Hey there, book nerds! Whew, it’s been a pretty thrilling/nervewracking week after finally releasing Strictly Business. I hope those of you who were eagerly anticipating how Tera and Eric’s continuing story would play out are enjoying reading it unfold just as much as I enjoyed writing it. Just a heads up, if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, there’s still time to get both it and Whip Smart on sale for only $0.99 on Amazon. And for those of you who tore through it and are already wondering where Tera and Eric’s story goes from here, I can confirm that Tangled Love is still on track to be released by the end of September. So, yay!
I know, I know, I can hardly wait, either. But for those of you who simply can’t wait to get your freak on with some more deliciously kinky action and angst-fueled romantic tension, how about an exclusive look at the full first chapter of High Risk, the first book in the Risky Business Duet? If you couldn’t already tell from the blurb, this is probably the trope-iest thing I’ve written yet–a second-chance, older-brother’s-best-friend, (sorta) intro-to-BDSM billionaire romance–as well as slightly out of my comfort zone and somewhat lighter on the kink than The Loft. But you know what? I had a blast working on it, and ended up being surprised with where I ended up going in the story. It ended up being a lot more suspenseful than I thought it would, and I hope you lovely readers have as much fun with that as I did.
Without further ado, here is chapter one of High Risk, which will be available on Amazon later this month. Happy reading… 😉
I fiddled nervously with my purse strap that hung from my shoulder, twisting the strip of leather between my fingers over and over. The elevator ascended to the thirty-eighth floor so smoothly that it barely even hummed, but even still it seemed to send anxious, earthquake-like tremors up through my high-heeled boots and straight to my heart. I took a deep breath, clamping my hand tightly around my purse strap to hold it still.
It’s just like any other meeting, I told myself. They’re just like any other client… except, you know… bigger.
A faint cough from the elevator’s only other occupant cut through the tension, helping me to re-center my focus. I glanced over at Stella, who looked at me with a suggestion of a smile and the subtlest arch of one perfectly-groomed eyebrow.
“A little nervous?” she asked.
I smiled back at her a little sheepishly. “It’d be hard not to be,” I admitted. Technically it was the truth; who wouldn’t be biting their nails in my shoes? To say BlueSky Air was a big fish would be a major understatement. For a mid-sized, growing ad agency like Schafer Newman, landing the sixth-largest airline in the country as a client was more like harpooning a damn whale. So it was all too easy to simply let Stella believe that that was all I had to be nervous about going into this meeting.
“That makes two of us,” she said with a conspiratorial wink. She sighed as she peeked at the elegant Rolex on her wrist. “You’re not usually this flustered, though. Just relax, Ethan and I both have faith in you. We’ll charm their pants off, win that RFP, and you can save up your nervous excitement for the actual pitch.”
My smiled faltered but I refused to let it fall completely, determined not to give away any hints that my out-of-character nerves had to do with anything other than the desire to impress a potential new client. I wasn’t nearly the actress my friend Ashlyn was, but I did have one hell of a poker face.
Still, keeping secrets from Stella bothered me. Stella Pagano was pretty high up the food chain at Schafer Newman’s New York office—the Vice President of Accounts—and her husband, Ethan Pagano, was one of its three creative directors and also my boss. They were the definition of a “power couple”: two attractive, driven people who played off each other’s strengths—Stella’s eye-in-a-storm calm and shrewdly analytical brain to Ethan’s creative instincts and effortless charisma. It was a cutthroat business in a cutthroat city, and they’d thrived in it together for 16 years.
I admired and respected them both, but my white-lie-by-omission probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if ours had been just a typical superior-subordinate relationship. When I’d transferred to NYU five-and-a-half hears ago, I was lost and aimless, almost entirely alone in a vast new city and an outsider in the advertising industry. I’d met Ethan and Stella as an undergrad copywriting intern, and they’d taken it upon themselves to act as my mentors. I was grateful that I could be open with them about a lot of things, but some things were far too personal to share with them… and definitely not worth risking this account over.
