Crushed: A Dark Billionaire Romance sample chapters
The door to the brick building opened; an older woman with a sleek blond haircut beamed at us with her perfect teeth. Starting a new assignment always made me nervous, but we weren’t here to meet the target—we were here to meet someone who might know him.
“It’s been ages,” the woman said, her voice raspy. She motioned inside. “Come in. Come in.”
“Good to see you, Dahlia,” Lizzy said, patting her on the back. I followed behind Lizzy’s tall frame. Dahlia’s on-site office at the Dahlia District wasn’t a traditional office. An office would have a desk and some monitors, a filing cabinet, maybe even a break room, but this ‘office’ opened into a large living room with a modern kitchen, the accent lights dangling above the island, and two rooms, one of which was closed, but the other opened to a master bedroom with a golden headboard. Dahlia lived here, on-site too, like the rest of the servers.
“You must be Scarlett,” Dahlia said. I shook her hand, and she held my palm in hers, studying me. “Lizzy has told me so much about you.”
“Only the good parts, I hope,” I said. I winked at Dahlia; it was a habit now, even if she wasn’t a target.
“Of course,” she said.
“Are you going to give us a tour?” Lizzy asked. “I haven’t been here since you first—”
“Oh, why bother with a tour?” Dahlia said. “You know the place.”
She ushered us to the skinny couch in the living room, then brought us a tray with delicate teacups and mini cucumber sandwiches from the kitchen.
Lizzy leaned back into the couch, her strong shoulders broader than ever. I swear, with each year, her posture got better, as if that’s how aging worked. A long, gray ponytail shimmered down her back.
Lizzy had worked here, at the elite entertainment club, for a while when she was in her forties. Though Dahlia hadn’t originally allowed women to work as servers past their twenty-ninth year, she had made an exception for Lizzy, as Lizzy was tasked with eliminating a target who was a club member at the Dahlia District. The target had been tormenting the servers, so Dahlia didn’t mind bending the rules for someone who was as talented at assassination as she was at entertaining high-end clients. During that time, Dahlia and Lizzy had become good friends, but as Lizzy’s work called her elsewhere, they had lost contact.
Lizzy was in her seventies now and had been playing guardian to me for the last decade or so. I was twenty-one and hadn’t technically been her ward for a few years, but we still lived and worked together. I handled the alluring side of the assignments, navigating targets into our traps, and Lizzy did the actual elimination. We had a good system.
We were here to see if Dahlia would make that exception again. Except it would be me serving. At least this time, I was within the age range.
“Is that still your office?” Lizzy asked, pointing at the closed doors. “Can we see the monitors for the club?”
“I’m afraid not.” She sneered at the closed door. “If you need it for your security, then of course, but right now, I’d personally rather not go in there myself.”
I wrinkled my brows. Why was she so avoidant of that room?
“You have another company surveilling the place, then?” I asked.
“Always,” she said. She lifted her chin. “I’m going to sell this place soon. There’s no point in doing all of the work myself.”
“Selling?” Lizzy asked. “Really?”
“The place doesn’t sit well with me anymore. It’s time I retire.” She tilted her head. “You ought to retire soon too, right, Lizzy?”
Lizzy shrugged. “When the work stops coming, I suppose. But that’s why we’re here.” She pulled out her tablet and flipped to the picture of our next target, facing the picture towards Dahlia.
Light brown hair in short, soft curls on his head, his eyes a bright green, dressed in a dark suit. A strong jaw and nose. Big shoulders and arms, a tight frame, even buried underneath the suit. You could tell he worked out. According to our records, he was about six feet two.
These were the things I had to remind myself to make seducing a target that much more tolerable. To pretend that his past decisions didn’t make him disgusting. Besides, he would be eliminated soon anyway.
“Cormac Stone, the pharmaceutical mogul,” Lizzy said. “We have sources that say that he attends the Dahlia District regularly.”
Dahlia studied the tablet, eyeing it over her crossed arms, not bothering to pick it up herself. “Yes, Mr. Stone attends my establishment.”
“And he has for many years?”
