Falling for a man like Bryant Holbrook is just begging for heartbreak. Rich boys don’t look twice at waitresses from the fog, at least not until now. One smart-mouthed taunt and his turquoise eyes are all over her. That cocky, bad boy grin tempting her with the impossible.
It should have stayed a one-night stand.
Now, it’s too late.
Phee is pulled into a world of danger and corruption where Bryant must put everything at risk to keep her safe, or risk losing her to keep his father’s dream alive.
*This is a standalone full-length novel with an intense, heroic Dom, BDSM, drama, suspense, and a world of corrupt men that make this fairytale darker than most. How far would you go for your happy ending?
“Phee, what the fuck are you doing? I rang the bell twice! Come grab table nine!” Alex made a noise of irritation as he threw his hand in the air and stomped back into the kitchen.
“I got it,” she called out, but her eyes wandered back to the glittering glass towers outside the café. Clear-skied days were the whole reason she’d taken this job. A job that was a train and two buses away from her tiny apartment. A job that was only above minimum wage because of the tips… but it was worth it to be out of the fog. And on days like this, when the reflection of the blue sky blurred in all those shimmering windows, she just wanted to enjoy it for a minute.
Leaning forward on the counter, her eyes traced the shining office building all the way to the top. Birds wheeled past, playful in their loops and dives, unfettered by gravity, and more free than she could ever hope to be.
“PHEE!” Alex’s shout yanked her back to reality. Cringing, she turned around to see his reddened face in the window to the kitchen, but it wasn’t clear if that was from how pissed off he was, or the heat in the back. Rolling his eyes, Alex sighed. “You back with us now, or should I just hire the girl that came in here looking for a job yesterday?”
“No, no, I just got distracted. Sorry!” Wiping her hands off on her apron, Phee hurried to grab the plates, giving him her best don’t-be-mad grin. Lifting them high, she tilted her head towards the windows. “Come on, you can’t be angry today, Alex. The sun is out, there’s blue sky, and—”
“And you are about to lose that tip if their food gets any colder. Move it!” Alex waved a spatula at her, and she stuck her tongue out at him, laughing as he turned away, muttering curses beyond the window. The fact that he still bothered to curse about her meant he hadn’t decided to fire her, yet, but the only way to keep her job was to actually do it.
The man and woman at table nine were so wrapped up in conversation they barely noticed as she slid the plates in front of them and offered to refill their drinks. They waved her off, too intent on each other to bother actually answering. So, Phee just smiled at the normal shitty behavior of the downtowners and turned to scan her section.
Fuck. How long had they been sitting there?
There was another table occupied near the windows, and she flinched knowing it had probably been too long by their standards no matter what. And, to make it better, they were all in nice suits. Idiot. She groaned internally, calculating how much her tip had dropped while she’d been staring out the window. She hadn’t even taken their drink orders yet. Slapping her most chipper smile on her face, she smoothed down the apron over her hips and tugged out the order pad as she approached their table.
“Afternoon, gentlemen, what would you like to drink?” Her cheeks ached a bit with the strain of the over-enthusiastic smile, but she held it as the quiet conversation stuttered to a halt in front of her. The older man facing her glanced up and Phee caught the plastic glint of a COF badge attached to his breast pocket.
Cabal of Freedom. He was government. Weird.
The justice building was only a few blocks away, but there were other restaurants, nicer restaurants so much closer. It was rare to see one of them at the Elsinore Café, and curiosity unfurled inside her as she strained to read the print on his badge. With a sigh, the man flipped his menu open, glanced over it, and then slapped it shut impatiently.
“Just bring us water, we need a minute.” He was curt, his voice sharp and commanding as he immediately ignored her and turned his focus back to the man on his left.
