Masked Man Scene – Wicked Rich Boy Excerpt

Happy Halloween, people!

Since you called Trick or Treat, I’ll go for Treat 🙂

Here is the excerpt I promised you from my new dark romance, Wicked Rich Boy. Please keep in mind this is a DARK Romance (I apparently can’t state this enough), which means it is full of triggers such as dub-con and forced proximity (enforced by the hero). Add Halloween into that mix, and there you go. Please keep in mind the hero already knows the heroine is secretly in love with him when he enacts this scene. That being said, let’s dive into it. Here’s the blurb:


One thing you should never do on campus – get on the radar of the Heathen Kings, as much as you crave a piece of them.

They’re golden campus boys by day and warlords by night.

Cruel rulers of the world.

Set to marry virgin heiresses and use lesser mortals, like me, for their dirty pleasures.

Sade Royales? He’s a mouthwatering bastard with a sadistic streak that’s always fascinated me–safely, from afar.

But now I’ve done something that’s drawn his attention, and my life will never be the same.

Now, he’s out to haunt me.

Use me for his perverted desires.

Judging by his reputation, he’ll discard me afterward and take pictures of the mess.

Yet when the police come sniffing about the disappearance of my ex-boyfriend, he steps in for me. He swears to protect me. But there’s a deeper plot behind his actions, and soon I start discovering my place in Sade’s wicked plans. One thing is for sure – if he’s going to hell, he’s taking me with him. The question is, do I even want to fight it?

NOTE: This is a dark romance. It contains dub-con, degradation, and a twisted, dark love. Proceed at your peril.



The good news is that I’m not insane.

The bad news is that I have a stalker on my tracks.

The masked man is real, and he can do things that would give a ghost a run for its money. Like breaking through closed doors and dissolving into thin fucking air.

I run breathlessly down the stairs, only the moonlight guiding me. I should scream, draw the guards’ attention, but what if that psycho kills whoever happens in his path? I can’t be sure whose face hides behind the mask, but I’m positive he’s one of the Kings or the wannabes they initiate and train as their acolytes. They have the sickest skills, and they’re pretty freaking low on morals. 

Dogg Wilson alone, whose unwavering gaze from the car the other night still haunts me, can do some serious shit. If I hadn’t been so obsessed with working Sade out of my system, I would have spent my last few nights tossing and turning about Dogg’s intentions. 

My chest burns with every inhale I take by the time I reach the bottom of the stairs. The double doors leading out onto the front patio are just across the hall, at the end of a dark hallway. A shadow crosses in front of the glass panes, framed by the outline of combat gear–one of the guards. I can hear muffled laughs, him talking into his phone, oblivious to the fact that there’s an intruder inside the house.

I throw myself in the direction of the light. I’ll tell him about the masked man, and beg him not to look for him but just go, get us all out of here. I may not survive the dark forest surrounding this house alone, and the guards surely wouldn’t survive the masked man, but together we stand a chance. I can almost reach out and grab the door knob, a whimper trembling on my lips, when a shadow whips through my field of vision.

“Jesus Christ,” I shriek. It was so close, the movement ruffled my hair.

Sweat breaks out all over me, the empty house chilling me to the bone. 

No, I can’t stop now, not when I’m so close to salvation.

But when I take the next step, something pierces my naked foot. I yelp, stepping away and looking down. In the faint light filtering from the outside, I make out the drops of blood dotting the wooden floor–my blood, from the thorns that broke through my skin. There are multiple roses scattered at my feet. Under them lies another one of my crumpled poems, words written across it in dripping red.

You can run, but you can’t hide, pretty poet.

Just as I pull in a deep breath to shout, a large presence spreads out behind me like a splash of ink. I feel him before his breath touches my ear, and his deep voice reaches me.

“Scream, and their blood will be on your hands.”

Definitely one of the Kings. 

Even though his voice is distorted, as if Mr. Hyde had replaced whoever he is during the day, there’s a deadly edge specific to the way they all speak. Maybe I’d recognize him by the shape of his body, his height or the color of his eyes but, for that, I’d need to turn around. 

An exhale trembles on my lips before I take another breath, hoping to recognize him by his scent. I’m good with scents. Roses and smoke. Sade is clean linen and fall spice, Micah is leather and dark chocolate, Carlton all ocean and dew, but this one? 

“Trying to recognize me by my scent, pretty poet?” A low, quiet laugh. “A good stalker knows how to mask everything about himself, including his scent. Haven’t you read that in your books?”

A body as hard as concrete brushes my shoulder blades. He’s large, broad, crushing. My brain starts frantically calculating possibilities. No doubt he’ll make good on his promise and hurt the guards if they intervene. Those men don’t expect anything to go wrong tonight when the house is presumably empty. They’ll be caught off guard. They have families waiting for them at home, and if a father doesn’t make it back to his kids, it’ll be on me. 

I’m trapped. 

Nausea flares up from my stomach, and I hunch over, gripping my waist and retching over the roses and poems scattered at my feet. Maybe it will disgust him, and he’ll abandon his pursuit. But the universe isn’t feeling merciful tonight. Nothing comes out, and the masked man chuckles again, sleek like a lake where corpses lie.