The elevator stopped at our destination with a pleasant ding, the doors opening onto BlueSky Air’s bright, expansive reception area. It was a sea of pale blue, from the sky-blue tile floor to the wide, curving receptionist’s desk that was painted in a slightly darker shade and topped with brushed aluminum. Talk about committing to your brand name, I mused. With its two rows of back-to-back chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows, it even oddly reminded me of an airport terminal gate. Framed posters from past ad campaigns decorated the walls, along with Warhol-esque depictions of flight attendants in uniform and planes ascending into the air.
I imagined the color scheme was meant to be soothing, but it did nothing to alleviate the growing pit in my stomach as we signed in at the front desk and put on our visitor badges. A young, fresh-faced receptionist took our coats and offered us water as we sat down, but I’d barely opened my mouth to refuse when the double doors to the left of the desk opened and another young woman stepped out to escort us to the conference room. The pit in my stomach yawned wider, threatening to swallow me whole. I stood primly, smoothing my burgundy sheath dress and buttoning my blazer.
Get a grip, Kiera, I urged myself. Like there’s even a chance he’ll be here, right? He’s the chief operating officer; his time is too precious to waste on hearing marketing proposals.
The conference room had windows, which gave me a precious glimpse at the room’s single occupant before being ushered inside. Relief washed over me when saw it was a middle-aged man with glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, only for that wave of relief to be chased by one of disappointment. I scowled internally, quickly stuffing those feelings back into the box at the back of my mind where they belonged. Tucking a stray lock of blond hair behind my ear and squaring my shoulders, I willed my mind to empty itself of everything but the task at hand.
The young woman rapped twice on the glass door before opening it. “Mr. Lewis? The representatives from Schafer Newman are here to see you.”
“Ah! Yes, thank you. Anthony Lewis, head of marketing,” the man greeted us with a jovial grin as he shook hands with Stella. “You must be Stella Pagano, correct?”
She nodded, giving him her just-for-clients smile that was a few degrees warmer than the cool expression she usually wore. “Pleasure to meet you. And this is Kiera Anders, one of our senior copywriters,” she said, gesturing toward me.
“Nice to meet you,” I said to Mr. Lewis as he clasped my hand briefly. I didn’t appreciate the dubious look that flashed across his face, but I met his gaze unflinchingly, emulating Stella’s mask of calm professionalism.
He didn’t hold my gaze or my hand for long. “Will Mr. Pagano not be joining us today?” he asked Stella, probably thinking that he was doing a great job of hiding his disappointment.
Stella’s smile cooled off a bit. “Unfortunately, my husband is still recovering from an emergency appendectomy,” she explained as we took our seats across from Mr. Lewis at the conference table. “But Ms. Anders has some impressive experience with travel-related marketing campaigns, most recently Sunset Cruises. Ethan himself handpicked her to spearhead this project.”
“Hmm… that’s right, can’t believe I almost forgot Sunset’s a Schafer Newman client,” Mr. Lewis murmured, approval seeming to dawn in his eyes. I tried not to feel too smug. “Isn’t that up for an award?”
“Yes, the Three A’s,” I said with a grin. Okay, so I was feeling a little smug. At least it helped ease my lingering tension somewhat.
“Will Mr. Martin be attending?” Stella asked him, her voice as smooth and neutral as ever. I barely held back a wince at the question I’d hoped she wouldn’t ask. Under normal circumstances I’d be more appreciative of her subtle comeback; of course, the chances that the right-hand-man—and nephew—of the CEO would put in an appearance were negligible, but it showed that she wasn’t afraid to demand respect from a big-name client. But she couldn’t possibly know just how far from normal these circumstances were, and how much I simultaneously dreaded and hoped that saying that name would summon the man it belonged to.
