It’s the shrill and frantic screaming of a phone that abruptly interrupts the dreamless dark of my sleep. Thundering jackhammers valiantly try to drown out the sound with blinding pain in my head.
“Fuck, shut the fuck up,” I growl, pawing around wildly for the location of my phone until I somehow coincidentally manage to hit the answer button. “What?”
“Miho?” comes an urgent male voice that makes me cringe for more than one reason.
“Jesus Sebastian, stop yelling,” I hiss, covering my eyes with my forearm though the room is already dark.
“Maybe if you answered your phone when I call you, I wouldn’t have to,” Sebastian argues, his tone a blend of relief, worry and scorn. “Where the hell are you?”
For a moment I ponder this answer – I should be more concerned that I have to think about it.
“Home,” I finally determine.
“Are you sick?” he pursues. “Mieke, Kara and I opened the club without you, but that’s never happened.”
“Oh shit,” I curse, sitting up far too suddenly for the likes of my migraine. “Mmph, um… I’m sorry, I’ll…”
“Are you sick?” he repeats more seriously.
“No, I… um…”
I… um… struggling to answer that question – why am I struggling to answer that question?
“Some guy nearly hit me with his car,” I respond finally, the memory hazy. “I hit my head when I stumbled.”
“I’d ask if you’re all right, but clearly you’re not; I’m coming over,” he states, leaving no room for argument.
“Fine, you can drive me to work,” I conclude, pushing back the duvet and wriggling into a sitting position.
“We can discuss if when I arrive,” he grumbles. “Don’t do anything crazy in the meantime.”
Pfft, like I ever do anything crazy.
There is nothing interesting about my getting ready for work routine, except that my headache wanes a little. Still, I’m sloshing some aspirin around in a glass when he buzzes my intercom.
For a few seconds I look at him on the LCD screen, admiring the strong line of his jaw, the faint hint of stubble and the fall of several dark strands of hair that constantly fall across his forehead.
I’d be lying if I didn’t think there might be a better – more fun – way to get rid of my headache’s remnants.
“Are you going to let me in?” I hear his voice through the speaker, and I break from my lascivious reverie.
“Sorry,” I apologise, though he can’t even hear me, and in what seems like a far too short time, he’s travelled up several floors and is knocking on my door.
“I’m angry with you,” are the first words from his mouth, and though he’s frowning, he’s looking me up and down with an analytical eye.
“Thanks, Dad,” I mock, turning to get my handbag, but Sebastian takes my wrist and slowly forces me to straighten.
“I’m not done checking you over yet,” he grumbles, and there’s a pout in his voice though his expression remains stern.
His hands begin on my cheeks, large hands I always feel could crush my head and yet are so incredibly gentle as they graze my skin.
“Sebastian,” I whisper in complaint – but the downward intonation of his name, and the tilt of my head against his palm, betrays my alternate agenda.
“Don’t you Sebastian me,” he huffs, sliding his hands deliberately down my throat as he leans closer to examine a contusion on my left cheek. “You’re never late, never sick, never out of touch, and with… well…”
His sentence trails off, but I know exactly where it was going.
“I was afraid,” he admits, and I actually think he’s being serious.
This guy, who I feel has never been afraid of anything in his life, his brow is now creased, and my reflection in his sometimes-animalistic brown eyes wavers with genuine unease.
“I was afraid something had happened to you too,” he adds, shifting his weight, and when I cannot help but form a slight smile, I think I see him faintly blushing.
“As if,” I snort, slapping his chest with the back of my hand before scooping up my handbag. “I was an assassin in a past life.”
It takes a little more convincing to get Sebastian to allow me out of my apartment, but eventually he drives me to the club – on the provision I let him drive me home after closing. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. Though he’s come home with me plenty of times, our relationship has never been more than a mutually agreeable meeting of flesh and pleasure. The depth of his disquiet is surprising, and I’m not sure how to take it.
“Where the hell have you been?” Mieke glares, the moment we enter Pale’s foyer.
