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1001 Dark Nights: Bundle Ten by Tessa Bailey, Lexi Blake, Larissa Ione, Laurelin Paige, Jenna Jacob, Sierra Simone (1)

Prologue

God help the woman he took home tonight.

James Brandon stared down the bar, pegging each customer as they entered his field of vision. Recent divorcée making up for lost time. A new employee showing off to his blasé coworkers by buying a round of tequila shots. Two women pretending to be indecisive over their beverage order, when really they were just waiting for someone to send them drinks. It wouldn’t be him. Christ, he hated this meat market. What the hell had he been thinking coming here?

Something new. Anything new. Lately, a voice had been chanting those words at the back of his skull. Louder, louder. He thought he’d found the solution to his restlessness this afternoon upon quitting his job as corporate council for a multimillion-dollar investment firm. But, no. It hadn’t. While it might have eased his ceaseless irritation knowing he wouldn’t be responsible for babysitting a bunch of pampered thieves in Armani suits come tomorrow morning, there was still a gnawing in his gut. A need to…wake up.

Fully aware that another pointless one-night stand couldn’t satisfy his growing hunger for a high he couldn’t name, here he was nonetheless. On his third whiskey in a place he could only describe as obvious, nursing hope so futile, he might as well ask for the check. But…maybe this time. Maybe tonight he would walk away satisfied from an encounter. Fulfilled even to the smallest degree.

A romantic or idealistic person might suggest James was searching for an emotional connection at the ripe old age of thirty-one. Someone he wanted to discuss current affairs with over bagels the morning after. Not so. He quite enjoyed his solitude, thank you very much. No, it was what took place between the sheets with a woman that left him hollow, and it was through no fault of theirs. This was his. He had a problem. And that same voice that chanted for him to chase an unnamable peak…had begun to project images. Rough, graphic images that shouldn’t turn him on. But did.

Hell yes, they did.

So he’d resisted. When you came from a background like his, you fought off any similarities at all costs. His determination was waning, however. Growing weaker by the second. Making a mockery of his will.

That’s when he saw the girl.

James’s lungs evacuated all air, deflating him like a cheap balloon.

And in a split second, nothing else mattered but her.

Too young. But somehow he knew that wouldn’t stop him. Nothing would. His body responded beneath the bar, his hands gripping the wood to steady himself. It was more than the usual stirring of attraction. Far, far more. A moving picture flashed in his mind, the girl nodding as he spoke softly to her, that delicate chin pinched between his fingers. As if there were perfect understanding between them. Not right now, though. Now, she looked lost, an anomaly among an otherwise seamless pattern of overconfidence. A pattern he hated, needed to remove her from. Now. Urgency took him over, making him feel almost delirious.

Even the girl’s adrift expression couldn’t hide the sharp intelligence behind her wide eyes, couldn’t hide an unknown mission there. An unmistakable surety that she was looking for him wouldn’t go away. She was the reason he’d come here tonight instead of going home, which had been his initial plan.

Thank God he hadn’t.

When the girl stopped and faced a group of men, James rose to his feet, poison ivy climbing the back of his neck. Spiked and dangerous. Its leaves extended and curled tight. Scared. She was scared. Why? He was coming. She just had to hold on a second.

James’s world tilted right along with the girl when she pitched to the side, her beautiful eyes gone glassy with fear. He moved.

 

* * * *

 

Lita Regina wasn’t a prostitute. That’s not what tonight was about.

She just needed to get off the street for one night. One. Night.

Thought you were made of sterner stuff, didn’t you? Well it turned out, a week of being homeless on the streets of Los Angeles was about all Lita could withstand. While crashing in shelters might have been an upgrade from the situation from which she’d split, cozying up in some rich guy’s hotel room sounded even better. Women had one-night stands all the time, didn’t they? Dressed up, put on expensive perfume and suffered through forced conversation just to feel needed by someone?

As Lita saw it, her reasons for cruising for a man ranked slightly higher on the survival scale. She’d stretched the fifty dollars she’d vamoosed with by sticking to street vendors and the McDonald’s dollar menu, but someone in the shelter had pocketed her last ten two nights ago as she slept, leaving her broke as a joke. And speaking of jokes, hunger pains were not one. Lita nearly staggered under the intensity of them as she crossed the crowded hotel bar on Wilshire Boulevard, looking for—

Who? A man with a thing for scrawny chicks with fading bruises? Gazes followed her as she circled the bar, customers probably wondering who the hell had let her into the swank establishment. If they knew she’d ducked in behind two tall blondes while the bouncer checked their identification, outrage would abound. How dare this imposter breach the inner sanctum?

Lita’s chin went up with that last thought. She wasn’t the imposter. They were. The privileged corporate slaves she’d laughed about with her bandmates, back when she’d had a band. Back when she’d had people who cared. If she hadn’t chosen a man over those friends, they might still be there, too. Then she wouldn’t be in the Beverly Wilshire trolling for someone who’d let her share his clean, fluffy hotel bed for the night. Maybe let her take a shower and share a plate of French fries.

At the thought of salty, savory goodness, Lita’s stomach rumbled loud enough to draw the attention of a group of men. Men in ties. Men that didn’t live in her world. Still, she sent them an inviting smile, praying her sparkly, thrift shop miniskirt looked better in the near dark than it had on the rack.

The words, please, I’m hungry, were burning on her tongue, but she couldn’t just say that, could she? They would alert security or turn their backs, muttering about the lack of decent drinking establishments for professionals such as themselves. Before they finished their drinks, she would be an afterthought.

One of the men—he wore a blue button-down shirt and ruby red tie—checked her legs out, his expression relaying interest. He nudged his friend with an elbow and Lita stood there, stomach twisting, as the four of them looked her up and down. A polar blast swept over her skin, far cooler than the air conditioning. No. This wasn’t what she’d envisioned, but could see now that she’d been wearing rose-colored glasses, even after being chewed up and spit out on the curb of life. After everything, she was still naïve. Still an optimist.

How fucking sad.

“How much for all of us?” Ruby Red Tie asked before tossing back the contents of his rocks glass. “At the same time.”

For the first time that day, an empty stomach was a blessing because Lita would have lost the contents right there on the men’s shiny loafers. They’d categorized her as a working girl in under ten seconds. Everyone in the room probably had. Maybe they were right. Even if she found a way off the street tonight, what about tomorrow? Would she keep doing this? Lita’s attention spanned the room in quick jerks, taking in the way other women were dressed. How men looked at them. With respect. One week. It had only taken one week for her to fall this far.

She had to get out of there—figure out a different way to eat. Anything was better than being judged. Laughed at.

Lita spun on a heel—too fast. She’d moved too fast. The room spun and blurred around her, stomach clenching around nothing. Her hip rammed into a table, upsetting drinks on a pair of female customers. She tried to mumble an apology, but her legs chose that moment to stop supporting her. Down she went, like a sack of wet laundry. Down…down…

Powerful arms caught her around the middle just before she hit the floor.

 

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