BEVERLY HILLS, 1985
Jackson Casey stood on the third floor of Indulgence, just outside his office. He leaned on the railing as he overlooked his latest attempt at building his club empire and smiled at the success of it. The private balcony gave him an easy view down into the other two levels of the club and onto the dance floor. The tables were crowded on both floors, and floods of other patrons threaded their way between several bars. The alcohol was flowing freely, but the crowd was a pleasant one. A dancer stepped into a cage on the far end of the dance floor near the deejay booth, her sequined bikini shimmering in the colored lights that swiveled from a track on the ceiling. “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan boomed loudly from the speakers, making shoulders jerk and hips sway. Even from this distance, Jackson could tell that every person in the club had been cleared through security. Everyone was beautiful. The right hair, the right shoes, the right clothes. Even more importantly, many of them had other connections in Hollywood, and that only brought in bigger crowds.
He turned back toward his office to chat with Blane Vinson, who leaned against the desk wearing an equally-satisfied smile on his face. “You know, Blane, when I started up this club, I never thought it would actually be successful.” Jackson picked up a bottle of the most expensive whiskey he had in stock and poured them each a glass. So what if he was working? He deserved it.
“Why is that?” Blane asked, taking the glass and sipping the amber liquid slowly. “You’re good at what you do, Jackson. Every kid in California—no, America—wants to go to Bliss to hear the latest bands and party with the sexiest people alive. Your bars and restaurants have done exceedingly well. Why shouldn’t you be able to have a club like Indulgence?” Glass in hand, he gestured toward the floor of the club. “Even stars like to party.”
Jackson fiddled with the sleeve of his white suit jacket. “Yeah, but it’s easy to draw in regular people. Make the place look nice, serve pricey liquor, keep a few half-naked girls around, and they’ll come. But celebrities are a little different. They always have other places to go, even if it’s to each other’s houses. I don’t think I could have done this without you.” He reflected on the fact that he and Blane had been friends for such a long time; long before he’d owned his first bar and before Blane learned what a talent he had for being on the big screen. It was Blane’s endorsement that had really lifted Indulgence off the ground, and he couldn’t let himself forget that.
“All I did was walk in the door,” the actor reminded him as he ran a hand through his short ebony hair.
“That’s all it took.” As one of the hottest celebs around, it had been enough. Blane was soon followed by other celebrities, and it didn’t seem to matter how popular they were or what part of the industry they specialized in. First, it was Val Kilmer, who stopped in after hearing that Blane frequented the place. The two of them had become friends after working on-set together. Next came George Michael, who drew in a massive crowd behind him. All the man wanted to do was sit down and have a drink after a long day at work, and Jackson’s security team had jumped into action to make sure they kept the place busy, but not overcrowded. It was a fine line they had to walk, but they did it well. Soon enough, the bigshots stopping in had no direct connection to Blane, but simply had heard that Indulgence was the hottest place to party under the radar.
It had only continued from there, and Jackson had counted no less than ten big names that were at Indulgence at that very moment, a feat which he felt meant he’d finally made it. Well, that and the massive line that started at the front door and stretched down and around the block. Everyone wanted to get in, but the bouncers wouldn’t let just anyone behind the velvet ropes. Somehow, that exclusivity made them desperate to gain entry even more. He had watched from his office window as the line grew a little longer each night, and every time, it was filled with Gucci handbags and Armani suits.
“You can’t give me all the credit, man. You’re the one who created such a stellar atmosphere, and nobody would be coming here if it wasn’t a great place. It’s your dragon instinct. You know a good thing when you see it.”
A shiver rippled down Jackson’s spine, and he sucked in a deep breath to control it. He was on top of the world, and his true reptilian form was dying to get out. But the spikes that lined his back when he took on that form would only tear his designer suit to shreds. “The only thing this place is missing is a good rooftop bar. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to stretch my wings at the end of the night.” He bit his lower lip as he glanced down at the patrons again. “Humans think it’s novel being in a club owned by a dragon, mingling with celebrities who are dragons, enjoying drinks mixed by dragons…but at the end of the day, they’d freak out if I walked down there in the middle of the dance floor and shifted.” It was a conundrum that he thought about often. It seemed that many of the richest, most popular people in L.A. County were shifters, but not all humans were comfortable seeing their dual-sided nature.
