Chapter One ~ Chase
“I’m so excited to welcome our next guest to the morning show. I’ve known Chase since we grew up next door to each other in Huntington Beach. Welcome, Chase Cartwright!”
Chase took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the backstage curtain and onto the closed set stage of the Los Angeles morning show. He’d plastered his show-smile on before he’d left the green room. He was used to living in front of the camera.
He was, unfortunately, also used to women throwing themselves at him, although he had to admit this time felt different. Brandi Wittman, the longtime anchor of the regional show, had only told part of the truth. Yes, they’d grown up as neighbors, but she’d left off the detail that she’d been ten years older than him and had been his babysitter on many occasions before she left for college.
The attractive thirty-something anchor hugged him just a little too hard… a little too long… too intimate. When he finally extricated himself, he felt the full burn of her seductive glare. They were on live television, and he had a premonition, if she wasn’t careful, Brandi was about to make a fool out of herself.
After pulling himself out of her embrace, Chase moved to sink into the leather chair reserved for the day’s special guest. While the star-struck host seemed distracted, he nervously reached for the steaming cup of coffee waiting next to him, hoping to fill the growing awkward silence by sipping for the fans watching.
Finally remembering she had a job to do, Brandi shook her head as if to clear the cobwebs and jumped into their interview. This was his third live appearance on TV during the weeklong PR push to advertise the upcoming grand opening of their newest dance club, Runway West. He was already exhausted and the club wasn’t even open yet.
“So, I think I speak for all Southern Californians when I say welcome home. I’ve heard you finally moved back to the Sunshine State after living on the wrong coast for a few years.” He tried not to cringe at her misguided attempt to be funny. She’d just pissed off anyone watching who loved the East Coast.
Chase smiled politely, keeping his voice steady. He didn’t want his tone to betray his growing displeasure with the recent change in his life. “Yes, at least part-time. We still have homes in New York City and D.C., but we decided it would be fun to spend a chunk of the year on the other coast.”
“And so, of course, you just had to purchase one of the most opulent properties in Beverly Hills and turn it into your new West Coast hub, right?”
“Well, you know what they say,” he chuckled. “Go big or go home.”
Brandi’s flirtatious reaction was over the top for the tame morning show. “Go big, indeed. That’s a perfect description of how I remember you. Big.”
His burst of laughter was out before he could contain it. He tried to smooth over Brandi’s misplaced innuendo.
“The gated estate we purchased is five full acres of prime real estate just a few blocks off the famed Rodeo Drive and not far from the Beverly Hills Country Club. We’re almost done with the extensive renovations to turn the mansion into the premier entertainment destination in Southern California.”
“That must have cost you a fortune. It’s a good thing your modeling career was so successful.”
He noticed the slight blush on her cheeks as she struggled to take his lead at refocusing the interview on the club. “Yes, Jaxson and I did quite well on the runway, and in print, and while we opened Runway East completely on our own, we did decide to collaborate with several investors in the lucrative Runway West project. We, of course, retain the majority ownership in the investment.” He left off how much it cost just to soundproof and secure the basement level where the most private parties would take place. They wouldn’t be mentioning that club in the public relations jaunt.
“So, are the rumors true?” She was back to her flirtatious banter.
“And which rumors would that be?” He grinned, casually sipping his coffee before adding. “There always seems to be an abundance of drama that swirls around us at any given moment.”
No truer words had ever been spoken. Of course, considering the public way they’d outed their unique relationship, he knew they had opened the door to the scrutiny.
“Well, feel free to set the record straight on any or all of the outrageous things printed about you. I’d love to get the scoop.” She leaned across the short distance between their chairs to pat him a bit too high on his thigh.
“I bet you would,” he snarked, patting her hand once before picking it up and clearly putting it back in her own lap. It was getting harder to contain the laughter he was suppressing at her expense. She was making a fucking fool of herself.
Brandi recovered with her follow-up question. “I’m specifically referring to the rumor you’re building the next Playboy mansion. That you’re planning on hosting sex parties and skinny-dipping pool parties.” Before he could respond she tacked on, “If so, I hope my invitation is in the mail.”
