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.
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?”