She jerked her head. “I’ll have to ask where your sources are getting their information. But yes. I recognize him. He frequents my club.”
“Does he have any regular servers?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Dahlia narrowed her eyes. “I’m afraid he tends to stress them out with his requirements.”
“One of those, huh?” Lizzy asked. She raised an eyebrow at me as if to say, You sure you can take care of him?
I shrugged. I could figure it out. “I can handle him,” I said.
“Scarlett will be going undercover,” Lizzy said. She put a hand on my shoulder. “She hasn’t worked at an entertainment club, but she understands the way it works.”
“What she really means is that I know how to seduce a man,” I said dryly.
Dahlia stifled a chuckle. “And how did you learn how to do that?”
“From the best.” I threw a thumb in Lizzy’s direction. “She says she used to get more requests than some of the twenty-year-olds here.”
“She was one of our best.” Dahlia looked around the room, then settled on me again. “Do you have any talents, Miss…” Her eyes scanned me.
“Hayes,” I said. “Scarlett Hayes. But you can call me Scarlett.”
“Do you have any talents, then, Miss Scarlett?”
I raised an eyebrow at Lizzy. “Remember I told you about the entertainment aspect of the club?” Lizzy said.
Right. That. Lizzy had showcased her strength training skills back when she worked here.
“I can spin fire,” I offered. “That’s kind of unique.”
Dahlia shifted in her seat. “You can spin fire?”
“Like flow arts,” I said. “It’s a type of performance art.”
“Do you mean like fire dancing?” Dahlia leaned back and crossed her legs. “I’ve always wanted a fire dancer at our club. Scarlett, the fire dancer. It has a certain ring to it.” She touched her chin. “And you can do it professionally?”
Was I able to pass it off with the barest amount of knowledge, so that the people who had never performed with fire before, would be too distracted by the pretty flames to know what was going on? Yes. Would it look professional? To the unknowing eye, yes.
“I tried it a few times,” I said. “I’m not perfect, but I can do it well enough.”
“And that’s good enough for me,” Dahlia said. She sat up straight. “When can you begin?”
Lizzy locked eyes with me and I gave her a slight nod, showing that I accepted the assignment.
“She can start tomorrow,” Lizzy said. “And she’ll be doing the job solo.”
My jaw dropped. What the hell? “Solo?” I asked.
“Oh?” Dahlia asked. “Solo?”
“Usually, I would take care of the final task, but Scarlett here,” Lizzy patted me on the shoulder, “is ready for her own job.”
“If you trust her, I trust her,” Dahlia said to Lizzy, then looked at me slowly. “You can handle entertaining club members?”
I shrugged. “Well, I can sweet talk my way into almost anything,” I said.
“Such confidence,” Dahlia said. She jerked her chin. “Fix that sentence. Cut the ‘almost.’ You can talk your way into anything. That way, child, it’s not simply a question of what, but of motivation.”
“Child?” I asked.
“You understand, yes? It’s a matter of if you do not want to, or want to.”
Being called a child at twenty-one was annoying, but once I got past that and actually listened to her words, I liked what she was saying. I hadn’t thought of it that way. That it should be a question of motivation and not skill. There were ways I had learned to be careful with my words, but as I had only been working in elimination for a few years, I was still learning.
“I want to,” I said.
“You’ll live on-site, then?” Dahlia asked.
“We can drop off her belongings tomorrow,” Lizzy said.
“Good.” Dahlia stood, and Lizzy grabbed a cucumber sandwich before standing too. But my appetite was shot. I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was doing this job solo. Without Lizzy. It’s not like I expected her to work with me inside of the actual club, but finishing the job by myself? That meant I had to kill someone.
I had to kill Cormac Stone.
Correction: I was going to kill Cormac Stone. A billionaire. A pharmaceutical mogul. A damn good looking one too.
What a job.
“Send me a list of items you need for the performance, and I’ll have them ready for you,” Dahlia said.
“We’ll give you a call,” Lizzy said.
