Emma Haskell tossed down her pen, removed her reading glasses, and rubbed her temples, hoping to assuage the ache behind her strained eyes. A pointless endeavor; this ache wouldn’t go away. Numbers didn’t lie, but she almost wished these did. It was never fun to go to her boss to expose a thief.
Beyond the thin walls of her office, bass went boom-boom-boom from the dance floor of Players. Usually she was long gone before the party crowd came into the nightclub to dance, pick up strangers, and drink themselves into oblivion, but she’d been on this little investigation for far too long. It had become an obsession. One she was glad to be rid of, truth be told, and the sooner she washed her hands of it, the sooner she could go home to Bentley, a glass of wine, and Netflix.
But God, she dreaded this.
“No time like the present,” she muttered to herself, picking up her phone and buzzing Stacia upstairs. The buxom blonde answered right away with the usual chirp of her name.
“Is he here?” Emma asked.
Stacia’s greetings were always cheery until she heard who was calling, then her tone cooled considerably. If anyone could turn Damien Larson’s mood black, it was a report from his nightclub’s eagle-eyed accountant. And Stacia, his assistant, didn’t care much for his black moods. “Oh God, Emma, go home. Catch him tomorrow,” the girl pleaded.
“So he’s here.”
“He’s at the table.”
Emma sighed and hung up the phone, knowing that could mean she might not get a chance to grab a word with him for hours, if not until sunrise.
It was the worst-kept secret in Players that Stacia kept an entirely different set of books off site. Damien’s underground poker room—illegal in Texas despite his preferred game of Texas Hold ’Em—had been running on the top floor of the club since it opened. A moral and ethical dilemma, but one Emma was willing to live with, at least for the time being. Damien paid very, very well, and she needed it desperately.
But she hated talking to him.
She hated gambling.
Stacia had probably been lying just so Emma would call it a night and leave Damien’s good mood intact. And it was tempting. Her head throbbed with the beat and her heating pad at home was calling her name; she’d been hunched over her computer so long a crick had developed behind her right shoulder blade. A common trouble spot for her. She would give anything for someone just to rub between her shoulders for a couple of minutes.
It wasn’t right to feel so old at twenty-five, she thought, rolling her head on her shoulders and then pulling the pencil from her bun, letting the tightly bound hair cascade down her back. Yes, a massage, a trim, maybe a facial or a pedicure . . . she rarely indulged in pampering herself, but she should probably start. Tomorrow. Everything could wait until tomorrow. Ha.
Emma switched off her desk lamp and grabbed her purse, feeling defeated and a little like a wimp. As she closed her office door behind her and stepped out into the hallway, though, she stopped short. If she went to Damien tomorrow, he would demand to know why she hadn’t come to him immediately. If she went to him now with the knowledge that one of his bartenders was skimming cash, he could handle it now and mitigate further losses.
God, she’d hate to be that guy even more than she hated to be the one responsible for bringing him down.
Stacia would just have to live with it; Damien needed to know.
After a quick trip back into her office for her laptop, Emma made the trudge upstairs where he kept his office with Stacia’s area right outside. The girl wasn’t at her desk. She probably had door duty tonight. Hell, Emma would be lucky if Stacia let her in to see him.
Up here was Damien’s domain, and it showed. Thick, rich, dark carpeting. The double doors to his office, shut tight at the moment, gleamed a varnished black, matching Stacia’s desk perfectly. The walls were painted gray, clashing slightly with the splashes of cheerful color Stacia insisted on to liven up the place. A single lamp burned in the corner, casting its dim ambiance across the area. There were a couple of tall, narrow windows, but darkness spread beyond them.