“Don’t push it too far,” Blane warned as he finished off his drink. “Maybe you don’t give them enough credit. But they’re just people, after all, and they’re the ones who help pay for that big-ass house of yours.”
Jackson laughed. “I guess that’s true.”
Blane set his glass down. “I’ve got to run, man. I have an early shoot in the morning, and I’ve already been late too many days on the set for this movie. I’ll see you again soon, though.”
As Blane headed out, Mac appeared at the office door. As the head of security at Indulgence, the brawny bald man was in charge of making sure that celebrities were ushered in through a secret entrance, that patrons behaved themselves, and that the riffraff was kept out. His bulky form filled out his black suit, and it was obvious to any patron that he wasn’t a man to be messed with. Mac seemed to enjoy his job, but the serious look in his dark brown eyes told Jackson that not everything was going as planned.
“What is it?” Jackson asked immediately. He had just picked up the whiskey bottle to pour himself a second glass, but he set it back down right away. “Please don’t tell me the paparazzi got in. I thought it was going to be the end of Indulgence when that happened last month.”
“No, but you have a visitor,” Mac replied. “Alex Babcock is here to see you.”
Jackson rolled his eyes. “And I was having such a good night, too.”
“I can tell him you’re not in,” the bouncer offered.
“Don’t bother,” Jackson said with a wave of his hand. “He’s probably already seen my car, and if I know him as well as I think I do, he’ll just keep hounding you until he gets the answer he wants. It’s best to just deal with him now and then send him on his way. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of him completely, but at least it should work for a little while.”
“If you say so.” A minute later, Mac escorted another man into the office. Instead of leaving, he shut the door behind them and stood next to it with his arms crossed in front of his chest, his face grim.
“Keeping your Frankenstein in here for protection?” Alex Babcock asked, thumbing over his shoulder at Mac. He grinned as he twisted the large gold ring on his pinky. His flashy aviators hung by a hinge on the front of his shirt, even though the sun had gone down hours ago. “I had no idea you were so afraid of me, Jackson.”
It was difficult not to just swing his fist back and bash the bastard right in the face, but Jackson knew exactly what that would turn into. He had spent far too much money remodeling the old building and making it into a profitable business just to ruin it with two dragons tumbling off the balcony and destroying the marble dance floor.
“What do you want, Alex?”
“I would think it’s fairly obvious. I mean, I’ve left numerous messages with your secretary, and I believe I’ve sent several letters. And you can’t exactly pretend this is the first time we’ve met, Jackson. Our paths seem to cross a lot these days.”
Jackson pursed his lips. “That’s true. No matter how hard I try to avoid you, you just keep showing up. What do I have to do to get rid of you?”
Alex laughed, but it wasn’t a mirthful sound. It was cold and hard, two words that could describe just about anything regarding Babcock. “You already know. I just want time to sit down and discuss a little business transaction with you. It’s a very reasonable offer, and one that any prudent man couldn’t possibly refuse.” He reached inside the jacket of his Calvin Klein suit and retrieved a packet of papers from the pocket, waving it in the air to taunt the dragon.
But Jackson already knew where this was headed, and he wasn’t interested. “Really, Babcock. You’ve been trying to buy Bliss ever since I opened it. If you didn’t want your father’s old building turned into a successful nightclub that showcases all the hottest bands, then you never should have sold it to me.” Bliss had been the first nightclub in Jackson’s empire, and its success had inspired him to go for Indulgence. Both places had involved finding just the right building, remodeling until everything was perfect, and hiring all the right staff, but the results were completely different. One trendy club and one exclusive club, with each of them catering to different crowds, were enough to make any other business owner green with envy.
The other man’s fist tightened around the packet, making the paper wrinkle slightly as his knuckles turned white. “And as I’ve tried to explain to you, I had no idea at the time what you were going to do with it. As far as I was concerned, it was just a dingy old building that needed too many repairs to be worth doing anything more than tearing it down. I thought you were quite the fool for purchasing it for the price I had on it, but I figured it was your cash to waste.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Jackson challenged. He gritted his teeth, allowing them to sharpen and lengthen slightly, but he had to be careful. He could morph very quickly when his emotions were running high, and he needed to maintain his composure. “You’re upset that Bliss competes with the clubs you own? That seems like a management problem to me.”
“Don’t you dare—” Alex stepped forward, his fists curled, but he stopped when he noticed Mac advance as well. “Fine. Hide behind your guard dog. But one of these days, I’ll get that place back from you. I never should have let you have it to begin with.” He turned on his heel and stormed out, dodging past Mac on the way.