We left the building. Our steps interrupted the lush noises of the birds chirping and wind through the pine trees surrounding the perimeter. The Dahlia District was set in the woods of a small town called Cresting Heights. It was close to Sage City, the capital and mega center of our state, but far enough away that the wealthy had discreet access to an exclusive entertainment club. I had been to Cresting Heights only one other time, when Lizzy was debating putting me in a private all-girls preparatory academy, back when she first took custody of me at ten years old. She had ultimately decided against it. She realized she could teach me more herself than any academy could.
Lizzy stopped and looked around. “You know,” she started. A roof covered the walkway to the parking lot, with columns covered in vines and orange flowers. It was mid-morning. The sunlight was soft behind the hazy clouds, the temperature warm. The club was a night venue, which meant that it was unlikely that any of the servers or staff would be awake right then. We were alone. “It’s important that you do this job on your own.”
“I wish you would have told me before we met with her.”
“Then you would have convinced me not to.”
That was true. The last time Lizzy had even hinted at giving me a solo job, I had basically pretended like she hadn’t said anything and acted confused when she brought it up again. It wasn’t that I was scared to eliminate a target by myself. It was that doing it on my own meant that soon, Lizzy would leave for good. So I did what she taught me. Acted. Played pretend. Lied until it felt like the truth, until I seemed to believe it too. Of course, Lizzy had seen through those games.
“I’m getting older,” she said. She leaned down, making us eye to eye. They say you shrink as you get older; for Lizzy, it was the opposite. She grew in grandeur with every year that went by. It seemed impossible for her to be getting older. Frailer. Weaker. Though I knew it was true. “You need to be able to handle any assignment. And besides,” she stood straighter, “This is a simple one. It’ll be a piece of cake.”
Right. Because convincing a billionaire to like me, so that I could eventually get him alone and kill him, was easy. Men like that might be careless sometimes, but that didn’t mean they weren’t openly trusting.
But it’s not like I was trusting either.
“You expect me to kill him?” I asked.
“Scarlett,” she locked eyes with me, “It’s just a target. You can still keep to your code. I won’t judge you for that.”
I had one rule; I only went after people who were undeniably malicious. The world was built in blocks of good or bad, and I intended to figure out the targets before I took their life, or gave Lizzy the chance. Would the world be a better place without this person? Would I ever regret eliminating this target? Would completing this assignment prevent more harm to others?
That part seemed easy in comparison to the rest. “I just don’t like thinking of a life beyond us being partners,” I said.
“Partners?” Lizzy raised an eyebrow, a grin gleaming on her face.
“We make a good team,” I offered.
Lizzy smiled to herself. She had started the Silent Network Consulting decades ago and had been the leader for that entire time. It was a joke to say that we were partners, or even a team. Lizzy carried the weight. Even if she couldn’t do as much as she used to, when it came to the two of us, she was the number one assassin. In some ways, I was still the sniveling kid she had adopted when my parents died.
I was older now, though. And I knew I was capable enough to do a job completely on my own.
“Think of how much you’ve accomplished,” Lizzy said. “You don’t need me at this point. I’m holding you back.”
“You’re a badass and you know it,” I said, narrowing my eyes. She cracked a smile.
“I might be, but I’m not going to be around forever.”
It was hard to think of a life without Lizzy. She had been there for me since birth, and after my parents died, she was the only one who was there for me, who was willing to drop everything to make sure I was cared for. Even if it meant putting her work on hold for a year while she figured everything out. Even if it meant putting a pause to Silent Network Consulting while we tried, and failed, to figure out what had happened to my parents.
I didn’t want her to be alone, as much as I was afraid of being alone myself.
“Nothing is ever stable, is it,” I muttered. My parents had worked for Silent Network Consulting and had been on an assignment outside of the SNC’s approval when they died. At first, the blank spaces had been unnerving for us to deal with. But Lizzy helped me move forward. She had taught me that I couldn’t wait around wondering about the what-ifs, because that’s not what was happening now. I had to stay present and experience the world for what it was. If my parents were gone, then they were gone. I couldn’t let that kind of thinking hold me back. It’s what my parents would have wanted.
