Kace Quick was tall, dark, sexy as every sin imaginable, and…quite possibly, a cold-blooded killer.
Bree Harlow released a slow breath as she was escorted into his office. The place was high-end, fancy. Reeked of money. Kace had plenty of money, after all. Money to burn. He owned most of the clubs in New Orleans and several casinos over in Biloxi. His name was whispered by those who feared him, and by those who wanted to bring him down—the local authorities—it was cursed.
“Have a seat, Ms. Harlow.” His voice was rumbling and low, with no hint at all of the South flowing in his words. She knew he’d been raised in New Orleans, though. Brought up in the foster care system. He’d gone from having nothing to controlling one of the biggest empires in the South.
The cops thought he was as dirty as they came. Tied to every sin in the city.
He turned toward her, moving away from the window that let him look out over the busy street below. His eyes—the most electric blue that she’d ever seen—locked on her. And for a moment, all Bree could think was…
Yes, this man knew all about sin.
His dark hair was thick and heavy, shoved back from his forehead. He didn’t wear some fancy suit, though she knew he could afford anything he wanted. Everything. Instead, he wore a black t-shirt that stretched over his wide shoulders and powerful arms. Jeans encased his legs. Comfortable, faded. Still…sexy. The guy oozed sex appeal even as he gave off a dark, dangerous vibe that she was sure most women found irresistible.
She wasn’t most women.
Bree finally took the seat he’d indicated. She’d play his game, because she could not afford to screw this up. The leather squeaked beneath her as she eased into the chair. “I, um, didn’t expect to meet with you.”
He headed toward her. Bree tensed but…
He just propped one hip on his desk, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared down at her. “Why the hell not? It’s my club.”
“Uh, right.” She cleared her throat. “But I’m just here applying for the waitress position and—”
“And you don’t think I care about the people who work for me?”
She hadn’t thought he’d want to be in on this interview, no. She’d figured it would take her days to work her way up to him. But if fate was going to be kind and put him in her path right then, who was she to complain? Bree glanced up at him, holding his bright blue gaze. “There are a lot of…stories about you.” It was a gamble to say those words.
One dark eyebrow rose. “Stories?”
“Y-yes…” She let her voice tremble.
His gaze raked over her. “Bree Harlow. Twenty-five years old. Fresh from Asheville, North Carolina.” His lips hitched into a half-smile. “What in the hell are you doing in my city, Bree?”
“Looking for a job.” Her hands twisted in her lap.
He laughed. Like his voice, the laugh was deep and rumbling. Sexy. The guy had the sex appeal down to an art. “There are plenty of waitressing jobs in North Carolina. I don’t think you needed to come all the way down here to find one.”
She slowly exhaled. “I wanted a fresh start.” This was going to be tricky. Truth and lies could always be tricky.
His eyes narrowed on her. “What are you running from?”
What have you got? She’d spent the last ten years running from all kinds of things.
His jaw—square and hard—tightened. “A lover?”
“I wanted a fresh start. That meant I needed new people in my life. A new place. So, I came here.” She held his gaze, but it was hard to meet his intense stare. She’d seen his picture before. Learned everything that she could about the man before she’d crossed the threshold into Fantasy, his new club.
Seeing him in person was different. The guy was bigger, sexier, and a whole lot more dangerous. She’d had to pass four guards just to get into his office. Guards who’d raked her with their hard stares. The big boss was insulated, and getting this in-person meeting with him…
Hell, yes. Major score.
Now, if she could just manage not to screw up this part and actually land the job, she’d be golden.
Kace lifted a hand, rubbing it over the faint stubble that covered his jaw. The guy’s face could have made him a model, if he had been into the whole not-being-a-criminal thing. High cheekbones, long blade of a nose. Sensual lips.
“When did you arrive in New Orleans?”
She was prepared for the question. “Three days ago.” Truth.
“And in that three days…” His head tilted as he studied her. “What sort of…stories …have you already heard?”
Bree bit her lip.
His gaze dipped to her mouth. No warmth appeared in his eyes. Slowly his stare drifted up once more. “Ms. Harlow?”
“The lady at the bed and breakfast where I’m staying…Ms. Queen knew I was looking for a job. She told me about this club, but said I had to be careful.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you’re a criminal.” There. Bree waited for his reaction.
There was none. No laughter at the crazy claim. No denial.
Just those blue eyes staring hard at her. Trying to see through her.