Chase smiled politely, careful to look towards the live camera feed. “Well, I’m sure Jaxson, Emma, and I will be christening the pool, and every other room in the house, if you get my drift. But I’m afraid the rumors are false about hosting sex parties.”
She appeared annoyed at his continued insistence on using words like ‘we’ and ‘us’ and appeared outright hostile at the mention of his lovers’ names.
He used her continued silence to add on. “What we do plan on hosting are parties for the rich and famous that will be free from prying eyes. We’ve made the decision to make the entire estate electronic free. Meaning all guests will be required to check their phones, cameras, smart watches, Fitbits… you name it. All electronics will be checked immediately upon entering the mansion. The only electronics will be our own private and high-tech security cameras meant to keep everyone safe.”
Brandi finally started acting like the journalist she was supposed to be. “Why in the world would you create such a restrictive rule? Aren’t you worried no one will come? After all, I don’t know of many people who let their cell phone out of their sight for more than two minutes these days.” As if to prove her point, she reached behind her back and pulled her own phone out to show the camera.
He smiled indulgently. “Maybe in ninety-nine percent of the country this rule would be business-suicide, but we’re banking on a large portion of our targeted patrons appreciating the privacy we’ll be able to offer.”
Her sly smile was back. “And exactly what will happen behind closed doors that needs to stay so private?”
Chase chose his words with precision, careful not to cross the line between advertising their public Runway West venture and disclosing details of their extremely private Black Light West project.
“Well, we learned in D.C. there’s a portion of the population that is always in the spotlight. Maybe it’s because of their job or who they married, their athletic prowess or their sexual exploits. Hell, whatever the reason, every time they leave the house they are on display. Jaxson, Emma, and I know something about having to hide from the paparazzi just to go out for a pizza or take in a movie. It gets exhausting. Runway West is meant to be a safe haven where the rich and famous can let down their hair and just be themselves without fear of pictures showing up on social media within minutes.”
“But surely there aren’t enough people in that category to make your club a success?”
“That’s the best part. There are even more people looking to have a good time, who’d also love to rub elbows with their favorite actor, model, rock star, athlete––you fill in the celebrity. Runway West will be the place for fans to meet their favorite celebrities in an intimate setting. There’s just one hitch. We’ll be making sure what happens behind closed doors will stay there. There will be no paparazzi allowed.”
“Ooooh, this sounds like so much fun. I hope I’ll get an invitation to visit the club.”
“No invitation needed. Runway West will be hosting concerts, runway fashion events, and will be open three nights a week to the public. All you need to do is invest in the entrance fee or a ticket to one of the hosted events, sign a standard NDA, and you’ll be in.” Chase didn’t miss her pout when he ignored her invitation to treat her like a VIP with a personal invitation.
“It all sounds so secretive. What will happen to someone who gets caught sneaking in their phone or talking about what happens there?”
Anyone who knew Chase at all knew he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he used his acting skills to plaster on his most menacing smile. “Any violators will be publicly humiliated before they face a lifetime ban on returning.”
He didn’t miss Brandi’s pupils dilating as she fidgeted in her chair at the thought of being publicly humiliated. Her voice cracked with her follow-up question. “Wow, that sounds deviously naughty. Now I know how the rumors started about the similarities between Runway and the Playboy mansion. I suspect there was a little bit of public humiliation going on there on a regular basis.”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, but I heard rumors of my own that you happened to be a guest of Mr. Hefner’s more than once before he passed away.” Chase had done his homework and it paid off. Her bright red blush told him he’d struck gold. If he played his cards right, this interview would be trending on YouTube within the hour. “I see by your blush you understand the value of privacy. Maybe you should plan on visiting after all,” he teased.
She finally recovered enough to glance down at the cue card in her lap before blurting, “You chose to have Cash Carter and the Crushing Stones play for the grand opening at your club in D.C. last year. Everyone is anxious to hear who will be headlining the opening of Runway West.”
“You’ll be excited to know you are going to get the scoop on this. We just got the deal finalized yesterday. I’m thrilled to announce we have an all-star lineup for the grand opening, starting with an exclusive poolside fashion show luncheon where none other than Randy DePaul will be showcasing his newest line of sportswear. Jaxson and I have invited some of the top fashion models in the world to be with us that day, and, of course, some of the biggest names in fashion will be on hand to help us open the outdoor venue.
