Escaping The Past
Jade has come from England to New York to find work and to live incognito. Two years ago she received a message from her brother, Miles, the last she’d heard of him. Since Miles works for a shadowy organization called the Increments, she’s more than worried, but she obeys his request and leaves home. She found a new life, one she enjoys, even though she only has a job in a department store and lives modestly.
Gary, part owner of the store where she works, has a shady past. Although he can claim a personal fortune, his father nearly bankrupted the family company, then he went back to his Italian roots and took strictly illegal work from his gangster family. Gary’s Neapolitan family still rule in Italy, and Gary has kept strictly away from them.
Jade and Gary have an instant connection, but the social gap between them is huge. When Jade is put in danger, Gary is forced to act to save her. Unfortunately, Jade’s brother is working undercover for Gary’s family, something both his family and the government agency watching them are aware of. Back in Italy, they’re faced with unpleasant choices. Jade won’t allow the danger she and Miles are in to lead Gary to follow in his father’s footsteps and rejoin the family business. Not that Gary has any such intention, even if it means he loses his life protecting the woman he loves.
The First Chapter of Escaping The Past
Gary picked up the phone on the third ring. “Yes?”
He sat up straighter when a voice barked at him. A voice he hadn’t heard for a long time. “Gary Mazzini?”
The voice rattled off a string of numbers and letters. Automatically Gary kept count. The placement of the letters told the listener what to do with the numbers. They always came to seven.
He returned his ID number. He hadn’t needed the formality to recognize the voice of his old boss. “I’ve got a job for you,” Camstock said.
“It might have escaped your notice, but I don’t work for you anymore.”
“You still have the same relatives.”
Shit, yes, he did. Not people he cared to associate with. “Keeping my distance has kept me alive so far.” Gently, he closed the lid of his laptop, as if Camstock could see through the phone to the company figures laid out on the screen.
“So did working for us.”
“At one time.”
Camstock was playing him, reminding Gary what he owed the Extras. Organizations like the one he’d once belonged to had the most mundane names. This one was called Extras, because that was the way the expenses tended to appear on budgets.
Gary had done with the Extras and everything else from his previous life. Now he ran his own business, legitimate imports of mostly sports equipment, and he lived quietly. No way would Camstock drag him back in.
“How about a damsel in distress?” his old boss asked. “Or maybe a wicked woman?”
“You have active agents. Use one of them.”
“Nobody can do what you can. Hear me out, okay?”
Where was the harm in that?
Which was why, instead of an evening watching the game on his widescreen TV, he hired a limo to take him to a shareholders’ shindig at the Central Park Hotel. Much against his will, but yeah, Camstock had a point. Nobody had his relatives or his experience in this field.
They were lucky.
Jade blinked in response to the flashes from the cameras of the assembled media, even though none of them were aimed at her. Yells erupted when a limousine drew up outside the Central Park Hotel. When the car door opened and a solitary male got out, the yells subsided a little, but only a little. He glanced around, seemingly ignoring the flashes that flickered across the lenses of his rimless spectacles, then froze, his head turned in Jade’s direction.
Because of the glare on his glasses, she couldn’t tell if the visual exchange had been mutual, but she stood transfixed for however long it took him to turn around and stride to the hotel entrance. Broad shoulders, sleek, dark hair brushed against a well-shaped skull, and an air of confidence made him stand out. Jade shrugged, trying to dismiss it. A moment out of time, that was all. Nothing that really mattered. Except the man was smoking hot.
She glanced at Nina, who raised a brow and pursed her lips in a soundless whistle.
Groping for something to say, anything to distance herself from what had just happened to her she stared up at the hotel’s impressive façade and fell back on a caustic remark. “No wonder we’re on starvation wages if Mackness holds junkets here.”
Her boss, Marie, shot her a hard glare. “Behave yourself. Some of the company’s biggest shareholders are here tonight, so play nice, you hear?”
As well as the stars who sponsored Mackness products. Glamor, fashion, epitomized in the model in the slinky silver dress currently posing for the media. Impossibly polished. She’d thought she looked good when she left home, but next to these fashion idols, she didn’t even feature.
On the way here, Jade had felt like a child at her first grown-up event, unsure, even shy, excitement bubbling up inside her like her own private lava stream. A middle-class upbringing in England didn’t exactly prepare a person for a VIP event at a top-ranked New York hotel.
Another gleaming vehicle drew smoothly to the curb, so while the media waited to greet the next important guest, Marie led the way forward. Jade savored every moment of her short journey on the red carpet.
The official at the top of the stairs glanced at their passes and handed them back. “Upstairs to the ballroom. Don’t get in the way of the VIP’s.”