“And you want to work for a would-be criminal?”
Sound desperate or you’ll lose him. “I just want to work. I’m down to my last hundred, and I need this job.”
“A job working for a criminal?”
Her heart pounded harder in her chest. “Are you a criminal?”
“I don’t know…are you a waitress?”
What in the hell was that supposed to mean? Her lips parted.
But Kace laughed again. “There are lots of stories in this town. Some people say I’m a criminal, some say I’m a savior. It’s really all in who you ask.” A pause. He leaned toward her. “I wonder, what will I be to you?”
His gaze had finally lit with something other than ice. She would have needed to be blind in order to miss the sudden interest in his stare. Lust. Her heart jerked. She was in so much trouble.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” His hand lifted up, and he tucked a lock of her hair behind Bree’s ear. “You’re hired.”
A smile curved her lips. “Thank you.”
Kace frowned at her. “You have a dimple in your cheek.”
Her smile dimmed.
His fingers slid to her cheek. “It’s cute.”
His touch was making her nervous. His fingers were warm and slightly callused, and… “I think there is a miscommunication here.” Abruptly, she rose. So did he.
Their bodies brushed. He was taller than she was. Bree wore tennis shoes and stood at five-foot-five without heels, so she had to tip back her head to stare up at him.
“Miscommunication?” Kace repeated. He didn’t back up. He didn’t give her space.
“I’m not here for sex.”
He laughed. The sound rolled right over her.
She didn’t laugh back. “I’m looking for a waitressing job. Nothing more. If the job is contingent on me playing nice with you—”
More laughter. The guy looked as if he was truly amused. “Oh, sweetheart, I never play nice. That’s just not who I am.”
Right. Crime lord. Charmer. Killer? The stories said he was all of those things and so much more.
But he’d stopped touching her. That was something, wasn’t it?
“Sleeping with me isn’t part of the job, don’t worry about that.”
Her cheeks went red.
He blinked, as if surprised. Then his hand rose again—
Her fingers grabbed his wrist. “Stop.”
“I didn’t expect the blush. You surprised me.”
The fact that his hand seemed to burn her—that surprised Bree. She felt an electric spark run the length of her hand, and she immediately let him go. “I’m a good waitress. I’ll always show up on time, and I’ll stay as late as needed. I won’t cause trouble, and I’ll get the job done.”
“No trouble? Really?” Now he walked around her, letting his gaze slide up and down her body. She couldn’t help but tense. “I find that hard to believe.”
Her gaze slanted to the left. Locked on him.
“You look like trouble to me, Ms. Harlow.”
No, she didn’t. She’d dressed in deliberately casual clothes. Jeans and a white t-shirt. She’d wanted to appear unthreatening. A little desperate. Even though the truth was that she was a lot desperate. This job was absolutely necessary to her.
“Have you waited tables before?”
“Yes.” Now she moved and tapped her hand on his desk. Her resume sat there. “I’ve done a lot of waitressing work. I’ve done bartending work. I can handle anything.”
“I guess we’ll see if that’s true.” He rolled back his shoulders. “Like I said before, you’re hired.”
Her breath left in an excited rush.
“Start tonight. Be here at seven p.m. We don’t open until nine, but you’ll need some training. And clothes.” He motioned vaguely toward her. “All of my waiters and waitresses have a particular uniform. For the women on the first floor, it’s red heels, black pants, and a black blouse. I provide the uniforms for everyone, so be sure to stop and get outfitted before you leave today.”
“Thank you! I really appreciate—”
“If you fuck up, you’re out.”
Well, wasn’t he the blunt one? Her chin notched up. “I won’t fuck up.”
A faint smile curled his lips. “That remains to be seen.”
Then he headed back for his desk. Sat down. She assumed he was dismissing her, so Bree hurried for the door.
“I want to hear the stories.”
She stilled, her fingers reaching for the doorknob.
“Before you leave, tell me, exactly, what you’ve heard about me.”
Her tongue slid over her lower lip. Carefully, Bree schooled her features before she turned toward him. “I heard you were a killer.”
Kace didn’t even blink.
“Those who cross you don’t get second chances. You eliminate threats to you. You make your own laws. You do whatever the hell you want.”
His fingers tapped on the desk. “That all you’ve heard?”
No, not even close. “Two…two women were found murdered in New Orleans recently. I heard the cops think you were involved with their deaths.”
