A Fifth Avenue/Forbidden Story
I’m not going to stop. I’m going to drown in you, and then I’m going to do it again. And again. Until I’ve had my fill.
Zoe Brook has been sent to clean up a bad boy’s reputation. And that’s just fine—she knows all about hiding the sins of the past. But Hunter Grant, sports hero and renowned womaniser is so much…more than she ever expected.
Money, passion and power come as naturally to this man as the women who flock to his bed. But Zoe’s determined not to be another notch on his bedpost. So when Hunter turns his considerable focus and energy to seducing her, she draws on every sharp put-down in her arsenal. But with no sassy comebacks left, the final words on Zoe’s lips are…
Yes. Oh, yes.
Zoe Brook strode into the exclusive strip club, hidden away beneath a discreet sign on a side street in an otherwise upscale Manhattan neighborhood, like an avenging angel on the warpath at last.
It had taken almost seven years, but her revenge was within grasp.
She paid no attention to the dull-eyed bouncers who waved her through the doorway, much less the plastic smile of the hostess as she swept past the welcome desk. There were very few clients at this hour of the morning—10:17, last she'd checked—and that made it easy to find who she was looking for in the dimly lit, too-loud space, dotted here and there with the requisite poles and a handful of sleepy-looking dancers eking out halfhearted performances in the dark red gloom.
Not that her quarry was making any attempt to hide.
Hunter Talbot Grant III, one-time golden boy, dumb jock extraordinaire and current professional fuckup, sprawled on a plush booth in the corner of the otherwise sparsely populated club, neck deep in mostly naked women. Zoe's lips thinned as she took in the scene, which was as distasteful as she'd expected. The women giggled on each side of him, they shimmied in front of him, they writhed for his pleasure as if his table was its own stage and Zoe, dressed in her usual sleek sort of sheath dress and a tailored coat against the winter chill, was wearing more clothing than all of them put together.
"Good morning, Mr. Grant," she said crisply, eying the man himself in all his sordid glory. "You seem to have forgotten our nine-thirty meeting today."
It wasn't exactly a surprise that someone who currently ranked as the Most Hated Celebrity in America was a pig. In fact, Zoe was counting on it. Hunter Grant was the disgraced sports figure du jour, wealthy beyond measure and disreputable by choice, and strip clubs such as this one were his natural habitat. Pig was redundant.
"And you seem to be wearing entirely too many clothes."
His voice was a rough growl, deeply male and shot through with raw, velvet arrogance, which went with his very big, undeniably impressive body sprawled there in the booth, dripping with strippers. But he met her gaze as if they were alone and he was entirely sober, and there was suddenly a certain hum in the air, a kind of electric charge, that made her skin feel much too tight.
She ignored the odd sensation, keeping her gaze on him as if the shock of his intense physicality didn't seem to suck the air from all around him like a vacuum. Or as if she simply didn't notice it, because she shouldn't. Because she couldn't.
"It's a terrible habit of mine." She let her brows rise in challenge, because he was a man who'd played games for a living, and men like that lived for challenges of all kinds. They couldn't help it. And that meant she could use it against him. "I can't seem to break it."
"I recommend quitting cold turkey," he said with a dark gleam in his famously sky blue eyes, about which whole songs by pop princesses had been written over the years.
Zoe had dutifully downloaded every one of them over the past few weeks as part of her exhaustive research into the life and times and various offensive behaviors of Hunter Grant, the worst-behaved NFL quarterback in recent history. She needed to know every single thing about him if she was going to use him like her own, personal weapon.
And she was. He just didn't know it yet.
"And what have you quit that makes you an expert on the subject?" she asked now. "Besides football, I mean."
"I didn't quit football. I was fired. With extreme prejudice. You can read about it in all the tabloids."
"I'm thinking, then, that maybe you're not the best person in the world to talk to about quitting things."
Hunter's mouth curved. "I don't give a shit what you quit or don't quit, honey. But I'd like you a whole lot better if you were naked."
It was a pity he was even more attractive in person, Zoe thought then. It was that careless dark blond hair that never seemed to be fully tamed no matter how short he cut it. That gorgeous face of his, with eyes that should have been pretty and high cheekbones that should have been fey, but somehow worked with that pugnacious jaw of his to make him decidedly, almost alarmingly masculine, despite the offensive things he said.