Mr Lewis affected an apologetic expression. “Mr. Martin unfortunately has other business to attend to at the moment,” he said. He turned to me. “Now, Ms. Anders, what’s your impression of our current marketing strategy?”
He’s not coming. I felt a swift stab of pain in my heart at the thought, but was gone just as quickly, leaving a strangely calm acceptance in its wake. With any luck, I’d only have to deal with him very little, or perhaps not at all.
Reassured that he wouldn’t be there, I launched into my proposal. Landing this account would be incredible for the agency for more reasons than just BlueSky’s big name and bigger advertising budget. Thanks to close family ties, they had a long-standing partnership with Wakeham Hotels, one of the biggest multinational hospitality companies in the world, and winning over one could help us get a foot in the door at the other.
And they weren’t just shopping around for a new ad campaign; when Petra Wakeham-Foster had appointed her nephew as COO almost two years ago, she’d tasked him with scrubbing up the airline’s image that had gotten pretty tarnished in the past decade. Struggling to carve out a unique market for itself between legacy carriers and its fellow budget airlines would’ve been difficult enough if BlueSky hadn’t been saddled with bad publicity thanks to some nasty employee-customer disputes a few years back. But, if there was one man who knew how to bounce back from bad publicity, it was Caleb Martin. From the research on him I’d forced myself to do in preparation for this meeting, I knew that he’d wasted no time in ruthlessly purging the company of any less-than-exemplary employees, implementing new customer service policies, and partnering with various charities to plaster the BlueSky name over all kinds of philanthropic endeavors. Now with public perception rapidly turning in the company’s favor, Mr. Martin had turned his attention to overhauling its stale brand image almost entirely.
“There’s definitely a niche market to be filled between traditional and low-cost carriers,” I explained to Mr. Lewis, who nodded along as he listened. “Budget travel is a huge—and very lucrative—market, but we can’t ignore the fact that many people find the current state of air travel to be largely impersonal, lacking in a certain… hospitality. The ease with which one can buy a ticket to anywhere in the world has superseded the focus on—”
My speech came to an abrupt halt as Mr. Lewis shot up from his chair at the faint sound of the glass door opening behind me. “Mr. Martin!” he exclaimed, though he hardly looked as enthused as he sounded. “We weren’t expecting you.”
I felt as though I’d just been dunked headfirst in a bucket of ice water. I was frozen stiff as a statue in my chair, unable to move. But the seductively low and all-too-familiar voice that came from behind me sent tendrils of fire through my body a mere second later.
“My conference call ended earlier than expected. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to peek in for a moment before my next meeting,” that voice said, with an almost-imperceptible shiver-inducing rasp.
“Of course, of course,” Mr. Lewis gushed as he walked around the table to the other man. “Mr. Martin, this is Stella Pagano of Schafer Newman, and Kiera Anders, one of their copywriters. Mrs. Pagano, Ms. Anders, Caleb Martin, our chief operating officer.”
At last, I remembered how to move and forced myself to turn my swivel chair to face the man that had just entered the room. Six-plus years had done nothing to detract from the potent, visceral need that the sight of Caleb Martin never failed to ignite inside me. Hell, he’d only gotten more irresistible with time—that expertly-tousled dark reddish-brown hair; that sharp, finely-sculpted nose; the ghost of stubble that graced his jaw; and those eyes… god, those unearthly, deep sapphire eyes that pierced right through me. Not that I’d been able to avoid seeing those devastating features that I knew so well in the past six years, no matter how hard I’d tried. When the One that Got Away had gone on to become a playboy billionaire and turned out to be the long-lost heir of one of the richest families in America, the rack of tabloid magazines in the grocery store checkout line had become my worst enemy. Still, by this point I hoped I’d be immune to the effect he had on me, thanks to all that unwanted exposure.