His smile came slowly, and it was a strange sight to see. So charming. So warm. She imaged the devil would smile just that way. “Who has been telling you all these stories? Especially since you’ve only been in town a few days…Three, wasn’t it? Surely, they didn’t all come from the talkative lady at your bed and breakfast. Although, I do know Ms. Queen. Most of the town does. She certainly enjoys her gossip.”
No, all of the stories hadn’t come from Ms. Kelly Queen. “The news,” she blurted. “I saw about—about the two women on the news.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you see…or hear.”
“I don’t. That’s why I’m in your club right now, asking for a job.”
“From a man who many believe to be a murderer. Interesting. You are interesting, Ms. Harlow.”
There was something about the way he said her name…
“Some women get off on danger. They like to fuck criminals.”
She shook her head.
His eyes narrowed. “Is that a no? You don’t enjoy that dark thrill?”
“I was shaking my head because this is the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had.” That statement, at least, was the absolute truth.
“Ah, so you do get off on danger. Good to know.”
Her lips pressed together.
“Relax, Ms. Harlow. I have a strict policy about not having sex with my employees. You’ll have to look elsewhere for your rush.”
“But—but those two women—” Bree pushed when she probably shouldn’t have.
“I didn’t have sex with those women, despite what the media says. And what the cops think. I wasn’t involved with them romantically. And, in case you were wondering but weren’t quite brave enough to ask…No, I didn’t kill them.” His hands flattened on his desk. “I didn’t kill Lindsey Marshall and Ciara Hall. I didn’t strangle them and dump their bodies behind the St. Louis Cathedral so that some poor, unsuspecting tourists could find them the next day.”
Bree swallowed. His voice had been completely flat, dead of emotion while he spoke.
“Still want the job?” His bright gaze seemed to mock her.
More than ever. “Yes.” Another swallow. “And at least now, I know my boss isn’t a killer.”
His eyes narrowed.
He didn’t smile at her, but she could have sworn his eyes gleamed. “The guard outside of my door is named Remy St. Clair. He’ll take you to see the floor manager and get you squared away with the uniforms. I’m sure there’s some paperwork somewhere for you.” His voice sounded disinterested, and he was already turning toward his computer.
She waited. He didn’t reply. So, Bree cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said again, louder.
He let out a little sigh as he finally looked up at her. Kace seemed confused about why she was still there.
“It’s polite to thank someone,” she told him in a very calm voice, “when the person does something nice for you.”
A furrow appeared between his brows. “What on earth makes you think I did anything nice for you? Didn’t we cover this already? I don’t—”
“Do nice, right. It just seems nice.”
Now he leaned back in his leather chair. Kace seemed to like leather. Or maybe he just enjoyed expensive things. Judging by the paintings on the walls—she was ninety percent certain the one to the left was a Jackson Pollack—Bree was going with option B.
“Ms. Harlow, I haven’t done anything nice. You’re hired on a temporary basis. Let’s call it probation, shall we? It’s the same for all my employees. If you want something permanent, you’ll have to make it through the night.”
Why did he make it sound as if surviving the night was some incredible feat? She could do a night of waitressing, no problem. She’d done it before. Over and over again. “I’ve got this.”
“We’ll see.” He motioned to the door. “Good-bye.”
The phone on his desk rang. He picked it up, not even waiting for her to leave the room.
But that was fine. She’d gotten the job, and she’d gotten a one-on-one interview with the big boss himself. Talk about a stroke of luck. Sure, he might act like an asshole, but she’d known exactly what he was before she’d strolled into his club.
Bree opened the door and found a tall, muscled, dark-haired man waiting for her. Had to be Remy St. Clair. Unlike Kace, this fellow was dressed in a fancy suit, a gray one with a white shirt tucked underneath. He stared at her from unblinking, chocolate eyes.
“You’re hired.” He didn’t seem overly surprised.
She glanced back at Kace’s office. “You could hear us?”
“No, but you’ve got a great ass, and he doesn’t usually say no to blondes with good asses. The customers will like you, and that’s good enough for Kace.” He turned on his heel. “Follow me.”
She’d happily follow him, despite the ass comment, because when he led her through the corridors, she got to see all sorts of things in the club. The VIP area was on the second floor, filled with dark, one-way glass. There were dressing rooms, storage areas, and— “Um, I’m sorry, is that a trapeze?” She’d stopped in the middle of Fantasy’s main floor, her gaze darting to the ceiling.
