Mastered, p.8
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       Mastered, p.8
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         Part #1 of The Enforcers series by Maya Banks

  Her gaze swept the sprawling, spacious open-concept apartment, a dazed expression on her face. And then she finally swung it up to meet his, puzzlement and awe swirling in her eyes.

  “This is your apartment?” she barely managed to whisper. “I didn’t think they made apartments this large in New York.”

  He wanted to kick himself in the head. His wanting to get her to his apartment as quickly as possible was because he didn’t want her too overwhelmed. If anything, seeing and being in his apartment had tipped her the rest of the way off the ledge.

  Not knowing what else to do or say at just that moment, he started to pull her into the shelter of his arms to offer her comfort, but just as his fingertips brushed over her arms to take hold, his intercom buzzed.

  Evangeline jumped and turned as though she expected someone to be behind her. Drake, however, was pissed.

  He strode the few steps to the wall where the speaker was mounted and slammed his thumb over the button.

  “What?” he barked.

  There was a slight hesitation, and then Thane’s voice bled into the room.

  “Uh, Drake? You might want to come down here. We have a situation.”

  “What situation?” Drake asked in an icy tone. “I distinctly left orders with all my men that under no circumstances was I to be disturbed.”

  Thane sighed loudly. “This woman showed up at the club right after you left and demanded to see you. She then said that if I didn’t produce you immediately, she was calling the cops. I brought her here so whatever burr she has up her ass can be removed and we don’t incur unnecessary trouble.”

  There was another slight pause as Drake mentally ran through every curse word in his dictionary. And then some.

  “And Drake, it might be a good idea to bring Evangeline with you.”

  Before Drake could respond to that absurdity, a screech blasted through the intercom that made him wince.

  “Damn right Evangeline better be with him so I can see for myself she’s okay, or swear to God, I’ll call the cops and report Drake Donovan for kidnapping and I’ll tear this whole damn building apart to find her if I have to.”

  Evangeline let out a sound of dismay, and Drake turned to see her stricken, mortified expression. She closed her eyes but bristled with humiliation, which made Drake want to put his fist through the wall. This was not how things were supposed to have gone, and this wasn’t going to do anything to settle Evangeline’s fears.

  When Evangeline opened her eyes, Drake lifted one eyebrow in question. She promptly sagged like a deflating balloon. She covered her face with both hands as if wishing to be anywhere but where she was. Drake could already feel Evangeline slipping from his grasp, and something akin to panic skated up his spine. He never panicked. Nor did he fear. What would be, would be. And yet he found himself holding his breath in dread.

  “It’s Steph,” she said quietly as she let her hands slide slowly from her eyes. “She’s one of my roommates. And Drake, she’s serious. You don’t know her. She will absolutely call the police and God only knows who else. I have to go down there.”

  “Not without me,” Drake said, his tone carrying a bite he hadn’t intended.

  He shoved the button on the intercom.

  “Sit on her, Thane. I’m coming down with Evangeline and by God, Steph better be there when we arrive.”

  He turned to Evangeline and extended his hand, waiting for her to slide her much smaller hand over his. He experienced a fierce sense of satisfaction when her flesh met his, but as his grip tightened in preparation to take her into the elevator, he could feel her trembling.

  Doing his best not to frown and scare her to death, he instead pulled her close to him and slid his knuckle under her chin, gently nudging it upward.

  “You aren’t alone, Angel,” he murmured. “I’ll be with you the entire time. You just have to inform your friend of your choice.”

  Left unsaid was that he too would have to be informed of her choice because he was no longer certain she would choose him. Her friend might very well coax Evangeline away. His jaw tightened just thinking about the possibility. Under no circumstances would he let her go. She was worth fighting for.

  With that in mind, he sent her a questioning look. She correctly interpreted the silent question as to whether she was ready, and she nodded. Drake pulled her to his side, tucking her beneath his shoulder as they entered the elevator.

  The ride down was silent, and Evangeline’s gaze remained fixed on the floor the entire time.