At least, that’s what I told myself, anyway.
“When I’m gone, you’ll find a new home with someone else easily,” Lizzy said. She squeezed my shoulder and we walked towards the car.
“But I don’t trust anyone else.” A few months earlier, a secret bodyguard had ambushed me and was about to kill me when Lizzy put a bullet in his head, and in the target. That didn’t help with my trust issues. My parents’ suspicious deaths didn’t either. I opened the car door and slumped into the passenger seat.
“There are plenty of options,” she said. “People you can trust. I trust Dahlia.”
“You probably shouldn’t,” I said.
“I trust you.”
“And I trust you, but that’s not the point.” I shook my head. “I could die tomorrow on an assignment and be done with it. Maybe there’s no point in trusting anyone if you know you’ll die soon anyway.”
“Or,” she started the engine, “you can live until you’re seventy-eight goddamn years old, no matter how hard you try to die in the action.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re not seventy-eight,” I said. She snickered. “You’re eighty-seven.”
She smacked me in the arm. “Shut your mouth.”
“Can you believe Dahlia called me a ‘child?’” I asked.
Lizzy laughed. “Scarlett, you’re less than half of our ages. In our eyes, yes, you’re still a child.”
Whatever. “How old is the target again?”
“Cormac is thirty-six, I believe,” she said. She kept her eyes focused on the road. “A bit older than you, but not by much.”
“Still a child, then?” I asked.
She shrugged. “More or less.”
Lizzy handed me her tablet and I flipped through the pictures. There were laugh lines around his eyes showing his age, but he didn’t seem like the kind of person that would laugh often. There was pain in the way he held his mouth, as if he was always one step away from releasing it all. Letting it go. Crushing the world with his anger and hatred.
These were the kinds of things I had to use to my advantage. All people, even good-looking billionaires, had weaknesses. Cormac had anger built up inside of him, anger I could use to draw him out.
Cormac Stone had weaknesses. It was my job to find them.
I tipped back the highball glass, the amber liquid sloshing around. The sounds of young women laughing and men talking trickled over the sound of instrumental music coming from hidden speakers.
It had been a few months since I had been to the Dahlia District, and yet I still wondered why I bothered coming in the first place. A long time ago, Violet, my late wife, and I had frequented here and were one of the few couples that had a membership, but after she died, it seemed false. The search to find what I wanted was a never-ending problem. I hadn’t found it in the years I had been paying for a membership.
Yet I always came back. As if I could find remnants of my late wife here. It helped that paying for a server’s time was easy. Easier than dates. More straightforward than courting a woman who wanted more than what I was willing to give. My career and personal life required far too much of my time to add romance to it too.
But I had needs. All dominants did.
I turned around on the barstool, leaning back on the counter. A new server was on the stage. Honey-colored hair rested in a low bun at the nape of her neck. A lean, athletic frame. Dark brown eyes. Bright red lips. She looked younger than most of the servers, but perhaps it wasn’t her age, but the fact that this was clearly her first experience performing in front of people. She was confident, but hesitant, a jerky edge to what should have been flowing movements. Dahlia, the owner of the club, stood at the railing. Years ago, my late wife had convinced me to negotiate a deal with Dahlia, in which I would gain co-ownership so that perhaps we could help free some of the servers from their indentured servitude here.
But once Violet died, the negotiation died too. Dahlia wasn’t interested, and my business prospects shifted to more important opportunities, ones that would help me gain control of the medical industry.
Dahlia pointed in different directions, barking orders at the new server. The new server adjusted as she was told.
It was early in the evening; the club had just opened for business. This was the first time I had seen Dahlia coaching a server. This new server wasn’t simply new. She was fresh. She must not have been groomed for this type of work like most of the other indebted servers here were.
Sometimes, I hated being here. I hated knowing that I was one of those despicable rats who found himself here when the club opened. But it was also one of the only places I could get away from the trouble of my daily life. It was easier to ignore here.
But not completely. My phone vibrated. Warden flashed on the preview. I swiped open the screen and read his text: You’re serious about this, aren’t you?