“You have a strong sense of responsibility. Be a good girl, and no one will get hurt tonight.”

“No one?”  I manage breathlessly.

“No one,” comes the flat answer. 

I slowly come back up to a standing position, my eyes fixed on the light ahead. It’s so close, it’s painful. I could just lunge across the hall and grab the doorknob. But the masked man has me in a chokehold without even touching me.

I lick my parched lips. “You’re enjoying this, huh? Making someone much smaller than you fear for their life?”

“Why would you fear for your life? I brought flowers.”

“You also brought letters written in blood.”

He’s now closer, inhaling the scent of my hair. My fingers dig into my arms. It’s all the protection I have against him. Useless, pointless, but I need the illusion. 

“They’re freshly written, inspired by your poems,” he murmurs in my ear. My blood drains from my limbs. The poems in which I called Sade by name. 

Verses without much depth, but of piercing sincerity. I thought that I would be safe to explore those feelings within the safety of these walls, unlike at the mansion or on campus.

“Why don’t you take off the mask now?” I manage. “I mean, it’s clear you’re one of the Kings. Or that they sent you.”

A chuckle, so close that I’m sure he must have somehow gotten inside my head just like he broke into the house. Like a freaking ghost.

“How do you know I’m even wearing a mask?”

“I know you’re the same man who broke into Mel’s bathroom the first night I was here.” I pause, wishing I remembered the glimpse I got of him in more detail. “I know it in my bones.”

“See, we are bound on such deep levels.”

“How did you even pull that off, the first night?”

“Magician’s secret.”

“Who are you?” My words leave on a trembling breath.

“Who do you suspect that I am?”

“Please don’t play with me.”

“I just enjoy seeing you do the guesswork.”

“I’d prefer it if you saved me the torture.”

“Yes, I imagine it would be hard to choose. Considering how many men Dean’s videos fired up for you. Dogg Wilson, for example. He’s been obsessed with you since that night at the party, when you ground yourself against two men.”

I swallow hard at the threat in his voice. It bothers him. Still, what he saw that night inspired him to track me down here and set up this entire nightmare. 

“Or Carlton Wilde?” he continues. “He was pretty loud about how much he enjoyed what he saw in that group chat.”

The knot in my throat feels like a jagged pill. Carlton is a big guy, the muscle on whom the Kings’ society at Norton King’s relies to do their dirty work when someone needs a painful lesson. Some people whisper he’s their hitman. It’s definitely not out of the question that he could be the one standing behind me. 

But if it’s Sade–

My mind freezes before I fully acknowledge that possibility. It would mean that he saw into my mind tonight when he read my verses and knows all about the dirty, preposterous, boundless perversities I want him to do to me. I shudder, even though I’m wrapped in a cocoon of unbearable heat coming from his presence, making it a struggle to breathe. 

“What do you want? Why are you here?” I croak.

A gloved hand slithers around my neck from behind. 

“You didn’t go back home that night. You have no idea what that did to me.” His fingers press into the sides of my neck, enough to obstruct the flow of blood through my jugular. “I should have monitored you every step of the way. The torturous hours before I tracked you down, thinking that you might have–”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but I know what he means. Despite the fact that I’m going lightheaded, I understand the psycho was worried I might have caused myself irreparable harm. But does that mean my life is precious to him, and he won’t attempt to take it himself? The energy coming from him is dark and barely contained, and there’s a killer in the vibrations of his voice. His fingers curl into my flesh, possessive like a claw.

He pulls me back into his large body that feels rock-solid against my back. Yet his energy is a swirling black hole, ready to suck me in. 

“Relax, princess,” he purrs while that gloved hand claims more of my air supply, forcing me to abandon my weight against his body. “You’re in better company than you imagine. I’m a fellow poet myself, you see, and I wrote something for you. I’m curious what you think.”

He reaches into a pocket to produce another piece of my scribbling and holds it in front of my eyes. I should be relieved it’s not a knife he’s holding, but the red writing across it, trumping my own lines as if it owns them, fills me with terror. If I had a sliver of a doubt it was blood, it dissipates into thin air. My pounding pulse must tell the masked man exactly how I’m feeling because a laugh rumbles against my back. The bastard is amused.

“You can rejoice, pretty poet. The words are written in the blood of a man who deeply grieved you. Come on, read them out loud for me. But careful. Not loud enough to draw attention.” His mouth is now touching my ear, I can feel his hot breath through the mask. “We wouldn’t want to get the guards in trouble now, would we?”

My eyes fall to the words, tiny rivulets of red darkening the parchment-like paper. I didn’t even realize he led me back towards the stairs while we talked. We are now close to the windows on the back side of the house. There are no lamp posts here, just hedges and rose bushes all the way to the wrought iron fence that separates the property from the black forest beyond.

I try to make sense of the words in the moonlight, but my brain just won’t work with me. The masked man hums in understanding.

“All right, let me help you then. I’ll start by reading your own lines first.”

