Ruined: A Dark Billionaire Romance, Chapters 1-2

CHAPTER 1

Haley

Mama died like this. A face full of makeup. Trusting a man to play a game that she would never win. I should have been thrilled. What could be more exciting to be playing with knives with a man who wanted nothing more than to fuck you? 

But this was Aldrich. I had known him for years. There was no attraction there.

He held the knife to my throat, using it to jerk my chin to look up at him. “Your last words?”

Always his famous ‘final’ line. “Oh, please,” I whispered in my best voice, “Don’t hurt me, sir.”

Aldrich narrowed his eyes and studied me for a moment. The gray hair at his temples seemed to wither away the longer we played there.

Get on with it, I thought.

He brought the knife over the top of my breast. The knife marked a raised white line on my skin. Some of it would scab over, and some of it would disappear by morning. Dahlia, the owner of the entertainment club, the Dahlia District, never put a limit on the types of knives or weapons the club members could use. Those limitations were up to us.

I let out a quiet huff. The knife was large, with a hook on one end and a wooden handle on the other. Aldrich had been proud when he first purchased it years ago; Custom made, he had said. A skinning knife. Just for you. The man had never gone hunting, let alone skinned an animal. He only used it in the Terrariums, these small private rooms, like the one we were in now. Each raised white line itched like a papercut. It didn’t feel like an act of desire.

“I don’t think I’m done,” he said. “Lower your bra.”

Ah. He had heard the sarcasm in my voice then. I closed my eyes, hiding the urge to roll them, and pulled the fabric, the smallest amount I could manage while still fulfilling his request. 

“Take it off,” he barked. I unbuckled the strap, then threw the bra on the ground. His hand found my breast. “We can end this right now,” he said. “You know how.”

If I slept with him, Aldrich wouldn’t find sessions like this interesting anymore. He’d have more options. He could move on to a newer, younger server. But Dahlia had taught me from the beginning, If you never want to bore him, make him chase. Never give in. He was one of the best club members we had. Reliable. Dependent. Here at the club night after night. Always with the same requests.

I shook my head back and forth. Oh, the acting. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t have it in me to play along properly with his fantasies that night. “Mr. Aldrich, I beg you, please don’t—”

He brought the knife down to the top of my breast and pressed down. The paper cut turned into a searing pain, and I shot up. 

“Ow,” I said. He shoved my shoulder down.

“Hold still.”

Blood dripped down. 

“What the hell?” I yelled.

The smile widened across his face, his white teeth matching the hair at his temples. He hopped off the bed, but it was already too late. I cupped my breast. A thin line, an inch long, at the top of my breast marked me.

“Aldrich,” I hissed. “This—”

“I know. I know. Double the fee. Time to heal. Never again,” he said. Of course, a billionaire like Aldrich didn’t care about the added expense for breaking my terms. “You weren’t trying very hard. I have to keep you on your toes, you know.”

“Or you could tell me to try harder.”

“What fun would that be?” Blood pooled in my hand. He grabbed a towel from underneath the table in the corner, then took his time rearranging the table cloth before handing the towel to me. I grabbed it with my free hand, then pressed it into my breast. Put pressure on it. It didn’t hurt. Not really. It was more of the principle of it. Our terms dictated that there would be no wounds. 

But this wasn’t the first time Aldrich had purposely broken the rules.

“Lighten up,” he said. He took a seat on the long couch stretching across the back of the room, running his palms along the plush velvet. “It’ll heal in a couple of days.”

“I still have to perform like this,” I said. He reached under the table again and found me a band-aid with some antibiotic ointment. 

“No one will notice.”

Every time I moved, I would notice. The towel on my chest was speckled with red now. It wasn’t bleeding as much as I thought, but I pointed at the door. “Just go.”

“And leave you here to fend for yourself?” He raised a brow. Like he was a damn knight in shining armor. 

Fine. If he wasn’t going to leave, then I was. I motioned for him to get up, then I grabbed my bra off of the floor and walked to the door myself. “I’m going to freshen up.”

“I’ll buy you a drink,” he said. 

Once I opened the door, I stormed over to the Greenhouse. Connected to the main entertainment floor of the Dahlia District, the Greenhouse was a separate building that held two dressing rooms for the women who lived off property, and a few dozen closet-sized bedrooms for those of us that lived here. 

