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Maya Banks

  Evangeline stared in the mirror, barely recognizing the wide-eyed woman staring back at her. She didn’t react as her friends Lana, Nikki and Steph hovered around her, putting the finishing touches on her makeup and hair, ensuring everything was perfect.

  “I can’t do this,” Evangeline muttered. “This is insane and I can’t believe I let you guys talk me into this.”

  Nikki fixed her with a hard stare in the mirror. “You’re going. No backing out now, girlfriend. I’d pay money to see the look on that jackass’s face when he sees exactly what he’s missing out on.”

  The jackass in question being Evangeline’s ex-boyfriend, Eddie.

  “I’d say he didn’t miss anything at all,” Evangeline said quietly, embarrassment washing over her all over again.

  Lana’s eyes were fierce and Steph’s scowl was intimidating. Any other time, Evangeline would be heartened by their display of loyalty and friendship. But she regretted confiding in them the humiliating details of her breakup with Eddie. She should have just told them they’d decided to go separate ways. Except that Evangeline had already told her friends that she was a virgin and that her last date with Eddie was the night. She was going to give him her virginity, confident that he was the one.

  What a hopeless, flaming idiot that made her. His words still rang in her ears. Every single one had been like a knife to the heart, only he hadn’t been content to simply plunge the blade. He’d twisted it, drawing out her pain as much as possible.

  “Eddie is an asshole,” Steph hissed. “Hon, we all knew it. Don’t you remember us trying to talk you out of giving it up for him that night—or any night for that matter? You have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. He’s a dick.”

  “Amen,” Nikki said fervently. “Which is why you’re going to march into Impulse like you fucking own the place. You look hot. And I don’t say that as your best friend trying to make you feel better about yourself. I say that as another female who is aware that a much hotter female is in her territory and I’d like to scratch her eyes out because I know I don’t have a chance in hell of looking as good as she does.”

  Evangeline’s head reared in surprise and her startled gaze found Nikki’s in the mirror.

  Lana shook her head and sighed. “You don’t get it, Vangie. And hell, I think that’s half the turn-on for guys. You have no clue how beautiful you are. You’re all big eyes, gorgeous hair, a figure to die for and you’re good and sweet to your soul. If you had any hint of interest, you’d have men tripping over themselves to get next to you. They’d treat you like the queen you deserve to be treated as, but you honestly have no idea and that just makes them want you even more.”

  Evangeline shook her head, utterly baffled. “You guys are crazy. I’m a twenty-three-year-old recently ex-virgin who’s as gauche as they come. I’m barely off the farm and have a southern drawl that makes New Yorkers roll their eyes and want to pat me on the head and say, ‘Well, bless your heart.’ I’m a fish out of water here and you all know it. I should have never come here. If it weren’t for Mama and Papa, I’d go home and find work there.”

  Lana threw up her hands. “One day someone is going to make you see you the way everyone else sees you. Eddie is a smug bastard and saw you as a conquest. He knows he’s not good enough to lick your shoes and he sucks in bed, but he’d never admit that so he tears you down instead.”

  Evangeline lifted her head. “Please. Can we not talk about Eddie tonight? It’s bad enough I might see him even though he may have changed his mind about going tonight. He could have lied about wanting to take me like he’s lied about everything else. I’m not prepared for this. I’m scared to death and I have no wish to be humiliated all over again.”

  “Sweetie, the point of tonight is to see him. Or rather for him to see you so he can kick himself in the balls for what he could have had,” Nikki reminded her.

  Steph shoved a VIP pass into Evangeline’s hand, making sure she took it and didn’t lay it aside.