“No!” It’s a knee-jerk reaction. The prospect of hearing the explicit things I wrote about Sade, from this guy’s mouth, makes my blood curdle. I’d rather face his twisted desires than the realization that he knows my own. I put my attention on the red words. 

“Then you read my own verses to me, little poet.” His voice is almost dreamy as he says it. This bastard takes serious pleasure from tormenting me.

My tongue flicks over my parched lips, my throat constricting, not wanting to produce the words. I force myself through it. 

“Stepping on petals of sin, A death rider brought to ruin, Locks you in his soul–an iron maiden, And makes of you his hellish haven.” The dark walls swallow my strained voice. My throat bobs under his gloved hand, so large that it completely covers my neck from base to chin. There’s so much strength in those fingers that a single squeeze would kill me. 

“Doesn’t it sound romantic?” he says. 

“I see only despair,” I whisper, staring at our verses’ twisted embrace like it’s a work of art. 

He breathes in, his dark presence wrapping around me like a cocoon, his hand tighter around my throat. 

“It’s a violation, you know,” I manage, my voice a ghostly whisper. “Reading someone’s poetry without their permission is the same as reading their diary.”

“Ah, princess, you surely understand by now that I’m not someone who is easily held back by morals. For example, that beautiful red color of the verses I wrote for you. Like I said, it’s acquired from a man that grieved you.” His mouth touches my cheek through the mask, and I shut my eyes tightly as if that could keep the information at bay. But his whispers trickle into my brain. “One of the men who exposed you at that party. Who tainted your dignity and took away from you everything you believed you were.”

“Everything I believed I was,” I retort, my voice as low as his, “or who you wanted me to be?”

He keeps quiet, only that broad chest moving behind me. Unfazed, waiting for me to continue. 

“Maybe I was never the innocent girl the world saw. There was always more to me than just a poet’s soul.”

“Hmmm,” he rumbles softly. “A poet’s soul as captivating as those big hazel eyes. I knew your soul before I even spoke to you. Oh, how it hurt to watch you betray your muse like that.”

My head spins as if I were tipsy. An effect of his steady grip on my throat. 

“You see, Justine, it’s not that I expected your being to be reduced to the poet. I just didn’t expect you to cheat on your dreams. To give yourself to anyone other than your muse.”

Sade. His name fills my head. It’s him, oh, dear Lord, it’s him.

“Did you think about me, little poet?” he murmurs, confirming my suspicion. “While Posh Boy pounded your p***y and you held on to that headboard, did you imagine it was me doing it?”

“Jesus Chris, Sade, why are you doing this?” I croak.

He releases my throat, and I instinctively pull in a deep breath. The oxygen hits too hard, making me reel on my feet and eventually find balance against his hard body. He removes a leather glove, and I recognize the back of his hand. The heads of snakes with jaws opened towards every one of his knuckles. 

Fucking Flying Dutchman, it is him. And he knows exactly what I’ve been fantasizing about all this time. He flexes his fingers, reddish bruises stretching over that fist that can punch its way through walls.

“You shouldn’t have chosen him over me, Justine. Now, we are both going to hell.” He turns his palm to face me. I gasp.

Blood is smeared over the large plane of his hand, crusted over deep, mean cuts. A sharp feeling shoots straight between my legs. 

“What the hell?” The words whoosh out of my chest.

“I told you–I wrote the words in blood.” His voice goes even lower. “My blood.”

I’m speechless, staring at what he did to himself. Those cuts will leave scars, his hand is almost maimed.

“Do you want to see what else I wrote for you in my own blood, pretty poet? The kind of feelings that you ignite in me?”

God knows the answer is yes. I want to know everything about every feeling he might have for me, but I don’t dare ask, still fearing that this might be a trap.

Holding the piece of paper with one hand, he produces a Zippo with the other and lights up a flame. He holds it at the corner of the paper until the flame catches, leaving a trail of crumpling black in its wake.

“There’s no purification like verse and fire,” he muses. “When the pain gets unbearable, they do more for us than a hundred hours of therapy. They bring healing. Give respite. They banish the demons that haunt us, even if only for a little while.”

“You are the only demon that haunts me,” I whisper, the flame playing in my eyes, hypnotizing me. 

He’s quiet for a moment, only the sound of burning paper filling the hollow darkness around us. The fire reaches his fingers, and my stomach tightens, waiting for him to let it drop. He doesn’t, just watching the flames licking their way dangerously close to his fingers.

“You may have given your virginity to another man, but make no mistake, Justine Pracht. You’re mine. You encourage another guy’s advances again, and there will be casualties.” 

Still holding the burning paper in one hand, he lets the other one slip down my body, snaking over the red silk robe toward the apex of my thighs. I look down, watching that large hand with those tattooed snakes slithering down my robe that shines ruby red in the flames. The moonlight flickers, and my head whips up. A shadow just crossed in front of the window, and now another. Shit, the flames must have drawn their attention.

“The guards,” I whisper breathlessly, my heart beating harder. I’m not sure whether I’m reacting to the prospect of being caught or of the masked man stopping what he’s doing to deal with the nuisance.