“Easy tiger,” Sebastian grunts in Mieke’s direction, then heads off to do the rounds.
“Overslept,” I tell her sheepishly, and it’s not really a lie.
“Oh yeah? Well I didn’t – I got here three hours early because Seb’s losing his shit about you not answering your phone,” she huffs, but I can tell she’s not actually mad at me. “Kara’s already doing rounds in the basement.”
“Sorry, I’ll get to work, Boss,” I smirk.
“You might want to start with Mr. Lambert in the lounge,” she suggests, and I know she sees the way I’m suddenly more focused. “Thought that’d get your attention,” she sniffs. “And tonight, believe it or not, he’s alone.”
“That’s weird,” I agree. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a harem.”
“Right?” Mieke nods. “Go and take advantage.”
No harm in buttering up a VIP.
The man is an immaculate specimen, the kind who conveys so much with his mere presence alone. His suit is easily worth as much as the entire contents of my wardrobe, clearly custom tailored to emphasise his best physical features: and god damn, those features. They’re a sonnet of masculinity, a rousing canticle of sculpted muscle in perfect proportion.
Intimidation is not something I’m used to submitting to, but every time I’ve had cause to interact with Kiril Lambert – billionaire CEO of KeepsGuard Risk Management and Insurance – I’ve had to struggle against a tide of uncertainty and doubt.
He makes me feel small: I hate it, but affix my best smile as I approach, and bury the instinct to act meekly behind a fortified wall of self-confidence.
“With compliments of the house,” I smile, placing the tray down on Kiril’s table, before taking the uncorked bottle of very old and expensive whiskey in hand.
“It’s my understanding, you are the house,” Kiril points out blithely as he adjusts his silk tie slightly, but for a few seconds I find myself enchanted by the nonchalant motion of his hand. “So it’s you I have to thank. Join me.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, but for some reason, I don’t feel offended by his assumption; I am no stranger to this type of attention in my club – without being arrogant – but in this instance, I shock myself by acting completely out of character.
I put it down to my headache and try to cover a grimace with graciousness.
“It’s my policy not to mix business and pleasure, Mr. Lambert,” I tell him casually, but slip into the booth opposite him nonetheless, “but since you’re Pale’s resident celebrity, I’ll make an exception.”
“Is that the only reason?” he enquires, eyes fixed on my fingertips, apparently fascinated by the way they dig into the wax sealing the amber liquid behind crystal and begin to peel it away.
“What would you like me to say?” I ask, pouring carefully into his glass before pushing it toward him.
I sense my quip is a dangerous one, but simply can’t help playing his game.
“That you’ve finally given in to your burning desire for me,” he replies: so blasé, it almost doesn’t sound like the words of a consummate playboy.
Here is a creature blessed – sublimely handsome, connected and wealthy – oh he never wants for companions.
Normally, I would scowl at such a line, but he drops it so effortlessly I actually laugh.
Then regret it.
Grimacing, I resist the urge to rub at my temples and straighten my back.
“Something wrong?” he queries, slowly coiling his fingers around the whisky tumbler.
It’s such a simple gesture and yet I find it so incredibly sexy I nearly forget my pain.
The unusual green of his gaze pierces through my attempts to appear unaffected, and though I have reassurances on my tongue, I find myself barely able to inhale, let alone form words.
“Ah, it’s just a headache,” I finally manage, and frown at how breathless I sound.
At this I scoff.
“I run a club, I’m practically nocturnal,” I point out, but thinking about the night previous makes the pain increase threefold.
“A woman after my own heart,” he chuckles, “but that doesn’t explain your obvious discomfort.”
“I had a run in with… with a…” I begin, then cringe when it feels as if my brain is expanding, threatening to burst from my eye sockets.
“You look like you’re in need of a medicinal dram,” he declares, turning his glass slowly by the rim, casually observing my growing distress.
“Hm, if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be from the top shelf,” I murmur, trying to blink away the stars sparkling across my field of vision.
“Then please,” he beseeches, though the two words again sound more like an instruction, “allow me to make you feel a little better.”
