Alex in Wonderland (Twisted Fairytales #1) - Max Monroe - PDF Free Download (2024)

Alex in Wonderland A Twisted Fairytales Novel Published by Max Monroe LLC © 2017, Max Monroe

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Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

Editing by Silently Correcting Your Grammar Formatting by Champagne Formats Cover Design by Perfect Pear Creative

Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Dedication Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Epilogue Acknowledgments

To fictional murder: You’ve been a real outlet for rage in this one. Though, Monroe does have to remind Max now that it’s not normal to have every character they ever write “taken care of” if they step out of line. To Google: Thanks for ignoring our many questionable searches in the name of research. You should know by now that whether we come to you looking for information on mini pigs or money laundering, you should just look the other way. And to Thatch: If you’re reading this, get over yourself. We know someone who can “take care of you.”

Thirty-four years ago…

“YOUR MOM WAS THE BEST woman I’ve ever known, Matty,” John Hadder told me as he squeezed my suit-jacket-covered shoulder. His grip was just short of painful. “If I’d known about you sooner, I would have been around.” I nodded at the casket without turning away, the blood red of the roses on top the same color as the puddle I’d found my mother in just four days ago. I hadn’t understood how she’d gotten that way or what was happening to her, but I couldn’t wake her up. She just wouldn’t…wake up. I’d remembered what she’d taught me about emergencies and what to do if someone needed help, and I’d called 9-1-1. I’d ridden inside a big ambulance, and the sirens were so loud that I had to cover my ears with my hands. When we got to the hospital, a really nice lady in a white coat took me inside a room with toys and books and told me something that made me cry. My mama was gone. I hoped she was with the angels. Way, way up in the sky inside heaven. I hoped she could still see me too. And then, after that, everything changed. People I didn’t know told me what and what not to do, and everybody seemed to whisper a lot. My mama didn’t have any family, none that cared enough to come around even for holidays or special times, so I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I didn’t know much at six years old, but I’d heard plenty of people whispering about how she probably couldn’t face all the bad things she’d done in her life anymore. They called her all sorts of names I didn’t understand, but none of them sounded like they meant them in a good way, and I couldn’t imagine living with people like them would be fun. But that’s all it’d been. Bad. Ugly. Dirty words my mama said I shouldn’t say. Until John Hadder walked up to me today and pulled me close to him. I didn’t really know him either, and his face had a scariness I’d never seen before, even when in smile, but at least he didn’t say mean things. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he went on. “You’re going to be with me now, and I’ll teach

you all the things these high and mighty people are too stupid to teach themselves.” Three hours later, and John Hadder was the only thing I knew now. We’d driven just forty-five minutes, to the real nice part of town, where Mama always said the stars lived. I didn’t get what she meant—stars were something for the sky—but as the bright, shiny, clean buildings glinted in the sunlight, I knew this was the part of the city where good things happened. They had to. The car pulled to a stop in front of a tall building, taller than I’d ever seen before, and the driver came around and opened the door for me. John nodded at me to scoot out and followed, putting a hand to my shoulder again and guiding me inside the building, through a set of thick gold and glass doors too heavy for me to hold open. I tried my best, hoping John wouldn’t be too mad when I couldn’t do it, but he just smiled and took the weight himself. “I’ve got it, Matty. Go on inside.” I scuttled forward, moving my legs fast to get out of John’s way, and he stepped in right behind me. When I looked up, I stopped short. The letters were gold and glittery behind the huge desk. I’d never seen a sign so fancy. Sounding out the lengthy word as best I could, I felt my unused voice crack in the middle. “Won-derland, Inc.,” I said. John smiled and squeezed my shoulder just like he had at the funeral. I looked up into his eyes. They glowed like warm honey. “That’s right, son. This place and me, we’ll take care of you. And as you get older, I’ll teach you how to take care of it.” My eyes widened, so I turned back to the sign to hide some of my excitement. “Welcome to Wonderland,” I said to myself, so quiet it was barely a breath.

Two months ago… I’m Matt Hadder. I’ve been called ruthless, savage—even brutal—by the men and women employed by my company, Wonderland, Inc., and it’s all true. I’ve fought. I’ve killed. I’ve connived. I’ve hidden things for people behind a veil of money and extravagance, and I’ll keep doing it until the day I die.

Because good and bad are merely words, often misassigned to people and places based on nothing more than an illusion. Wonderland, a “party planning” organization for every major player in the world, is Oz, and I’m the Wizard. Some might say my organization is similar to the mafia. Personally, I’m not thrilled with the comparison. Aside from our sometimes-methods of swift justice and unmerciful punishment, my organization is wholly different. Our goals, our clients, our secrecy. So, yes, some might say we’re like the mafia, but I say we’re good venture capitalists. We’ve adapted to the times, pushing the age-old breadwinner of money laundering to new depths in order to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. As difficult as it is to track the routes of drugs, it is even harder to follow a well-hidden money trail in this era of online banking and cyberfinance. Wonderland doesn’t practice flamboyant tactics. We don’t court the media, and we otherwise stay out of the f*cking spotlight. But we do keep the media and law enforcement in our back pocket, and we use them when necessary. Some might call our methods of achieving this extortion, but I see it as keeping my organization’s best and most profitable interests as top priority. I don’t enforce anything on the helpless, but I do use the money-hungrys’ greed to my advantage. While crime organizations like the mafia fall victim to law enforcement wire taps, surveillance, and FBI busts, Wonderland, Inc. keeps itself in the shadows and adapts to the ever-growing economy. It also helps that we have people like police chiefs, politicians, IRS auditors, and judges on our payroll and an extensive network of well-liked business owners as members of our community who are willing to help us help them. Sure, we delve into drugs and prostitution, but it’s definitely not our main source of income. It provides a means to end, merely there to entertain the wealthy. Most of our money is made through interest earned in our offshore bank accounts, utilized mainly during our infamous and extravagant Wonderland Parties. Oftentimes, the cash is written off in the name of charity, and in others, we settle debts and grievances through a series of line items with nearly every vendor in the city. On any given night of a Wonderland party, as much as one hundred million dollars can pass through our offshore bank accounts in the name of our clients’ financial priorities. The government can only tax you on money that’s on US soil, and in most cases, if that money passes through a different country, even for a minuscule amount of time, it becomes an exception to the tax rule. The taxable rate drops from thirty-three percent to nearly two and a half percent. Once you’ve factored in Wonderland’s three percent cut, it still leaves the wealthy with one hell of a tax break. Ironically, Wonderland, Inc. isn’t the only one using these tax loopholes. There are at

least ten large American corporations that I can think of off the top of my head that have been exploiting them for years. I guess one could say our utilization methods might be slightly shadier than most, but it’s all relative when you start seeing how much those large corporations are profiting by not paying the full thirty-three percent on their billion-dollar profits. When it comes down to it, I can make things—drugs, prostitutes, deals, money— appear for a night and disappear as if they never existed, and I do it better than anyone else. That’s why I have thousands of members, people willing to follow my lead and support me from the bottom by following orders passed down the hierarchy of our organization with precision. But Cal Monarch, my security advisor, is the only one I trust with the whole truth, and there’s a reason for that. There’s turmoil under me. I can feel it in the foundation of every meeting, every glance, and every private word spoken. But I have eyes and ears everywhere, and I’ve fixed too many other people’s problems to be in the dark on how to fix my own. Harrison March and Damien Dormuss are my closest lieutenants. They’re in charge of managing Eric Queen, Jay Pidge, Mickey Moosa, and everyone underneath them, and I’m in charge of everything else. Who we deal with. What we do. How we do it. We’re in the middle of a carefully calculated plan with Charles King, a candidate for the presidential nomination, and I’ll be damned if everything I’ve worked toward ends here. One loose brick won’t make the pyramid my father built crumble—I’ll make sure of that. Even if I have to hold the whole f*cking thing up myself.

FRESH OUT OF THE SHOWER and clad in only my bra and panties, I stared down at the note covering the oversized brown package I’d left on my bed. Wear Me and Smile :) A heavy exhale escaped my lungs. With sagging shoulders, I rolled my head back and redirected my gaze toward the ceiling. Can I really go through with this? I already knew what was inside of the box, and it was a certainty there would be zero smiling over the next five hours. As I reached out and ripped off the first piece of tape from the package, I offered up a silent prayer, Please let me get through this day… That prayer turned into a silent, repeating mantra as I opened the package with the same delicacy I might a bomb and dumped out the contents. All puffy white fur and pink accents, the ridiculous costume taunted me from its haphazard position on my bed. Christ almighty, this feels like a low point. It took another five minutes of personal pep-talking, but I ultimately did the only thing I could do and put the stupid thing on over my bra and panties. You see that girl standing in front of the floor-length mirror? Look a little closer… Take in every inch of the white fur covering her entire body. Let your eyes peruse the pink ears standing straight up from her head. Note the giant, over-the-top grin with whiskers sticking out from her rose-colored cheeks. Even peer behind her and check out the fluffy white tail sewn to her butt. What appears to be a giant rabbit is actually me, Alex Little, inside of a horrid costume.

I’m that girl, desperately pimping myself out as a rabbit called Sprinkles. No, not that kind of pimping. The nonsexual, “I swear I’m not a hooker” kind where I parade around in a costume for a kid’s birthday party. Don’t worry, I’m wondering the exact same thing as you right now. How in the hell did I get here? I sighed for what had to be the one-hundredth time. I look like an idiot. Turning to the side, I wiggled my ass a little and watched the cotton tail move back and forth with my hips. Yep. Definitely ridiculous. There was no way anyone could wear this look on a regular basis and come out ahead in life. But there was only one reason a twenty-five-year-old woman would willingly pimp herself out as a rabbit for a rich kid’s birthday party—pretty much the reason anyone did anything: Money. Times were tough. I’d recently gotten fired from my job as a bartender—apparently, I have no patience for drunk people—and I was exactly two months behind on rent for my humble abode, aka a sh*tty studio apartment in LA that was the size of a shoebox. And believe me, it wasn’t the big box for fall boots kind of accommodations. This was flipflops-sized-shoebox living. I grabbed my phone off the bed and double-checked the email I’d received from my new employer—Princess Party Productions—for the home address at which I’d be humiliating myself. I couldn’t deny, when I’d answered their ad in the paper, I honestly thought I’d get to be an actual princess like Cinderella or Snow White. I had no clue there’d be a f*cking rabbit costume included in the job requirements. To: Alex Little From: Princess Party Productions, LA Subject: Alex’s Magical Princess Schedule! Hi, Alex! We are all one big, happy fairy-tale family here at Princess Party Productions, and we are so excited that you are now a part of our team! Here’s Saturday’s details: You’ll be Sprinkles the Rabbit for a pretty little girl’s 7th birthday party! Yay! I bet you’re so excited! Time: 12:00pm to 4:00pm Clients’ names: Mr. and Mrs. Franklin and Kitty Devlin. Child’s name: Lemon Devlin. Address: 1865 Folly Lane in Laurel Canyon

Contact Number: 555-123-8777 Please pick up your magical costume from our office Friday afternoon. Have a lovely, magical day! Princess Mindy <3

Princess Mindy. That’s what my new boss called herself. Obviously, the company name made more sense after I’d figured that out. I wouldn’t get to be a princess; I’d just get bossed around by one. When Tina from HR had interviewed me for the job last week, she hadn’t mentioned Princess Party Productions was run by a woman in her forties who called herself Princess Mindy and appeared to think everything was magical and signed all of her emails with a little heart. I would have remembered that. I had a feeling Prozac was at play here. No one in their right mind could pull off that insane level of cheery without medication. f*cking Sprinkles the Rabbit. He was the next big thing in kids’ television shows. That big-ass rabbit had gained a crazy amount of popularity over the past year, and kids ate up his dance moves like crack. The only difference between Sprinkles and Barney was that Sprinkles couldn’t talk or sing. He just danced around ineptly and made a game out of getting himself into trouble. I didn’t understand the fascination, but then again, I’d never understood that purple dinosaur either. The instant I’d read Princess Mindy’s email, I’d almost backed out of the deal, but the whole needing-to-eat thing urged me to get a few more details about the job before throwing in the towel. The rest of the email exchange between Princess Prozac and me had only proved that I’d officially fallen down the rabbit hole straight into fairy-tale job hell. To: Princess Party Productions, LA From: Alex Little Subject: Re: Alex’s Magical Princess Schedule! How much will I get paid for Saturday? -Alex

Obviously, I’d taken Mindy’s tendency to embellish as optional during my side of the email exchanges. To: Alex Little From: Princess Party Productions, LA Subject: Re: Re: Alex’s Magical Princess Schedule

Greetings and Salutations, Alex, You will get paid 500 Princess Dollars for the magical party on Saturday! Isn’t that wonderful? Please feel free to send me another magical email if you have any other curious questions! Sincerely, Princess Mindy <3

To: Princess Party Productions, LA From: Alex Little Subject: Re: Re: Re: Alex’s Magical Princess Schedule! One more question. What’s the exchange rate for Princess Dollars? Is that like a 1 to 1 thing with USD? -Alex

To: Alex Little From: Princess Party Productions, LA Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Alex’s Magical Princess Schedule! Oh, Alex! You are so silly. You make me smile. :) Princess Dollars are USD. But isn’t it just way more fun to call them Princess Dollars? ;) <3 Princess Mindy

I call bullsh*t, Princess Prozac. And I’ll stick with calling it money, you know, like normal human beings. Unfortunately for me, I needed five hundred bucks more than Princess Mindy needed a reality check. And she needed one badly. Yesterday, when I’d dropped by the offices to grab my costume, she’d greeted me in a fluffy pink dress with a f*cking tiara. But five hundred dollars, remember? I glanced at the clock and realized it was already 11:15 a.m. If I didn’t get my ass out the door in the next minute, I’d be late for my very important date with mortification. With a quick tap to my phone screen, I locked it and slid my giant rabbit gloves back onto my hands and grabbed my purse. All right, Alex. It’s time to hit rock bottom.

After roaming the streets of Laurel Canyon—without any help from Google Maps because of my sh*tty cell service—since I’d gotten off the bus fifteen minutes ago, I decided to wave the white flag. It was time to ask for help. A girl could only walk up and down steep hills in eighty-degree weather inside the hot constraints of a rabbit costume for so long before she fainted. Thank God I’d decided to just wear my bra and panties underneath. Otherwise, my life expectancy inside of Sprinkles would be looking quite grim. “Excuse me! Sir!” I shouted toward a man running my way in neon green shorts and gym shoes. “Can you help me?” With sweat dripping down his forehead, he stopped in his tracks and stared at me with confused, wide eyes. “I’m trying to find 1865 Folly Lane. Am I close?” “You’re Sprinkles the Rabbit,” he said. Thank you, Captain Obvious. “Yeah…uh…I am,” I responded and tried my hardest to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “Can you help me? Am I close to Folly Lane?” He gestured toward his ear. “I can’t understand anything you’re saying.” Oh, right. Big f*cking head in the way. I took off the rabbit head and tucked it between my arm and side. “Am I close to 1865 Folly Lane?” “You’re not supposed to know how to talk, and you’re definitely not supposed to take off your head.” But…didn’t you just…? f*cking hell. People, man. “Uh…” I squinted my eyes and searched awkwardly for a response. “Hold on! You’re Sprinkles!” he exclaimed. “Can you stay right here? My daughter loves your show! Let me go get her real quick! She really wants to meet you!” “Uh…I don’t really have time for—” “Wow! She’s going to be so excited! Just put your head back on, and I’ll be right back!” he shouted and sprinted in the opposite direction before I could stop him. Seriously? What is happening right now? Dumbly, I stood frozen in my fluffy white feet. I was all for making kids happy, but f*cking hell, I didn’t have time to do the Sprinkles song and dance for this guy’s kid. I was already late for the first kid I was supposed to make a fool out of myself for.

Please, let Google Maps work this time, I offered up a silent prayer and slipped off a furry white glove to use my phone. One tap to the app and a quick search of the address— and a little help from the god of cell service—and I was in business. I was literally only 800 feet from their house. I put my rabbit head back in place and continued, up the rest of the hill and to the right, the numbers 1865 shone like a beacon from a mailbox at the end of a long driveway. “Thank f*ck,” I muttered to myself and headed up the driveway on my already aching muscles and tired feet. Laurel Canyon was gorgeous, but it was a bitch to navigate on foot. And considering I’d been attempting to navigate it by furry foot since I’d gotten off the bus twenty minutes ago, I just wanted to sit down and take off this ridiculous costume. After finishing the death climb up their freaking Mount Everest style driveway, I realized my physical fitness might be a little lacking. I’d put signing up for a gym membership on the bottom of my to-do list. Just below pay for apartment and try not to die of malnourishment. When I finally caught my breath, my eyes popped wide, and I blinked several times. Holy hell. The house went on for what felt like miles. The driveway circled around a monstrosity of a marble fountain with water that sparkled and shone beneath the rays of the summer sun. Jaguars, Audis, and other luxury cars surrounded it. Who are these people? I felt like I’d stepped into a completely different world. Not to mention, I’m stepping into this world while wearing the world’s most ridiculous costume. But let’s try to avoid thinking about that, okay? Three knocks to the door and a woman dressed in a fitted white maxi dress and nude stilettos opened the nine foot wooden monstrosity with a scowl. I had the instant feeling of familiarity when I saw her face, but I couldn’t quite place the connection. “You’re late,” she spat. “You were supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago. Where in the hell have you been?” Listen, lady, I’ve been roaming these f*cking hills since I got off the bus. Nothing will happen to your kid because Sprinkles is a little late, but I might die from heat exhaustion, and think about how that’d mess up your decor… I bit my tongue in the name of a paycheck. “I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “I had a hard time finding your house. Laurel Canyon is a little hard to navigate.” Her eyes narrowed. “What?” “I said, I’m sorry—”

“I can’t understand a word you’re saying underneath that thing.” She waved a quick, indifferent hand toward my costume. I sighed and removed the rabbit head. “I said, I’m sorry. Your house was hard to find, and Laurel Canyon is a bit hard to navigate.” “And your point?” Wow. You’re a bitch, huh? “I’m really sorry,” I apologized again. “I’m calling your boss and complaining. There’s no way we’re going to pay you the full amount when you’ve basically missed half of the party,” she declared with a flip of her long, blond hair off her shoulder. It was that exact movement that helped me connect the dots. Her name was Kitty Devlin, and she was an up-and-coming actress who’d just starred in a big blockbuster—ironically called Heat Stroke. And her husband, Franklin Devlin, was the producer. Although I felt like throwing the rabbit head directly at her face and blowing this rich popsicle stand, I slowed my irrational roll and offered a simple nod instead. I was late, and this was a paid gig. Any argument I might conjure would only have a rocky foundation. “Okay.” Her cat eyes scrutinized my face closely before peeking into the top of my suit and down at my body. “Put that head back on,” she demanded, her face morphing into a scowl. “And don’t even think about taking it off for the rest of the day. This might be a party filled with only the most exclusive people in LA, but it is not a place for you to try to get a modeling gig or acting job or whatever. We’re paying you to be Sprinkles. Not network.” Modeling gig? Acting job? What was this woman talking about? I was here to earn an easy paycheck, not sleaze my way into Hollywood. And it wasn’t like I had my tit* on display. I was a giant white rabbit, for f*ck’s sake. “You got it,” I said and put the god-awful rabbit head back over my face. “The kids are waiting outside on the terrace to get their picture with you,” she tossed out with another flip of her long, blond locks before striding back into the house on her red-soled, nude stilettos. Of course she’s wearing Louboutins. At least if I drool, the rabbit head will conceal it. I swallowed my pride and followed her lead, the feet of my costume thumping softly across the marble floor of the entryway. The house was a shameless display of wealth— gold embellishments along the walls, a giant, two-sided staircase leading toward the upstairs, and enough expensive furniture and décor to make a child feel as if they were in a museum instead of a home. Rich people, man. It was the complete opposite of my reality—and always had been. Growing up, I’d spent my youth living with my only remaining relative, my aunt Delores, inside of her two-bedroom bungalow on the outskirts of San Diego. There was no air conditioning in the summer, and an old, beat-up sofa from the fifties was the front porch’s

only seating accommodation. But if my aunt hadn’t taken me in as a baby, I would’ve ended up in foster care. I didn’t know much about my birth parents, but I knew enough to understand that they weren’t fit parents. Both of them lived a rough life. My world was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kitty Devlin’s, but at least I had something of my own and a place I considered home. That was enough. High-pitched squeals and screams pounded against my eardrums as we stepped out onto the terrace. Jesus Christ, youthful excitement is intense. “Lemon!” Kitty announced as a mob of small, bouncing, smiling children surrounded us. “Are you ready to get your picture taken with Sprinkles?” I almost forgot her name is Lemon… What was it with rich people naming their kids after things like fruit or rocket ships or moonbeams? If a kid would’ve been named Lemon in my childhood neighborhood, no doubt they would’ve gotten their ass kicked. “Sprinkles!” a little girl in a frilly pink dress screamed at the top of her lungs. She skipped toward me and wrapped her tiny arms around my furry waist. “I love you, Sprinkles!” For lack of anything better to do, I patted the top of her head. “Look toward Consuela,” Kitty instructed. “And smile for Mommy!” Lemon clutched me tighter and turned her little face toward the Spanish woman holding the camera. Three quick flashes filled the air, and the rest of the kids started to demand their turn for a picture while the adults looked on apathetically from the outskirts of the spacious terrace with champagne flutes and rocks glasses in their hands. Most of their faces were familiar as well. Famous actors, professional athletes, even popular musicians made up the crowd. God, this was weird. It was like I’d literally fallen down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe of rich and crazy. A little boy wearing a sports coat and tie stepped in front of me. I looked down at him and was thankful my facial expression was hidden behind the rabbit head. I didn’t generally like to judge people, especially kids, but my gut instinct screamed he was a little asshole. “Are you the real Sprinkles?” he asked, and I nodded. “I think you’re a liar.” He pointed an accusatory finger toward my face. “I think you’re not even a bunny. I think you’re an old man inside of a costume.” Since Sprinkles wasn’t supposed to talk, I did the only thing I could do in that moment —I tap-danced. Most likely incompetently, but it wasn’t like the giant feet were helping my movements.

Truthfully, I didn’t have a clue if Sprinkles tap-danced, but I didn’t have much to work with either. “Does this hurt?” the little boy asked before landing the hardest kick his little suede loafers could manage. Impact was successful, his little foot cracking directly into my shin. I bit my lip to stop myself from screaming at him. f*cking hell. It took all of my strength not to kick the little asshole back. “No, Nolan.” Consuela moved between us. “No kick. Only picture with Sprinkles.” “Whatever.” Nolan shrugged and wrapped his little jerk arms around my waist. “Take my picture now,” he demanded, and Consuela, a mere servant like me, jumped to do his bidding. And the party continued like that for the next hour. Underneath the scorching rays of the California sun, I stood behind the giant smiling head of my stupid rabbit costume and took pictures with every kid in attendance. By the end of it, I’d received no less than fifty kicks to the shins and had internally flipped off every child and adult. It had to be the worst job I’d ever had. Mentally, I made a note never to respond to an ad that had the words quick and easy money in it. Once I received my paycheck from Princess Party Productions, I’d be resigning from my position as Sprinkles, the f*cking birthday bunny. Princess Prozac and her Princess Dollars could hop on a magical carpet ride to f*ck Off Lane. Sure, I needed money and I was behind on rent, but a human being could only tolerate so much, especially when it came to little assholes like Nolan. “Lemon! It’s time for cake,” Kitty announced with a slight smile on her Botox-injected face. Every child at the party screamed at the top of their lungs, and thankfully, ran in the opposite direction of me as Consuela wheeled out a giant pink and gold cake filled with candles onto the terrace. As they started to sing happy birthday, I made a beeline to the side of the house, outside of the fray, where they had some more furniture and a staircase to the yard below. It was mostly empty, besides a few men dressed in sleek suits standing in a small group underneath a trellis near the stairs. They appeared to be deep in discussion and unaware of everything around them—including my presence and the fact that most of the party was currently watching the little birthday fruit blow out her candles. Their voices were too muffled to actually hear what they were saying, but one could only assume they were talking about something boring like stocks or yachts or retirement investments. Isn’t that what people with money talked about? And I could not have cared less what their conversation was about. I was focused solely on getting out of my rabbit costume before I became rabbit stew. f*ck, this costume is hot as balls.

As the party moved inside of the house to eat cake, I sighed in relief. A girl could only take so many kicks to the shins from kids before she started to get jumpy at the mere sight of them. But that reprieve only lasted so long, as the group of men didn’t move. f*ck. What now? Droplets of sweat dripped down my forehead and bare back. If I didn’t find amnesty from the rabbit sauna soon, Sprinkles was going to pass the f*ck out. I’m sure that won’t give the kids any nightmares. While surveying the group for a casual way around them, I spotted a pack of cigs peeking out from the back pocket of the tallest guy. Those look good. Sure, I’d never smoked in my life, but right now, in the middle of this birthday party from Hades, it seemed like it might be an appropriate time to start. Good thing I’d learned a few pickpocketing tricks back in my teenage days…

“DID I SAY YOU COULD put that down here?” Kitty Devlin shrieked, loud enough to draw the attention of the whole party. She was a drama queen, much like many of the women in her financial position were, but it was mostly harmless. Probably not to the young waiter who shook visibly as he picked up the tray he’d apparently placed in the wrong spot, but to me and my crowd, a little temper tantrum was nothing to get excited about. “Good Christ,” Harrison March muttered under his breath before taking a swig of his beer. “If Jackson didn’t have the hots for Lemon, I would have skipped this sh*t.” I shook my head with a smile as he scratched at his trim, blondish beard and closed his green eyes in irritation. “They’re both seven.” Hare shrugged, and Damien Dormuss chuckled outright. “Yeah, but he’s my kid. He’s pumped full of testosterone.” Hare and Damien had been with me for twelve and ten years respectively. I’d been searching for someone to count on after my father died of a heart attack fifteen years ago and left everything Wonderland encompassed to me, but no one had had the head for it prior to Hare. He was smart and fast, and while a little impulsive, he had the loyalty and intensity I really needed. Damien was much smaller in stature than Hare, almost meek to the naked eye, but underneath his small, olive-skinned frame, he was full of quiet power. “You wish,” Damien teased. As much as Hare might not be enjoying Lemon’s party, attendance wasn’t really an option. Kitty and Franklin Devlin were longtime acquaintances of Wonderland, Inc., and while a kid’s party wasn’t our most frequent scene, it was all about the show. Hiding money, backing Franklin on his debts when necessary, and whatever else they got themselves into, we were there when they needed us, just how we were for all of the other members of our insanely large, global organization. And for our trouble, they paid us a tremendous amount of money, which we carefully allocated and hid in the layers of complicated events—like this party—further extending the reach of our power. On the surface, we’d been paid our standard organizational fee as well as individual vendor fees for each facet of the party—the caterers, magician, Sprinkles the Rabbit—but there were also a few other carefully placed line items that had no actual purpose other than moving money. Parking fees, maintenance fees, location fees, you name it—anything that would

blend all too easily on our books. Just like a f*cking septic guy, I made a lot of money getting my own hands dirty so other people didn’t have to. The Devlins weren’t into the hardest drugs or even the dirtiest parties, but Franklin had a gambling habit he liked covered up, and Kitty liked handbags too much to pay in full on their taxes. When you were in the top three percent, you didn’t want to pay taxes on that kind of money, and some tax exemptions only existed inside Wonderland Inc.’s books. Depending on the amount of money we were hiding, sometimes, a client’s cash would enjoy some vacation time in one of our many offshore bank accounts. In this case, with a child’s birthday the supposed front, we were only dealing with a barely six-figure number —for LA, mere child’s play. We didn’t need the Caribbean to babysit our money this time. Our being here was both a show of support and a reminder of who allowed them to stay in this position. Without us, they’d be f*cked, and it was best for everyone if they didn’t have any trouble remembering that. As a businessman, I spent most of my days trying to expand the number of people who felt that way. My dad had laid a lot of the groundwork in his tenure in my position, but he’d barely even skimmed the top of the barrel of possibilities for Wonderland, Inc. He would have, though, I knew—if he’d had more time. “…ole Charles King. Once we’ve got his ass sitting pretty in the White House, nobody will be able to touch us,” I heard from across the terrace. What the f*ck? Charles King, one of the politicians in the race for nomination to President of the United States, and an important player in our next move as an organization, was a name I never wanted to hear this close to the outside world. People listened, people talked, and even our name associated with him in the smallest way could f*ck us over in the future. I swiveled my gaze from Damien and Hare, still ripe in the throes of ribbing each other, and scanned until I found the source of the name. Jay Pidge was gesturing wildly, showboating in a way that even I could see it from across the f*cking patio. It wasn’t a stretch to think the name had come from him. Thanks to his Elvis-like good looks and an easy smile, he mistakenly thought he could get away with more than another average guy, and that often led to running his mouth about things he obviously shouldn’t. This time it was to Eric Queen, who, unlike Jaybird, was smart enough to look uncomfortable with the setting of their conversation. He scanned the area around them surreptitiously, stopping suddenly. I followed his gaze to the back corner of the house, where none other than Sprinkles the Rabbit stood listening to their conversation. I narrowed my eyes as Sprinkles started to move—toward Jaybird and Eric. Eric’s attention was no longer on the rabbit as one of the sexier waitresses walked by, and Jaybird, distracted by his ego and a half-smoked cigarette, was oblivious to everything.

Sprinkles used their complacency to his advantage. Scooting by and, to the casual observer, keeping to himself, Sprinkles moved past Eric and Jay and down the stairs into the side yard. Unfortunately for Sprinkles—and Jaybird—I had a finely trained eye, and I hadn’t missed the lightning fast, supersmooth pick of Jay Pidge’s pocket. “Everything all right?” Harrison finally asked, noticing my rapt attention and the crease in my forehead. It was one of my only tells, a facial tic I’d tried for years to control without success. Everything else, though, I kept locked behind a fortress. “Fine,” I said, waving him off as I watched to see where the rabbit went before turning to face him. Until I knew how big of a problem we actually had, I was going to handle this sh*t myself. Because this was an innocent, though spoiled, child’s birthday party, and sometimes people other than me forgot how to be subtle. Jerking my head, I indicated I’d be back and stepped away to follow the furry perpetrator. By the time I made it through the crowd that was starting to filter back onto the terrace, past a still complaining Kitty, and made my way down the stairs, the rabbit head lay abandoned on the top of a picnic table, and everything I’d initially thought had been reworked. Sprinkles the Rabbit wasn’t a man at all. No, she was all woman. Good Christ. One arm at a time, she pulled the thick costume from her dewy skin and then folded it down from her shoulders. Her collarbone framed her delicate neck perfectly, and the tips of her blond hair fell down and into the nearly overfilled cups of her black lace bra. Her nipples weren’t peaked, the heat of the day and a nice stint as a f*cking furry rabbit at a birthday party making sure of that, but the dusky rose color was obvious through the transparent material. She shoved the loose costume down the length of her trim waist before shimmying it over her hips and stepping out of the pooled fur with one leg and then the other. Completely oblivious to my attention, she turned away and bent forward to pull her haul out of the white glove of her costume. The cheeks of her ass were high and round, perfectly symmetrical on each side of the thin string of her thong, but I knew better than to let it distract me. The key to being in a business like mine was never to let the physical bleed into the emotional. Skin, tit*, puss*—it was all good for pleasure and sensation, but clever men saw its value as something else—something that could and would be used against them. It really is a perfect ass, though. I watched her hands closely as she fished inside the plush material, crossing my arms over my chest and one ankle over the other and leaning into the hot brick of the house.

Irritation prickled my skin at the carelessness of one of my highest-ranking guys. Information and the ability to keep it secret was the backbone of our organization, and Jay Pidge, better known as Jaybird, was a f*cking idiot. He probably carried all sorts of sh*t around in his wallet in addition to running his mouth in public, and after I cleaned up his mess here, I was going to make a mess of him. Shiny cardboard glinted in the sunlight as it cleared the glove and landed with a plop on the picnic table. She shoved her hand back into the glove and came out with a lighter. Instantly, I recognized the custom insignia of Jay’s crest on the side as she set it next to the pack of cigarettes on the table. With impatient fingers, she opened the top to pull out a single stick and sank into the attached bench with her back to the table—and me. She turned briefly to light the cigarette, redeposited the lighter to its spot on the table, and turned back away to fan her face. It was hot today, the California sun heating the April air to a balmy eighty degrees and sticking with little to no breeze, but with the minuscule amount of clothing she had left on, I had no doubt she’d be cool in no time. Surprisingly done with the gloves, she picked them up and tossed them onto the ground with the rest of her costume and let her head fall back to soak up the sun. That’s it? No wallet? Did she really just pickpocket one of my guys for f*cking cigarettes? f*ck, no one ever surprised me. Ever. I felt my face curl into a soft smile as the swells of her breasts heaved with her sigh. Thanks to my height, I had no problem seeing them over her shoulder. I couldn’t help but move closer as the soft tendrils of her ponytail fell forward and stuck to the sweaty skin of her chest. Finally, after letting nearly goddamn half of the cigarette burn off on its own, she put it between her lips and inhaled—and then choked like an amateur.

ONCE I FOUND A QUIET, hidden spot—out of eyeshot from anyone in the party—in the Devlins’ yard, I all but kicked off the rabbit costume and sat my underwear-clad ass down on the bench of the Devlins’ ornate, concrete picnic table while I fanned my face with my hand. Thankfully, the eighty-degree air felt cool in comparison to that f*cking costume, and I was finally moving away from the possibility of leaving this party in an ambulance. I’d never been a smoker, never even really enjoyed the taste of cigarettes, but today felt like the day I might actually enjoy the nicotine high those cancer sticks could provide. I snagged one from the commandeered pack and lit it. One small inhale and three hearty coughs followed. Yuck. Now I remember why I’m not a fan. “Cigs taste better out of someone else’s pocket?” The deep, baritone voice came out of nowhere, and I jumped off the bench and to my feet. “Jesus Christ!” I shouted, a panicked hand to my chest at the sight of him. Thankfully, not the one with the cigarette, because holy f*ck, that would have hurt. He was tall and muscular, both dauntingly so, and he was standing just on the other side of the table. “You scared the sh*t out of me!” “You should be more aware of your surroundings,” he said without apology, tucking his large hands into the pockets of his pants and kicking just one corner of his exotic looking mouth up into a grin. With a heavy brow and super intense whiskey eyes, his face as a whole was undeniably handsome. But with a scar that ran through one eyebrow and a jaw so severe it alarmed me, he seemed equally sinister. But goddamn, he’s attractive. It was like his lips held the power to spin a web and ensnare me in a matter of a few measly words. I had the knee-jerk reaction of putting my guard up before he hypnotized me. “Maybe you shouldn’t sneak up on people,” I retorted and, hoping it would settle my sizzling nerves, attempted to take another drag from the cig in my hand. I, of course, ended up coughing like a maniac again. His strong mouth easily deepened its grin. “First time?”

“No.” I rolled my eyes. “Of course not.” He quirked a brow, and trust me, when this guy raised a brow, it didn’t just call bullsh*t. It called it double. But I was stubborn, and maybe a little reckless. I’d be damned if I was going to let him be right. “It isn’t. I used to smoke in high school, thank you very much.” I’d only smoked once when I was a senior, and it ended the exact same way. But, technically, that made me right. His eyes were both searching and placating at once. Almost as though he wanted me to feel at ease with him as a means to better be able to strike. “Oh, so it’s old hat, then?” I shrugged. “Something like that.” His eyes ran the line of my body slowly. “Got a little hot in that costume?” I glanced at the costume on the ground and then down at my chest, and my eyes went wide. Holy sh*t. My nipples are showing! If Kitty Devlin found me lounging around her yard in my underwear, she’d lose her f*cking mind. That whole partial proration for being late thing would slide painfully over to zero. And then how would I pay for the fractured shins all of these little jerks had left me with? I bent and reached for the rabbit costume, but so quickly I didn’t see it coming, his large hand wrapped gently around my wrist. “Please, don’t get dressed on my account. I’m quite enjoying the view.” “Are you hitting on me?” I asked, and my gaze locked with his. I couldn’t stop myself from getting lost in the fascinating color of his eyes. Soft like honey yet strong like whiskey, they were a singular, mesmerizing shade away from every and any color I’d ever seen before. Truly unique. My stomach turned over as I realized how badly I wanted him to say he was flirting. He shrugged. “That depends.” “On what, exactly?” “If I say yes, are you putting the costume back on?” “Uh…yeah,” I responded. It’d be a little sleazy if I didn’t put the costume back on after that. Right? f*ck, I needed to put the costume back on anyway before Kitty found me. Plus, my subconscious whispered, you do realize he can actually see your nipples, right? Just reminding you. I guessed I probably should’ve been alarmed by that fact, but I wasn’t. At least, not enough to let it show. Maybe the heat had finally gone to my brain? The strong lines of his jaw softened in a way I believed impossible. And when his lips quirked up into a small smirk, completely different from his original menacing grin, mind

you, I forgot all about my subconscious’s reminder. “Then, no, I’m not. I was merely making an observation about the generous view.” I couldn’t not smile at that. God, who was this man? He’d appeared out of nowhere. Maybe I really had passed out from heat stroke, and he was an illusion. If he’s an illusion, Alex, he’s the best sexual mirage you’ve ever seen. The equivalent of an ice-cold glass of water in the middle of the Sahara. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” “I don’t give my name to strangers,” I said. Jesus. I sounded exactly like one of the petulant kids at this party. He chuckled and held out his hand. “I’m Matt.” His amusem*nt disarmed me. “I’m Alex,” I said, and when his palm met mine, I felt overwhelmed—like anxiousness was consuming me. I wanted to let go and latch on at the same f*cking time. “The pleasure’s all mine, Alex.” He held my hand for a few beats too long before releasing it. “So, this birthday rabbit gig…is this your regular job?” I laughed. “Um, no. Pretty sure it’s a one-time thing.” He grinned. “Not a fan of the costume?” “That’s putting it mildly,” I answered honestly, realizing for the first time that we were completely alone, and I didn’t know what he was capable of. He was a beast of a man with trim, cut muscles filling out his commandingly tall frame. Short, mussed up dark hair highlighted his strength and even the slightly severe lines of his scruff-covered face. I should have feared him. Rationally, I knew it. But my curiosity had always lived by a code of rebelliousness, and now was no different. He was the apple Eve had taken a bite out of in human form. Sexy outweighed sinister. Appeal overshadowed consequence. I bet he tasted so good, but was so very bad at the same time. Seriously, who is he? I feel drugged. “What’s your deal?” I blurted out. “My deal?” “Everyone at this party is either an actor or musician or someone extremely famous and with a lot of money,” I explained. “What are you?” Like he’d flipped a switch, his smile was utterly wicked again. “I’m an entrepreneur.” “Isn’t that what people say when they don’t really have a job?” He smirked. “Some people, yes. Do I seem like someone without a job to you?”

I shrugged. “How would I know? I don’t know you.” “Ah, but I know you.” His statement strong and sure, he actually looked like he did. Apparently, the muscles of his face were well versed in confidence. But reason prodded in my mind, and I scoffed. “We just met.” “I’m good at reading people,” he clarified. I was both interested and agitated at once, a buzz starting at my toes and humming all the way up into the apples of my flushed cheeks. This guy thought he somehow knew me? I barely knew myself most days. “What’s my story, then, Mr. Know-It-All?” I challenged. He tucked a loose tendril of hair behind my ear, and I shivered. “You’re a little lost,” he stated, his voice soft. “You haven’t always been, but you’ve reached a crossroads in your life, and you’re still trying to figure out your path.” I fought to keep my face neutral. Jesus Christ, can he read my mind or something? f*ck, I hoped not. “You’re definitely scrappy, though,” he added. “Even when life hands you a pile of sh*t, you still manage to make it work.” “And you figured all of that out in a matter of a five-minute conversation?” The tiny gold flecks in his eyes twinkled. “Something like that.” “I think the fact that I’m sitting here in my underwear puts me at a disadvantage,” I retorted, finally feeling the uncomfortable edge of nakedness creep in. “I mean, anyone would think I’m either lost or moonlighting in prostitution.” He shook his head. “Sitting here in your underwear is what gives you power. Don’t mistake the courage to fight embarrassment as weakness.” I tilted my head to the side even as I stood a little taller under his praise. Something about the way he spoke made it seem so absolute. Like if he thought I was courageous, it was because I really was. “Then what was it?” “What was what?” “What gave me away,” I clarified. He smiled, reaching up softly to thumb just the corner of my eye. And like a fool, I let him. “Sorry, sweet Alex. If I told you, I just might have to kill you.” I watched his strong mouth move with each word. When his playful threat was done, I directed my gaze toward his eyes, but I could only let myself stare into them for so long. They were too vivid, too knowing, too mesmerizing, just too much. I feared they held the power of the sun, and if I looked into them for too long, I’d either go blind or fall under his spell. He slipped a business card out of his jacket pocket and offered it to me. My brain was too busy with my thoughts to question simple actions, and I ordered my hand to take it almost immediately. “Come see me. I think you’d find that my company is a much better

fit for you.” I stared down at the front of the sleek, white card in my hands and scanned the glittery gold words imprinted in the center. Wonderland, Inc. Matt Hadder, CEO Matt leaned toward me, grazing the skin of my upper arm with just a tease of his hand, and whispered into my ear, “I quite like your fire, Alex.” One swift inhale through my nose and I was assaulted with the scent of him. f*ck, he smelled delicious. More appealing than a bakery at seven in the morning—vanilla and cinnamon and something very distinctly him. But before I could respond or ask the one million questions floating around in my brain or do something stupid like lick his neck to see if he tasted as good as he smelled, he was gone.