  Damn it! He just needed time. A few days. So he could show Evangeline the world she was entering. Instead, as soon as they’d walked inside his home, her friend had arrived, effectively dragging Evangeline crashing back to earth.

  As soon as they exited the elevator, Drake saw a very determined-looking redhead stalk forward, Thane behind her looking pissed. Well, that made two of them.

  “Evangeline, thank God,” Steph said as she barreled toward them.

  To Drake’s surprise, Evangeline nestled closer to his body as if seeking comfort or support.

  “To what do we owe this interruption at this hour?” Drake demanded.

  Steph’s eyes narrowed. “I had to make sure Evangeline was okay. When she didn’t come home, we thought something horrible had happened.”

  “Well, as you can see, she’s just fine,” he drawled. “Now if you’ll excuse us, it’s been a long day.”

  Steph’s frown deepened and her eyes shot daggers at him.

  “Evangeline is perfectly capable of speaking for herself,” she said acidly. “I’d like to know what she wants. Preferably from her.”

  Drake felt Evangeline stiffen, her features drawn in mortification. Shame dulled her eyes, no hint of the vibrancy that made staring at her so entrancing. He swore viciously under his breath and started to put an end to this shit right now, but Evangeline drew in a deep breath and stepped from the protective refuge of his body.

  His pulse ratcheted up and he had to fight to maintain an air of indifference. He’d never allow anyone to see his pain if she left with her friend.

  “As you can see, I’m fine, Steph,” Evangeline said in a soft voice. “I’m sorry to have worried you, but I did call you and left a voice mail saying I wouldn’t be home tonight. I texted you, Nikki and Lana, as well. And then Drake sent Maddox over to personally reassure you that I was okay.”

  “Yeah, a hired goon who looks like he just got out of Rikers,” Steph said, anger still seething in her voice.

  Evangeline’s earlier look of shame and defeat evaporated and her spine went rigid. She stared back at Steph, her gaze unflinching as her face flushed. But not in embarrassment. No, his angel was pissed.

  He fought to hide his reaction—his surprise—and forced himself to remain a bystander and allow Evangeline to fight her own battle unless it became apparent she was backing down. She further surprised him by walking up to Steph and getting right in her face so there was no possibility of misunderstanding. She pointed her finger directly into Steph’s chest, eliciting a look of complete shock on her friend’s face as if Evangeline had never stood up to her—or any of her so-called friends.

  “You will not talk about Maddox that way,” Evangeline snapped. “He has been nothing but kind and patient with me. He intervened at Impulse when Eddie would have likely put me in the hospital. He was kind, respectful and gentle. He took me home, made certain the apartment was safe and told me he would be there the next night at seven because Drake wanted to see me. But I had to work and so Maddox waited for me at the pub until I got off and drove me to Impulse to meet Drake, where we agreed on a personal matter that will remain personal. You have no right to judge Maddox or Drake or Thane, for that matter, who went out of his way to let you know I was okay, when you know nothing about them. And furthermore, you are clearly questioning my judgment. My wants and my needs, which I remind you, are my concern. Not yours. I don’t tell you how to run your life, Steph, and I expect that same respect in return.

  Her hand swept toward Thane, who was wearing a look of shock mixed with approval. Pride even. Thane lifted his gaze to Drake as if to say, You picked a good one. Drake merely nodded his agreement.

  “And Steph. You showed up at Impulse after being told I was fine and what my plans were for the night and threatened Thane unless he brought you to wherever Drake and I were. Has he hurt you? Has he threatened you in any way? Because the way I see it, he has treated you with far more respect than you’ve afforded him. I expected more from you, Steph. I expected your faith and trust in me to make my own decisions. I don’t need your, Lana’s or Nikki’s approval or permission to do anything. I don’t interfere in your personal lives, and yet you interfere with mine at every turn. And just to remind you, I never wanted to go to Impulse. It was the last place I wanted to go, but the three of you railroaded me into going, and the result was a night of humiliation I’ll never be able to forget.”

