“Have you ever been obsessed?” he asked.
With the midday sun blazing into his new uptown Dallas office, Richard noticed Margot squinting. He grabbed a remote control. At the press of a button, transparent screens dropped over two walls of windows, softly dimming the sunlight while capturing the panoramic skyscraper views. When her eyes adjusted, she resumed her skeptical scowl.
He couldn’t help firing such a pointed question at her. And not just for shock effect. He was revealing a secret truth that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t escape.
Appearing unimpressed, she stared back. “Players like you don’t get obsessed. You get fleeting infatuations, until the next new set of bouncy breasts catch your eye.”
He took the jab in stride. Impressing Margot wasn’t the goal. Convincing her to join him was. She had a knack for cutting to the chase, a quality he respected.
All business. No bullshit.
Here we go.
Despite the expansiveness of his fortieth-floor office, they sat a cozy distance from each other, each on a matching tufted black leather sofa, with a low glass table between them. Two chilled Voss waters waited an arm’s length away on granite coasters.
The refreshments weren’t just there because of the sweltering Texas heat outside. Richard knew the drill. Margot demanded complete sobriety during any negotiation, and this wasn’t exactly a social call. With her golden hair perfectly layered in an expensive cut, and a custom suit contouring her svelte body and complementing her delicate features, she was a woman of the world. No doubt about it—her razor-sharp mind analyzed him. Each word. Every move.
And he knew exactly why.
Jumping on this crazy train would take a wish and a prayer, and a butt-load of cash. And crazy wasn’t even the half of it.
Illegal? Definitely not.
Richard tried to stay out of anything that was blatantly against the law, but everything about this plan screamed lawsuit. Big, fat, fucking lawsuit. And if the media caught wind of it? He’d definitely be kissing his own ass good-bye. His ass and his assets.
He promptly shoved all the risks from his mind, focusing on the ultimate prize. “It’s not fleeting. And Jaclyn Long isn’t remotely close to a flash in the pan. Any day now, she could take over Long Multinational Systems, and we both know if that happens, it’s game over. This is my chance. My only shot.”
When Margot’s gaze remained unimpressed, he decided to change tactics. Bring out the big guns. Honesty.
“I’m used to women looking at me a certain way,” he said. “Like a gift-wrapped lottery ticket they want to unwrap with their teeth. Half the time they see me as a sugar daddy, and the other half as a baby daddy. But when Jaclyn looked at me, it was different. Like I wasn’t worth her time. But she’s definitely worth mine.”
Margot’s brow lifted.
“Here.” He opened the folder on the coffee table between them and handed her a few documents. “I’m ready to hit her with all I’ve got, but she can’t see me coming.”
Margot skimmed the pages, her smile spreading wider as she flipped page after page.
“You’ve known me a long time, Margot. If I’m in it, I’m in it to win it. But I need an advantage. You’re one of the few people who live in her inner circle.”
“Lived,” she said, correcting him as she returned the documents and resumed her stoic expression. “It’s been a while.”
Her practiced poker face made it impossible to get the slightest hint of where she stood. But she was listening, and his instincts kicked in, prompting him to hit the “schmooze” button.
“But you know Jaclyn better than anyone,” he said. “Maybe better than she knows herself. To make this work, I need you on my side.”
Margot looked up for a second, contemplating a response. Sinking back into the fine leather, she crossed her legs and stretched an arm along the low back of the couch. “And exactly what’s that shot worth to you, Richard?”
Well, that was fast. He figured she’d at least hear him out on the details of this scheme. But, nope. She was ready to decide if she was in or out, and it all came down to price. Her casual indifference telegraphed that she knew his position as well as he did. Without a lick of leverage, why pretend?
Richard leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “How about we cut to the chase? Name your price.”
She smiled, its immediacy killing any hope he had for a fair and reasonable negotiation. “Whether you pull this off or not, I get five percent of your company.”
His eyes popped. Margot’s hardball game wasn’t just in a league all its own. It was like she’d invented the fucker.
He opened his mouth to counter, but the subtle lift of her elegant hand stopped him cold.
“That’s nonnegotiable,” she said. “And I’ll need to see it in writing today. I’ll also need five million in good faith money deposited to one of my accounts. Nonrefundable. My attorneys will draw up the paperwork to ensure there’s no way I’m implicated if anything goes awry with this ‘foolproof’ plan of yours. Because what could possibly go wrong, right?”