“MATT—” “Save it,” I snapped, cutting Jay Pidge off before he could give me some useless excuse. The crack of my voice was harsh like a whip in a way I rarely used. Normally, I found calm deadlier than aggression, but not with Jaybird. He was bullheaded and stubborn and far too co*cky for anybody’s good. He wasn’t just a danger to himself or me or even f*cking Wonderland—he’d now endangered a woman who had absolutely nothing to do with us. The problem lay in the unknown. Had Alex actually heard their conversation? Unfortunately, if the answer to that question was yes, then the little rabbit was now a risk, a loose end that needed to be tied. If her ears had been perked up when she was standing by Jaybird and his giant f*cking mouth, then she would have been privy to information that was otherwise classified. Information, that if it got into the wrong hands, could cause some serious f*cking problems for my organization. Casualties were a part of the business, but they weren’t something to get used to. They were a liability even in death, and I didn’t f*cking like unknowns. We needed to keep an eye on Alex, and hopefully, she’d do the smart thing and utilize the phone number on my business card—it could mean the difference between life and death. The urgency of that situation wasn’t lost on me. It was why I hadn’t wasted more than one night before calling Jaybird into my office to answer for his actions. “You’re lucky she didn’t take you for anything more than your smokes and your godawful gaudy lighter,” I scolded, stepping around my large mahogany desk to lean my ass into the front. With two hands in the air and his best impression of a good old boy embodying his being, he tried to talk his way out of it. “I wouldn’t keep anything that important on me, Matt. Swear.” But his styled black hair and sweet blue eyes meant nothing to me. I smiled with malice. “But you were running your mouth to Spade and Eric, things you know you shouldn’t be talking about in the first place, and you were doing it in goddamn public.” “I didn’t say anything sensitive,” he started, gripping the arms of his chair tightly to

push up to standing. I grabbed the letter opener from the top of my desk swiftly and planted it into his hand in one smooth motion, through the flesh and straight into the wood of the chair arm before he could finish the lie. “Ah Jesus, f*ck,” he wailed, his eyes pinched together tightly in pain as blood shot out and ran down the leg of the chair to a small pool on the floor. The difference in his crimson vitality and the polished cream marble of my floor was stark. I moved closer to his face and lowered my voice. “Do not bullsh*t me. I was watching you. I know what you were talking about, and I know you shouldn’t have been talking about it. Got it?” His face grayed in pallor, part fear, part blood loss, and his large frame shook as he fought the adrenaline and panic and met my eyes. Finally, a smart move. “I got it, Matt,” he assured me. “I’m sorry.” I pushed back away from him and leaned into the desk as I pulled my jacket from my shoulders and started to unbutton my white shirt. Dots of his blood marred the pristine fabric and spread as they soaked into the fibers. “This isn’t the first time you’ve f*cked up, but it will be the last. Do you understand me?” I asked, letting my open shirt fall loosely at my sides. He jerked his head in agreement instantly. “Get out,” I ordered, nodding to Cal Monarch, my security advisor, who’d been standing in the back corner of my office throughout our meeting. Jaybird jumped up to move, but literally attached to the chair via impalement, he had to grit his teeth against the pain as he pulled the letter opener from his hand. Sweat dotted his entire face, and his normally coiffed hair drooped into his pained eyes. Still, he said nothing before wiping the letter opener on the sleeve of his own jacket to clean it before placing it back on my desk like a good little boy. Cal smiled as the door closed behind Jay and took a seat in his vacated chair, completely unaffected by the mess. Jay’s blood soaked into the sleeve of his shirt and climbed the fabric of his pants like a vine as it swished around on the pool on the floor. I shook my head with a laugh and opened the door to my closet to pull out a fresh shirt. “What?” Cal asked. “You.” I jerked my head toward the blood smearing his previously pristine clothes. For sh*t’s sake, the blood had to be getting cold now, and yet he sat in it as if it were a bubble bath. “And people say I’m ruthless.” Cal smirked. “You are the one who made the mess.” I sighed. “He needed a lesson. He’s been running wild for a while now.” “I know,” Cal agreed. I laughed a little, a lighthearted thought clearing my mind as I buttoned up my shirt and settled into the seat. “I really thought his blood would be blue. The flashy motherf*cker.” Cal’s smile, despite the scary lines of his face, was downright gleeful. Something I

wouldn’t have thought possible if I didn’t know him. Something like ninety-eight percent Bannock Indian, he’d left the reservation in Idaho nearly twenty years ago, searching for something else—and never looked back. I found it a little ironic that a place as brazen and violent as Wonderland was where he found peace. “I know. I’m actually thankful Alex Little stole that f*cking lighter. We should give her access to his entire closet.” “Alex Little, huh?” I asked with interest. “You have her file?” “Yep. Right here,” Cal said, sitting up and reaching around his back. “I’m not going to need another new shirt, am I?” I teased. Cal pulled the file from its spot tucked into the back of his pants and flipped it back and forth to check for blood. “Not this time.” He tossed it onto the desk in front of me with a grin. I opened the front, and the first thing on top was a picture of her. It had been taken in profile and without her knowledge, her hair swept back neatly off of her makeup-free face with a simple blue headband. Her eyes looked like the waters of the Caribbean they were so aqua, even at this angle. She looked entirely too innocent. The thought of her standing in the Devlins’ backyard in nothing but her bra and panties, giving me sass, had made a distinctly opposite impression. “What’s her situation?” I asked Cal, even as I read through her basic stats. Alex Little, age twenty-five, parents deceased. Her only living family, an aunt in San Diego. Clean bill of health from what I could see. No STDs or chronic illnesses. No major past medical history besides a wisdom teeth extraction. And no medications besides her daily birth control pill. It might seem a bit over the top to delve into someone’s medical records, but you’d be surprised the kind of information you could find on a person that way. And, it was my job to know everything. Plus, when it came to the employees of Wonderland, Inc. I didn’t relish the idea of sexually transmitted diseases running rampant through my staff and clientele. Wonderland’s pleasure girls, for example, were required to test every three months. “She seems normal,” he responded once my eyes left the file and met his. I rolled my eyes, and he laughed. “Yeah, I know. What is normal anyway? But she’s got an apartment, had a job as a bartender that she just lost before taking on the costume gig where we met her, single, has no real friends—” “And how’s that normal?” I cut him off to ask. “Shouldn’t a twenty-five-year-old like her have friends?” He shrugged, seemingly unaffected by that detail. “She just moved here. She’s struggling, not partying.”

“You like her,” I surmised, studying the inky color of his nearly black eyes. Cal smiled and shrugged again. “I hate that f*cking lighter. He was always flicking it, all the goddamn time.” “f*ck that lighter.” I was starting to get frustrated by his cavalier attitude. “Is she a problem?” Something about not knowing what I had to do with her made me feel on edge, and that wasn’t a feeling I was used to. When it came to sh*t like this, the answer probably seemed easy to most: Go question little Alex to see if she’d heard anything. But that wasn’t how situations like these were handled in my world. Interrogation only encouraged suspicions. Most times with innocent bystanders like Alex, it was best to sit back and watch, only intervening before the source did something rash or impulsive. And, if I was being honest with myself, I didn’t want to put her in that position. After a witty conversation and a little harmless flirting, she seemed promising. Any though of smothering that promise left a real f*cking bad taste in my mouth. Hardened criminals and con men who were always looking for a shady way to get a leg up were a different f*cking story. They’d have been dead before Jaybird’s impromptu meeting. “I don’t think so,” he advised. “But keeping her close until we know what she knows or doesn’t know probably isn’t a bad idea.” I sat back in my seat and smirked. Close, I could do. After all, it was what I’d already planned to do. “I already gave her my card.” His eyes narrowed. “With what number?” “Mine,” I admitted, interlacing my fingers and wrapping my hands around the back of my head. His harsh features dissolved into a playful smile again. “Wow.” “Stop.” “That’s just so unlike you, boss.” I rocked forward, sliding my hands off my head and grabbing the gold W paperweight from my desk to slide it to the other side—a fidget to camouflage how uncharacteristically involved I felt in this one. “I’m giving her a chance. You yourself said she’s struggling, and we have opportunities. That’s all. She’s got a week to use the card.” “A week?” he asked. “Yeah,” I confirmed. “And then what?” “You know what,” I told him. We’d worked together for the entire fifteen years I’d been doing this—since I was Alex Little’s age—and he’d been around for two beforehand while my father was still in charge. He knew I had my limits, and I did whatever I had to when they were crossed.

“You’re going to be able to do that?” “Don’t f*cking ask me that,” I snapped. It was one thing for Cal to be my confidant, but another for him to question me about my ability to do what needed to be done. Of course, he was a crazy motherf*cker. My threats didn’t scare him at all—nothing scared him. He shook his head with a smile. “f*ck. I guess it’s time to pray.” My eyebrows drew together. “Since when do you recognize religion?” “Since I saw Alex Little,” he said with a laugh. “She doesn’t call…” I read his mind, rolled my eyes, and finished his thought so he didn’t have to. “Waste of talent.” “Exactly.” Once the word left my lips, visuals of Alex flooded my mind. Her long, blond hair hanging down her back and nearly kissing her sexy little hips. Those mile-long legs, seemingly impossible on her tiny body, and that f*cking mouth—full, soft, pink lips that held equal parts seduction and attitude. f*ck, Cal was probably right. It was time to pray.

“ALEX,” MY AUNT DELORES CROWED into the phone. “When are you coming back to San Diego to visit me?” “I’m not sure,” I muttered. I’d planned to make the trip next month, but now that I was back to square one when it came to my job hunt, I didn’t know when I’d be able to financially. I’d officially made the decision to go into rabbit retirement about twenty minutes after I’d left the Devlins’ mansion. Unofficially, I’d probably made that decision two seconds after I’d put on the costume. Alas, despite the financial bind it’d now put me in, I wasn’t cut out to humiliate myself at kids’ birthday parties. Something about not being able to defend myself against the little sh*t-talkers didn’t sit well with me. Earlier this morning, when I’d dropped off the costume at Princess Party Productions, I’d given my verbal “no days’” notice. And surprisingly, without any “magical” argument, Princess Prozac had Tina from HR cut me a pink and glittery check for five hundred Princess Dollars, and we’d gone our separate ways. I had a hunch Kitty Devlin and her Botoxed mouth had gifted some complaints to my employee file. “I’m not going to be around much longer, ya know,” Aunt Delores muttered, and I rolled my eyes. She might have been seventy, but she was as healthy as an ox and had more energy than most thirty-year-olds. Hell, she still got up on her roof once a month to clean out her gutters. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said through a laugh. “You’ll probably live longer than I will.” “I’m seventy, honey. Time is ticking, and death is practically knocking at my door.” I sighed. It was pointless to argue with her once she started into the whole “death is knocking at my door” bit. “Okay, fine. What about next month?” I didn’t know if it was doable, but I’d try to find a way to make it work. “Next month isn’t good. I’m going to Vegas with the ladies from church.” “A church trip to Vegas? That’s a tad ironic, don’t you think?” “Don’t be such a do-gooder,” she retorted. “A little gambling in the name of the Lord

is good for the soul.” “Okay…what about August?” “I’ll have to check my schedule. We might be taking the church bus to Salt Lake City.” “What’s in Salt Lake?” “Mormons.” “But I thought you were Baptist?” “I am. That’s why we need to go to Salt Lake. Preach the name of the Lord to the Mormons.” “That makes no sense, Aunt Delores. Mormons are Christian, too.” “Fine.” She sighed. “You caught me in a lie. We’re probably going to Vegas again.” “I’m starting to wonder if your church group is actually a gambling group,” I chastised. “You’re too damn curious for your own good.” “You mean for your own good?” I corrected. “That’s neither here nor there, Alex,” she muttered. “More importantly, have you enrolled in school yet?” I cringed. “I’m still trying to save up some money.” “You’ve been saying that since you left San Diego—which was over a year ago.” “I know, but it’s not exactly easy starting from scratch. Plus, I haven’t decided what I want to major in, and I’m not going to take classes that won’t count toward my degree. College is too expensive to waste money on useless courses.” “Are you still working at that bar?” “No.” “Where are you working now?” Nowhere. “I’ve got a few odds and ends jobs.” “Sounds like you’re floundering like a beached fish. Do you need money, Alex? I can send you money.” Yes, I do. But I can’t take money from you… “No. I don’t need money. I’m fine.” “I think you should move back to San Diego. You can go to school here. Live with me for free.” “I appreciate that, I really do. But I’m happy here.” Well, I was sort of happy. I mean, my situation could be better. Money, new friends, a better apartment, those kinds of things would’ve helped my current life outlook.

“The offer always stands, Alex.” “Thanks.” “Okay, honey. I’ve gotta scoot. I’m meeting the girls for lunch. I’ll let you know about August.” “Love you, Aunt Delores.” “Love you too.” I hung up the phone and plopped my ass onto my sofa, and Deena, my cat, hopped onto my legs and curled up in my lap. Mindlessly, I ran my fingers through her black coat as I contemplated the meaning of my life. How had I gotten to this point? Over a year ago, I’d left San Diego with high hopes of finding a job, enrolling in classes at UCLA, and making a fresh start for myself. It wasn’t that I hadn’t liked San Diego, but I’d needed a change. I’d needed to spread my wings and not be so reliant on Aunt Delores. I’d needed to grow up. And I’d also wanted to surround myself with people who weren’t so complacent with their mundane, monotonous lives. It was like one day I’d woken up from a dream and I was bored. I’d felt stuck and out of place and like life had no real purpose. I’d grown tired of working at the gas station up the street from my aunt’s house. My days had become predictable. Work, hang out with my then-boyfriend Randy and our friends at the local bar, sleep, wake up, and then do it all over again. I wanted something more. When I’d made the decision to move to LA, I’d basically left everything behind—my friends, my boyfriend, my life. But even now, I still didn’t regret it. The more I was searching for was here somewhere; I could feel it. I just hated that it was taking me so long to figure it all out. Three hard knocks to my door startled me out of my thoughts. I slid Deena off my lap and headed toward my door, but five more knocks, even harsher than before, followed. Jesus, hold your horses. I peered out of the peephole and internally sighed the instant I caught sight of Vinnie Pat, my landlord. With a big beer belly and greasy, thinning hair, he wasn’t the kind of man to make house calls unless he had an important message—otherwise known as an eviction notice—to give you. Ah, f*ck. I leaned my back against the door and sighed.

“I know you’re in there, Alex! Open up,” he shouted from the other side. sh*t. I took a deep breath, turned, lifted my breasts a little higher out the top of my shirt, and opened the door. “Hey, Vin,” I greeted in a sugary-sweet voice. “You’re behind on rent.” “I know,” I admitted, thrusting my chest forward in the hopes that it would distract him from the forthcoming fib. “But I just dropped a check in the box for one month’s rent, and I’ll have the rest that I owe you next week.” I hadn’t actually dropped the check in the box yet, but I would…even though it would clean me out completely. And I might not have the rest by next week, but that would at least give me time to figure something out. Unfortunately, he seemed immune to the power of my breasts. “Here.” He shoved an envelope into my hands. “What’s this?” “An eviction notice.” “But I’m almost caught up on my rent!” I argued. He rolled his eyes. “You have one week to get out.” “Wait…what?” I questioned, my voice rising to a near shriek. “A week?” “Yeah. One week to move your sh*t out or I’m tossing it all in the trash.” “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me right now!” I exclaimed, crumpling up the envelope in my hands and throwing it to the ground. “Legally, you’re supposed to give me thirty days!” His laugh was smarmy. “Well, I’m giving you a week, sweet cheeks. Seven days and you need to find another place to call home.” “If I had the money for a lawyer, I’d be suing you, you sucky human being!” He just grinned over his shoulder as he headed for the stairs, unaffected. “If you had the money for a lawyer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and I wouldn’t be evicting you.” “You suck!” I shouted and realized how stupid I sounded. “I mean…your apartments suck! I don’t want to be here anyway! And I’m canceling that f*cking check. So…suck it, Vinnie. Yeah…suck it!” The bastard didn’t react to my words. He just kept on walking until he was no longer in sight, and the stairwell door closed behind him with a thud. “You suck!” I shouted again and then once more until I realized I was just standing in the hallway yelling at no one. “You suck!” I screamed at the top of my lungs just because and walked into my apartment and slammed the door shut. I was certain of two things: Vinnie Pat deserved a good, hard kick to the balls, and I really needed to work on my comebacks.

Also, my timeline to figure out my next move had dwindled significantly. I scrubbed a hand down my face and walked back toward the sofa. Deena stared up at me from her perch on the cushion. “What are we going to do?” I asked her. She just offered a soft purr in response as she stretched out on the couch and started softly licking her paws. “Jesus, now is not the time to kick back and lick ourselves.” I sighed. “We only have seven days to find a job and a new place to live.” She licked at her paws a few more times before hopping to her feet and jumping onto the coffee table. Her long legs glided across the wooden surface until they stopped right in front of a familiar white card resting on top of last week’s issue of Us Weekly. I picked up the sleek card and held it between my fingertips. Wonderland, Inc. Matt Hadder, CEO “Come see me.” His words ran through my mind. “I think you’d find that my company is a much better fit for you.” I had no clue what Wonderland, Inc.’s company purpose was, but I knew it was my only shot at getting myself out of this situation without ending up back in San Diego in Aunt Delores’s house. I held the card to my nose and was quickly reminded of how f*cking good Matt Hadder smelled…and looked. He wasn’t the kind of man a woman could easily forget about. Alpha. Dominating. The kind of eyes that held the power to drive a woman mad. His entire presence demanded to be remembered. Before I could think twice about it, I snagged my phone off the coffee table, turned the card over and dialed the cell number listed. Two rings and the word, “Hello?” practically rumbled in my ear. “Uh…” Uncertainty clenched my gut, and I paused. Was I sure about this? No, I definitely wasn’t. But did I really have any other options? Not really… “Uh… Is this Matt?’

“I DON’T LIKE SURPRISES,” I told Eric Queen as he straightened from the wall almost aggressively. He’d just learned that I’d actually spoken with “the Rabbit” at the party, under suspicion that she’d heard something about one of the biggest deals we’d been part of in years. Apparently, he didn’t like being kept in the dark. But did I give a f*ck about that? No. I didn’t care what he liked and what he didn’t, and I didn’t care for his attitude either. Hands planted on the rich mahogany of my desk, I pushed to standing and leaned ominously toward the men packed inside my office. “So when I say I’m taking care of it, I mean I’m taking care of it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one answered, but Jay Pidge, thanks to his freshly bandaged hand serving as a reminder of my lesson, shook his head enthusiastically. I knew it was a good idea to force him back in line. “When it comes to Charles King, you focus on the software,” I scolded Eric. “That’s where you live for the next three months. Got it?” His jaw clenched, he gave a jerky nod. He knew the software was crucial in our execution. Getting Charles King the nom for the presidential race wasn’t an easy feat by any means. But impossible wasn’t in my vocabulary. Everything was possible. Sometimes, you just had to get your hands dirty to make it happen. Even if he dared to try, Eric couldn’t find fault with my instructions. Charles King, a politician who had no moral qualms about selling his soul to the devil, was our ace in the hole. He liked money. He liked power. And the combination of both was the weakness we would utilize over and over again once we got him elected to the ultimate position of power. His longstanding debt of favors to Wonderland, Inc. would never expire. Was it dirty? Yes. Underhanded? Of course.

But no one got ahead in this life by playing by society’s rules. My phone vibrated in my breast pocket, and I pulled it out to look at the screen. The number was instantly recognizable as one I’d been waiting to hear from for days. I almost hated how f*cking relieved—and quite possibly excited—I was for her call. It felt like a lot more than trying to figure out if she was a liability. One nod to Cal and he started to clear out the room. I put the phone to my ear and answered. “Uh… Is this Matt?” Her voice was shaky with nerves, so I kept my own soft and steady. “Hello, Alex.” “Wow…I guess you…uh…know who this is,” she stumbled, and I smiled, encouraging the lingering men in my office to move much f*cking faster with nothing more than a nod. Damien Dormuss was the last to step outside and close the door behind himself, leaving Alex and me to our conversation. “Yes. I know who you are.” “Right. Okay. But…um…how?” I could feel her anxiousness, potent and pure as though she were in the same room. Not many people were this honest with their emotions. My smile deepened as I looked down at my desk and pulled her file from the drawer in the center. “I don’t give out this number to many people.” “Really?” she asked. A little hint of wonder softened the edges of her already delicate voice, and I couldn’t stop myself from picturing that perfect little mouth of hers doing the same. I shook my head at myself over how much I liked it. “Really. Now, what can I help you with?” “I actually thought that was what you were going to tell me. All you left me with was a card and some mystery. What is Wonderland?” What a f*cking question. “For the purposes of this conversation, let’s just say it’s a multimillion-dollar corporation with more opportunity for you than any children’s birthday party.” “But why me?” she asked on a near whisper. The slight tremor of her voice revealed her uncertainty. “What kind of business is it, and why do you think I’ll be good at it?” I smiled at her ability to question me even in the face of desperation. According to her file, she’d been hopping from one menial job to another for too long to have enough money to maintain any of her expenses. But still, she managed to be cautious. Not many people had the willpower. Then again, if she’d heard any of Jaybird’s conversation as I feared she had, she’d know she had reason to be vigilant. Reminded that this call wasn’t solely for pleasure, the crease in my forehead pulled at the skin until I felt it pinch. Like always, I worked subconsciously to smooth it. “The party business. It’s in your wheelhouse, don’t worry.”

Our parties weren’t exactly the same, but the memory of her curvy little hips and perfectly round ass reassured me that she’d do just fine. I avoided the spark of discomfort flaring in my stomach at the idea of sharing that luscious visual with anyone else. “Oh. Parties?” Relief lightened her voice, and I bit my lip to stop my laugh. “That’s it? Wow. Okay. So, um, what do I need to do? Where do I need to be? Do I need to bring the bunny costume?” she asked rapid fire and then paused on a gasp. “Oh, wait. I don’t even have that stupid costume anymore. I had to give it back.” Jesus. The bunny costume. Watching her face on Friday was going to be fun. “No bunny costume required,” I demurred, closing her file softly. “I’ll messenger you a package with all the details you’ll need for Friday.” “Messenger me a package?” “Yes. You’ll receive it later today,” I confirmed to be nice. It wasn’t a habit I practiced frequently. Usually, I expected people to hear and understand me the first time. “Okay. Um…” “I’m glad to hear from you, Alex.” Maybe this wouldn’t have to be messy after all. Her voice was a soft whisper. “Thanks.” “Soon, Alex.” “Uh…yeah…okay…Soon,” she agreed. Soon she’d be tested. I couldn’t begin to predict the result, but I eagerly awaited the possibilities—especially the ones where she did well. I tossed my phone to the surface of my desk and grabbed my jacket from the hook and slung it on my shoulders. I picked up my phone again and slid it into the breast pocket of my coat before strolling to my door and pulling it open. Damien Dormuss stood waiting. “Well?” he asked. I shrugged. “We’ll see.” His eyebrows pulled together as I moved, and he fell into step beside me. One of my most prominent talents was reading people, knowing and meeting their wants and expectations before they even realized them for themselves. It was why I was so good in this business of desires. I was what they wanted me to be. But Alex felt complicated all the way to the root. Her backstory, her current story. Her street skills—I’d never seen a pick as good as the one she’d done on Jay—along with her undeniable vulnerability. I’d yet to get a good handle on any of it. “We’ll see?” I cut my eyes to his. Wisely, he didn’t ask again. Reminding myself that Damien was smart, pointed, and almost never off base in his questioning, I gave him what he wanted. “She shows potential, but there’s an innocence there. Virtuousness I’m not sure she can overcome.”

“How do you plan to find out?” I shrugged with a smile. “By dropping her directly into the fire.” “A party?” Damien asked, surprised again. “In-house,” I explained. “This Friday.” The party was for the organization of Wonderland itself, rather than a client. There’d be less risk but plenty of debauchery. One way or another, Friday night, I’d know what I needed to about Alex Little.

DÉJÀ VU CONSUMED ME AS I stared down at a sleek white package with a gold bow tied around it. A mysterious note written in strong, all-capital script was taped to the front. Besides the address printed at the top, it was annoyingly vague. FRIDAY. 8 P.M. WEAR THIS. -MATT I’d received the package two days ago, and yet, I hadn’t had the courage to open it until now. This time, I had no idea what was inside, but with the teasing tone of his voice when I’d mentioned bringing the costume I’d worn to Lemon Devlin’s birthday party, it was safe to say it wasn’t a white rabbit costume. Honestly, I had no clue what I was getting myself into with Matt Hadder and Wonderland, Inc. Big, exclusive events or not, he didn’t seem like the kind of man who just planned parties. It was unnerving. Everything felt so discreet, so f*cking secretive and mysterious, when it came to him. There had to be more to the story than just parties, right? Was he in the mob? The mafia? Was there even a difference between the two? Hell if I knew. I glanced at the clock above my kitchen sink, and 6:00 p.m. glared back at me. Time had run out. In the spirit of saving my ass from falling into financial ruin and having to move back to San Diego with my bunny tail between my legs, I decided the time was now. Maybe I was asking for trouble. Maybe I’d gone temporarily insane. Or maybe my desperation to start a new life for myself had finally taken its toll. No matter the reason, I was going to see this through until I at least knew what Wonderland, Inc. was. Then I could decide whether to dive in or run for the f*cking Hollywood Hills.

After a quick shower, I made my way back to my bedroom, and with shaking hands, I slid the silk bow off the threatening white box and opened it. The perfume-scented tissue paper rustled as I pulled the first layer back to reveal a black co*cktail dress sitting on top of a pair of the most eye-catching, sparkly, gorgeous heels I’d ever seen in my life. I pulled the beautiful black garment out of the box, moved in front of my mirror, and slipped it on. The hem was shorter than most of my dresses, but it was easily overlooked by the fact that the front was simple and classic. But when I turned around and caught sight of the rear, I stared at the bare skin of my back with wide eyes. The back of this dress, well, it was downright seductive. The overall absence of fabric revealed everything from my shoulders to the bottom curve of my spine; it was blatantly obvious a bra wasn’t in the cards tonight. In the reflection in the mirror, my fingers found the small tag nestled near my ass, and I flipped the material out to read it. Chanel. Holy moly. And when I grabbed the heels out of the box and caught sight of the red soles, my jaw nearly hit the floor. How had I’d gone from a goddamn Sprinkles the Rabbit costume to Chanel and Louboutins in the matter of a few days? The answer was unclear, and I didn’t know if I should dance around with joy or fear for my life. I silently prayed it was the former, and instead of letting my mind wander toward thoughts of the latter, I set my focus on getting ready. Like music to my ears, my new heels tapped exquisitely against the worn hardwood floor of the hallway as I walked into my bathroom and set to work blow-drying my hair. Once my long, blond locks were styled in soft waves down my shoulders, I grabbed my makeup bag and started applying a light coat of foundation. As I began to line my eyes with smoky black, Deena decided to join me and hopped her fluffy black butt onto the bathroom counter. I paused between eyes and looked down at my nosy cat, sitting patiently on the side of the sink. With her little head tilted to the side and her ears perked up, she appeared intrigued by my makeup routine. “What do you think, Deena girl?” I asked her. “Do you think this is a good idea?” She simply stared back at me. “I mean, I’m meeting some random guy in expensive clothes he sent over for a possible job opportunity,” I added. “A job that I don’t even know what it entails… That’s crazy, right? I mean, do you think it’s safe? It can’t be that dangerous, right?” I asked her, even though I was really just rambling out loud to myself at that point. Deena offered no advice. Instead, she leaped off the sink and found a cozy spot on the bathroom rug to curl up on. “Thanks for nothing,” I muttered, but she couldn’t have cared less. Her cat eyes were already half-mast and mere seconds away from taking the final descent toward sleep. Eyes smoky enough for a forest fire, face set with power, and lips lined and glossed, I

walked back into my bedroom and took one last look at my reflection in the mirror. Dressed to the nines in designer duds and with makeup highlighting my eyes, cheeks, and lips, I almost didn’t recognize myself. When I was a teenager, Aunt Delores often told me I was a dangerous mix of girl next door beauty and curves. I’d never really understood what she meant by that, and even to this day, I still didn’t understand it. Sure, I considered myself attractive. I mean, everyone has flaws, little nuances they know about themselves that drive them crazy, but I didn’t hate my body. But oftentimes, especially in this moment, as I stared at myself in the mirror, I felt more girl than woman. As if I weren’t really an adult, but still sixteen and trying to grow into my own skin. My phone beeped with the warning alarm I’d wisely set before I’d jumped in the shower, and it pulled me out of my thoughts. I had two minutes to get moving or else I’d be late. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that Matt Hadder probably wasn’t the kind of man who tolerated tardiness. I snatched my purse off my nightstand and headed for the door with my keys and cell phone in hand. But just before I stepped into the hallway, I decided to do one last thing. With my heels quickly tapping a rhythm across the hardwood floor, I jogged into the kitchen and poured a week’s worth of cat food into Deena’s dish and set two extra bowls of water onto the floor. She glided in and stared at the buffet on the floor before shifting her glare to me. “Just in case I don’t come back home,” I explained. I know, I know. It sounds a bit crazy to leave out enough cat food to last Deena for a week, but should she really have to suffer for my impulsiveness? Everything will be fine, right? Right? Jesus, I sure hope so…

The soles of my heels had barely scraped the pavement when Matt was by my side, taking my hand into his and helping me out of the cab. “I got it,” he said and leaned in the passenger window to hand the cab driver money. “Have a good one,” he added and tapped the top of the cab with his palm.

As the cab drove off, Matt led me up the sidewalk until we stood in front of a large building with ornate, gold-inlaid glass doors. What had to be thirty stories, it was a beast of a building that dominated its plot of land on South Grand Avenue and stretched up toward the sky. One small, but otherwise eye-catching plated sign hung near the entrance. Wonderland, Inc. it read in the shiniest, sparkliest gold letters I’d ever seen. If Tiffany’s ever delved into the sign-making business, this would be their f*cking sign. “I’m pleased to see you followed through tonight.” I tilted my head to the side. “You didn’t think I would come?” “We both know it was a fifty-fifty shot, sweetheart.” He smirked, and his eyes took a slow, not even discreet perusal of my body. From my face to the tips of my stilettos, those deep amber eyes took in every inch me. “The dress and heels suit you much better than the rabbit,” he said and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. “Are you ready to go inside?” Clad in a sleek and fitted grey suit that hugged his powerful thighs and a white buttonup shirt straining against the muscles of his chest, there was no denying Matt looked good. But, f*ck if he didn’t look even better when his eyes were on me. I felt damn near heady from it. I nodded and swallowed against the sudden dryness of my throat. His eyes crinkled at the corners as a soft grin consumed his lips. “No need to be nervous, sweet Alex. It’s just a party.” He squeezed my hand with his and nodded toward the men dressed in all-black suits standing watch in front of the entrance. They opened the doors, and Matt led the way inside. We walked through a long entry, down a spiral staircase, and the instant we hit the bottom floor, all of my senses were overwhelmed by the extravagance of it all. Sight. Sound. Smell. There was too much to take in all at once. Sultry music pounded against my eardrums as I glanced around the room at the beautiful people filling the space. And I was smacked in the face by the reality that most of the people at this party were celebrities or politicians or some of the richest, most influential people in the world. This was Lemon Devlin’s birthday party guest list on steroids. People danced. Chatted. And some made their way in and out of the black curtains lining the back of the large, open room, revealing a sneak peek of what lay beyond those curtains—a man snorting white powder off a stripper’s breasts, two women removing each other’s clothes while several men looked on with heated eyes, a group of well-known politicians boozing it up together while they passed around a bottle of champagne with a golden, expensive-looking label. God, it was sensory overload. Forget steroids, this was Lemon Devlin’s birthday party on cocaine. I felt like I’d just entered that movie Eyes Wide Shut. The one where Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise go to those rich, fancy parties that appeared sophisticated, yet everyone was engaging in bad, dirty behavior behind mask-covered faces.

Minus the whole satanic cult aspect, I was literally standing in the real-life version of that movie. Sure, I’d yet to witness an orgy, but it was only a little past eight p.m. I didn’t know orgy protocol, but I figured most didn’t start until at least eleven, right? Holy hell, what is this place? Matt’s eyes met mine. “Welcome to Wonderland, Alex.” “Wonder-land,” I softly repeated under my breath. Ironically, what puzzled me the most had nothing to do with the dirty and illegal behavior occurring before my very eyes. No. It was the fact that, inside Wonderland, it all appeared so natural. Like everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing with no censure at all.

WITH A HAND TO THE small of her back, I led Alex through the main room of the Wonderland party until we slid behind the veil of the black curtains. Her eyes the size of dinner plates, Alex scanned the party like a lost puppy looking for the safety of her mother. But there wouldn’t be any comfort for her here, nor any familiarity to hold on to, and the sooner she accepted the differences, the sooner I’d know how she truly felt about them. I didn’t speak as her gaze jumped frantically from one image to the next, but I felt my pulse quicken as her scrolling eyes moved past one of the pleasure girls—her legs spread, tit* bared, Spade’s finger working her tight c*nt for all to see—back to the relative safety of the bar in the center of the room, and then went back again to the blatant display of eroticism and sex. Eyes dilated with pleasure, she watched, enthralled. Though my view was very much different, a pixie face and perfect blond naiveté, I found I did the same. I was captivated by her presence. Pretty little Alex wearing the dress and heels I’d picked out for her was the most fascinating combination of desire and innocence. Between the seductive curves hidden beneath expensive material and the silky, bare skin of her back and long, svelte legs on display, she might as well have been a beautiful, naked, wanton virgin presented to my eyes on a golden platter. She encompassed everything that attracted me to a woman, and then some. “Erotic, isn’t it?” I asked and she jumped, startled by both the timbre of my voice and the meaning of my words. Her throat bobbed slowly as she forced a swallow and nodded uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s erotic?” I questioned, my focus on her hesitation rather than her affirmative gesture. My adrenaline buzzed at the opportunity to toy with her. Her emotion was so raw, so pure. I wanted to hold it in my hand and study it for a while. I wanted to dissect each subtle tremor of her fingers, the thrumming pulse of her neck, even the slight gasp every time her gaze caught sight of something new. f*ck, I wanted to do a lot of things with this gorgeous creature, and most of them required a lot less f*cking clothes. “It is. It’s just…jarring.” “You don’t find it natural?” I asked, putting a hand to her back and making her step

closer. The pleasure girl moaned and writhed, her skin a flushed rose of arousal as Spade continued to play with her. Lou Diamond had joined them now too, feasting on her breasts and stroking his co*ck while kneeling on the plush red couch behind her opened leg. Alex shook her head and nodded at the same time, her every nerve ending buzzing with confusion over what she’d been taught was appropriate, and the very opposite way she felt. “That could be you,” I whispered, leaning into her back and grazing the shell of her ear with my breath. She shivered—for about a millisecond—before bounding away and turning to meet my eyes, panic stark in hers. “Me? Do that? Like…right here? In front of people?” she stuttered. “No. No. Um, no.” Excitement shot down my spine at her anxiousness. “No?” I questioned, careful to keep my tone reproachful. I wanted her to feel pressured—just to see if she could withstand it. After a brief pause, she confirmed with a curt, determined shake of her head. “No.” At six foot six and two hundred and seventy pounds, I was nothing short of physically intimidating. I was impressed by her backbone. “Okay,” I agreed easily. Her eyes widened, and her plump lips parted. I took pleasure in her surprise. “Okay?” she asked, uncertain, perhaps even untrusting, of my acquiescence. “Okay. We’ll find something else. Perhaps something where they don’t touch?” “Don’t touch?” she asked as I put a hand to the small of her back and guided her through the crowd, down a hall, and into another open room where a stage jutted up from the floor in the center. Several of our dancers moved to the rhythmic beat of the music, their breasts swaying freely as a transfixed audience looked on. “The other option is a…is a…” Alex paused and dropped her voice to a soft and shaky whisper. “A stripper?” She was so hilariously horrified that I couldn’t help but smile. “No?” I asked again, enjoying her unworldliness tremendously. I only wished there was a way for her to keep it. Desensitization was bound to happen the more she was around it all, and unexpectedly, I didn’t think I’d like it. Though tremendously unlike me, I stayed patient, silent even, and gave her time to try to wrap her curious mind around the shocking surroundings that were Wonderland. I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced she wouldn’t attempt to dart out of the room, but eventually, she challenged my predictions further. “Are there any job opportunities where I keep my clothes on?” “Is that really what you want?” I pushed, trying to find how much pressure her backbone could withstand once again. “Yes,” she answered swiftly, offering an explanation even though I hadn’t asked for one. “I’ve never taken my clothes off for money, and I’m not about to start now.”

Pride splashed throughout my chest. Not at the decision she’d made, but at the fact that she’d made one based on her own convictions and code. To me, Wonderland was about finding your true pleasure center, not feeling pressured to inhabit someone else’s. “Okay. You’ll co*cktail.” “I’ll co*cktail?” she asked, but I ignored her. “A little flirting and your sweet smile, and you’ll make more money in tips as a co*cktail waitress that way anyway.” “I’ll make more money in tips that way anyway?” Her astonishment was quite comical, but I resisted the urge to laugh. I had more important things to discuss, and enchanted by her nature or not, I only had a limited amount of time to do it. “Where do you live?” I asked, even though I already knew from her file. She lived in a sh*tty apartment complex on the outskirts of Boyle Heights, practically a goddamn hovel, but she was struggling to afford even that. “Smith Garden Apartments.” Panic dilated the black of her pupils too late, as she realized the information she’d given up so easily. She worked quickly to backpedal. “Well, not for long.” “Where are you going?” I asked in an attempt to catch her in her lie. Unexpectedly, her face crumpled, and she lifted a shaky hand to her lips. What the f*ck? I grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her out of the room, away from the watchful eyes of everyone around us and into the back hall. In addition to being private, the pounding beat of the music was muted behind the thick walls. “What’s going on?” I asked seriously. I knew my face was set, but I didn’t realize the impact of my anger until she shrank back from me. “Don’t be scared of me,” I demanded ridiculously. She should be f*cking terrified of a man like me. She nodded obediently even as she shook. I worked to steady the pulsing rage in my veins and quiet my voice. “It’s all right. I’m not upset with you,” I told her to comfort her. For some f*cking reason. “What’s going on, Alex?” I asked softly. “I’m getting evicted,” she whispered, one plump tear rolling down her cheek before she could stop it. I reached up and swiped it away from her jawline with my thumb. That one tear—her tear—burned like acid in my chest. “Who told you that?” I asked, and her hand came up to her jaw and rested on the spot I’d just touched. “My landlord. His name is Vinnie Pat.” f*cking Vinnie Pat. A goddamn thorn in my side, always.

Without hesitation, I reached into my pocket and grabbed my money, closed in its stack by a sleek, simple gold clip. Sliding it off, I fingered through the smaller bills and into the center, peeling off ten large bills and holding them out to her. “Here,” I offered when she didn’t immediately reach out to take them. I shook the bills, but she still didn’t move. Too busy to wait for her to overcome this hurdle, I grabbed her hand myself, turning it palm up and closing her petite fingers around the money. “Take this. Use it to get current or to buy yourself something. I don’t give a f*ck. I’ll be in touch with details about when and where you’ll start.” “What’s this money for?” I shrugged. “For showing up.” “Matt, I can’t—” She started to protest, but I held up a quick, determined hand. She immediately shut her pretty little lips. I had to quell the insane urge to lick a line across the seam of them. I knew if I allowed myself that, I wouldn’t stop there, but rather, sink inside the sweet warmth beyond them and get lost for an hour or too. Consequently, I focused on the task at hand. “You can, and you will,” I said, back to firm and decisive. “I don’t argue with people, Alex. You’ll take the money. Understand me?” Her eyes narrowed, and finally, I allowed myself the pleasure of a laugh. “f*ck, you’re stubborn,” I declared, and even I could hear the amusem*nt in my voice. “It’s money, not a bomb. f*cking take it and go home. Give yourself time to process everything.” She stood still, her muscles rigid, so I stepped into her space and grabbed her hip with a flex of my fingertips. “Go home, Alex,” I whispered. Her body swayed, just once and just faintly toward me, and then, on slightly shaky legs, she turned in the opposite direction, her heels winking in the light as she made her way toward the outside world. Down the hall and out, I followed slowly behind her and watched as she headed outside as fast as her heels would take her. Damien came up next to me as she disappeared down the stairs toward the front door. “I take it it didn’t go well?” I shook my head slightly, not taking my eyes from the place I’d last seen her. “It went fine,” I murmured. “Have someone follow her.” Damien signaled Cal without question. “She knows?” Damien asked, wrongly assuming the reason for having her followed. “No,” I denied and then shrugged. “Maybe. But that’s not why I want her followed.” Damien, one of the smartest of my men, again didn’t ask questions. “Where’s Hare?” I asked, wanting Harrison March to be here for this conversation too.

“I think he’s downstairs,” Damien answered. “Let’s go,” I said with a curl of one finger, starting in the direction of the basem*nt. “We need to talk about Vinnie Pat.” “That f*cker is a problem,” he muttered, and I grinned. “Exactly.”

THREE LOUD POUNDING THUDS RESONATED into my brain, and I cringed. God, what is that awful noise? Am I dreaming? If I was dreaming, why was there no Chris Pratt? The sound came again, even faster and more insistent, and with effort, I forced my eyelids open. Sometime in the last twelve hours, daylight had commandeered my bedroom with its damn near blinding, luminous rays. f*cking hell. What time was it? “Alex Little,” the deep and unfamiliar voice called from outside of my apartment. I snagged my phone off the half-packed cardboard box beside my bed and clicked the home screen to check the time. 12:00 p.m. Holy hell, I’d slept half the day away. I had no doubt Wonderland was to blame. No normal human being would leave that experience without needing a twelve-hour-plus coma to mentally process it all. “Open up. I have an important message to deliver.” The knocks came again, nearly breaking the door at this point, and I slid Deena off of my belly to remove my still tired ass from bed. She meowed her annoyance, but once I fluffed the comforter around her body, she snuggled into the warmth and went back to ignoring the outside world. “Just a minute,” I called and slid on a pair of sleep shorts to avoid the awkwardness of answering the door in my underwear. Moments later, I unlatched the deadbolt and opened the door. The man standing on the other side greeted my most likely disheveled, still sleepy appearance with an amused grin. He looked to be midthirties, and with the way he wore his sophisticated, gray fitted suit, I’d venture to guess he was the exact opposite of me—he had his sh*t together. “Alex Little?” he asked, and I nodded. “That’s me.” “The building is under new management.” He handed me a white envelope. “Your next rent payment will be due in forty-five days.” Wait…what? I had over a month to pay my rent, on an apartment I was supposed to be evicted from? Maybe I’m still dreaming?

I pinched the side of my hip just to be sure. Ow, cripes. Definitely not dreaming. Apparently, somewhere along the line, the fact that I’d gotten evicted and only had a few days left to live in my apartment had gotten lost in translation. So, I did what anyone in my position would do. I played innocent and discreetly pulled the door closer to my back to hide the visual of half-packed cardboard boxes scattered across my apartment. “So, the building is under new management?” I questioned, and he nodded. “And I have an extension on my next rent payment?” “Yes.” “So, my next rent payment will just be for one month’s rent, correct?” “Correct.” Either this guy was an angel, or I’d somehow sold my soul to the devil while I was attending that Wonderland party last night. I silently prayed my life wasn’t on a path similar to Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate. “Uh…what exactly happened to Vinnie Pat?” The man’s face remained neutral. “He’s gone.” “Gone?” I asked. “What do you mean, he’s gone?” He offered a noncommittal shrug. “All I know is that he’s no longer running these apartment buildings.” “Hmm…” I tried to process the vague information into something that would actually make sense, but I came up empty-handed. “I mean, I hope he’s not, like, dead or anything, but if I’m being honest, he was a bit of an asshole. I wasn’t a big fan.” “It’s safe to say you weren’t the only one.” The corner of his mouth crested into a slight, nearly ominous smirk. Please tell me I didn’t sell my soul to the devil… “Also,” he stated. “Since the building is now under new management, we’re relocating tenants because it’s being remodeled.” “What do you mean it’s being remolded?” “There are a lot of updates that need to be made to make this a safe place for tenants. Take that, for example.” He waved his hand toward the elevator that had been out of order since I started renting the place six months ago. “That needs to be fixed.” “So…where exactly am I being relocated to?” He nodded toward the envelope in my hands. “All of the information, including the keys to your new place, is right there.” “Wait…I need to relocate like right now?” “We’re asking all tenants to move as soon as possible. The sooner we can clear this building out, the sooner we can get to work. And after my team completed a full evaluation of the premises, they told me that expediency is in the best interest of your

safety,” he explained and offered a polite smile. “Have a good day, Miss Little. And inside that envelope, you’ll find I’ve left my direct cell number should you have any questions or concerns.” It suddenly occurred to me that I was taking keys and an explanation from a man for whom I didn’t even have a name. “Okay… And what is your name?” “I’m Mike McConnell,” he answered. Well, at least it’s not stranger danger anymore, right? “Well, thanks, Mike. It’s nice to meet you.” “Have a good day,” he said and offered a short wave before heading through the stairwell door and out of view. I shut the door to my apartment and stared down at the envelope in my hands in disbelief. What in the hell was happening? And more importantly, where was I supposed to be “relocating” to? With impatient fingers, I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the packet of papers. The keys to my new humble abode slipped out and hit the hardwood floor with a clatter. I scanned the papers, and catching on one detail in particular, I blinked several times. Does that really say Wilshire Boulevard? No f*cking way. Maybe there’s a different Wilshire Boulevard? Like, maybe Wilshire Boulevard has a sh*tty, twin-sister street in a different, less pretty part of town? Surely, it’s supposed to say Wilshire Boulevard 0.5 or something? There was only one way to find out. I walked into my bedroom and threw on jean shorts, a tank top, and a pair of flip-flops and then tossed my hair into a messy bun. With my new keys in hand and the paper with the address in my pocket, I kissed the top of Deena’s head and walked out of my apartment and toward the bus station. Thirty minutes later, I hopped off the bus and walked the half mile Google Maps instructed. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, all while aggravated people weaved around me, I looked up, up, up, until my eyes reached the very top of a luxurious, highrise building on the actual Wilshire Boulevard. This was my new home? I was supposed to relocate from my sh*tty, studio apartment in Boyle Heights to this amazing, f*cking mind-blowing apartment building in downtown LA? Holy. f*cking. sh*t.