  She shuddered and clasped her hands over her upper arms as if she were suddenly cold. Drake could contain himself no longer. He stepped forward and wrapped her securely in his arm, replacing her hand on the arm facing away from his body and rubbed up and down both for warmth and comfort. And to let her know he had her back.

  Thane looked completely bewildered and discomfited by Evangeline’s defense of him and Maddox. There was a different look to his eyes when he gazed at Evangeline now. One that held a glimmer of respect, and Thane didn’t respect many people.

  Drake’s admiration grew even more because he’d been right, or rather his gut instinct about his angel had been dead-on. Her sweet, soft, delicate feminine appearance, in fact, disguised a woman with an iron will and determination that wouldn’t allow anyone, even himself, to run over her. No matter that she thought the opposite. She clearly thought she was timid and weak and hated conflict, and she likely did. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t hold her own and stand up for what she thought was right. His arm tightened around her, giving her a gentle squeeze of approval as pride settled over him. As did peace. He’d chosen well. He hadn’t been wrong about her at all.

  Steph looked taken aback, her mouth falling open at Evangeline’s outburst. She glanced between Thane and Drake like she was sizing up two serial killers. Then her gaze drifted back to Evangeline, clear disbelief reflected on her face. Before she had time to respond to Evangeline’s blunt, impassioned statement, Evangeline pressed while she had the advantage.

  “I’m fine, Steph. You were told I wouldn’t be home tonight or today or whatever it is. There was no reason for you to come here and cause a scene. I’ll call you, Lana and Nikki in the next day or two and explain everything. Until then, I would appreciate privacy and no more embarrassing scenes at this hour of the morning.”

  Steph pinned Evangeline with a ferocious stare, one Drake imagined worked to intimidate Evangeline most of the time. Only this time, his angel didn’t seem in the least fazed.

  “You better do just that,” Steph snapped. “Because if I don’t hear from you personally in the next twenty-four hours, I’m coming back with the police.”

  Then she shifted her furious stare at Drake, who merely looked at her as though she were a nuisance.

  “There isn’t a place in this damn city you can hide from me, and so help me God, if you hurt Evangeline in any way, I’ll cut off your balls and make you eat them.”

  “Since that’s not ever going to happen, your threat is completely hollow,” Drake said in a dismissive tone. One that said it was time for her to leave. Now.

  He lifted his gaze to Thane and sent him a silent look of apology. Thane mouthed his words but Drake could clearly see what he’d said and only barely managed to hold back his laughter.

  Thane had said Fuck me.

  “Thane will see you home now,” Drake said in a formal voice, remaining cold and aloof toward the woman who’d nearly ruined the entire evening. For that matter, she might well have for all he knew, because he had no idea what was going on in Evangeline’s mind.

  Not waiting for any more drama or theatrics, Drake drew Evangeline to his side and guided her back to the elevator. Her eyes were closed the entire way up, her features still frozen with mortification.

  He gently escorted her into his apartment, this time giving her no time to ponder the size and elegance of it. He ushered her into the bedroom and she immediately began to tremble against him.

  Something went soft inside his heart. It was an alien, uncomfortable feeling. One he was not used to at all.

  But she looked exhausted, lost and so confused that all he could do was pull her into his arms as he’d wanted to do before they were interrupted by her roommate. At first she was tense against him, but as he did nothing more than hold her against him and stroke a hand through her hair in a soothing motion, her own arms crept around his waist and she relaxed.

  She laid her cheek against his chest and he felt her soft sigh all the way to his bones. It was a sound that would make a man do anything to make this woman happy.

  “Get ready for bed, Angel,” he said gruffly. “You’re tired, your feet hurt and you’ve had a very long couple of days. The thing you need most right now is sleep. However, you sleep with me, in my bed. Every night. No exception.”

  Slowly she nodded, her cheek rubbing up and down his chest.

  “Don’t get me wrong, Angel,” he murmured. “There’s nothing I’d love more than to make love to you all night so that when you wake up you’ll know exactly who you belong to. But you’re dead on your feet, and for now, just having you in my bed, in my arms, is more than I could have dreamed of.”