“Sure thing! I’ll be right back with your waters.” Tucking the order pad in her apron, Phee was about to walk away when the man sitting closest to her glanced up. His gaze caught hers like an electric shock. Bright turquoise, as if someone had laid the pretty stones on top of a light so that every facet glinted and fragmented to form his irises. With eyes like that he should have been some great sea god, walking out of the clear ocean, surrounded by sparkling sunlight — wearing a lot less clothing — ready to command the world to bow at his feet.
He definitely shouldn’t have such a tired expression on his face, or be wearing the boring charcoal suit he was in. A suit that stretched across his shoulders as he leaned forward on the table, breaking their momentary connection without really seeing her. Turning sharply on her heel, she hurried back behind the counter. Her hands moved on auto-pilot to fill glasses with ice and water, because her mind still preoccupied imagining the guy on her fantasy beach.
Get your head in the game, Phee. Stop daydreaming.
Her grandfather’s voice echoed in her mind and she did her best to listen. After all, men from downtown didn’t look at girls like her. People from the fog flitted on the edges of their existence, watching as they controlled the city of Lakehurst like the engineers of destiny they were. Born into privilege, born into power. Men like the sea god had never spent a day down in the fog, which meant she was being ridiculous. Of all men to want a second glance from, it was definitely not going to happen with the hottie that she’d just spent a glorious minute picturing mostly naked, walking out of the ocean, ready to bring the fierce power of the ocean’s waves—
“Holy shit, I am so fucking tired. When is our shift over?” Regan groaned, interrupting her fantasy as she squatted down to grab a few sets of wrapped silverware from the bin under the counter.
“It’s barely noon, you’ve got a long way to go.” Phee laughed as she picked up the three glasses in front of her and looked up to see the ocean god having an animated discussion with the COF man. She couldn’t help but stare at the strong line of his jaw as he spoke, clenching his teeth between words like he was biting back things he wanted to say. The third man with them wasn’t even paying attention to the conversation. His body was rigid in the seat, back straight, eyes scanning the room casually before returning to the hot guy.
“Maybe Alex will let me leave early, I was up so late last night.” Regan was just sitting on the rubber mat behind the counter, ignoring her tables again. Hiding.
“Maybe you should get up and take care of your tables so I don’t have to help you pay your rent again next month?” She sighed, recognizing her own hypocrisy as Regan scrunched her face up and groaned. “Tips, Regan. Smile, take care of your tables, and get tips. I love you, but you can’t crash on my couch forever if you lose this apartment like you did the last one.”
“It would be easier to get tips if I could just swish my ass around like you do. I swear, being flat as a board on both sides is the worst possible—”
“Shut up,” Phee hissed quietly and Regan rolled her eyes. Best friend or not, Regan could really whine when she wanted to. Sulking against the shelves, her ash-blonde hair was currently tucked in a messy bun as she stretched one long leg out in front of her. A whole three inches taller than Phee, her friend had always reminded her of an aspen tree. Pale, tall, and thin. She used to be jealous of her friend’s effortless grace, but it never mattered the moment Regan opened her mouth. “For the record, I do not swish my ass around.”
“Oh fuck off, Phee. I swear, if I could ask for one thing for my birthday, it would be boobs. And an ass. Okay, two things, boobs and a nice ass that would get me tips without having to run myself into the ground.” Regan looked up at her again. “If I had your ass I’m sure Alex would let me go home early.”
“You know he has a thing for you. He’s always saying ‘Morning, Phee’, and ‘Oh, Phee, you’re so pretty today’.” Her voice was mocking, and Phee groaned, checking the window to the kitchen to ensure their boss wasn’t listening.
“Alex is nice to both of us, Regan,” she whispered, glancing back to her new table to see that their conversation looked a little less intense, which meant she needed to get over there with the drinks.
“Sure, he’s nice, but Alex only wants to bend one of us over this counter.”