Remy stopped, too. He looked up. “Yep.” He sounded absolutely bored out of his mind.
“Why is there a trapeze here?”
He sighed. “You’re not going to be on it, so why worry?”
Remy turned toward her. “That’s the big reveal. The surprise. The club is called Fantasy for a reason. Kace is going to have performers out here doing one of those crazy Cirque-type shows. Flying through the air. Contorting. The show will start at midnight, and, according to Kace, it will be absolutely killer.”
Bree glanced around the area. “Will there be a net?”
“Hell, no. That’s not exactly exciting, is it? Where’s the danger if a net is involved?” He started walking again. “Come on. This way.”
“So, this place is—”
“A high end, very high-priced fantasy environment. Kace will have performers walking through the crowd. Performers who will be wearing very distinctive attire so they won’t be confused with regular staff.” He stopped before a door marked “Management.” His gaze pinned her. “Something you should know. Kace doesn’t tolerate anyone messing with his staff. There will always be bouncers on the floor. Guards close at every moment. If something goes wrong, someone scares you, then all you have to do is signal.”
Good to know. “How do I signal?”
“You fucking scream, baby. Then one of us will come running.” He swung open the door. “Hey, Abby, got some fresh meat for you.”
Bree walked out of Fantasy, her new uniform tucked under her right arm, her steps sure and certain. The club was located near the end of Bourbon Street, just steps away from the infamous Jean Lafitte’s bar. As she hurried onto the street, a horse and carriage came rolling by, the wheels churning as the driver told the family in the back all about Lafitte’s haunted bar.
She didn’t glance at the carriage. Instead, Bree made her away across the street. Then she turned into an alley. Slid between two buildings. Every now and then, she’d look over her shoulder and when she was sure that she was clear…
She headed for her planned rendezvous. The building she approached appeared abandoned. The windows were boarded up. A “No Trespassing” sign was attached to the old porch. She didn’t climb onto the porch. Instead, Bree entered via the back of the old house. And as soon as she stepped inside…
“Excellent job, Agent Harlow.”
Her team was waiting for her. The FBI agents all faced her, smiles on their faces.
Dominic Grant lowered the headphones he’d been wearing. “Heard every single word.” He gave a low whistle. “Thought I’d piss myself when you said that you’d heard the guy was a killer.” His green eyes gleamed. “Took some balls.”
She was covered in sweat—and the sweat wasn’t just from the fact that it was still humid in October. The New Orleans heat was like a suffocating coat, but her sweat came from the fact that she’d just had a face-off with the man suspected of being a serial killer. The New Orleans Strangler.
“Told you that it would be easy for you to get in,” Grayson Wesley said with a slow nod. He was the special agent in charge of the investigation and the whole reason she was even involved with the case. She’d just graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, and Grayson had called her in. He’d specifically requested her for this case, and she had no idea why. He’d done a stint as a lecturer at Quantico, and she’d loved his profiling discussion. The cases he’d talked about, the way the agents had been able to track the killers just based on psychological assessments—that was what fascinated her. She’d always wanted to profile. Her desire to understand and unmask killers was the reason she’d joined the Bureau. She wanted to be out in the world, stopping monsters. She’d had that one goal for as long as she could remember.
Ever since monsters destroyed everything I cared about.
And now, she had the chance do it. Her first real assignment as an FBI agent. Sure, she wasn’t making the profiles just yet, but that was okay. She was working undercover. Getting close to the target. Closer than anyone had gotten before.
“I knew you’d be just his type,” Grayson continued with a slow nod. His brown hair was brushed back from his high forehead, and his eyes glinted with approval.
A little shiver slid down her spine at Grayson’s words. She knew what he meant, of course.
The other two victims who’d recently been found in New Orleans—Lindsey Marshall and Ciara Hall—had also both been blondes. Lindsey’s hair had trailed down her back in a tangle of beautiful curls. Ciara’s blond hair had been styled in a short pixie-cut, one that accentuated her delicate features…and that had left her neck completely exposed to the killer. Both women had been strangled, their necks marked with deep bruises in death.
Bree tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I’m scheduled to go back to the club tonight.” But they’d know that. Bree was wired, and the team had been listening to every single word she said to Kace.
Karin Miller approached quickly. A few years older than Bree, the redhead gave her a reassuring smile. “The hardest part was getting inside.”