Men like that don’t beg.
Used to being propositioned in my own club by drunken idiots, I totally take it in my stride – though I find my answer uncharacteristically more flirty than is routine.
“And how might you achieve that, Mr. Lambert?” I question, tweaking a crooked smile despite the continuation of heavy drums in my head.
Before his lips even part, his eyes flicker somehow more brightly, and again I find myself transfixed by the way emerald flames seem to dance within their depths.
“Kiril,” he corrects, “and I have myriad ways.”
His voice low – the brush of velvet across my skin, and that alone seems to dull the war raging between my ears.
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to call one of London’s most successful CEOs by his first name,” I point out, not that I believe in elitism.
“This successful CEO is offering it to you,” he shrugs, it being his first name, not the lewd other it that suddenly invades my mind’s eye. “But for now…”
His fingertips are cool, smooth, as he turns my right wrist over onto his palm, and I flinch at the unexpected contact.
“Close your eyes,” he orders firmly, and before the thought can even register, I’m smothered in the darkness beneath my lids. “Just breathe,” he whispers, a breath I can almost feel against my cheek though I know he is still across the table.
A shudder ripples through me, tingling that begins at the stroke of his thumb against the pale underside of my wrist, and gathers momentum up my arm.
“And that’s just my thumb, Sparrow,” I hear him say, see his lips moving and the hungry blaze of his stare though my own eyes remain closed.
Sparrow? But did he even speak? I can’t tell, but I respond anyway.
“Oh really?” I sniff, wanting to smirk at the boldness of his allusion, but the deepening pressure of his thumb into my skin, the tendons, warns me not to.
“Shh,” he soothes, pressing against one point that for several seconds makes me feel dizzy.
Then the clattering discomfort of the marching band parading through my brain is silenced.
Everything falls silent.
The sweet jazz piano.
The quiet chatter of staff and other nearby patrons.
The clink of glassware.
Until a new rhythm emerges – faster and faster and faster, until the pounding of my heart is almost unbearable.
“How did you…” I exhale, finally opening my eyes.
Pain free, I meet him halfway, though the intensity of those penetrating meres threatens to cause my calm to crumble.
“Magic,” he smiles confidently, continuing to gently caress from my wrist, along the lifeline of my palm.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I struggle to the surface, swimming valiantly out of a verdant ocean to break eye contact and reclaim my hand.
“What the hell is going on?” I wonder, for I can feel him crawling across my skin, sliding to places hidden beneath my clothes.
I have seen him in Pale a hundred times, and while I’ve acknowledged his inexplicable beauty, always pausing in my rounds to perve discretely, I now feel an almost overwhelming magnetism that sticks me to my seat.
But there is someone else observing us; I can feel Sebastian’s scorn as surely as if he was waggling his finger disapprovingly in my face.
“Looks like your boyfriend doesn’t like me touching his property,” Kiril snickers, taking my other hand when I look in Sebastian’s direction. “Not one to share I take it.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, but I should…” I begin, but he cuts me off.
“Stay,” he commands quickly, a word from his mouth before he even thinks it over; he surprises even himself, as much written in the sudden – though fleeting – change in his countenance.
Because that makes it so much better.
“Excuse me?” I snap, and whatever hold he’d had on me shatters. “Pardon me, Mr. Lambert, I should resume my duties. Please enjoy your drink.”
He lets me go, regaining his air of self-importance, but I hear him as I walk away – am sure I am supposed to.
“I think I would, very much.”
“Fraternising with customers now?” Sebastian almost accuses, the moment I am within earshot, and I feel myself souring further.
“Any issues?” I redirect, but Sebastian has me caught in a purposeful gaze.
“Miho,” he levels. “Kiril Lambert is not someone you want to get involved with.”
“Oh yes?” I sniff, undaunted by the seriousness of his expression. “Successful, influential, wealthy, and not shy about spending his money here,” I add.
I leave off how hot Kiril is – no sense in provoking Sebastian.
Working his jaw, Sebastian stares at me, attempting maybe to transmit his disdain via telepathy.