“Seriously, shut up!” Phee kicked her in the leg, and Regan shoved her back, almost making Phee spill the waters. “Regan, what the—”
“It’s true! No matter what you think.” Her best friend cackled as she pushed herself to her feet, winking as she turned to walk back to her half of the café with silverware in hand. Regan may be obnoxious on even her best days, but Phee still envied Regan’s ethereal looks, and Regan was jealous of her because she had her mother’s curves. A waist that looked narrow only because her hips were so big, and a ribcage that made her chest look bigger than it was. A perfect hourglass, Regan always complained. But Phee always felt massive next to the sleek elegance Regan pulled off even if she was in sweatpants and a t-shirt.
That was what best friends were for, though. They saw the best in each other, and always pointed it out, even if it was with playful jealousies and taunts.
Adjusting the glasses in her hands Phee headed back to the table with the trio and forced herself to look straight ahead, past the ocean god, and smile at the government guy. The salt and pepper at his temples revealed his age, but unlike many others of his status he hadn’t dyed it dark to match the rest. Everything about him screamed power, and the confidence that came with wielding it.
As each of them rattled off their orders she felt the plastic smile covering her face, heard herself asking the right questions, but her eyes were drawn to the custom-tailored suit the government man wore. There was a large gold ring on one hand that looked important. Manicured nails. Sharp responses out of an elegant face. As she finished writing the orders down the blond man on his left adjusted his jacket and she caught sight of a handgun holstered under his arm. Her heart hammered in her chest but she forced her smile wider, nodding at them so she could scurry away before her face revealed what she’d seen. She was always terrible at hiding her feelings and the panic was going to show.
Why the fuck did he have a gun?
Phee met up with Regan at the kitchen window as she posted up an order for Alex, and she silently tucked her ticket in just behind. Glancing back at the table, Phee watched the trio talking. Well, it was mostly the COF man and the sea god doing the talking, but it looked tense. Regan had taken a few steps towards her side of the café, already filling up with the lunch rush, but she paused. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothing.” Phee turned away from the table, watching Alex as he wandered back and forth getting another order ready.
“Seriously, hey, look at me.” Regan’s voice dropped with concern as she tugged Phee’s arm so she would meet her eyes. “I was just messing around before, you know I’m not mad at you, right? I was kidding about you-know-who.” She tilted her head at Alex in the kitchen. “I’m just tired today. You know when I stay up late I’m a total bitch. Don’t be upset?”
“No, I’m not, I swear. It’s just—” Phee glanced back over her shoulder and looked at the table of men again. The ocean god was leaning back and laughing now, even more gorgeous than before without the serious lines on his face.
“Ohhh, hello… He’s cute.” Regan grinned and she felt the blush in her cheeks, grateful the olive tones in her skin would hide it a little.
“Agreed. He’s hot, but the guy across from him has a fucking gun under his jacket. I think he’s security for the government guy. The older one by the window is wearing a COF badge.” She kept her voice low, trying to act natural as she mentioned it, but Regan’s eyes went wide and she looked over again with her mouth hanging open. Phee pinched her arm. “Stop staring! You’re going to kill my tip if they think I’m over here gossiping about them.”
“You are over here gossiping about them.”
“Not the point.” Phee rolled her eyes.
Regan laughed. “You know, if he’s got security he’s probably high up. We get people in here sometimes with those badges, but none of them have security.”
“I know. Weird, right?” Phee was about to say more, but the loud clang of the bell in her ear made her wince. Both of them turned to see Alex grinning on the other side of the window.
“Wow, girls, are we slow already?” Alex raised his eyebrows, his sarcasm biting. Regan sighed, and his eyes flipped to her. “Problem, Regan? Because this is your order. Table two.”
“No problem, Alex. I’m super excited to carry food, can’t you tell?” Regan smiled brightly before she grabbed the plates Alex pushed through the window. Despite his best efforts, he laughed, but Phee bit her cheek so she didn’t encourage her. They both needed to keep this job.
After Regan wandered away Alex turned back to her.“I’ll have your order up quick, Phee.”