Grayson shook his head. “No, the hardest part will be finding evidence to nail that bastard. He’s walked for years. Bribed the local PD. Gotten away with every fucking thing imaginable, but it ends here. Kace Quick is a killer, and we’re going to lock him away.” His gaze held hers. “You’re the bait, Bree. Reel him in. Let’s make this jerk pay for what he’s done.”
When Lindsey’s body had been discovered behind the St. Louis Cathedral, Grayson had immediately known her case was different. When she’d looked at the crime scene photos, Bree had understood why. The woman had been strangled, a long scarf left around her neck, and her body had been perfectly positioned by the killer. Then…too soon after, the second body had been found. Ciara Hall had been murdered in the exact same way, strangled. But this time, a long length of white, hemp rope had been coiled around her neck. She’d been placed behind the St. Louis Cathedral, too.
Two dead women. The same MO. Grayson had started looking for links between them, and he’d found one major link, all right.
Kace Quick…Fifteen years ago, the guy had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Brittney Lang. A young woman with blond hair who’d been found strangled. Kace had been eighteen years old at the time. He’d been crucified in the Press, but at the last moment, a new witness had come forward, a girl who had provided Kace with an alibi. Kace had been found not guilty.
Grayson believed that Kace had killed Brittney Lang. He thought that long-ago witness had lied. And he believed that Kace was killing again. That Kace had a preferred victim type.
Women who look like me.
So, when Grayson had started a task force to look into the New Orleans Strangler—a moniker the local reporters had adopted—Grayson had called her in because he wanted her to get close to the chief suspect.
Sexy. Dangerous. Killer?
Time to find out.
Bree squared her shoulders. “I’ll get the job done. Count on it.”
A soft knock rapped at the door. “Come in,” Kace called, not even glancing up from his computer.
The door creaked open. Footsteps were swallowed by the lush carpet. And—
A throat cleared.
Sighing, Kace looked up and found Remy frowning at him. “There a problem?”
“I’m not sure about the new girl.”
He let his brows climb.
“You want a full background check on her?”
That was typical. Kace always wanted to know exactly who he employed—and what secrets those individuals might be hiding from him. Secrets could be very dangerous. “Of course.”
Remy nodded. He didn’t leave.
“I don’t trust her, Kace.”
Ah, finally. Remy wasn’t normally the type to hold back. “Well, that makes two of us.”
Remy blinked. “If you don’t trust her, then why—”
Now Kace stood. He stalked around his desk. “You think I don’t know what she is?” He laughed, but the sound held no humor. “Come now, my friend, you and I have been in this business a very long time.”
Remy inclined his head.
“I could practically smell the fear coming from her.” He’d seen the nervousness in her stare. Bree Harlow had been scared to death to be in the same room with him, yet she’d stayed. And she’d asked her questions. Very deliberate questions. “Our girl is green. Far too green for this case.”
“You think she’s a cop?”
“She’s not local. I know all the local cops.” Especially cops who looked like her.
Golden eyes. Golden skin. Red, lush lips. Her hair had been a sun-streaked blond and cut in a bob to fall just above her shoulders. Totally straight, her hair had emphasized her high cheekbones and framed her heart-shaped face. The woman was gorgeous. Curved in all the right places and gifted with a voice that sounded better than Saturday night sin.
And he would have bet his life that she was a Fed.
Kace rolled back his shoulders. “The FBI wants to pin Lindsey and Ciara’s murders on me. They’ve been practically salivating, but they don’t have enough to go on.” They had jack shit. “So, I think they’ve stepped up their game.”
Kace pretended not to notice. Remy could be so touchy about things…things like murder, for example. With the secrets that Remy carried, Kace would have expected something different. But, oh well.
Remy’s brows lowered. “If you think she’s FBI, then why the hell would you let her even step foot in Fantasy?”
Now Kace had to laugh. Why? “Remy, Remy, Remy…” Kace slapped his hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Didn’t you look at her? The woman is just my type.”
Remy seemed to stiffen even more. “Boss…”
“Don’t worry. I promise, I’ll just scare this one.” Scare her. Maybe seduce her. Maybe do both. It all just depended on how he was feeling. He was definitely in the mood to teach the FBI a lesson. “Of course, she has to make it through the night first.” He headed for the door.
He laughed again. “The grand opening. Our big show. Bree Harlow arrived just in time.” Kace threw a final glance over his shoulder. “I promise you this, the night will be an absolute killer.”