But as it turned out, nothing in the world could have prepared me for coming face-to-face with Caleb again. My traitorous eyes couldn’t help but roam over his body as I slowly rose to my feet. Part of me struggled to reconcile the man in the expensive, tailored suit who stood before me with the Caleb I remembered, who wore almost nothing but solid-colored t-shirts that were just tight enough to show off his fine physique without being obscene. But I couldn’t deny that the uniform of the wealthy businessman, well, suited him.
Unbidden, a memory surfaced of the first time I’d seen him in a suit. He was 17 and I was 15; I was getting ready to go to the spring semi-formal dance with some friends, while he and my older brother, Brian, were having their pictures taken with their dates in the front yard before heading to the prom that same night. For almost a year I’d harbored a secret crush on my brother’s best friend, just like every other girl at school. But that night after the dance was the first time I’d dared to touch myself while thinking of him—imagining how I’d rip that suit off of him, how he’d take that tie and wrap it around my wrists…
“Ms. Anders?” It was Caleb’s voice that yanked me back into the present.
I had to have been blushing a deeper shade than my burgundy dress. “Sorry?”
The neutral expression he’d been wearing cracked ever so slightly as the corner of his mouth pulled up. “I said, it’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
In a robotic, purely reflexive motion, my hand rose up to shake the one that he offered me. The touch of his warm, rough palm against my cold and clammy one was like a 10,000-volt shock to my system. I knew very well what those hands felt like on my body… but the flood of enticing memories brought on by that innocent handshake was shot through by a searing pain. I’d been bracing myself for the inevitable torment of this reunion, wondering how I’d react, wondering how Caleb would react. Well, I had my answer now: he didn’t. A sudden urge to punch him in his stupidly beautiful face rose up from beneath the swell of agony. He wanted to pretend he didn’t know me? Fine. Two could play at that game.
“Oh. Yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Mister Martin,” I replied in as cool a voice as I could muster. I looked him dead-on in his piercing blue eyes, daring him to flinch away from my gaze as I gave his hand a firm shake. Of course he didn’t; if there was one thing time hadn’t changed, it was apparently how stubborn we both were.
Despite my anger, I still felt robbed when Caleb pulled his hand away from mine to shake Stella’s. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Stella cast a brief, questioning glance at me as we took out seats again. She’d sensed the connection between us, I could tell. I cursed myself silently; how the hell had I thought that I could hide this from her?
Thankfully, I could at least count on her to be discreet about it until after we were a safe distance away from BlueSky’s headquarters. For the moment, she and Mr. Lewis were busy getting Caleb up to speed as he walked around to the other side of the conference table. But I was barely paying attention to their words. Instead, my focus had zeroed in on Caleb, and the slight hitch to his otherwise confident swagger. Pain gripped me again, old wounds reopening at the reminder that the last time I’d seen him, his mangled right leg had been held together with rods and wire…
“So, tell me, Ms. Anders; as a traveler, what would make you choose BlueSky over another airline?” Caleb asked bluntly before he’d even sat down in the chair across from me, bringing me back into the moment once more.
“Hmm?” Already, I could feel my cheeks heating again. Momentarily distracted by the movements of his deft fingers as he unbuttoned his jacket, I’d let myself get caught off-guard by his curt question. This wasn’t like me at all; where was poised, professional Kiera when I needed her most? I’d blow this whole deal if I didn’t get my shit together immediately.
I cleared my throat and stared Caleb square in the face. “Well, as I was explaining to Mr. Lewis, the availability of budget-friendly air travel—”
He sighed. “I wasn’t asking for the statistics from some market research packet. Do you like to travel, Ms. Anders?”
“Of course.” I bit my lip, wincing internally at how snippy my automatic retort must’ve sounded. I forced a smile, determined to claw my way out of the hole I was digging myself into. “What I mean to say is, doesn’t everyone? Maybe there’s no place like home, but there’s no feeling like the thrill of exploring someplace you’ve never been. And personally, yes, I do love to travel… whenever I can, anyway.”