“Thanks, Alex.” She gave him a brief smile before she hurried to bus the two tables that had just finished. They had left a grand total of sixteen dollars in tips, and she groaned. She spent almost nine dollars a day just getting to and from work, but there was no time to sulk. Four other tables had arrived while she’d been preoccupied with ocean gods and government men with guns. Phee managed to take their orders quickly and tack them up in the window. As she was putting plates into the back to be washed, she heard the bell and Alex’s call of, “Table Fourteen.”
Approaching the trio with their food, she saw the COF man on a cell phone stand up to walk outside. The ocean god was chatting with the security guy, laughing as he spoke a little too loudly. “She was so boring. I swear, there weren’t two brain cells in her head to rub together.”
“So why did you even go out with her, Bryant?”
“Because it’s what I’m supposed to do, Nate. I can’t show up at an event like that without a date. My uncle would have a fit and you know it.” The last words were said more quietly across the table, and Phee grew irritated as the asshole insulted some random girl. Worse, the jackass seemed to be deliberately ignoring her, even as she balanced the heavy serving tray on her shoulder. “Next time I’ll happily deal with his wrath just to avoid the torture of having someone talk about nail polish for twenty minutes.”
“Maybe next time you should ask out someone you actually find interesting then,” Phee muttered as she leaned down to shove a plate in front of the ocean god. Bryant. He looked up at her in shock, those turquoise eyes still an unreal shade of blue, and then he laughed as she slid the other plates onto the table.
“Is that your suggestion? What a novel idea. And exactly where would you suggest I find someone interesting, miss?” Bryant grinned at her, cocky and amused, and she made herself ignore how handsome the smile made him.
“Well, I happen to think I’m pretty interesting, but I’ve never seen you in here before. So, maybe it has to do with where you choose to spend your time.” Phee tucked the tray under her arm as a blush heated her cheeks. What the hell was happening with her mouth?
Why was she even talking to these customers like this? Especially with one being COF and one carrying a fucking gun?
“It sounds like you think I should ask you out on a date.” Bryant’s surprise showed in the half-laughing way he said it, and the fact that he found the idea funny made Phee bristle further.
“It sounds like you don’t make a habit of challenging yourself by asking out women who might have something interesting to say. But, then you probably couldn’t complain over lunch about it, and then what would you have to discuss?” Phee felt her stomach flip as the brazen words escaped, but inside she imagined herself at the edge of a beach, leaves wound in her hair as she pushed back the ocean god with a forest army. A woodland queen not willing to bend to his sun-drenched charms.
Men like him always thought they could do whatever they wanted, say whatever they wanted, act however they wanted, but he hadn’t come up against her yet.
“Well—” Bryant started to speak, but she cut him off with a polite smile.
“Enjoy your meal, gentlemen.” Phee turned so sharply she felt her hair flare behind her, and she immediately went to take the orders of a new table. One side of her was trembling with nerves as the reality of what she’d said sank in, the idiotic tone she’d used… but the other side was being carried in branch like arms across damp sand as the ocean receded. Victory. Even though it would probably end up in a complaint, and a shitty tip.
Half an hour later, Phee dropped the check off at the ocean god’s table without a second glance at him. Then she headed behind the counter to grab items from the bakery case for a to-go order.
“Ah, excuse me?”
Phee’s head snapped up to see Bryant leaning on the glass case, smiling as he looked her up and down. Damn him for his good looks. She made her voice calmly professional to cover the thrill that ran up her spine as those ridiculous eyes checked her out. “Yes? Can I do something for you?”
“Actually, yes. I’d like six blueberry muffins to go, and your phone number.” His smile grew wider, and she hated that she’d failed to hide the surprise on her face.
“That’s not funny.” Phee scowled, dropping the bag she had been preparing for another customer on the counter. Snapping open another, she started putting muffins in it as she fought the embarrassed heat in her cheeks. The ocean was rising in his favor again.
“I’m not trying to be funny. I really would like your number, and I happen to like the muffins here.”