“You better hope they don’t come in here, pretty poet, or you may have to write their obituaries next. I’m sure you’d make eloquent work of it.” His hand slides lower, but at least he lets the paper drop and taps out the fire with his foot. 

I resist his touch, even if my thighs are squirming. 

“Please, don’t,” I whisper, my eyelids fluttering as I keep my eyes on the window.

Sade doesn’t reply. He just waits, his hand now hovering just above my womb. I can feel the wetness seeping into my panties, this fucked up situation turning on the wanton inside me like there’s no tomorrow. But I can’t. 

There’s a truth here I can’t ignore–If I do this, I’ll lose myself to him. It’s the point of no return. If I let Sade Royales f**l me with his d**k, he will take my soul like a real-life demon. The energy surrounding him, dark like spreading ink, is ravenous for my soul, ready to fill the entire canvas of it, and that treacherous canvas is dying to soak it in. 

And then? It’s not like Sade Royales and I actually have a future. 

“We can’t do this, Sade,” I whisper. “So you take this from me, and then what? What happens to me when you marry your virgin heiress and go on with your life?” I shake my head, not even wanting to imagine it. I’d rather not taste something so good only to be denied the flavor for the rest of my days.

But by the way his gloved hand slithers around my throat again, Sade isn’t ready to take no for an answer. 

“You’re asking too much.” My voice trembles, but I manage to bring some spine to my tone. I won’t go down tonight without a fight. If I give in to his wicked lure, I won’t ever recover. “What happened the other night with you and Dean, it changed me. Things will never be the same for me on campus, even if your attention gives me some sort of protection.”

“Some sort of protection?” 

“Okay, real protection. But I’m still a sl*t in everyone’s eyes.” I pause, swallowing at the uncomfortable pressure he puts on my throat. “Including yours.”

His grip turns into a leathery caress that could become deadly any second. 

“I see you’ve already decided what everyone’s thinking. Including me. But if you’re honest, can you blame me? You let a man run his money through your account and his d**k through your p***y and your mouth. You let him film you while at it, too. You are a sl*t.”

I laugh, the sound disturbing. “After all the poet soul talk, this is what you give me?”

“This is what you’ll have of me. Also, despite the fancy way you put it, you are trying to ditch me.” The hand on my throat turns harder while the one on my front dips, parting the sides of my robe. I’d protest, but his squeeze now makes it impossible. My naked feet thrash to gain a footing, but I don’t stand a chance as he drags me back towards the stairs, the floor slippery under my feet. 

“I’m going to finger you with the same hand from which I drew blood, Justine, just so you understand that you belong to me.” His voice gains a different inflection. If sex demons existed, I’m sure this is what they’d sound like. “Then, I’ll have my way with you in front of a mirror, so you get a perfect view of yourself being used like the dirty little w***e you like to be. If that’s what you’re into, that’s what I’m gonna give you. Ah, look at this p***y, dripping wet already. Does it turn you on, the prospect of being forced to fulfill a masked man’s fantasies? To be used for his perversions?” He drags me up the stairs, the mask scraping my cheek as his lips touch me through it. “Does it even matter who is behind the mask when it comes to that particular fantasy?”

I thrash harder, but my feet just skid on the ground, my entire body weight sustained by his grip on my throat, his other hand deep in my panties. My eyes bulge, my hands clawing at his black-clad wrist, but it’s like fighting the fucking Terminator. We’re almost at the top of the stairs when he loosens his grip a little, just as his naked hand pushes two fingers into my p***y, making it hurt. 

“On second thought, how about we film it, too? That way you’ll have something you’ll actually enjoy watching later on. I’ll be keeping my mask on, too. Imagine how wet you’ll get every time you remember.”

I should ask him whether he’ll be in bed with his wife while I do that, spitting poison at him. Instead, I croak, “I wonder how many guys in your group chat will be doing just the same.”

His grip gives out a little more, as if my words hit him in the gut. 

It’s now or never. 

I bend forward, and crash an elbow into his exposed side. But it’s not like in the movies. I hit a wall of muscles, causing my captor nothing but a moment of amused wonder. As if he can’t believe what I just decided to do, and the stupidity of said decision. 

I spin around, facing the huge masked shadow for the first time before I sprint through the hall. He doesn’t follow, nothing but his dark laugh chasing me. As if he’s giving me some leeway only to increase his own fun, to make this more exciting. 

“My pretty poet likes adrenaline,” his voice sounds down the hall. “By all means, as long as it pleases you, but it’s good to know when to give up. Remember, you can run, but you can’t hide.” 

Reaching the next flight of stairs, I grip onto the banister to haul myself up, my thighs burning. 

“I must say, your words hurt me.” He’s closer now. A force of evil speaking from the walls, reaching for my sanity. “You thinking that I would share footage of you with anyone. Haven’t I made it clear that I wanted you entirely for myself? I want your beautiful mind, your precious soul, and I want your soaked p***y.” 

I pant, the end of the next flight of stairs hovering within sight. It’s so dark up there that I can hardly make out the outline of the last step. 