Purchasing Warden’s company, Technology and Science Pharma, wouldn’t be the biggest acquisition I had made, but it would be the most promising. We had met for a short meeting recently, and I had broached the topic of buying his company after learning about their latest research. Yes, I was serious. I was settling him into a deal. It would work well for him…
If he accepted my offer.
The new experimental treatment in high-risk patients for the disease is intriguing, I sent back. My hope is that by combining forces with my other companies, TSP will surge towards a breakthrough and make progress for those affected by it.
Would TSP be a subsidiary company of Stone Laboratories, then? Warden asked.
Yes, I replied.
I built her from the ground up. TSP is my baby, he responded.
What a name for a pet project. I didn’t care if it was his baby. I wanted control over the research.
I glanced up from my phone and saw flames flickering on the stage. Dahlia stood nearby with a wet towel. The fire was secured in a small ball at the end of a long chain, and the new server swung it around, in a hypnotizing rhythm. The embers burned in her eyes like tiny gems.
My phone buzzed. Warden again. I like the offer. Really, I do, he sent, But I need to get to know the potential new owner first. Make sure I can trust you with my baby.
Businessmen were like this. They needed confirmation that they could trust what happened to their projects once they were gone, the confidence that their legacies would be kept intact. I could play that game. I could give him a sense of heightened security if that’s what he needed.
Come to the Dahlia District, I sent. We can discuss matters further here.
Tonight? he responded.
Questioning every damn thing I sent already. Why not? I asked.
I’m busy tonight. But let’s keep talking. I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement.
It was only a matter of time before I acquired Warden’s business through the traditional means, or perhaps another way. I wasn’t one to let morals distract me from my desires. I needed TSP. I was personally invested in their experimental treatment.
I could do this the easy way, or the hard way. It was up to Warden. But for now, we would work at his speed. Give him time for progression.
Dahlia stormed towards the exit, a hand resting on her forehead, while the new server put the now flameless chains in a large metal container. The overhead lights had returned to the stage. A black sports bra, or perhaps it was a plain bra, was wound tight around her chest, and black shorts covered her ass, but nothing more. She glanced up from the container and caught me staring. She smiled and raised her hand in a wave. I continued to stare. I didn’t return the gesture. The expression dropped from her mouth.
She was new. That was clear. But there was something off about her. Most of the new servers were too shy to engage on their first day.
But she wasn’t afraid of me.
I pulled out my phone and found the number for the new physician on staff at my estate, Dr. Davis, and sent a quick text: Update?
The patient is asleep, he sent. It was unnerving that he didn’t use a pronoun or a name. But I dismissed the formality for now. He was new too. He would have time to adjust to proper protocol. It had taken the last physician quite a while before she found a rhythm, working for me at the estate.
The new server fixed the band of her bra, then hopped off of the stage, winding through the empty circular tables and chairs, heading towards me. She offered her hand, even though she was more than twenty feet away, when a familiar voice popped up to the side of me.
“It’s been a long damn time, Stone,” Teagen said. “How long were you abroad? Months?”
“Months,” I said. I spun around on the stool to face the bar again. Brown hair in loose curls rested on Teagen’s shoulders, the same faded harp necklace leaning against her chest. Teagen and I had long since discovered that we weren’t a match. The attraction wasn’t there, and Teagen couldn’t offer me what I needed. Still, I could kill time with her.
“You’ve been keeping the place busy, I assume,” I said.
“You missed the action when the Pros’ Angel was on the loose.” Ah, I had read about that in the news. A serial killer had taken revenge on the abusive customers of sex workers. Teagen narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tell me it was you doing the killing all along,” she said. “If it was, I guess I should be thanking you.”
I shook my head. I had been abroad, dealing with an international business matter.
“How was it here?” I asked.
“It was slow as hell,” she whined. “It sucked. But it’s better now.”