Caleb already knew that, of course. But if he was thinking back to all those dream vacations we’d planned together but never gone on, he gave nothing away. That was what wounded me the most—this aloof, detached businessman act he was putting on. I’d half-expected him to try to wind me up; that was just how we’d always been with each other. But there was nothing warm, nothing playful, nothing genuine about this. It might as well have been a total stranger grilling me with questions.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Then, as an avid traveler, what would make you fly with BlueSky over another airline?”
“Well, if I were to book a flight, the first thing I would look at would be price,” I said slowly. “Personally, I’m a comparative shopper; I prefer to look for deals for flights and accommodations on a travel website rather than booking through a specific airline or hotel directly. And I have to admit, unless a rock-bottom price is part of a limited-time offer, I have to wonder, am I getting what I’m paying for? Is saving an extra fifty to a hundred dollars worth the potential limited legroom, or unprofessional flight attendants, or the possibility of the flight being outrageously overbooked?
“For a traveler like me—on a budget, semi-frequent but not necessarily racking up a lot of miles—a middle-of-the-road option like BlueSky seems almost too good to be true. Your prices are on the higher end among low-cost carriers, it’s true. But with BlueSky, I know I’m getting my money’s worth: I’m going to have a comfortable, low-stress flight, and—unlike many other airlines—I don’t have to worry about losing my seat because it’s been overbooked.”
Caleb regarded me impassively, slowly circling his thumb over his chin in a way that was almost hypnotic. “You certainly do paint the kind of picture that we’d like everyone to imagine when they think of BlueSky Air, Ms. Anders,” he said softly. “But, have you ever actually flown with us before?”
I bit my lip again, but released it quickly. “No, I haven’t.”
“Most of my recent destinations have either been within driving distance, or haven’t had direct flights to them with BlueSky,” I explained. And the thought of booking a flight with an airline that has anything to do with you is just too painful, I added in my mind.
“Perhaps we should arrange for you to have the full BlueSky experience, then,” Caleb remarked. A smirk graced his chiseled mouth, sending a shiver of desire straight to my core that I wasn’t at all prepared for. Sweet Jesus, I really did need to get a grip. And yet, that sexy smirk was the first real sign he’d given me that I was more than just a potential business partner to him.
“So, we’ve established that our flying with us is comfortable, and gives you the most bang for your buck,” he continued, seemingly oblivious to the way my body responded to him. “How would you translate that into a favorable comparison with both legacy carriers and other low-cost carriers?”
I cleared my throat again and crossed my legs under the table, willing myself to ignore the effect he had on my body. “I wouldn’t,” I stated boldly. The faint sound of a surprised cough turned my attention away from Caleb to Mr. Lewis for a moment; I’d almost forgotten he and Stella were still in the room with us. “There’s more to an effective marketing campaign than drawing comparisons. And with all due respect, your market share may be impressive, but what has trying to compete directly with both traditional and budget airlines gotten you that simply selling your brand on its own merits couldn’t? It’s not about being the comfortable middle ground; it’s just about comfort. But more than that, it’s about delivering the same level of attentiveness, of hospitality, that those flying with you would expect to receive at their hotel when they arrive at their destination. It’s about making them feel that their vacation begins from the moment they check in for their flight.”
Caleb gazed intently at me for an unbearably long stretch of time, but I kept my eyes riveted to his. At last, a specter of a smile crossed his lips. “Tony, I think we have a direction,” he said to Mr. Lewis, though his eyes were still locked onto me. “I don’t see a reason to take any other meetings, do you?” He turned to look at the man on his right at last.
“Well, I… yes, I agree that what Ms. Anders is saying is quite impressive,” Mr. Lewis sputtered. “It’s certainly given us a lot to think about…”
“It has. And I very much look forward to seeing those thoughts put into action,” Caleb said to him, a distinct note of finality in his voice. He stood, re-buttoning his jacket, and started making his way back to my side of the table before his flustered head of marketing could come up with a response.