He laughs, and it’s a punishing sound, because he’s gaining on me by the second. “You want to be ill-used on the stairs, I see. It will be my pleasure to comply.” 

I’m dying to look back, gauge how long until he catches up, but I force myself not to. I have to stay focused on the task, which is reaching the attic door. There, I’ll pull a string so that the trap door falls open. If I can get in fast enough, and pull the string back up with me before I shut the door, he won’t be able to get me anymore. There’s only one small round window to the outside in that room, and there’s no way he can get in through it, no matter how sick his skills are. There, I wouldn’t have to scream and alert the guards. I just have to keep hidden until morning, and–

“The faster you understand you’re not getting rid of me, the better.” His voice is so close now, it’s in the very air I breathe. I gasp as a large hand wraps around my ankle, yanking me down so I fall with my front on the stairs. He drags me back mercilessly–his punishment for my trying to run away. The bastard wasn’t kidding. He is hurt. 

A hand covers my mouth, muffling my cry.

“Now, now, we don’t want to alert the guards, remember?” he murmurs. I can feel the weight of his body hovering over me, his fingers grazing the back of my thigh. 

“You know this scenario well,” he says. “It was a nightmare you had. One from which you woke up aroused.” He tsks, his fingers bypassing my lace panties and grazing the lips of my p***y. 

I claw at the stairs in front of me, using all of my strength to try and drag myself up from under him. 

“Ah, look at how much this p***y wants me.” Satisfaction is unmistakable in his voice. He allows some of his weight to press onto my back, trapping me against the stairs. Enough that I can still breathe through my nose over his leather-clad fingers, but also enough to rob me of the strength to keep fighting. 

At least having to work for air takes my focus away from how my body betrayed me. He’s going to render me a mess, ready to serve him. 

I cry out into his hand, and reach up with curled fingers, desperate to save myself from succumbing to him like to a disease. He presses that impossibly large chest harder on me, rendering any further attempt futile. 

“Now what was the first thing the masked man did to you in your nightmare?” He chuckles in my ear, the sound almost spectral, creating a sweet pool of terror in my womb. “I know there was a part where he caught you on the stairs, knocked you down and ripped off your panties while you thrashed under him. He rammed a large c**k into your pussy, a hand on your mouth so you couldn’t scream. You woke up ashamed and disgusted with how hard you came on his c**k.”

My eyelids flutter shut. His words cause me more than just shame or disgust. The voice he uses is inhuman and blood-curdling, the voice of a god forged in war. One seeking solace from the horrors he witnessed, endured and was forced to perpetrate. I always had a knack for the deeper frequencies in people’s voices, and his voice tells a story that envelops my brain in a fog of feelings that are beyond the human experience.

“But I won’t do that to you, little poet,” he murmurs. 

I remain still under his weight. The scent of roses and smoke now mingles with the scent of clean linen, as if the Hyde were now merging back with his human form. “Still, you’ll end up begging me to use you.”


Keep reading HERE.

A Dangerous Affair – CHAPTER I -Excerpt

Hello people! I just finished a new book in the Dark Billionaire Romance series that I’m writing as Ana C. Blacklace, and this is the beginning. Stay tuned, because I will be sharing more free excerps from the books I write under this pen name soon. Have a fantastic reading time!



This is NOT a clean romance. Remember that this is strictly a work of fiction for your pleasure. The author does NOT condone all of the situations and actions that take place between these characters. This is an adult, dark romance not suitable for anyone under the age of eighteen.


CHAPTER I – Cruel Intentions


My knees grow weak, and the flute of champagne trembles in my hand.

He saw me.

Fuck, shit.

Shit, fuck.

I desperately want to spin around and disappear into the crowd, but the shock keeps me rooted on the spot. I watch him approach, people staring at him with wide-eyed admiration. 

Lord Declan Santori is a majestic, Brioni-clad version of the boy I used to stalk back in college. It’s striking to see him again, even though I’ve been following him online ever since he emerged onto the city scene as a New York mogul. His presence is even more powerful in person than on screen, punching me right in the gut. Deep down, I was hoping I’d be so far removed from his glamorous new preoccupations by now that he wouldn’t even remember me, but now I know that was stupid. You don’t just forget the kind of secret that we share.

He comes to a halt, towering over me, a dashing smile pulling at his lips. The same sinful lips that he used to torture me with.

Please, someone slap me.

No, Mia Rogers, you’re not that girl anymore. You’re a big-city hustler now, assistant to the most powerful talk show host in New York, the uber-bitch Lucretia Steinard. On top of that, the wife of the baddest billionaire in this city is your best friend, and this is her engagement party. You won’t let Declan Santori bully you here. This isn’t college anymore.

I stick my chin out, trying my best to keep my eyes on a neutral spot on his face, such as right between his eyebrows. I steel myself to ignore the abyssal black of his irises, his exquisitely sculpted face, the intense sex appeal he radiates that has all the women around fanning themselves. Charmed, beguiled, oblivious to the deranged mind behind the beautiful face.

“Well hello, little spy,” he purrs, his voice as deceiving as his scent of lemongrass and cinnamon that awakens my senses along with the memories. 