“WHERE ARE WE WITH THE delegates?” I asked Hare. In the race for a presidential nomination, it wasn’t the people who were in charge, but the appointed, state specific delegates. Each state had a certain number based on population-deemed necessity, and they all placed a vote to choose the next nominee for their party. But to us, right now, they were a hugely important part of the puzzle in our quest to secure the nomination for the candidate of our choosing. As CEO of an organization that required constant vigilance, I didn’t do monthly meetings, I didn’t do weekly—I did daily. I didn’t micromanage, but I made sure people weren’t squirreling around doing nothing but bullsh*t either. They were in charge of their own tasks, but when I came calling with questions, they’d better goddamn answer them. Hare had been leading the on the ground “assault” as it were, campaigning for King with some nearly legitimate tactics. It was obviously easier to secure the nomination with actual votes than with an elaborately calculated miscount, but even that took some serious doing. Nothing about this plan was easy, but that’s why I was the one doing it. Things others found impossible, I found stimulating. Give me your challenges, your failures, your struggling masses—I’ll triumph over them all. “We’re in fairly good shape. We’ve got information on forty of them. I’ve spoken to all forty and convinced them quite resoundingly that King is the candidate for them…or else.” “And?” “And that only leaves about four thousand others.” “Great,” I muttered, rubbing at the headache forming behind my eyes. “So where are we on the software?” If we couldn’t guarantee our outcome with simple, old-fashioned bribes for the delegates, we’d need something that could artificially sway the numbers. We’d known this all along, and we’d been working on a program that would be subtle enough not to raise suspicions, but effective enough to do the job—to get King elected—

for months. Eric Queen was the point man on this, and I was hoping he had good news. I needed to know we had everything in place. It wasn’t an easy feat by any means, but Wonderland, Inc. didn’t pride itself on taking the easy road. Nor did we ever back away from a challenge. I’d been preparing our IT team for years to pull off something like this. Carefully, hand-selected computer geniuses that I’d chosen and pulled in under the umbrella of our organization. There were six of them in total—four male and two female. They were all under the age of twenty-six, all of them Ivy League grads, and all possessed the ability to hack into any system in the world. Hell, last year, in their f*cking spare time, those little bastards had hacked into a popular gaming app and made it so that Wonderland, Inc. received two cents on every transaction. I was amused to say the least, but I shut that sh*t down quickly. When it came to computer hacking, I didn’t f*ck around, and I only utilized that route when necessary. Greed without perspective and restraint can ruin anything. “The computer team says they’re close,” Eric advised. “Should have it worked out by the end of this month.” “That’s good since we’ve only got two until the nomination,” I retorted sarcastically. I’d been riding his ass for months, and every time I propositioned him for answers, he deferred that they were coming. Everyone else laughed. “What about the rabbit?” Eric asked, referencing Alex and what she may or may not have overheard, his jaw grinding noticeably over being embarrassed in front of the room. “I’m handling it,” I told him. The “it’s none of your f*cking business” was silent, but absolutely clear in the tone I’d used. Jaybird’s eyes narrowed at my vagueness, but he could f*ck right off. I moved the letter opener from one side of my desk to the other casually, but he didn’t miss it—just as I suspected he wouldn’t. He swallowed and sat back in his seat. I grinned internally. “All right. What about—” I started to ask when the shrill ring of Mickey Moosa’s phone echoed off the marble floors. “Sorry, Matt,” Mickey apologized, pulling his phone from his pocket—to set it on silent if he didn’t want a bloody f*cking nose. He looked like an average wealthy guy— well-tailored suits and a well-kept but bland overall appearance, but it was when he executed the simplest of tasks that you could tell he was somewhat clumsy. “Uh,” he muttered nervously when he caught sight of the screen. “It’s her.” “Her?” I asked sternly, watching as all the eyes in the room swung back and forth between us. “The rabbit,” he answered. My eyebrows pulled together as white-hot anger spread through my chest. The look on my face must have held the same intensity because Mickey looked about ready to sh*t himself. I wanted to know why the f*ck she was calling him. Right f*cking then.

He wasn’t surprised to be hearing from her, and yet, I was. That wasn’t how our hierarchy worked, and Mickey knew it. I’d given the order to move her out of that sh*thole and over to a place where I could keep track of any trouble she might cause, and I was the one who should be getting reports with anything she did of note. Apparently, Mickey didn’t properly understand his role as her fake landlord. It’d been almost a week since the party, and I’d dreamed of her in that dress every f*cking night. Call it possessive, but I didn’t relish the idea of Mickey getting one-on-one phone chats with her and not telling me about it. Quite honestly, the idea of that had me pissed the f*ck off. “She keeps calling me. Constantly.” “About what?” I demanded as the ring kept on. “Complaints. Issues. Carpet color. I don’t know. You name it, she’s calling about it.” “She’s complaining about the new apartment?” I asked. My face was neutral, but f*ck if I wasn’t laughing on the inside. Her new place was about a thousand steps up from her last, and she’d been on the cusp of getting evicted. Now, she was complaining. The ringing stopped then, his phone finally rolling the call to voice mail as he nodded. “Yeah.” “Stay,” I told him simply, looking to the others and dismissing them with a nod. They filed out one by one until the only bodies left in my office were Cal, Mickey, and me. “Call her back,” I ordered as Cal stepped forward to take a seat next to Mickey. “Put it on speaker.” He did as told, dropping the phone onto the front of my desk and leaning forward to make sure she’d be able to hear him. “Hello?” she answered on the third ring. “Alex, it’s Mike McConnell.” “Mike?” Cal mouthed at me teasingly. I shook my head. “Oh, Mike,” Alex responded, her voice turning instantly more bitter. I bit my lip to stop myself from saying something. “What can I do for you?” Mickey asked, looking back and forth between me and the phone. I jerked my head to the phone. Pay attention to her, you f*ckwit. “We need to talk about a few things.” “All right. I’m listening,” Mickey answered. “First of all, I thought the rent was going to remain the same as my old place. That was the deal, and I don’t like being messed with just because I’m a woman.” My eyebrows drew together, and Mickey waved frantically at me as he responded to her. “The rent is the same. Nine hundred a month.”

“I was paying seven hundred for the old place, and you know it.” Mickey’s eyes were wide as he mouthed to me, “No, she wasn’t.” He was afraid of me, I got it. I even enjoyed it most days. But I wanted him to focus on the phone call and stop worrying about me, for f*ck’s sake. I knew her old rent. I knew every f*cking thing about her. I nodded, mouthing, “I know,” back to him. “I was fairly certain it was nine hundred,” he returned, and her voice turned antagonistic. “I think I know what I was paying better than you. I’ve been paying it for nearly a year of my life, okay? Not to mention the fact that my cat, Deena, has had severe anxiety since you forced me to uproot her from the only home she’s ever known, and the carpet is an awful cream white. I would never choose to have white carpet with a cat. That’s insanity.” f*cking cat anxiety. God, she was something. Pure and moral but conniving all the same. Mickey started to argue with her, so I gestured to Cal with a flick of my fingers. He smacked Mickey on the back of the head for me and got his attention. “Tell her you’ll call her back,” I murmured softly enough that I knew she wouldn’t hear me. Mickey held my eyes as he said, “Okay. I’ll take all of that under advisem*nt, discuss it with management, and get back to you.” “I’ll expect your call quickly and for the rent to be prorated.” “You haven’t paid yet,” Mickey argued. I reached forward and pushed end on the call. “Don’t f*cking argue with her,” I told him as soon as I was sure the line was clear. “But her rent was—” I stood up swiftly. “Don’t f*cking argue with me either, Mick.” My voice cut right through the room like a knife. “Okay. I’m sorry, Matt,” he agreed easily, his face openly apologetic. “Give her whatever she wants.” “Whatever she…” He started to question and then, when my eyes darkened from amber to a more dangerous brown, thought better of it. “Okay. Whatever she wants.” He stood from his seat and headed for the door after I jerked my head in dismissal, but I called his attention back as he reached for the knob. “And Mick?” His eyes met mine. “Tell Eric I want the software ready in three weeks, no more. That’s a more than generous amount of time.”

He pulled his lips in on one another but nodded and then stepped outside the door. “I thought he was going to piss himself,” Cal commented dryly. I rolled my eyes. “Oh, stop.” “Scary Matt Hadder,” he teased good-naturedly. Cal was the only one who saw me for what I was. He could tell when I was serious and when I wasn’t, and more than that, he could tell when I was simply being what someone needed me to be. The guys needed a strong hand. With the amount of wealth and opportunity that rested at the fingertips of every member of the Wonderland organization, the only way to curb temptation was with genuine fear. Sure, I played the part, but I wasn’t entirely monstrous. The proof lay in things like “all medical expenses covered” health care for Wonderland, Inc. employees and their families. College funds for their children. Generous salaries and even more generous benefits. I might’ve instilled fear to keep things in order, but I wasn’t a total tyrant. No one would stay around if there weren’t perks to match every demand. I opened my laptop and pulled up the party schedule for the next two weeks. I scanned the list of clients and themes and settled on one that I thought would be the best training experience for Alex. Ari Simon’s event for charity. Not only would some of the experiences be more closely monitored behind closed doors, but it would serve as a good lesson for her on the blurry line separating good and bad. Often, the distinction between the two—or the lack thereof—was one of the hardest discrepancies for people to accept on the transition into Wonderland. They’d often spent their whole lives being told the opposite. Cal sat silently and watched as I pulled my phone from my breast pocket and texted Alex the details of her first party. “She’s going to do well,” Cal reassured without being asked. I glared at him, but he just laughed. “I can tell you care, but no one else can. Don’t worry.” “Why do you like this one so much?” Cal smirked. “Why do you?”

I TUGGED AT THE SKIN of my wrist as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. It barely stretched, it was so taut over the flesh beneath it, but it still soothed me. Almost as if it slowed the blood pumping vigorously toward my fingers. I wasn’t sure where I learned it or when it’d become a habit rather than an occasional thing, but I’d been doing it for as long as I could remember all the same. Red lipstick still visible and not on my teeth? Check. Hair okay? Check. Sexy yet classic black co*cktail dress still in place and not flashing an inadvertent nipple? Check. From the outside, I was pressed, primed, and ready to go. But on the inside? I was fighting the urge to flee this mansion and buy a one-way ticket to Mexico. Tonight was my first party as a co*cktail waitress officially employed by Wonderland, and I couldn’t shake my nerves. Cripes, I’d been dealing with this constant nervous tension rolling around inside my body since Matt had offered me a permanent position a few days ago. It’d been a short and to the point kind of conversation via text, but I was finding that Matt Hadder wasn’t the type of man to beat around the bush. He might have been sexy and charming as hell, but he most certainly didn’t waste his time with small talk and common pleasantries. Basically, he’d gotten straight to the point, and I’d had a knee-jerk reaction of yes. The word had flowed from my fingers before my brain could even process what was happening. And now, here I stood, staring at myself in the reflection of a mirror inside of a marble and gold-plated bathroom. I clenched my trembling hands to try to make them stop. When they didn’t, I stared at the ceiling and then myself, and then I ran that mindless circuit again. I felt like the outcome of tonight could mean the difference between Louboutins and ramen. The irony was, it was all occurring inside what had to be an over thirty-thousandsquare-foot estate in affluent Bel Air. The owner: Ari Simon—owner of Hollywood’s

biggest film production companies, along with a dozen other profitable companies within the entertainment industry. The reason for the party: charity. Some of the country’s wealthiest had all gathered inside this mansion tonight to raise money for the greater good—specifically the poverty-stricken of the world under the umbrella of various charitable organizations, including one that aided Syrian refugees. It all looked good on paper, but if this party resembled anything like the first Wonderland party I’d attended, it was safe to say what lay beneath the surface would make most average people question society’s moral compass. But I had a job to do, one that I was getting paid very generously for, and obviously, one that was providing much-needed money. I wasn’t sure what was motivating me to continue to follow this unknown path down the circle of crazy that was Wonderland, Inc. Curiosity? Desperation? The instant answer was yes, a little bit of both. The age-old saying was true. Desperate times did call for desperate measures. Obviously, I wasn’t in the financial position to turn my back on the opportunity Matt Hadder had bestowed. It was easy to overlook things—drugs, prostitutes, illegal activity— when life had already handed you a plate full of crap. But when it came to my curiosity? Well, I just prayed that other age-old saying about curiosity and cats wasn’t true. I had no idea how long I’d been holed up in this bathroom, but I knew if I stayed any longer, I’d be running the risk of it being way too long. It was time to put on my big-girl panties and attempt to navigate the confusing, mysterious world that was Wonderland, Inc. With a deep breath and one last glance in the mirror, I strode out of the bathroom on my sky-high black stilettos and headed toward my assigned station—the bar on the first floor. And believe it or not, it was an actual bar inside the mansion. One of five, to be exact. I honestly didn’t know why Ari Simon needed five bars inside of his home, but it wasn’t like my brain could even comprehend the kind of money that man had in his bank account, so I didn’t try. “You the new girl?” A bleach-blond woman with a southern accent asked once I stepped behind the large mahogany bar. I figured that was me, so I nodded. “Perfect,” she said, and her bright pink lips crested into a sugary-sweet smile. “Matt gave me specific instructions to make sure you were all settled before I headed downstairs. Everything going good, sugar?” Headed downstairs? What was downstairs? I’d only managed to see the first and second floors of this place, and I hadn’t even considered there was a downstairs. Sweet Lucifer. Remember, Alex? Curiosity killed the cat…

I cringed at the thought, but I quickly schooled my face into a small smile. “Uh… yeah… Everything is fine.” “The tall blond on the terrace would like a scotch on the rocks,” she instructed and nodded toward where a twentysomething movie star—and, according to gossip rags, “heartthrob”—sat comfortably on the big outdoor couch, while what looked like the rest of Hollywood chatted around him. “Okay,” I muttered and pulled a glass from the cabinet and a bottle of scotch that looked so expensive I feared the mere idea of dropping it. “Don’t be nervous, sugar,” the woman whispered toward me as she leaned her hip against the counter. “I’m not nervous,” I lied. Obviously, I was nervous. This was my first official Wonderland party, and I didn’t have a f*cking clue what I was doing or how I got here. In a matter of two weeks, I’d worn a rabbit costume to a rich kid’s birthday party and somehow met the illustrious Matt Hadder. In my f*cking underwear, mind you. Then my life had taken a nonsensical path down a road filled with money in my bank account, an apartment that definitely wasn’t within my budget, and a job where the famous people I saw splashed across the tabloids in the checkout line of the grocery store were standing in the same room as me. Take now, for instance, Hugo Lariot—the current big thing in action movies—standing no more than fifty feet away, chatting with a group of supermodels and drinking champagne. I felt like I was living someone else’s life or having an out-of-body experience. Or maybe I’d hit my head on something and I was actually in a coma? I mean, was this what people in comas thought about? Working at parties for wealthy clients where everything wasn’t really as it appeared? That seemed highly doubtful. “Those shaking hands of yours can barely pour that liquor without spilling it,” she whispered with a knowing smile. “You’re nervous. Don’t worry. I was nervous during my first party, too. Although it had more to do with the fact that I was hardly a day over twenty and had to get naked in front of strangers.” I stopped in my tracks and looked up at her. “You’re a stripper?” She laughed. “Oh, no, sugar. I was one of Wonderland’s pleasure girls.” Pleasure girls? “Like a…” I paused and glanced around the room before whispering toward her, “hooker?” She winked. “Yeah, kind of like that. Well, at least, that’s what I used to do.” “But you don’t do that anymore?” “I’m in retirement.” She tapped her red-painted nails mindlessly across the ornate bar,

and I marveled in an attempt to reconcile her young features and the fact that she was retired. She can’t be over thirty. “I only oversee the girls and make sure things are running smooth now. Clients are satisfied. That sort of thing. I’m Jessie Cat, by the way,” she added and held out her hand, a big gold bracelet spanning the skin of her arm from wrist to nearly elbow. Cripes, that’s a lot of gold. I shook it. “I’m Alex.” “A little advice, honey?” I raised my eyebrows. Maybe on a regular day I wouldn’t go to a retired hooker named Jessie Cat for my lists of dos and don’ts, but this was hardly the time to be picky. “I’m all ears.” “Don’t waste your time questioning things. It’s an endless loop of things you’ll probably never know. Just enjoy the fact that you’re making more money here than you could working some nine-to-five. Matt’s a good man. Demanding, sometimes brutal, but he’s a good man. And when you work for him, you’ll want for nothing.” Brutal? That doesn’t sound good. “Uh…thanks.” I nodded and finished pouring the scotch. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Once I set the bottle on the bar, she wrapped her arm around my shoulder and hugged me to her side. “I like you, Alex. I think we’re going to be good friends.” Wonderful. My first real friend since I’d moved to LA was a retired hooker named Jessie Cat. Aunt Delores would be so proud.

Three hours into the party, and I’d served more alcohol than I had during an eight-hour shift on a Friday night at Maloney’s Pub. One thing was apparent: rich people liked their alcohol. They also appeared to enjoy drugs as well, but I was doing my best not to see the shady sh*t going on behind the scenes of this party. Or should I call it a charity function? It was a bit of a conundrum, to be honest. Everyone here had attended under the pretense of a good cause, but while raising money for said good cause, they were engaging in behavior that the eyes of the law would call illegal. At least, that’s what I’d thought the eyes of the law would call it. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Especially since, an hour ago, I’d realized the man sitting across from Ari Simon smoking a cigar like he was Pablo Escobar had the exact same face as the man I’d seen two weeks ago on the Channel 9 News with the title Chief of Police

below him. It appeared that when it came to Wonderland, Inc., the line that separated good and bad was extremely distorted. Or, hell, maybe it wasn’t even there at all. “You look deep in thought.” I glanced up to find Matt standing on the other side of the bar, staring back at me. “I do?” I asked because, honestly, I didn’t really know what else to say in that moment. It felt like it would’ve been in bad taste to tell him the truth of my thoughts. “You’re confused,” he stated. “You don’t know what to make of all of this.” I stared at him with wide, obvious eyes. So much for keeping my feelings to myself. “It’s okay to admit,” he reassured easily, a little grin highlighting the softer-than-usual line of his jaw. I averted my eyes and stared down at my fiddling fingers, nearly halfway done destroying the label of an empty bottle of Cristal. “I guess I don’t really understand it,” I muttered, even though I really wanted to say, I don’t understand how all of these people in this room—some of whom are idols and heroes to children across the country—are here to raise money for a charitable cause, and yet, it doesn’t really appear it’s their real reason for being here. I mean, I just saw a professional athlete—who was recently named MVP of the championship game—walk downstairs with Jessie Cat and two of Wonderland’s pleasure girls! Jesus Christ, what is happening? “Humans are interesting creatures,” he said quietly. “Even the ones with the best intentions can’t shake their greedy, selfish desires. And when you add wealth into the mix, the gluttony is exponential. That doesn’t make them bad people. It just makes them human.” I looked up to meet his eyes, meaning only to study what expression of his would accompany such a patient explanation, but the sarcastic words left my mouth unexpectedly before I could stop them. “So, if a bus full of nuns stops by tonight to enjoy a night of debauchery, I shouldn’t be surprised?” He cracked a smile. “You’ve got a smart wit, little Alex.” “Are you calling me a smartass?” “I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything about your ass.” He winked. “Although, I could give some insight if you wish.” Was he flirting with me? And if he was, why was I smiling about it? Matt stepped behind the bar, and his large frame towered over mine as he whispered into my ear, “The real money is made behind the veil, Alex. And tonight, charitable cause is the veil.” His words crashed into my mind like a train. I looked up to meet his eyes, to dig deeper into the meaning, but his gaze remained irritatingly neutral. Somehow, someway, the man had an innate way of answering my questions without my actually voicing them out loud. It was like he had a direct line into my thoughts. The idea was quite terrifying.

And oddly enough, only made me want to know him more. As he headed back into the mix of the party, Matt added over his shoulder, “Once you refill the scotch and check on the rest of the group up here, bring two bottles of champagne downstairs for Mr. Simon. Jessie Cat will show you where to go with it.” I nodded and watched his movements as he made his way through the crowd, shaking hands with familiar, famous faces, and walking confidently toward the spiral staircase that led toward the unknown. Downstairs. I still had no f*cking clue what was down there. But it looked like I was about to find out.

THERE WAS A CERTAIN SATISFACTION in knowing what someone wanted and being able to provide it. The idea of such a service was simple enough. People want things—things they can’t necessarily procure directly—and I get them for them. But the other, less obvious aspect of what I did that set me apart was knowing without having to be told. For my clients, having a true middleman—one who saw to their needs without advertisem*nt—gave a sense of plausible deniability. They hadn’t asked for the drugs or the girls, and they hadn’t directly summoned me to help them with their need to hide money. They’d hired me for a party. Simple as that—at least, in their minds. But not asking and still partaking was not a guiltless crime. It wouldn’t hold up in a court of law—that, I could guarantee—but that wasn’t something I pointed out to our clients. They got to feel good and somehow, morally abdicated. And I got to know the truth—and make money. Ari Simon, in particular, had a proclivity for male domination. He wanted weak females who bent to his will in every aspect. It was obvious in the way he treated female colleagues and his general air of superiority. He supported many causes, this charity benefit a prime example, so he felt justified in his own prejudices. As if one somehow made up for the other. A crock of horsesh*t if ever I’d heard one. But judging people didn’t give Wonderland money or power. And money and power were everything. Anyone who said otherwise was blindly hopeful or lying. Katie and Caterina, two of Wonderland’s pleasure girls, danced for Ari and Stephen, his best friend, without speaking. They didn’t challenge or command like they did with other clients but instead, waited for direction. I’d briefed them directly about Ari’s needs beforehand. I didn’t traditionally deal in the mundane, but no one read people like I did, and I trusted no one to convey the details I could. Even Jessie Cat embellished, let her own feelings guide her in the instruction of her “girls.” But that wasn’t what made fully satisfied clients. Plus, Ari liked to be watched, and he trusted me more than anyone in the organization

not to spread that around. A soft knock sounded on the door before it opened a crack. Alex peered nervously into the room with two chilled bottles of champagne, resting one on each hip. When her wide eyes met mine, I gestured her inside with the curl of a finger from my spot on the adjacent sofa. Ari spared her a quick glance as she stepped inside and shut the door, but he quickly returned his attention to Katie—who had on fewer clothes and had her focus entirely on him. To him, Alex was just a waitress, here to serve drinks. Nothing less and nothing more. “Come here,” I ordered softly, allowing myself a moment to look at the heaving skin of her soft breasts. They spilled almost precariously from her top, all supple, full, and flawless tanned skin. As she stopped in front of me, I wiped a droplet of water from her hip with my thumb. Whether it was condensation from the bottles or the result of a spilled drink, I didn’t know, but the skin underneath it felt silky and warm. “Have a seat.” She met my demand without hesitation. I was the only familiar thing in the room, and my authority was something she could count on. I’d yet to lead her astray, so following orders felt like the safest move. Every inch of her body screamed it. It wasn’t until she noticed the two gentlemen sitting on the couch across from us, hard co*cks out and ready as two of my pleasure girls kneeled in front of them, that her heart started beating faster, visible in a vibrating flutter in her neck. I heard Alex’s breath catch as Katie and Caterina both took the men into their mouths. When Alex finally exhaled again, it was heavy with both arousal and unrest, and a full ten seconds had passed. The image of two strangers getting sucked to climax by willing but compensated women was vivid, I knew. Even I couldn’t properly describe the difference in live action and watching something like p*rn. It was voyeuristic and taboo, and maybe most prominently, you were faced with knowing they knew you were watching. I pressed my thigh against hers as my hard co*ck made an obvious bulge in my pants. Her eyes fell to it as if summoned, and I longed to put my hand to her throat to feel her thrumming pulse. “Are you next?” she blurted, her voice rough to the point of scratchy. I put my hand to her bare knee and savored the feel of her sleek skin. “Only if you’re offering,” I asserted. “Um…” she murmured, her innocent, sea-blue eyes so wide I feared they’d take over her face. “No, thanks.” My cheeks lifted as the corners of my mouth curved into a smirk. “So quick to answer,” I said with a tsk. “You didn’t even really think about it.”

“No, no,” she denied quietly. “I thought about it.” “You thought about it?” I teased. “In your fantasy, was I heavy in your mouth, little Alex?” She blushed from head to toe, jerking to look away. Unfortunately for my innocent little flower, what lay in wait was no less scandalous. Ari breathed heavily as he yanked Katie’s head up and down the length of his shaft with a fist in her hair. Stephen sat back while Caterina did all the work, but both scenes were that of pure, carnal bliss. I leaned deeply into the heat of Alex’s rigid body and spoke directly in her ear. “Do you like to watch?” She shook her head, but she clutched at the meat of her thighs with her hands. She’s lying. “Do you like to be watched?” I asked. I stayed in her space as her surprised eyes turned to mine, bringing our lips only inches apart. “No,” she whispered, and this time, I didn’t doubt her sincerity. A hint of a smile bloomed in my throat and spread to just one corner of my mouth. “Have you had enough, little one?” I inquired softly. She nodded. “Okay,” I acquiesced, leaning back away from her and once again resting my back on the plush rise of the couch. “Why don’t you get back to work?” She stood immediately, and I reached out to the smooth, bare skin of her thigh. Up and down the skin at the back of her knee and five inches higher, I stroked her—just once. She shivered. “Thank you, Alex.” Her eyes held mine fiercely. “You’re welcome, Matt.” At the uninvited vision of her saying that to me from her knees, my come smeared across her flushed mouth, I knew with painful awareness I’d be hard all f*cking night.

WITH ONE LAST NAIL HAMMERED into the drywall, and a framed picture of Aunt Delores and me sitting together on a park bench outside of Fisherman’s Wharf hung, my new apartment was finally unpacked. Behind me, Deena meowed, and just in case I hadn’t heard her, she meowed again. Her plump kitty butt sat on the kitchen floor, while her big, hazel eyes stared at a bag of cat food on the floor. Little diva. I grinned at her impatience and tossed the hammer and extra nails into the closet. Once I reached the kitchen, she hopped up onto the island and watched intently as I grabbed her bowl and filled it with her favorite combination of wet and dry food. While I stirred, she serenaded me with meows, and eventually, I just gave up the good fight and set her bowl on the ground. She all but pounced toward it and dug in face first. Temporary or not, I still couldn’t believe this was my home. In my most likely naïve eyes, it screamed sophistication, even wealth. Two things I’d never had. I looked around my space, taking in every detail—light, hardwood floors, stainlesssteel appliances, and big windows overlooking the bright lights of downtown LA. As I ran my fingers across the smooth, cream-colored walls, I made a mental note to set aside some of my Wonderland, Inc. funds for a trip to IKEA. I barely had enough furniture for the sad studio apartment I’d nearly been evicted from. Here, in this gorgeous apartment, my personal belongings hardly scratched the surface of filling a space that consisted of two bedrooms and enough square footage to fit a family of four. Which was why it was quite nice that I averaged a base pay of one thousand a night from my new employer. And that was before tips. After one final lick to her bowl and three more licks across her lips, Deena purred—a soft and adorable sound—and meandered back to her perch by the window. I watched her settle in, walking circles around the sun rays brightening the floor. With her belly pressed to the ground and her paws stretched out, she settled into her version of the perfect catnap spot.

Sigh. Naps were the single best thing in the world. Sometimes, I wished I were still a kid so I could take a long nap and everyone would just be proud of me. I glanced at the clock and noted it was only a little after noon. Hmm…I can sneak in a little nap before I got to work on some much-needed laundry and grocery shopping, right? The quick answer was yes. The long answer was yes, I could definitely sneak in a nap, after I called Mike, my new landlord, and asked him about my current shower situation. The water temperature was fickle as f*ck. One minute it was warm, and the next it was raining ice cubes. It could go from boiling to freezing in thirty seconds flat without warning. One wouldn’t think a girl would have to endure a shower inside of a luxury apartment in LA. Sure, it was still a million times better than my studio apartment in Boyle Heights, but I guessed I’d developed a bit of a quick trigger when it came to bringing problems to my landlord’s attention. I blamed it on the fact that Mike had given me his direct number. It was the complete opposite of Vinnie Pat. He’d made it damn near impossible to get ahold of him, and, even when I’d managed to reach his lazy ass, he’d showed zero interest or motivation to fix the litany of problems incurring inside of his building. But Mike, on the other hand? Well, every time I called, things got fixed. Sure, maybe most of the problems weren’t even really problems per se, but normal living inconveniences that could occur anywhere—even luxury apartments. Sometimes, if you gave a girl an inch, she’d take a mile, and Mike McConnell had given me more than an inch—that’s what she said—with his prompt and timely responses. A quick tap to his name on my recent call list and he answered on the third ring, his deep sigh filling the airwaves before his voice. “What can I help you with, Alex?” “How’d you know it was me?” “We’ve had a lot of phone conversations over the past week. It’s safe to say I have your number programmed into my phone by now.” “Well…the shower off the master bedroom…I don’t think it’s working right. My temperature options consist of boil my skin off or frostbite. Can you come look at it?” I asked. He sighed again. “Yeah.” “Fantastic,” I responded with a smile. “So, I’ll see you in about thirty minutes?” “Thirty minutes?” he nearly spat. “I’m not gonna be able to make that work. I’ll stop by on Wednesday morning.” “Wednesday?” I questioned. “But that’s two days from now!” Seriously, how was I supposed to shower under these kinds of conditions? I wasn’t a princess by any means, but come on. No one wanted their shower to remind them of weather conditions in Antarctica. “Sorry, it’s the best I can do.”

I plopped down on the couch and dug my toes into the cushions of my sofa. “Mike, this is ridiculous. How am I supposed to shower over the next two days?” “How’s the water in the kitchen?” I narrowed my eyes. “You mean like the kitchen sink?” “Yeah, how’s the temperature from that faucet?” Jesus, this guy almost made me miss Vinnie Pat. Almost. “The temperature is great, but the whole dilemma of not being able to fit my ass inside the sink might cause problems,” I retorted and rolled my eyes. “Seriously? You’re the only guy who can come fix it? There’s no one else in this building who can help me? Not even maintenance staff?” “Let me make a few calls,” he responded. “I might have someone on our maintenance staff who can come out there later today and help you.” I crossed my fingers. “Really?” “Yeah,” he answered. “I’ll call you back in about twenty minutes or so. Sound good?” “Wait! Before you go,” I added. “Whomever you end up sending, can you make sure they’re well-versed in dishwashers as well? Mine’s acting weird. Every time I put one of those dishwashing pods in the little compartment and shut the door, the dishwasher never actually uses the pod, and then my dishes are all—” “Hold up. Alex,” he cut me off before I could tell him a few more things. The fridge… the closet door…I was keeping a rolling list. “I’ve got someone who can help you right now. And even better, he’s in-house.” “You do?” “Oh, yeah,” he responded, and the low yet playful tone of his voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. “He’ll definitely be glad to help you out. Real nice guy. Loves fixing problems. I gotta get off of here, but I’ll text you the info,” he added and then quickly ended the call. Deena only had time to rub against my legs three times before my phone sounded with his text. Mike the Landlord: 18th floor. Apartment #1. Tell the guy at the door Moosa sent you. Eighteenth floor? That was the top floor. I’d never been up that high. I looked over at Deena, who, a tried and true sleep professional, was one blink away from falling into a kitty coma. For f*ck’s sake, she’d been awake and moving two seconds ago. “Should I go up there?” I asked her, and she merely meowed her annoyance and turned her little face in the opposite direction. I grinned. “God, you’re so sassy when you haven’t gotten your beauty rest.” After a few soft rubs to the top of her head, I slipped on a pair of flip-flops, grabbed my keys, and headed for the elevator. Thirteen floors up and the doors pinged my arrival.

The instant I stepped outside of the cart, I quickly realized this guy’s apartment wasn’t just an apartment, it was a flipping penthouse. Literally, the only one on the entire eighteenth floor. This guy—whose name I don’t know—is supposed to help me with my water temperature? It all sounded a little—okay, a lot—crazy, but it wasn’t like Mike had ever steered me in a bad direction. The second his presence arrived on my doorstep, I’d gone from nearly evicted to living here. A large beast of an olive-skinned man in a fitted black suit and neatly smoothed jetblack hair stood outside the only door on the floor. Apartment #1. His dark eyes assessed me intently as I closed the distance between us. Though his face was severe in its entirety, when I looked carefully at each part—his eyes, lips, jaw—I could tell he was working hard to soften each one for my comfort. “Can I help you?” he asked, and despite his efforts to look approachable, a part of me wanted to turn around and hop back on the elevator. Hell, I was even considering finding the stairs and running all thirteen floors. This guy was handsome, sure, but mostly just f*cking intimidating. “Uh…” I started, but I forgot what I was supposed to say. With shaking fingers, I quickly tapped the screen of my phone and glanced at Mike’s message. “Moosa sent me.” “Moosa sent you?” “Uh-huh.” I nodded. At least, I think I nodded. My entire body was too damn busy shaking on the inside from the uncertainty of it all to differentiate between nervous tremors and a nod. The man stared at me for a long moment before opening the door and gesturing me inside. The rubber of my flip-flops’ soles smacked as they hit the marble floor of the entry and echoed throughout the insanely large, marble- and stone-encrusted space. Immediately, I stopped in my tracks and just stared. Good Christ, Alex. Don’t touch anything in here. “Uh…” But before I could ask where to go or what to do or anything for that matter, he stepped back out into the hallway and shut the door behind him with a quiet click, leaving me inside and clueless. “Hello?” I greeted but received no response. “Uh…it’s me, Alex Little,” I tried again. “I live on the fifth floor. Mike said that you could help me with the water temperature in my apartment…” Still nothing. Slowly, I walked through the entry, past the kitchen, past the dining room, and stopped in the living room. Although, I was using the term living room pretty loosely here. This room could hold one hundred people, and it would still have enough space for fifty more.

“Hello?” For lack of anything else to say, I greeted the seemingly empty space again as I walked into the long hallway that I assumed led to the bedrooms. This was weird, right? I didn’t even know the name of the owner, and yet I was just wandering around his place like a creeper. “Is anyone home?” I asked, and my voice echoed off the walls once more. Deeper in the bowels of the pristine white hallway, I passed the third door, and finally, a sound could be heard that didn’t come from my own awkward lips. Water ran through the pipes in the walls, and the hum of a shower hitting tile spilled from the back bedroom and into the hall. Hmmm…maybe he was working on his own water temperature issue? That would make sense…right? Light spilled beneath the partially opened door at the other side of the manly space —yes, I went into the bedroom—and without thinking, I pushed it the rest of the way open until I was hit with the visual of a man—an insanely sexy man, mind you—in the shower. He was naked. Completely f*cking naked. And then, over his firm, tanned, water-rivulet-covered shoulder, a familiar amber gaze locked with mine. Matt Hadder. Water dripped from the rain shower onto his tanned and toned skin, and I couldn’t stop my gaze from following the droplets’ paths as they slipped down his thick biceps, down his firm chest, down the ripples of his abdomen, past his trim hips…and then I stopped. Stopped and stared. Thick, hard, long. His hand was fisted around his co*ck as he stroked it. Instantaneously, I felt high from the erotic movements. Up and down. Up and down. The head getting more swollen, more red, more hard. My mouth went dry, and I licked my lips to compensate. Jesus Christ, it was a sight to behold. I might pass out. One I shouldn’t have been witnessing, but f*ck, I couldn’t stop myself. My nipples tightened beneath my tank top, and a rush of heat consumed my body at the sight of him. One grunt left his lips, and our gazes locked again. But he didn’t stop, didn’t hide what he was doing. No, he continued. Primed. Ready. His muscles flexed as he stroked a little harder, a little faster. He was getting close. I wanted to look down. I wanted to look at his co*ck again, take in the details of his strong fingers wrapped around it, but I didn’t want to look away from the steady, confident hold of his eyes. Three more strokes, I could tell by the minute movement of his shoulder as it met the strong cords of his neck, and his eyes were still locked with mine. He was watching me watch him.

We were voyeur and exhibitionist. Only, he held all the control. Two more strokes and his eyes turned darker, heated, anticipating the climax. The urge to step inside the shower was almost unavoidable. The desire to touch him, taste him, wrap my lips around him, shocked me. But it also aroused me. I clenched my thighs together in a poor attempt at sating the constant, delicious ache. One more stroke and climax. It rolled through his body, his muscles flexing and clenching, and a sexy as hell grunt that bordered on a roar left his lips. It was the hottest f*cking sound I’d ever heard. And through each delicious wave, he held my gaze captive. I felt intoxicated. Horny. Turned the f*ck on. I wanted to see it again. I wanted a redo so I could record every second and make one hundred different GIFs of Matt stroking his co*ck. Oh. My. God. What was that? As I stood in his bathroom, frozen to my spot and mind racing to figure out how in the hell I’d ended up in Matt Hadder’s bathroom watching the hottest peep show that had ever occurred, he went back to his shower like nothing even happened. He squirted shampoo into his hands and washed his hair before moving on to body wash and soaping up his skin. It was like I wasn’t even there. Am I really here? Or is this a dream? I mean, Matt Hadder stroking his co*ck is at least way more in line with general dream protocol. My subconscious is improving. The water shut off, and Matt stepped out. He grabbed a large white towel off a hook and started to dry himself off. “Hungry?” he asked as he wrapped the towel around the trim hips of his waist. Yes. I want to put my mouth on you… I nodded. “Uh-huh.” He grinned. “Head into the kitchen and wait for me. I’ll make us something to eat once I get dressed.” “Okay,” I squeaked out and all but tripped over my flip-flops as I stepped out of his bathroom and walked back down the hallway. Mindlessly, I reached the kitchen and sat down on one of the stools around the island. I racked my brain for any relevant thoughts, but I only seemed to be able to replay what I’d just witnessed. Holy hell, that was the sexiest damn thing I’d ever seen in my life. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to be so turned on without any physical touch occurring. Good Lord, Matt Hadder looked good naked.

And he looks even better while stroking his perfect co*ck… My eyes went wide at that thought. I’d just seen my boss’s co*ck. Actually, I’d just seen my boss stroke his co*ck. Oh. My. God. I hopped up from the stool and started pacing the kitchen. I’d come up here to talk to some guy about fixing my water temperature and ended up walking in on Matt in the shower? I didn’t even know Matt lived in this building. And why did Mike the landlord send me to Matt’s apartment in the first place? What in the hell was happening? Before Matt made his way into the kitchen, I found myself moving toward the entry, and my hand was wrapped around the knob of the front door. My mind was too overwhelmed. I needed to get the f*ck out of here before my head exploded.

MY LUNGS BURNED AS I stepped into my walk-in closet and yanked a white T-shirt and pair of briefs out of the top drawers of the built-ins. Consumed with racing thoughts of how in the f*ck Alex had ended up in my apartment, I dressed quickly and headed for the hallway. At first, I’d thought I might have been imagining her, standing there in my bathroom in painfully short cutoffs, her tit* spilling out of the spaghetti-strapped tank she’d been wearing without a bra. I’d already been fantasizing about what it would have been like if she’d wrapped her sweet lips around my co*ck at Ari Simon’s party while I’d stroked the ache out of my dick. So it’d made sense that, while my mind was beckoning images, it might as well summon her there too. But the girth of her eyes as they landed on my straining co*ck and sad replacement for a puss*—otherwise known as my f*cking hand—hadn’t been a mirage or mental conjuring —they were all her. I couldn’t have imagined that sight, not for all the money in the world, not without having seen it myself. Paralyzing, f*cking shimmering, aqua blue, the power of her gaze was so powerful that it had superseded anything and everything else. In a simple fantasy, she’d have distracted me with the hardening peaks of her perfect nipples or stripped off her shorts to show me how wet her puss* was. But this Alex, the real one, had done me one better. She’d connected intimately, almost down to the very root of my soul as she held me captive inside her gaze. Each stroke, each grind, each gasping zing of pleasure that’d run straight up my spine, she’d kept her eyes on mine. Staring, licking her f*cking lips, the little voyeur had watched until my come covered my dick, my hand, my balls—all of it coated with the very thing I wanted to fill her puss* up with until it couldn’t fit any more. And now, I feared she knew just how consumed by her I was. I wasn’t used to the emotional vulnerability. In fact, I didn’t think I’d felt like that since my mother died. Slapping, impatient steps finally taking me to the end of the hall, the kitchen in sight, I scanned the room for the woman who never should have been in my goddamn apartment in the first place and came up empty. I didn’t know if I was pissed off, disappointed, or

relieved. Where in the hell had she gone? I moved my focus toward the dining room, the living room, even the outside terrace, and still, no f*cking Alex. That’s when my anger started to set in. Irrationally, I was frustrated with her for being something I wanted but didn’t need to have. And rationally, I knew she didn’t just stumble into my apartment all on her own. From the wide-eyed look on her pretty little face, she was just as surprised as I was. There was something else at play here. I hadn’t deduced the how or why, but I was going to find out what the f*ck had happened, or I’d kill somebody trying. With my clenched fist around the knob, I yanked open my front door. The abrupt motion shook water droplets from the still damp ends of my hair and dropped them on my neck, soaking into the fresh fabric of my T-shirt. Cal stood watch outside of my apartment, and his eyes met mine as he turned quickly from his position against the wall. “Where the hell did she go?” I questioned. He glanced toward the closed doors of the elevator. “She hauled ass out of here about five minutes ago.” “And why in the f*ck was she in my apartment in the first place?” His eyebrows shot together. “She said Moosa sent her. You didn’t approve it?” The cords of my neck strained and stretched with my bark. “No, I didn’t f*cking approve it.” “Christ.” His previously relaxed face turned to something that more closely resembled stone. “What’s Mickey got? A goddamn death wish?” “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out,” I vowed. “Find him. Get him here. But first, call IT and have them send over the last hour of Alex’s apartment microphone.” “You’re going to listen to her?” he asked, alarmed. As much as we had this kind of sh*t as liability protection, I didn’t make a habit of using it. Apparently, Cal didn’t much like the idea of that changing. Unfortunately, in this case, whether Cal or I liked it, I had to make an exception. Keeping Alex close, but in the dark, had been the priority. Watch her. Test her a little. Make sure she hadn’t heard any information her delicate little ears shouldn’t have been privy to—specifically, Wonderland, Inc.’s connection and deal with King. But mostly, keep her in the motherf*cking dark. Her walking into my apartment was the complete opposite of the plan. Hell, it blew the lid right off the f*cking plan. And worse than that, it possibly made her a liability when she wasn’t necessarily one in the first place.