“We’ll then be hosting an evening dinner gala, by invitation only, in the grand ballroom. Cash and the boys have promised to attend, but the entertainment during and after dinner will be by Grammy award- winning artist, Diva Frost. And finally, I’m thrilled to announce our guests will be dancing into the wee hours to the live music of Divinci.”
“You’re kidding me! Both Diva and Divinci are filling huge stadiums. Why would they be playing in such an intimate venue?”
Chase grinned slyly. “They were just excited to be part of the biggest party in town.” He carefully hid the real reason they’d signed on was they couldn’t pass up the lifetime membership to Black Light. All three celebrities were kinksters who had played at Black Light D.C. in the past.
“Well, now I really do hope to be receiving that invitation. It sounds like an amazing night. When is the big date?”
“Two weeks from tomorrow. We’ll have the opening for the general public the next night, and we’ve arranged for yet another headliner to take the stage that night. It promises to be a huge night.”
He just hoped he would make it that long. He was exhausted, and knew that Jaxson and Emma felt the same. Truthfully, he couldn’t wait for the whole damn opening to be behind them so things could get back to normal. Or at least as normal as things got for the infamous trio.
Brandi turned to speak to the camera. “You heard it here first, folks. Mark your calendars and let the fun begin! I suspect little work will be getting done between now and then with so many people distracted trying to figure out how to get their own personal invitation.”
The anchor turned towards Chase, that seductive haze back in her eyes as she added “I’m glad we have a personal history, Chase. I may have to leverage our relationship to be sure I’m on that intimate invite list.”
Just as Brandi’s hand slid across his knee, Chase glanced past her towards backstage. Emma had left the green room and was watching from just a few feet away. He saw the flash of hurt as his lover watched another woman touching her man.
He knew what he needed to do. He loved Emma, and Brandi had just served up a lie too big to let pass. He swung and hit a homer.
“I’m sure Jaxson and Emma won’t mind me skimming an invitation for my old babysitter. I think I was about ten when you left for college, right? I do have awesome memories of us playing PlayStation for hours when you came over.” He delivered the blow with the utmost sheen of charm and a smile, picking her hand up off his thigh and turning the grip into a limp handshake as he added, “Thanks again for inviting me onto the show. I’ve had a great time.”
Several seconds of awkward silence followed until he heard the producer yell, “We’re clear,” from the sidelines. He glanced up to see the on-air light was now off before reaching for the tiny microphone clipped to the neckline of his designer shirt.
He stood, holding the mic out to Brandi who remained stunned, slumped back against her chair. When she didn’t take it, he threw it into her lap.
“A little piece of advice. Don’t try to seduce taken men on camera. You only ask to be humiliated. At least now you know what the public humiliation punishment would feel like if you try to sneak electronics into Runway West. Good to see you again, Brandi.”
He wasn’t normally so ruthless, but nothing felt normal these days. Jaxson was grouchy. Emma was weepy. That meant he was stressed on top of everything else going on.
He stopped to shake hands with a few people as they rushed him off the set so they would be ready when they came back from commercial break. The closer he got to Emma, the brighter her eyes shone. It was something new he was starting to get used to. Tears were almost always in her eyes, and he hated it.
He smiled his best smile, the one he knew she loved. “Hey baby. How’d I do?”
“You did fine. Can’t say I was impressed with Brandi.”
“Yeah, well, I got the last laugh.”
“Does it make me a bad person that I’m relieved she was just your babysitter?”
“Bad, no. Naughty, yes. And I think you need a bit of time spent over my knee as your punishment.”
“As long as it’s just the three of us, I’ll even take the cane,” she whispered against his ear as he held her close.
He pulled back just enough to look into her eyes. Emma hated the cane, yet he saw it in her eyes—she was serious.
“When are you going to tell me what’s going on inside this lovely head of yours?” He tapped her temple gently. Not for the first time, he felt like he was losing her, and it scared the shit out of him.
“I’ll just be glad when we get the new clubs open and all of the employees hired. We’re too busy. We aren’t spending enough quality time together.”
She was right about that.
“Let’s get going. If we hurry, we can get back to the house before Jaxson leaves for the day.”
He held her hand, dragging her behind him as they rushed to the exit.