I poked my head into the first dressing room. A long countertop faced a mirror, each individual section separated by dim vanity lights. Curlers and makeup were strewn across the countertop. A few late-arrivals applied mascara as they talked.

“Iris in yet?” I asked. 

One of the servers shook her head. “Haven’t seen her.”

Iris lived on property too, but she found reasons to be in the dressing rooms. She liked to pretend she had a home outside of the Dahlia District, as if she came here for fun. Even though she was young, she was the server many of us went to when we had crappy experiences in the Terrariums. She always found a way to spin a bright side on any session, no matter how poorly it had gone, preaching that there was good in everything. Even a place like the Dahlia District had potential.

I could use some of that optimism right now.

I poked my head into the next dressing room and found Iris’s choppy black bob. Her big eyes widened.

“He cut you this time?” she asked. I nodded. “Ugh. But,” she sat up, “remember to use it as a bargaining chip next time. Leverage.”

“Should there even be a next time?” I asked.

“Girl,” she tilted her head, “be careful, but don’t waste an opportunity.” She winked. “You can add a zero.”

The thought of receiving more money was nice, but it didn’t seem worth the hassle. I waved, then went down the dimly lit corridor to my bedroom, towards the back, the same one Mama had used. The twin bed, the dresser topped with a vanity mirror, and the round storage ottoman all barely fit. I sank onto the ottoman. They hadn’t even cleaned the room out when Mama died. I had absorbed all of her things. Dahlia figured I could use them, and I did. 

I looked in the mirror. I hadn’t realized it, but I had sweat during the session that the hairs at my scalp were starting to curl. The rest of my hair was still straight, but there was a distinct wave to it now. 

I removed the towel and tossed it into the laundry basket hidden underneath the bed. The cut wasn’t bleeding anymore, and it didn’t look as bad as I thought. Maybe it wouldn’t break open and bleed on stage.

Mama had died like this. Her hair done. Makeup carefully applied. The mortician had joked that she was so pretty already, he didn’t have to add much to make her look perfect in the coffin. I hadn’t found that funny. And when I look up in the mirror before I return to the Dahlia District, I find it ironic: my hair and makeup are so much like hers. You would think that I would strive to do the opposite. But someone like me could never escape our contract. My inheritance. 

My phone rattled on the table. Nora blinked on the screen. My little sister.

“What’s up?” I said. I checked the time; it was past nine p.m. I wasn’t used to her calling this late. 

“You’re going to be mad at me,” she said, her voice squeaky. 

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah… You know I’m in high school now, right?”

She was in the same, very private, all-girl boarding school that she had been in since she was a baby. Mama had enrolled her from the start, arguing that it was worth the expense to keep her hidden. Dahlia knew about me, but Mama could try to save Nora.

“Well, it’s not technically high school—”

“You know what I mean,” she sighed. “Anyway, there’s a winter ball at the end of the semester, and I know you don’t like that stuff, but Chance asked me, and—”

“Chance?” 

“Yeah. He’s that boy I was telling you about. From Sea Lodge?”

Sea Lodge College Preparatory was the all-boys equivalent to Nora’s school. She had mentioned a boy, but I guess I had blocked it out. It was hard for me to think of her as a young woman who had urges and feelings.

One of the ways I promised Mama to keep Nora safe, was to not let her get close to a boy. We couldn’t risk the pregnancy, and it made me cringe to think of her with a broken heart. Love made you do stupid things, make stupid decisions, trust people you shouldn’t. It had happened to Mama, but I wouldn’t let it happen to Nora too.

But my heart raged with my mind. Nora deserved those experiences. To be with her peers, to feel like a queen, to make memories that she would never forget. Memories that I never had.

“Tell me about this winter ball,” I said.

“They’re holding it at the conference center in the Sage City,” she said. Which made sense. Most of the students in her school were from Sage City, the metropolitan area outside of town. “You know, next to the Observatory?” She paused, took a deep breath in, then added with a sharp exhale that seemed to compress her next few words into one, “And tickets are twenty-five hundred dollars each.”

“Tickets are two thousand and five hundred dollars?” I asked in a high-pitched voice. “Are they feeding you gold-leafed ice cream?”

“I don’t know,” Nora whined. “I just want to go.”

I suppose I should have been happy that she was asking me. At her age, I would have found a way to attend without Mama knowing, but after dresses and tickets, my high school dances would have been a couple hundred bucks. Not a couple thousand.