Emma’s lips twisted even as she tried to stave off a bite of bitterness. Her office downstairs was a closet-sized room off a glaringly white hallway. No window (but even if she had one, she would only have a lovely view of a brick wall). The overhead lighting hurt her eyes so much that she usually left it off, resorting to only her desk lamp. A long time ago on a rare visit, Damien had offered to have the walls painted for her, but she’d declined, mainly to get him out of there as fast as possible because his very presence sucked the oxygen out of the room, made heat roar in her face, made her panties uncomfortably wet. So, she guessed she couldn’t allow herself to be too bitter. Whenever she needed him for a clarification or one of his lightning-fast, back-slanting signatures, she sought him out in his office and left as quick as she could.
Damien Larson wasn’t much for small talk, thank God.
Emma navigated the serpentine hallways back in the direction she’d come, taking the opposite direction from the stairs and finally reaching the window where Stacia would be sitting—though Emma couldn’t see her behind the privacy glass. She rang the buzzer, steeling herself for the confrontation.
The glass slid open, revealing Stacia’s model-beautiful face, which always had an exasperated, harassed quality about it. Her blue eyes darted down to the laptop Emma held clutched to her chest and then rolled so far back in her head that Emma feared she would sprain them. “You can’t leave it alone, can you?”
Emma had always wondered if Damien and Stacia’s relationship went beyond employer/employee. She was incredibly protective of him. But right now, that protection was misplaced. Emma leaned her head in the window, injecting all the confidence she didn’t exactly feel into her voice. “If you want to be the one to explain why he had to wait until tomorrow to hear he’s losing money tonight, be my guest. Otherwise, let me in or go get him. Your choice.”
Huffing indignantly, Stacia leaned over to buzz Emma in, shaking her head. “I’m not fucking telling him that. Have fun.”
“Thank you,” Emma clipped back, not feeling thankful at all considering the task at hand. She cast a glare at the stacks upon stacks of poker chips on the counter at Stacia’s back and drew the last clean breath she would take for a several minutes. Unfortunately, Damien allowed his players to smoke, and a suffocating pall would no doubt hang over the enormous room.
As she slipped inside, feeling dwarfed by the open space and high ceiling, all eyes seemed to turn to her, and she ducked her head to shield her face behind a swath of long red hair, clutching her laptop tighter to her breasts. She hated it in here. The clink of chips, the stench of cigarette smoke she would smell in her clothes even after she went home, the exclamations of victory or defeat. Among all the bodies seated at the professional poker tables scattered around the room, she searched for one dark head.
He was never hard to find. No sooner had her gaze locked on him than he glanced up, doing a double take to see her there. She imagined the sight was almost as rare as his visits to her office, if not more so.
Emma gave a little meaningful lift of her laptop and he nodded, briefly holding up a finger. His opponent, whose back was to her, glanced back to see who he was gesturing at . . . and Emma nearly dropped her computer.
Ben? What in the hell?
Her next thought was: So much for Gamblers Anonymous.
But the thing that hurt her the worst of all, the thing that shot her right through the heart with an arrow of agony, was that her brother showed absolutely no sign of alarm or shame at having been caught. In fact, his bland expression didn’t change at all, he simply turned back to the game as if the two of them hadn’t grown up together with the same parents in the same house. As if she were a stranger.
Her brother had never had that much of a poker face.
Oh God, her poor parents. They’d damn near lost everything getting Benjamin out of his debts. He’d promised to change. For a while, he had, working a steady job and renting a small apartment. And here he was, sitting across from the one fucking man guaranteed to send him right back where he’d been five years ago—destitute, strung out, hunted by enforcers. Her mom and dad considered the fact that they would both be working well into retirement age, payment well spent to see Ben doing so well. And now this. He was right back on the road to hell, and he would take his first steps here. If he hadn’t already taken them elsewhere.
Emma wasn’t saying that Damien Larson couldn’t be beat, just that she’d never heard of it. He’d built his empire on this game.
She couldn’t be here right now.
Before anyone in the room could see her eyes well up, she turned for the door and fled. Stacia probably watched her fly by the outside window with a smirk and a told you so, but Emma was beyond worrying about petty bitches.