“It’s already not my night,” I sigh, finally heading for the stairs. “Please don’t make it worse.”
Surprisingly he doesn’t follow to my office, which is just as well.
Still, it means I’m alone as I flop down behind my desk, and beyond, Jazz’s empty work station screams out her conspicuous absence.
It just doesn’t feel right without her, and it’s not just about the physical space she should be taking up – she means so much more to me than that. Her absence is like a hole, carved right through my perception of everything; we’re sisters in all but blood, and the only family either of us have left.
“What did he do to you?” I hiss to the room, but further ponderance of Konstantin’s involvement in Jazz’s disappearance is brutally shoved away by the feeling of someone driving an ice-pick through my skull.
But that isn’t the only sensation.
Against the lacquered wood I ball my fists, leaning forward like it might make the pain less severe, but my mind is tugged in the direction of a solid collision.
Wet under my body.
In the darkness, afraid, and barely clinging to consciousness.
Vaguely I hear a question and a name.
Groaning, I blink away the vision, and through clenched teeth I breathe moist patterns against the desktop. The images, the sensations, the emotions all feel so real.
Then it’s Kiril Lambert who floats into my mind; the gentle touch of refreshingly cool skin against the flush of mine lulls some of my present affliction. Desperately I want him to caress me again, and I realise it’s not just because of the way he so easily chased away my resurging migraine.
“And that’s just my thumb, Sparrow,” I hear him purr again, and though I hate the diminutive, I cannot deny the growing knot in my stomach and the tingling warmth in places I’d like to experience his other fingers.
Resisting the urge to allow my own hands to wander, I settle for some more aspirin and paracetamol, before heading back downstairs to work.
Adding to my pre-existing irritation, the sensitive throb of my nethers doesn’t fade as the night wears on, any more than my headache. Crossing the basement nightclub dance floor, nodding to Kara as I go, I’m afforded the occasional, incidental bump in the right spot and it sends a shudder of pleasure through my body – and though Sebastian and I have enjoyed each other’s company many times since he came to work at the club, it’s Kiril Lambert who flashes into my mind.
Avoiding him is suddenly not so easy when my feet seem to have a will of their own, but I stop in my tracks on the far side of the lounge, when I find he is now not alone.
“Of course he’s not,” I chide myself. “Come to the club and just sit there for hours alone? Him?”
No indeed. He’ surrounded by his typical entourage of slender beauties, who stroke down his lapel, touch his skin, murmur against it.
Perhaps he feels my gaze as it lingers too long, because he looks through his company at me; they don’t seem to notice he is no longer with them, as surely as if he’d gotten up and walked away.
“Feeling lonely, Sparrow?” he smirks, I see the question alight in those green pools that penetrate me so thoroughly.
And I don’t even think I mind, not that I’d ever admit it aloud.
”Ah, not lonely, something else?”
His smile grows wider with certainly as his gaze wanders down my body.
“Am I actually hearing him in my head?” I scoff at myself. “You have bigger issues to worry about than your libido.”
“Speaking of bigger things…” I hear him grin, as I turn away and force myself to shift toward the lounge bar.
Which is just as well considering the insolent flick of my hair causes a chandelier to drop and brain me: not literally, obviously, but that is certainly how it feels.
Clutching the edge of the bar, I lean against it heavily with my eyes tightly shut, and Morris the bartender is quick to show his concern – and he is not alone.
Faintly, I hear a woman yelp, then the touch of a hand against the small of my back.
“Still broken, Sparrow?” Kiril whispers into my ear, leaning a little over my shoulder.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I gasp out, trembling and unable to open my eyes.
Though Morris puts a glass of water in front of me, I don’t notice, too busy shaking, too busy glaring into the face of someone I vaguely recognise and the way his teeth are bared threateningly.
“Where is she?” I hiss, losing my legs to slump back into Kiril’s arms, whimpering pathetically.
“What did you do?” Sebastian barks, and his voice rings in my ears as he rushes up to pull Kiril away by the shoulder.