“Why?” Phee folded the top of the bag over and stared at him across the case.
“Because you make them fresh daily? Or at least, that’s what the menu says. If it’s not true, maybe you can tell me all the dirty secrets of this place over dinner.” Bryant grinned. “For example, does the soup of the day actually change every day?”
The ocean wasn’t just rising, it was knocking down her line of tree soldiers, the sun glinting off sea foam as it eroded the earth from beneath her feet. Phee scoffed, fingers tightening on the paper bag. “Is this your attempt at interesting conversation?”
“You asked me why I liked the muffins,” he replied, not losing the cocky tilt of his grin.
“That isn’t what I meant and you know it. Why are you asking me for my number?”
“Because I’d like to call it,” Bryant answered with a more serious tone, but his smile wasn’t fading. Brazen, he leaned over the register and grabbed a pen before ripping a napkin out of the holder. With a flourish of the pen he pushed the napkin towards her across the top of the bakery case. It had a phone number on it. “Listen, if you won’t give me yours, at least give me a call. I’m serious about dinner.”
“Why?” Phee was too surprised, too unsettled by the shift in her actual reality and her internal fantasy to do more than repeat the same question.
“Because I agree with what you said. You seem interesting, and you’re beautiful, and you did have the balls to suggest we go on a date.” Bryant grabbed another napkin and held it out to her with the pen, his grin widening. “Come on. Can I have your number?”
Her head was spinning, all quick-witted remarks fleeing as a tidal wave of privileged charm built in front of her. Stop it. She slammed her heel down on the earth in her mind, her soldiers roaring their encouragement with the creaking weight of a thousand trees standing against the gale of a hurricane. On the outside she just smiled, grabbed the napkin, and wrote her number down.
“That’s twelve dollars and ninety cents.” Phee handed him the napkin with her cell phone number on it and the bag of muffins at the same time.
“I’m Bryant, by the way,” he said, smiling brighter than the sun outside the windows as he took the bag and the napkin and handed her a fifty.
Avoiding his grin, she stepped over to the register to ring him up. “Thirty-seven and ten in change,” she muttered as the drawer popped open.
“That’s too much,” she said, half-way through counting the bills into her hand when he slid in front of the register.
“Think of it as a bribe for your name?” Bryant tilted his head, still grinning like fucking with poor waitresses was his favorite game to play. In her head, the water was clouded with silt and leaves and sticks as the ocean met the earth in a clash, but neither side gave way.
Stalemate. Would it be stupid or smart to play along?
“I promise I can talk about a lot more than café food…” His eyes dropped to her lips for a second, the lower tone of his voice sending a shiver down her back. He was flirting, and he was fucking good at it. A rich, cocky, jackass probably looking to entertain himself for a night with the mouthy waitress that would make a good story for his next lunch meeting. It irritated her for a second, but as she imagined him half-naked again, eyes tracing his broad shoulders beneath the boring suit, Phee didn’t think she’d mind being wined and dined by him — or ending up in his bed for that matter. But that would be all it was.
It’s just fun. You will not fall for his bullshit.
“Phee. My name is Phee.” She met his eyes, and he glanced over his shoulder once before turning back with a look of victory.
“Phee,” he repeated, that low tone turning her name into a sinful promise. “Well, Phee, I’ll call you soon.”
“You do that, Bryant.” She smirked, wrapping her fingers around the biggest tip she’d probably get all day.
“Count on it.” He winked at her, grinning like he’d already won as he headed for the door and stepped out into the sunlight. In her head she was breathing hard, whispering commands in the language of the trees to fortify defenses at the beach because Bryant wasn’t done with her. That was obvious.
Jennifer Bene is a USA Today bestselling author of dangerously sexy and deviously dark romance. BDSM, Suspense, Dark Romance, Thrillers — she writes it all. Always delivering a twisty, spine-tingling journey with the promise of a happily-ever-after.
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