I needed to hear the events that led her to my apartment, and I needed to hear it right the f*ck now. With a slow inhale and an even slower exhale, I did my best to tamp down the rage that was practically choking the air out of my throat. “I’m going to get both sides of the story, and I have a feeling Alex needs some space right now. This is the easiest way.” I couldn’t blame her for hauling ass out of my apartment without a word. There would’ve been cause for concern had she just hung around and acted like sh*t was normal. Because in her mind, there never should’ve been a connection between her so-called landlord and me. Hell, she hadn’t even known I lived in the building. f*cking Moosa. I had a feeling once I listened through the voice surveillance recording of her apartment, he would be getting more than just my boot up his ass. “Space?” Cal asked, concern and accusation roughening his voice. “What happened in there?” “Cal,” I reprimanded. He scowled but knew better than to push it. “I can f*ck right off. I got it.” “I like that you like her,” I praised. Someone needed to be looking out for her. Someone who could f*cking think rationally around her. But it didn’t matter how much either of us liked her. Her knowledge made all of us vulnerable—probably her most of all. “But you can’t let that sway you. You know what we have to do here, how we have to be.” Seemingly appeased, he nodded, his jaw tight, and took out his phone to call IT and Mickey. I shut the door and strode back into the kitchen. I looked around almost manically. Hoping to find something to break, something out of the ordinary, I didn’t know. But she’d been in here; I could smell the heavy sweetness of cherry blossom. My phone buzzed on the counter, and I scooped it up immediately. The email from the IT department held nothing more than an MP3 file, so I clicked it to download. The wait couldn’t have been any longer than a minute, but it felt like an eternity. Dialing up the volume by several clicks, I listened as the file started to play. It seemed like nothing more than the knock of a hammer with some soft, sh*tty music playing in the background for the first few minutes, so I moved the file forward in fiveminute increments until I heard the sound of her voice. She was midsentence, so I went back until I found the beginning and started to listen. A few meows from her cat and a deep sigh from her were the last things I heard before she started a one-sided conversation that could have only been a phone call. “How’d you know it was me?” A pause. “Well…the shower off the master bedroom…I don’t think it’s working right. My temperature options consist of boil my skin off or frostbite. Can you come look at it?” Only a moment passed.

“Fantastic,” she responded. “So, I’ll see you in about thirty minutes?” Another run of silence. “Wednesday?” she questioned, after someone, likely Mickey, fed her some kind of bullsh*t excuse. “But that’s two days from now!” A puff of sound filled the air like she’d thrown herself somewhere dramatically. “Mike, this is ridiculous. How am I supposed to shower over the next two days?” Definitely Mickey, the prick. Two days to fix her goddamn shower? After I broke his neck, I was going to break his fingers one by one, just for good measure. “You mean like the kitchen sink?” “The temperature is great, but the whole dilemma of not being able to fit my ass inside the sink might cause problems!” I shook my head. Mickey thought this was giving her whatever the f*ck she wanted? “Seriously? You’re the only guy who can come fix it? There’s no one else in this building who can help me? Not even maintenance staff?” I’d heard enough. Mickey was a lazy f*ck who’d sent her up here on a whim because she was f*cking annoying him. I wondered how annoying he might find it to walk without toes. “Cal!” I called harshly, and the door opened almost immediately. “Yeah?” “Tell me Mick’s on his way here.” He smiled evilly, correctly reading every ounce of my pissed-off aura and relishing it. “He is.” I jerked my head, and he stepped back outside as I fast-forwarded the file again and stopped it on the slam of her door fifteen or so minutes later. “Oh my God,” she breathed. “Oh my God.” The cat meowed. “Yeah, tell me about it. What am I supposed to do with this?” Another two meows. “I can’t do that!” she yelled. Was she on the phone again? I listened closer as footsteps tracked toward the mic and away again. “I mean, he’s my boss, right? He is my boss. I can’t just ride the joystick anytime I want, Deena, okay? So, stop. It doesn’t matter that it’s huge.” Deena? I pushed pause, picked up my phone, and jogged over to my home office to grab her

file. I opened it right there on my desk and scanned the contents with the tip of my finger. One cat. Name: Deena. Her cat. Her f*cking cat. She was talking to her cat. More aptly, she was freaking out about wanting my co*ck to her cat. I couldn’t help but smile as I pushed play again, closed the file, and made my way back out to the kitchen. “What matters is that he lives in the same building as me. I mean, what’s the deal with that?” The corners of my mouth melted straight into a scowl. f*cking f*ck, I was going to kill Mickey. “Cal!” I yelled again. He stepped inside this time and closed the door behind him, his brows drawn offensively. Normally amiable and friendly in my presence, I sometimes forgot he could look like a scary motherf*cker when he wanted. “What?” “There’s only one rule when Mickey gets here, do you hear me?” His head jerked in the affirmative. “Don’t let me kill him. Not today.” “But—” “Alex,” I explained with just one word. She was starting to wonder about things, and one missing landlord was going to be more than enough to deal with when it came up. “But we can make it hurt, right?” he asked. “Absolutely.” I planned to make it hurt a f*cking lot.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS HAD PASSED, AND I still had no idea what to make of yesterday. Hell, I was starting to question everything that had occurred over the past two weeks —meeting Matt, getting un-evicted and moved in to a kick-ass apartment in downtown LA, being introduced into the world that was everything Wonderland, Inc., and working at swanky, sophisticated parties whose attendees comprised some of Hollywood’s elite. And then, witnessing those very attendees blur the lines of good and bad with charitable functions being used as some sort of cover to delve into a classy kind of dirty where prostitutes were called pleasure girls and drugs and alcohol were passed around like hors d’oeuvres. It was a mindf*ck. And the icing on the cake? Mike, my f*cking landlord, instructing me to go to the eighteenth floor, into an apartment owned by none other than Matt Hadder. My f*cking boss. And not only that, but like a complete moron, I’d walked around his place until I found him in the shower, naked and stroking his dick. I hated how much I loved the visuals the mere thought of his oh so very perfect co*ck spurred. I shouldn’t have been fantasizing about what he tasted like or felt like or, holy hell, what he’d feel like inside of me. I definitely shouldn’t have been fantasizing about those things. Shouldn’t being the operative word my mind kept forgetting. Matt fully dressed was a fantastic sight, one that any woman in the world would drool over. But remove the clothes and add his hard co*ck into the deal? Mind-blowing. Provocative. So f*cking erotic and arousing it should’ve qualified as the eighth deadly sin. I couldn’t remove those images from my brain even if I wanted to. Christ, I’d be a liar if I said I wanted to remove them. Like a little ravenous scavenger, I’d been stockpiling each and every image into the recesses of my brain so I could obsess over them for the rest of time. I was a pervert and starting to wonder if I needed therapy. Or sex. Hell, maybe both.

Sex? Cripes. How long has it been? I knew it had been at least a year. My last sex being my ex-boyfriend Randy. And sadly enough, it wasn’t even good sex. It was just…sex. In and out, in and out until he climaxed and fell asleep. Which, normally, I wouldn’t think twice about. I’d never really considered myself a sexual person per se. I found men attractive, and I did enjoy the benefits a good org*sm could give, but sex wasn’t something that had ever really been on my daily radar. Until Matt and his sexy naked body and perfect co*ck in the shower. That visual, well, it had f*cked up my normal thought processes. Short-circuited my brain’s usual neurotransmitter path and rerouted my mind’s inclinations toward fixating on fantasies and obsessing over tanned, flexing muscles and intense eyes that rotated hues of honey and amber and gold depending on their mood. It didn’t make sense. Before Matt, I’d had boyfriends. I’d seen men naked. I’d had sex…not a lot, but enough to know the gist of it. But nothing, not even sex itself, had ever turned me on as much as seeing Matt stroke his perfect co*ck. It was like that man and his f*ck-hot body held the key to my secret garden of horny. And right on cue, the visuals started rolling in again. Naked Matt. Matt’s biceps flexing and his intense eyes on me and his hand wrapped around himself, moving, stroking, up and down, up and down, until my brain felt buzzed. Sheesh. This is crazy. I blinked several times to find my equilibrium. f*ck, I had to get out of this apartment. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. Basically, do anything but sit around in my underwear and fixate. After a short trip to my walk-in closet, I’d switched out of my sleep shirt into a little black cotton dress and decided that a quick stroll to the market to grab a few things wasn’t a half-bad idea. Five blocks south and another two toward the right, I stepped into Ralph’s, the nearest grocery store within walking distance, grabbed a basket, and kept my brain busy with the short list I’d jotted down before I left my apartment. -Coffee -Milk -Turkey -Don’t think about Matt -Oranges

-Oreos -Don’t think about Matt! -Bananas -Ice cream -Stop thinking about him! -Toilet paper -Eggs -Stop thinking about him, you pervert! -Ugh. You’re pathetic. Forty minutes later, I walked toward my building with both hands full of grocery bags and my mind not thinking about Matt naked or the one million things it probably should have been analyzing. Such as, how did my landlord know Matt? And why did he send me up to Matt’s apartment? There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Matt Hadder, but I definitely knew he wasn’t a f*cking maintenance guy. I’d even attempted to call Mike three different times, but every time, I’d lost my nerve and hung up before the second ring. I mean, how did someone even broach a conversation like that? “Oh, hey, Mike. It’s Alex. I’m just wondering why you sent me to Matt’s apartment so I could watch him jerk off in the shower. Also, please ignore the fact that I took it upon myself to just stand there like a pervert and watch him finish…” See what I mean? It wasn’t an easy situation any way I looked at it. And the more I thought about the entire clusterf*ck of confusing circ*mstances, I wondered if it really was just by chance that I’d been relocated into the same building as Matt? I mean, what were the f*cking odds? Surely, they weren’t good. I probably would’ve had a better shot at winning the lottery. Okay, so maybe I was a bit of a liar. My mind was thinking about Matt. He was all I could focus on. Not only my insane attraction toward him, but all of the strange coincidences and odd situations that had led me to my current confusing set of circ*mstances. As I rounded the last block toward my building, I passed by an empty bus stop, and my eyes locked on to a newspaper sitting discarded on a distressed, wooden bench. Aha! I smiled, but it wasn’t the newspaper that had caught my eye. It was the back of a playing card peeking out between its pages. Without hesitation, I snatched the newspaper

off the bench and finished the short walk toward the entrance of my building. Collecting playing cards found in the street was a bit of a pastime for Aunt Delores and me. We’d been doing it for years, since I was probably around eight or nine, and it was our game, with our rules. We had to find the cards on the streets of San Diego, any neighborhood, and we could only take two cards at a time. Every year, on January 1st, we’d start the yearlong search to collect an entire deck in a year’s time. I’d loved our game. Still did, actually. We’d bring our cards home, organize them by numerical order and suit, and eventually, for the years we’d get a whole deck, we’d put them in a scrapbook with little notes about when and where we had found them. When I was fifteen, Aunt Delores had made a chart that consisted of what each card meant. Considering she’d gotten their descriptions from Ms. Gypsy—a part-time psychic who gave readings inside of her garage—I hadn’t really put much stock into their meanings. And when I was eighteen, my then-boyfriend Randy and a few of my friends had asked me why I was doing it, collecting discarded playing cards in the streets. I think their question stemmed from annoyance more than anything else. But I hadn’t really known the answer. It had always been just something fun that I’d done with Aunt Delores. Until right now. The instant I spotted that card, I’d finally connected the dots. I walked into my apartment and dropped my grocery bags onto the counter, too excited to look at the playing card to waste time putting the cold items in the fridge. And with a giant smile on my face, I flipped open the newspaper and slid the playing card out from between the pages. The six of hearts. According to Ms. Gypsy, it stood for love. According to me, it stood for rediscovering the pastime that had brought me so much joy in my childhood—and finding it at a time when I really needed it. See, as humans, we always want an explanation. A reason. A solution. For everything. We do this in every aspect of our lives. Always searching for things that are useful, that make sense. Always needing to know the answer to Why? But this, finding random playing cards on the street, it didn’t necessarily make sense. It didn’t necessarily hold a specific reason. And it wasn’t exactly useful. It just is. This game was Aunt Delores’s and my way of rebelling against the mind-set of society where everything should be useful and make sense. Sometimes, you just needed something mysterious in your life that couldn’t be easily explained. Something that you didn’t feel the need to try to explain. And right now, with all of these unknowns swirling around inside my head, I needed

this six of hearts. As I reached to grab my phone off the counter, to make a quick call to my aunt, I spotted a familiar name splashed across the opened newspaper. I stopped in my tracks and scanned the article with narrowed eyes. Boyle Heights’ Police Update: Man found dead in Boyle Heights has been identified as Vinnie Pat Police say they’ve identified the dead body of a man found earlier this week sitting inside of a stolen vehicle parked in a Boyle Heights’ alleyway. They say the body was that of 45-year-old Vincenzo Patterelli, known to most as Vinnie Pat. Vinnie Pat had been suspected of having deep ties to the Mexican drug cartel, as well as involvement in a string of robberies that had occurred in the Bel Air area. After his death, it was also discovered he had several rental properties in the Boyle Heights area that had been purchased under a different alias. The California Office of the Medical Examiner will determine the cause of death. Since Patterelli did not have any identification on him, police say he was identified by fingerprints. A woman, who was taking out trash to a bin in the alley at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, noticed the man sitting in the parked vehicle and called police. The woman thought the man had passed out, but police say he was dead at the scene.

Vinnie Pat was dead? Not to mention I’d been living in an apartment building owned by a landlord who had ties to the Mexican drug cartel? What in the ever-loving f*ck was going on here? Between Wonderland and my new landlord Mike, and Vinnie Pat dying not even twenty-four hours after I’d told Matt that I was getting evicted, there were too many coincidences and not enough explanations. There was more to this story, and I’d be a moron if I didn’t follow what my gut was telling me. This is all connected. Before I lost my nerve, I grabbed the newspaper off the counter and strode out of my apartment and rode the elevator up thirteen floors until it dinged my arrival on Matt’s floor. The same man sat outside his door, watching me closely as I strode toward him. “Is Matt home?” He nodded. “Can you tell him Alex really needs to talk to him?” He nodded again and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He typed across the screen a few times, and once his phone buzzed with a response, he slid it back into his pocket and opened the door. “He’s in the kitchen.” I walked through the long entry, and once I reached the kitchen, I found Matt, standing behind the island, drinking a cup of coffee.

“Everything okay?” he asked. I took a deep breath and pushed the words out of my mouth before I lost my nerve. “I’ve got questions.” I slammed the newspaper down beside his mug, the article with Vinnie Pat’s name front and center. Matt glanced down at the newspaper and then back up at me. “Questions?” “Yes.” I nodded. “I’ve got questions.” He didn’t falter at my words, merely leaning his back against the counter and staring at me with neutral eyes. “I don’t think you really want to ask those questions, sweetheart,” he warned, but his voice never swayed from the powerful combination of calm and in control. Uncertainty, maybe even fear, started to seep into my nerves, but I tamped it down. I wasn’t going to let myself back down from this. “I think I do.” “I already know your questions, and I can tell you, you knowing the answers to those questions isn’t in your best interest.” My eyes went wide. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Exactly what you think it means.” “Is this one of those ‘if I tell you, I might have to kill you’ kind of things?” Matt didn’t humor me with a response, merely staring back at me with an irritatingly and slightly terrifying middle-of-the-road expression. “Holy hell,” I muttered to myself and averted my eyes from the strength of his gaze. I looked out the big kitchen windows that faced the terrace. The California sun shone bright and blinding, but gave no insight into how I should proceed. To know or not to know, that was the question. But eerily, it felt like it might be more like stay alive or end up ten feet under the ground. “It’s up to you,” he said, and my gaze slowly moved back to his. “I’ll answer any questions you have. But you just need to be aware of the risk knowing those answers holds.” I stared at him, and he stared at me. The options were simple. Yes or no. But internally, I felt like I was one clip away from either dismantling a bomb or blowing myself up. Thrumming wildly and fueled by adrenaline, my heart pounded. Holy hell, think, Alex. This was some deep and dirty kind of sh*t. I knew that much. But for some unknown reason, my curiosity was still front and center, demanding attention, asking questions, needing answers.

Red wire. Blue wire. An overwhelming sense of unceasing and ravenous curiosity had become front and center in my mind. Uncertainty, f*cking explosions, be damned, I had to know the truth. I’d never let it go, I knew myself, and I didn’t think Matt would ever give me the chance again. Maybe I was being impulsive and rash. Maybe I wasn’t really understanding the gravity of the situation. But when it came down to it, only one word sat on my lips, waiting to be said. “Yes,” I answered. One word. Decisive. Determined. “I want to know everything.”

“COME HERE,” I ORDERED SOFTLY, resisting the urge to reach out and pull her toward me with the belt loop of her shorts. She wouldn’t want to be touched right now, and as much as I wanted the complete opposite, I could respect that. Pride mushroomed inside my chest at the courage she refused to forfeit. It’d be so easy to bury her head in the sand, to take the money and fortune Wonderland had provided her with and go about her life. Between her one thousand a night party rate, and the generous tips she’d received from our wealthy clients, I knew Alex had to be sitting on five figures in extra cash flow at this point in the game. But she was stubborn in her risk-taking, confident in the path life had laid out for her, and happy to live with the consequences of her own making, even if they were less desirable than those of someone else’s creation. The ability to keep your mouth shut and your ears closed was what made a good soldier. But the endless, unbreakable curiosity and ferocity that Alex had—they were what made a good leader. She was willing to take chances, take risks, and that said a lot about her internal strength. And when the day arrived where her subtle naïveté was replaced by wisdom and life experiences, Alex Little would light the world ablaze. “Take a seat,” I directed. She did as asked, if cautiously, and hoisted herself up to the barstool on the other side of my kitchen island, settling her palms on the surface of the counter in front of her. White mottled the tips of her fingers as they flexed into the elaborately patterned stone. “What happened to Vinnie Pat?” she asked directly, staring at his ugly face and the imperfect smear of ink on his cheek. I reached out and put my fingers under the hollow of her chin, lifting it until her eyes met mine. The paradox of my already healing knuckles from teaching Moosa a hard f*cking lesson and her silky, ivory skin wasn’t lost on me in that moment. I glanced at the paper just briefly, and then back to her brilliant, turbulent eyes again. “Was he a problem?” She furrowed her brow, a tiny wrinkle creasing the skin just above her nose. “I don’t

—” “Was he a problem?” I cut her off to reiterate, carefully emphasizing the last word with a coarseness uncharacteristic of even my often jagged voice. She swallowed thickly and stared into the seedy eyes of a printed Vinnie Pat aimed at the ceiling of my apartment. “Yes.” I shrugged, allowing myself a small, mischievous grin. “I fix problems.” “You fix problems?” she asked, a hint of disbelief coloring the edges of her question a dangerous red. God, she’s magnificent. “Yes,” I answered simply. “How can you be so callous about it?” she questioned with both curiosity and complaint. Both were expected, but she surprised me with the percentage of composition. There was far more inquisitiveness in her voice than derision. “I’m not a bad man, Alex,” I explained patiently. “But sometimes, under very particular circ*mstances, I have to ask myself, ‘What would a bad man do?’” “What would a bad man do?” “Yes,” I confirmed. “What would the bad man have done this time, Matt?” Each word flowed smoothly into the next, no hesitation, no fear, no regrets. “Exactly what I did.” I turned the paper around and pushed it to the space right in front of her. She lifted her hands from the counter as though it might burn to the touch, her breathing circulating faster and faster with each inhale. She scanned the lines of text for several moments before lifting her eyes to mine once more. “Won’t the drug cartel miss him?” The corners of my mouth carried my smile all the way to my resolute gaze. “Who says he wasn’t a problem for them too?” Wide and innocent, her eyes doubled from their normal size. “Are you saying you know…that you…are you—” “I’m not saying anything, Alex. And believe me, if you’re the smart girl I think you are, you won’t be saying anything either. Do you understand me?” She nodded, but I could see her still-racing mind. She had more questions. Riveted, I watched and waited, wondering if she’d find the words to ask them. Her mouth opened and closed, then repeated that movement three more times. But then, that fire. I saw the exact moment it lit behind her eyes, the vivid aqua turning even brighter. “Is Mike involved with Wonderland?” “Yes.”

“Is he even a real landlord?” I shook my head. “Vinnie Pat. Mike. Being relocated to your building. It was all connected?” “What do you think?” She worried her teeth into her lip before shifting off her stool and stumbling a little as she took to her feet. She glanced to the door and back to me nervously. “I think I should go now.” Shaking from the top of her blond head to her red-tipped toes, she stood there, her gaze unwaveringly locked to mine as she waited. For permission, for an ugly fate, or something else, I didn’t know. All I knew was that she was extraordinarily brave, and I, despite all reason suggesting I should be otherwise, was wholly beguiled by her. “Go on then, little one,” I allowed. She moved quickly to the door, her gait that of a walk but her speed somehow that of a jog. I waited for her hand to surround the cool metal of the door handle before calling her attention back. “Remember what I’ve said, yes?” It was both a threat and an entreaty. For, as much her life undoubtedly meant to her, I was finding it was coming to mean a great deal to me as well. She wouldn’t change who I was. But the bloodstains her demise would leave on my hands would endure after a lifetime of washing. f*ck, I’d never feel clean again. She jerked her head to a nod just once, the tendrils of her hair sweeping out in front of her, only to land peacefully on her shoulders once again. I watched the whirl of her weight as she pivoted on the ball of her foot and threw the door open to escape, waiting for the crack of the slamming door to finalize her departure. But the sound never came, Cal’s hand instead shooting out to ease the door to a stop and send it careening back the other direction so that he could step inside. It clicked closed nearly inaudibly behind him, but though quiet, the noise transfixed me. My chest tight with unease, a feeling I rarely allowed, I stared at the place she’d been and hoped this wasn’t the last time I got to touch her gently. “Matt,” Cal called impatiently from the other side of the bar. The severity of his scowl suggested it wasn’t the first time he’d called my name. “Yeah?” “What happened?” I shook my head, trying to think clearly enough to make smart decisions. “Matt.” “Have someone follow her,” I ordered. “What?”

Instead of punishing him for questioning me, I paid attention. I could use his concern. “No. You follow her.” “Me?” “Yes,” I gritted. “Now.” “For how long?” “I’ll f*cking tell you when to stop, goddammit,” I snapped. “Follow her. Don’t let her know you are, and don’t do anything other than pay attention. Anything you’re unsure about, you call me.” “Yes, sir,” Cal finally agreed, stalking to the door angrily. There’s the slam I was waiting for. Hands to the counter, I let my weight sink into them and my head fall back. After a few minutes, vivid images of Alex’s challenging light and hard-fought affection for me flashing through my mind, I suppressed any last traces of worry. I didn’t need to. My Alex would pass the test.

TWO DAYS AFTER MATT HAD opened the bad and dirty version of Pandora’s box, I was pretty sure my brain had inserted some kind of numbing agent into my veins as means to cope. I should’ve still been freaked the f*ck out. Scared. Paranoid. Hell, I probably shouldn’t have prodded and probed him for information in the first place. But once the information had settled into my brain, the fear and panic had been replaced with this sort of numbed curiosity. I was inquisitive more than anything else. It was like I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the risks that now surrounded me by knowing the things Matt had revealed. I knew this was a Danger, Will Robinson! kind of situation, but my mind just kept fixating on more questions. Maybe what they said was true: Curiosity killed the cat. Or, in my version, replace the cat with a twenty-five-year-old girl named Alex. Not to mention over the past forty-eight hours, the only contact I’d had with Matt was one simple text exchange this morning. Matt: Keep your schedule clear tonight. Me: Okay.

The rational side of me knew I should have probably, you know, questioned what was supposed to happen tonight. But instead, I’d just typed Okay. f*cking okay? Jesus, Alex. Are you losing it? I honestly wasn’t sure anymore. Cripes, I probably should’ve been panicked and pacing in my apartment. Or packing up all of my sh*t and taking the first Greyhound back to San Diego. Maybe taking things to the police. To the police chief I saw at the Ari Simon party? Not likely.

How was I supposed to know who was good anymore anyway? It all seemed tainted. So, basically, I’d been sticking my head in the mundane sand for two solid days. And today’s agenda was no different. I’d be enjoying a Segway tour through Beverly Hills. Ever since I’d moved here, I’d wanted to do it. But the one hundred and fifty bucks required to sign up had always made it impossible to follow through. But thanks to Matt Hadder and the very generous tippers within the two Wonderland parties I had under my belt, I could splurge. So much so, I almost couldn’t fathom my life anymore. I’d made a five-figure salary from two nights of work. That kind of quick cash felt dangerous, like I was somehow cheating or thieving, but it was nice not to have to struggle for money once in my life. And, although the parties pushed the boundaries of good and bad, they weren’t an uncomfortable or scary place to be. It was a contradiction to say the least. At eleven in the morning, with matching neon yellow vests and bicycle helmets, our little group of twelve was a ridiculous sight for sure. But hot damn, these Segways looked like fun. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t endured mild humiliation. If I could get through an entire birthday party dressed as Sprinkles the Rabbit, I could handle the hideous and blinding gear. “Our first lesson of the day,” our instructor Bobby started his spiel, “is safety. That is our biggest priority. The group stays together and must follow all pedestrian traffic laws.” We stood around him in an empty parking lot and watched closely as he showed us the ins and outs of the Segway. “Keep a firm hold on the Segway at all times.” He stepped onto his Segway and gripped the handlebars. “Always have both feet firmly aboard and both hands holding the handlebar.” A woman with bright red hair and a fanny pack raised her hand. Her name tag read Margie. “Can you fall off of a Segway?” “Yes,” Bobby answered. “But that’s why we’re giving you the crash course prior to the tour. To avoid things like that.” “Will it hurt if I fall off of my Segway?” she chimed in. “Yes, but let’s just focus on avoiding falls, okay?” he stated and then made another slow circle around our group. “How fast can we go?” Another question from Margie. There was always one in the group. I sighed internally. Jesus, lady. Just let him finish before you ask one million questions. “Aim to keep a fast walking pace,” he answered. “You should avoid speeding and always give way to pedestrians.” “But how fast is that? Like twenty miles an hour?” the only goddamn person in our group asking questions asked. Maybe I should have Matt take Margie out.

Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. What in the hell kind of thought was that? You’re supposed to be ignoring Matt and death and how the two relate to one another, okay, Alex? “Definitely not twenty miles an hour. Probably more like five miles an hour.” “But that’s so slow—” She started to add more, but Bobby appeared tired of her pop quiz and gestured her to quiet down with a terse raise of his hand. A gesture. That’s how normal people think. Not f*cking offing her. Jesus. “These devices are not meant to go as fast as cars,” he instructed and demonstrated on his Segway as he circled the group again. “Similar to this speed.” Margie sighed. She seemed annoyed by the prospect of not being able to careen through the streets of Beverly Hills at ninety miles an hour. Fifteen minutes later, Bobby had us set and raring to go, and I’d finally stopped circling the thought drain when it came to Matt and everything he’d told me. Today was about fun, and I was about to have it. Everyone stood on their Segway, both hands securely on their handlebars, and our instructor waited at the front of the pack, ready to guide us through the gorgeous landscape that was Beverly Hills. “Everyone keep a distance from one another and stay in single-line formation,” he called from the front, and with a slight tilt forward, he slowly set the pace for the group. We only made it a block before someone started voicing her irritation with the speed. “Can’t we go faster?” Margie, who just happened to be behind me, complained. More to herself than anyone else. “This is going to take us forever.” We weren’t going that slow. It was the f*cking fast walking pace that Bobby had stated twenty different times. I tried to tune out Margie’s complaints and enjoy the ride and gorgeous views, but five more minutes into the tour, and she started firing off more questions. “How close are we to Leonardo DiCaprio’s house?” “Can’t we just ride with the traffic? We could go a lot faster.” “What time are we going to eat lunch? I’m starting to get a little hungry.” Margie was the faucet of bullsh*t, and her questions and complaints and utter nonsense kept flowing at an annoyingly steady pace. I had no idea if Bobby couldn’t actually hear her or if he was tuning her out, but he appeared oblivious to her current irritated state. My guess was the latter. Lord knew, I was trying my damnedest to ignore her. Despite Margie, the tour started off smooth. Bobby led us, and we followed behind like little neon ducklings ready to listen to his every instruction. But as we headed down the iconic palm-tree-lined street better known as Sunset Boulevard, things took a turn for the worse. “sh*t. Margie!” Bobby called from the front. “Get back on the sidewalk.” But apparently, she didn’t listen.

In a blur of neon, she zoomed past me with her Segway on the actual road and proceeded to fly past everyone in our group, the instructor included. He continued to shout for her to slow down and get back on the sidewalk, but the woman was possessed by a speed demon. Her red hair flowed out from her head as she hauled ass up the street. Passing cars honked their disapproval. But Margie gave zero f*cks. Well, she had given zero f*cks, until a car backing out of a driveway stopped her momentum completely. She crashed into the passenger side with a loud thud. Her Segway hit the ground, and she followed its path straight until she ate pavement. Oh, sh*t! And I’d been thinking about killing her! For lack of anything better to do, everyone in our group awkwardly slowed to a stop. Which, I had to say, takes a f*cking moment on a Segway. There was no quick stop and hop off on these things. Once his wheels had halted, Bobby jumped off his Segway in a rush. By the time he reached Margie, the driver was out of his car and asking if she was okay. She clumsily climbed to her feet and stared down at the scene with both hands on her hips. “Why didn’t it slow down? I was trying to slow it down,” she complained. “These tours are dangerous. I’m lucky I didn’t get killed!” Holy hell, this woman is nuts. Bobby ignored her complaints and somehow found the strength not to finish the job and strangle her in the middle of the road. “Are you okay?” “I think so,” she stated and attempted to walk to the sidewalk. But from the awkward, protruding state of her right knee, it looked like walking wasn’t the best idea. “I think you need to sit back down, Margie. Your knee looks really bad.” “I’m fine. No thanks to your Segway, but I’m fine,” she spat and tried to walk again, but her knee gave out, and she fell like a sack of potatoes to the cement. “Should I call an ambulance?” the driver asked Bobby. He nodded and sighed at the same time. All the while Margie lay on the ground, moaning and holding her knee, shouting profanities and threats of lawsuits. It was a sh*tshow. A Segway tour of insanity. Luckily, I wasn’t actually responsible for her accident, but it alarmed me how quickly I’d gone from valuing human life to thinking maybe, just maybe, she got what she deserved. Jesus Christ, what is Wonderland doing to me? Thirty minutes and no less than fifty threats of legal action later, Margie was inside of an ambulance and headed toward the hospital. Another truck had already arrived and was packing up our Segways in the bed. Apparently, after an accident occurs, they can’t proceed with the current tour.

I had a feeling Bobby was all tapped out on tours for the day anyway. I couldn’t blame him. f*cking Margie ruined it for everyone. I fix problems, Matt’s voice sounded in my head. Angry at his refusal to leave me alone for the day, I shouted back at my subconscious. Well, it ended my f*cking tour, so I’d say your strategy needs some work! Once we were transported back to home base and Bobby had refunded everyone’s money, I decided that a shopping trip was much-needed after that disaster. I hopped on the bus and rode it back toward downtown LA and got off a few blocks before my apartment to visit a cute little lingerie shop I’d heard was amazing. Gorgeous collection without the designer price tags. A perfect combination. One foot into Undressed, and I was in lingerie heaven—silk, cashmere, cotton, in all various soft and bright colors. A girl could get lost in a place like this—especially me. Lingerie was a weakness. From bras to panties to lingerie sets, this little boutique had quite the collection that spanned from everyday use to utterly beautiful and quietly seductive pieces. Yeah, I’ll be spending some time here today. After perusing every nook and cranny of the store, I headed into the dressing room with my hands overflowing with sexy undergarments. Sure, I was single and didn’t exactly have anyone to show these to, but that wasn’t the point. Sometimes, a girl needed to remind herself she was beautiful and sexy. Our beauty and confidence didn’t lie behind someone else’s eyes. It lay within us. It also didn’t matter that I’d spent an hour in another shop called Silk, only a few blocks from my apartment, just yesterday. Lingerie shopping knew no bounds. Clad in a soft pink and very see-through bra and panty set, I stood in front of the floorlength mirror. My gaze moved over my body, scanning it all. The beauty. The imperfections and flaws. Me. I felt pretty and sexy, and I couldn’t deny the soft, sheer material was crazy comfortable. I quite liked the set. I wonder what would Matt think of this? Would it turn him on? Would it make him hard? God, I want to see him hard again… My eyes went wide of their own accord as I stared at myself in the mirror. Had I really just thought that? I moved my gaze down to my chest and noted the hardened peaks of my nipples damn near poking through the material. Jesus, I was standing inside of a lingerie dressing room fantasizing about Matt’s penis. I was a pervert. As I reached for the next bra to try on, my phone started ringing inside my purse and startled the f*cking sh*t out of me. With shaking hands, I bumbled it out of the front pocket and my jaw practically hit the floor when I saw Matt Hadder’s name flashing across the screen.

What in the ever-loving f*ck? It was like he knew I was thinking about him or something. My internal debate over whether I could handle talking to him or not was short-lived. I answered by the third ring. “Hello?” “I like the black lace set you bought yesterday better,” he said by way of greeting. “Although, I guess I can’t be certain until I actually see them both.” “What?” My eyes damn near popped out of my head, and I quickly looked around the dressing room in confusion. “How do you know what I bought yesterday? Wait…how do you even know where I’m at or what I’m doing?” Was he following me? Holy f*cking sh*t. “I think you should try on that set in soft blue,” he said, ignoring my questions completely. “I’m a big fan of that shade. It matches your eyes.” “I’m so confused right now,” I muttered, and he responded with a soft chuckle. “Open up, little one,” he murmured. “I’ve got something else for you to try on.” Three soft knocks to my dressing room door followed his words. Startled, I dropped the bra out of my shaky hands and all but jumped out of my skin. I cracked it open and found Matt standing on the other side, holding the soft blue bra and panty set. “You’re here?” I asked with wide eyes. He merely smirked and gently pushed the door wider so he could walk inside. He shut it with a quiet click once his large frame dominated the small space of my dressing room. I stood frozen in my spot in the sheerest f*cking lingerie imaginable. Nipples, areolas, it was the full f*cking monty. All my goods were on display beneath the soft pink material. How nice. Just like the day we met. But no words were exchanged. Instead, Matt stood at my back, staring at me in the reflection of the mirror. His honey gaze slowly moved down my body, stopping briefly at my hardening nipples, until he took a long pause at the apex of my thighs. His lips curved up into a slow and seductive smile at the sight. “The pink is better than I imagined,” he whispered into my ear. “But I need to see the blue to be sure.” I didn’t know how to respond to that. Didn’t even need to respond. Enthralled, I watched his long, sexy fingers slide up my arms and around my back until they unclasped the bra. He removed it with sure but careful movements. I didn’t stop him. Didn’t try to stop him. Didn’t want to stop him.

Frozen to my spot, I stood there and watched as his fingers barely skimmed my skin as he removed the panties, leaving me completely bared for his heady gaze. As he slid the soft blue bra over my aching breasts, I clenched my thighs together to quell the constant throbbing that had taken hold. And when he slowly slid the panties up my legs and over my ass, a shiver ran up my spine, goose bumps following in its wake. Matt gripped my hips and gently pulled my back to his chest. I felt the hardness of his arousal through the sheer material covering my ass. Jesus. He was hard. And big. I wanted to see it. I wanted to turn around and unbuckle his belt, unzip his pants, and bare his aroused co*ck for my greedy gaze. But before I could find the courage to give in to my desire, his hands moved to my shoulders, and he spun me around to face him. Vivid, intense, amber eyes, strong jaw, full lips. God, he was handsome. I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever realized how handsome Matt Hadder really was until that moment. “Buy them both,” he said, and, with a steady hand, he slid a wad of money into the bra. “But wear the blue tonight.” “Tonight?” I asked and realized it was literally the first word I’d spoken since he’d stepped inside the room. “Another party,” he answered. “Be there at eight. I’ll text you the address.” I nodded, trying to swallow the accumulating saliva in my mouth before it overflowed. It’d be good for my dry throat anyway. “God, you’re beautiful,” he said as he tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. I just stared back at him, my mouth unable to form words. With a soft smirk etching his full, sexy lips, he gazed into my eyes for a long moment. And then, without another word, he was gone.

FOR TWO DAYS, I’D WATCHED Alex Little take the information I’d given her about Vinnie Pat—and the subsequent insight into the business of me and Wonderland as a whole—and do absolutely nothing with it. She hadn’t shared it, sold it, and as far as I could tell by listening to a few recorded sessions from her apartment, she hadn’t even confronted it internally. Instead, she’d shopped for lingerie twice, gone for ice cream, watched approximately eleven hours of One Tree Hill on Netflix consecutively, strolled Rodeo Drive with a latte, not going into a single store, and gone for a Hollywood style tour on a Segway. Obviously, it hadn’t taken Cal long to warm to his new assignment as her tail. Each hour that passed, he became more enamored of her—and more protective of her. It was just as I’d hoped. Of course, the more he spoke of her and her unusual outings, the more I’d wanted to be a part of them. To see her, follow her, know what she was thinking about every dirty detail I’d revealed and even those of a fictitious nature she’d extrapolated from them. I’d given in to my weak will eventually, joining her at the lingerie store on the second day. I could still feel the silk of her skin on my fingertips from dressing her. They throbbed with an unsatisfied ache, begging me to reunite our skin again. Jessie Cat’s signature strut caught my attention out of the corner of my eye, and I reached out and grabbed her elbow to pull her to a stop. She jerked at the unknown contact, relaxing as soon as she saw it was me. “Matt? What are you doing here? These parties aren’t normally your scene.” We were at a modern mansion in the Hollywood Hills for Justin Wilkes, one of the hottest young pop music sensations to hit the radio waves. He was green, easily impressionable, and not quite old enough to have his own wants and desires. Reading him wouldn’t tell me anything about his party needs because he didn’t have any other than pleasing the people around him. Popularity. It was what had gotten him here, and simultaneously, the only thing he strived for. As a result, the most prominent part of this party was drugs. Illicit, prescription, experimental—it didn’t matter.

To me, it was all the same, and as Jessie Cat said, it wasn’t something I normally focused on. But I’d come for Alex. It’d be her first party with this many people under the influence of mind-altering substances, and I didn’t like the idea of being somewhere other than here should anything go south. Not that I’d tell Jessie Cat or anyone else that. “You know I like to check in from time to time,” I told her with a wink, shaking my glass to emphasize the uncovered ice. Jessie caught the hint. “Of course. It’s good to see you. I’ll bring you another drink.” Across the room, I watched as Alex bent over to serve a group of twentysomethingyear-old men who’d just finished snorting a few lines of cocaine. All eyes were on her breasts, so exposed, the sheer blue lace of the lingerie I’d put on her myself peeking out from the top of her thin white shirt. Jessie’s gaze followed my own as I ordered, “Have Alex bring it.” She nodded knowingly—at least, what she thought was knowingly—and strode straight to Alex to relay the directive. I looked on as Alex leaned closer to hear Jessie over the music, and I knew the very moment my name was mentioned. Skittering and skidding, Alex’s eyes jumped frantically from the carpet directly to my own, as if she’d known where I was all along. But I knew from the hour I’d spent following her every move, and the unnaturally wide set of her pretty blue eyes, she’d had no idea. Even from this distance, I could see the pebbles of her teasingly hard nipples cutting tiny cones into the crisp fabric of her shirt. That’s right, little one. I’m watching you. Jessie gave her a squeeze on the arm as she stepped around her and headed for the bar, and then with one last curious look at me, headed down the hall to check on the only two pleasure girls attending this party. Alex didn’t look over once as she waited for the bartender to finish putting my drink together, but I didn’t mind the view. The bottom swells of her ass peeped out from the bottom of her sinfully short skirt, a uniform of Justin Wilkes’s request, and her legs looked twice as long in the five-inch heels she had on. Scotch settled on her tray, she picked it up and rested it on her forearm before turning toward me and walking in my direction. Her steps were slow, seemingly calculated as she neared. I didn’t wait for her to make it awkward. “Have a seat,” I instructed instead, taking the scotch from her tray without ceremony and placing it on the table in front of me. She glanced to the couch and back to me before taking the spot I’d offered and setting her tray to the side. “You look as good as frozen lemonade on a hot beach day,” I complimented.

“I look like lemonade,” she semi-repeated, her voice no mask for her dissatisfaction with the analogy. I smirked. Oh yes. “Entirely drinkable,” I explained playfully, stroking the skin of her breast with the backs of my fingers. “Will you let me imbibe, Alex? I’m exceedingly thirsty.” Fingers toying with the exposed fabric of her bra, I leaned in to put my mouth to her neck. She tasted like salted candy as I sucked a spot right in the middle before teasing the sensitive skin with a swirl of my tongue. Her breathing was ragged as she stuttered, trying to take both of our focus off of what I was doing. “Frozen lemonade on the beach, huh? What would you know about frozen lemonade on the beach?” I smiled into the skin of her throat, nipping at the rising goose bumps with my teeth until her hand shot up to grab me by the neck. It shook there, fighting itself and me, trying to pull me to her at the same time as she pushed away. “I was a child once,” I mused, pulling back to meet her eyes—and to give her a moment to collect herself. I could smell her arousal as she pushed the flesh of her thighs together to mute it, and my co*ck was so hard I could use it to give Mickey another black eye. “You? A child?” she commented disbelievingly. “I thought for sure you were an immaculate conception born of the devil himself.” A memory of my mother laid out in her casket while men and women stood around whispering insults and judging her life flashed in my mind, but I suppressed it. I knew the truth about what the devil really was, and he wasn’t even one small part of the woman who’d loved me enough to take me to the beach for frozen lemonade every chance she got, despite having no money for herself. “Do you find me that evil?” I asked openly, searching Alex’s eyes and running my hand up the inside of her thigh until it just graced the lace covering her puss*. She shook her head and shivered at once. “No. Just bad.” I smirked again, curling my finger into the material of her panties and ever so slightly pulling the delicate material away from her flesh. The cool air of the party rushed over the wet heat I’d created and made her clamp her thighs together over my hand. Moving toward her once more, I bent in and put my lips directly to the shell of her ear. “Ah. But doesn’t it feel good to be bad sometimes, little one?” She didn’t answer—other than the moan she couldn’t contain when just the tip of my finger skimmed the wet warmth of her arousal—but she did scowl when I removed my hand and sat back. “That’s it?” she asked almost irately. This time it was me who chose to forgo verbal affirmation. Sometimes actions were more powerful. Slowly enough that she could follow the movement all the way, I took my finger, ripe

with her sweet honey and brought it to my mouth for a taste. I hummed as her sugary juice hit my tongue for the first time. f*ck me. I was going to destroy her perfect puss* the first time I got my mouth on it; eat from her for hours until she didn’t have any more to offer. My blood pounded in my veins as I worked to control myself, to somehow curtail the urge to throw her down right here, rip her panties right off, and bury my face in her c*nt until everyone at this goddamn party knew my name. Finger clean, I smoothed the line of my tie down my chest, picked up my drink from the table in front of us, crossed an ankle over my knee, and stretched my other arm across the back of the couch. I could just reach from that position to sweep her hair back off of her shoulder. “Why don’t you go back to work, little one?” She stood, sweeping her tray off of the couch beside her and stomping off without looking back. I grinned into my scotch. There was never a better way to leave someone than wanting more.