Kiril’s response is to slap Sebastian’s hand away, but he neither confirms or denies his involvement in my debilitated state.
Had I not been just about ready to empty my stomach on any available pair of shoes, I might have wondered at the ferocity of their accusatory glares, that, and the origin of the prevailing notion in my mind – both a source of agony and truth.
“Alex knows where Jazz is!” I exclaim breathlessly, but the moment the sentence is from my mouth I want to curl into a ball. “Fuck me…”
“Another night, perhaps,” I vaguely hear Kiril murmur.
“Back up,” Sebastian commands savagely, and I feel his arms close in around me.
So warm, but there is something I suddenly miss about delightful prickle of cool skin, and from Sebastian’s embrace I blink away tears to fix my watery gaze upon Kiril once more.
“Where’s Alex?” I hiss, but my body is suddenly exhausted, and I collapse against Sebastian’s chest.
To this I get no answer, not that I could actually process it if I had.
All I want is for the evening to swallow me completely, to wrap me in darkness that steals away the terrible vortex of torment tear my brain to shreds.
With refined detachment, Kiril watched Sebastian easily sweep Miho into a princess carry, but he found himself captivated by the limp swing of her arm when the other man stepped away. Crushing a surprisingly tenacious desire to snatch Miho away like a jealous dog over a bone, he instead watched Pale’s head of security disappear with his prize, without stirring further.
He was by no means oblivious to Miho’s amateur – though by no means insignificant – investigation into the disappearance of her business partner; he was aware she’d ruffled many feathers by shouting out the name Konstantin in places she was sure she’d be heard.
Oh, she’d been heard.
Smirking, Kiril didn’t even bid farewell to his vacuous company, and left Pale without a fuss, pressing his phone lightly to his ear.
“Ah cousin dear,” he drawled, his free hand in his pocket as he strolled down the street. “I love what you’ve done with that problem from last night.”
There was a short silence, before a female voice responded.
“Are you following up?” she queried and didn’t sound especially impressed about it. “You?”
“Pure happenstance,” he shrugged, even though his cousin could obviously not see him. “I heard the girl nearly got herself killed by one of Konstantin’s fanboys.”
“What’s your angle, Kiril?” she asked suspiciously. “Why the interest?”
“We both know full well she’s hunting for Konstantin because he’s abducted her friend,” he responded – because abduction was no big deal. “What I don’t know, Narumi, is why you didn’t erase her desire to find him.”
“You don’t think her sudden disinterest in the location of her business partner and best friend would be a little suspicious?” Narumi volleyed, and Kiril could tell she was annoyed – just as she always became annoyed when he challenged her. “Especially to the likes of Sebastian Ross.”
“Oh yes, and he is very interested in her, a real knight in shining armour,” Kiril chuckled, stopping at an intersection to wait for traffic.
“Don’t provoke him, Kiril, I don’t need the headache,” Narumi sighed, and Kiril got the impression of her rubbing her temples. “For once it’s Konstantin causing a stir, and unless you want Konrad on the warpath, just stay out of this and let me handle it.”
The mention of Konrad caused Kiril’s top lip to peel back in a sneer.
“Where is Konstantin and his little friend?” he grated between his teeth, stepping – no, stalking – across the road.
“I haven’t located them yet,” Narumi admitted. “He’s doing a remarkable job of concealing himself.”
“Remarkable, isn’t that him just all over,” Kiril huffed, abruptly taking the hand of a passing woman.
She looked at him quizzically, before smiling and staring wordlessly: starry-eyed.
“If you find him before I do,” he continued into his phone, leading the woman along with him, “tell him I said hi.”
“Just stay out of this,” Narumi warned. “I mean i…”
But Kiril hung up and tucked his phone away, focusing on his present company.
In the darkness of my apartment, I’m alone again with Sebastian. Murmuring a mixture of concern and how much trouble I am, he helps me to the bedroom and sits me down on the end of the bed.
“I’ll get you some water,” he says in a low voice, his hand still resting on my shoulder. “Think you can get undressed by yourself?”