Her sarcasm was cutting. She reached for a bottle, delicately unscrewed the cap, and sipped, letting him mull it over.
He pulled in a breath. “How about—”
“Nonnegotiable, Richard. I’m not the one who’s obsessed.”
Their eyes met, and hers sparkled with the triumph of a woman who knew she had him by the balls.
Margot didn’t wait for his reply. “Good. Then there’s the issue of your appearance.”
“Hang on. A ten-thousand-dollar suit isn’t good enough for Your Highness?”
She shook her head. “Oh, it’s great for me, but I’m not the one you have to worry about.” She swept a hand to indicate his appearance. “Her Highness will see you coming from a mile away. No wonder she avoided you like e. coli. Guys like you swarm her in droves. Hot. Charming. Sexy, with a naughty side that keeps girls coming back for more.”
Richard gave her a not-so-modest grin.
“Absolutely worthless,” Margot said sharply, quashing his smile. “Like you rolled off the latest playboy cookie-cutter assembly line. Guys like you have burned her a few times too many. So, if you want this to work, then you’re going to need to make a few changes.”
Damn her. Margot was enjoying this a bit too much.
He crossed his arms casually over his chest, barely wrinkling the custom-made suit. “Fine. We can work on wardrobe. What else?”
She set down her water and moved to take a seat by his side. “Hmm.” She scanned his face. “I’m not partial to facial hair for this little caper.”
His hand protectively flew to his scruff, and he rubbed it thoughtfully. The trademark of his signature look, gone?
“Okay. Fine. It’ll grow back,” he said. “Any more changes?”
She tilted her head, studying him. “I definitely see you as a blond.”
Tall, dark, and handsome Richard stripped down to a squeaky-clean choirboy? He hated everything about it.
But he had to admit, the idea was bizarrely genius, and exactly what he’d asked for. Jaclyn Long would never see him coming. Literally.
Richard sighed. “All right. Fine. I’ll get my stylist on it.”
“Try to get it as close to my color as possible. So people might mistake us for siblings.” Margot ran her fingers through his thick hair, uncharacteristically playful as she deliberately tousled his perfectly gelled waves.
Scowling, he pulled away and stood, quickly smoothing back his hair as he crossed the room. He picked up two boxes from his desk and returned, handing her one.
Margot’s eyes widened the slightest bit. “I do love gifts.” She popped open the box and pulled out a card.
“Scan that. It will load an encrypted app to your phone that works like FaceTime. Then, it’s just a quick click to communicate with me through these.” He opened the other box and pulled out a pair of titanium-framed glasses, then slid them on.
“Oh, I like those. They make you look even less like yourself.”
He frowned. “Nice. And I love how looking less like myself somehow became the goal. After spending the better part of a decade honing my image, I thought I’d be seizing the day in style. But, for what’s on the line, consider it done.”
“And one last thing, Richard.” Margot’s usually stoic demeanor turned cheery. “No lies.”
Confused, he cocked his head, wondering how she’d missed the gist of the entire conversation. “Uh, that might be an issue, Margot.”
Her lips twitched with the smallest of smirks. “You can only take this game so far, and every sport has rules. Your name will be a mystery, and your makeover will be epic, but absolutely no lies. Nothing that can ever be used against you later—in a court of law or otherwise. Lies are too hard to keep up with, and nine times out of ten, they’ll bite you in that Adonis backside of yours. You’ll look and act the part of an altar boy, but that devil in you will swear to tell the truth. Maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth.”
She lifted her bottle for a toast. “Deal?”
He grabbed his water bottle, removed the cap, and clinked it against hers. “Deal. To the future.”
Three guys walked into a bar . . . It had all the makings of a lame joke.
From her perch on her stool, Jaclyn used the art deco mirror hidden behind the mountain range of booze to inconspicuously spy. People-watching, she loved. Having them watch her back, not so much.
A recovering insomniac, she’d made her way down to the basement tavern at the Joule Hotel desperately needing to unwind enough to get a few hours of sleep. A nightcap wrapped in the soothing ambience of peace and quiet gave her room to breathe. Sneaking in at 1:00 a.m., not long be-fore closing time, usually gave her all the privacy in the world, but not to-night. The inebriated band of makeshift brothers who’d just walked in promised to interrupt her laid-back plans.