The bouncer immediately murmured into his headset, telling his men to make sure Alex got to the door and out of the building before flashing a grin at Jackson. “What an asshole.”
Jackson rolled his eyes. He picked up the bottle of whiskey again, and this time, he poured a glass for himself and one for Mac. “Yeah. I think he’s tried every angle to get me to sell Bliss to him. That club is just the sort of crowd he’s been trying to draw to Club Aqua for the last five years, and it digs at him that I was not only able to do it, but in his own father’s building. He’s tried sympathy, pleading that he just wants the building back for sentimental reasons. He’s offered to merge and become partners, and now I’m sure the figure on that paper is an astronomical amount that nobody in their right mind would pay, even for a place like Bliss. What’s next, death threats?”
Mac tossed back the drink in one swallow. “You never know, Boss. He’s a desperate man.”
“I’m not worried about him. I have my own businesses to run, and if he’s got his panties in a twist because his joints are so goddamn mediocre, then it’s his problem. My problem is that we don’t have a good head of security over at Bliss right now. I’ve got some interviews lined up, and I’ll want you to be in on them as well. I just wish I could have you in two places at once.” He’d been very lucky when he had hired Mac several years prior, just as he was beginning his ventures. Mac was a shifter as well, and he had quickly proven that he was not just muscle, but brains, too. “At the very least, I’ll need you at Bliss a few nights a week. I’m sorry; I know it’s not convenient.”
The bouncer lifted one muscled shoulder and let it fall. “I get to filter through the celebrities here for a few nights, then listen to some great music the rest of the week. I think I can handle it.”
* * *
Jackson managed to push his feud with Alex out of his mind and have a productive night at work, but alarm bells went off in his head as soon as he turned into his driveway. It was well past midnight, but all the lights in the house were on, casting long, yellow rectangles onto the carefully manicured lawn. His jaw dropped when he walked into the living room.
“Oh, hello, Jackson!” Crystal called in her tinkly voice when she saw him. Her long, blonde hair hung in waves down her back, and she wore a flowing paisley dress that trailed past her bare feet. A large suitcase was open in the middle of the floor with a random assortment of clothing and books in it. Jonathan and Jessica, their two children, had the Nintendo hooked up to the television and were fighting over the controller.
“It’s my turn to play Mario!” Jessica insisted, pounding her fists into her hips and lowering her brow.
“Is not!” Jonathan had the controller in his hands, and he turned his back to keep her from grabbing it.
Jackson strode across the room and flicked off the television. The children protested, but he ignored them. There was a bigger problem. He turned to his wife. “Would you care to tell me what’s going on here? It’s nearly three in the morning. What are they doing up?” He gestured wildly at the suitcase. “And what exactly are you doing?”
Crystal looked at the kids, her eyes widening as though she had forgotten they were in the room. “Oh. Well, they weren’t really tired. And since I had a lot of packing to do, I thought they might as well stay up and keep me company.” She plucked a Waterford vase off the bookshelf and held it in her outstretched hands for a moment with her eyes closed. “No, this really doesn’t have the vibration I’m looking for.”
“I take it you’re heading out on another one of your New Age retreats?” Jackson asked impatiently, wondering how he had ever married someone who was such a flake. Crystal had become very interested in things like meditation and getting in touch with her natural side. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she didn’t insist on just skipping town whenever she felt her spirit guides calling.
Setting the vase down, she gave him a look. “Don’t call it that. That makes it sounds like such a fad.”
“Which it is,” he replied.
“Jack, I’m not going on a retreat this time. I’m leaving.” Crystal whisked a loosely woven afghan off the back of the couch and wrapped it around her shoulders for a moment. Closing her eyes, she held out her arms and spun in a slow circle before dropping the blanket unceremoniously into the suitcase.
There were many things about his wife that gave him pause, but even the screeching of the children didn’t filter into Jackson’s head for a moment. “What do you mean leaving?” he asked carefully.
Crystal smiled and touched his shoulder. “Oh, honey. For a long time, we’ve both known this materialistic life isn’t for me. I know now that there’s so much of the universe and of my own mind that I have yet to explore. And I can’t do that if I’m constantly cooking, cleaning and paying bills.” She flicked her hands in the air as though she had touched something dirty. “I’m meeting Master Ken at sunrise, and we’ll start our journey together. You understand.”