I feel infuriatingly vulnerable in my red silk spaghetti strap dress that shows too much skin. There are media VIPs here tonight, moguls and anchors and decision-makers that I want to impress. I really need to get rid of that bully-bitch Steinard, so I went the extra mile at the gym these past few weeks in preparation for this occasion. I oiled my skin to look more tanned, the tone contrasting with my sharp blue eyes in a way that cameras like, and my shiny black hair is up in a flawless do. If this were a date, I’d sure want this to be the first impression I make.

But this is a seismic encounter that I’ve been working very hard to avoid all these years. It’s not like I didn’t expect Declan Santori to be here tonight–he’s the future groom’s best friend–but I have planned things to the minute so we don’t run into each other. I watched him leave at around ten thirty–he always leaves events early to create even more buzz around himself—and made my appearance afterwards. But this time, the bastard returned.

“Declan Santori,” I manage, my voice breaking. “Long time no see.”

I hold out against the fear that tightens in my chest, but who am I kidding? The champagne flute in my hand is still visibly shaking. Even the people I was talking to before notice it.

“Indeed,” he drawls, his eyes raking down my frame.

“Such a surprise to see you here,” I blurt out, too eager to fill the uncomfortable silence that he lets hang between us as if it could swallow me whole.

His smirk curls up his lips. “Is it though?” He gestures around elegantly with the glass of whiskey in his hand. “Because this is exactly the kind of place my friends would expect me to be. It’s my tribe.”

“Well, yes. Except we are not friends.” I don’t even know where that one came from. His eyes hold mine, and I’m unable to look away. There’s a quiet anger in his face that seeps into his aura, making everyone around shift their weight, sensing the danger. 

“That’s hurtful,” he replies, his tone low, his voice haunting. “Considering our history.”

I’ve been working to gain my footing in the media for years now, doing my best to become a face for the screen, but I’ve never had so many eyeballs fixed on me before. I’m used to attention. I like attention, but this is a whole new level that Lord Declan Santori, owner of multiple trust funds, tech giants and diamond mines, garners. Word has it, he’s got Congress at his feet, and although some believe that to be an exaggeration, I know him well enough to expect that it’s true. Talking to him is enough to make a girl a star, and he damn well knows it. It’s obvious in the smirk he gives me, but his eyes smolder with dark promise.

Punishment is coming, no doubt. Now that he found me, he won’t stop until he destroys me. He’s planning it right now, I can see that devious mind working behind those obsidian eyes. He’s definitely not the best person to have unfinished business with.

“I’ll be damned, if that isn’t Lord Declan Santori in the flesh.” That voice scrapes my ears, but I manage to plaster a smile on my face as she steps between us.

My boss, uber-bitch Lucretia Steinard, places a long-nailed hand on my shoulder, heavy with designer rings and bracelets. Declan’s eyes are slow to drag over to her, and his mien darkens, making it obvious that he doesn’t welcome the interruption. But Lucretia is too hungry for contact to stop, grabbing onto the chance with both of her red-clawed hands.

“I see you’ve met my assistant, Mia Rogers.” She squeezes my shoulder, and it’s all I can do not to wince. I may have been too successful at banishing my chubby teenage self at the gym, and now voluptuous Lucretia could smother me with her tits. She’s practically pushing them up into Declan’s face as she holds out her other hand to introduce herself. “Lucretia Steinard. But I’m sure you already knew that, right?”

Declan raises an eyebrow. “Are you assuming that I approached your assistant in order to get to you?”

People giggle around us. It does sound preposterous.

Lucretia lowers her hand, looking confused. “No, that’s not what I meant–l just thought, you know, perhaps you had an interest in–” she glances at me, then at him again, “–our talk show?”

It takes effort to refrain from rolling my eyes. Her talk show is anything but collaborative. She calls the shots, and I find myself constantly running errands at her beck and call, but she thinks she can score now by giving me more importance. To think how hard it was to get this job at HQ, and that I wouldn’t even have it without Jax, Addie’s influential future husband, makes my stomach turn. In this industry, people have to pull strings for the sole honor of slaving away for people like Lucretia, but it’s somehow only in moments like this that we realize how mighty wrong that is.

“Miss Rogers and I knew each other in college,” Declan says, his eyes sliding over to me. “I assume it’s still Miss, and it’s still Rogers, yes?” The subliminal message–It better be–crawls up my spine. 

“Yes, yes of course.” Of course? I make a mental note to slap myself real hard when I get home.

He tilts up that perfectly chiseled jaw. As a college boy he resembled a sexy anime character with his spiked hair and intense gaze. But now? He’s so striking, my stupid heart beats out of rhythm. So much added manliness, cunning, and sleek danger. His chest is broad and athletic under his suit, making it obvious he still has the body of a pro athlete. Maybe he still fights in the ring? It was a brutal and cruel kind of boxing that made him a star back in college and, while I haven’t heard a word about that in the media, he might still be doing it–sheer violence and sophistication in one package. Even the way he raises his glass as if to celebrate my being single, the grace and elegance, reminds me of the Machiavellian heartthrob I used to fawn over. Of the way the muscles in his back snaked in the shower, while he raked his fingers through his wet hair while I stalked him.