She studied the trio as they found a nearby table to ogle her from. By their middle-school glances and huddled and hushed chatting, something was brewing, and it smelled all too familiar. She’d suddenly become the grand prize at the end of a pickup line.
Her thick, wavy jet-black hair that trailed clear to her ass always had a knack for catching wandering gazes. Never accused of being rail thin, Jaclyn had ample assets and voluptuous curves with a magnetic pull all their own. Add to that her bulging bank account and seductive spontanei-ty, only three types of men ever seemed to plow into her life.
First, there were the money-hungry, status-chasing Ivy Leaguers who pursued her like an Olympic gold medal—as if their years of hard work pinnacled in such a worthy award. These trophy hunters loved the chase, not only to capture and keep such an exotic specimen of woman, but to cage her as well. Like with all confident, capable women, captivity clashed with her charisma.
Taking second place were the uninteresting, unintelligible, garden-variety Neanderthals who traveled in packs and swarmed her in droves. They were less interested in her money and more drawn to her milkshake. Brainlessly so. Despite her best efforts to bind those babies down, her double Ds always brought the wrong sorts of boys to the yard. And this band of bar boozers plopped squarely into this bucket.
But option number three was her weakness. The consummate looks-so-good, feels-even-better bad boy. The edgy kind of guy who wasn’t the right fit, but it never deterred her from forcing that puzzle piece in. Deep, deep in.
Ideal for the occasional tawdry and tantalizing tryst, they were perfect in the heat of the moment. It was those disappointing minutes afterward that always burst her bubble. For these good-time guys, both their heads had the attention span of an egg timer.
Even if she could grab their focus, she could never keep it. Sure, the sex was smoking hot. But after spending ten or twenty minutes satisfying his, um, ego, what more was there to do? Even if the owner of the down-and-dirty hot body could carry on a conversation, they rarely did. She’d suc-cumb to the eventual boredom, and they’d be on to their next Betty. The blazing-hot boy-toy trail had become one buzzkill after another.
She watched in the mirror as the men across the room metaphorically drew straws for who would belly up to the bar beside her first.
Feeling frisky, she set her sights on a good time. Her way. And not in an annoying, pissed-off sort of spirit where her bitch face preceded her words. She had way more creativity than to waste her energy on irritation. After a long couple of days at work, a round of lighthearted entertainment seemed just the ticket to blow off a little steam.
These guys were overpreparing to the nth degree, and her mind and mood were ready to roll out the welcome mat. Between their clustered discussion and round of locker-room fist bumps, these chumps promised a few rounds of priceless stress relief.
The first of the three, who’d be the alpha if he could spell it, strolled over with his slicked-back hair, chiseled good looks, and smug grin. “Hi, sexy. Can I buy you a drink?”
God, if there was one thing Jaclyn loved, it was when d-bags didn’t dis-appoint. She smiled adoringly, fully sizing up every arrogant inch of him.
“Well, I was just drinking water.” She walked her fingers across the lacquered wood before smoothing her hand over the back of his. Her thick, come-hither lashes batted as she peered through them. “Can I ask you a question?”
He tucked his index finger under her chin, using the opportunity to flex his bicep in a shirt that was clearly two sizes too small. “Anything, sexy.”
She was sure the octave of his voice just lowered. I guess his balls just dropped.
With a coy smile, she wrapped her hands around his taut arm. “You’re so strong. I’ll bet you play sports, right?”
He nodded, daring to brush her hair off her shoulder, caressing her arm with his rather rough hand.
Dammit, this gorilla is snagging my blouse. She wriggled out of his grasp but leaned forward, knowing the length of his stay, like his manhood, wouldn’t be long.
“Well, I was thinking you’d be the perfect man. I mean, for my kids. I have five.”
His face fell as he leaned back. But he wasn’t getting away just yet.
She grabbed one of his grubby paws, yanking it to palm her stomach. “And one on the way!”
It was like watching a tug-of-war as he tried to get his hand back from her two-fisted grip.
“Hey, what are you doing now?” she asked innocently. “Would you like to meet them? And maybe stay till breakfast? My babysitter is about to bail, and you look like you’d be great with them. Especially the twins. Their sleep pattern is all kinds of off, and I really need some z’s.”
It was just the reverse pickup line to shrivel his tail. He bailed without a word.
What, no good-bye? She turned back toward the bar and watched through the mirror as he encouraged contender number two, who was now looking her way.
