Thank heaven for slum nights. Larkin’s fingers smoothed over the red gold of the Montblanc fountain pen atop the glass conference table on the seventy-ninth floor of the Ashford Building, balancing the weight of it easily between her thumb and index finger. She zeroed in on the target three seats away on the right. A pulse danced in the old man’s temple, proving he wasn’t as heartless as his air indicated.
Genevieve’s ultra-red pout turned the slight shake of her head into a homing beacon, demanding Larkin’s attention. Her dear friend cocked a brow as only New York’s premier hotshot attorney could. Larkin smiled. After all, this whole mess was Gen’s fault. She’d demanded their inner circle abscond the gilded cages of White Street, Glass House Tavern, and Monkey Bar for body-brimming dance clubs or foam-serving pubs at least once a week.
Had Larkin known she’d earn the title of undefeated darts champion, she’d have expanded her horizons years ago. So many Manhattanites deserved a fountain pen to the temple.
Larkin gave Cornish Gleeson’s brain bull’s-eye one last glance before checking the time. Six thirty. She turned her gaze to her assistant. “Reagan?”
“Yes, Miss Ashford.” Reagan stood from her chair against the wall with her digital pad and stylus at the ready.
“Please cancel my reservations at Le Cirque and have a good night.” Seven delectable courses scrolled through Larkin’s mind as each distinct flavor wafted across a well-trained palate. She swallowed her pooling saliva, along with her amusement at the disgruntled look on Genevieve’s face.
Should’ve let me kill him.
Across from Gen and to Larkin’s immediate right, Marlis’s lower lip quivered ever so slightly. Larkin’s other dear friend either hadn’t noticed the contemplation of murder in her eyes or had agreed. She could plead insanity.
“Yes, ma’am.” Reagan’s slight British lilt perked with the edict of freedom. If only Larkin could give herself the decree. The slight woman nodded and fled the room as though the seven people around the table aimed to have her for their meal instead.
“Just perfect.” Gleeson flicked a wrinkled hand. “Let the minutes show Miss Ashford’s…” He dragged out her honorific as though it were an insult, and then stalled with a contemplative tap of his wrinkled chin. “Yes, let it show her complete and total lack of respect for the board assembled here.”
Irritation rooted at the base of her spine grew thorny offshoots that threatened to sprout out of her skull as sharp horns. The smile curving her lips died.
“Objection,” Gen shouted.
“I second that.” Tarin Blakely’s thin arm shot into the air. The board treasurer never said much unless it pertained to numbers or her two children.
Larkin assumed she didn’t converse much because heavy caseloads at her prestigious brokerage firm and her loving but overbearing family wore her to the bone. The small gesture of solidarity shocked the hell out of her. And not just her. Marlis’s mouth fell open on a gasp.
Next to Mar, Benjamin Daily smoothed a hand down his tie and straightened in his chair. Larkin hadn’t thought it possible. The guy was the definition of uptight even though he was far too young to be so stuffy.
“Cornish.” Brice Beauregard planted two palms on the table and leaned over the glass. The seams of his charcoal gray suit bunched but not at the buttons where most men his age needed it let out. It stretched the material over his chest and at his shoulders. Genevieve licked her lips, also noticing the way the salt-and-pepper-haired man reigned over his body and the room.
“You don’t speak for me, old friend. Nor do you speak for the rest of the board. You speak for yourself.” The ruler of the Beauregard fortune eased back into his chair and turned a sultry smile on Larkin. She seriously tried not to feel it between her legs, but she had a thing for older men.
Mr. Beauregard turned back to Gleeson. “Cast your grievance. Keep your crotchety attitude.”
“Fine,” Gleeson growled. “Your dinner plans prove you’re not taking this board seriously.”
Seriously? Was this guy serious?
Everything she’d worked for her entire life rode on the shoulders of this board and their decision. Every weekend and night for the past fourteen years, while not with her girlfriends, was spent working toward her goals.
Larkin painted on a smile and clung to the calm that confidently carried her through life.
“Mr. Gleeson, my dinner plans prove that I expect this board to work efficiently.” She wouldn’t call him out on his snide remarks about a woman-owned company or a woman-dominated board. She didn’t have to. “My dinner plans prove that I expected to celebrate a decision and the culmination of work that began while you were still barking people around on the floors of Willhelm Media.”
She stared him down, daring him to speak. He bit his tongue—literally, by the look of the lump in his cheek.
“I asked each member to present their data-backed opinions this afternoon. If anyone has disrespected the gathered board, it’s you, sir, because you neglected to share your report.”
Larkin braced for the impact of Gleeson’s balled fist. It came from behind his shoulder and descended like an anvil, rattling the thick glass table.
You break it. You buy it.