  “I could only score one or one of us would go with you. But the line is long and people wait all night and never get in. With this pass, you walk straight to the front, show the bouncer manning the door the pass and voilà. You’re in. And then, girlfriend? You work it. You walk in there, head high, like you don’t need a man, and you give every man, including Eddie, a taste of what they could have but can’t touch. You have a few drinks. And if Eddie looks your way, you do not cower. You do not lower your head. You stare him directly in the eye and you smile. And then you don’t pay him another second of attention, like he doesn’t exist. Dance if you want to. Flirt. Get your mojo back. Your confidence. And when you’re ready to go home, you call the number on the card I gave you. Wait fifteen minutes and then go outside. Your ride will be there and then you get your ass back here to us and give us the 411 on the entire evening.”

  Lana touched her shoulder. “And listen. If anything, and I mean anything goes wrong, you call or text us. We can be there in no time flat and we’re not doing anything tonight. We’ll be here for you when you get home, but if you need us before then, you let us know. I don’t care how long that damn line is. I’ll kick the bouncer’s ass if he tries to keep us from rescuing one of my girls.”

  A smile hovered on Evangeline’s lips and her eyes gleamed with amusement, not because she didn’t believe Lana. She absolutely did. Her friends were fiercely protective of her, of each other, and Evangeline had no doubt that Lana would take on a two-hundred-plus-pound bouncer—and win—if she knew Evangeline needed her.

  She reached for Lana’s hand and squeezed. Hard. Then she glanced up to include Steph and Nikki in her grateful gaze.

  “You guys are the best. Y’all have done so much for me. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”

  Nikki rolled her eyes and Steph just snorted.

  “Like you haven’t been there for us every bit as much? You haven’t nursed us through our share of broken hearts, held our hair while we puked after getting shit-faced over some asshole guy who isn’t good enough for us? Then told us that the douche bag who broke our heart wasn’t fit to touch the hem of our shirts much less anything else? Sound familiar?”

  Steph’s reproach made Evangeline grimace. Because she was right. Everything they were doing now for her, she’d done for them. But she wasn’t used to being the recipient. She didn’t date much. Hadn’t dated at all in the first two years after she’d moved to the city from the small town in the south she’d been born and raised in. She’d been too focused on working, taking extra shifts, saving as much money as possible to send back to her mama.

  It wasn’t until Eddie had walked into the bar where Evangeline waitressed and then kept coming back night after night until he had worn her down that she’d agreed to go out with him. He’d come on hard and fast, but Evangeline had rebuffed him. Looking back, she could see that she’d been nothing more than a challenge to him. Like waving a red flag in front of a bull’s nose. By holding him off and not putting out, she’d only made him that much more determined to get into her pants.

  The fact that he was the first to do so just made his victory all the more sweet.


  She nearly bared her teeth as anger made her cheeks go hot, but she didn’t want to mess up her carefully applied lipstick or makeup. The girls had spent an hour making sure she was made up to perfection. And the entire time they’d hovered, offered their unconditional support—in between muttering threats that didn’t bear repeating against Eddie—and boosting her nonexistent confidence.

  And it was because of these three women that Evangeline was going to walk into the club that Eddie had been bragging about being a member of, even though the mere thought of it made her want to hide under her bed for a week, and she was going to pull it off. Bold. Beau
tiful. Confident. Give Eddie a taste of exactly what he could have had.

  Her mouth nearly turned down into a moue. He’d already had her. And by his accounts, it was nothing special. No, not even that. It—she—had been terrible. How the hell was she going to walk into a club and make a man regret fucking her over when he’d already had what her friends said he’d regret what he could have had?

  It was more likely he’d laugh in her face and ask her what man would ever want a frigid bitch like her.

  The confidence she’d spent the entire afternoon summoning fled in a heartbeat and she glanced up at her friends in the mirror, her mouth opening to call the whole thing off, when all three of them pinned her with their fiercest glares.

  How did they do that? They knew exactly what she was about to say. But then they’d always been able to read her like a book. For that matter, according to Eddie, so could everyone else. He made it sound like a bad quality. Honesty. Not playing games or pretending to be something she wasn’t.