THE BARELY RISEN SUN PEEKED inside my bedroom, and I shielded my eyes with a clumsy arm thrown over my face. I had no idea what time it was. Didn’t care what time it was. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to fall into that beautiful abyss of nothing without these racing thoughts of Matt breaking through my REM cycle. I tossed and turned. I pulled the comforter over my body and then threw it back off when it got too hot. I moved to my side and then my back and then my belly, repeated that mindless circuit once more until I settled onto my back and stared up at the ceiling. Matt Hadder had commandeered my brain. Ever since I’d arrived home late last night, I’d fought the wild ideas. But it was of no use. He was all I could think about. My mind analyzing and fantasizing each and every encounter we’d had. I felt fixated. Obsessed. Consumed. God, the way he’d touched me last night. Just one soft, simple graze of my skin by way of his confident fingertips and I was seduced. Hell, I was seduced before he’d touched me. Just the sound of his voice and I was done for. Matt’s voice had this confident yet intense lilt I’d come to know so well. It entranced me, left me spellbound and ready for more. More words. More dirty. More bad. More Matt. Just…more. He made me want to be bad. And f*ck if that didn’t feel good. Last night, the feel of his lips against my skin spurred electric tingles to shoot up my spine. I’d wanted more than just his touch, his lips, his heady gaze. I’d wanted to play. Kiss. Feel. Taste. f*ck. I still wanted that. As I lay there staring up at my ceiling, I moved my fingers down my body, taking in the soft curve of my breasts, the smooth skin of my belly, until I stopped above the waistband of my panties. I paused there for a brief moment, dancing my fingertips across my skin, until the urge to slide my hand beneath the soft material became too strong. Wet. Aching. Throbbing. I was too aroused, too turned on, too sexually frustrated not to give in to the desire for release. I closed my eyes once I started to rub smooth circles onto my cl*t. A moan left my lips

when I slid one finger inside and felt myself clench with need. God, it felt good. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d touched myself, given myself an org*sm. And I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering toward Matt. I grew wetter at the mere thought of him. My nipples hardening as I fantasized about all of the dirty and delicious things I desired… We’re in his apartment, sitting on his sofa. The morning breeze blowing in through an open window. And I’m trying to be indifferent, trying not to let him know how much power he has over me. I don’t lean in, don’t make it easy or seem too keen. But seduction is what Matt does best, moving into my personal space with just the right expression of heat in his eyes. He doesn’t just look at a woman, he stares into her as if he knows her desires. He brushes my hair off my shoulder and moves in so close I can feel his big, muscular body pressed up against me. I feel his warmth, and already my mind has placed our lips together. But instead, like last night, he caresses my neck, slow and gentle. He’s making me wait, and I can hardly bear it. I want his lips. I want his kisses. I want him naked and bared. I want to feel him inside of me. f*cking me. Taking me. Claiming me. He cups my face in his hands and gives me what he knows I want. Deep, heady, mindblowing kisses, his lips and tongue dancing with mine. Bad. Illicit. He is the forbidden fruit. I know what we are about to do is wrong, but I want this. I want him. The devil’s cruel intention is already a success. In one fluid motion, Matt reaches over, lifting me up and sitting me astride his lap, my dress riding up my thighs ever so slightly. He is hard between my thighs, his co*ck pressed against the damp material of my panties. I’m already wet for him. So f*cking aroused. Our gaze lasts a full second, enough for each to take in the face of the other. Nothing needs to be said, millions of years of evolution have already taken care of the message. I’m seduced. He pulls his hard co*ck out of his jeans and, without hesitation, lifts me up and slides inside of me. I’m filled. His eyes lock with mine, and with sure, precise movements, he starts to f*ck me. Deep, long, and heavy strokes.

I moan his name. And he smirks before thrusting harder, his fingers gripping my hips. He moves his hands to my breasts and lets out a heady growl as he licks and sucks at the pliant flesh as if he’s starved. And it doesn’t take long until I’m clenching around him, chanting his name, and climaxing hard. f*ck, I’m his… Heavy breaths left my lungs in shaky pants, and I blinked my eyes open. My vision blurred, moving in and out in psychedelic waves before the room came into focus. I was back in the present. My bedroom. Not Matt’s apartment. A few droplets of sweat dripped down my forehead as I glanced down to find my legs spread wide, my panties haphazardly tossed off to the side, and my hand still firmly cupped over myself. Holy hell, I’d just gotten myself off with Matt’s name on my lips. And f*ck if it hadn’t felt so very good.

TAKING A SIP OF MY coffee and stifling a yawn, I clicked to open the latest email I’d requested from the tech team, and listened as the MP3 file started to play. I was beginning to hate the importance of my position and the ruthlessness with which I had to rule— especially since my sleep quality as of late had taken a dive down the sh*tter. Something about Alex called to me in a way nothing ever had. I didn’t know if it was losing my mother the way I had at such a young age, or the way John had raised me in the business, or if no one had ever had anything worth my time, but I’d lived most of my life as though I were numb. I f*cked and self-fulfilled, but none of it ever felt necessary. I could have slit the throat of any woman I was with without regret if I’d needed to for the sake of my true love, Wonderland. And now I was losing sleep over a woman. Fantasizing, dreaming, practically feeling her body in my sheets every time I’d start to drift off. Maybe even more than that, I fretted over her safety. I felt the need to protect her from wild, intoxicated guests at parties, an enemy of mine—even myself. No matter that the thought of doing anything to harm her churned my gut, I still struggled with the idea that I might have to. Goddamn, I f*cking hated it. Which was exactly how I’d come to justify listening to her while she basked in the illusion of privacy—to save her from herself. If I heard her before she did something, if she gave an indication that she might tell someone, I might be able to stop her before she did it. Because once a trespass was fully committed, the line was absolute—I’d have to remove the risk, and in turn, her. I could hear the rustle of her cat, Deena, as she rubbed against this and that in her apartment. But otherwise, sheer silence buzzed for a full minute. I was just about to lose my patience when the scratch of Alex’s key in the lock sounded into my apartment, followed by the creak of her door and a sharp slam as she let it fall back into the jamb. “Did you miss me, sassy pants?” she asked her cat, two soft thumps echoing into the silence—her shoes hitting the ground, I suspected.

“Oh, hush. There’s already food in your bowl. Why do you think you need more? Because you’re a diva? Is that why?” I shook my head and smiled as I pictured her outfit from the night before, and what she must have looked like scolding her cat in it. “Fine. You can have food. But if I give it to you, you have to promise to let Mommy sleep in in the morning. Do you think you can do that?” Two sharp meows rang out in response. “Okay. But if you go back on your promise…” She paused to sigh. “Nothing will happen to you because you’re a cat and I’m willingly subject to your rule.” I heard her scooping food and then a small tinkle as the kibble fell into Deena’s bowl. “There,” she said. “I hope you’re satisfied.” Her voice dropped to a mumble. “At least one of us should be tonight.” She isn’t doing anything, I told myself. She’s doing nothing more than talking to her cat. The tight squeeze in my chest eased slightly as I heard the mic switch from the one in her main living space to the one in her bedroom. The light patter of her steps as she disrobed and the soft whoosh of the water in her bathroom as she brushed her teeth solidified it for me. Maybe others would take more to convince, but a part deep inside of me was certain. Alex was in Wonderland. Fully immersed and willing, she was along for the glorious ride. Silence descended over the recording as she fell into sleep, I surmised. It was nearly four in the morning by the time she’d returned from the party, and I suspected she wouldn’t be doing much of anything but sleeping for the rest of the day. I was just about to stop listening when I noticed the file went on for another two hours. Why in the f*ck would they send me a recording of her sleeping? I jumped the file forward by an hour and heard nothing, so I tried again, this time only moving thirty minutes. “Uh…oh God…mmm,” she moaned into the otherwise quiet space of her bedroom— and thanks to modern technology and a slight time delay, out into the midmorning stillness of my kitchen, catching me off guard. “Good Christ,” I muttered. Is she touching herself? “Yeah, oh yeah. Just like that,” she cooed, the normally delicate lilt of her voice deeper with a seductive edge. f*cking hell. She is. My co*ck started to harden, and yet, at the same time, I felt sick. I wasn’t invited to this show, certainly, but I had at least touched her, smelled her, felt her intimately.

The guys in IT who’d listened to this before me had not. “Matt,” she groaned, her voice higher, tighter, right on the edge of climax. Goddamn, she’s moaning my name. I f*cking loved the sound of it. But once again, and what’s more, I f*cking hated the idea of other people hearing it. I stopped the recording and backed out of it quickly, going right to my recent calls and dialing Cal, my anger building. “Yo,” Cal answered. “You go down to IT yourself, and you f*cking wipe everything they have of Alex in her apartment. I mean all of it. If it’s not all gone, I swear to God, if one goddamn moment of her in there leaks, I’m holding you responsible.” “Yes, sir.” Thank f*ck someone in this business knew when not to f*ck with me. I’d barely hung up when three sharp knocks rang through the thick wood of my apartment door. None of my ire had faded by the time I made it to the door. If anything, every moment I thought about Alex touching herself while other people listened only built it. I glanced briefly through the peephole to find Harrison March’s slightly fish-eye distorted face looking back at me. With a quick flick of my wrist, I turned the knob and pulled open the door, stopping it by placing a hand around the edge of it at the top. “What?” “Wow. Something has you in a bad mood.” Unwilling to share, I jumped straight into something that actually was his business. “What’s going on with King? Why’s Eric in another meeting with him today?” I asked. “For some reason, he’s taken it upon himself to call last-minute meetings with our most important client. Can you explain what in the f*ck is going on to me?” I didn’t know what Eric Queen was trying to pull, but my suspicions had been raised. It was why I’d recently had Cal keep an eye on his whereabouts. Hare shrugged, nonplussed by my lack of pleasantries. I supposed he was used to it. In most situations, I wasn’t prone to wasting time on bullsh*t. “As far as Spade and Diamond knew, it was something about the software.” My eyes narrowed. “Why the f*ck does King need to know anything about the software? We play him, not the other way around.” There was no need or benefit from Eric Queen meeting with King while we were trying to execute a plan that would lead to a multimillion-dollar return on our money. We had a lot on the line with this one. And despite our wealth of connections and carefully calculated networks, it was still risky as f*ck. All that Charles King needed to do was

focus on looking pretty for the cameras and keeping the public and his fellow politicians motivated to give him the presidential nom. What he didn’t need was to be brought in for f*cking tea parties and gossip sessions. That’s not how Wonderland, Inc. handled business, and Eric f*cking knew it. Politicians could be slimy, fickle f*cks, and even though the end game was to get him the nomination, the less Charles King knew, the better. I scowled against the bitter taste the unknowns left in my mouth. “I don’t know, boss. I might be wrong. I’m just relaying some very disjointed information.” Aggravated, my voice turned gritty. “Yeah, Hare, I know. And that’s the f*cking problem. Do I look like the kind of guy who likes his information to be disjointed?” Goddamn. I needed to calm down before my heart exploded in my chest. He didn’t answer my very obviously rhetorical question. “f*cking exactly. Find out why Eric keeps meeting with him, and find out what the f*ck he’s told him. The only people who should know f*ck all about what we’re doing are us and the people actually coding the sh*t. You hear me?” He jerked his head up, just once, his jaw hard. Spade and Diamond, and probably f*cking Bobby Hart because the three of them stuck together like glue, were going to be having a pretty uncomfortable conversation with Harrison soon. Nobody liked to look like an idiot, but Harrison March loathed it with a specific intensity. I was no longer the only angry person in the room.

MY PHONE VIBRATED IN MY back pocket, and I discreetly checked my messages. Aunt Delores: Just before they had to strip-search me. I guess that’s why they call it The Strip, huh? ;)

I stared down at the text and the obscene photo of my smiling aunt standing between two half-naked police officers. Obviously, they weren’t police officers, but Vegas’s version of street entertainment. I shook my head on a laugh as I stepped into the private confines of the kitchen and sent her a quick response. Me: I thought you were in Vegas with your church group? Aunt Delores: I am. Me: So…I take it you’re preaching the Word of the Lord to those half-naked cops? Aunt Delores: Hell, no. I did my church duty earlier today at a soup kitchen not far from the Strip. I’m currently ogling these fine men’s asses. Me: Jesus would be so proud. Aunt Delores: Smartass. Anyway, we’re about to head to MGM Grand to play the penny slots. I just wanted to say hello and see how everything was going? When are you going to pay me a visit? Me: Everything is going great. And, you kind of have to be home for me to visit…

Now that I wasn’t strapped for cash, I could easily afford a short trip to visit my aunt in San Diego. The only dilemma was that her little church group appeared to be hitting up Vegas quite a bit this summer—aka the woman was never home. Aunt Delores: I guess you have a point, huh? LOL. How about you keep September in mind? I don’t think the girls and I have any church trips planned.

See what I mean? First it was August, and now we were looking at September. I didn’t mind, though. I was just happy to see that my aunt was living and enjoying her life. Me: Sounds good. Love you.

I hit send and slipped my phone back into my pocket before heading back out to the party. Only a week had passed since Justin Wilkes’s party and Matt had left me glassy-eyed and wanting more. God, I’d wanted more that night. I’d wanted everything he could give. But he didn’t feed my craving. Instead, he did the opposite and left me painfully aware that the big, bad, and sexy as f*ck man had successfully tattooed himself onto my brain. I shouldn’t have been fixated. Curious as f*ck. But I was. Despite the unknowns, despite the risks that most likely lay below the surface, I still wanted more. It was crazy…right? I mean, I knew it was crazy to want a man like Matt Hadder. He was a beast, and I might as well have been a newborn baby kitten. Ruthless, savage, the man lived a life that was well beyond the mediocrity of mine. But although he had a brutal reputation, ever since that first day I’d met him, he’d never done anything but create opportunities for me. The un-eviction. The new apartment. A job that paid me more for one party than most people made in an entire month. His generosity, no matter the motivation for it, made it impossible to separate in order to paint an all-or-nothing picture. He wasn’t all bad. And he wasn’t all good. He was Matt. Somehow, I’d fallen down, down, down the rabbit hole into his world. And along the way, a switch had been flipped, and something inside of me had changed. Slowly, I found myself finding closure in things like Vinnie Pat’s death and being moved in to the same building as Matt and the fact that my landlord wasn’t even a landlord, but one of Matt’s men, otherwise known as Mickey Moosa. But the closure didn’t stem from understanding the situations. No. I’d found closure because I’d understood that when it came to Matt Hadder and Wonderland, there were some things I didn’t and shouldn’t need to know. Even though my curiosity was ravenous,

I guessed sometimes it was better, safer, if I stayed in the dark. So, tonight, while Wonderland flourished inside of an iconic California beach community, I put a charming smile on my face and looked at everything for face value. No questions. No assumptions. Just living in this moment and bettering my financial situation along the way. A town where cliffs cascaded into coastline and little markets, pocket-sized playgrounds and laid-back residents made up its landscape, Malibu lived up to its hype. Despite the million-dollar mansions resting upon its lush hills, it exuded small-town charm. Quaint. Intimate. Serene. And Wonderland inside Malibu? Well, it was irony at its finest. Roger Gold owned one of the biggest record companies in the world, and his extravagant home was nestled inside of Carbon Beach, one of Malibu’s exclusive enclaves. It was aptly named and better known as Billionaire Beach by most Californians. The house matched the man, and it also matched the party. Expensive wine tastings, six-course meals served by a world-renowned chef, and a celebration cake the size of my apartment, extravagance shone through every facet of Roger Gold’s party. What was the occasion? His fiftieth birthday. And here’s the kicker, the guests didn’t bring gifts. They brought money. And every cent went to one of Mr. Gold’s favorite charities: Camp Smiles—a children’s organization that provided medical care to poverty-stricken families across the world. On the surface, it all appeared normal, generous even. But beneath the lavish party lay Wonderland. A world where good and bad didn’t exist, and money, along with human, greedy desires, was top priority. What Matt had said was true. The real money was made behind the veil. And tonight’s veil appeared to be a birthday party in the name of raising money for underprivileged children. I knew the cause wasn’t a complete front. Money was being raised for the children within the Camp Smiles charitable organization. Hell, from what I could see, millions of dollars would assist poverty-stricken families across the world to provide their children with much-needed medical care and treatment. But I didn’t really know what lay behind that veil. I knew a lot of money was being moved around, and it sure as f*ck wasn’t all in the name of charity, but the answers to the why and how were completely unknown to me. The line between good and bad felt blurred more than ever. Hell, I wasn’t sure I could even see that f*cking line anymore. It was a little after eleven, and the party was in full swing. Famous faces filled the mansion and even spilled out onto the spacious deck that led to Roger Gold’s private section of Malibu beach.

With a bottle of tequila and four rocks glasses on my tray, I stepped outside to serve Mr. Gold and three of his closest friends. One of those friends just so happened to be the governor. Yes, the actual governor of f*cking California. I watched the tray closely as I took each step down the deck stairs with care. Once I reached the main floor, I passed several small groups chatting and laughing amongst one other before I made my way over to Roger Gold’s group in a darkened corner of the outside landscape. Their small, quiet spot overlooked the water, the languid flowing of the tide muffling their conversation. As I caught sight of the waves carelessly dribbling onto the sand, I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the scene ahead, the quiet night accompanied by a soft breeze that gently stroked my face. In twilight, the beach was tinted sepia, the sand more orange and the water darker. It was moments like this, surrounded by wealth and extravagance, walking around a home that came straight out of my dreams, that made me realize my life was starting to feel more fantasy than anything else. It was moments like this that had me wondering, how did I get here? But it was the fact that it all felt so natural, so utterly normal, that was the most mindblowing of all. That I’d reached a point where I wasn’t even questioning it anymore. Like the finding cards game Aunt Delores and I played, it just was. Nonsensical. Confusing. The opposite of black and white. Wonderland was a different kind of world. One where the terms right and wrong were used loosely, and everyone had an underlying motive of their own making. But maybe that isn’t just Wonderland? Maybe that’s life? The gurgling and the gushing of the waves brought me back to reality. With the tray in my hand, I stood frozen beside Roger Gold and his close friends, my gaze more focused on the world around me than the job I was supposed to be doing. I quickly shook myself out of my trance and greeted the gentlemen with a soft smile. “Tequila?” I asked with a little wink and set the bottle and glasses on the table in the center of them. “Perfect,” Roger responded with a smirk. “Thank you, sweetheart. You’re a doll.” “Is there anything else I can get you?” “You,” a man with bright blue eyes and Cheshire cat smile said as he ran his index finger up my arm. He was propositioning me. It wasn’t the first time, and obviously, since I was working at parties like these, ones where money flowed freely and everyone in attendance felt they were entitled to anything they desired, it wouldn’t be the last. But I’d grown accustomed to it over the past few weeks, understanding how to shrug it off politely and go about my business without adding dramatics into the mix.

“Oh, but I’m not on the menu tonight,” I answered, and his smile only grew wider. “Oh, but I think you are.” His hand wrapped around my wrist, and before I could stop him, he pulled me into his lap with a quick yank. “I think you and I are going to have some fun tonight.” I glanced around the darkened corner to find no one outside of the group within earshot, and panic seized my voice. “Leave her alone, Penn.” Roger chuckled softly across from us. “There’s plenty of beautiful and willing women upstairs ready to satisfy your every need.” “But I want this one,” he said and wrapped his hands tightly around my stomach. “I’m not—” I started to refute, but he quickly cut me off. “I think you are,” he whispered hotly into my ear as his hands moved dangerously close to the swell of my breasts. The smell of alcohol on his breath permeated my senses and tickled my gag reflex. I swallowed hard against the urge to vomit. “You need to let me go, sir,” I said through gritted teeth. “I don’t need to do anything,” he retorted. “Let her up, Penn,” Roger urged again, but his vile friend didn’t listen. Not that ole Rog had truly tried to sound convincing. He was having too good a time to get really upset about anything. Penn migrated his hands up my stomach until his fingertips rested just below my bra. His lips were on my neck, sucking at the sensitive skin a moment later. I gagged when his tongue snuck out and stole a taste. “Stop it,” I said and tried to get out of his hold, but it was no use. He kept me tightly to his body, his arousal evident against my ass. Tears filled my eyes of their own accord. “Let me go,” I urged again and looked up to the men in his group. “A little help? Please?” I asked, and I couldn’t hide the shaky desperation in my voice. But they didn’t have time to respond. From out of nowhere, Matt stood in front of us, his gaze fixated on the man holding me against my will. And Cal was beside him. “Let her up,” Matt said. The stern, damn near murderous tone of his voice—and a look of sheer cruelty on his face—had the man letting me go in an instant. “I was just having a little fun,” he said and raised both of his hands. “No harm done.” Matt scanned me quickly, concern and worry creasing the corners of his eyes, before he moved his dark gaze back to the revolting human being. “Roger, if you’ll excuse us, I think it’s time I have a little chat with your friend Penn here,” Matt announced, and Roger merely nodded. Even if it hadn’t been me, Wonderland wasn’t in the business of sexual misconduct or abuse. Jessie Cat and all of the other pleasure girls I’d talked to truly enjoyed what they were doing while they were doing it—or they didn’t engage at all. Period.

Apparently, Matt gave every pleasure girl a spiel when they first signed up. It was loaded with information, but nearly every woman I’d talked to remembered one specific thing. You do what you like. Not what you don’t. If something isn’t your cup of tea, I’ll find someone else who loves the flavor. Don’t force it. “Understandable,” Roger agreed despite his earlier lack of enthusiasm to help. No one wanted to be on Matt’s bad side, even if they had to sacrifice their crummy friend to keep from landing there. Before Penn could argue, Cal was by his side and lifting him to his feet by the neck of his shirt. “Let’s go.” Matt took my hand, and I followed. I didn’t know where we were going, didn’t even question it. I just followed. Moments later, we were in the house, on the second floor, inside an empty room. Cal tossed Penn inside, and Damien and Hare entered behind him, closing the door shut with a quiet click. Four big and very scary men stared down at the man who’d taken a simple proposition for sex way too far. It was terrifying, and I wasn’t even the coward on the receiving end of their hard, pissed-off glares. “I’m s-sorry,” the coward said, but Matt shook his head. “You f*cked up.” “I was just playing around,” he responded with a shaky lilt to his voice, and then his eyes met mine. “Right?” “Don’t f*cking look at her,” Matt spat. Before Penn could respond, Matt stalked toward him. With one veiny, muscular forearm, he lifted him up by the shirt and pushed his back roughly against the wall. “Don’t you dare f*cking look at her again.” He nodded maniacally. “S-sorry. I’m sorry.” “Let’s walk outside for a minute, Alex,” Hare said quietly toward me, but Matt wasn’t a fan of that option. “She stays,” he gritted out, but his eyes stayed locked on the man he was still holding against the wall. My eyes went wide. I stay? “You sure, boss?” Hare asked. “She f*cking stays.” He was going to kick this guy’s ass, and he wanted me to watch. I was equal parts terrified and turned the f*ck on. I watched as Matt landed a hard punch to the center of Penn’s face before letting him fall to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The crushing blow echoed inside the room, and

Penn groaned on the floor with his hands pressed firmly to his face. “Get up, you spineless f*ck.” Matt stared down at him. “You tried to take advantage of a defenseless woman. Now, you get to learn there’s consequences for being a pathetic piece of sh*t.” With panting, pained breaths, Penn got to his feet. “I had too much to drink, man. I didn’t mean any harm by it.” I tried not to stare at his nose, but my eyes kept diverting to it. One moment they were obediently on his red-rimmed eyes, and the next, they were fixated on the bloody mess that had been a perfectly ordinary nose only a few minutes ago. “For someone who thinks he’s a man, you sure know how to beg like a little bitch.” Matt chuckled humorlessly. “And we both know this isn’t the first f*cking time you’ve tried to pull sh*t like that, but I guarantee it’ll be the last f*cking time.” Two hard, swift punches to his stomach and another to his face and Penn was beat to sh*t—nose smashed, eyes almost swollen shut, and his arms wrapped around his guts like he was trying to hold them in. Bloody spit drooled from Penn’s slacked jaw as he looked at Matt with only fear in his eyes. I stared at the grotesque scene, transfixed. Matt was setting an example, and I wasn’t sure if that example would have Penn walking out of this room alive. But I couldn’t deny that Penn now looked as revolting as he should, the mess on the outside now reflecting the man within. This was a man who took what he wanted and didn’t give a sh*t about what that meant for anyone else. Alcohol or not, what he tried to do to me outside was unforgivable. And had Matt not stepped in, I honestly wasn’t sure what would’ve happened. I could only imagine the worst. Maybe I should’ve been scared. Maybe I should’ve seen Matt as the villain, a man trying to make two wrongs form a right. But in that moment, justice and redemption rose above the bad. I could only see Matt as the man who protected me.

HIS HEAD JERKED TO THE side, and blood spurted from the corner of his mouth as I landed one final punch right to his jaw. He whimpered and fell to the floor, unused to being taught memorable lessons. He was the definition of silver-spoon-fed, and people had been giving him exactly what he wanted since forever. No one told him you couldn’t take what didn’t agree to give. But he wouldn’t f*cking forget being told now. Not ever. If he did, I’d make sure he wouldn’t have the opportunity to forget anything again. “You don’t make the rules here,” I spat, nudging his limp body with my foot. “Look at me, you f*ck!” I yelled. Strained, his effort so large it made his eyes flutter and flirt with unconsciousness, he lifted his head from the floor and aimed it at me. His eyes were swollen shut, but apparently, the dumb f*ck wasn’t too stupid to follow the sound of my voice anyway. “I won’t see you anywhere ever again. If we’re in the same goddamn pasta aisle at the grocery store, you better hope I don’t recognize your ugly f*cking face.” He nodded, a moan gurgling the loose blood in his mouth with the motion. Rage held my shoulders high, up around my goddamn ears, as I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. “Get him f*cking out of here,” I ordered to the room at large. With Hare, Damien, and Cal looking on, I didn’t care if it took one or all of them. They better make this sc*msucking asshole’s body disappear. Damien jumped forward first, grabbing the guy by the armpits and dragging, but Cal, obviously amped up about the assault on Alex, shoved him out of the way and grabbed the guy by the hair. “Ahhh!” he screamed, the follicles on his head no match for the bulk of his supposedly strong body. No amount of muscle could make this co*cksucker anything but weak. “All of you,” I ordered, my voice grating on dangerous. “Get out.” Alex was the first to move from her position in the corner, shaking a little as she

stepped over the pool of blood left behind and attempted to skirt by me without a touch. I planted a soft hand on her trim belly to bring her to a stop. Fiery, fearful blue eyes climbed and climbed until they found mine and stayed there. “You stay,” I commanded gently. Her skin was hot, even more so than normal, and I could feel the thrum of her frantic heart all the way down in her stomach. I waited impatiently to say or do anything else as the others shuffled out of the room at what seemed like an incorrigibly slow pace. My mind was too chaotic, the absolutely possessive aggression I felt entirely too foreign. Careful control was an integral part of my life. Every day, every moment, I was watched for weakness. Thanks to my late father, I’d learned very early on that emotion was one of the easiest ways to expose one. But now, having watched that asshole put his hands on Alex, as well as I’d maintained control on the outside, internally, I was madness. Soul-sucking, mind-altering, life-changingly mad. “Relax, little one,” I told Alex, even as my own adrenaline seemed to surge harder. She nodded as I slid my hand from her stomach and over to her hip, clenching the flesh with my fingertips so hard she gasped. Immediately, I released her and tucked my face into the hollow where her neck met her collarbone. “I’m sorry,” I said. It was, perhaps, the first time I’d ever felt the urge to apologize in my life. But I’d brought her to this place, into a world where entitled men came in concentrated droves, and in that moment, I hated it. I wanted her innocence back. I wanted everything that touched her to be gold. “It’s all right,” she whispered shakily, her hand coming up slowly to hover just above my hair. I could feel it there, feel the way her whole body trembled as she fought with herself over whether to touch me or not. “Do it,” I whispered. It was half plea, half order, and as her hand finally settled there, digging into the sweat-dampened shoots of hair, I found myself hoping it was the first that persuaded her. She was so sweet, so perfect, so everything a man like me didn’t deserve. But it didn’t matter if I was good for her or not, I needed her to be mine. Arousal roared down the back of my spine and made me growl. I slid my hands down her sides, over the round curves of her ass, and down the backs of her thighs and in. The hot air from her gasp of surprise grazed my cheek as I lifted, pulling her legs around my hips, and took three long strides to push her back against the wall. My co*ck rubbed desperately at the apex of her thighs, fighting to free itself from the clothing barrier between us. “Matt,” she said. Her voice was delicate, pure, and just as eager as my co*ck was. She wants me. Even after seeing me for exactly what I am, she wants me.

I rocked my hips forward and ground across the sensitive cl*t at the top of her puss*. “You want me inside you, don’t you?” I taunted with a question meant as a statement. “Yes,” she answered, pulling at the material of my shirt until it came free from my pants. I grabbed what little material of her skirt there was left and yanked it up, above the top of her thighs, to settle on her hips. “You want me to f*ck this perfect little c*nt until you ache.” “Yes,” she agreed with a moan. “You won’t fight me. Won’t ask me to stop. Will you?” “No,” she denied frantically, shoving at the shoulders of my jacket until they fell from my large frame. I held her pinned to the wall as I let go of her to allow it drop to the ground and then brought my hands back around her thighs and grabbed both sides of the gusset of her panties. A soft, delicate lace perfect for Alex’s features, they ripped easily. “You’d beg me if I asked you to, wouldn’t you, little Alex? Suck my co*ck all night long until I told you you could stop, just so I’d play with your puss* until you come.” “Yes.” She moaned, her head dropping back to rest against the wall. “God, yes.” All the years I’d been doing what I had, all the people I knew, and her simple agreement had me feeling more powerful than any of it. With one hand, I gripped her ass and lifted her higher, while I used the other to bring her chin back forward. “Look at me,” I instructed. “Every f*cking second, you’re going to know I’m the one f*cking you.” Her hands worked at the buckle of my belt and the button on my pants until she had my hard co*ck bare and in her hand. Her eyes widened slightly as she looked at my size. At six foot six, I was proportionately adorned with an above-average dick. “Oh, I think I’ll remember it’s you, all right.” My smile was co*cky. “Don’t worry, little one. I won’t hurt you.” It’d take every ounce of willpower I had as I pushed inside her, but I wouldn’t falter. The only thing she’d be thinking after I claimed her was that she wanted more. “f*ck, Matt. I saw it before, while you were in the shower, but I think the glass was made of the same stuff as car mirrors.” I laughed outright at her wittiness. “Objects are definitely larger than they appeared.” “Please,” I offered. “Go on.” She smacked at my shoulder, and my eyes jumped to it as if it weren’t my own. No one had ever dared smack at me playfully before. She wasn’t scared of me. At least, not enough to stay away. I couldn’t believe how brave she shouldn’t have been. Maybe she’s a little mad too. Crazy enough to think this

world and I were something worthy of her. Hell, maybe we’re all mad here. Call me a caveman, but I didn’t give a f*ck about using a condom with her. It wasn’t something I’d made a point of doing, but little Alex was different. She was f*cking special. Mine. I even felt a small pang of disappointment over the knowledge that she was on the pill. And I’d known that fact ever since Cal had brought her file into my office. “I f*cking need to be bare inside of this perfect c*nt,” I told her and she moaned. “Yes, I n-need that, too,” she whimpered, and her gaze stayed fixated on my co*ck. Eagerness to feel her around me fully renewed, I wrapped the long fingers of my hands around her ass and grazed the skin of her puss* to make sure she was ready for me. Excitement coated her entirely, even running down the skin of her thighs as I lifted her up and brought her back down slowly. Inch by inch, I claimed the spasming, welcoming flesh of her c*nt. “Oh my God,” she whispered, her arms shaking as she wrapped them tightly around my shoulders. “Matt,” I corrected cheekily. She smiled, and it was so f*cking radiant, I didn’t hesitate. Heartbeat to heartbeat, I pressed my lips to hers and ran my tongue along the seam to force my way inside. There was something even more forbidden about our first kiss coming after I was already seated fully inside her, and it made it more memorable. I felt her reaction everywhere, including within the tight grip of her puss*, and it made me want to take her harder. “Am I too big now?” I teased and asked at once. She moaned her answer. “No. You feel…so right. Move harder.” Goddamn. Right. Fully unleashed, my movement savage, almost brutal, I brought myself out and in again, quicker and quicker until she couldn’t catch her breath. “Matt,” she chanted. “Matt, Matt, f*ck.” Her chest bloomed with a rose-colored blush, each jarring stroke making her perfect tit* bounce in her skimpy top. I buried my face, licking and sucking on the flesh, but I wanted her nipples. “Get rid of this shirt,” I growled. Her hands fiddled with the buttons uselessly, too close to her org*sm to make them function. “f*cking rip it,” I ordered, crazy with the need to suck on the perfect dusky nipples I’d been picturing since the first day I met her.

After a brief hesitation born of uncertainty, she grabbed the material and yanked until buttons popped loose and flew everywhere. I closed my mouth over her bra, the thin material barely there but still too much all the same. “Now the bra,” I instructed gruffly. She pulled the cups down and the straps off of her shoulders since the material was too sturdy to rip and the clasp was in the back, but the details didn’t matter. All that mattered were her perfect tit* and the feel of her climax milking the f*ck out of my co*ck as I surrounded her nipple and sucked hard. Pleasure ripped at the nerves along my spine and grabbed hold of my balls when she clutched my head and held it to herself. Lost to everything, I pounded inside her, cradling the backs of her hips with my hands to save them from the brutality of the slightly rough wall, and I came so hard she groaned at the feel of it. Her pants were erratic as she fought to catch her breath, and I moved my lips from her tit*, up the line of her neck, and right to the shell of her ear. “Keep that puss* ready, little Alex. I’m going to spend the rest of the night coating you with my come.”

FROM THE CAROUSEL OF HAZY, dreamlike visuals and random ideas came some order—a subtle awareness of who I was under the flow of thoughts with their loose connections to my waking life. After a few moments more, I began to analyze them in a lazy way. Perhaps those ideas were meant to be kept. Some were composed as if from a book I once read, while some were just silly. But I didn’t have time to store them. In another moment, they were gone, leaving no trace, and everything was blurry. For a second, I didn’t know who or where I was. I didn’t know how I got into this bed—or whose bed this even was. Then everything was processed, and I was drinking in the feedback of all of my senses. I was in Matt’s room. The thing above me was the ceiling. The thing partially on top of me was a white sheet. The things underneath me were a pillow and mattress. I was completely naked, my muscles stiff and sore from hours upon hours of mind-blowing sex. And the inflexible, cold metal against my wrists were just handcuffs keeping my arms hooked to Matt’s headboard. Wait. What? I blinked my eyes several times and popped them wide open. Instantly, I could see everything, including the silver handcuffs linking my wrists to his bed. I stared down at my naked body, lying dead center in the middle of his bed, and Matt was nowhere to be found. Where was he? And more importantly, he handcuffed me to his bed? Holy f*cking sh*t. I racked my brain to remember when and why this occurred, but my mind was still too busy obsessing over the crazy, intense, out of this world sex we’d had last night. It had started at the party, and even continued in the privacy of the back seat of the limo that had transported us home. And once we’d reached Matt’s apartment, we couldn’t keep our hands off of each other and f*cked until the sun had started to rise. But handcuffs? They were a bit crazy. And kinky. I clenched my legs together, and the wetness of my arousal painted the skin of my upper thighs. Jesus Christ. I probably shouldn’t be horny over this.

I couldn’t stop my thoughts after that. Matt. His intense eyes. His perfect co*ck. Him f*cking me. We’d f*cked on every single surface of his apartment last night. Even now, hours after he’d last touched my body, his smell still lingered on my skin, and I could imagine him entering me again and again and again. “You’re awake.” His voice yanked me out of my daydreams, and I looked toward to the doorway to find his big, muscular body standing there, clad in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs. “And, apparently, I’m handcuffed?” I asked and tugged my wrists gently against the metal. “What can I say?” He grinned like the devil himself and walked toward the foot of the bed. “You’re quite skilled in the begging department.” “I begged you to handcuff me?” That sounded crazy. I mean…there’s no way I’d beg for something like that…right? He watched on with amusem*nt while I searched my mind for the memory. Handcuffs. Matt hovering over me. His co*ck pressed to the hilt. And me…begging like a woman starved for anything he could give. Including the handcuffs. Wow. I really had begged. “I was already planning to.” He winked. “I quite like the visual of you naked and tied up in my bed. Ready for my co*ck.” Call me deranged, but I quite liked that idea too. He crawled onto the bed, the muscles of his biceps flexing with each movement. “This sweet c*nt is like a drug to me,” he whispered while his lips hovered over the apex of my thighs. And then, one smooth lick against me, and his eyes locked with mine. One touch, one lick, and I was done for. The intoxication was instant. That was how it was with Matt. Just his scent propelled me into a heady trance. Electricity buzzed underneath my skin. Hormones of my higher brain shut down, and all that was left was the rise of my primal self. Passionate. Intense. I was drunk off of him. He was my release, my escape, my drug. “My mouth or my co*ck?” he asked, and my nipples hardened at his words. “Answer quickly, Alex. Or else I decide.” f*ck, what kind of question was that? I wanted both. Matt tsked under his breath, and with two long fingers, he spread me wide. “Time’s up, sweetheart. Now I decide.” Another long lick and I moaned into the silence of his bedroom. “And since I’m starving, I’m going to feed off this perfect c*nt until you don’t have anything left to give.”

Oh sweet Jesus. He latched on to my cl*t and sucked, his eyes glimmering with satisfaction as they locked with mine. He moaned against my skin. God, that feels so f*cking good. With his lips and tongue sucking at my puss*, he slid his big hands up my belly until they grabbed both breasts. His thumbs brushed across my nipples as he pushed his tongue inside of me. My head fell back against the pillow, and a guttural moan escaped my lungs. I rocked my hips against his mouth, and I felt his smile against my skin. “Greedy little girl,” he whispered. “I f*cking love how you chase your pleasure.” He brushed his lips against me. Not innocently like a tease, but hot, fiery, ravenous, and demanding. “Yes, Alex,” he whispered slowly, prolonging each letter as if to savor them. “Chase your pleasure.” I looked down at him, and the swirls of emotion I saw in his heady gaze made me moan. Hunger. Lust. Desire. Heat. Before I could ponder it further, he gripped my ass and yanked me to him. His mouth was so warm, so hot, so f*cking hungry as he sucked and ate me. My senses were seduced, and I could no longer think straight. My brain lit on fire, and the warmth spread throughout my entire body. I moaned and squirmed against him, my hips alternating between rocking up toward his mouth and pulling away when the pleasure became too intense. But he didn’t stop. With his eyes closed in pleasure, he flicked his tongue and swirled it against my cl*t. As he slid his tongue inside of me again, moving in and out, in and out, at a slow, infuriating pace, my thighs started to shake and my hips moved in sync with him without me asking them to. My climax built, higher and higher, as he f*cked me with his tongue. It was hot and dirty and felt so f*cking good. His mouth was so hot, and I was so turned on, so f*cking wet, I could hear the sounds of my arousal with each drive forward of his tongue, with each hard suck of his lips. Buzzing ecstasy radiated from the spot where his mouth was, slowly spreading through the rest of my body until I felt like I was walking on air. My eyes rolled back, and I opened my mouth with a low moan. The instant his lips latched on to my cl*t and sucked, the waves rolled through my entire body and I climaxed. Hard. Matt moaned against my skin as he licked and sucked, eating up every drop of my arousal. As I lay there, lax and sated, while Matt gently removed the handcuffs from my wrists,

I knew I was caught in his web, and I wanted to be. It didn’t make sense. Maybe I’d gone insane. But I was claimed. Owned. His.

At some point after Matt had blown my mind, I’d fallen back asleep, and time became incalculable. It could have been minutes, hours, even days, I wasn’t sure, but I awoke again when he lifted me off of the bed and into his lap. The rays of the sun were much brighter through the windows of his bedroom than they had been before. “Time to really wake up, little one,” he whispered as he brushed my hair behind my ear. “You’ve got about fifteen minutes to get ready before we have to leave.” “Leave?” I asked, and he set me on my feet. “Yep,” he answered and slapped a playful hand against my ass. “I’m taking you somewhere today.” I giggled and hopped out of his reach. “Does it include breakfast?” “Considering it’s half past eleven, I think it’s safe to say it’ll include lunch, not breakfast.” “Holy moly, it’s past eleven already?” “Yeah, lazybones.” He stood up and grabbed a shirt out of his closet. “Hey, I’m pretty sure the fact that I fell back asleep is all your fault.” “My fault?” he questioned with an amused smirk. “Yep.” I nodded. “Your fault.” Matt grinned and walked toward me. “I do love the way you challenge me,” he said and pressed a soft kiss to my lips. “Now, go get ready. There’s a change of clothes for you in my bathroom.” “Wait… How’d you get my clothes?” He quirked a brow. “How do you think I got your clothes?” “Breaking and entering? Isn’t that illegal?” Seeing as I’d watched him beat a guy half to death last night, it was probably ridiculous that I was questioning which side of the law he’d treaded to procure my clothes, but I couldn’t help it. It was ingrained in me. “Considering you begged me to handcuff you to my bed last night, I think this was an exception to the law.” My cheeks heated at his words.

“f*ck, don’t get all shy and blushing, or we’ll never get out of here on time.” His voice dove deeper, where the vowels were rougher. “I love when you blush.” I covered my face with my hands. “Well, then stop saying dirty things to me!” Matt chuckled. “We haven’t even really done dirty yet, little one. But we will,” he promised and then slapped my ass playfully once more. “Now, get moving.” “Bossy,” I muttered and walked into the bathroom. “I heard that.” “I wanted you to hear that!” I called back, and Matt just laughed. I rummaged through the pile of clothes on the counter and found my favorite pair of jean shorts and a crop top. Paired with my favorite nude sandals, I’d be good to go. After a quick rinse in the shower, I hopped out and started drying my hair as best as I could. “You’ve got fifteen more minutes, little one!” he warned. “And I don’t care if you’re naked, I’ll carry you onto that plane.” Plane? What plane? With my towel wrapped around me, I stepped out of the bathroom and found Matt standing in the bedroom, buttoning up a white linen shirt. f*ck, he looked good. My eyes followed the line of his clothes, noting the hint of his muscular frame resting beneath the comfortable material. He quirked a brow. “Need something?” I blinked out of my trance and cleared my throat. “Uh…a plane?” “Yeah.” He nodded. “I told you I was taking you somewhere.” “I figured you meant IHOP. Not a f*cking plane.” He grinned. “Sorry to disappoint, but we’ll have to do IHOP another day. Today we’re heading to Mexico.” Holy moly, we were going to Mexico? “What time does our flight leave?” He shrugged. “Technically, whenever we want it to, but I’d like to be taking off in the next hour.” “Whenever we want it to?” I asked. I’d only flown twice in my whole life, but I was pretty sure airlines weren’t willy-nilly with their flight schedules. “We’re not flying commercial, sweetheart,” he responded. “We’re using my jet.” His jet? Matt had a f*cking airplane? It was too much. “Oh, and here’s your passport for this trip’s purposes,” he said and placed a small blue book in my hands. I opened it up to find a picture of me, but a different name beside my face. “Mrs.

Natasha Wonder?” I read out loud in confusion. He smirked and held up his. “Mr. and Mrs. Wonder, actually.” Mr. and Mrs. Wonder? As in we were both going by different names for this trip? Different, married names? I quirked a brow and stared down at my new passport again. “Holy hell, are these—” I started to question their validity, but I stopped myself once I realized this was Matt Hadder we were talking about. “They’re real,” he answered my unspoken question with a wink. Glancing back to the shiny picture page in the front of the book, all barcodes and numbers and technical, very detailed, very hard to falsify information, I wondered yet again just how far Matt’s reach extended. “All right, you’ve got ten minutes to get ready, little one.” He pressed a soft kiss to my forehead. “I’m going to make a quick call. Meet me in the kitchen when you’re ready.” Holy hell. I had ten more minutes to get ready. For my flight to Mexico. Was this real life?

ALEX’S FOOTSTEPS WERE FREQUENT, SLAPPING against the marble tile of the opulent hotel hallway as she worked desperately to keep up. My legs were significantly longer than her trim ones, and it seemed as though she had to take three steps to my every one. She didn’t ask me to slow down or question my hurry, she just worked that much harder to keep up. She’d been doing this since the moment I’d told her she had ten minutes to prepare for our flight to Mexico, a flight that was, in fact, two flights in an effort to make our final destination less conspicuous. With speed and ease, she’d packed a thrown-together knapsack of jean shorts and flip-flops, and I’d dumped it out and replaced it with a bikini, a pair of sandals, and a dress and heels, just in case. She’d looked on humorously, a small frown line marring the normally pristine space between her eyebrows, but she’d said nothing. And I knew she wanted to. The desire was plain in her expressive features. But she was even more excited by the possibilities of not asking. The things I might surprise her with—the perhaps illegal things she couldn’t be directly held responsible for enjoying. It was the same love affair I’d seen thousands of people have with Wonderland as they sank slowly into it—only better, because it was her. The hallway was long, and the doors became more and more spaced out thanks to the increasing size of the rooms. When I finally stopped at the door marked 630, Alex ran right into my back. “Oomph,” she groaned as our bodies made contact. “I guess we’re stopping.” “Observant,” I teased, and she hitched up just one well-groomed brow. “Where are we? Because if we came all this way just to have sex again, that seems like an entirely wasted effort.” I chuckled, something I’d been doing a lot more lately with her around and smoothed my thumb over the aggravated wrinkle in her forehead. “While I very much appreciate your line of thinking, this trip isn’t about sex, and this isn’t our room.”

