept over her. She had no business playing these games with him. She couldn’t be what he wanted. Whatever it was that he thought he saw in her, she wasn’t sure that it even existed anymore. Even if by some miracle she was free, could she ever be that Diane again after what she’d gone through with Marcus?

“I’m not his fiancée,” she whispered.

“What?”

“I am not Marcus’ fiancée. I don’t know why he said that. It’s a lie.” She smiled bitterly at the look of confusion on his face. “I’m his mistress or his whore, take your pick. But I would never marry that man, not if my life depended on it.”

She hardly dared meet his eyes as he looked at her, but there was no condemnation in that soft gaze. Her heart trembled at what she saw there. This man could have any woman he wanted. Why did he keep looking at her that way?

“Want to go for a drive?” he asked casually, as though she hadn’t said anything. “You look like you could use some Ferrari therapy.”

They spent hours on the winding mountain roads, talking about their childhoods or sitting in companionable silence until Diane felt the sickness on her soul loosen its grip. She could almost believe that with Lucas’ help she could be clean again. But for how much longer? Every day with Marcus left her a little more damaged. Would there come a day when it was too late, when she wouldn’t be able to come back?

“Watch for the bridge,” Lucas reminded her.

She’d forgotten, and she had to brake rather sharply coming up to it. “Why in the world did they put a bridge there?”

“It was the only place for half a mile on either side where the rock was strong enough to support it. It beats having it wash away whenever the arroyo gets hit with a flash flood.”

“That makes sense, I guess.”

“Don’t go with him tonight.”

Her throat tightened. “I have to, Lucas.”

For a moment his large hand settled over hers on the gear shift, his fingers squeezing hers lightly before releasing her. He didn’t say anything else, and the tingling left by his skin against hers lingered for a long time.

That evening, while she was locked in the bathroom getting ready for another night on the town with Marcus, Diane did something she’d been putting off for the last two weeks.

“Mom?”

“Hello, sweetheart. Are you having fun in Vegas?”

“It’s been great,” she lied. “I love it here. How are things at home?”

“Good. They fiddled with the medicine they’re giving your father, and he seems to be doing better on the new formula. His doctor said we could be cautiously optimistic.”

“That’s great, Mom. How are you holding up?”

“Oh, you know. Same as always.”

“Well, try to take care of yourself. Did you get a check from Cyndia?”

“Yes. She’s still sending them. It’s so nice of that young man of hers to help out that way. He really shouldn’t, but under the circumstances I can’t argue.”

“No, Mom, you can’t. You’ve got to worry about getting Dad well and taking care of yourself right now.”

“What about you, dear?”

“What about me?”

“When are you going to find a nice young man like Cyndia’s?”

Diane rolled her eyes. She already had a ‘nice young man’ like her sister’s, and if she had her way, she’d set them both on fire and happily watch them burn. Marcus and Cyndia’s boyfriend had been cut from the same cloth. Lucas, on the other hand…

“I’ve sort of met someone, actually.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“Maybe. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve only just met him, after all.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”

“Thanks, Mom. And now I need to scoot. Love you, and give my love to Dad.”

“I love you, too.”

She hung up and held the phone cradled against her heart until the tears stopped, and then started getting ready for her night out with Marcus.

It was after three in the morning when the limo dropped them back off at the house. Marcus stumbled through the front door at her side, his fingers locked in a grip of steel on her upper arm. He’d hit a losing streak about an hour before they left the casino, and his mood had turned foul. In the limo he’d been rough with her, but Diane knew that was nothing compared to what she was in for when they got upstairs.

Marcus let her go to slam the front door shut, and she stood rubbing her arm while he punched in his security code. Drunk as he was it took him two more tries before he got it right, and that irritated him further.

“Come on,” he said, snatching her by the wrist and twisting it hard enough that she cried out.

“That’s enough,” Lucas’ voice came from behind her. “Let her go, Marcus.”

“How about you mind your own business for a change?”

“How about you let her go right the fuck now, before I break both of your arms? You are not going to treat a woman like this in my house.”

“Your house?” Marcus sneered. “Since when is this your house?”

“Since Dad signed it over to me three and a half years ago.”

“Bullshit.”

“Feel free to ask him.”

Marcus’ fingers dug into Diane’s arm until she whimpered. “You know, I’ve about had it with you and with Dad. You both act so superior, but you’re both such total hypocrites.”

“Take your hand off of her. I won’t say it again.”

“Fine,” Marcus spat, and he shoved her away. “Play the white knight for your little princess, here.” He frowned at Diane. “If you think he’s going to rescue you, you’re delusional. You don’t know anything about him. Lucas doesn’t save women.”