  When Evangeline awoke, two things immediately registered. One, Drake was no longer in bed with her and two, it was well into the morning. Likely approaching noon and yet exhaustion still weighed her down and all she wanted to do was snuggle deeper into the covers and go back to sleep.

  As she shifted to a more comfortable spot, turning to where Drake had slept, her hand instinctively reaching for any lingering warmth or evidence that it hadn’t been a dream, her gaze lit on a folded piece of paper with her name scrawled across it.

  Forcing herself to a sitting position, she crossed her legs and reached for the note, hesitantly opening it, unsure of what it would say. Then her brow furrowed as she took in the contents.

  Your things are in the living room to put wherever you like. But just so you are aware, only your personal keepsakes and mementos were brought over. Your clothing, shoes and accessories were thrown out. One of my men will be there waiting to take you shopping for anything you require, and I expect you to buy everything you need. My man will have a list of the necessary accoutrements, and the salespeople at the shops you will be escorted to have already been given my instructions as well as your measurements and will have appropriate selections for your viewing when you arrive.

  Her measurements? And for that matter what was wrong with her clothes? Why would he just throw them out without even consulting her? How wasteful was that? The clothes certainly weren’t expensive by his standards, but she’d had to save to buy each and every item and she’d never been able to go and buy an entire wardrobe or anything. She bought a pair of jeans or a T-shirt or a pair of shoes. When she had the means to do so. Sending money to her parents was her first priority. Her comfort was a far second on her list. It stung that he’d so thoughtlessly discarded clothing that she’d worked damn hard for. So what if they were bought in a thrift shop or on the clearance rack of a bargain shopping center? She’d paid for every single thing with her own money. No one had given her anything and she took pride in that. Never once did one of her roommates have to cover her share of the rent, because she made sure that after sending money to her family, she had enough to cover her part of their living arrangement and pitch in on groceries. She also did most of the cooking so they didn’t spend money eating out, which meant she saved more money for the necessities. Drake was obviously ashamed of her, and that ate at her. She had her pride. She knew she wasn’t anythin
g to look at, and she still couldn’t fathom what she was doing here in his apartment with instructions to go shopping for an entire new wardrobe where one outfit would likely cost more than all the things Drake had so blithely tossed out.

  She felt . . . humiliated.

  She jumped, her pulse accelerating when a phone rang next to her on the bed. She glanced warily, looking for the source, to see an expensive high-tech cell phone that would take her a year to save for and was definitely a frivolous expenditure. She glanced back at the note to read further and saw that Drake had informed her the phone was hers and that he would be calling her later in the morning.

  She tentatively picked up the phone, hoping she was hitting the right button, and murmured a hesitant hello. His answer was crisp, businesslike.

  “Justice is on his way. He may already be there. He’s taking you shopping.”

  She felt an unexpected sense of disappointment that it wasn’t Maddox. He had been the nicest to her and wasn’t quite as intimidating as some of the other men Drake worked with. And then she shook her head because she was crazy. They were all dangerous and complete strangers to her, and yet she was to trust them because Drake instructed her to.

  She hesitated and bit into her bottom lip, bothered that she was even required to go on a shopping trip. If she wasn’t good enough for him as she was, then she sure as hell wasn’t going to change everything about her just so she met his standards. Whatever the hell they were since he hadn’t exactly been forthcoming on those yet.

  He seemed to pick up on her sudden silence, and she wondered if she should add mind reading to his growing list of accomplishments, though it appeared as though there was nothing he couldn’t do or accomplish. But then money, or rather having money, lots of money, seemed to come with a completely different set of rules and parameters that favored the “haves” over the “have-nots.”

  “What’s wrong, Angel?” he asked in a soft voice that suggested he would not be pleased nor would he believe her if she simply said nothing or pretended that he was imagining things. It would be an insult to his superior intelligence.

  She flinched, not wanting to get into what was bothering her.