“Who’s is it, then?” Rather than answer, I turned back to the door and rapped my knuckles sharply on the gleaming wood three times. The sound of someone approaching on the inside was well-muted, the construction of SherOcean Beach Club some of the best work on the Yucatán. There were many reasons it ran its guests no less than five thousand a night, and this was just one of them. There was only a brief hesitation before the door opened, and a beautiful dark-haired woman stepped into its frame, nothing more than a sheet wrapped around her body. I didn’t know her name, but I knew she wasn’t Jack Knave’s wife. Satisfaction bloomed in my chest at the never-ending pile of information people provided without trying—to be used against them when and if necessary, of course. Jack Knave was running against Charles King for the presidential nomination, and he was about to be my new best friend. The phone call I’d taken this morning had been Hare, with information on Eric and all those meetings he’d been having with King. I’d had a suspicion already, but Hare’s confirmation made me feel like a man deranged. I would not be taken advantage of. “Can I help you?” the woman asked, looking from me to Alex and back again fleetingly. My presence was much more threatening, and therefore, drew her attention disproportionately. I’d noticed that many people gave Alex this birth, thanks to her wholly innocent evocativeness, and I hoped to use it at some point. “I need to speak with Jack.” Her face reddening in discomfort, she glanced over her shoulder—though she tried desperately not to—and then back to me. “There’s no Jack here.” I lowered my voice. “Listen, doll—” “If he says Jack is here, he’s here. I can guarantee it. Let’s just cut to the chase, skip the messy stuff in the middle, and go get Jack so he can talk to him, okay?” Alex interrupted. I was surprised at her forwardness, but perhaps most of all, I was surprised that it didn’t anger me. In fact, I found a warm glow starting in my chest and extending all the way to my fingers, it pleased me a great deal. The mystery brunette considered, sawing her teeth into her lip. Decided, she turned from us and called loudly, “Jack! There’s someone important here to see you!” Jack came out of the bedroom a moment later, fully clothed but pretty obviously rumpled from recent sleep and sex. He was much older than his female friend, salty hair occluding almost the entirety of his black, and wrinkles marred the corners of both his eyes and mouth. I guided Alex into the hotel room with a hand at the smooth skin of her exposed back and shut the door behind us. Jack’s face was openly irritated, a strong crease in the center of his brow harshening

the already present effects of aging. He was used to calling the shots, deciding who he saw and when, and he was smart enough to dislike the look of me. I, Matt Hadder, though publicly known as a man of parties and wealth, didn’t often bring tidings of good cheer. Especially not on a surprise visit such as this one. “Can I help you?” he asked as he came to a stop a good five feet away from me. He was physically intimidated, and I loved the way that kind of power over people made me feel. I smiled. “No, I’m here to help you. You’ve got a problem.” His eyebrows shot together. “Luckily for you, I’m going to fix it.” “Excuse me?” Hands to his hips, he was affronted. Almost enraged that I, a man who didn’t know him, would presume to know things about him. It was a naïve weakness, one I’d have to coach him out of extensively if I succeeded in getting him to the highest seat in the western world. “Trust me, Jack. You and I are going to be friends, and I’m going to be the reason your problems go away.” “I don’t have any problems,” he blustered, turning to the mystery woman to, no doubt, signal her to call security. One huge, quick step forward, and I clamped a tight hand onto the nerve in his neck. His eyes rounded with alarm. “You do,” I corrected, quiet menace running from my voice and into his consciousness like an electric current. “Let’s talk,” I ordered. “Outside on the terrace.” He nodded, most likely convinced by my suggestion of physical harm. Alex’s eyes gleamed with a heady mix of arousal and uncertainty when I looked back at her. She wasn’t sure what to make of me, but against every shrewd bone in her body, she liked it. God, she’s enthralling. “Come on, little one.” Open with her expressiveness, the widening of her eyes and parting of her lips relayed how unexpected she found it that I wanted her to come, but she made no issue of it. Obediently, she fell into step behind Jack and me as we moved toward the terrace. Jack tried to look back to console his mistress—or beg for help—but my grip on his nerve made even a simple turn of his neck impossible. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been able to catch her eyes, though. I’d stopped at the resort’s security desk on my way in and had a chat with my old friend, Jose. Any call from this room would go there, to him, and come to a very abrupt, unsatisfying end. Birds chirped, and the lull of the nearby lapping ocean blended with the scrape of the iron furniture as I pulled a chair aside and assisted Jack in taking his place in it. Before sitting myself, I grabbed a chair for Alex, swinging it around and offering her the seat with a sweep of my hand. She blushed.

Like mildly torturing a man and forcing him into a conversation he absolutely didn’t want to have was a perfectly normal version of date night. Against all internal reason, I found myself smiling and sweeping the backs of my knuckles along the perfect line of her jaw. “Comfortable?” I asked her, getting lost briefly in the heady swirl of her eyes. The color was even richer here, almost as though the perfectly blue waters of the Mexican coast were their natural habitat. She nodded and crossed one tanned leg over the other. “Now, Jack—” I started, only to be cut off. “I know who you are.” I nearly rolled my eyes. “Of course you know who I am.” His eyes jumped from me to Alex and back again like a speeding pinball. “I can use knowledge of—” This time I did roll my eyes, a tiny snort of laughter adding to the gesture for good measure. “Jack, listen. You don’t know even half the things about me that I know about you, okay? You know it, I know it, even my Alex knows it.” I turned to Alex. “Isn’t that right, little one?” She nodded, a little smirk curving her bow lips. “Definitely.” Jack sat silently, part testing me, part hoping for a miracle. I imagined he could see the bright arrogance of unquestioned authority—a staple of his career thus far—getting smaller and smaller in the distance as we pulled away from it. “I know you’re married and that the young woman inside, while beautiful, is not your wife. I know you made several bad investments—with donation money, by the way—a couple years ago that you’ve been chasing ever since. I know you like to dabble in kinky sex occasionally, and that you’ll pay women to participate. I know you think you’ve got this nomination all tied up, but you don’t. Not without my help anyway.” Ruddy, swollen cheeks were the only physical indication he gave that I had him over a particularly uncomfortable barrel. “And what exactly do you plan to do with all of this information?” I shrugged and leaned back in my chair, turning to look at Alex with a smirk. “What do you think? Can you answer Jack’s question?” Her eyes held mine intently, searching for the meaning of all this, but she gave up too quickly. I was almost certain that if she stared at me like that long enough, I’d tell her all of my secrets. Confidently, she turned back to Jack and leaned toward me, placing one hand on top of mine. I turned mine palm up to clasp it. “He plans to fix it.” I smiled. She’s smart, this one. Jack ran an aggravated hand through his hair. “Fix it? Yeah, right. For the price of my

children, maybe a few fingers in a torture session, am I right?” I laughed. “First of all, a word of advice, don’t ever mention your children to someone you perceive as your enemy. That’s truly foolish.” His pallor dimmed. “And I’d never bother cutting off your fingers.” My smile was cold. “I’d go straight for the heart.” Jack’s swallow was thick, catching in the middle of his throat and bobbing before finally sliding down. In my peripheral vision, I noticed Alex’s eyes widening slightly. Other than that, she showed no signs of shock or discomfort. “I can make all of your problems disappear, and I can guarantee you the nomination.” His jaw worked tirelessly, grinding at itself. “And what am I supposed to do for you?” “There’ll be opportunities for you to use your influence. Opportunities Charles King foolishly disregarded in value.” “Do I have a choice?” he asked bitterly. The sound of Alex laughing stopped me from speaking. Jack winced, as though she’d be in trouble for interrupting me. And, fairly, for anyone else, he’d probably be right. But Alex’s willingness to participate in this intrigued me too much to allow any room for anger. “Thoughts, sweetheart?” She spoke directly to Jack. “You have a choice. But if you choose something other than this alliance, you’ll regret it. Not because Matt will punish you, or due to a situation of Matt’s making, but because of things of your own making. Life won’t treat you the same, and you’ll know that it’s your fault it doesn’t. You’re used to getting what you want? Well, you can have it and more—as long as Matt occasionally gets what he wants too.” I turned to Jack Knave with a smile. “I’d say my Alex is a smart one, wouldn’t you?”

Alex had been quiet since leaving the meeting. Jack wisely saw the value of a working relationship with Wonderland, Inc. and me rather quickly. Which was fortunate. I really despised torturous hours of needless convincing. The end result was always the same when I wanted something—I got it. It was quite helpful when people accepted that early on. Now—and probably for always—I wanted Alex, but she was upset with me. I hoped she’d get over it just as quickly as Jack had. I couldn’t see inside Alex’s mind, but that hadn’t stopped me from trying to.

“Something bothering you?” I asked finally as the car pulled to a stop in front of our own hotel. We’d only be there for the day, but there was no reason this trip had to be all work and no play. I was a businessman, but Alex deserved fun. She moved to grab the door handle, but I pulled her to a stop with a hand at her elbow. “Give us a moment,” I told the driver. He nodded before closing the partition, locking the doors, and leaving the car to idle there in the receiving bay of the hotel. “Alex.” “Fine,” she huffed. I laughed and immediately decided women didn’t like to be laughed at, no matter how powerful or intimidating you were. She looked as though she’d tear through her clothes and take me down with her bare hands if need be. “Why did you bring me here?” My eyebrows drew together. “I thought we’d have a little time at the beach—” “No, Matt,” she snapped. “Not here, the beach. Here to Mexico. Here to the meeting with Jack Knave.” “You’re a good alibi,” I replied honestly. I nearly laughed when her eyes dulled, as though I were that desperate, as if she was my only option for an alibi were I not fond of her. “Alex,” I chastised, pulling her head from its downturned position and lifting it to face me. “In case you haven’t noticed yet, I also enjoy your company a great deal. If it weren’t you I wanted to be here, you wouldn’t be here.” She huffed and rolled her eyes, so I leaned forward and sealed my lips briefly over hers, caressing the plump skin of each with my tongue. “Any other questions you’d like to ask?” I queried, my dangerous eyes just a few inches from hers and my tone that of a man not to be questioned. A small smile curved one corner of her mouth upward. “Yeah.” My heart jumped at her brazen bravery. It was so foolish to defy a man like me, and yet, every time Alex did it, I became even more smitten. “All right, then,” I allowed, holding my voice to a menacing rumble. “What’s the UV index in this place? Fifteen minutes I’ve spent out of doors, and it feels like the surface of the sun. I’m hoping you packed sunscreen.” I wasn’t sure, but I was certain it was dim in comparison to my answering smile.

“HADDER,” MATT ANSWERED HIS PHONE curtly. “This better be f*cking important,” he added before listening intently to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Hare, you know how I feel about getting involved with them,” he responded. “They’re too goddamn sloppy, and every single one of them has a f*cking hair trigger. They’d bring us a sh*t-ton more trouble than monetary value.” He was talking to one of his right-hand men. Harrison March, aka Hare. From the little interaction I’d had with him during Wonderland parties, I liked him. Honestly, Hare, Cal, and Damien were all likable, courteous men in my eyes. They treated me with respect and, taking into consideration the Penn fiasco that had occurred at Roger Gold’s party, they looked out for me. It was only Eric Queen who gave me weird vibes. Whenever I was in his presence, I always got the feeling he was up to something. Like his intentions weren’t on par with everyone else’s. For the most part, he was terse and even a tad defensive with me. I was happy our interactions were few and far between, to be honest. “It doesn’t matter where I’m at, but I can tell you if you keep calling me with bullsh*t deals, I’m not going to be happy when I get back,” Matt said, and then, the call was done. He tapped the screen and tossed the phone onto the end of his beach chair. For the most part, he’d been avoiding his phone all day, appearing too content with ignoring the outside world and solely focused on our perfect, flirty little bubble in paradise. It was like he was giving me his undivided attention after I’d had my tantrum in the car. Half the time, I didn’t even know why I made such a big deal about questioning him on things he didn’t want me to. f*ck, maybe I was testing him. I really wasn’t sure. I was sure that if that was really my motivation, I was even stupider than I thought. What exactly did I think was going to happen when I finally reached his limit? I sighed into the warm breeze, my eyelids fluttering closed as I breathed in the briny aroma of the sea. Wiggling and scrunching my toes, I savored the softness of the sand, still damp from the retreating tide. The sand blurred out in a blissful trance, the shore fading into liquid gold, vivid in the brilliant light. Even though I’d lived near the California coast for most of my life, it had been years

since I’d actually spent the day at the beach, much less paradise in the form of an expensive, luxury beachfront resort sitting on top of miles upon miles of untouched sand. Through narrowed eyes, I watched as each wave overlapped the other, sending the white bubbling crests descending, and masking the shore with the transparent, fading water. God, it was beautiful. Once Matt had finished convincing Jack Knave not to fight him, we’d gone straight to the car and driven for an hour to another, even more secluded, luxury hotel. As soon as we got inside, he’d demanded I put on my bikini and spend the day with him on the beach. He didn’t have to tell me twice. With the bright pink bikini he’d managed to pack for me in my bag, we’d made our way down to the private beach of our resort, and he’d pulled two lounge chairs away from the crowd and down the sand, until he’d set them down a few feet from the water. From behind my sunglasses, I looked at Matt, sitting beside me with his long legs stretched out and his arms resting behind his head, a pair of swim trunks and aviators the only thing covering his dominating body. I moved my gaze down his body, taking in the lines of his slightly crested mouth, the toned muscles of his biceps and chest and stomach, and the tanned color of his skin. God, he was sexy. His skin resembled that of smooth caramel, the tone so warm it almost shimmered, and I longed to touch it, run a hand over one of his big biceps and squeeze. I honestly didn’t know what we were or what we were even doing, but I knew I still wanted more. More smirks. More teasing. More soft chuckles. More time to stare into those intense amber eyes. More Matt. Despite the risks and the possibility of danger, and even overlooking the fact that on paper most would consider Matt to be a hardened criminal, I wanted to know him. Really know him. The bad, the good, and everything in between. And more than that, I wanted him to know me. Ever since I’d met Matt Hadder, he’d taken me on an unexpected path, and although it was confusing and a touch scary at times, he’d changed my view of the world. What was once a mind that saw things in black and white had been turned on its axis and made aware that life didn’t always make sense. Nothing was black and white. Not wealth, success, money, love. It was all relative, falling directly into the gray. Most times, as much as humanity strived for solutions and logic and sense, life was a meaningless puzzle. And a lot of times, life only frustrated our expectations. Ironically, through Matt, I found beauty in that. There was a certain splendor in living life without the shade of rose-tinted glasses and finally understanding there would always be good and bad in the world, just like I’d learned. But a lot of times, those things were

connected. I moved my gaze to the far-off horizon, the flaring hues of the sun melting into the sky and ocean like a divine painting. The forever stretching sea was masked with a hue of orange, that beautiful ember flowing into turquoise. And it was that gorgeous view that made me realize, in the very short time I’d known him, Matt had taught me to live by my own set of rules. I quite liked the idea of living without the hindrance of societal norms and expectations. I think I’d always known that about myself. I’d always understood that I didn’t think the same as most people. I wanted to experience. Live. Take risks. I didn’t want to fall into the mediocre and mundane like I’d seen most of my friends do. That was why I’d moved to LA. Now, I’d found even more than I bargained for; the word predictable wasn’t even in Matt’s vocabulary. Together, it felt like we were our own version of Bonnie and Clyde. Two souls who played the game of life by their own rules. I reached down and picked up the strawberry daiquiri I’d ordered from the resort bar off the sand and took a sip from the pink straw, only to be faced with the annoying, obnoxious sounds of emptiness. Matt chuckled at my visible frown. “It’s not funny,” I retorted, and his grin grew wider. “Poor Alex.” I rolled my eyes and playfully slapped at his chest as I stood to my feet. “Thirsty?” I asked. “I’m going to grab another drink from the bar.” “Just a bottle of water, little one,” he said and then wrapped his hand around my wrist and tugged me into his lap. “But first, I want a kiss,” he whispered and waggled his brows. I giggled and placed a soft peck to his lips. “Nope.” He shook his head. “That’s not cutting it,” he said and adjusted me in his lap so that my legs straddled his thighs. He slid his fingers into my hair and took my mouth in a deep, mind-altering kiss. His tongue past my lips and dancing with mine, I moaned softly. He ran his fingers up and down the bare skin of my back, and his lips melded with mine. Soft and slow, he worked his way from one side of my mouth to the other and back again and obliterated every thought from my brain. He tasted delicious, like November, like hot chocolate on stormy evenings and crisp autumn air. Before I could wrap my arms around his thick neck and lose myself to his lips, he pulled away and set me on my feet. I stared down at him with another little pout I couldn’t hide. His smirk was sexy as he looked up at me from the comfort of his lounge chair. The

hot rays of the sun made his tanned skin glisten. And with a playful smack to my ass, he nodded in the direction of the resort. “Now, go grab me a water and another whipped cream monstrosity of a drink for yourself.” “You’re bossy.” I poked his bicep with my index finger, and he just chuckled. “I’m decisive. I know what I want, and I know when I want it,” he responded. “And I also know you love being on the receiving end of my decisiveness.” When it came to the bedroom, he had a point. I quite enjoyed letting that big, bad man boss me around. “Put the drinks on our tab,” he added as I slipped on my flip-flops and sheer white cover-up. “Oh, do you mean Mr. Wonder’s tab?” I asked with a cheeky grin. He laughed. “Mr. and Mrs. Wonder, remember?” With a little giggle and a wave, I picked up our empty glasses and walked up the beach. Once I reached the resort bar, the sounds of Bob Marley filled the background, and a young, twentysomething bartender with mocha skin, gorgeous green eyes, and a name tag that read Eduardo greeted me with a friendly smile. “What can I get you, miss?” he asked and took the empty glasses from my hands. “Hmmm…” I scanned the menu above the bar, and once I caught sight of another fruity, tropical, whipped cream drink, I smiled. “I’ll take a piña colada and a bottle of water.” “Nice choice,” he said with a wink and pulled a cold glass out of the bar-side freezer. He slid a fresh bottle of water toward my hands and set to work on making my drink. “Am I putting this on a tab?” I nodded. “Mr. Wonder’s tab.” Eduardo finished off my drink with a hearty dollop of whipped cream, a few maraschino cherries, and a straw. He set the glass on the bar and moved over to his computer to put in our orders. After a few taps to the screen, he glanced back at me. “Mr. Wonder, right?” “Uh-huh.” “I don’t think the staff realized you were on the beach,” he stated. “I’ll make sure that your personal server checks in on you two frequently so that you don’t have to come to the bar to get drinks.” “Oh, it’s no big deal.” I waved him off. “I don’t mind walking up here to put in an order.” “With all due respect, Mrs. Wonder, it’s resort policy for anyone staying in the presidential suite,” he said with a soft grin. “It’s our goal to make sure you and Mr. Wonder enjoy your stay with us to the fullest.” Presidential suite? Personal server?

It seemed a bit ridiculous. I had two working legs. I could manage the short walk to the bar to get drinks, for cripes’ sake. “Seriously. It’s no big deal. I prefer to get the drinks,” I said and picked up our drinks from the bar. “But I do appreciate your generosity.” As I headed back toward our spot on the beach, my eyes grew wide when I spotted the familiar design of red and white. A playing card stuck into the sand. What were the odds? I thought and juggled the drinks into one hand so I could snag it between my fingertips. I flipped it over and found the King of Diamonds. Per my aunt’s kooky friend, Ms. Gypsy, this was a good fortune card. The King of Diamonds was apparently very generous with joy. And that’s exactly what the card predicted: Happiness. I grinned as slipped the card into the top of my bikini and headed toward the one man who brought truth to that prediction. With my toes flexing into the sand with each step, I spotted Matt still relaxing on his lounger—but he wasn’t alone anymore. A young, curvaceous woman with bright blond hair and the teeniest, tiniest white bikini I’d ever seen stood beside him. From a distance, I could see that she was talking to him, occasionally flipping her long, blond locks over her shoulder. Once I reached hearing distance, I heard Matt say, “That’s a generous offer, Melissa, but I’m not interested.” “It’s Maria,” she responded with a giggle and tapped his bicep flirtatiously. “I promise, it’ll be a good time.” Her gaze moved toward me as I got closer, and Matt’s eyes followed it. He smiled. And the instant I stopped in front of our loungers and set our drinks on the sand, he pulled me into his lap. “Sweetheart, this woman would like us to join her in her hotel room for sex. Is that something that interests you?” Us, huh? I’d figured him for sure. But I was a surprising development. He nuzzled my neck, and I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. “No. I don’t think I’m interested.” “Me either,” Matt answered, and his tongue snuck past his lips to taste my skin. “But I am interested in taking my wife to our hotel room and eating her sweet c*nt until she screams my name,” he whispered into my ear, and I shivered. Hot damn. Now that, I was definitely interested in. He wrapped his big arms around my body and leaned his chin on my shoulder as he looked back at the presumptuous woman standing before us. “Thanks for the offer, but we’re not interested, Melissa.” “It’s Maria,” she spat, but Matt didn’t pay her any attention.

As she stormed away from us, he moved his lips up my neck, across my jaw, until they paused at the corner of my mouth. “You’ve got twenty minutes to finish that drink, little one. After that, that sweet c*nt of yours is mine.” Drink? What drink? “What’s this?” he asked, fingering the playing card sticking out of my bikini top. “The King of Diamonds,” I answered with a shrug. “It’s just a little game I used to play with my aunt.” “You used to play cards with your aunt?” “Not exactly,” I answered. “When I was a kid, we made a game out of collecting playing cards we found lying around on the street, the sidewalk, pretty much anywhere we could find in the city. The goal of the game is to find a whole deck in a year’s time.” “You still play it?” he asked, and his mouth crested up at the corners. “I just started playing it again, actually,” I explained and felt my cheeks heat from insecurity. “It’s just a stupid little sentimental thing, I guess.” “It doesn’t sound stupid.” He kissed my nose. “It sounds meaningful and reminds me of my mother. That sounds like something she would’ve done.” Would’ve done. Past tense. I frowned. “She died when I was just a little boy. Six years old, in fact,” he answered my silent question. “Who raised you?” “My father,” he answered. “He was the only living relative I had left.” “My aunt, my aunt Delores, actually. She’s the one who raised me.” “And your parents?” I shrugged. “I don’t know a lot about them, but from what I understand, they weren’t fit to be parents.” He pulled me closer to his chest. “We have similar beginnings, don’t we, little one?” “Yeah,” I whispered and rested my head on his chest. “We really do.” As I stared out on to the vast sea, I sighed, contentment apparent in the pattern of my breathing. I felt like every time I learned something new about Matt, it only made me like him more. It was getting to the point that my like for him was growing into something deeper. Something that was much, much more.

SEVERAL HOURS OF WATCHING ALEX prance, lounge, and frolic in the tiny bikini I’d packed for her and my dick was starting to speak louder than my mind. I had things to think about, moves to execute, and more than a dozen calls to return, but all I could think about was having the sweet tang of her puss* on my lips. The plane hummed its ascent, and Alex sat casually beside me, one tanned leg crossed over the other, her angry eyes scanning the entire space—except for me. Apparently, she’d liked my promise to put my mouth on her puss* just as much as I had, but she hadn’t liked my having to renege. I couldn’t say I blamed her, but I’d spotted a boat in the distance, and knowing the possibilities of what an enemy of mine could house inside—a telephoto lens, or worse, a rifle—I’d felt immediately paranoid for Alex’s safety. Nearly an hour of rushing to gather ourselves and make our way back to the plane, and she’d been left unsatisfied. I also hadn’t felt it prudent to offer a detailed explanation. She didn’t need to know all the things that could have been on that boat that she couldn’t come up with herself. I rather liked her innocence. I didn’t want to ruin it with fear. But now I’d have to work to ease her aggravation with me. I can’t wait. “What’s the matter, little one?” I asked innocently. No need to give her unneeded ammunition. “Nothing,” she answered obstinately. My little fighter. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to the complicated swirl of virtue and audacity she somehow managed to embody. “So, you aren’t mad that I didn’t lick your puss* when I said I was going to?” “Uh, no,” she scoffed, the liar. “That’d be a ridiculous thing to be upset about.” I smiled, turning her head with a gentle finger at her chin until her eyes met mine. “Is it?” I shrugged. “I’m quite upset about it myself.” Her cheeks dimpled as she attempted to smile and frown at once. “No, you’re not.” “I am,” I affirmed. “I thought about sending someone out to kill the people on that boat just so I could do it.”

She coughed a startled giggle. “No, you didn’t.” I made my most serious face. Cool, menacing, straightforward. “Didn’t I?” “Well…” she muttered, unsure if I was joking or not, and quite frankly, that made two of us. I didn’t shy away from blood on my hands normally. When it came to Alex, I couldn’t even imagine the things I would do. “I guess I’m glad you didn’t, then.” I let my face relax into a smile and winked. “No bodies today.” The corners of her lips turned up. I shifted in my seat as we steadied at our cruising altitude and unbuckled. Her eyebrows pinched together, but I didn’t slow my movements. I sank to my knees in front of her, reaching up to unbuckle her own seat belt and then spread her legs with gentle pressure on the insides of her knees. “But even though I’m a little late, I will be enjoying your puss*.” “Matt…” “Alex,” I murmured, sliding both hands up the smooth skin on the inside of her thighs. She gasped as my fingertips scooted under the hem of her shorts and met bare flesh. “No panties?” I asked with a co*cky curl of my lip. She blushed and then moaned when I pressed one finger deeper. “You forgot clean ones when you repacked my bag.” Her voice, meant to be critical, broke in the middle as I pushed one thick finger inside. It slid oh so easily through her warm arousal. “Overbearing, huh?” I asked teasingly, curling my finger to graze against her G-spot. She smiled. “Just a little.” I leaned forward and touched my mouth to the inside of her thigh. “But you like it.” “I guess, sometimes, it has its perks.” “Sometimes, huh?” I asked, still rubbing at the most sensitive spot inside of her. She squirmed in her seat, gripping the armrests so tightly her fingers turned a shade whiter. “Yeah, sometimes,” she said on a slight whimper. “Like now?” “Like having an apartment and a job and being on a private plane on our way back from Mexico,” she replied. I smiled. “But not now?” She rolled her eyes. I wasn’t sure, though, if it was in annoyance or pleasure. The dichotomy was enthralling. “Ah,” she gasped, rolling her head back into the seat and admitting, “Now too.” Working my finger out of her wetness slowly, I pulled it from her shorts and brought it to my mouth to smear on my lips before licking it off. “Mmm. You taste special, little one.” Her eyelids fluttered. “Take those shorts off so I can have some more.” “Special?” she asked while doing so. I helped as soon as she got the material past her ass.

I didn’t wait to answer, instead, grabbing her by the hips and dragging her until it met the edge of the seat and put my mouth to her. “Special,” I affirmed there, pulling back slightly after eating for a few seconds. “Enough to taunt me. Enough to tease me. Enough to lure me in a way nothing has for forty years.” Her eyes were unnaturally wide when I looked up to her face. “And I’m not just talking about this perfect puss*, little one.”

I WOKE TO THE SOUNDS of sizzling bacon and Stealers Wheel filling my ears with “Stuck in the Middle with You.” I grinned at the idea of Matt standing around in his sleek, far too big for one human being kitchen, and cooking breakfast. We’d been back from our little trip for three days, and every single night was spent in his bed. Topsy-turvy, my life appeared to be revolving around Matt’s axis ever since we’d stepped on the plane to Mexico. And the craziest thing of all? I didn’t mind. If anything, I wanted it that way. I liked the comfort of his protective—and insanely sexy—presence, not to mention being in the know on most of the good, bad, and dirty Wonderland details. But keeping me in the know on business wasn’t what affected me the most. It was his willingness to share little tidbits of his life. Things about his mom, his father, and even the finer details and nuances that made him the man that he was. It was those things that were my favorite. But I guessed the hours upon hours of hot, all-consuming sex weren’t so bad either. After a quick stretch of my arms and legs, I slid out of bed and strode my bare ass into the kitchen. With his back to me, and only wearing a pair of black boxer briefs over his firm ass, Matt stood at the stove. The grease in the skillet sizzled as he flipped a few slices of bacon, and I merely stood there gawking. The California sun drifted in from the big window in front of the dining table, draping a blanket of light over his body. Every sculpted muscle on his back and shoulders flowed from bright to dark. He was a living work of art, his tanned skin so tempting to touch, every simple move and flex giving away his strength. With the spatula in his hand, he turned around. His all-knowing gaze locked with mine for a brief moment, before I couldn’t fight the urge to take in the rest of him and released the hold. My eyes moved down, down, down, taking in his broad shoulders, his chiseled chest, the muscles of his abdominals, and that drool-worthy V muscle leading to the promised land.

God, he looks good. Hell, clothes, naked, only briefs, he always looks good. Matt Hadder was a man. Strong. Intense. Powerful. I wanted to eat him with a spoon. “Enjoying the view?” He quirked a brow, and I blushed. Giggling, I covered my cheeks with both of my hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” In the blink of an eye, Matt closed the distance between us and lifted me into his arms before setting my bare ass onto the counter. Gently, he pushed my thighs apart and moved his big body closer. “Hungry?” he asked with a smirk. I nodded. Oh yes, I am definitely hungry… “Fresh coffee in the pot.” He pressed a soft kiss to the corner of my mouth. “Breakfast should be ready in a few minutes.” I couldn’t stop my lips from turning down into a tiny pout. I didn’t want food for breakfast. I wanted Matt for breakfast. “Disappointed about something?” He ran his index finger across my mouth, the line of his brow frustratingly knowing. I shrugged and leaned closer, his intense amber eyes locking with mine. “Later, little one,” he whispered against my lips. He slid his finger up my thigh until it reached where I was already wet for him. Slowly and without hesitation, he slid that finger inside of me, gently pumping it in and out a few times before he pulled it back out and left me aching for more. “But right now, it’s breakfast,” he said before sliding his finger into his mouth and tasting me. f*cking hell. I clenched my thighs together. I wanted his mouth on me. Hell, I wanted my mouth on him. When it came to Matt, I found I was insatiable. Ready and willing for any attention he’d bestow. “And then we have a meeting with a client.” He moved back to the stove, and with the spatula, worked on scrambling the eggs. I tilted my head to the side in confusion. “We?” He nodded. “Yep. You’re coming along for this one.” I was going to another meeting with him? My eyes popped wide, and my throat dried up like the Sahara. I didn’t pretend to know all the inner workings of Wonderland, but I knew enough to know that every meeting held an undertone of importance and a lot of times, even risk. In Mexico, when he’d met with Jack Knave, I’d done my best to roll with it, but there was no denying, on the inside, I was shaking like a leaf in a thunderstorm. And Jesus, what in the hell would I wear to a client meeting? Taking into consideration the attendees I’d witnessed at the numerous Wonderland parties I’d worked, I didn’t even want to guess who the mystery client was. A famous celebrity? A politician? A goddamn king?

Oh God, what if it is a king of some foreign country? What in the hell does someone wear to meet a king? I had a feeling my daily wardrobe of cutoff jean shorts, a tank top, and a pair of flipflops wasn’t going to cut it. Hell, my nicest dress probably wouldn’t cut it. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. No rabbit suit required,” he teased with a soft chuckle and portioned the bacon and eggs onto plates. “I already have something picked out for you.” “Of course you do,” I answered sarcastically. “Mind elaborating on what you mean, little one?” “Well, you’re Matt Hadder.” He grinned. “I am.” “A man who dots all of his i’s and crosses all of his t’s,” I explained. “You don’t leave anything to chance.” With both plates in his hands, he leaned forward and whispered into my ear, “Until you.” I leaned back and assessed his facial expression for meaning. “I took a chance on you,” he said. “After the Devlins’ party, after I thought you’d heard more than your share of information, I still took the chance,” he clarified, and then poignantly added, “Best f*cking decision I ever made.” As Matt walked toward the dining table, my heart pumped hard and furious in my chest. He’s felt something for me from the beginning. If I weren’t careful, I’d probably end up doing something crazy like falling in love with the big, bad man. Too late for that. You’ve already fallen down his rabbit hole… “Come on,” he said from the table. “Breakfast is ready.” I shook away my insane thoughts and sat down across from him. With a shaky hand, I picked up my fork and took a bite of eggs for means of distraction. But it was useless. I could feel his eyes on my face. When I looked up, his brow was furrowed. “You okay?” he asked and I nodded. “Are you sure?” Nope. I’m not sure. I feel like I’ve gone mad. “Uh-huh,” I lied and took another bite. “Just hungry.” But it wasn’t hunger that had me feeling all f*cked up. It was the reality of the truth. My truth. I’d already fallen for him. I felt like I was Little Red Riding Hood and he was the Big Bad Wolf, and I honestly didn’t know if that made me crazy or senseless or nothing at all. But I knew one thing for certain. With my heart on fire, I was a bad liar.

A few hours later, we were sitting outside, on the gorgeous terrace of a home that encompassed as much square footage as a football field. Dr. Evan Saint. A world-renowned plastic surgeon whom I’d recognized instantly from a popular reality show. He was the It doctor when it came to plastic surgery and Beverly Hills. The one surgeon everyone wanted to see, but only the most exclusive could get an appointment with. Today, Matt was discussing the finer details of a charitable event Dr. Saint was throwing to benefit children in Africa who suffered birth defects but did not have the money or medical treatment needed to fix them. But in this case, Dr. Saint didn’t exactly live up to his name. The party, like every other event I’d attended, was a cover. The actual goal of the event was over my head in terms of logistics, but from what I understood, it had everything to do with money laundering—avoiding the normal tax liabilities that came with being in the top three percent. “And my Alex will be the one running the show for your function,” Matt said, and Dr. Saint nodded in understanding. “She’ll be your primary liaison and will ensure that everything runs smoothly.” Wait…what? My brain fought to comprehend his words. Primary liaison? As in, I would be hosting the party? Holy hell. Had I just gotten a promotion?

THE CAR SAT IDLING IN the paver-stone circle drive of Evan Saint’s home. Alex walked in front of me, her stride long and her pace quick, the clack of her heels on the stone almost constant. She was either angry about my surprise or overwhelmed, or maybe a little a bit of both, but the thought of dueling it out with her in the car already had me half hard. “Slow down,” I advised, grabbing her by the hip to encourage it physically. “You slow down,” she shot back nonsensically, and I smiled. “Calm down, little one,” I cooed softly, taking the door from Ben, my driver, and nodding that I had it. He jerked his head up and moved to round the hood as Alex slid into the car. She glided to the opposite side, and I tucked one foot inside the door and sank into the seat. Once I had the other foot in and the door closed, I could practically feel her questions, shaking inside her and waiting to burst free. “Now, what’s all this about?” I asked. Her head jerked toward me, and her mouth opened. “What’s all this… What’s this about? You’re kidding, right?” I raised just one brow as the car rumbled over the pavers as we exited the driveway. “How could you not tell me about my new position before the meeting? Why am I even getting it? I’ve only been here a few months, and I’m already getting a promotion? I mean, I just can’t even…” So many questions, so much indignation…all of it at once, and the way it made me feel so different from days past—I couldn’t even stop myself from teasing her. “You know, I think you’re the only person ever to question me this much and still be around to do it more.” Her pulse fluttered wildly in her throat, nearly making the skin vibrate as she straightened her spine and turned to look me dead in the eye. “What are you going to do about it?”

If possible, her throat trembled, the beat of her erratic heart so fast as my eyes darkened at the question. She was everything—madness, sanity, weakness, and strength— all in one tiny package. I leaned forward quickly, forcing her back into the soft leather of her seat and putting my face close to hers. Her breathing came in fast pants against the flesh of my lips as I got close, and her hands tensed in their spot on top of her legs. I reached up and, without much thought, wrapped a hand around the inviting thrum in her throat. “Are you not afraid of me, little one?” I whispered softly, squeezing slightly with the hand at her throat and running the tips of my fingers up the bare skin of her thigh with the other. She shook her head no, just barely. “But it doesn’t stop you,” I murmured. “Of course not,” she answered on a whisper. “Why?” She swallowed thickly, the line of her throat contracting in my hand. “I’m more afraid of letting the fear stop me from having what I want.” So swiftly she gasped, I released her throat and grabbed her hips at once, lifting her and settling her down on my lap. Her eyes held mine as I sank my hands into her hair. “And you want me.” She moaned, grinding onto the feel of my hard co*ck. I skimmed her lips with my own, once, twice, three times, until I had to have my tongue in her mouth. She tasted sweeter than she smelled, and the feel of her on top of me spread warmth in my chest. I pulled her back by her hair, almost violently, I knew, and I waited for her rolling eyes to come back to me. “I want you too,” I told her easily, the admission the truest words I’d ever spoken. In that moment, I wasn’t being who anyone wanted me to be. I was myself, and Alex was the muse that led me to him. Wonderland and John Hadder had saved me as a boy. Alex in Wonderland was saving me now—from a life alone, from a life without love…from a life without living. “I want you too,” I repeated. She’d probably never understand the reason for emphasis, the true revelation I’d just felt, and I was okay with that. I didn’t want that weight on her. I didn’t want to change her. I wanted her exactly as she was right then. She shifted restlessly on top of me, and I slammed my lips back to hers. She was wild and needy, and our clothes were entirely too in the way at this point. I ripped her top, the buttons scattering along the seat and floor of the car, and yanked the cups of her bra down until each perfect tit spilled out and sat on top. She gasped and keened as I ate at them one at a time, circling the nipple with my tongue before nibbling with my teeth, and finishing by sucking the entirety of the flesh

into my warm mouth. Her skirt was easy enough to deal with by yanking it up around her hips, but my pants were another story. She whimpered as she shoved her hands in between us, tearing at the fabric without actually getting anywhere. I pushed her back onto my knees and dealt with the buckle on my belt myself, not even pausing before undoing the button and zipper on my pants and yanking my co*ck free. She moved forward without invitation and sank down on me in one smooth stroke. Normally, I had to work to seat my large girth inside her petite body, but she was so ready this time it didn’t matter. “Oh God. Oh, yeah,” she chanted. “Matt!” “That’s it,” I coached. “Ride me until you get there, little one. Use my co*ck, take all of it,” I warned, “because after you’re done, I’m going to f*ck you so hard you’ll pass out.” “Jesus, Matt. Oh my God.” “Yeah,” I urged, keeping a tight hold on what little control I had left as she bounced on me, her tit* so decadent I couldn’t help but bury my face in them for another taste. “Ride me, little Alex,” I pushed. “Ride me until you come. Chase your f*cking pleasure, greedy girl.” She cried out as her c*nt gripped my co*ck, climaxing so hard her eyes rolled back in her head. I rode it with her, greedy too, stroke for stroke until she stopped moving. With a quick flip, I put her face in the seat, my dick back in her heat, grabbed her hips, and made her mine with the savagery everyone knew me for. She groaned endlessly, one sharp cry breaking through the guttural sound every five or six strokes, but she stayed with me, pushing back onto my co*ck as best she could. I was mindless, the tick of pleasure like a bomb on its countdown as it ran down my spine and gripped tightly on to my balls. Come spurting, I closed my eyes and roared as my climax washed through me, the sharp flex of my hands on her hips enough to bruise her. She whimpered, collapsing softly as a second climax deep in her c*nt milked me for every last drop. “I thought I knew Wonderland,” I told her tenderly as I collapsed on top of her. “But it turns out I can be wrong because I was just eight f*cking inches deep inside it.”

APPARENTLY, WONDERLAND, INC. DIDN’T JUST encompass the United States—it was worldwide. While most of its “parties” were held within the elite homes of Hollywood, its clients were spread across the globe. Offshore bank accounts. Computer hacking. And friends in the highest of places. Expensive drugs and beautiful pleasure girls were mere child’s play compared to the corporation’s ability to make money disappear. In the span of three hours, tucked soundly in the lavish constraints of Evan Saint’s home, I’d connected more dots than my brain could digest. Tonight, I was his primary liaison. The hostess with the mostest. The go-to for Dr. Saint to ensure that tonight’s function ran effortlessly. As ridiculous as it sounded knowing what I knew about them now, Wonderland, Inc. knew how to plan parties. In two weeks’ time, Evan Saint’s charity function had been planned, arranged, and executed. All with class, sophistication, and an overwhelming attendee response. Out of the three hundred people who were invited to this lush affair, only two declined. According to Matt, part of that was because of Wonderland’s overly extensive network of local business owners. Even Tony the butcher had things to hide. Go figure. So far, things were running as smooth as butter. Matt had debriefed me prior to the start, and even Cal had taken the time to show me the ropes and ease my transition into my new role. Thankfully, neither had thrown me to the wolves, and by the time the party began, I felt ready to dive in with both feet. I’d stayed busy from the start, ensuring that Dr. Saint was happy and all of his attendees had what they needed. I’d arranged for a pleasure girl to spend time with a CEO of a major corporation— which made their money off of baby products—after I’d received his million-dollar donation to help African children receive medical care. I’d watched a famous celebrity make a hearty investment in the Wonderland drug fund. And I’d witnessed said famous celebrity snort her investment straight into her nose. Nothing was off-limits, and the world was their oyster. To do and experience anything

they wanted without the moral constraints of society. All the while, raising money for a good cause. Playing the game by their own rules, the party moved on. I’d helped Jessie Cat with her girls, served drinks to a group of prosecutors discussing the fact that it was usually better to make a deal with a criminal than to risk losing points on their coveted “conviction rates,” and I’d even assisted a prominent politician with making last-minute travel arrangements to a private beach home owned by a popular lobbyist group. I saw and heard everything in my new role. And the more I witnessed, the more I realized that, when it came to money, nothing was off the table. Everyone was connected in some way. And owed favors were the lifeblood of the wealthy. The good weren’t just good. The bad weren’t just bad. Everyone was human. Some just had more means to accomplish their goals and delve into their dirty, greedy desires than others. “Matt would like to see you,” Jessie Cat said as I stood inside of the kitchen, making payment arrangements with the caterers. “He’s downstairs,” she added. “And he would like a scotch on the rocks.” “Okay.” I nodded, and she grinned. She bumped her hip softly against mine. “I see the way he watches you.” I quirked a brow, and her grin grew wider. Secretly, I’d been wondering how much the people around us knew about how close we were—and how they’d react. But I’d been too happy to worry about it with any real intensity. “All I’m saying is that Matt Hadder has never paid any woman that kind of attention.” She grabbed a fresh bottle of champagne and removed the cork with a quiet pop, hardly spilling a drop. “That man lived in shades of cool. Until you.” “Should I know what that means?” “A man who lives in shades of cool doesn’t let anyone break through his world. He stays closed off. Emotionally unavailable,” she explained. “But here you are. Inside his world. Matt’s exception to the rule.” I stared at her for a quiet moment. Was I really his exception? And more importantly, was he mine? When I’d first moved to LA, I’d daydreamed about my future, my perfect man, and I knew I needed a gentleman. Someone who would take care of me. Respect me. Treat me right. But deep down, I also craved a savage. A man who would take charge. f*ck me senseless. Make me feel dirty in the very best way. Matt Hadder was both. An exception…

“Men like that don’t come around often.” Jessie Cat picked up the bottle of champagne and a few glasses. “And they don’t give just any woman attention. Only the lucky ones, doll.” With a wink and smile, she sashayed out of the kitchen on her stilettos, and I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to make out of her words. Was that her version of advice? Retired hookers aren’t the easiest to read… She had a point, though. Matt didn’t just dish out his attention or affection on anyone. The man was charming, but private. Well-spoken, but closed off. To the outside world, he was an irresistible enigma. Mysterious. Brooding. But behind closed doors, with me, he was playful and open and honest. He teased me. Laughed with me. And offered a neverending supply of affection. Maybe I really was his exception? No matter what I was or what Matt was or what we were together, I didn’t have time to focus on it. Right now, I had to concentrate on the party. And the next item on my to-do list was bringing my man a scotch on the rocks. My man. I smiled to myself. After a quick stop at one of the numerous bars inside Evan Saint’s home, I headed down the marble spiral staircase until I reached the lower level. I glanced around the room for Matt, to no avail. He was nowhere in sight. Before I started combing each and every room for him, my phone pinged in my pocket with a text. Matt: Outside terrace, sweetheart.