Tarin jumped several inches from her seat and landed with her arms drawn across her face and chest.
Gleeson sneered at Brice Beauregard. “Why I let you talk me into this, I’ll never understand. You can’t talk sense into a woman who doesn’t have a man standing for her.”
Anger, usually stowed neatly in an overhead compartment, combined with irritation and rained down in the turbulence. Warning: Oversized baggage. Delayed luggage. Heaps of unchecked shit hammered into Larkin.
“You’re saying this to number one hundred two on Forbes list?” Genevieve sliced a manicured nail at Larkin and then swung it to Mar. “Hell, Marlis will pass you by next year.” Her red point turned on the son of a bitch whose momma never taught him how to respect a woman. “You’re hanging around the four hundreds, right, Gleeson?”
Genevieve crossed her arms over her ample rack and pushed the blouse-covered thing at Gleeson. “I’m the baddest bitch prosecuting attorney the city’s ever seen. And guess what? We’ve done it all without a man standing for us. If there were men in our lives, they’d be at our sides.” Gen stood and smoothed her hands down her sides, accentuating the swells and dips of her goddess body.
Larkin held her breath for the fatal blow. Gen always had one.
“Except, of course, when their faces are buried between our legs.” Her friend nodded at the other men in the room. Brice hid everything behind a mask of impassivity. Benjamin, on the other hand, tugged at his tie as though the silk strangled him. “I move to close the meeting.” Gen smiled sweetly.
“Second,” Brice choked out.
Gen flashed Larkin a wink, grabbed her briefcase, and headed for the door. “Share your driver with me, Mar?”
Larkin wondered if she meant the car or the actual driver. Neither would be a first for her friends.
Marlis shoved a stack of papers into her crocodile Givenchy and primped the formfitting houndstooth wool to her knees. Her gaze glanced over Benjamin before finding Larkin. She blew Larkin a kiss and hurried after Gen.
“Meeting adjourned.” Larkin gently placed the pen atop her folders and stood. Sweat trickled between her breasts. It tickled across her belly and charioted away her reserve. The walls swelled, threatening, at the most, to suffocate her but at the least to make her look like a fool in front of the city’s premier CEOs, her board members.
“Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen,” she wheezed.
Larkin hit the button on her chair at the head of the clusterfuck.
“Yes, Miss Ashford?” The masculine voice rumbled through the speaker and caught the attention of everyone who remained.
“Lucas, Reagan has gone for the day. Kindly show out my guests?”
“Yes, ma’am,” her senior bodyguard said as she rushed through the private entrance to her office.
The door closed behind her with a thump. Larkin tried for a full breath, but each was syphoned through an ever-tightening airway. It’d been too long since her last hit. She squared her shoulders and stalked to her desk. From behind it, she ran the world—her slice of it anyway. Her hands smoothed over the cool marble top, grappling for composure. Fragrant gardenias floating in the low crystal vases on her desk may as well have been dead rats for the effect they had. Zen music filtered in from unseen speakers. It sounded like nails being dragged across the length of a brand-new Maybach.
Highs and lows of a day spent with the tech department congealed with the fallen hope she had for the board meeting. They’d combed through the upgraded apps she planned on releasing within the week for her biggest moneymakers, her foundation, her babies—Duo and Ditto. There were major kinks and little time to fix them.
Stress clamped down on her airway. Panic shredded reason—the thing she used to get through even the toughest days—into bloody ribbons.
Larkin bolted from her desk. Leaving the work she always toted home, her purse, and her phone, she ran. The door at the entrance to her secret stairwell weighed three times heavier than normal. Sharp clacks echoed in the glass and metal box. The frantic pace made a mockery of her usual grace while the impact demolished the spikes of her blush Louboutins.
On the penthouse level, she darted past the door of her apartment to the end of the short hallway. She fought for a lungful of air at the bottom of the maintenance ladder but couldn’t gain headway. Her fingers and hands trembled on the rungs, but she fought the rise of panic and pushed ahead. One lever turn and a hoist of the metal cover revealed the deliverance she’d denied herself for too long.
The sky was an inkblot, vast and black, yet light shone like glitter. It shimmered from a thousand upright structures, dancing through a million windows. The city created its own dawn. A rise of light that shrouded her in darkness and peace. Larkin shoved out of the manhole. Biting wind slapped her cheek, stealing the breath she hadn’t realized she’d possessed. She sucked in oxygen in greedy gulps. Vehicle exhaust and food wafted in the air. Horns and the bustle from the heartbeat of the city carried on it. Steam billowed from vents to the left.