Zoe knew every inch of his famous face, that well-documented smirk, and most of that much-photographed body of his, that today—or last night, more likely—he'd shoved into faded jeans and a tight gray Henley that hugged his rangy male form. He would have been a tabloid favorite anyway because of his wealthy family background, his all-American good looks and his penchant for vapid yet beautiful starlets—but it was his half brat, half thug behavior on the football field that had kept him plastered across every glossy magazine in existence for the rocky decade that had made up his football career.
He's nothing but a frat boy, she thought, smiling at him as if she liked him. Pretty as a picture with malice and entitlement beneath, like all the rest of his kind. She knew. She'd been there a decade ago when he'd proved exactly what kind of man he was. She didn't expect him to remember that, but then, she didn't want him to remember her.
Not until he did what she needed him to do and helped her take down Jason Treffen.
"Looked your fill?"
His voice wasn't friendly or polite, and he didn't flash that absurdly charming smile she'd seen him wield throughout the series of insincere mea culpas he'd issued after each of his many scandals as a football star. He only watched her, in a curiously intent way that made her feel as if she ought to hold her breath.
"I'm not admiring you," Zoe said coolly, and she wasn't. Of course she wasn't.
"Don't you think you should?" His voice was as lazy as ever but still, she heard the challenge in it. The thrown gauntlet—because, as expected, he couldn't resist. "I'm usually the object of intense and potentially lifealtering admiration. It's but one of my many burdens to bear."
She was surprised that some part of her wanted to laugh at the way he said that, with that sardonic lash that suggested he was far more self-aware than she'd imagined. But she didn't know what to do with that, so instead of exploring it, she got down to business. She dug into her bag, opened her wallet and handed her credit card to the nearest dancer, not looking away from Hunter until the other woman took it from her fingers.
"Take this. Take them. And don't let anyone come back over here unless I say it's okay," she ordered her.
She stared at the dancer until the woman did as she was told with only a quick glance at Hunter, herding the pack of strippers out of Hunter's booth with a single jerk of her head.
"It's like you're my fairy godmother," he said when they were left alone, a hint of a drawl in his voice, reminding her he'd spent the past decade in Texas. If possible, he seemed even lazier than before now that there was only him in the booth. And, somehow, bigger. "But I'm all grown up now. I can pay for my own strippers."
Zoe settled herself on the seat next to him so she could turn toward him, the better to quietly block him in where he sat. The gleam in his gaze told her he knew exactly what she was doing. That he let her do it. She ignored the gleam.
"Congratulations, Mr. Grant," she said crisply. "This is your lucky day."
"It felt a lot luckier five minutes ago, before you scared off all the half-naked women."
"I set up an appointment through your manager, but it appears you prefer to operate through more casual channels these days."
"If that's a convoluted way of saying I told Harvey to go fuck himself, you are correct."
Zoe smiled. Harvey Speer was a frothing bulldog of a sports agent, well-known for creating insurmountable barriers between his clients and the world, so she'd hardly weep salty tears if he wasn't involved in Hunter's life any longer. It made what she wanted to do with him that much easier.
"I'm Zoe Brook," she told him now. "You really should know that already. I'm the best PR agent in New York City, if not the whole world, and I'm going to rehabilitate your image—which I think we can both agree is more than a little tarnished."
He eyed her for a long moment, and she was sure she saw something hollow move through his gaze, stark and almost painful, completely at odds with the shallow, degenerate man she knew he'd been all his life. But then his mouth kicked up in one corner, his eyes shone blue and clear, and she was certain she'd imagined it.
"I'll pass," he said. She had the strangest notion that he was dangerous, suddenly, which was absurd, but he never moved that unnervingly direct gaze from hers. "Send some of those strippers back over here on your way out, won't you?"
She let her smile go sharp. "You misunderstand me. I'm not asking you if you'd like me to do it. I'm telling you that I will."
"Is this a fan thing?" he asked, his voice still mild but his gaze intent. "Some stalker fantasy? Knock yourself out. Rehab away. But please don't expect me to have anything to do with it. I like my notoriety just fine the way it is."
Zoe laughed. "Oh, I'm not a fan."
"It's okay to admit it. I have a lot of fans, even now. Some of them like to make up complicated little stories to get close to me, and I don't really mind. I don't care who you are. But then again, I don't much care who I am, either."