Contestant number two, come on down!
Strolling up, what this guy lacked in a buff bod he more than made up for in a suffocating cloud of Axe body spray.
Curse that company for making an aerosol.
He plopped on the seat next to her. “Excuse me. I couldn’t help but no-tice you from across the room. I mean, that outfit really looks hot on you.” He leaned in. “How about I buy you a drink? What can I get you?”
What do you know? He’s a closer.
Well, two could play at that game.
Jaclyn settled on a more direct approach. Despite his best attempt at bravado, his bouncing leg and inability to hold eye contact revealed his nervousness. She swiveled her bar stool toward him, crossing her legs and giving him a front-row view. Her shapely calves and lower thighs poured from beneath the hem of her skirt.
“Well, maybe.” Leaning in and letting her breasts test the buttons of her blouse, she pitched her voice in a breathy and demanding tone. “The last guy I dated could hold an erection for two and a half hours, cock ring and Cialis free. God, what I wouldn’t give for a long, steady pony ride.”
She put her hand on his tapping leg, stopping the bouncing dead in its tracks. “I’m game if you are, stud, but you will be judged. And bound.”
He stumbled off his stool and scurried back to the pack.
What about my drink? Oh well.
As bachelor number three casually strolled her way, he did something unexpected. He connected with her in the mirror, his bright blue gaze locked and loaded on hers.
Men were usually too busy gawking at her assets to make real eye con-tact. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with him, a rare breed of classic guy-next-door that she thought didn’t exist outside of sitcom reruns and Hallmark movies.
There was something about him. Magnetic despite his demeanor. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
The way he looked at her. Carried himself. Brimming with casual com-fort. Like she could drop by and ask him to mow her lawn, and he’d do it. And whether “mow her lawn” was code for taking her in a hot hour of ec-stasy or actually trimming the grass outside her house, she could oddly see him diving into either scenario.
Please don’t reek of cheap cologne.
At the bar, he barely tapped the seat next to her, asking politely, “May I?”
Jaclyn took the opportunity to get a better look. The glasses were a poor disguise for an obviously gorgeous man. He reminded her of a blond Clark Kent. How the hell Lois Lane never saw the sizzling hottie behind the thick-framed spectacles was beyond her. She also noticed his suit was nice, but hardly a Tom Ford fit or expense. It hung on the body of a well-built but not overly made-up man.
“Why not? Everyone else has.”
Playing this one a little cooler wasn’t exactly planned. More like a des-perate measure to cover for how hot she was getting. Like gazing into the sun. She tore open a straw to sip her water, hoping to quell the blush ris-ing up her face.
He sat on the stool and leaned closer, keeping his back to the two men watching. “Listen, I’m sorry about this, but those guys and I sort of made a bet on who could buy you a drink.”
“Oh. I was wondering about all the action I was getting tonight. I fig-ured the billboard I took out in the men’s room was finally paying off.” She trained her eyes forward, pretending interest in the bar’s bourbon selec-tion.
“I’ll go. Again, I’m really sorry.”
He swiveled to leave, but stopped as she softly said, “Hang on.” Perus-ing the shelf of enticing glass bottles, she asked, “What’s the wager?”
He loosened his collar a bit before answering and slowly blew out a breath. “Five hundred dollars.”
“Each?” Jaclyn’s lip curled up in amusement. “So, I assume if you buy me a drink, I get half, right?”
A glimmer of hope rose in his tone. “Um, yes. Of course.”
She tapped her fingernails against the cool wall of the water glass, drawing a fingertip through a few drops of condensation. “I have an idea. Why not go back to them, say you thought about it, and I seemed ready to accept, but you got cold feet. Nervous.”
“Nervous? To buy a woman a drink?”
“I don’t know. Worried I might expect more. And you’re misleading me. Wing it.” She bit her bottom lip. “See if they’ll take the bait.”
“Bait for what?” he asked softly, questioning her reflection.
She spoke to the mirror, keeping her voice low. “The bait to up the ante.” She slipped the straw to her lips, sucking another sip through her confident smile.
He leaned in, shoulder to shoulder, speaking in dramatically hushed tones. “So, you want me to hustle them?”
“Mm-hmm.” Her coy look caught his.
“Before I dive headfirst into the short con of a mastermind, can I at least know your name?”