Familiarity wrapped around her, smoothing down the jagged edges. But the absence of her protective spines left her exposed, raw. Tears pricked her eyes. With God as her witness, they were a reaction to the violent, near icy gusts and no more. Weakness equaled defeat. A backward old man and a technical glitch wouldn’t ruin her.
But a phone call from her father could.
Larkin wrestled out of her red jacket, hating that it was tailored so snugly. Though that’s exactly how she’d wanted it when the world wasn’t falling down around her. The fabric slipped from her fingers as she pushed toward the raised ledge. A chill kissed her bare arms and neck. She yanked the blouse from the prim tuck at her waist and pulled the pins from her conservative chignon. Wind carried her hair away from her face. Why not her troubles too?
The low wall stopped her momentum with the unforgivingness of a thousand-foot concrete barrier. Her hands trembled so, and she dared not look over the ledge. Instead, she stared at the soldered bands of gold and diamonds on her right ring finger. It called her a fool. Bile and panic churned her insides.
She ripped her mother’s wedding set from her hand and clutched it in the center of her fist. A scream, long and brutal, ripped from her throat. It cursed the sky and the stars, the land and the water, and the blood flowing through her veins.
With rage came not only tears but also sure hands. Larkin slapped the streams from her cheek, hiked the pencil skirt as high as it would go, and hopped her almost exposed ass onto the ledge. The concrete threatened to freeze her to the spot. Carefully, she turned and faced the city. In her palm, the rings burned a hole.
Time to release the past, but first, she had to confront it.
Larkin lifted her fist into the air, reared back, and—
Imposing arms banded Larkin’s waist and yanked her from the wall. Skin and patent leather scraped across the gritty surface. The torso her back slammed into was as unrelenting as the concrete. Her replenished supply of oxygen exited her lungs in a whoosh … without so much as a goodbye.
A fresh form of panic took hold. Larkin screamed, but no sound left her gaping mouth. She put the fancy shoes to work, kicking indestructible shins. Her fists met with muscle-hardened brawn. His free hand pinned her right arm to his side.
“Lady, you picked the wrong rooftop.” The stranger shook her.
If only she’d brought her purse, she’d have her gun. But no. Maybe she could play cooperative until an opportunity to escape presented itself. Christ knew screaming wouldn’t do any good, even if she had the breath for it. That was why she came up here when the world got too rough—so they couldn’t hear her release.
She could see inside a thousand windows—and if someone in any one of them looked, they would see her—but they wouldn’t hear her. Her office and apartment had spectacular views, but she never took the time to study or truly appreciate them. Not until she came up here. And look where that had gotten her.
“Stop fighting,” the man’s low voice demanded.
The cold suddenly imposed a threat to her life. Who the hell could survive a frozen spine? It must have frozen because, as he commanded, she stilled. Her mind continued to run rampant, calculating angles and dismissing them in rapid fire.
“I have money.” Larkin’s throat hardly allowed the words to pass.
“Well, thank you.” He stepped away from the edge of the building, carrying her along with him.
“You reaffirmed my lifestyle choices.”
Then the madman laughed, and her hope died.
“Let me go.” Larkin poured as much demand into her voice as she could muster.
“So you can splat your brains on the pavement and the cops can pin it on me? No thanks.”
“What are you talking about?” Larkin tried to turn her head, to get a better read on the crazy person who held her in the unbreakable grip of his arms, but shadows shrouded his features. “Who are you?”
“Your guardian angel, sweetheart.”
His deep baritone rumbled in her ear. He didn’t feel like a guardian angel. And then a far-off bulb lit. Larkin’s hair smacked her cheeks with every vehement shake.
“I’m not trying to kill myself.”
“Are you going to rape me?”
He scoffed, and the heat of his breath coursed down her neck. “Lady, I just saved your life. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Then let me go.”
The stranger turned away from the view. His heavy boots took another step in the direction of the manhole. He lowered her what seemed like three feet, and her quaking shoes hit the ground. The cuff of his arm slid from her waist.
Larkin held perfectly still, afraid it was a trick. Her knees conspired against her, shaking and rattling her bones together.
“I hope your night gets better,” the stranger said from just behind her.
On wobbly heels, she turned her head to look up at the man who scared the shit out of her and could have done her real harm. Her gaze lifted higher and higher, shot wider and wider still to encompass the mountain behind her. The collar of a leather jacket flipped up points to a stubble-covered jaw. Dark, almost black eyes studied her from under the brim of shaggy onyx hair. A jaw made for crushing bone flexed.
His head tilted, and light caught the edge of his face. Bubbles and recesses lined the other side of his face from the point of his dark eye to the hinge of his jaw. The red scar was the stuff of horror movies. But the intensity of his gaze forced her heart into her throat, blocking her screams yet again.
Larkin eyed the manhole, twelve feet away, and ran for her life.