But that’s what it took to keep Nora safe and secret: a private boarding school that was worth the debt I incurred to keep her there. As long as the Dahlia District never got their reins around Nora.

“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” I said. I tried not to show that I was already caving. 

“Okay,” she said, her voice chipper. I was that obvious to my sister, wasn’t I? A pushover. 

The hardest part was letting her go, knowing that anything could happen to her. I would never be free of my existence at the Dahlia District, so money wasn’t the biggest issue. What was another few thousand on top of my debt?  You’d hope that an entertainment club for hedonistic billionaires would pay its employees well, and it did. The problem was that most of it went to pay our debts. Sometimes, we never saw a cent.

So would you call us employees? With the debt that most of us owed, we would be here until we died. Some of us had even absorbed our parents’ debts, like me. 

It’s not like we could run away. I had watched what happened to servers who tried to abandon their contracts. Dahlia had an arrangement with the local mob and used runaways as an example to all of us. We had too many loved ones on the line. It was better to serve your time and do as you were told. Dahlia told me once that you couldn’t call it sex trafficking, nor a brothel, because sex was forbidden. When it came up, she preferred to call us servers ‘indentured servants.’ As if that made it any better. 

After straightening my hair and tending to the minor cut, I joined the rest of the servers on the main floor. Aldrich was waiting in front of the stage, where an aerial hoop hung suspended in the air, the rope around the top hanging from a beam hidden in the shafts of the stage. A colorful sea of servers in lingerie surrounded him. There weren’t many other guests around, which explained why Aldrich was so popular. Good for him.

“She’s back!” Aldrich said. I sucked in a breath and plastered a smile on my face. “And survived, no less,” he said to one of the servers, who giggled on command. The jerk must have told them that I had overreacted about the cut. It wasn’t the cut itself that bothered me; we agreed to terms, and he hadn’t followed them.

I gestured at the stage. “Aerial hoop, then?”

He nodded. “I’m expecting someone. Do something to impress my guest.” 

I selected the song Sick by Donna Missal, not because of Aldrich, but because it was my personal favorite and it made the sting of performing for him less jarring. Then I removed my silk robe and adjusted my bra and panties, double-checking the cut to make sure that it wouldn’t break open again. Then I stepped out of my shoes, placing them out of the way in the staircase leading up to the stage.

The music started, and I held onto the metal hoop, making it drift back and forth as I spun in circles. Once it slowed, I lifted my legs, keeping my toes pointed, and scooped my ankles inside of the hoop, keeping all of my limbs straight. Then I angled my body against the curve, arching my back as far as it would go, letting a loose hand fall beside me. 

A man in a suit came across the back of the club. Only billionaire club members were allowed inside of the Dahlia District, and I didn’t recognize this new one. He glanced up at the stage, but then he made his way towards Aldrich’s group.

None of the servers had noticed him yet. They were paying attention to Aldrich, who was whispering into their ears, but all of their eyes were on me. To save the club member from being swarmed by the servers, I didn’t look at him closely; not yet. I wanted to give him a moment to relax before the hawks caught his scent.

Using one hand to hold onto the top of the hoop with my legs as an anchor, I cast my hips forward, then looked at the audience, making eye contact with anyone who was watching. The blank eyes. The forced smiles. 

Until I came upon him.

That new member. Dark hair. Light brown eyes with a hint of hazel that made them bright. Facial hair impeccably groomed, a roughness that contrasted with his suit. His clothes looked expensive and custom-tailored, fitting to his toned body. Still standing, he leaned forward against the back of a chair, his hands spread wide as if he was ready to make a deal I couldn’t refuse.

For a moment, I forgot what I was doing.

“Hales,” one of the servers whispered. 

I hated it when people used that name. It was a stupid nickname Aldrich had made up. As if faux familiarity made my rejections less painful for him.

I lifted one of my legs to the top of the hoop and used that move to transition into a gazelle, an upside-down pose with one knee hooking onto the inside of the hoop with a straight leg on the outside. Then I straightened the bent knee, holding onto the hoop, doing the splits in the air.

The man moved closer to the stage. His eyes were glued to me.