I glanced around; the club wasn’t busy, but it was still early. A few booths in the lounge were filled with wealthy men and half-naked women. The blond server, the new one, was now talking with Iris, the club’s contortionist and the server who had worked at the club the longest. Iris donned short black hair, fishnets, and platform boots with decorative buckles, yet she fancied herself a dominatrix turned nurturing mama bear. The protector of the servers. The mother of the flock. The most trusted server at the club. Don’t even think of touching any of her girls.
It was good for the new server to be talking with her. Iris could teach her things.
I could teach the new server things too. Engaging with her would be worth it to see how long she lasted, before she dropped out.
“Who have you been entertaining?” I asked. I downed the rest of my scotch.
“Irvine, for a while anyway.”
Irvine Montgomery, one of the wealthiest bankers in the nation, had been one of the serial killer’s victims. I had recognized his name in the headlines.
“My condolences,” I said.
“Yeah,” Teagen paused, glancing around, avoiding eye contact. She gestured at the bar. “Want to order me a drink?”
I nodded, and she ordered her usual while I got another round of scotch.
She stirred the vodka Shirley Temple. “What have you been up to lately?” she asked.
“I’m in talks to acquire another company.”
“Seriously? Another company, Cormac?” I grinned, and she added, “Will you ever slow down?”
There were reasons I couldn’t let go, not until I had no doubt in my mind that I had taken every opportunity to save the inevitable future. Because no matter how much money a person had, we could never guarantee safety. I would always be searching for a way to protect my daughter. To promise her the future that she deserved. To never let anything hurt her. So that the same thing that happened to her mother, wouldn’t happen to her.
“No,” I said.
“You’re obsessed,” she said.
In a way, she was right. Work was a coping mechanism, a way to exhibit total control. It was an obsession. A need. A craving I fulfilled. Any compulsion I had to manipulate and subdue, I did while dealing in pharmaceuticals.
And the urge I had to use that control on women? When I found a server willing to try to search for her darkest, deepest fears, I used her. Fucked her. Pinned her down until she snapped and begged for freedom. Whittled her down until I shredded her to her very core.
But no server was ready or willing to go there, not once they realized that they couldn’t hide behind false pretenses, not when they were broken down into their base instincts.
The new server’s honey-bright hair shimmered in the dim lighting. She looked almost angelic like that, surrounded by a world of the virtueless.
Every server had a past marked with debt and crime. What would this new server’s story be? Would she share it with me willingly, or would I have to break it from her soul?
“Cormac?” Teagen asked.
The new server linked her arms with Iris, then she glanced around the room, her eyes briefly crossing over me. She pressed her red lips together into a knowing smirk before disappearing into the Terrariums, most likely being given a detailed tour by Iris.
Those lips. My late wife had painted her lips like that once.
But that smile. It made me stop. What was the new server so pleased about?
“Her name is Scarlett,” Teagen said. She lifted her red drink in their direction. “She started today.”
“Scarlett,” I muttered. I would have to remember that.
Gasping for air. Needing it. Desperate for it. The pain in my chest bloating my insides into a balloon that would burst into a thousand pieces. Looking up. Eyes burning. Bubbles floating. I was so far down. Reaching. Grasping for anything. Sinking down, and down, and down.
Wake up, damn it.
I shot up in bed. My lungs swelled full as if this truly was my first good breath in ages. It was a dream, a recurring nightmare that had haunted me for years. The kind of dream that popped up whenever something big was coming, like visiting my parents’ graves, but now, it usually surfaced whenever I was meeting a target for the first time. Anxious energy pooled into my REM cycle and made me feel insane, like I would never be able to breathe again.
It didn’t help to wake up in a strange room. The brick walls. A short dresser with a vanity mirror attached to the front. A half closet big enough to store a few outfits, but not much else. The walls were bare. I hadn’t brought any of my posters. Drawers were under the twin bed, and a storage ottoman was in front of the dresser. A security guard was stationed at the end of the hallway all night, where the dressing rooms and the dorm rooms joined together, but I still kept my gun and my other weapons underneath my bed. It was unlikely that I’d need them now.
But it never hurt to be safe. Being ambushed unexpectedly had taught me that.
Noise filtered into my room, the gentle knocks of curling irons on countertops, women talking and chatting. Clinks of glassware.