  She didn’t mind it with her girls because it made her feel special. Like they were close enough friends to know what she was thinking at any given time. But it hadn’t been remotely comforting to find out that apparently she was transparent to everyone else in the world as well.

  How the hell was she ever supposed to protect herself, guard herself and keep from getting hurt if she couldn’t disguise her thoughts and feelings?

  “Don’t even think about it,” Lana warned.

  Nikki knelt down so she was eye level with Evangeline where she was perched on the vanity stool. Where she’d spent the last hour being fussed over by her friends. Her sisters. Her expression was gentle and understanding.

  “Listen to me, honey. You need to do this for yourself. Not for us. Sure as hell not for Eddie. Not for anyone else but you. He took something from you and you need it back. If you let him get into your head and you start believing that shit he fed you, then he wins. And you cannot let him get to you that way. Because what he said is bullshit. It is not true. And I won’t have you believing it. So get it out of your head now. You have fifteen minutes until the taxi gets here to take you to the club, so get yourself sorted out. Do whatever you have to do, but do it for you.”

  Evangeline blinked furiously to keep tears at bay. Her friends would kill her if she ruined her makeup. They’d have to start all over and she’d be way late to the club and it would only give her added incentive to back out. And Nikki was right. This was something she needed to do for herself.

  Eddie had taken something from her and not just her virginity, which, by the way, was vastly overrated. Sex was overrated. He’d stripped her of her dignity and what little confidence she possessed. He’d left her with nothing but humiliation and no sense of self-worth.

  No man was worth that, and it pissed her off that his words still stung. The sex? Completely unmemorable. But the words she’d never forget. They’d burned a hole in her brain and caused a wound she wasn’t sure could ever be repaired.

  If tonight would give her any part of the spine she so desperately lacked, then it was worth walking into a crowded, popular club alone and riding it out.

  Her friends hadn’t wanted her to go by herself. Not at all. But Steph had only been able to get her hands on one VIP pass, and VIP passes to Impulse were rare and precious, reserved for beautiful people. Rich people. Important people. Evangeline was none of those, but what would it hurt to pretend for one night that she did fit into that world?

  Why couldn’t she be Cinderella for one night and maybe get back a little of her own by flaunting in Eddie’s face what he’d thrown away? Because Evangeline might not have had the most self-confidence in the world, but she did have confidence in her friends’ abilities to make any woman look hot.

  Tomorrow she could go back to being boring, quiet and mousy Evangeline. Working late nights at a bar where the tips were good and the owner looked out for his girls and she could put Eddie behind her for good. Not to mention swearing off men for good. She wasn’t here to find a man, to date, or even to have a sex life. She was here because her family needed her support, and for them she could and would put her life on hold indefinitely.

  Sure, she had dreams and goals. Things she wanted out of life that didn’t include waitressing in a pub wearing a skirt that barely covered her ass and heels that had her feet screaming for relief at the end of the night. But for now her job provided what she and her family needed. There was plenty of time to pursue her own path. She was only twenty-three. She’d work four, maybe five more years. Stockpile enough money so that her mother didn’t have to worry about finances.

  She’d made a promise to herself that by the time she turned thirty, she’d do what she wanted. Make a life for herself. Have a life she could be proud of and surround herself with good, solid friends like Steph, Nikki and Lana.

  She wanted to go to school. Learn a profession. She wanted to be more than a waitress barely scraping by. Her parents hadn’t been able to afford to send her to college. She’d only managed to finish high school by gaining her GED because she’d been forced to get a job as soon as she was old enough to work so she could provide for her family.

  She had no regrets. She’d do anything for her mother and father. But that didn’t mean she would live this life forever. Someday . . . Someday she’d have better. She wanted a husband and children. A stable relationship. Just not now.

  “You ready?” Nikki asked, bringing Evangeline abruptly back to the here and now.

  Evangeline huffed in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and looked at herself in the mirror. She did look pretty. She wouldn’t go as far as to say hot as her friends had described her, but she wasn’t ugly. She was even above average, even if she owed it all to her friends’ magic touch with cosmetics and doing hair.