There was a magnetic appeal to him. The confidence oozed through his pores and made me wonder. He must have seen aerial dancers before; what was so special about me? One of the servers at the far end of Aldrich’s flock went to greet him, but he ignored her and kept coming to the stage. He stood at the edge, and again had both hands stretched out across the wooden floor as he looked up at me. The hoop spun and spun, and I caught a glimpse of him.

“Hi,” I said during one of those turns. 

He said nothing. 

Now, Aldrich’s group was whispering about him. At least their attention had shifted from me. The song ended, and I let myself down, trying not to be too eager about the man still standing there. But nervous energy surged through my body, knowing that his eyes were still on me, making it feel like I couldn’t quite do anything right. 

The man waited to the side of the stage near the steps. He watched me put on my heels, and I swallowed hard. His attention was a damn spotlight, and not the kind I was used to. He beamed down at me, making me hot all over. What was so different about him? None of the other club members made me feel flustered like this.

I stood, meeting him on equal ground. I held out a hand. He didn’t move.

“I’m Haley,” I finally said. No, no. Damn it. This was embarrassing. My fingers twitched, waiting for the returned gesture. But this wasn’t an office meeting. There were no handshakes. I should’ve said something else. Something sexy or enticing. But I tend to forget how to fake it when caught off-guard, especially by someone so impressive. I closed my hand into a fist, then dropped it to my side. A blush warmed my cheeks and I looked away, holding my focus somewhere else for a moment, before I looked back at him.

A subtle smile crossed his plush lips. Finally, he took my hand from my side and squeezed it. 

His voice was deep and reverberating: “Lucas Conway.”

CHAPTER 2

Lucas

Haley’s eyes flicked up to me as she grabbed a shiny black robe off of the staircase and pulled it over her shoulders, stroking her forearms, a nervous habit that made it look as if she had never felt the material before. There was a cautiousness to the way she moved. She had danced on a hoop with confidence, and yet it was different to be face to face with your audience. 

It helped that I towered over her.

I held out a hand, offering her assistance down the steps. Not that someone with her grace might need it. But she took my hand; her fingers were cold in mine. She shivered at the touch. 

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Conway,” she said. I nodded. There was a moment where it seemed like she wasn’t sure what to say. But my eyes wandered to the open part of her robe; a drop of blood was pooling on the top of her breast. She saw where my glance led and grimaced, then gave a small curtsey before she wandered off, going through a black door in the back marked Greenhouse. 

“Lucas!” a raspy male voice called. I turned to face Reeves Aldrich. He was a man I had once looked up to like a father. But these days, Aldrich and I were business acquaintances. Nothing more. “My god. What has it been? Ten years?”

I had never been to the Dahlia District before. Had never had any desire to. But when I requested a meeting with Aldrich, he had invited me here. Now that my financial investment firm had surpassed his, he must have been motivated to work together.

“Aldrich,” I said. In long strides, I made my way towards him. We shook hands. “This is your hideout, I take it?”

Aldrich swatted a woman out of the way, clearing a space for me to sit on the couch beside him. I found an accent chair to the side and brought it over. It was unnecessary to make the woman move. He shrugged.

“Wife is dead,” he said. “Another one lost to e-coli. Can you believe it?” 

I couldn’t. Not many people died from that illness. His wives must have had bad luck, or worse. “You need to judge restaurants better.”

“Tell me about it.” He scratched his nose. “No reason to hide, these days. But this has been my sanctuary for years now.”

The women beside him were smiling, gazing up like he was the smartest man alive. One of them inched towards me, strings of lace and silk barely covering her breasts and folds. 

“I can see why,” I said.

“Where’s the waitress?” Aldrich barked, flailing his hands around. “Waitress? Waitress?”

“Let me get it for you,” a woman said.

“Two top-shelf whiskeys for us.” He put an empty glass in her hand. “Quickly. Now.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Aldrich,” she grinned.

She looked over her shoulder and winked at him, and his starry-eyes gave it all away. He wanted to fuck that woman, and likely would, soon. 

“Brothel?” I asked.

“Why? Do you want one?” Aldrich gestured at the women beside him. “For the right price, they’re willing to play.”

While I had friends who were high-end escorts, I had never indulged in the trade myself. I found one-night stands satisfying enough.

“I was under the impression the Dahlia District was an entertainment club,” I said.

“It is,” Aldrich answered. He tilted his head. “Restaurant. Entertainment. Sex slavery if you play your cards right.”