They paused at the cloakroom to remove their coats. Jade shoved the ticket in her new purse, a bit on the big side for the evening, but the best one she had, albeit a knockoff. Tonight it had its first outing. The lining was smooth against her fingers and she lingered a moment to savor the sensation.
The tight lines around Marie’s mouth relaxed and she gave a terse nod. “Don’t drink too much and be nice.” She handed Jade and Nina big buttons that told everyone they were Mackness employees. Jade pinned hers in place on her simple black dress, suppressing her grimace. The implied threat was there—if she didn’t play nice, she’d lose her good record. Mackness was sponsoring her for her green card. Of course they’d never link the two events, but if they withdrew their support, she was screwed. She didn’t need it spelled out to her in letters of fire.
They had to move aside as someone more important entered the ballroom, but as the maître d’ dealt with the new arrivals with fawning submission, a tuxedoed waiter holding a clipboard beckoned to them. He gave them three numbers so they could find their table.
A huge chandelier dominated the room, complimented by two smaller ones on either side, and a quartet playing Mozart occupied the stage area. The décor and the musicians reminded Jade of the Edwardian era, all elaborate plaster and heavy ornamentation, supplemented by plenty of gilding, with a genteel tune tinkling in the background. Very impressive.
Three men got to their feet as they approached their assigned table. Wow, impeccable manners, much, or did their tailored evening jackets come with etiquette already sewn in? Maybe they wanted a better look at the tube dresses her two companions wore before the stretch gave way and they shrank into belts. Jade had gone for something classier, a black dress with thin straps and a gently flaring skirt, but she felt like a second-rate citizen after watching the celebs arrive.
Jade looked up. A pair of green eyes sparkled at her, their owner’s rimless glasses no impediment to his amused expression. The man she’d seen getting out of his limo alone. The shock of recognition heated her face. She managed a smile, and noted how close his dark hair clung to his head. Her fingers itched with the need to touch it, run them through the thick, ordered length, her reaction stupid but undeniable. She opened her hands, spread her palms to her sides in an effort to bring her senses back to reality.
This was New York, not fairyland. That kind of instant attraction didn’t belong here, and she’d be a fool to believe it. She forced her attention to more professional matters, hoping it would cool her down a tad. In her case, that meant fashion.
To compare the suits these men had on with the ones sported by the waiters and staff would have been to compare the Mona Lisa to chain store art. The suits skimmed their bodies, the shoulders perfectly aligned, the lapels flat and the cloth so deep black Jade thought she might be able to dive in.
The men introduced themselves. She missed the names, all but green eyes.
He took his seat and held out his hand, smiling as if he knew what she was thinking. “Pleased to meet you, Jade Trent.”
Gary, his name was Gary. She slid her hand into his. “Me too. Pleased to meet you, I mean.” Her hand warmed in his, and as it did so, tingles spread up her arm. Had she accidentally caught her hand on something, let it go to sleep?
She was here for work. Work, dammit, Jade.
He helped her sit, pushing her chair gently under her before he retook his own. Next to her.
“You’re English,” he said.
She gawped. “You can tell from two words?”
He smiled. “Yes, I can. But I can’t tell where.”
Not surprising, really. “All over. My dad was in the navy, you see, so we traveled a lot.”
“Only since my father retired.”
He nodded. “I was in the navy once.” That surprised her. The younger businessmen here tonight had either inherited their wealth or worked on building it from an early age.
The waiters brought the starter. It was a seafood-based confection with what she suspected was real caviar on the top, if only a few grains of the stuff. She tucked in, remembering to smile at the others as well as Gary in between bites. Sadly, the little taster didn’t last long.
Gary barely touched his portion. Crap, she should have eaten slower, not enjoyed it so much. Very uncool. “You don’t like it?”
His smile this time was rueful. “Caviar’s not really my thing. I hope the main course isn’t bass or something like that. I’m really not in a seafood mood.”
“But it’s real caviar!” she protested before she could control her unruly tongue.
He made a face. “I know.” He’d only taken a few bites of his portion. They smiled at each other, sharing a moment of snatched intimacy.
“It’s an acquired taste, they say, but I loved it the first time I tasted it. I used to treat myself at Christmas.”
“But not this year?”
He was too quick. “No.” She paused. “It’s really expensive to live here.” She didn’t need to glance in Maria’s direction to know the implied criticism wouldn’t go down well with her manager. “Not that I’m complaining about my wages, of course.” She forced a smile.
She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Gary caught her nervous glance at her boss. He raised a brow. “Good to know.”
She caught Maria’s approving nod.
“You’re a shareholder in the company?” She might as well know what she was dealing with.