No, fuck that memory. This is a monster that almost destroyed my life. What he did to me the night we spent together at the frat house, that’s what I should focus on. 

“I’m glad we bumped into each other, Mia,” he says. “What luck, huh? Now that we know where to find each other, I’m sure it’ll happen more often.” Words that any girl at this party would melt to hear. But I stiffen all over.

As if on cue, a catwalk model sashays over, looping her arm around Declan’s elbow, her chin raised with an attitude of ownership. I should feel relieved, but instead, my teeth grit together. The woman is so damn beautiful. Lucretia steps forward with her chest out and her chin up, her blond extensions falling in waves down her back as if to prove she is the most glamorous woman in this little gathering.

“I hope we see each other again soon, too, Lord Santori. I’ll send you an invitation to my talk show,” she calls after him as he turns away with the model on his arm. If I could peel my eyes away from Declan’s elegant back, my head would snap to her. I’ve never heard Lucretia Steinard sound remotely desperate before. People beg to be on her show, not the other way around.

But then again, this is Declan Santori we’re talking about.

“Have your assistant contact me about it,” he throws over his shoulder.

My eyes pop out. No, the bastard can’t be doing this to me.

Once Declan and his model have mingled with the crowd and everybody’s let loose the breath they were holding, Lucretia swivels around. Her pale blue eyes are big as onions, her long, fake lashes almost touching her highly arched eyebrows. “Are you serious?” she croaks. “You and Declan Santori are college friends?”

“I wouldn’t say friends,” I reply, but it flies right past Lucretia’s ear. One of the traits that has gotten her this far in life is that she only hears what suits her.

“Now’s not the time for false modesty, girly.” Fuck, I hate it when she calls me that. “Look around you. Do you see it?”

Indeed, I do. Everyone’s looking at me differently, like I’m more than just one of the hustling little rats at HQ. The sensation is new and scary.

“No, it’s not like that.” I motion in the general direction where Declan is talking to other people. He’s surrounded by a ring of bodyguards now, no one can get anywhere close to him, not even a celebrity like Lucretia. “I mean, he is Lord Declan Santori.” I purposefully stress the word Lord. “It’s not like we move in the same circles.”

Only one of Lucretia’s eyebrows remains up as she looks at me suspiciously.

“He sure seems to remember you.”

“Not for those reasons. He…” Okay, I have to tell her. It’s the only way to deter her from throwing me into the lion’s den. “He used to bully me, okay? I was this nerdy sophomore with braces that had a crush on him and, well, let’s just say he found that amusing, and shared the fun with his friends.”

“Shared?” Her cocked eyebrow rises even higher. The woman has a dirty mind, but that’s one of the few things I like about her.

I scoff. “Not in that sense. Declan Santori had other ways to bully me.”

She stares at me for another few moments, but then she nods in agreement. As if, after studying me more closely than she ever did before, she decided that indeed, I’m not the kind of woman that would make Declan Santori interested in her that way.

I could laugh in her face so hard right now.

If she only knew the sick bastard isn’t into pretty pleasures. He likes humiliating girls with braces, fucking them deep-throat in front of a camera. He loves to dominate and debase.

But I’ll be damned if I let him fuck me up again. I’m not stupid, I know that I can’t run from him anymore. But after how hard I’ve worked and how much I’ve sacrificed to get where I am today, Declan isn’t going to bully me out of my own life.

Still, Lucretia looms over me, exuding an air of ambition. Her appetite for success and money is never satisfied, and now that she sees this opportunity, she’s ravenous.

“Mia, I don’t think you understand.” She rests her jewelry-laden hand on my shoulder again, her nose dangerously close to mine. With every word she speaks, her super white teeth show. “We have a once in a lifetime opportunity here. We could get the Declan Santori on our talk show. The man controls half of this country’s wealth in his trust funds, and he’s the hottest bachelor out there, man of the hour. Audiences will skyrocket.”

Ah, there it is again, that our show thing. To think that, until a minute ago, she hasn’t missed a single chance to make my life a living hell. Juggling her appointments, doing the impossible to get props that occur to her at the last minute, and managing the people she doesn’t feel like dealing with herself. If it hadn’t been for Jax’s intervention, I would have been the last person she would have picked for a permanent hire after my internship. She hates my guts, and has shown it every day since I was shoved down her throat as her new assistant. She leans so close that I can smell the mint on her breath, her hand on my shoulder weighing me down.

“You will do this,” she pushes through her teeth.

“Lucretia, you can rely on me for whatever you need, you know that. I mean, I’m the one who got you gold-polished natural roses for that special edition you got at the last minute with that huge K-pop group. But please understand–I do not have that kind of access to Declan Santori. He just threw that over his shoulder to get us off his back.” You, to get you off his back.

Her eyes narrow into a glare. “Listen girly, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but the big man said loud and clear he expects you to contact him.”

“He was just trying to brush us off. I don’t even have his number.”