Somehow, he could see me, but I still couldn’t see him. I quirked a brow and slid my phone back into my pocket. Once my heels reached the stone of the terrace, I spotted Matt, sitting on a lounge chair in a corner shadowed by palm trees. With no one else around him, the light of the moon highlighted the stark, firm lines of his jaw and intensified the honey color of his eyes. “Were you watching me?” I asked playfully and handed him the drink. He just smirked and swished the amber liquid around in the glass. The ice cubes clinked together as he took a quick sip. “I’m proud of you, Alex,” he said, and my heart bloomed like a tulip inside of my chest. “You’ve handled tonight like a pro.” “Wow…uh… Thank you,” I said quietly, my cheeks heating. His smirk was reminiscent of the devil. “God, your blush makes me hard.”

I couldn’t stop myself from moving my gaze down from his face to his chest to the prominent bulge beneath the zipper of his black dress pants to check. f*ck, he wasn’t lying. He was hard. For me. I had the power to do that to him. It was a heady f*cking thought. I licked my lips. I wanted to taste him. I wanted to see if he tasted as good as I’d imagined him to. I wanted to know if he was still velvet and silk and unadulterated man beneath his clothes. “Hungry, little one?” I nodded. “You want a taste?” “Yes,” I begged, and I didn’t care how desperate it sounded. He moved his hand up his thigh until it reached his zipper. Slowly, too f*cking slowly, he slid it down and unbuttoned his pants. I looked up at him, and I was aware of the electricity in the air the moment his gaze locked with mine. It crackled around us, and I couldn’t remember feeling this way with any other man. Perhaps this was what it was like when people said they felt fireworks. I kneeled down in front of him. A tiny gasp emitted from my lungs when his eyes glazed over. It was like I’d just enchanted him, ensnared him with my gaze. I tossed my hair onto my back and rested my hands on his thighs, and I sensed his desire underneath my fingertips. The scent of his cologne drifted in through my nostrils, a scent I was quickly becoming addicted to. A tingling sensation disrupted my musing, and the tables turned; Matt’s gaze took control, and I was caught in his web. This game of desire was intoxicating. It wasn’t even about his pleasure in that moment. It was all about mine. And God, I just wanted to taste him. Arousing him, pleasing him, was merely an erotic afterthought. Hell, I felt like I could be Matt’s personal pleasure girl for the rest of my life, and still, it wouldn’t be enough to sate my craving for him. “One taste.” He pulled his co*ck out of his pants. Hard. Straining. Mine. “But only your tongue.” From base to tip, I moved the tip of my tongue up his length. He tasted better than my memories. Like smooth and velvet and hard and Matt. I wanted him inside my mouth. “Please,” I begged for more and stared up at him from underneath my lashes. “Just one suck,” he said with a slight nod. I didn’t hesitate. Didn’t give him a chance to change his mind. I wrapped my lips around his shaft and sucked. Hard. Unrelenting. Up and down his length. I couldn’t help myself. One suck turned into two, and two turned into three, and I just kept going until he told me to stop.

He ran an index finger down my cheek and around the edges of my lips as I moved him in and out of my mouth. “Even if you don’t call a fire by its name, little one, that doesn’t make it any less of a fire,” he whispered. “So, call us whatever you want, but I know, when it comes to you and me, we motherf*cking burn.” I moaned at his words. At the feel of him inside my mouth. At the constant, unquenchable ache that had taken up residence in my lower belly, and before I could continue to satisfy my selfish craving, he eased himself out of my mouth and put his still hard co*ck back into his pants, zipping them up without another word. I looked up at him with a little frown, and he grinned. “Later,” he whispered again and slid a loose lock of hair behind my ear. With my hands still gripping his thighs, I stood to my feet and leaned forward to press a soft kiss to his lips. “Later.” One tiny word that held so much promise. I can’t f*cking wait until later. I offered a little smile before striding back inside the house on my heels. I might have been a little dramatic with the sway of my hips, but under Matt’s watchful eye, it was all for a good cause. Later. After a quick pit stop in the bathroom to freshen up and get my focus back, I made my way back upstairs to check in with Evan Saint. While I assisted him with more drinks, Matt made his way back to the main room and appeared deep in conversation with a few familiar faces I’d seen at other Wonderland parties. He greeted and chatted with the people around him. All of them watching his every move, waiting for him to give them the coveted attention they desired. And the party moved on. I served a round of shots to a band that was celebrating their latest album going platinum. I fielded flirtatious questions from a professional basketball player. I even helped prevent a dramatic, drunk woman from making a fool of herself. And after I’d helped said drunk woman get into a limo and instructed the chauffeur where to take her, I headed back inside. The party was still in full swing. I looked around the spacious home and noticed Jaybird and Mickey Moosa standing off to the side of the main room, their eyes locked on Matt, who was still heavy in conversation. At first glance, I figured they were just waiting to talk to him, but when Eric Queen nodded toward the two men and headed downstairs, I furrowed my brow in confusion. I glanced toward Matt again, but he was still chatting with the same group. Jaybird gestured toward someone on the other side of the room. I glanced over my shoulder to spot Spade, Diamond, and Bobby Hart. I’d come to know these men, Matt’s employees, so to speak, with each party I’d attended. And, as time passed, I found I was starting to understand their norms and how they generally acted during these types of events.

And, well, secrecy between Wonderland, Inc. men, especially related to Matt, was not the norm. Matt made a point to be involved in everything, and everyone else knew it. One by one, and discreet as hell, the five men eased their way in the direction of Eric Queen. Downstairs and out of view. And every single one of them appeared very aware of Matt’s location. Curious and more curious, I couldn’t stop myself from meandering downstairs too. I made my way through the crowd, while my eyes were busy figuring out where six of Matt’s guys had disappeared to. But it felt like a fruitless effort. They were nowhere to be found. “Looking for someone?” a deep, baritone voice whispered into my ear. I turned around to meet the hard black stare of Eric Queen. His face was handsome, really handsome, actually, but his eyes were so dark they felt truly evil. Like all of the world’s worst parts lived inside. f*ck. I wonder if he knows I’m following them? I swallowed past the uncertainty and forced my face into neutrality. “Nah.” I shook my head. “Just making the rounds.” He raised a brow. “Are you sure about that?” “Uh-huh,” I said with a sickly sweet smile. “I’m sure.” “You know what I think?” “What?” “I think you should come have a drink with me.” “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not drinking tonight.” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” he said and grabbed my hand. Before I could stop him, he pulled me toward a large bar in the back of the room where the five disappearing Wonderland men stood. “Look who I found,” Eric said, and the guys smirked. “Alex wants to have a drink with us.” “Actually, I’m good, boys,” I refuted. “No alcohol for me tonight.” “Oh, that’s right,” Moosa—good old Mike McConnell—chimed in. “Matt put her in charge of the party tonight.” “Interesting turn of events,” Jaybird muttered over his bottle of beer. “Excuse me?” I questioned, and he locked his hardened stare with mine. “I said, interesting turn of events,” he repeated. “You’ve got a point there, bird,” Eric chimed in with a soft, devious chuckle. “Who would’ve thought that one puss* would be the reason for Matt to make sh*tty f*cking decisions?” “Must be one hell of a puss*,” Spade added and licked his lips in my direction. “What

ya think, Queen? You think she’s got a golden puss* or something?” “I know it’s got me curious enough to want a test ride.” Eric winked. “What do you say, Alex? Let me get my dick wet inside that golden puss*.” “I think she should let us all take that special c*nt for a ride,” Bobby Hart said, and I fought the urge to gag. Sleek, pressed, designer suits and mouths spewing some of the filthiest, most disgusting words my ears had ever heard, they were a horrifying paradox of sophistication and crass. I hated every second of standing within their group. I wanted to leave. Sprint in the opposite direction, but my gut instinct told me to just roll with it for as long as I could, until I could find the right time and reason to remove myself from the situation. Eric moved closer to me, stepping inside my personal space, and I struggled not to react. He opened his mouth to say something, but the sound of someone calling my name behind us grabbed everyone’s attention. “Alex, mind coming upstairs for a minute?” Evan Saint. Maybe he did live up to his name on occasion? “Sure thing.” I nodded toward him and walked away from the group of Wonderland men without another word. I couldn’t believe what they had said. That wasn’t just teasing. Or joking around. Those were harsh, vile, disgusting f*cking words coming out of the mouths of men who worked for Matt. Was that the norm? Deep down, I knew it wasn’t. Matt wouldn’t tolerate that kind of bullsh*t. Hell, he’d proven he didn’t tolerate that kind of bullsh*t time and time again. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. A small part of me wondered if there was more below the surface than what I even comprehended. But all I really had to go on was the revolting words spewed from the mouths of drunken men. So, in that moment, I made a decision, and instead of running to Matt, I decided to hold my head high, brush it off, and stay focused on the task at hand: Evan Saint’s party. If something like that happened again, then I’d consider telling Matt. But for right now, it was just words. Nothing else. Nothing more. At least, that’s all I hope it is…

I SAT BACK IN MY chair and steepled my fingers as the top men of Wonderland, Inc. filed into my office one by one. Cal stood in the corner behind me, casually observing like always. Outsiders might think he was there as a means of physical backup, but insiders knew I never needed any. “Where are we on the software?” I asked Eric as soon as he cleared the threshold. He glanced briefly to the others before smiling. “It’s ready.” The f*ck. I knew it was ready. I’d seen to it myself. But thanks to Harrison’s digging, I also knew there was more to Eric Queen’s meetings with Charles King than originally met the eye. He’d become greedy and smothered by my good authority, and according to Harrison’s intel, Eric was done with it. With some fancy talking, he’d convinced King to go against me too. But he’d forgotten this wasn’t my first f*cking rodeo, and I’d been groomed by the best. They were both fools, and I was several steps ahead of them. “Good,” I said roughly, and Harrison’s jaw hardened as well. He’d wanted to take care of Eric immediately. I wanted the f*ck to suffer. Sure, I could’ve had the knee-jerk reaction of making an example of Queen before he’d had the opportunity to try to f*ck me over. But I’d never been one for impulsive decisions. In fact, I prided myself on carefully calculated solutions to problems. And Eric Queen? He was now a problem. One I’d fix real f*cking soon. When Eric’s gaze met Mickey Moosa’s, Mickey turned and addressed me. “I have something I’d like to discuss, Matt.” This should be interesting. “All right,” I murmured, offering him the floor with a sweep of my arm. “I’d like to discuss Alex.” Cal shoved away from the wall, but I stopped him with a hand in the air. Irritation spiked in my veins just like it obviously had in Cal’s, but that was the purpose of this conversation—I could tell. To do none other than push my buttons.

But Matt f*cking Hadder had nary a button to be pushed. I did the pushing, and if not, I did away with the pusher. “And?” I asked calmly. “It seems like she’s moved up in her role here in the organization pretty quickly. Given how we first met her, we don’t even know if we can trust her.” “She hasn’t shown any signs whatsoever of leaking any information. Information, I’ll add, you made accessible,” Cal interjected, glaring at each asshole individually. If this had been happening under any other circ*mstance, I might have smiled, but the whole thing was a cluster. Not only was Alex the last person I wanted on Eric’s radar, it seemed I had more than just him to worry about. “She showed signs last night,” Jaybird insisted, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That got my f*cking attention, but not for the reason they thought. Their bullsh*t words held a different meaning than what they were trying to portray. They were acting on the defense, toward a girl who had never shown the slightest ill intention toward anyone or anything within the Wonderland organization, mind you. Defensiveness derived from two things: insecurity or dishonesty. And most times, they were both at play. That knowledge left me reeling. What in the f*ck had they done to Alex last night? I cut my eyes to Damien, and he gave me a silent nod of understanding. He’d be finding out what the f*ck had actually gone down at that party last night, right under my f*cking nose, and he’d be doing it soon. Or else. To the room at large, I remained neutral. My refusal to react made it impossible for them not to. They weren’t like me. When someone baited them, they followed. “And what signs did she show last night?” “Talking to guys she shouldn’t be. Flirting with them.” I nearly rolled my eyes. The only man Alex had flirted with last night was me, and she’d done it by wrapping her mouth around my co*ck. On the other hand, we were finally getting closer to the truth—men who shouldn’t be flirting at Alex—and the idea of it made me want to strangle them all one by one. “That’s all?” I asked. Mickey looked to Eric and then back to me. “No. She also followed us. Listened in on a conversation. We think she might just be storing up as much information as possible before taking it to the authorities. She might even already be working for them.” “And what authorities would those be, Moosa? The ones in our pocket, or the other ones in our pocket?” “Matt—” “f*cking enough. This is childish bullsh*t. She’s new, she’s done well, she’s moved up. All of you f*cks should be asshole deep in making sure this nomination goes off

without a hitch, and you’re busy worrying about a woman we met at a goddamn child’s birthday party while she was wearing a f*cking rabbit costume?” Eric’s eyes danced as Mickey and Jaybird seemed to become more and more disenchanted with me with every word I spoke. So maybe they weren’t completely on board before, but Eric was fairly certain they were now. The prick. Jaybird’s eyes widened just slightly in fear as I reached over and touched the letter opener. Still, he opened his stupid goddamn mouth anyway. “She also…came on to me. All of us, actually.” “Jay,” Eric chastised, trying to look like the hero—the one to keep his mouth shut. “She did,” Mickey affirmed. “Asked to suck my co*ck. Told me she’d let me f*ck her any way I wanted if I didn’t tell you.” Jealousy raged inside me despite the falsehoods. Just hearing them talk about her like that, pretending they had the right to touch her anywhere, to give her anything, made me feel like I’d come out of my skin. I fought to keep it on the inside. Despite winning the battle, my order was still a roar as I dismissed them. “Get out!” Eric’s saunter was co*cky, confident, even f*cking pleased, as he made his way out of the room with Mickey and Jaybird. He, of course, mistook my anger as directed at Alex— at the situation. Perhaps at the fact that I had to question if I could trust my lover. In reality, Alex was trustworthy. I knew it in my soul, and he was lucky I didn’t slit his goddamn throat on the spot. “Damien,” I called, just before he made it to the door. Harrison looked back over his shoulder, but he moved on when I released him with a nod. Cal moved close as Damien approached my desk after closing the door. Cal’s skin vibrated, he was so f*cking pissed. Apparently, I’d done a good job of endearing him to my Alex. He’d look out for her no matter what happened to me—not that I planned on going anywhere anytime soon. “Find out what the f*ck happened. Get video. I want to know every f*cking thing that happened after I saw Alex follow them down that staircase last night.” Damien nodded. “You got it.” I shooed him with a flick of my hand, and he didn’t dawdle. Cal’s voice was edgy when the door closed behind him. “I’ll cut off their balls myself if they touched her.” “You’ll have to settle for one ball each, Cal,” I muttered. “The other is mine.”

DEENA’S MEOWS ECHOED OFF THE walls of the kitchen, and I sighed from my perch on the couch. She was hungry. I understood that. But I was also extremely comfortable. Dilemmas, man. A lazy Sunday afternoon. My plans revolved around binge watching Orange Is the New Black, snacks, and a whole lot of nothing else. Sometimes, the idea of nothing was a beautiful thing. Isn’t that why they invented Netflix? This morning, I’d woken up in Matt’s apartment, but I meandered back to my place when he headed out to run errands. I doubted his errands resembled normal people errands —groceries, laundry, post office. They were probably more like sharpen knives, pick up a new set of brass knuckles, fuel up the boat so it’s ready to dump bodies. Obviously, I was definitely kidding. Well, sort of. I’d just leave it at the fact that Matt’s version of errands was slightly different from the norm. But I didn’t question him. There was no need for me to question him. Over the past two months, Matt had intertwined me into his life so much that I knew when I should take issue with something and when I should just roll with it. Clad in my comfiest sleep shorts and tank top, I rolled straight into nothing. Deena’s meows grew louder, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she started taking her nails to the cabinet. With a roll of my eyes and unwanted movement from my legs, I tossed my blanket toward the bottom of the sofa and got to my feet. Once I reached the kitchen, a pair of pleading kitty eyes stared up at me. It’d only been two hours since I’d last fed her, but apparently, my girl was having an “I want to eat anything, everything, and constantly” kind of day. I could relate. Period week generally consisted of ravenous snacking in between carbloaded meals. Donuts. Pizza. Cookies. Ice cream. A full sheet cake. The sky was the limit, and the fridge was my motherf*cking oyster during that hellish cycle. I doubted Deena was having her monthly visit from Aunt Flo, though. She was spayed. But who was I to judge, right? I’d once consumed a forty-dollar meal from McDonald’s in one sitting. And, trust me, it took a determined, food-driven woman to

reach that bill. Momma wasn’t just shopping the Value Menu that day. Deena meowed, and I grabbed a can of Fancy Feast out of the cabinet. “Patience is a virtue, you know,” I said to her as I filled a new bowl with a kitty entrée of steak medallions and a small scoop of dry food. She didn’t care. Only capable of impatient meows at this point. If her meows were words, she’d be bitching. Once I set her bowl on the floor, she pounced. No hesitation. No show of kitty strides around the kitchen before carefully diving in like a sophisticated feline with manners. Whiskers first, my little diva cat filled up her belly, licking her lips with every bite. Before I could settle back into my spot o’lazy, my phone pinged with a text message. I snagged it off the counter and tapped the screen. A picture message from my aunt waited in my inbox. It was a photo of her standing in front of the Bellagio, a giant smile on her face. Aunt Delores: Greetings from Las Vegas!

I loved seeing my aunt out and about, traveling around on her terms. But I was starting to wonder if her church group spent more time in casinos than they did in actual church. It was a crapshoot, to be honest. Me: Wow. I feel like it was just yesterday you were there. Oh, wait, that’s because it WAS just yesterday. Aunt Delores: It was three weeks ago, Miss Nosy Pants. Me: LOL. How’s the city of sin treating you? Aunt Delores: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Me: Pretty sure that saying shouldn’t apply to church groups… Aunt Delores: God understands the need for balance and downtime in our lives. Me: So, does the gambling fit in before or after church? Aunt Delores: Smart aleck.

Me: I love you. :) And I hope you have fun preaching the word and gambling away your Social Security check. Speaking of checks, my new job is doing really well, and I’ve wired money into your account.

Three thousand dollars to be exact. I wanted to send more, but I knew she’d lose her sh*t over that amount. Aunt Delores was a woman who hated the idea of a “handout.” Even if said handout was from the heart and with the sole intention of making her life a little easier. Aunt Delores: Nope. I’m not accepting your money.

See what I mean? She didn’t even know how much, but already, she didn’t want to accept it. Too bad, Aunt Delores. Come Monday, you’ll be three thousand richer whether you like it or not. I knew her finances, and, although she had a little saved in her bank account, she mostly relied on her monthly Social Security check to pay for her daily expenses. For a woman who had worked her entire life, she deserved to enjoy the last half of her life without money stress. And as long as I worked for Wonderland, she could expect and accept more deposits into her account. Me: Too late. I set it up on Friday. You should get it by tomorrow. Aunt Delores: You’re a pain in my ass. Me: You love me. Aunt Delores: That I do. Even though you’re a pain in my ass. Me: :)

With a smile on my face, I meandered back into the living room, my mind fully intent on couch surfing for the rest of the afternoon. But before I could sit down, three, loud, pounding knocks echoed off my door. I startled so hard that I dropped my phone, and it hit the hardwood floor with a cringeworthy thud. Three more obnoxious, persistent knocks and Deena sought shelter, skittering out of the kitchen and into my bedroom. Most likely, to her cowardly spot underneath my bed.

“Open up, Alex,” Matt’s voice rang out, loud and harsh. “Just a minute,” I called toward the door. I picked my phone up off the floor and took a rapid inventory of a, thankfully, intact and working screen, before quickly walking toward the front door. I opened it, and I’d never seen his amber eyes look so dark, so intense, so angry. And this was Matt. He very nearly always looked angry. “Is everything okay?” He stepped inside. “We need to talk. Now.” Concern clutched at my chest, and my hands shook as I closed the door behind him. Matt strode into the living room and stood in front of the couch, feet planted wide. “Sit,” he demanded, and I obeyed. White knuckles from clenching his fists too hard and gritted teeth from the effort to remain silent, Matt stalked in front of me. His large, intimating form exuded an animosity that was like acid—burning, slicing, potent. “What’s going on, Matt?” I asked, really worrying that whatever this was about would be too much to cute my way out of. His face was red with barely suppressed anger, and his internal rage held all the power of a wildfire. I could practically see the flames roaring in his eyes, ready to ignite anything that he came in contact with. We were all just kindling. “Why didn’t you f*cking tell me?” “Tell you what?” I asked, truly at a loss. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and tapped the screen. “Tell me this,” he answered and handed me the phone. I stared down at the screen and with a shaking, hesitant finger, eventually found the courage to press play on the video he’d pulled up. It was footage. Of Evan Saint’s party. I watched closely as I came into view, roaming around the downstairs level, and then, Eric Queen was at my back, grabbing my attention. He guided me toward the bar, and I knew exactly what Matt was showing me. It was that awful interaction I’d had with a few of his men. The words sounded just as vile and derogatory on playback as they had in real life. Once the video ended, I looked up to meet Matt’s hard stare. God, he was pissed. I swallowed against the dryness in my throat. “I’m…I’m s-sorry,” I said quietly. “I wasn’t sure how to handle it.” “If someone, any f*cking one, says sh*t to you like that, you f*cking tell me,” he said, his voice deep even to carve the earth. “I don’t care if it’s the goddamn President of the United States or the Dalai f*cking Lama, no one talks to you like that. Do you understand?” he questioned. I nodded immediately.

As comforting as it was to know this superscary version of Matt was appearing on my behalf, it was still about enough to make me pee my pants. Matt leaned down and lifted me off the sofa and into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist. Nose to nose, his fierce gaze was locked with mine. “I swear to God if someone talks to you like that again, they’re going to spend the rest of their nonexistent life ten feet underground.” “That seems a little drastic,” I whispered, but he shook his head. “You are too f*cking important to me,” he said quietly. “I’d die before I let something happen to you.” As he pulled me tighter to his chest and buried his face in my hair, my heart swelled. Somehow, this man who lived by loose rules and a skewed moral compass had become viciously protective of me. He treated me differently. Special. And he never hesitated to take care of me. Even when it was his own men I was up against. From here on out, when it came to teams, I knew Matt would always be on mine. It was strange how quickly someone could go from being a complete stranger to being the most important person in your life. That person who made you wonder how you’d managed to survive as long as you had without them. I didn’t know how I’d managed without Matt, but I knew the idea of him not being in my life felt like pure hell. Ironically, he’d become my one solid force, my one stability in a world filled with chaos, and I so desperately needed that. The feeling was so strange; it stretched throughout my whole body. Overwhelmed. Complete. I felt a million things at once. Like I’d stepped into a dangerous fire, yet I was completely safe at the same time. Within his arms, I found peace. My heart danced inside of my chest, and a hole, one I’d never been aware of, was filled. I felt so light, like I was on top of the world, yet my heart constricted so tightly that my lungs struggled to breathe. I buried my face into his shoulder and blinked past the emotion filling my eyes. I’m in love with him. I was in love with the big, bad man.

THE FEEL OF HER IN my arms was almost enough to keep me there, in her apartment, until the end of time. Ironically, it was the burning need to keep her until the end of time that convinced me to stand up, set her on her feet, and order something else entirely. Her eyes opened swiftly, and she swayed for a moment, caught off guard. “What are you—” “Get dressed. We’re going to my office.” “To…your office. For lunch?” she asked hopefully. She obviously had an underlying feeling about the true purpose of our outing. I shook my head. “So that I can meet your assistant?” “No.” “To have a visit with Cal?” “Alex.” “Come on!” she cried. “I don’t like the sound of this at all. You never take me to your office. Now you come in here, we have this scene, and we’re going to your office? I feel like that’s where people go to die.” I smirked a little, even as fury still worked through me. I couldn’t not be amused by her. “For some people, I suppose it is.” “Matt!” “But not you,” I assured. “I figured today wasn’t about me—” “Oh, today is about you,” I interrupted. “It’s very much about you. But you won’t be the one in goddamn danger, that’s for sure.” She pointed in my face, an adorable wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. “Okay? Do you hear yourself? That’s what I’m worried about.”

“Good,” I encouraged, running soothing hands down the cool skin of her upper arms. “That means you’re smart.” “Does it mean I can stay home?” She fluttered her eyelashes, and I very nearly smiled. Christ, she’s cute. “No.” “Ack!” she shouted, slapping my chest. Pride surged inside my chest at her fearlessness despite how unchecked I’d been before. “Why not?” “Because you making a stand is important. As much as I plan to have you at my side every minute, I can’t. You need to know how these men work, how they think, how they suffer.” “This all sounds really messy.” “It might be,” I admitted. “Matt,” she whined looking to the ground and stomping a foot. “Alex,” I said softly and lifted her chin until her eyes once again met mine. “Do you want to know how to protect yourself?” “Well, of course I do,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m going to kill them?” Her eyes searched mine. “I guess it depends how intense things get.” I laughed. “A man’s vulnerabilities are his biggest weakness. One guess what mine is.” Her. Every day, all day, I would lose everything for her. I knew it with vivid certainty, and I knew I also held the evidence undisguised in my eyes. “Matt,” she whispered. “I’m wholly in love with you, little one. You are my weakness.” She smiled, blushing a little before working her arms under my heavy ones and pushing her body toward mine. “I know this is supposed to be romantic and flattering, but it’s really not sounding like it.” I shook my head at her teasing. “It is flattering, I assure you. But it’s also why your attending this is so important.” “I don’t get it. Why?” “Because, little one… I need my weakness to be strong.” She searched my eyes until she found whatever it was she was looking for. “Okay,” she whispered. And then, quiet as a mouse, she added, “I love you, too.”

Eric, Mickey, Jaybird, Harrison, and Damien all filed in to my office thirty minutes later, having been summoned by Cal on my behalf. It was a Sunday, so they knew this wasn’t a talk about their spouses or kids or anything f*cking pleasant, and it wasn’t something that could wait. As a result, some of their ugly faces got even uglier. Alex, my little warrior, was tucked away in another office with Cal, waiting for the right time to join the meeting. It was unbelievably important for her to be a part of it, but I wouldn’t subject her to undue torture. Part of this could and would be handled on my own. “Have a seat,” I instructed by way of greeting. No one looked surprised at the lack of pleasantries. Three chairs lined the front of my desk rather than the usual two, so that Eric, Jaybird, and Mickey all had a place to take a seat. It was all a mind game, really, having them sit and then standing myself, so that my already intimidating physical presence seemed even more so. Honestly, nearly my whole job was mind games. Damien and Hare, already privy to the details of what had occurred at the party, stood in the back of the room with equally hard jaws. They might not have nearly as much invested in Alex as I did, but they didn’t like scheming, and they didn’t like being lied to. The three amigos in the chairs were so mired in the sh*t, their eyes were brown. “I had a conversation with Alex, and it seems her version of the story is quite a bit different from your own.” Eric stayed quiet, diverting his gaze to the others so they’d take most of the heat. The little weasel co*cksucker. Mickey’s face was serious as he sat up in his seat. “Of course it is, Matt. She doesn’t want to look bad in front of you. But I’m telling you, it was an ugly scene. Look at all the stuff with her apartment when we moved her into it. She’s a con artist. A very pretty one, but a f*cking con.” “Enough,” I snapped. “When Alex is a con, at least she’s proficient at it. You three idiots could use some of her focus.” “He’s never going to believe us on this,” Jaybird muttered. “He’s caught in the web of her golden puss*.” I smiled menacingly. “Golden puss*, huh?” I asked. Jaybird looked to Eric, but he did his best to remain neutral. The prick. “Yeah,” Jaybird affirmed. “It’s really interesting that you’d say that.” I grabbed the phone off the hook and buzzed the intercom in the next office over. Cal and Alex entered my office moments later. Mickey immediately became indignant. “Great. Now we get to play some he said, she said bullsh*t.” “No, Mickey,” I chastised with a tsk. “Now we get to play, she said, the camera said, the three of you are f*cking dead.”

Mickey and Jaybird looked to one another with wide eyes. How they hadn’t expected there to be video of this, I had no idea. Eric didn’t look surprised at all. He had something else up his f*cking sleeve. I really wanted to slit his f*cking throat and watch him choke on all the blood until he died. But if I did that now, I might never find out the rest of his plan. I clicked the video file on my computer and let the audio play loudly throughout the office. Alex looked on confidently from the back, Cal standing sentry behind her. “Matt put her in charge of the party tonight.” Moosa’s voice was the first to break the tense silence. “Interesting turn of events,” Jaybird agreed. “Excuse me?” Alex questioned defensively. “I said interesting turn of events,” he repeated. “You’ve got a point there, bird,” Eric said through a chuckle. Wow. Look who wasn’t a mute anymore. “Who would’ve thought that one puss* could be the reason for Matt to make sh*tty f*cking decisions?” “Must be one hell of a puss*,” Spade said, joining the conversation. My blood f*cking boiled at the thought of that many men attacking her at once. “What ya think, Queen? You think she’s got a golden puss* or something?” “I know it’s got me curious enough to want a test ride,” Eric so kindly shared. “What do you say, Alex? Let me get my dick wet inside that golden puss*.” I stopped the recording immediately. “Ah, yes,” I murmured, my voice rough. “There’s the golden puss* you spoke of, Jaybird.” “I didn—” “Shut up!” I roared, nearly shaking the goddamn walls. “Spade and Hart are already one goddamn hit short of death. Now I think the three of you should join them.” “Matt—” Eric tried to interrupt, his voice blatantly placating. “You’re off f*cking everything. King. The laundering. All of it.” “But we’ve been working the King deal for a year! That’s supposed to be most of my salary.” I took off my jacket and hung it on the hook behind me, rolling up each sleeve one at a time. “Good thing you don’t need money when you’re dead.” “Matt,” Mickey said, starting to panic. “It was all just teasing, really.”

“That’s teasing to you?” I questioned. “No wonder you never get goddamn laid.” Alex let out a startled laugh in the back of the room. Cal chuckled. “Come on, Alex. I think it’s time for us to go. Uncle Matty is about to get messy.” I nearly rolled my eyes at his theatrics, but instead, met Alex’s sea-blue hue once more before she stepped outside. My weakness is strong.

“ARE YOU AWAKE?” MATT WHISPERED into my ear. My eyelids fluttered as they struggled to open, and I squinted to bring the darkened room into focus. Once my vision adjusted, I found him lying on the bed beside me, completely naked and fresh out of the shower. It’d been two days since Matt had confronted Eric Queen and his cronies about the video. I didn’t know the details of the exchange that’d occurred after I’d left the room with Cal, but I knew it wasn’t a sugary sweet kind of conversation. Matt had been pissed to say the least, and from what I could tell, so had Cal, Hare, and Damien. They hadn’t taken the words that were said to me lightly, but I knew there was more to the story than just that. And I had no doubts it had everything to do with Charles King. From what I’d deduced, Queen had gone rogue with that politician and possibly tried to make a deal with the devil that would f*ck Matt, and most likely, Wonderland, Inc. over. Needless to say, Eric Queen and his posse were no longer under the organization’s umbrella. Hell, those men were pretty f*cking lucky if they’d walked out of Matt’s office alive. Matt hadn’t told me, and, for once, I hadn’t asked. “What time is it?” I asked, voice still raspy with sleep. “Too early for you to have to wake up.” He brushed a piece of hair out of my eyes, and that subtle, soothing touch nearly put me back to sleep. “Then why are you up?” I whispered as my eyes fell closed again. “I’ve got to leave town for a few days, little one.” My eyes popped open. “Leave town?” He nodded, his beautiful black lashes looking even longer as his eyes went soft on me. It was apparently obvious immediately that I didn’t want him to go. It was perhaps even more obvious that he liked that I didn’t want him to go. I sat up in bed, and the sheet fell down and pooled around my naked hips. “Like, right now?” He nodded again, but his eyes gleamed with a new light now that my breasts were

exposed. “Just some business I need to take care of.” “What kind of business?” I asked with only one motivation in mind: the more questions I asked, the longer it would take him to leave. “Important kind of business,” he avoided easily. He grinned and pulled me on top of his big, naked body, and a bolt of excitement tightened my entire body. As I ran my fingers over the firm muscles of his chest, my mind mulled over the idea of him leaving. I really didn’t like it. And worse than that, once my brain had latched on to that thought process, it spiraled into worst-case scenarios. What if Matt was going to do something dangerous? What if he didn’t come back to me? My stomach clenched at the thought. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and pulled myself tighter to his chest. “Promise me something?” “Anything,” he whispered. Love, tenderness, openness—it all lived right there in his eyes. “Promise me you’ll come back home.” “Promise.” He slid his hand under my chin and lifted my eyes to his. “Everything will be okay, little one.” I stared into his eyes and tried to digest his words. Tried to believe them. Tried to let them soothe this unrelenting, ominous feeling that had taken up residence in my gut. “You’re still worried,” he said, smoothing the wrinkles between my brows with his finger. “Why are you worried?” Because I feel like something isn’t right. I shrugged, shaking it off. I was no Ms. Gypsy, and my feelings didn’t translate into fortune. This was Matt. He could take care of himself. “I guess I just don’t like the idea of you not being here.” “It’s only a few days.” He smiled softly, teasing, “No need to get dramatic about it.” “Hey, I’m not dramatic.” I playfully tapped his chest with my hand, and he chuckled, each hearty laugh vibrating against my skin. “Promise me something?” he asked. I smirked. “Stealing my lines?” But he wasn’t teasing as he told me, “Take care of yourself while I’m gone.” “Promise.” I kissed the corner of his mouth. “Tell Jack Knave I said hello while you’re there.” Matt’s gaze snapped to mine. “What did you just say?” “I said, tell Jack Knave I said hello,” I repeated. Even though he’d never actually told me that information, I just knew. Between the sh*t that’d went down with Eric Queen and Charles King, and the fact that the political nominations for the next presidential election were just around the corner, it didn’t really feel like that difficult of an assumption to make.

“If you knew where I was going, then why did you ask?” He raised a brow, and I shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to play coy.” On a shocked laugh, Matt flipped me onto my back and hovered his large frame over my body. His honey gaze searched my eyes. “Where do you think I’m going?” “I know that wherever you’re going, it has everything to do with Jack Knave and getting him his presidential nomination,” I answered, and Matt’s soft grin grew wider with each word. Before I could add anything to that response, he crashed his lips down on mine, taking my mouth in a slow, deep, delicious kiss. When he pulled away, I was breathless. “Holy moly. What was that for?” I asked through a giggle. “Because I couldn’t not kiss you,” he responded simply, and I smiled. “You surprise me, Alex, in the best goddamn way. And no one f*cking surprises me. But you, you disarm me. Enchant me. Endear me to my f*cking core. You just get me. Hell, your connecting the dots on the Knave situation shouldn’t have come as a surprise.” “And why’s that?” I tilted my head to the side. “Because you’re the only one for me.” I sucked in a breath at his words. “I love you, Alex.” “I love you, too.” Three little words, but so much meaning. Matt wasn’t the kind of man who tossed out I love yous. If he said something, he meant it, through and through. And when it came to love, I was the same kind of girl. It was a vow. With his big arms wrapped around my back, holding me close to his body, Matt kissed me again. I kissed him right motherf*cking back. But it only lasted a few quiet, peaceful moments before he had to finish getting ready to head out. “Stay in my apartment while I’m gone,” he instructed as he shrugged on a white dress shirt. “And listen to Cal. He’s staying back to keep an eye on you.” “Aye-aye, Captain!” I teased and saluted him. “Your wish is my command.” “Smartass,” he muttered. “You’re lucky I’m already running behind or else those legs of yours would be spread and I’d be f*cking the sarcasm right out of you.” I giggled and blew him a kiss from my kneeled position on the bed. “Later?” “Later.” Matt smirked. “Three days, to be exact. My sweet c*nt better be wet and ready for me when I get back.” I winked. “You got it.”

Fifteen minutes and a slow, mind-altering kiss to my lips later, Matt had said his goodbyes, reminded me to stay in his apartment and listen to Cal, and headed out the door to catch a flight on the jet inscribed with Wonderland, Inc. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand and noted the time. Six in the morning. Jesus Christ, he was right, it was too f*cking early to be awake. As I snuggled back into his bed, catching the scent of his cologne on the sheets, I sighed into the silence of the room. God, I missed him already.

I’d spent most of my morning in Matt’s bed, tossing, turning and trying to find sleep to no avail. By the time the clock struck ten, I’d slid myself out of bed and tried to ease my dark and twisty thoughts of bad things to come. I didn’t know why my brain had fixated on that, but it had, and I was a mere victim to its stressful path. Focusing on the menial, simple tasks of the day, I’d made the bed, showered, eaten a bowl of cereal, and run down to my apartment to grab Deena, spare clothes, and pink nail polish. Once I’d gotten her settled inside Matt’s place and given her ample time to explore her surroundings, I updated him to her presence via a picture message. She lay on his side of the bed, her little kitty face relaxed in sleep. He’d responded back with amusem*nt. Matt: My second favorite puss*.

I’d laughed when I saw it. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was all that big a fan of cats, but he appeared willing to welcome her with open arms, even understanding when I’d have to leave his place to spend time with her in the evenings. But despite her sometimes sassy display of stubbornness, she did have the kind of adorable face that most people couldn’t resist. Me: Do you mind? I didn’t want her to sleep in the apartment alone. Matt: If it were up to me, you’d pack your sh*t and be permanently at my place. The cat included. Me: Are you saying you want me to move in with you?

Matt: I’m saying I want you with me all the time. Me: Wow…that’s a lot to process… Matt: I’d like to say I’ll give you time to think about it, but we both know how I operate… Me: Holy hell… Am I going to wake up tomorrow with movers bringing all of my crap into your place? Matt: If I were you, I’d be open to all possibilities. Me: You’re mad. Matt: For you. Me: Ditto. Matt: You keeping your promise? Me: I could ask you the same question. Matt: Behave, little one. I’m not opposed to spankings when I get home. Me: Was that supposed to be scary? Matt: Are you feeling scared? Me: Nope. But I am feeling something… Matt: Later, sweetheart. Me: I can’t wait for later.

I’d added a rare selfie to the message, me blowing him a kiss, and he responded with a heart emoji and the words, My Alex. I’d giggled over the idea of big, bad Matt Hadder using emojis, but I chose to tease him about it on a different day. One that hadn’t included him on a trip to close one of the

biggest deals that had ever occurred with the Wonderland organization. Bored with TV. Bored with watching Deena sleep. Bored with pretty much everything, I decided to paint my nails. By the time I’d trimmed, clipped, filed, and polished both my fingers and toes, Deena had woken up from her coma and was pacing around Matt’s kitchen, impatient meows leaving her lips every ten seconds. I glanced at the clock on the stove and saw that it was ten till six. Deena was hungry. And like a moron, I’d forgotten to grab her food from my apartment. “Stay patient, little diva,” I said and slipped on a pair of flip-flops. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with your food.” She watched me curiously as I grabbed my keys out of my purse and headed out the door. I was surprised not to see Cal playing bodyguard outside the door, but I figured he had to take a bathroom or food break. It wasn’t like the man could just stand outside Matt’s apartment twenty-four hours a day. I rode the elevator down to my floor, and as I stepped off the cart, my right foot slipped on something and I nearly fell flat on my face. I looked at the ground, and when I lifted my foot up, I spotted the culprit. Face down, a playing card was stuck to the bottom of my flip-flop. I smiled to myself as I removed it from the sole of my sandal and flipped it right-side up in my hands. The Queen of Hearts stared back at me. If you’d ask Aunt Delores what the Queen of Hearts stood for, she’d tell you it was the worst card you can get out of the deck. Ominous. Dark. The opposite of rainbows and happy thoughts. But I didn’t put too much stock in her card meanings…right? My brain threatened to take the dark and twisty path again, and I shook off the thoughts of crazy, setting my focus on grabbing Deena’s food from my apartment. With a turn of my key, I stepped inside and headed for the kitchen. I tossed a few cans of Fancy Feast and filled a Tupperware container with dry food. As I packed everything into a reusable grocery bag, I took one last glance at the clock. 6:00 p.m. on the dot. Surely, Deena was starved and meowing like a madwoman upstairs. But before I could make my way back to the elevator, I was struck with a crushing, excruciating pain to the back of my head, and my knees hit the tile of my kitchen. Disoriented, I looked around the room for the cause, the reason, but stars danced in front of my eyes and kept my vision blurred. “Goodnight, Alex,” a familiar voice whispered into my ear. And then my world turned black.

“IT’S ALL SET. ALL YOU have to do is sit back and relax and enjoy the celebration party I’ve got planned for you,” I told Jack Knave with a smirk. Since our meeting in Mexico, we’d spoken on the phone and via encrypted email a few times. He’d warmed considerably to the idea of all of the opportunities I could provide him, and most of all, he liked the idea of having access to the power we held in our worldwide network. “Tomorrow night at six, you’ll be a presidential nominee for the United States of America.” His smile deepened at the sound of it. I laughed. “Almost as good as ‘member of the Wonderland organization,’ huh?” Smart man that he was learning to be, he humored me. “It’s a close second.” My phone vibrated against my chest in the breast pocket of my suit jacket, so I held up a finger and stepped aside. Jack moved back to his campaigners, people who thought they were responsible for the coming victory, but were wrong. Cal’s name flashed on the screen. “What’s up?” I answered, knowing he wouldn’t call me tonight if it weren’t important. And he didn’t mince words. “Alex is gone.” “What the f*ck do you mean, she’s gone?” I nearly roared. “Gone where?” “I don’t know. I ran down to the doorman to accept delivery on a package for you, and when I came back, the only girl in your apartment was Deena.” “Did you go down and check Alex’s apartment?” “Not yet.” “Then f*cking go,” I ordered, feeling myself already turning into the meanest version of myself. If she wasn’t all right, I’d f*cking tear the whole world apart. “Call me back.” I hung up the phone and immediately dialed Alex’s number. It went straight to voice mail. “f*ck!” I shouted. Jack Knave smiled for the onlookers as he stepped closer to me, but

he asked me quietly, “Is there a problem?” My scowl was lethal. “Not for you.” Defensively, he held up a hand and then smartly moved on. As much as his business was now mine, mine wasn’t f*cking his. John Hadder said Hadder business was no one’s but their own. I’d always agreed with him, and now was no different. My phone rang again, Cal calling back, so I didn’t waste time putting the device to my ear. “Well?” “Cat food bagged up and on the counter, no Alex.” “Pull the recordings—” “I hate to be the one to tell you this, Matt, but you had them stop recording her apartment. Remember?” Goddammit! Nausea clawed at my stomach. “f*ck! Then f*cking call Hare, find out if he knows anything. I’ll call Damien. This f*cking reeks of Eric Queen and the two f*cking imbeciles he’s convinced to do his dirty work.” “What do we know if it’s them?” he asked, his voice like gritty sandpaper. “We know they’re motherf*cking dead,” I said, every syllable equally as poisonous. “I’ll check back.” “Cal,” I called, straining for patience and calm, and trying to keep my heart from beating out of my chest. “Yeah, boss?” “f*cking find her.” I’d worked hard to make sure this meant nearly as much to him as it did to me, letting him know her, letting him like her. “Yes, sir.” At the solemnity in his tone, I knew sacrificing just a little part of my Alex to him was worth it. My movements were clipped but no less efficient as I dialed Damien. He didn’t answer until the third ring, so by the time he did, I was f*cking pissed. “Hello?” “Dame, Eric and those other f*cks have Alex. What do you know about locations they might take her?” “What the f*ck? How do you know they have her?” “She went down from my apartment to get something from her own without Cal as guard. She didn’t come back up.” His voice was hesitant. “Matt, you know I respect you, but how can you be sure she

didn’t just run? She was still getting used to everything around here. It can be a lot for an outsider to take in. Maybe—” “Do. Not. f*cking question me. Do you understand me? Not when it’s this f*cking important. I know she didn’t run.” “I’m sorry, Matt,” he apologized immediately. “I’ll start looking into safe houses Eric, Mickey, or Jaybird might have off the grid.” “Don’t start looking, f*cking find them. This is her life we’re talking about, Damien, and none of us is going to be the reason it gets pissed away.” I ended the call before he could waste my time with anything else and scrubbed at my hair. I hated feeling f*cking powerless, and I suspected Eric knew that all too well. He’d love that I was away and unable to handle any of this sh*t myself. And my Alex. God. I’d unwittingly made her vulnerable. She knew everything. And now they were going to use it against her. I took off at a run for my car. I needed to get to the airport. I needed to get home. I needed to find my Alex before it was too f*cking late.