At his words, all the blood drained from Lucas’ face, and he went still as death. Drunk as he was, Marcus caught his brother’s reaction and laughed.

“Yeah, I didn’t think you’d told her. Fucking hypocrite. Let’s see you explain Sandra to our lovely girl, here.” His face twisted with contempt. “If I were you, I’d find myself another Lancelot, sweetheart. Because if you think he’s some knight in shining armor, you’re going to be awfully disappointed.”

With a last venomous glance at Lucas, Marcus stumbled upstairs, cursing his brother the whole way. Diane waited until she heard the bedroom door slam then let out the breath she’d been holding. Her head was spinning, and she felt sick to her stomach. Lucas still hadn’t moved—she wasn’t sure if he was even breathing.

“Who is Sandra?”

His eyes met hers and darted away. He swallowed hard. “My wife.”

Diane’s knees gave way, and she dropped onto the hard, granite steps. “You’re married?” she whispered.

This couldn’t be. She couldn’t believe Lucas would do that to her. Her stomach knotted and acid burned her throat. She was going to throw up right there on the steps.

“Not any more.”

“Divorced? But you told me you didn’t have any ex-wives.”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh.” The anguish in his face wrung her heart. “Oh, Lucas. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

His voice was as flat and expressionless as his face.

“I killed her.”

To be continued…

Keep an eye out for Dark Bargains 2.

I really hope you enjoyed reading Dark Bargains. If you liked it, please take a moment to leave a review to help other people find it—even if it’s just one or two lines. I know it’s kind of a pain, but people really do pay attention to reviews when deciding on their next book. Also, be sure to sign up for my newsletter so I can let you know when I have new releases or sales.

Dark Bargains

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  • *]

[] The Winter Billionaires

How had her life gotten so complicated?

As if grad school wasn’t hard enough, Celeste had caught her boyfriend cheating on her and kicked him out of their apartment. Now she’s on the hook for all the bills, and she needs a job that will pay her more than a teaching assistant’s meager salary. In desperation she finds herself at a party on the yacht of Andrew Winter, a playboy oil billionaire, hoping to land a job as his personal assistant. But the gorgeous stranger she ends up talking to isn’t Andrew Winter.

In the dim light she couldn’t make out the color of his eyes, but it really didn’t matter. They were riveted on her, and that was all she cared about at the moment.

What she can see is that he’s smoking hot, oozing testosterone, and interested in her. After the hit her ego has taken with her ex, the attention is nice. It isn’t going to get him anywhere, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have fun with it. Who wouldn’t take advantage of a little moonlight on a yacht with good company? But no one had bothered to tell Stephen he couldn’t have a taste, and now his soft lips are setting her on fire.

Why couldn’t she enjoy it for just a little while? It wouldn’t hurt anything, would it?

You can now get all eight installments in one volume – Winter’s Heat: The Complete Collection. It’s 500 pages long (over 120,000 words) and cheaper than buying the individual installments.

[] With One Word

[]

Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?

Ever since my dad walked out eight years ago, my life has been Hell. My mother is an alcoholic whose “boyfriends” enjoy using me as a punching bag. Everything nice I’ve ever owned has ended up in the pawn shop so Mom could buy booze and cigarettes. Thanks to her reputation every guy I’ve ever gone out with has only been interested in one thing, so I’ve never had a real boyfriend. The only reason I didn’t skip town the moment I turned eighteen is my little sister, Willow. She needs me, and I won’t leave her behind. Now my best friend has moved across the country to go to college and I’ve got no one at all—except Grant. Grant is my knight in shining armor. He’s the only man who has ever treated me like a person instead of trash, and he’s always been there when I needed him. And now I’m afraid I’m falling in love with him. There’s just one little problem.

Grant is my best friend’s dad.

When my wife and son died in a plane crash nine years ago, Holly was the one who dragged my daughter and then me back to the world of the living. Her sweet, outgoing personality won us both over, and the girls have been inseparable ever since. It kills me to see what she’s had to endure since her father abandoned their family and her mother went to pieces, but Holly refuses to give up. Every single day she continues to struggle, both to keep going herself and to hold her little sister’s head above water. She’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. Yet sometime when I wasn’t paying attention, the girl grew up into a woman. I know she’s my daughter’s best friend and only half my age. She trusts me. I’m supposed to keep her safe. But while I’m fighting it as hard as I can, it doesn’t seem to matter.

I can’t help wanting what I can never have.

Warning: This novel contains strong themes of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse (though [not] between the main characters). If these topics and situations disturb you, this book is probably not for you.