  In a subdued, quiet voice she responded. “Why did you throw away all my clothing, even my underwear and my shoes? If I’m not good enough for you the way I am, then why would you want to change me into something I’m not? It wouldn’t be real. Unless that’s what you want and any woman would do. A woman you play dress-up with like a doll and make her ‘good enough’ to be seen with you. I’m proud of who and what I am,” she said fiercely. “I paid for every single item of clothing you thoughtlessly threw away. I liked them. More importantly, nobody bought them for me or gave them to me. I worked for everything I have and by throwing practically everything I own away you sent the message loud and clear that I’m not good enough, and you’re sending one of your minions shopping with me so I don’t embarrass you in front of others.”

  The line went silent, and she tensed because she could practically feel his seething anger through the phone. She swallowed nervously and closed her eyes, thinking that maybe he would be just pissed off enough to wash his hands of her now and let her go back home.

  Instead, he sighed, and she imagined him running an agitated hand through his hair, his lips set into that firm grimace that made him look so intimidating.

  “Angel, the clothes you have are shit. Now don’t get me wrong. You being you and as beautiful as you are, you rock that look. But other women would never be able to pull off your kind of shine in shit clothing. This has nothing to do with you embarrassing me, and it sure as fuck has nothing to do with you not being good enough for me. It has everything to do with the fact that you’re mine now and I take care of what belongs to me. Which means that what you wear, the shoes, the jeans or dresses, and especially the underwear, I pay for. I wanted to do something nice for you and you need nicer clothing, not shit you had to walk into a fucking charity shop to buy. My woman will never wear anything that’s been worn by another woman. Period. So get that fucked-up shit about you not being good enough or you embarrassing me out of your head right now or you’re just going to piss me off. Because it’s complete bullshit and I won’t have you thinking it every time you put on something I bought for you.”

  Evangeline was stunned into silence and sat on the edge of the bed, mouth gaping open. This time, however, he didn’t take her silence as her being upset or angry, as he’d picked up on her earlier silence. How the hell could the man tell when he needed to address something when he wasn’t even within a mile of her, much less able to see her or gauge her body language or facial expressions?

  “I’ve got to go now. I have an important meeting. Justice should be there soon if he’s not already, so you might want to make yourself presentable because I’ll be damned if another man sees what’s mine and mine alone to see. He’s going to take you to eat and then shopping. I don’t want you hungry.”

  And she thought she couldn’t get more flustered than she already was.

  “I need to know you get me,” Drake said impatiently. “The words, Angel. Give me your acceptance.”

  “All right,” she finally said in a near whisper.

  “Good.” And she could hear the satisfaction in his voice. “Now get a move on and get dressed so Justice doesn’t see what he shouldn’t and then I have to beat his ass.”

  She thought he’d already hung up when his last statement came through.

  “And, Angel, just so you know, I will not be pleased if you refuse to accept any of the items I have arranged for you.”

  Slowly she ended the call and let the phone fall to the bed, then glanced back at the note that she still hadn’t finished reading. She started at the beginning again, quickly skimming to the parts she hadn’t yet read. At the very bottom, in Drake’s distinctive scrawl, was written:

  And call your girls and give them your new number so I don’t have to have my men haul one or all their asses out of my apartment again at five in the morning.

  She laughed and then drew her knees up, hugging them to her body as she looked around in wonder. Was this really happening to her? How on earth had she fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole into an alternate reality?

  She shook off the overwhelming sensation that she was fast spinning out of control and called Steph first, because the last thing Evangeline wanted was for the police to burst into Drake’s apartment determined to rescue a kidnapped woman. To her relief, all three girls were at the apartment together, so they put her on speakerphone, which meant she wouldn’t have to tell the same crazy story three times.

  In as level a tone as she could manage, she outlined the events ending with her coming back to Drake’s apartment with him. Their reactions were explosive.

  “Have you lost your mind?” Nikki squeaked. “Vangie, what do you even know about this guy? What if you go missing and we never hear from you again?”

  Evangeline sighed. “Is it too much to ask for a little trust from my best friends?”

  “We just think you should give this a little more time, preferably away from him where you’re not overwhelmed,” Lana said diplomatically. “You have to admit, this is awfully sudden and completely out of character for you.”

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