"Let's be honest, shall we, Mr. Grant?"
"By all means. All this flattery is making me dizzy. Of course, I'm drunk."
Except she didn't think he was. His gaze was too sharp, there were no bottles on the table, and she was sitting so close to him that if there'd been any alcohol on his breath, she'd have been able to smell it. Why would he want her to think he was drunk if he wasn't? She shook that off, then leaned in, her smile hard.
"You have the kind of throwing arm that makes strong, silent men weep tears of joy, yet you've treated it shabbily and without the slightest respect throughout your career," she said coolly. "Your bad behavior is legendary and you quite possibly lost your team the Super Bowl this year. On top of that, you were—literally, it's rumored—born with a silver spoon stuck in your patrician mouth as the heir to the great Grant fortune, meaning no one is ever likely to sympathize with you. About anything."
"The rumors are wrong." His smile was bland. "Unless you mean the sort of silver spoon more commonly used to snort large quantities of cocaine. Those we pass down during our strange puberty rituals, one stuffy WASP to the next. The first exchange took place on theMayflower, I think. It's a genetic imperative at this point."
Zoe was surprised that she wanted to smile at that bit of nonsense. Possibly even laugh. But surely that was weakness, and she didn't allow any of that. Not any longer. Certainly not with someone like him, who wasn't high on cocaine any more than he was drunk, but apparently wanted to be thought both.
But she wasn't here to understand him, only to use him.
"You could have sailed straight into some investment bank after Harvard and played with all of your Monopoly money for the rest of your life like your father and grandfather before you, but you opted for professional football instead, to the enduring dismay of your snooty, upper-crust relatives. Everyone expected you'd be crushed as a rookie, but instead, you dominated. You should be one of the great success stories of the age, an athlete with an Ivy League-trained mind. A role model for our time." She eyed him, not making the slightest effort to hide her disdain. "A hero among men."
"Sadly," Hunter said, and though his smile never wavered, she was sure that she saw something dark move over his face again before he hid it, "I'm only me. Though my wasted potential haunts me, I promise."
That wasn't darkness, Zoe told herself firmly. That was emptiness. He was nothing but a pretty shell wrapped tight around nothing at all. Which was precisely why she'd chosen him to push the repulsive Jason Treffen where she wanted him, at last. She'd spent a few hellish years under Jason's control, and she remembered three men in particular from that long-ago December night that had convinced her she had to save herself or die. Jason's own son, Austin, now a lawyer like his evil father. Alex Diaz, now an investigative reporter. And Hunter, the rich and pretty football player, clearly not the brains of the trio. She'd decided that now she was finally ready to do what needed to be done, Hunter would be the easiest to manipulate. Obviously.
"I doubt that very much," she said now, her voice light, though her stare was anything but, and she was surprised he returned it so steadily. That he didn't so much as flinch.
"You're more likely than not a complete and utter blank, straight through to your benighted soul. One shade up from sociopathic, if I had to guess. The good news is this makes you a perfect candidate for a high-profile corporate position, which I'm assuming has to be your next move. Or let me rephrase that. It should be, and I can help you achieve that."
"I'll hand it to you…" She thought that smile of his sharpened, that there was more of that temper there, just behind the blue of his eyes as he leaned in closer as if he was sharing his secrets. "This is certainly a unique approach."
It was the age-old carrot-and-stick routine, in fact, and he shouldn't seem so aware of it yet simultaneously unruffled by it. Zoe forged on.
"It's the transition from football-field temper tantrum to corporate dominance that needs to be refined," she continued, still sounding so airy and easy, despite the fact this wasn't going quite how she'd imagined it would. "What you need to learn is how to hide your true face better."
"I don't hide my true face at all," he said, and there was something quietly devastating in the way he said it. It struck Zoe like a blow, low and hard, and she didn't know why. "What would be the point? Everyone's already seen it."
Zoe crossed her legs, settling back against her seat as if she, too, was completely relaxed, here in this tawdry place, in the company of a man who should have disgusted her—who haddisgusted her, and thoroughly, before she'd started talking to him. She ignored that odd pang inside her at the dark look on his face, the leftover echo of that strange blow.
"I find it's better to beware rich and powerful men who are also renowned for their good looks, because they tend to believe their own bullshit and usually don't even know they're lying. And they're always lying, especially when they claim to be telling the truth."