  “Yeah,” she murmured softly. “I’m ready.”

  Drake Donovan pulled up to the entrance of the employee parking lot situated in the back of Impulse and quickly punched the security code into the console of his car, waiting impatiently for the gate to open so he could pull through. More often than not, his driver squired him everywhere, but when he went to the club he drove himself so he could leave at will without waiting for his driver to collect him.

  He pulled into the space marked RESERVED, the closest spot to the entrance. There were many reserved spaces that spanned the front of the lot, all for his partners, but he refrained from ever putting his name—or theirs—not wanting to announce to everyone who exactly parked where.

  Collecting his briefcase, he climbed from the car and set a brisk pace to the back entrance, where again he’d have to enter the security code to gain access, but when he was mere steps away, a woman suddenly pushed her way in front of him, forcing him to take a hasty step backward or collide with her, something she evidently had no issue with.

  He gave her a cursory once-over and mentally cursed. She was scantily clad, with a lot of makeup and an expensive hairstyle, and there was sultry invitation in her hazel eyes, though the color was hard to make out with all the smoky eye makeup that covered from eyebrows to eyelashes.

  “Mr. Donovan,” she gushed, reaching to put her hand on his arm.

  He flinched away, his stare glacial. “You’re trespassing on private property, or did you not see all the signs and the fact that the only way into this parking lot is via a security gate?”

  Her heavily painted lips turned down into a pout, but clear invitation still shone brightly in her eyes.

  “I was hoping you’d like some company tonight,” she said breathlessly. “I can be very accommodating.”

  Her look informed him that if he told her to drop to her knees right there on the pavement and suck him off, she’d do it with no hesitation and in record time. Jesus. The only way she could have gotten in was to have climbed over the high fence surrounding the employee parking lot. Or . . . someone had let her in. And if that was the case, heads were going to roll and someone was going to get fired. As soon as he got upstair
s, he’d review the surveillance footage to determine just how this woman had gotten past his security.

  He prided himself on impenetrable security. Even if she had attempted to climb over, she most certainly should have been detected and apprehended and escorted off the premises long before Drake ever arrived.

  “Unfortunately for you, I’m not in a very accommodating mood tonight,” he said in an icy tone.

  He immediately inserted the earpiece that would key him into all the activity going on in the club, his direct link to all his employees, and he barked a quick order.

  “I need security to the parking lot now.”

  The woman’s eyes widened in fear. “What are you going to do? I only wanted to please you. You’re a very handsome man, Mr. Donovan. I think once you’ve had a taste of what I can offer you, you won’t be disappointed.”

  “I’m more disappointed that you’re making me late for work and you’re trespassing where you don’t belong.”

  The door burst open, and two of his bouncers ran toward Drake, tense, alert and ready for action.

  “What’s up, boss?” Colbin asked.

  Drake pointed at the now-furious-looking woman.

  “Escort her out immediately, and from now on if anyone, and I mean anyone, gets into this lot who doesn’t have clearance, I’ll fire every single person in charge of surveillance.”

  “You have no idea what you’re passing up,” the woman hissed, her fingers curling into claws.

  “Oh, I know damn well what I’m passing on,” he drawled. “And I couldn’t be any less interested in a skank who throws herself at me with promises to please me when the very sight of you displeases me very much.”

  She launched herself at Drake, her long, painted nails aimed directly at his face.

  Matthews stepped between her and Drake immediately, and Colbin curled his arm around her waist, lifting her effortlessly as she let out a shriek of outrage and began kicking and thrashing, trying to lash those nails across his face.

  “Fuck,” Colbin bit out. “Get yourself together, bitch. You’re making a fool of yourself. Mr. Donovan has no interest in you, and furthermore, he does not tolerate invasion of his privacy. If he wants you, he’ll contact you. Don’t ever come at him like this again, or you’ll find yourself sitting inside a jail cell. Consider yourself lucky, he’s letting you go with only a warning this time.”