The full impact of what had just transpired hadn’t hit me yet as I watched Mr. Lewis stand and follow him. Caleb’s back was to him for the moment, but I certainly didn’t miss the resentment written all over his face. And really, could I blame him? I’d probably be a little resentful, too, if I was taking orders from a man twenty years my junior who wouldn’t be where he was if it weren’t for a combination of 20% magnetism and 80% nepotism.
I was still in a state of mild shock as I rose to my feet and found my hand engulfed in Caleb’s warm grasp once again. He shook it briskly, his gaze not lingering on me this time before he moved over to Stella.
“I’ll send the Request for Proposal over to you by the end of the week,” he said to her. “I’m very much looking forward to working you. Both of you.”
“We look forward to working with you as well, Mr. Martin, Mr. Lewis,” Stella replied. “And I can assure you, I will be handling this account personally.”
“Excellent. Come, let me walk you out; I have another meeting across town I should be heading over to, anyway.”
Before I knew it, the four of us had filed out of the conference room and were headed back toward reception. A delayed eruption of elation and nervous excitement simmered inside me as I took my coat from the smiling receptionist and put it on again. Holy shit… did I really win this account? Well, I hadn’t exactly won it yet, but I’d gotten us one step closer. But the victory felt hollow, and I knew the reason for it was the man who stood so closely behind me that I could feel the enticing waves of heat radiating off his body.
What would you rather he refused to work with you? I scoffed at myself. You knew what you were getting into when Ethan offered you this account.
Suppressing a bitter sigh, I moved away from Caleb and started toward where Stella was waiting by the elevators, glancing behind me just once to see another sharply-dressed secretary handing a jacket to Caleb. The simmering stew of emotions nearly boiled over with a sprinkling of jealousy as I caught the blatantly-appreciative looks on the faces of both the receptionist and the other young woman. Just like high school, I thought darkly.
The elevator was thankfully empty before the three of us got on, giving us room to spread out. But the twenty-seven floors below us provided ample opportunity for it to fill up, and before long I found myself crushed against the back wall between Stella and Caleb. His nearness was just as intoxicating as it was excruciating, my senses highly attuned to the slightest brush of his arm or hitching of his breath.
After the elevator had stopped on what seemed like nearly every damn floor, we finally reached ground level again. Relief washed over me, and I hurried forward as soon as the crowd had thinned enough to give me an opening. But I halted abruptly at the touch of a hand on the small of my back. Caleb’s fingertips barely even brushed the back of my coat, but that familiar touch that I’d missed every day for six years nearly fried all my synapses right on the spot.
“Are you alright?” Stella asked.
I nodded, forcing my quivering legs to start moving again in the direction of the door. I didn’t dare look at Caleb, even as his hand remained lightly resting on my back until we were out on the sidewalk again.
I took a deep breath of the chilly late March air. It was Midtown Manhattan air and far from what anyone could consider “fresh,” but after being in close quarters with Caleb Martin it was more than welcome. Even though I could still sense him standing just behind me, I could already feel my head starting to clear.
Only a few moments later I’d managed to hail a passing cab. Stella hadn’t even reached the door yet when Caleb waltzed around from behind me to hold it open for her. She thanked him and climbed in, but before I could follow her, Caleb stopped me with a hand on my elbow. I froze, scarcely able to breathe, as he brought his lips to my ear.
“It’s good to see you, Kiera,” he whispered, his voice so low that not even Stella could possibly hear.
I swallowed hard before letting my breath out in a rush. Avoiding Stella’s eyes, I climbed into the back of the cab, not daring to look back at Caleb.
“I look forward to working with both of you,” he repeated out loud.
It was only after he’d shut the door that I dared to look out the window at him again, but by then he was already walking away. My gaze followed him as he got into the backseat of the car parked in front of our cab, until the car drove away and turned a corner into another part of town.