I AWOKE TO A POUNDING headache. No. It was worse than that. It was a f*cking skull ache. Hell, my entire face felt like it was ten seconds away from exploding. “f*ck,” I muttered and attempted to lift my hand to my head, but something prevented me. I fluttered my eyelashes open and found myself inside of an empty warehouse. Dark, damp walls, the musty smell of mold and mildew assaulting my nostrils, and I grimaced. My vision blurred, and I blinked several times to regain focus, while simultaneously gritting my teeth from the excruciating pain even that slight movement of my eyelids had caused. The giant warehouse came back into clear view. I didn’t know this place. I’d never been to this place. Hell, I didn’t even know how I’d gotten to this place. My eyes grew wide, and like a f*cking kick drum, my heart pounded relentlessly inside of my chest. I moved my gaze around the room and then down my body. I was sitting in a chair, my hands were somehow tied behind my back, and handcuffs linked my ankles together. Once I spotted the dried blood clinging to my white tank top, I inhaled a shaky breath. What in the f*ck had happened? How had I gotten here? I searched my memories. Over and over, I combed through my thoughts, recollections, trying to find the reasons. When I stared down at my flip-flop-covered feet, a visual of the Queen of Hearts playing card stuck to the bottom of my sandal filled my mind. And then, my faucet of memories opened up, flowing fast and relentless. Matt’s apartment. Deena meowing. The elevator. The Queen of Hearts. My apartment. Deena’s food. White-hot pain to the back of my skull. And then, two words. “Goodnight, Alex.” Had I been kidnapped? Fear urged me to fight the constraints of my handcuffs, but it useless. I was bound, restrained, and completely helpless. f*ck. A door creaked open, and footsteps echoed inside the bare and spacious room. “Look who’s awake.”

I looked over my shoulder to find Eric Queen walking toward me, an evil smile on his face. He walked toward me in easy strides until he stared down at me with a sinister grin cresting the corners of his lips. “Sleep well?” “What in the f*ck is going on?” I spat, but my anger only amused him. He laughed. Hard. Dramatic. Directly in my face. “Now is that any way to talk to the man holding your life in his hands?” God, this wasn’t good. Tears threatened to prick my eyes, and I swallowed against the thickness creeping up my throat. Stay strong, Alex. No matter what, you have to stay strong. The door creaked open again, and more footsteps followed. Moments later, I was surrounded by Eric and five other men—Jaybird, Pidge, Spade, Bobby Hart, and Diamond. All dressed in sophisticated, classic suits. All Wonderland associates. Well, at least, they were Wonderland associates. It was safe to say after this standoff, no matter the outcome, their names would never be associated with Wonderland again. “See,” Eric started and rubbed at his chin as if in deep thought. “Matt Hadder has become a problem. We’re not happy with the direction he’s taking our organization. He’s making decisions with his co*ck instead of his head. Mostly thanks to you, Alex.” “So you kidnapped me to prove a point?” Eric looked at Jaybird, and both of them chuckled. “No, you little c*nt, we kidnapped you to get back at Matt for all of the bullsh*t he’s put us through over the past six months. Consider yourself a sacrifice, so to speak. For a greater cause. And in this case, you’re dying in the name of f*cking over Matt Hadder.” I blinked past the wetness in my eyes. God, how had everything gotten so f*cked? Eric Queen wanted revenge. For what, I wasn’t sure, but deep down, I knew it was bullsh*t, most likely stemming from greed, envy, his own selfish motives. This was a power trip taken to the f*cking extreme. Queen had taken notice of Matt’s and my relationship. He knew we were strong together, a package deal, if you will. Hell, love made you strong. It made you weak, vulnerable. Love exposed your soul. And Eric had just played his strongest hand against Matt’s weakness. His version of the Queen of Hearts, kidnapping what Matt Hadder loved—me. Jaybird leaned forward, hijacking my personal space. The scent of whiskey and smoke emanated from his breath. “How does it feel knowing that, in a roundabout way, Matt is the one that ended your life?” “It’s not him. It’s you,” I spat. “You’re the ones who f*cking kidnapped me. Matt won’t be pulling the trigger. You will.” “Who says we’re gonna merely pull a trigger?” Pidge asked with a raise of his brow. “I

prefer to prolong the pain, drag it out, make it last.” Eric grinned. “And, if we’re discussing the finer details, Matt will be the one who takes the fall for your death. I can assure you of that, baby,” he whispered into my ear and ran a slimy, vile hand between my breasts. I fought against my restraints. “Don’t f*cking call me baby, you piece of sh*t.” “Oh, she’s feisty,” Pidge chimed in. “I guess I can see why Matt keeps her around. I bet she catches fire when she’s riding a co*ck.” “f*ck you.” “Oh, is that an offer?” He grinned, and I wanted to vomit. Pidge started to move toward me, but Bobby Hart grabbed his attention. “It’s time,” he announced and set his laptop on an abandoned, wooden table toward the left of the room. The men circled it, all of their attention focused on the screen. I looked around at my surroundings, desperate for a way out of the death sentence that was my current situation. I noted a large, rusty clock hanging on the wall to the right of me. 6:00 p.m., it read, but the second hand didn’t budge a centimeter. f*cking hell. That thing had probably ticked its last minute decades ago. I had no idea what time it was, but from the dark hints of twilight peeking through the large windows of the warehouse, I knew night was upon us. I just didn’t know how late it was or how long I’d been here. Hell, with the way my skull ached, this could’ve been day two for all I knew. “Turn it up,” Eric muttered. Moments later, the sounds of a newscaster talking about an election echoed inside the warehouse. “This race for the presidential nomination was close,” the newscaster said. “Knave and King have been neck and neck, but we’re ready to announce the winner.” “Here we go,” Eric said and rubbed his palms together. “First, King with the nomination, and then Matt in the f*cking grave.” The men laughed and chattered over his words, but when the newscaster announced, “Jack Knave has won the presidential nomination,” the room went deadly silent. “We’re so f*cked,” Diamond spat and ran two frustrated hands through his hair. “What the f*ck, Queen?” Jaybird questioned through gritted teeth. “How in the f*ck did this happen?” With his back to me, Eric stood frozen in his spot, seemingly without any answers. But I knew the answer: Matt Hadder. He’d pulled through. And most likely, he’d been one step ahead of Queen the entire time. Although, I doubted he predicted they’d planned on offing me, but my intuition said my man knew what he was doing. My mouth turned up into the smallest of smiles at the thought.

“Are you smiling?” Queen shouted toward me. “Are you f*cking smiling, you c*nt?” “I doubt it.” I shrugged. “I mean, it’d be an odd situation for me to be smiling about. Kidnapping and death aren’t usually my choice in happy thoughts.” He stalked toward me. “So not only do we have a c*nt, but a sarcastic, mouthy c*nt at that.” I didn’t respond. “He threw it, didn’t he?” he questioned. “He made a deal with Knave and switched teams.” Still, I didn’t respond. “I know you know.” He got in my face. “So, either you can just tell me what you know now, or I can make f*cking sure you tell me.” His threats of torture had my heart racing beneath my ribs. This wasn’t bingo at the church with Aunt Delores, and a knuckle sandwich wasn’t going to be my punishment. I shut my eyes tightly and let Matt’s voice play in my mind. I need my weakness to be strong. I focused my thoughts toward my Matt. I thought about the way he looked at me. I thought about his smile and his teasing comments. I thought about the way he cared for me, protected me. He was my talisman, and somehow, someway, I’d found my strength— his strength—in this awful situation. I wasn’t going to give Eric Queen anything. This man deserved nothing, not from me and certainly not from Matt. My lips were sealed, even if it meant I had to suffer through my silence. Steadfast, I stared into the eyes of this pathetic man and remained mute. And I kept my gaze resolute. Hard. Determined. It was like a vexing of my soul, for what I felt in that moment wasn’t human. It was twisted and grotesque, but it was something strong. It burned hot like fire, lacing my veins and creeping up my spine. All I could feel was the desire to hate. I hated Eric Queen. I hated him for being a coward. I hated him for his misguided ideas of being a savage. And most of all, I hated him for what he was trying to do to the one person who meant the most to me. I’d rather die than give this wretched excuse for a man anything but my disdain. The bitterness of it resided in my stomach, waiting to be spat out of my mouth in foul and vulgar words. But I wasn’t going to say them. I was going to screech them with every ounce of my breath that resided in my lungs. “f*ck you, you motherf*cking pathetic piece of sh*t!” I shrieked at the top of my lungs. “You can go f*ck yourself!” Eric started laughing maniacally at my outburst, and while his eyes stayed locked with mine, he slowly, so f*cking slowly, lifted his gun to my head, pressing it harshly into the temple of my skull.

“Last chance, c*nt,” he whispered into my ear. Tears filled my eyes and streamed down my cheeks, but I embraced them. Even this sadness, because of my resilience, was life. “Last f*cking chance,” he repeated. “It’s now or never, little bitch.” “Never,” I whispered fiercely. He nudged the gun into my skin harshly. “What was that?” “I said, never,” I repeated, raising my voice high enough that it bounced off the walls of the warehouse. Queen moved his face directly in front of mine, his harsh gaze as black as a desolate night’s sky. “I hope he kills you,” I muttered and purposely spat in his face. My saliva dripped down his cheek and onto his shirt, coating the collar unceremoniously and sending a thrill down my spine. Eric’s glare was murderous, and I shut my eyes tightly in response, anticipating the last moments of my life. And then, the darkness fled in.

Tick, tock, tick, tock, is there any time left on the clock?

EVEN THOUGH THE PAPER SHOULD have been smooth as silk in my hands, it felt razor-sharp against my skin. Aside from Eric and whatever f*cking ridiculous drugs he was on to think a cutesy note like this one was the way to go, the meaning was still serious. They had my Alex, and they didn’t just have her as a bargaining chip—not that I suspected they would. They’d seen me be ruthless too many times, cried at the hands of my savagery themselves on too many occasions, and they didn’t mean to maim. They meant to kill. I only hoped their stupidity and need for show would give me enough time to alter Alex’s foretold fate. I’d been in touch with Cal several times since boarding my plane back from DC, but he hadn’t given me much information. I hoped desperately that it was because he didn’t have it—and not for some bullsh*t reason about me keeping my cool. When the only woman you’ve ever loved was with men who hated you, hated her, and were too stupid to be afraid to act on it, it wasn’t the time to keep your cool. You raged, you plundered, you killed and threatened, anything you had to do to make sure she came out of it alive. Nonetheless, we were finally on our way to my Alex. Harrison and Damien had followed every lead on every safe house we had and had come up with nothing. It was only when Cal finally went back to my apartment, set to retrace her steps and do his best to trail her, that he noticed the package he’d gone down to get sitting on the counter. I didn’t often receive packages at my home because I made it a point not to divulge my address. But neither Cal nor I had been clearheaded enough during our first conversation to realize what an anomaly it was. Now, the package opened and nothing more than a clock with an address on the back and this note inside, we barreled toward our destination at high speed. And thanks to friends in high places, we even had a police escort—the police chief, at that.

He probably wouldn’t appreciate what I planned to do when I got there, though. “Easy,” Cal murmured as I crumpled the note into a ball so tight I expected it to spontaneously combust. “f*ck easy,” I said back. “They’re going to f*cking suffer.” “Come on, Matt. I know they’re going to f*cking suffer. I’ll help you make them suffer. I might even exhume their bodies and make them suffer again. I’m just reminding you to be smart about it.” “You think you have to remind me?” I snapped. “I think Alex is the kind of woman that you lose your head over, and with good reason. I think she’s the kind of woman you feel about rather than think. And I think I care enough about both of you to watch your f*cking back.” I sighed. “Fine. If you’re going to be all f*cking poetic about it, I’ll be smart. Jesus.” “Good. Now get ready. We’re only two minutes out. Chief Kerik is set to pull off in thirty seconds, and from there, we’re on our own.” “Good. He’s not going to want to see this part anyway.” “Yeah, I think he understood that after one look at your face. If I didn’t know you, I’d be pissing myself just looking at you.” “Enough telling me you love me, Cal. Just drive.” “I don’t have to.” “What? Why?” “Because we’re here.” I looked out the window immediately, the big, run-down warehouse dark on the outside with lights shining brightly from inside. It’d be time for sunrise in a few hours, and part of me wished with its arrival, the sun would wash away everything that had transpired in its absence. “Let’s go,” I said, jumping from the car before Cal could try to talk me out of it and into focus. I moved quickly but quietly, taking cover on the side of the building to survey the surroundings before making any moves to breach the inside. Damien and Hare came out of the darkness. “No one outside,” they told me, evidently having gotten here and done surveillance first. I glared at Cal. He’d obviously held on to knowledge of the note for a little while. He shrugged. “It’s like they want you to come inside,” Hare observed. “Probably a setup.” “I’m sure. But there’s no way I’m letting my dick swing out here while Alex is in there suffering or worse.” Damien’s jaw went hard. “We’ll go in together. Hare and I will each take out Mickey

and Jaybird. Cal can handle the three underlings if they’re there, and you can deal with Eric.” “Fine,” I grunted. Anything to get the f*ck inside. After a brief argument, everyone but me decided I should go in last. “I’m really hating this democracy bullsh*t,” I muttered, and Cal, the asshole, had the audacity to laugh. “I just bet you are.” “Let’s go.” As a group, we moved to the door, listening briefly for activity on the other side before storming it at once. My ears rang as a cacophony of gunfire roared out inside the oversized, empty space, and everything slowed down to hyperawareness. Mickey and Jaybird went down nearly immediately, the thud of their bodies barely breaking through the remaining gunfire, and Bobby, Diamond, and Spade didn’t even get their guns out before hitting the ground. Jesus Christ, Cal was one ridiculous son of a bitch. All of their guns swung to Eric as they realized I hadn’t taken him out. “Wait,” I commanded. Eric’s smile was evil as he looked from me to a lifeless-looking Alex. Her blond hair hung in big curls and her face seemed peaceful, but the rest of her sagged and sank in the chair like she’d crumble at any minute. I found instant relief from the rise and fall of her chest. It was slow. But it was there. Time was still on my side. “Why?” I asked, one word voicing the only thing I cared about from Eric f*cking Queen. This was about more than simple power. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was something. Eric’s smile turned bitter. “Because I should have been you.” I rolled my eyes, and he shouted, “f*ck you! I should have been you, you piece of sh*t. Little Matty Hadder, perfect son to John. You don’t know what it was like to be the son he hid.” Cal laughed. “You’re not John Hadder’s son.” “Yes, I am,” Eric disagreed as I studied the familiar lines of his face in a new light. His stature was much smaller than mine or John’s, no doubt a trait of his mother, but something dangerously similar to my father lived in the line of his jaw. “My mother was upper-class, young. The complete opposite of your f*cking whor* of a mother,” he spat directly toward me. “They were together once, but according to her, John thought I was better off outside of Wonderland. He felt like my mother and her wealthy family could provide me with a better life than he could—normal.” He laughed harshly. “Whatever the f*ck that means. But then he finds out Matt’s trashy mom killed herself, and all of sudden you’re the son he never had. Because he f*cking pitied you, and the fact that your whor* of a mother couldn’t even keep herself alive, you became the gold fortune, the one he’d groom to take over Wonderland. But it should have been me. It should have f*cking been

me!” “I knew you were his son,” I lied, knowing nothing would hurt Eric more than to feel even more worthless than he already did. “But John hated you. Always did until the day he died.” “f*ck you!” “No, Eric. f*ck you. Why do you think he wanted to keep you out of the organization so badly?” His eyes glistened. “It wasn’t for your benefit. It was for his. I only took you on because I felt bad for you. f*cking pathetic Eric Queen.” He made a sudden move toward Alex, and a single shot rang out. I’d finally made my move. But it wasn’t the kill shot. He needed to suffer. Blood oozed from his shooting hand as he lay on the floor and cradled it, and Cal was on him in a second. Landing a kick to his ribs about a millisecond after kicking his gun away. And now, I had a choice. Stay there with Eric, torture him until I could see straight again, until all the blood left his f*cking body. Or leave with Alex and get her help. Good thing Cal was handy with a pipe wrench.

POUNDING, THROBBING, AN ACHE THAT started in my head and ended in my toes—those were the first sensations I felt. Constant pain pierced my nerve endings, and I grimaced from the intensity. My head felt like it had literally been through a wringer—and then run through it two more times for good measure. I blinked through the fog, through the pain, and forced my eyelids up. Though my eyes were open, I couldn’t think of why. I couldn’t understand where I was or how I’d gotten there. The room, my hands, the woman standing above me, everything blurred together like a kaleidoscope of confusion. My heart pounded inside of my chest, and the emptiness in my mind only brought frustration. Panic. It was as if a shot of adrenaline had been emptied into my veins. I shut my eyes tightly and focused on calming my breaths. In, out. In, out. Deep and slow. Eventually, my heart eased into a steady rhythm, and my lungs were content with simple, unhurried breaths. “Alex,” a female voice filled my ears. “Can you hear me, Alex?” My eyes opened again. Like two flashlight beams, the new temporal inserts provided enough light and focus to illuminate whatever I looked at. It was like being shown the forest one tree at a time in a confusing memory game. I squinted my gaze to get the full picture. I was in a small room. The walls were cream. The door to the room was brown, dull and lackluster in its appearance. A TV hung from the ceiling, and just below it, was a window giving the view of the world below. In the corner were two chairs, frayed with wear and tear. I moved my gaze down my body, taking in the white sheets, the blue gown, the IV taped to my wrist, and the probes connected to my chest and finger that led to the monitors beside me. They beeped their introduction, and my mind finally connected the dots. I was in the hospital. So this was either yet another real f*cking bummer of a dream, or I was alive.

A woman came into view again. Sarah, RN, her name tag read, and a stethoscope hung loose around her neck. She stood beside my bed, looking down at me softly. “How are you feeling?” she asked and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my right arm. “Honestly, I’m not sure.” My voice strained against the dryness in my throat. I swallowed against it and tried to clear a smooth path with a quick ahem from my vocal cords. “That’s understandable.” “I’m in the hospital,” I announced dumbly, but her answering smile was gentle. “Yes. You’re at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.” “How long have I been here?” “Just a little over twenty-four hours.” “Holy hell,” I muttered. “I’ve been unconscious for an entire day?” “You suffered a pretty bad concussion,” Sarah explained and tapped the monitor screen. The blood pressure cuff on my arm filled with air until it tightened firmly around my skin. She watched the screen for the final result. “So, that’s why my head feels like someone tried to remove my brain with an ice pick?” She smirked. “It’s probably a combination of the concussion and sutures you needed.” “Sutures?” My eyes grew wide, but instantly, I grimaced. Even that little movement hurt like a motherf*cker. “You have about ten sutures on the back of your head,” she said, and immediately, I lifted my hand to feel the dry bandage secured over the base of my skull. Tears pricked my eyes when I felt the matted, mess of locks that used to be my hair. Hesitantly, I danced my fingers across the edge of the bandage, feeling the outline of where full strands turned into barely there prickly hairs. “Did they shave my head?” I whispered. Sarah’s eyes softened at the corners, and she gripped my hand gently. “Don’t worry,” she reassured. “They only had to shave some of your hair off to make it easier for Dr. Winters to suture the wound. And, if you wear your hair down, no one will even be able to tell.” A shaved head was nothing in comparison to my life. The outcome could have been a hell of a lot worse. And the more memories that started to come back to me, the more I couldn’t believe that I was actually here, alive. I’d thought the instant I’d shut my eyes tightly, with Queen’s gun pressed to my head, that it would be my last. Somehow, I’d beaten the odds. Now, I just needed to find Matt. Does he even know I’m in the hospital?

f*ck. Is he even okay? Is he alive? I shuddered at the thought and started looking around the room for my purse or cell phone. “Your boyfriend is really worried about you,” Sarah said, and I moved my gaze back to hers. “He’s been at your bedside ever since you arrived. Only leaving for bathroom or food breaks. I’m sure he’ll be coming back any minute.” Before I could open my mouth to ask her if his name was Matt, a gloriously familiar voice caught my attention. “You’re awake.” I looked up to find Matt standing in the doorway of my room. Dark circles framed his eyes, and his normally, crisp, sophisticated clothes were rumpled with wrinkles. He looked like he’d been through the wringer. God, he was f*cking beautiful. “You’re okay,” I whispered back, and tears pricked my eyes again. But this time, they didn’t stay constrained behind my lids. They flowed freely down my cheeks and onto my hospital gown. “f*ck, Alex,” he muttered and rushed toward me. He didn’t stop until he was kneeling beside my bed with my hands interlocked with his. He leaned forward and brushed his nose against mine before pressing his lips to the corner of my mouth. “God, I was so worried,” he whispered against my skin. “So f*cking worried.” “I’m just glad you’re here.” “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, sweetheart.” He kissed me softly on the lips before looking at my nurse. “How is she doing?” “She’s doing well,” Sarah answered with a soft smile. “Her vitals are stable. Her assessment shows no abnormalities. I’ll have Dr. Winters come and do her evaluation. We might be able to discharge her today,” she updated and removed the blood pressure cuff from my arm. “Push the call button if you need anything. Otherwise, I’ll give you two a minute,” she added and left the room, shutting the door with a quiet click. Matt placed both of his hands on my cheeks and gazed into my eyes. “For a minute there, when I saw you unconscious, tied to that f*cking chair, I thought I’d lost you.” “You were there?” “Yes,” he answered, and his mouth turned down into a grim line. He shut his eyes. “But I was almost too late.” He shut his eyes, and I reached up to caress his cheek. “But you weren’t,” I whispered and reached up to caress his cheek. He opened his gaze, and his eyes locked with mine again. We stared at one another for a long, poignant moment, and the only thing I could feel in that moment was grateful. For the way things had gone. For being alive. For Matt. “I love you,” I whispered, and a smile kissed his mouth. “I love you too.” He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine again, gently, softly, and with nothing but love and tenderness. No matter what he did with Wonderland, no matter the bad things I knew he was capable of—to me, he would always be my safe

place. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Relief. Gratitude. Love. The beeping of the monitors was the only sound in the room as we savored the sweet silence. When you loved someone, sometimes words didn’t need to be said. Sometimes, the act of simply looking at one another spoke more than anything else. And I savored that moment. Well, I savored it for as long as my mind would allow. Until the questions of the why and the how started to filter into my brain. So much had happened. Some of it I understood, but some of it had left me reeling. I searched his eyes for a brief moment, and before I could say anything, ask anything, his mouth slowly morphed into a grin. “How badly do you want to know?” he asked, and I sighed. The bastard. I swear to God, he had some kind of secret device that read my mind. “How much am I allowed to know?” I responded, and he smiled. “Queen wasn’t just in it for the power. He had a real f*cking grudge against me.” I quirked a brow. “Apparently, he’s my brother,” he answered. My eyes went wide. “He’s your brother?” “Was my brother,” he corrected, and I fought the urge to grimace. What an awful way to find out someone was your blood relative. I could hardly wrap my brain around the f*cked-up scenario, much less imagine what it would feel like to be in Matt’s shoes. “Don’t waste time thinking about it, little one.” Matt cupped my face gently with his hand. “All that is important right now is you and me.” His words were gentle, but I knew he was done with the conversation. Maybe one day he’d want to talk about it, but right now wasn’t the time. “You’re right.” I pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “You and me. Together. That’s top priority number one.” He smirked. “I’m glad we’re on the same page, because next time I have to travel somewhere, you’re coming with me,” he said, and I quirked a brow. But he gave zero f*cks about my reaction, adding, “No arguments.” “I can’t just go following you around everywhere you go, Matt. That would be ridiculous.” He shook his head. “I don’t give a sh*t. From here on out, you’re with me. All the time.” “So, like, everywhere you go, I go? And vice versa?” He nodded. “That’s going to make gyno visits a little weird,” I teased, and he smirked. “I don’t give a f*ck,” Matt said through a soft chuckle. “I’m not taking any risks.

You’re too important to me.” His eyes turned serious, and he held my hand between both of his. “I’m not perfect, sweetheart, but I’d follow you into hell if that’s what it took to keep you safe. Not a single soul comes before you.” I felt my gaze soften, felt my heart blossom like a tulip and spread its roots inside my veins. Matt didn’t give me any time to respond to his beautiful words; he pressed another gentle kiss to my lips and then got to his feet. “Now, let’s get your cute little banged-up ass home.” Home. I smiled. With Matt by my side, I was already there.

“ALEX!” I CALLED, SORTING THROUGH the boxes littering my entryway with a scowl on my face. “Just a sec!” she called back from our bedroom. Cal was on the couch, drinking a beer, entirely too comfortable in his new role as Alex’s best friend and maid of honor. Honestly, it was some kind of twilight zone sh*t having Cal, a man I’d once watched remove someone’s eyelids while they were still alive, as my Alex’s favorite gal pal and confidant. It had been six months of bliss. One hundred and eighty days since Queen and his cronies’ diabolical plan had failed. Sure, it was a little jarring to find out the man who’d tried to destroy me, and kill the one person I loved the most in this world, was my brother, but I refused to let that revelation have an impact on me as a man. I’d looked into it. I’d confirmed it. But I didn’t let the truth settle into my soul. I didn’t let it change me or the memories I had of my father. I didn’t have the answers as to why he hadn’t bestowed the same life on his other son. All I knew was that John Hadder had taken me under his wing. He’d raised me. Loved me. Given me a generous start in life. I owed him nothing but my gratitude. I had no control over my father’s past decisions. Just like I’d had no control over Queen’s. I could only make my own. Sometimes, life handed you gold or it handed you sh*t, but no matter what, it always moved on. Over the past six months, Wonderland had experienced big changes in organizational structure, and every day, my little Alex and I grew stronger, closer. I loved that woman with an intensity that often stole my own breath. Wonderland had once been my life, but now, it played second fiddle to my one and only true love. She was and always would be my top priority. I’d proposed to her three days after I’d brought her home from the hospital. It also just so happened to be the same day I’d had all of her stuff moved in to my penthouse. Being the demanding bastard I was, I hadn’t even given her an option, merely hiring the movers

and settling her into my place before she even realized it was happening. Of course, she’d had a few sarcastic comments in response to that, but the instant I got down on one knee and asked her to spend the rest of her life with me, she’d changed her tune. My Alex might have been feisty as hell, but to her core she was also a little romantic softy. I loved that about her. Hell, I loved everything about her. In my eyes, she’d always be the most beautiful woman to me. Obviously, I was biased, but I guessed that was when you knew it was love, when your bias stemmed from absolute adoration. f*ck, if it were up to me, I would’ve married her the day I asked her, but my little softy wanted to plan our wedding. She wanted to pick out the flowers and the cake and her dream dress. She wanted it all, and I wanted to give her the world. As I glanced around the spacious living room of our new home in Beverly Hills, I sighed at the mess of boxes scattered across the floor. We’d hired movers to ease the process, but I had a feeling my woman’s stubbornness was the reason behind the current mess. “Where are the movers?” I yelled toward her again, and she huffed. “I said just a sec!” she called back from the upstairs. I turned to Cal and glared. “They were supposed to unpack everything too. Not just drop it and run.” He shrugged. “Alex wanted to do it herself. Something about never finding stuff again if she let them put it away.” I peered into the nearest box and scoffed, yanking out the half-used bottle of dish soap that sat on top. “Oh, yes. It’d be truly traumatizing if they put this soap under the kitchen sink where it belongs.” Cal laughed. “Hey, talk to her, not me.” Just then, Alex strolled in, her hair up in a high ponytail, a pair of short jean shorts barely long enough to be legal. Goddamn. Her smile for Cal was huge as she spied him on the couch. “Want another beer, Cal?” His grin was f*cking annoying. “Sure, Alex.” “He can’t have one,” I interjected. “He’s leaving.” “Oh, come on, Matt!” Alex teased. “You’re the one who says someone has to be here with me all the time.” “Yeah, and now I’m home, so bye, Cal.” Alex pouted as Cal laughed and stood from the couch. “All right. I’ll be heading out. We’ll talk about flowers tomorrow anyway, Alex,” Cal muttered. Alex smiled and clapped her hands together. “Yes! Flower market day! I can’t wait to pick out our wedding flowers.”

“Our wedding flowers,” I emphasized as she gazed lovingly at Cal. He laughed again, and she rolled her eyes. “Of course. Geez.” “Alex.” “Uh-oh, baby,” Cal mumbled. “Sounds like his serious voice.” “You know, I’m really not a fan of the chumminess between you two.” Alex giggled, skipping over to me and jumping into my arms. Both legs wrapped around my waist, and the hold her arms had on my neck was gratifyingly tight. “Don’t be jealous, Matt. I’m marrying you.” I squeezed her ass tightly as the door clicked shut behind Cal. “f*ck yeah,” I growled. “Mmm,” she moaned as I buried my face in her neck and began to suck. “Matt.” “Oh, yeah,” I said, grazing the line of her throat with my teeth. “I have to unpack,” she said, breathing heavily. “You wouldn’t have to if you’d let the movers do their job.” “They’re f*cking miscreants.” I shook my head and nipped at her plump lips. “They’re top dollar.” “Yeah, well, so was that apartment you moved me in to before, with sh*tty water and too high rent.” I guffawed. “We charged you less than you were paying for that sh*thole you lived in, you little con artist.” She blushed and smiled at once. “Yeah.” “How’s the rent now?” I asked, knowing she wasn’t paying a f*cking dime. Her smile was coy as she winked. “Still too high.” “That’s good,” I said, carrying her to the bedroom. “I know another way you can pay it off.” She giggled as I jockeyed around the boxes in the doorway and dropped her to the bare mattress. Impatient, I put my hands to her shorts and pulled them down. I only stopped when she grabbed me by the hair and forced it. Her face was doe-eyed and content, and I was lost. “I love you, Matt.” “You have no idea.”

LIKE A FINGER TO A trigger, visuals flashed before my eyes. My past. My present. A movie of my life. I was in San Diego. My aunt Delores and I searching for playing cards. Me sitting beside Randy on a worn-down sofa, mindlessly watching television and slowly losing myself in the abyss of mediocrity. Time slipping away from me. Then, I was in LA. Falling down down down down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Wealth. Extravagance. Sophistication. Drugs. Alcohol. Pleasure. Dirty deeds. Owed favors. Greed. Good deeds. Charities. Contribution. Wonderland. A paradox. Good and bad. Black and white. Everything and nothing at the same time. A place where the rich got richer and the poor benefited from other humans’ greedy, selfish desires. Nothing was off-limits. And everyone was mad. A place where every new encounter was a game. A puzzle to solve. Rules to learn. And consequences for learning or not learning those rules. Sometimes, the rules made sense. But sometimes, they didn’t. Then, Matt Hadder. My big, bad man. The day I’d met him. Following him inside to my first party. Falling in love with him. Nearly dying at the hands of Eric Queen. The twists. The turns. The ups and downs of our relationship.

Him moving me in to his apartment. Us, moving in to the home we’d picked out together. Matt, down on one knee, asking me to marry him. The visuals started to become harder to see, and I strived to keep them there. But it was useless; they became distorted, faded. No, please. I want to stay here. I want to live in these memories. “Alex, sweetheart. Wake up.” A muffled voice filled my ears, but it sounded so far away. And light, lots and lots of light, filled my view. I struggled against it, but the harder I shut my eyes, the brighter it became. Until, eventually, it consumed my focus. “Time to wake up, little one.” The voice was there again, but I still didn’t know who or where it was. Slowly, I felt my senses becoming aware. I wrapped my fingers around the soft fabric covering my body. It was my comforter and sheets. I was in my bed. I was dreaming. Or, I had been dreaming. But God, that dream had felt so real. Wait…was it all just a dream? Adrenaline spilled into my veins, and I popped my eyes open. Immediately, I spotted Deena at the foot of the bed, her plump, black body curled up by my feet. I looked around the room frantically, but besides my snoozing diva cat, it was empty. I shut my eyes again to get my bearings and tried to rid the cobwebs of sleep from my brain. And when I opened them, Matt stood in the doorway. Freshly showered and clad in only his briefs, he leaned against the doorjamb with his heart in his eyes. A giant smile consumed my face. Definitely not a dream. It was real. It was my life. Thank God. Instantly, I tossed the comforter off of my body and jumped out of bed. Three steps later, I closed the distance between us and all but threw myself into his arms. “Well, good morning, sweetheart.” He lifted me up, and I wrapped my legs around his waist before kissing him soundly on the mouth. Matt chuckled softly and met my eyes. “What was that for?” It wasn’t my typical reaction to being woken up. Normally, I moaned and groaned and demanded exponential oral gratification as a reward for my sacrifice. This time I’d still probably get around to demanding the oral—because, hello—but I was too grateful Matt was real to revel in any of my other petty details. “Because I love you.”

He grinned, his eyes twinkling in a way they only ever did for me. “Love you too.” Aggrieved that this moment would have to end, that I would eventually have to unwrap my hold on him, I shoved my face into the warm, cinnamon hum of his throat and mumbled. “What time is it?” “Time for you to get your little ass in the shower so we can get a move on,” he said, unknowing of how clingy I was feeling this morning, and set me to my feet. Fighting the knot in my throat, I rolled up onto my toes and pushed my lips to his once more. His affection melted right into my mouth, making my heart jump and my roiling stomach ease. He dusted the line of my abandoned lip with his thumb and held my eyes captive. “Alex?” “Yes?” I asked nearly breathlessly, so entranced by him I felt high. “Move.” The spell broke instantly, releasing me from its hold and allowing irritation to replace the very needy tension that’d taken over my body. Back to myself, I rolled my eyes, and he pinched my ass. “Ow!” Matt grinned and nudged me toward our bathroom. “You’ve got thirty minutes, little one.” “Thirty minutes for what?” I questioned with a hand to my hip. “It’s a surprise,” he answered vaguely, and I narrowed my eyes. “What kind of surprise?” “If I told you, I’d probably have to kill you.” “Very funny,” I retorted, and he just winked. “You’ve got thirty minutes to shower, pack, and get dressed for our flight,” he instructed in his all too familiar no nonsense voice. Thirty minutes to shower, pack, and get dressed for a flight? Obviously, he’d gone mad. I raised an eyebrow, and he chuckled. “Don’t worry, sassy pants, you’re already packed. Just get in the shower.” Forever inside my head, my fiancé had a way of always answering my silent questions. “Get out of my head, ya lunatic,” I muttered as I walked past him, and his answering chuckles followed me into the bathroom. The bastard.

I turned on the shower, and the sounds of Matt’s cell phone ringing echoed from the hall. “Hadder,” he answered on the second ring. A few moments later, and with the phone still pressed to his ear, he joined me in the bathroom. “Actually, we’re going to be off the grid for a few days. Heading out in about an hour. Our pilot is already waiting for us on the runway,” he said into the receiver and leaned a hip against the bathroom counter. Off the grid for a few days? I quirked an eyebrow in his direction, but Matt ignored me. Instead, while he continued his phone conversation, his eyes intently watched me undress. “Pervert,” I mouthed toward him, and he grinned. “Yeah…that should work,” he responded to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Tell President Knave we’re looking forward to it.” Matt pressed end on the call, and I quirked a brow. “Everything all right?” He nodded. “Yep.” “Is that what this trip is about? A meeting with President Knave?” He grinned. “Nice try, sweetheart.” “Oh, come on!” I stomped my foot against the tile floor of the bathroom. “Would you just tell me what in the f*ck is happening?” “Just get your sexy little ass in the shower.” “So there’s no meeting with Knave today, but eventually, there’s a meeting?” Matt laughed and just walked out of the bathroom before I could ask him anymore questions. But the truth of the matter was that Knave was indebted to Wonderland, Inc. for a long f*cking time. If it weren’t for Matt Hadder, he wouldn’t be sitting pretty inside the White House. We even had a few things coming down the pipeline that would require President Knave’s keen ability to repay favors, but apparently, today wasn’t the day we’d be capitalizing. When it came to Wonderland, the more games I’d played, the more I’d learned to adapt. The more I’d realized that sometimes things didn’t make sense. And most of the time, in life, things fell into the gray area. Not everything was black and white. Right or wrong. Sometimes, you just had to roll with the ups and downs and use every opportunity to learn something about yourself. I’d lost myself in San Diego. But in LA, I’d found myself again.

Inside Wonderland, I’d learned how to live, really live, for myself and by my own rules. Wonderland had opened my eyes. And Matt Hadder had opened my heart. For both, I’d forever be thankful. When it came to the organization, I was fully invested. The good. The bad. The dirty. I was involved in all of the details. Hell, sometimes, I was even the one making the deals. But it appeared that today, or the next few days for that matter, weren’t the time for deals. Secretly, I hoped that Matt had finally heard my silent pleas of forgetting the idea of a big wedding. The more I’d planned our upcoming nuptials, the more I’d started to realize that I just wanted to run away somewhere to get married. Just the two of us. Like Bonnie and Clyde. The way I felt it should be. But considering the fact that we’d already put a ridiculous amount of money on deposits for venues and flowers and caterers, not to mention the nonrefundable hotels and flights for out of town guests, I wasn’t so sure canceling the whole shindig was even possible. I guessed a girl could still dream, right?

After a short flight, the Vegas Strip was in sight out of my window as our plane landed on the runway. Instantly, my gaze turned to Matt who sat beside me, relaxed and comfortable in the leather reclining seats of his private jet. “Vegas?” I asked with a pointed brow. He winked. “Vegas, baby.” “But what in the hell are we going to do in Vegas?” I questioned, even though I was silently shouting, Please say we’re going to get married! He chuckled. “Oh, don’t act coy, sweetheart. We both know why we’re here.” I couldn’t stop the giant smile from consuming my face even if I wanted to. And before our pilot had taken off the seat belt sign, I unbuckled myself and dove into Matt’s lap. “Are you going to marry me?” I whispered giddily into his ear. He wrapped his arms around me and held me close. “How about, instead of asking questions, you press that little mouth of yours to mine and just focus on acting surprised?” “Deal,” I answered through excited giggles before kissing the hell out of him. God, I love this man. Master of my universe, always. He didn’t waste any time after that. The second we stepped off the plane, Matt instructed the driver to take us straight to an address off of Las Vegas Boulevard. Thirty minutes later, we were standing in front of the famous Graceland Wedding Chapel.

And, with Elvis serenading us, next thing I knew, I was walking down the aisle to the one and only man who’d ever really had my heart. His smile mimicked mine as he watched me close the distance between us. Happy. Proud. Love. His emotions, my emotions, they were one and the same. As I stared into the amber hue of his eyes, I knew, without a doubt, this was my Wonderland. He was my Wonderland. And the instant the words, “I do,” left my lips and my husband slid the ring down my left finger, I knew we were forever. “You may kiss the bride,” the chaplain said. Matt placed both hands onto my cheeks and cupped my face gently. “I love you, Alex Hadder,” he whispered and I melted. With tears streaming down my cheeks, and Elvis singing behind us, I kissed the hell out of my husband. We stayed in that moment for a long, long time. Not giving a single f*ck about the next couple waiting to get married, or if Elvis would run out of steam. Nope. We didn’t care about anyone else but us. It was perfect. Eventually, Matt leaned back with my favorite grin etched across my favorite mouth. “Let’s go, little one,” he said and took my hand into his. I followed my husband’s lead, back down the aisle and straight out the chapel doors until we reached the parking lot where a sleek f*cking ride sat out front. I didn’t know much about cars, but I had a feeling this one was special. I turned toward Matt in confusion as he opened the passenger door. “Is this yours?” “Technically, it’s ours.” He smirked. “And we’re going to enjoy our honeymoon in this baby.” “Where are we going?” “Wherever the road takes us.” He shrugged. “We’ll drive until I have to stop to slide my co*ck inside of my gorgeous wife.” I hopped into his arms, wrapping my arms and legs around his body. “I love you,” I whispered into his ear. “I love you too,” he said and gently pressed his lips to mine. This man. My husband. God, I was so in love with him. “Are you a bad girl, Alex?” he whispered into my ear. I leaned back to meet his eyes. “I’m not a bad girl,” I whispered back with a wink and, instantly, his lips crested into a smile as I repeated his words from so long ago. “But sometimes, I have to ask myself, what would a bad girl do?” “And what would a bad girl do tonight, sweetheart?” I pressed my lips to his, once, twice, and a third time before whispering into his ear,

“She’d hop into this sweet-ass ride and enjoy a Bonnie and Clyde style honeymoon with her husband.”

Love Alex, Matt, and the Wonderland gang? Get ready for MORE fairytale-inspired dark romantic comedies from us! #SleepingBrutey #Fall2017 #MaxMonroeTwistedFairytales BUT FIRST! Get SUPER excited! Because the final standalone book in the St. Luke’s Docuseries is coming soon! On August, 29th, 2017, Nick and Charlotte are headed your way! Preorder Dr. NEURO today! #DrNEURO #Aug29th #MaxMonroeRomCom Laughter and swoons guaranteed. ;) Stay up to date with them and us by signing up for our newsletter You may live to regret much, but we promise it won’t be this. Seriously. We’ll make it fun. If you’re already signed up, consider sending us a message to tell us how much you love us. We really like that. ;) You don’t want to miss Dr. Nick Raines, do you? #DrNeuro #DrNEUROtic #HeadvsHeart Follow us online: Website: Facebook group Camp Love Yourself Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

First of all, THANK YOU for reading. That goes for anyone who’s bought a copy, read an ARC, helped us beta, edited, or found time in their busy schedule just to make sure we didn’t completely drop the ball by being late. Yeah, that’s us—sliding in fifteen minutes behind schedule. Actually, that’s 95% of our characters too. We guess art imitates life. Thank you for supporting us, for talking about our books, and for just being so unbelievably loving and supportive of our characters. You’ve made this our MOST favorite adventure thus far. Normally, right here, in this spot, we usually continue to say our THANK YOUs. But we’re going to change it up a little. So, to everyone listed below, we would like to say THANK YOU! Our amazing readers. All of the awesome and supportive bloggers. Lisa. Amy. JoAnna & Sandra. Sommer. Stacey. Our Camp Members. #CLY Say whaaaat? ;) Our family. We love you guys. Thanks for putting up with us. AND we dedicate these songs to YOU guys! Now, keep in mind that the songs aren’t in any particular order, and some of them have nothing to do with anything (we just felt like listening to them), but we’re sure you’ll be able to find the ones that pertain to you. :) P.S. Anaconda is on there because Max likes to twerk to it. P.P.S. Or Whatta Man for that matter. Max likes to twerk to that one, too. P.P.P.S. Also, these last few “P.S.” parts are from Monroe. Fingers crossed they slip past Max’s eyes and make it to the final, published version! :)

P.P.P.P.S. Monroe is really the one who likes to twerk to all of these, but she’s insecure about it. You should send her messages telling her what a good twerker she is. I, Max, am really the rapper of the family. As always, all our love. XOXO, Max Monroe

Alex in Wonderland (Twisted Fairytales #1) - Max Monroe - PDF Free Download (2024)
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