  “Bastard,” she threw out at Drake as Colbin hauled her to the gate.

  As he walked, Matthews radioed for a car to pull to the gate immediately to get rid of “an unwanted guest,” which only made the woman shriek louder in outrage.

  “I’m sorry, boss,” Matthews said in a sober voice. “I have no idea how she got in, but I’m going to find out right away and make sure it never happens again.”

  “You do that,” Drake snapped. “And while you’re at it, arrange to have barbed wire installed at the top of the fences. A few guard dogs wouldn’t be amiss. You’ll just have to take the time to acquaint all my employees with the dogs and ensure they don’t mistake them as intruders. This is ridiculous.”

  “I’m on it, boss. I won’t fail you.”

  Drake walked dismissively by Matthews and spoke into his com. “Viper and Thane. Pull surveillance from the employee parking lot for the previous two hours and have it set to play in my office. I want it ready to go as soon as I get to my office. I’m on my way up.”

  “You got it,” Thane replied immediately.

  Drake shook his head in disgust. The woman was no different from the women lined up down the block outside the entrance to Impulse, all eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get in. Some would; some wouldn’t. There were a few couples, both one-nighters and steady relationships, but mostly women—and men—came here to hook up, be seen, up their status and pretend to be what they weren’t.

  He strode inside and merely nodded at the greetings from the employees he passed, in a hurry to get to his office, where he had a bird’s-eye view of everything that went on in his club. He catered to exactly the clientele that Impulse attracted, but it didn’t diminish his disgust or impatience with the type of people who frequented his establishment.

  He even indulged when it suited him, but he never kept a woman for more than one night—two at the absolute most—and there were two places he never brought a woman: his office at Impulse or his home. He had very exacting standards when it came to the women he took to his bed, the number one being absolute submission and him being in complete control, just as he was in control of every aspect of his business and personal life.

  He’d created his world, his empire, by being ruthless and cutthroat when it was necessary, and he had no regrets, because he was a man who was feared by many and given absolute respect and deference. That fact served him well. He had no weaknesses to exploit. There was no way to penetrate his carefully guarded defenses and his top-of-the-line security. If it made him arrogant to consider himself God, so be it, because he was God. At least in his world.

  Maddox and Silas were waiting in his office, their expressions grim.

  “I hear you had a problem in the parking lot,” Maddox said.

  Silas just stood there, his stare inquiring, but then he wasn’t a man of many words. He didn’t need words to get his point across. And people weren’t exactly lining up to have a conversation with him since a mere look usually scared the piss out of them.

  “Apparently,” Drake said acidly.

  Even as he spoke, he reached for the remote and focused his attention on the screen where the surveillance footage of the parking lot would be displayed. Impatiently, he fast-forwarded until finally he discovered the source of the breach.

  “Son of a bitch,” Maddox growled.

  Drake’s expression was grim as he watched one of his newer employees pull in and park at the very back of the lot and get out as though he was merely showing up for work. It wasn’t until he was well into the building that the backseat door opened and the woman who’d thrown herself at Drake crept surreptitiously from the vehicle, hunched down so as not to be seen.

  “Fire him,” Drake snapped in Maddox’s direction. “Escort him off the premises and then eliminate his security clearance to all entrances to the club.”

  Maddox wasted no time departing to do Drake’s bidding, leaving Silas alone with Drake. Drake took a seat at his desk and made sure all the monitors that covered every inch of the club were online. Then he turned his attention to Silas, the man who took care of any problems Drake encountered. He also cleaned up any unwanted messes. He did so with unflappable efficiency and never failed.

  “I want you to pay Garner a visit and tell him he’s behind in his payments and he has precisely forty-eight hours to pay up or he loses my protection. Make it clear I’m not bluffing and if he fails to come through, he’s on his own and he’s a dead man.”

  Silas nodded. “I’ll leave now.”