Can you at least tear off your tie? “Jaclyn.”
“Richard,” he said, then headed back to the huddled men who’d just be-come his marks.
Jaclyn watched, impressed as he really seemed to be milking it. She was nearly giddy, inwardly cheering him on as his animated chatter con-tinued. Between their insistent nods and his “oh no, I couldn’t possibly” posture, her anticipation flipped to elation at the sight of them shoving cash into his hands.
She faintly heard, “Yeah, if you get this, you’ve earned it.”
He quickly tucked the cash in his wallet and walked back to Jaclyn in a decidedly cocky, almost pimp-walk manner.
“Well, Mr. DiCaprio, what are you up to?” she asked as he reclaimed his seat.
He again leaned in, a bit closer than the last time. The man smelled wonderful. A blend of subtle cologne, a freshness that must be his laun-dry, and an undertone of something that could only be described as him.
“Feel free to call me Leo, and we’re up to two grand. I’m really hoping I can buy you a drink now, because I’m on a double-or-nothing deal with these guys. I’d really hate to be out four grand for the short pleasure of your company.”
The blue of his softly pleading eyes sent her thoughts straight south, making her wonder if he tasted as good as he smelled. She looked over to see the bartender watching, wide-eyed and curious for her answer.
“I guess you can buy a girl a drink.”
The bartender breathed a loud sigh of relief, causing both her and Richard to laugh.
“I’ll take my usual, Jim.”
The bartender nodded. “And for you, sir?”
“I’ll have what she’s having.”
The bartender handed them two tumblers of Kentucky’s best bourbon, and they clinked a toast.
Jaclyn sipped hers, thoroughly enjoying the aroma before letting a “mmm” escape on the exhale. Her coconspirator, on the other hand, took a sip, then desperately tried to muffle the choking that jerked to a cough.
“You okay?” she asked as she patted his back. Her patting turned to petting before she yanked her hand back. Damn, he’s built.
“Yeah, fine,” he said in a gruff voice, clearing his throat.
The bartender handed him a water, and he took a grateful sip.
“So, you’re Richard. Richard what?” she asked.
The question seemed to catch him off guard. He straightened his tie. “Would you believe Smith?”
His question of an answer tipped her to annoyed. “Smith. You don’t say. What a coincidence, that’s my name too.”
She glared at him. “No.” Idiot.
“Too bad.” He sipped his remorse away. “Jaclyn Smith will forever be my favorite angel.”
Mine too. “What’s with the mystery, Mr. Smith?”
“I, um . . .”
Her silence spoke volumes while she waited for his response.
He shrugged, finally babbling out, “Well, I mean, you’re here late. Really late. And you must frequent this bar regularly enough, because the bar-tender knows what you drink. And by how this all went down, I guess . . .” He ran a finger along the smooth edge of the bar and sucked in a breath. “I’m just not sure if you’re, uh, a . . .”
She whipped her head toward him, her eyes blazing while he fumbled his explanation. “Oh my God. You think I’m a prostitute?”
More shrugging of his broad shoulders as he struggled to smile.
“Just to be clear, unlike me, I’m pretty sure a hooker would let anyone buy her a drink. In fact, the three of you would qualify under the call-girl definition of ‘the more the merrier.’”
Richard actually seemed to blush. “No, of course not. I never imagined you were, um, a working girl. It’s just that I’m, um—”
“Married?” she asked, disappointed. Though by the looks of his left hand, a ring had never graced his finger, as it was smooth. No signs of a tan line or indentation.
“No,” he said with a slight huff of indignation. “I’m definitely not mar-ried. Look, I’m just digging the hole deeper, and as cool as our little scam has been, I’ve got to work in a few hours. I need to get going. How can I discreetly hand you half of this wad of cash before I head out?”
Oh, I’m not done playing with you, Mr. Smith.
He’d barely tugged the smooth leather wallet from his back pocket be-fore she slid her hand around his forearm. Hopping off her bar stool, she energetically yanked him off of his.
“Oh, I know a way. And bring your drink.”
With his newfound fortune, he left a C-note on the bar.
Leading him along, Jaclyn glued her body to his. It was nothing to fake a conversation punctuated with over-the-top giggles as they passed the two other men. Overtly flirting, she pressed her breasts against him as they strolled out to the lobby and toward the elevators. When the doors opened, she shoved herself against him, backing him inside.
The doors shut.