Gary gave her a guarded look, his brilliant eyes shielded by long, black lashes. “Yes.”
Gary ate and drank sparingly, and chatted to her. She replied, did everything she could to charm him without indicating she’d be putting out later, but she was burningly aware that she wasn’t the charming type. She answered his questions about the company as clearly as she could, and they seemed to go down well.
When the dancing began, Gary asked her to take the floor with him. The band was playing music to smooch to, and some of the people on the floor were already obliging the musicians by dancing and each other by dancing tucked up close. What made it worse was that she wanted to, in the worst way, totally inappropriate. Her body responded to him as if following his orders, her nipples tightening, her sex dampening, so she had another reason to be thankful she hadn’t worn that dress. Desire, so wrong here and now, but she couldn’t control it.
Gary put his hands in the right places, one around her waist and the other linked with her hand. They moved around the floor, noting some of the other couples, Mackness employees wound around their partners, always one of the VIPs, never their own partners. “This is nice,” she said.
“If it helps you to be more frank, I have an acute sense for bullshit,” he murmured.
She almost laughed, but suppressed it just in time. She hated to admit it, but she’d have done a lot to move even closer to him. He was truly gorgeous and he smelled divine. But if she came on to him, he’d assume it was because she’d been told to.
She moved back, and he turned her around the floor, gliding past the other couples. “You know what I see?” he continued smoothly. “I see men provided with young women to entertain them. I see women without partners provided with escorts.” His voice hardened and he stared down at her, his eyes cold. “So did the company book rooms at the hotel for our use?”
Her head whipped back and she glared up at him, fury in her eyes and in the rigidity of her body. She turned her anger on to him, probably not the wisest thing to do but she’d had enough. “So you expect me to—what—put out so you’ll drop another million?”
“Fuck, no.” The revulsion in his tone temporarily pierced her anger, made her want to ask him, perversely, what was wrong with her. Which didn’t make any sense at all. “If I want a woman I ask.” He paused, gazing down at her. They’d stopped dancing now, stood at the edge of the dance floor.
He turned around and walked away without looking back.
She stared after him, heart sinking. She’d been about to turn around and walk out. How great would that have been? On edge now, she had to find a way out of this place. First, she needed to calm down. She headed for the bathroom.
When she left the bathroom, determined to slip out of the hotel discreetly, she nearly collided with a hard chest. She looked up into the glass-shrouded green eyes. “You forgot this.” Her new handbag dangled from Gary’s left hand. Fuck, he’d realized she hadn’t planned to go back.
She’d have left the bag behind if it didn’t have her wallet inside with her cab money in it. Precious though it was to her, she’d hoped Nina would bring it in to work on Monday.
She forced a feeble smile. “Thanks.” When she reached for it, he held it out of her grasp. His gaze wasn’t on her, it was on something or someone just over her shoulder.
“Everything okay?” Maria asked in a voice like ice.
Jade closed her eyes, giving in to despair just for a second before she pasted on a happy face, smiled brightly and turned around to face her boss. “Perfectly.”
“I thought we’d go on to a club.” Gary moved closer, circling her waist and giving it a squeeze. She forced herself to let him, but the scent she’d previously found enticing now made her slightly nauseous.
Maria’s taut expression relaxed. “Have a good time.”
“We will.” He urged Jade forward and she headed for the exit and freedom. When they hit the top of the stairs, he spun her around and shoved her against the wall. He bent his head, and just before his lips met hers, he murmured, “She’s still watching.”
Then he kissed her.
The world changed, spun on its axis.
He caressed her mouth with gentle insistence, and she opened willingly for him when he touched his tongue to her lower lip. He traced the shape before he ventured inside. Softly at first, then tasting more, stronger. He tasted of coffee and he held her with a firm insistence she felt safe melting into.
Jade enjoyed the hell out of that kiss. His muscles tightened when she touched his shoulders. The attraction wasn’t one-sided, then.
He drew away slowly, and stared down at her, wonder breaking over her as she met his gaze fearlessly.
What was she thinking? This wasn’t supposed to happen, not this degree of pure sexual attraction. Not here, not tonight. Events were racing out of control and panic choked her.
She grabbed her purse from his unresisting hands, tore away and raced for the exit, deciding to collect her coat another day. Jade raced out the main door.
Outside, the paparazzi had dispersed, the red carpet had gone and it looked normal, people strolling by, glancing at the lavish exterior of the hotel. Jade didn’t pause, heading across the road for the line of cabs at the side of Central Park.
When she got to the other side, a cabbie opened his door, and she walked faster. Soon she’d be home.
A vicious blow made her world spin for the second time that night, but for a completely different reason.
Here endeth the first chapter. Want more? Here's your chance!