[] Lessons in Love

Lessons in Love is a new adult romance series about going away to college and falling in love for the very first time. While there is character overlap, each story in the series is a standalone with its own happily ever after ending and no cliffhangers.

First to Fall

It took only one day at college for life to throw a wrench in Alyssa’s plans. When she walks into the quirky used bookstore just off campus she expects to find a few old paperbacks, not to lose her head over the store’s sexy owner—and Kyle is way out of her league, the kind of sex-on-a-stick bad boy who would never give a girl like her a second thought. Or would he? There’s nothing Alyssa loves more than a good challenge, and this one promises to be a lot more exciting than running for class president. She just wants to make Kyle notice her, that’s all – to see her as a woman. How hard can that be? She’ll stop before she gets in over her head. But she can’t get those smoldering brown eyes and sinful smile out of her mind, and she keeps imagining his full, soft lips hovering a breath away from her own.

Would kissing him really be so dangerous?

First to Burn

Falling flat on your butt in the mud in front of the groom’s older brother is not the best way to make a first impression at a wedding. Kimberly expects the weekend to go downhill from there, but Colin turns a horrible experience into something she can laugh about, and before long she’s spending far more time with him than is good for her. While the sexy fireman puts out burning buildings during the day, he’s notorious for setting the sheets on fire at night with any woman who catches his eye, and Kimberly has no intention of being another notch on his bedpost. But is there really anything wrong with flirting a little with the blue-eyed fireman? After all, she hardly knows him and she’s really not interested in him that way. And it might be fun to see if he makes a move. Not that she really wants him to or anything. She just wants to see if he will.

Lusting over his scrumptious body a little and enjoying his teasing wouldn’t hurt anything, right?

First to Heal

For as long as Paige can remember she has wanted to be a librarian—unfortunately she’s pretty sure she’s going to end up a blue-haired spinster one with a house full of cats. All of that changes in an instant when Rhys comes within a breath of kissing her in the Special Collections department. The sexy ex-Army captain has been wounded in body and soul, but Paige believes she can heal him if he’ll only give her a chance. Getting him to give her that chance is the tricky part, though, since Rhys is convinced he’s all wrong for her and is doing his best to keep her at arm’s length. And what if he’s right? Is she really ready for this? How can you want someone so much that you ache from it, but be so afraid of it at the same time? But she decided the first day that she met him and felt that first stab of wanting that she would not allow fear to govern her where he was concerned. This is what she wants.

He was hers—even if he didn’t quite know it, yet.

First to Dare

Working at the music store was Lisa’s dream job. Unfortunately she seems to attract customers determined to turn it into a living hell. First of all there’s Jacob. The tattoo artist from the shop next door hasn’t stopped hitting on her in weeks, and doesn’t seem to understand the word ‘no.’ Then there’s the new guy, the arrogant jerk who shows her up in front of everyone in the store. After dealing with Jacob’s lewd advances, the last thing she needs is to be kicked in the ego. Still, the guy is seriously cute. If you like the type. Which she doesn’t. At all. But when she runs into him again at her favorite club he looks better than ever. Turns out he has a nice butt, too. It’s almost a shame that he’s not her type.

But the butterflies which exploded in her stomach didn’t seem to care.

 

 

 

[] About the Author

Olivia Blake is the romance alter-ego of erotica author Kelli Wolfe. I love reading romances—contemporary, paranormal, Regency, you name it—so I decided to give writing them a whirl and discovered that I really enjoyed it.

You can find my entire catalog and my latest ramblings and news on my author blog at http://oliviablakeauthor.wordpress.com, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter so I can let you know about new releases and sales.


Dark Bargains - A Romantic Suspense Serial

I’m the mistress of a rich and powerful man who delights in pain and humiliation. It’s a life I chose, and there’s no going back from it now. Marcus owns me, body and soul, and I’m his until he uses me up. I used to pray that day would come quickly, until I met his brother, Lucas. Now I just pray that I can have five minutes in the arms of the man who is everything I’ve ever dreamed of, everything his brother could never be. My brother calls her his fiancée, but I know that’s a lie. No woman in her right mind would consider marrying that psychopath, and Diane isn’t insane. No, I’m the one who’s crazy, obsessing over the hollow-eyed beauty who haunts my house during the day and my dreams at night. My iron-clad rule is to never get involved, but I'm about to break the hell out of it. I just can’t figure out whether I really want to save her, or if I just want to make her mine.

  • Author: Pink Parts Press
  • Published: 2016-09-23 20:50:22
  • Words: 22016
Dark Bargains - A Romantic Suspense Serial Dark Bargains - A Romantic Suspense Serial