There is nothing untoward about his question, not even a hinting undercurrent of lust; he could take advantage, but he doesn’t – that’s the kind of man he is.
“It’s not so bad anymore,” I reply, slowly sliding the jacket from my shoulders.
No sudden moves just the same.
“I’d say you’re working too hard, but I know that’s in your nature, so, what’s going on?” he questions, and though it’s dim I can see him frowning. “In the year and a half I’ve known you, you’ve never had so much as a sniffle.”
“There is the whole best friend missing and nearly getting run over thing,” I point out a little snappishly, but it’s a measure of my low tolerance levels rather than any actual anger I have toward him. “I’m sorry, Sebastian, I don’t know – I just have this terrible feeling something horrible has happened Jazz, that I’m so close to finding her but she’s just beyond me reach.”
Blinking, I find my cheeks wet again, and Sebastian gently wipes his thumbs across my cheeks.
“Do you want me to stay?” he asks, and though he’s a seriously impressive looking man, this inquiry leaves his lips unsure, tentative.
If I was able to think more clearly, I would certainly challenge him; though we care for one another as friends, he made it clear very early on our relationship beyond that was just physical: a way for us to relieve some of the tension in our lives without romantic entanglements and all the obligations that come with. He has never stayed and never asked to, always leaving when we’re both satisfied.
Saying yes might lead to something I don’t need, but I know right now I don’t want to be alone.
My chin drops forward before lifting again, and the warmth of his palm cupping one cheek is a reassurance I’m grateful for.
“Okay,” he smiles simply, crouching a moment to unzip my boots and slide them away. “Hop into bed, I’ll get you that water and be right back.”
Sighing, I undress to my panties and slip t-shirt on – normally Sebastian wouldn’t get to see such a thing, the Miho ‘home-body’ in her unflattering night clothes, but it’s not something I worry about.
What I want is to be held, and stroked, and told everything will be okay – that I’ll wake up tomorrow and Jazz will be back, no harm done, and this blasted headache will be long gone.
Wordlessly upon his return, Sebastian strips down to his underwear and joins me beneath the duvet, leaving me no time to appreciate the stirring cut of his physique. Instead, I settle for the strong coil of his arms around me, and snuggle against his firm chest, inhaling slowly.
“Just close your eyes,” he whispers into my hair, but it’s not his voice I hear.
His are the fingers weaving softly through my hair, his breath against the side of my head, his ankles entwined with mine. Just as it had, sitting across from him in the booth with my wrist in his grip, the pain my skull abates, and I am left with a slowly growing ball on tension in my stomach.
“You okay?” Sebastian queries, leaning his head back.
My answer is to kiss him, a slow and searching notion, probing for interest.
The tense of his body and then the smooth of his hands down to the small of my back is his response, but he ends the dance of our tongues.
“I don’t think this is what you need right now,” he tells me, but his body is already telling me what he needs.
“I don’t want to think,” I hiss, my voice a little hoarse, and his response to the trail of my fingers to the band of his boxer briefs and beneath. “So get naked and fuck me.”
These words are the kind of vulgar imperative I might use in a moment of passion to provoke him, not the kind of thing once says while vulnerable; but I can’t help it, I suddenly need it.
Also surprised he hesitates, but not for long when I palm him firmly and bite into his lower lip, at which point Kiril takes hold of the hem of my t-shirt and tears it all the way to my throat.
It’s Kiril Lambert’s weight I feel pressing over me, and into me not long after, his shoulder-blades I’m digging my fingernails into and his hips my legs are wrapped around. Gentle at first, I feel he doesn’t want to hurt me but is definitely holding back – he needs encouragement, and my teeth sinking into the taut flesh of his shoulder and the arch of my body to deepen our contact provides this.
The night is a heavy blanket that hides us from each other’s sight, but through the fierce thrust and grab, and the heady thickness of panting breaths and desirous moans, I can clearly see the ravenous depths of Kiril’s gaze by which I am willingly consumed.