Her red-lipped grin fills with cunning. “But you are best friends with Jax Vaughn’s future wife. I’m sure she can help you get his contact details. You’re actually a very well-connected person, if we think about it.” 

“We’ll look like tail-wagging stupid idiots,” I press, but she won’t relent.

“You will get me a meeting with Lord Declan Santori,” she decrees. “If you know what’s good for you and your career. Your connections got you on my set, but they won’t keep you on it if you don’t prove your worth. And now’s your chance.”

Her hand drops off of me. I breathe out in relief as I watch her rich, round ass saunter away and slip into a cluster of other celebrities she’s friends with. She laughs out loud, throwing her head back, and I wheel around, happy that I can breathe again. But as I run into a wall of eyeballs fixed on me, my breath catches.

The conversation between Lucretia and me was low enough that they couldn’t hear a single word, but the man-of-the-hour billionaire garnered me more attention than I need right now. The news that he talked to me will spread out like wildfire by tomorrow among the celebrities and elites of this city. Fuck, I need a drink.

I barrel through the crowd, murmuring ‘excuse me’ passive-aggressively and stomp right out of the party room into the more secluded bar area around the corner. Unlike the party rooms, which are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that make one feel like they’re floating out into the skyline, there are no windows here. Just glittering bottles all the way up to the ceiling behind the mahogany bar, and scotch-colored leather seats. It’s like a gentlemen’s club, except what I find here are scattered couples giggling, sitting too close to each other to have just conversation on their minds. It’s mostly beautiful young women and filthy rich old men.

I hop onto a leather-cushioned barstool, and the bartender walks over, cleaning a shaker, a white towel thrown over his shoulder.

“You look like you need something strong.”

I nod, licking my lips. They’re parched as hell under my lip gloss. The realization that I just ran into Declan Santori courses through me, making me shake all over, but the bartender is thankfully quick to set a glass in front of me.

I down the vodka, gritting my teeth against the burn shooting down to my empty stomach. A gym addiction isn’t my only derailment. I can also boast an eating disorder, but that’s fine, since the camera likes a thin woman. There’s a quote from a famous model right above the entrance to HQ – “You have one life, and you need to be skinny.” I’ve been taking that literally for years.

“Another one, please,” I mutter as I fumble inside my clutch for my phone.

“Are you sure?” the bartender asks with knitted eyebrows. “Maybe you should have something to eat first.”

So it’s that obvious.

“Listen, I’ve had a rough night, okay?” I tell him with a surrendering attitude, my shoulders slouched. “I just bumped into the man I’ve been running away from all my life, and to top it all off, my uber-bitch boss wants me to chase him and get him on her talk show.”

“That bad, eh?” a familiar, soothing voice says. I look over my shoulder to see Addie, the future bride, walking toward me. She hikes herself up onto the stool next to me, taking my hand in hers on the counter. “I saw you two talking.” Her soft blue eyes are filled with concern. “I swear to God, I had no idea he’d come back tonight. Usually, when he’s gone, he’s gone.”

“I know,” I manage, drained of energy, my eyes half closed. What I need is another drink, and then to sleep for a whole week. “On the one hand, I’m glad it happened, you know? I’m tired of running. Besides, I was bound to bump into him sooner or later. I won’t hold myself back in my career just so that he won’t see me on-screen. Maybe it’s better that it happened like this.”

Addie presses her plump, beautiful lips together, not sure what to make of my statement as I down my second drink. It hits me that Adalia Ross, my best friend, is everything Lucretia Steinard is trying so hard to be: voluptuous, impressive, and angelic. Except Lucretia is a viper, and everything about her screams that out–especially her too-large fake smile, and her enormous fake tits.

“I know it sounds partly defeatist, but it isn’t,” I defend myself.

“Not at all defeatist,” Addie says quietly. “Brave. But…It’s not this first encounter between you two that I’m worried about. It’s the next one, and then the next. I mean–” she doesn’t finish her sentence. She won’t probe around the reopened wound, but I do it for her.

“He’s going to want revenge,” I murmur, circling the rim of my now empty glass with my finger, eyes fixed on the glittering wall of liquor in front of me, my face reflected in one of the whiskey bottles. I look haunted. “He’s going to do bad things to me.”

Addie squeezes my hand, forcing it away from the glass. She tries to catch my gaze, but I keep evading it.

“You’re not that girl anymore, Mia,” she says softly. “You’re not the mousy little sophomore that used to film him secretly in the boys’ shower. The one that he could intimidate and manipulate.”

I smile at my wretched reflection. New Mia, terrified of the same old things.

“Maybe Jax can fix this,” she says. “He and Declan are as close as you and I are, maybe he can get him to give up the chase. I mean, it’s been years, he should have moved on.”

I shake my head. “You didn’t see the way he looked at me, Addie. He’ll never move on.” My voice fades over the last sentence because, as I say the words, I grasp the full scope of their meaning. “He knew perfectly well what he was doing when he told Lucretia to have her assistant contact him.” Slowly turning towards her, I ask, “By the way, can I have his number, please?”