“No, I don’t,” he corrected. The urge to transform had been strong when he had been dealing with Alex Babcock, but now it took every ounce of his self-control to stop it. “You don’t cook or clean, and I don’t remember the last time you paid for anything. Could you be any more selfish? You can’t just leave, Crystal. What about the children?”
His wife flipped her hair over her shoulder and smiled. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never really known what to do with them at all. But you’ll figure it out. You’re good at that sort of thing. They’ll be much better off here with you than fasting for weeks in the desert or swimming naked in a river. Oh, and we plan to make some fantastic flights across the country! It’s going to be so liberating to shed this old human skin and really set myself free. Now, I need to go upstairs and pick out a few more things to take with me. Master Ken says it gets cold in the desert at night. Oh, or we might go to the mountains…” Her thoughts trailed off as she skipped up the stairs.
“Unbelievable.” Jackson stared after her, completely dumbstruck. How could this have happened? More importantly, how had he never seen it coming? It didn’t even bother him so much that she was leaving; admittedly, the two of them had never been a very good match. Jackson had just happened to meet Crystal when she was going through her worldly phase, but obviously that hadn’t lasted. The biggest problems right now were still sitting on the couch, pouting. “You two. Get to bed.”
“No. I want to play!” Jessica gave her father the same angry look she had been directing at her older brother only a minute ago.
He thought of himself as a fairly indulgent parent, but this had gone too far. “I’m your father, and I’m telling you that you’re going to bed,” he said as patiently as he could. “Get changed and brush your teeth, and I’ll be up to tuck you in.”
“You can’t make me!” Jonathan yelled. He stood up on the couch and spread out his arms, letting his wings emerge with them. They unfurled quickly for a boy of only ten, but he couldn’t control them very well. He hit the table lamp and knocked it to the floor.
“Now!” Jackson roared. “Let’s go!” He took them each by an arm and marched them to the stairs. A foul odor made him turn his head. “Jonathan, is that you? When was the last time you took a shower?”
The boy shrugged.
“Well, you’re taking one right now. It’s already late enough that a few extra minutes won’t make a difference.” He took him to the bathroom door. “And use soap! Come on, young lady.”
But when they reached Jessica’s room, she sat on her bed, curled into a ball, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I can’t go to bed! I don’t have any clean nightgowns!”
This declaration didn’t surprise him. Crystal didn’t exactly keep up with the household duties, even though she hadn’t held a job for a single day in her life. But when he opened Jessica’s dresser drawer, he found it full of little pink nightgowns. “Yes, you do. Here.” He tried to hand her one, but she batted it out of his hands.
“No, that’s not it! I need the one with Strawberry Shortcake on it!”
Jackson unfolded the garment, revealing the Cabbage Patch Kids. “But you like these dolls. You even have one on your bed. Just wear it for one night, and then I’ll make sure the Strawberry Shortcake one is clean for tomorrow.”
Jessica glared at him dubiously but finally nodded. When he had her changed and ready, he pulled the covers up under her chin. Her little arms wrapped around his neck, and Jackson suddenly realized just how many goodnight hugs he had missed out on because of his career. Had Crystal been doing any of this? He had just taken it for granted that she was, but the force with which his little girl held onto him told him otherwise.
“Are you going to take care of us, Daddy? Is Mommy really leaving?”
Her whispered words broke his heart. He didn’t want to lie to her, but he couldn’t find it in himself to tell her the truth. “I’ve got a lot of grown-up stuff I have to figure out, sweetie,” he told her, gently rubbing her back in circles. “But I promise that I’ll make sure you’re taken care of, one way or another. Now, you get to sleep. Love you; I’ll see you in the morning.”
He headed down the hallway. Jonathan had finished his shower, but his bowl-cut hair was dripping down his neck and into his shirt. Jackson grabbed a towel and dried him off the rest of the way, feeling guilty for having yelled at them earlier. “Did you brush your teeth?” he asked quietly.
“What do you care?” Jonathan snapped.
His first instinct was to snap back, but Jackson knew that wasn’t going to help. “It’s been a long night, and we’re all a little tired. Let’s go to bed and talk about it in the morning.” He headed downstairs a few minutes later, quickly skipping past his own bedroom door, where he overheard Crystal muttering to herself about which sandals to take. He shut the door of his den behind him and sat down heavily on the leather couch, wondering just how the hell he was going to handle all this.