Her brother. Her baby brother. Impulsive, hot-headed Benjamin, who’d defended her from more than a few bullies when she was targeted for her bookish ways. Who’d chased off a relentless suitor who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was loyal, and he was strong . . . except when it came to this. When this urge took hold of him, he was helpless as a kitten. She’d watched it for much of her life.
She didn’t know what to do or where to go, but she found herself back at Stacia’s desk in front of Damien’s office. Dropping into the other girl’s plush executive chair, she stared blindly at the pictures on the gleaming surface—Huh, Stacia has a boyfriend, apparently, so maybe she isn’t boning the boss after all—and then let her head meet the cushioned chair back.
So tired. So damn tired. Her headache had gone nuclear inside her skull, hammering with brutal intensity. What should she do with this information? Tell her parents? They couldn’t do anything. Or should she march back in there and drag Ben out by his ear like an overbearing mother? Could she appeal to Damien’s better nature . . . if he had one . . . and have him refuse Ben’s entry?
As if it would do any good. He would simply find somewhere else.
Emma closed her eyes.
* * *
He found her in Stacia’s chair, her laptop slipping from her relaxed grip. Damien Larson regarded his dozing accountant for a moment, the silky strand of fiery red hair caressing one soft cheek, the fullness of her slightly parted lips. Had he ever seen her hair down before? Normally she was wound tight from head to toe, buttoned down, as meticulous with her appearance as with the numbers she managed with almost maddening ease.
But now, her peach blouse was open until the first shadow of cleavage teased at the edge of the silky fabric. The tilt of her head revealed the slim, pale column of her throat, the faint blue tracery of veins underneath.
Even in sleep, though, her brow furrowed as if those numbers—or something worse—chased her through her dreams.
As silently as he could, Damien approached and gently extricated the pricey laptop from her perilously failing grip, setting it aside on Stacia’s desk. Emma’s only response was a slight jerk and an incoherent murmur. It was the small movement that made her head roll to one shoulder . . . and dislodged a single tear, which slipped over the curve of her cheek and dripped, staining a tiny dark flower shape onto her blouse.
Damien followed that tear’s mesmerizing journey with a frown. What the fuck had kept her here until almost midnight? And what was so bad about it that she was crying?
He should wake her, send her home to bed, but she was so obviously exhausted that it seemed a crime to do so. He walked over and unlocked his office doors, then went to slip his arms under Emma’s limp form and lift her up against him. She was soft and light, and even that ample disruption didn’t rouse her. Her impossibly long hair cascaded over his arm; her breathing was slow and easy. He carried her to the sofa along one wall in his office, then grabbed a blanket from the closet.
Damien had been known to grab a few hours of sleep himself on that couch, so he knew it was more than adequate. It seemed so for Emma as well. As soon as he draped the blanket over her, she rolled to her side and snuggled into it, sighing with sleepy satisfaction. The security lights from outside his windows cast an ethereal glow across her pale skin.
And he wondered, despite himself, what that perfect, almost translucent flesh might taste like. Right there, under the delicately shaped shell of her ear. Or there, the tender place under her jaw. Strawberries, maybe. She smelled like them. Sweet and summery, though her coloring evoked images of cinnamon and autumn bonfires.
He’d noticed how beautiful she was long before tonight, of course. Though her eyes were closed now, and often shielded behind her glasses when she was awake, he knew they were a striking hazel that changed colors depending on what she wore.
But he’d also noticed how not-for-him she was, even apart from the fact that she worked for him. Employer/employee relationships were a moral dilemma he didn’t often concern himself with, and more than one of his girls had found herself on her knees in this very office. But he didn’t often partake of Players’ abundant selection. His tastes were a little too unconventional for a lot of the women he knew.
Emma was better off in her little cubbyhole downstairs, away from him, because she made him think black thoughts best left deep in the back of his mind. Like how vividly pink that white skin would turn under his hands.
If he lingered here much longer, he might wake her and try to find out, and that wouldn’t be good for either of them. So, leaving her sleeping on his sofa, he retrieved her laptop, left it on the floor beside her, and closed the door behind him as he left.
He had a real sucker at the table.