“Oh, shush,” one of the women said, and they all giggled in unison. It was eerie, in a way. The woman turned towards me. “We can bottom or top too, if you’re into that.”

Part entertainment venue, part dungeon. Now I understood. 

“While I love the eye candy,” I said, glazing over the women, “Let’s get to the point.”

Aldrich groaned. “This is why you’re no fun,” he said. He shooed the women away. “Go along now.” We were left alone in front of that empty stage. “Conway Capital is doing well.”

It was excelling beyond what either of us could have imagined, beating Aldrich Inspired Investments in a few short years. It was worth the toll it had taken. Perhaps it was even worth what had been lost along the way.

“And Aldrich Inspired Investments?” I asked. Though I knew the answer.

The woman from before brought our drinks and left. We both sipped.

“Not as well as one would hope. Not with the new king in town,” he said. He pressed his lips together. “Don’t take this as my surrender. I won’t bow down, yet.”

I suppressed a smile. He knew he would have to bow down eventually.

“Are you worried, Aldrich?”

“Geezus, fucking hell, Lucas. You know I am.”

Those words were like music to my ears. Finally, Aldrich was losing. “What do you want?” I asked.

“I’m afraid I need your help,” he said. “As you are aware, the last several quarterly earnings have been distressing. I’d like to propose a deal. A merger.”

I nearly spit out the whiskey. “You’re joking.”

“It would be good for our mutual interests. You know this.”

But working for, or even with Aldrich, wasn’t something I was interested in anymore.

“You mean an acquisition,” I said. 

“You know I can’t do that.” His eyes glossed over as he heard the door to the Greenhouse open. He turned over his shoulder. 

The woman from the stage performance crossed the back of the room. Haley. Her black hair laid in glossy strands over her back, with a tint of flush to her cheeks, her green eyes vibrant. A bandaid stretched over her breast. There was an elegance to her walk, like she flowed, rather than stepped. She had changed from a pure black ensemble to a mauve lace lingerie set with a sheer robe.

We watched her move and go past the stage, finding some other men to sit with. I sucked in a breath, and Aldrich turned towards me.

“She’s a firecracker,” he said. “Restrained at times, subtle maybe, and then other times, there’s nothing but fire inside of that one.”

“What’s her deal?”

He leaned back. “She’s been working on the entertainment side for a few years. Aerial dance, mostly. But she doesn’t play by the same flexible rules as the other servers.” He nodded in the direction of where most of the men and women were socializing. All of the men, and the clothed women, were members of the club. Each of us had to pay an expensive monthly fee to enter. One woman fed grapes to a topless man, while a naked woman rubbed a man’s feet as he checked his phone. But Haley shared a booth with a member, facing him, her legs tucked underneath her. She glanced at me, and her lips parted for a moment, before she returned her focus to him.

“Haley,” I said.

“Everyone calls her Hales,” Aldrich said. “Don’t waste your time. I’ve been chasing that tail for years and she never bites. Not even when you know the little bitch wants it.”

I clenched my jaw. There was a certain level of disgust that I endured when it came to Aldrich. He didn’t see women as people, but as objects meant to consume. Turning on the pleasantries when he was with a person, was one of his ways of making people do what he wanted.

I wasn’t free of using charm to manipulate. In fact, it was one of my most honed skills. It was part of the reason Conway Capital had surged beyond its competitors. But I had my limits. Use people all you want, but respect that each person had their own mind. One that didn’t always say yes. 

Instead, you had to figure out how to make a person give it to you. To make them beg for that release.

“She’s never had sex before?” I asked.

“Not with me,” Aldrich sighed. “Thinks she’s too good. While every other whore in this place simply asks for a couple of extra zeros piled on, Hales sticks to the rules. Everyone else breaks them. But not her.”

But not Haley. 

An idea, a horrible thought, sprouted in my mind. Not Haley? We would see about that.

“I propose a bet,” I said. “If I can make Haley break her rules, Aldrich Inspired Investments is mine.” 

Aldrich tilted his head. “Are you fucking with me?”

“And if you make her break the rules first, then Conway Capital is yours.”

“Your entire company?”

I nodded. “I would step away. As I would expect you to do the same.”

“And if you back out,” he crossed his arms, “with that weak heart of yours. What happens then?”

Weak heart? He didn’t know how much I had changed since we last spoke in earnest. “A ten percent share of the company to the other,” I said. “That’s a fair amount.”