A knock sounded on the door frame. I straightened. Iris tucked a piece of short black hair behind her ear.
“Hey, sleeping beauty. Big night tonight,” she said.
“Don’t remind me,” I mumbled.
“You know the club opens in thirty minutes, right?”
I raced to the closet and thumbed through what I had in there. After Iris rejected the sports bra and matching booty short set that I picked, I settled on a dark red cotton lingerie set that Iris insisted would work well for my debut performance. I ripped off my pajamas and started hooking the eye closures in the back when I realized Iris was still standing there. We caught eyes again.
“Am I late already?” I asked.
She shook her head. “You’ve got time if you hurry with makeup.” At least my makeup was easy. She smiled. “I just wanted to say break a leg.”
“Thanks,” I said.
The beneficial part of having a debut performance in front of the club members at the height of the weekend, was that I had the option of staying in the dorm and dressing rooms, not entering until the exact moment that I would perform. This area of the Dahlia District was called the Greenhouse. It was connected by a door to the side of the main floor of the actual club.
If I went to the main floor, Iris said there was too much risk in being taken to the private themed rooms, where club members paid for one-on-one entertainment. I was a new, novelty item. Apparently, they liked that.
So I could hide away in the Greenhouse if I wanted to. I could take my time getting ready. The rush to get ready was because of my nerves, rather than the fear of actually being late.
When the club opened, I was the only server in the Greenhouse. After an hour of pacing around the empty dressing rooms, I went to the main floor. A brunette, I think her name was Teagen, played a small harp on the concrete stage. Dahlia had been dreaming about a fire dancer for decades, and a few years ago, had renovated the stage so that the wooden top could be removed, for the concrete platform underneath, perfect for fire performance. No pressure or anything.
The crowd was bigger than I had expected. Teagen wore an elegant dress that was sheer in parts, showing off her body, the slit on the side letting the fabric drape over her thighs in an elegant manner. The way she moved her hands was beautiful, and it made the music that much better.
Iris waved and pulled me to the wings of the stage.
“How are you doing?” she asked in a quiet voice.
I was an assassin, a fucking assassin, and yet I was still anxious. I could pretend to be something I wasn’t when it mattered, when it was life or death. But it was another thing to pretend in a room full of observant eyes, eyes eager for sensual entertainment. This was different. My life wasn’t on the line yet. Adrenaline couldn’t push me through to the other side.
“I’m fine,” I said. Iris raised her eyebrows at me, waiting for me to answer truthfully. “Okay. Fine. I’m—” I paused, “—nervous.”
“It’s okay to be nervous,” she said, “But you’ve been practicing, and you’re going to kick ass out there.”
“You expect me to follow that?” I whispered, pointing at Teagen, still making beautiful music like it was in her nature. Dancing with fire? Not my nature. Fire didn’t scare me, but dancing with it wasn’t an instinctual talent for me. Not like making music was for Teagen.
“You’re following me, actually. I’m going next,” Iris said. I closed my eyes. Because following a gothic contortionist that could put the best cirque performers to shame, was easier than following a gorgeous musician. “Think of it this way. These club members know Teagen. They know me. We’re not special. We’ve been here for years. You could do pretty much anything with the fire, and they’d be impressed. Because. You know. It’s fire.”
I glanced over to the other side of the stage and saw the fire extinguisher and wet towels ready to go.
“Or I could light myself on fire and they’ll be scared shitless and concerned.”
“I’d go for impressed over concerned,” Iris said, bobbing her head. “I’m rooting for you.”
I returned the smile. “Thanks.”
After Teagen finished, clapping sounded through the main floor. I peeked out from the wings and saw that more club members were there. It wasn’t a traditional setup—as in rows and rows of uninterrupted chairs—but instead, there were circular tables and bucket chairs with plenty of space in between. Still, every table was taken. And I saw him there too. In the middle of everyone, glaring up at the empty stage with those piercing green eyes.
Read the rest of Crushed: A Dark Billionaire Romance on Amazon, coming in November 2020!