“And if Haley rejects both of us?” 

Always with the particulars. He was good that way. “She won’t.” 

“But if she does, what happens?”

“Nothing.” I sat up straight. “What’s fair, is fair. If neither of us succeeds, then the bet is off.”

“You actually want to use a woman in a bet?”

The fact that he questioned me, made my nostrils flare. It was as if he had forgotten what he had done all of those years ago.

“If what you’re saying is true,” I said calmly, “then in all likelihood, nothing will change, and we’ll continue to be competitors.”

“And Aldrich Inspired Investments will continue to scramble for its life.”

I smirked. “Then you better win.” 

“Iris,” Aldrich shouted, and a woman with black hair and soft brown eyes, dressed in a feathery babydoll came towards us. “Can you get Haley for me?”

“Of course,” she said. She trotted through the lounge and found Haley. Iris pointed to us. Aldrich waved.

Haley joined us, standing beside the couch and the chair. She glanced up at the aerial hoop, still waiting on the stage. Empty. Calling for her stretched out, athletic body.

I wanted to see her sprawled between that curving bar again. To see what happened when I looked down into her soul when she was feeling bold. To rip that confidence away from her.

But that sort of exchange took time. Moving each game piece bit by bit. I could be patient. When the reward was lucrative enough.

“Haley, do you know this man?” Aldrich said.

“We just met,” she said, her eyes locked on mine.

“You’ve never met him before? Not online dating, not as an old member one of those nights I couldn’t make it?”

Haley shook her head, her dark hair shimmering on the sides of her face. “When are you not here?” she said to Aldrich. But she never took her eyes off of me. “I’m Haley,” she said, stretching out a hand again. I took it in my grasp, closing my other hand on top of hers. Her hands were warm now.

“I know,” I said. 

She blushed. “Right,” she murmured. “We already met.”

“Go along now,” Aldrich said, gesturing towards the lounge area. “Leave us.”

Aldrich was a dick. Sometimes I wondered how he had treated his wives in their marriages. 

Haley walked away, and I watched her go. There was something to the way Haley moved. Her cheeks burned a beautiful red, and her lips moved like she was always one breath away from saying something. Like she was hiding a secret. Her robe sashayed behind her, a bruise on the back of her thighs either from the metal hoop or from a club member with sadistic tendencies.

I clenched my fists at the thought. From now on, I would be the only one marking her skin, until I won the bet.

I held out a hand to Aldrich. “Do we have a deal?”

Aldrich shook my hand. “I look forward to acquiring such an outstanding company. Conway Capital. It would be fitting, no?”

He was referring to our past, when he stole what I thought was mine. I begged to differ. Absorbing Aldrich’s company would be the best revenge I could dream of. Fucking the woman he couldn’t have. Like he had married Isa.

Pretending not to hear his response, I said, “And the current marriage situation?”

“Gone, I told you. Dead.” He smirked. “I’m a lucky bastard. So much easier with them dead. Can you imagine dealing with divorce proceedings with wealth like ours?”

As if that was the only reason to be worried about the end of a relationship. “I can’t,” I said. Because I wouldn’t marry. Not after what had happened.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen anyone since Bella,” he said. He slapped my back. “My friend, once you’ve used up your stay, you move on. There’s always something newer. Something shinier.”

His disrespect for others, especially women, was a quality I had chosen to ignore when I worked for him. Before he betrayed me, I had found it endearing. He was like the perverted uncle I never had. Now, I found it repulsive.

I would wait for the right moment. I needed to keep him close for now. 

But relationships? “I haven’t had the time,” I said.

“Bullshit. And you know it.”

It was true, to an extent. I may not have had relationships. But I wasn’t about to divulge my pattern of one night stands with anonymous submissives. The truth was that my hatred for Aldrich had little to do with what had happened with Isabella. She was after me, and even Aldrich, not for love, but for money. The betrayal hurt less once I realized that. It was part of why finding anonymous submissives who didn’t share names, was easier. We could indulge without knowing anything about one another.

Which made a situation like the one with Haley interesting. She was a new challenge. The women at the Dahlia District, or the ‘servers’ as they were called, were there to entertain. To convince members to spend money. Whether it was with drinking games or a private show, or perhaps even a dungeon negotiation, it didn’t matter, as long as they made their entertainment money.

I had the feeling that there was no amount of money that could be offered to Haley for her to break the rules for sexual entertainment. Aldrich would have found that amount, and then the bet wouldn’t have been an option. So what was her ticking point? What would make her break?

Aldrich had been pulled by one of the servers to a smaller stage in the corner of the building, but I stayed in the seat near the main stage, where I had a view of everything. Across the room, Haley had her arms around one of the servers, tucking her in close for a hug as they both spoke to a member. Then the other woman took the man’s hand, and the two of them disappeared down a hallway, labeled Terrariums.

Alone now, Haley looked around, considering her next move. When her eyes found mine, she opened her mouth, then shook her head.

A hand squeezed my upper arm. “Hi, sir. What’s your name?” A woman with dark red hair and bright blue eyes took the seat next to mine. “I’m Mel, and I—”

“Mel,” I said. I took her hand and removed it from my arm. “I’m preoccupied tonight. Thank you, but your time is precious and I don’t want to waste it.” 

She nodded her head curtly. “That’s respectful of you,” she said. 

A few others approached me that night, but I sent them on their way. Tonight, I would observe. Haley flitted about the room, talking to different guests, even taking a shot of vodka with Aldrich and a few other servers. She never came to me, but even with the distractions around her, her gaze always found mine. Her parted lips. The flush of her cheeks. Those green eyes searched me, then wandered, as if she couldn’t hold my gaze.

Oh, sweet Haley. I would take every pleasure in breaking you down. Making you do exactly what I wanted. Making you beg for me to take you. To ruin you completely.

When dawn came, the Dahlia District began closing. Aldrich had long since disappeared into the Terrariums and had yet to emerge, but I hadn’t stayed for him. Once Haley made her way into the Greenhouse, I left too.

The Dahlia District was set in the old mill town of Cresting Heights, about an hour away from my home in the heart of the metropolitan area, Sage City. I had never been to Cresting Heights before, but I enjoyed the drive. The early morning sunlight touched the trees, illuminating the misty fog. I cruised down the freeways, making it back to my home in record time. I suppose the Dahlia District was in Cresting Heights for the purpose of discretion, making it hard for billionaires to cross paths with those they kept their lives private from. But I had no one to keep secrets from. I was on my own.

In my home office, I turned on the computer screens and clicked the Dahlia District’s website. I had overheard one of the servers say that there was a twenty-four-hour surveillance footage stream from the Greenhouse. I paid the overhead access to the live stream and clicked to access the first room: long sets of mirrors, ample counter space, small uncomfortable chairs. So the Greenhouse was a dressing room. Much like a theater company would call it ‘the green room,’ the Dahlia District preferred to keep with a botanical theme. At six a.m., the dressing room was empty. Another click, and another dressing room. 

Then the small bedrooms. Each one with a different woman asleep on a fluffy mattress, most with sleep masks covering their eyes. Full pajamas on their bodies. Perhaps because it was easier to stay clothed with watching eyes, like mine. It was hard to recognize the women. Some of the servers must have gone home, choosing not to stay on the property. Haley had entered the Greenhouse, but she could have been packing her belongings from the dressing rooms. 

A view of the hallway with a large man standing with his arms crossed. A guard. Then, an empty room. Another sleeping woman. 

And finally, Haley’s room.

The camera was in the upper corner of the room, aimed towards the bed. She faced a vanity mirror on top of the dresser. She ran her hands along the sides of her face, as if trying to wake up. Her hair looked wet and curly, pulled into a pile on the top of her head, the opposite of the sleek strands she had tucked behind her ears the night before. Those green eyes were piercing, even through the surveillance footage. Her soft lips were rich in color. 

The mask was pulled off, and she still looked beautiful. Why hide this side of herself?

The question only increased as she grabbed a canvas shoulder bag and threw her wallet and phone inside. It wasn’t seven yet. Where was she going? What did she have to do this early in the morning? What was she hiding?

Knowing her, unraveling each layer, would get me closer to figuring out who she was. What she wanted. What she needed. What would make her mine. 

If it had taken Aldrich this long and he had still failed, I had no doubt that he would continue to fail. But what would it take to break Haley? I relished in a challenge, and revenge was the only push I needed.

Haley was a victim, but she would be willing. I would make her so.


Stay tuned for Ruined: A Dark Billionaire Romance coming in September 2020!