Burned (Lords of the City - Book Three)

Chapter One

I tilted my head to the side and studied the long swaths of gold and red. The canvas, illuminated by soft lighting above and beneath it, stood a good six inches taller than me. Upon first inspection, the painting seemed full of violent, aggressive tones, but the more I studied it the more the anger in the piece softened. Now it felt like I was looking at a river of lava, strong and secretly aggressive, but also peaceful and deceptively gentle.

“What do you think?” a male voice asked.

I peeped at the newcomer out of the corner of my eye. Tall, blond, wearing a gray suit and holding a beer in one hand. He reminded me a little of the actor who played Thor. All in all, the guy was decent looking enough. If I was the kind of girl who used a rating system, I’d put him at somewhere around six point five or seven. The kind of guy whose attractiveness might increase if his personality proved to be at least semi-compelling. I’d never seen him around before.

That last one was the bonus. I liked them new, liked my future with them to be uncertain and unbound by any real associations.

“I like it,” I replied uncrossing my arms and turning to face him. “There’s something frenetic about it, but it’s not off putting, oddly enough. I would hang it up in my bedroom.”

I let the word bedroom dangle in the air between us. Blondie took a sip from his bottle. The liquid in it sloshed around. “You come to art openings a lot?”

“Sometimes. But always when it’s my best friend’s.”

His eyebrows went up. “Oh, yeah? And are you an artist?”

“Maybe you could say that. I’m a business consultant.”

“Cool,” he grunted. “Like you help people decorate their offices?” He chuckled, pleased with himself.

My eyes narrowed. His joke wasn’t amusing. “No,” I snapped.

Scratch the hope for a pleasing personality. The dude quickly dropped from a six point five to a one.

A new group of people hovered near the open bar, the young hipster dudes already catching my eye. The man in front of me was cute enough, but our short convo had already betrayed his intelligence level. Or lack thereof.

I gave him my best smile, the general and all-purpose one I pulled out of my handbag to diffuse any situation. “It was nice talking to you. I see someone I need to go say hello to. Have a great night.”

His mouth opened in what might have been a protest, but I was already gone, making my way across the marble floor of the Chicago Artiste art gallery.

I cruised by the group at the bar, checking them out from the corner of my eye. They were all involved in a conversation, laughing and joking together, and didn’t appear to be looking to socialize with anyone else.

Slightly defeated, I clocked the rest of the gallery. Most of the people attending the event were at least in their fifties, women with long necklaces of glass beads and men wearing tweed even though it was August. It was not exactly a twenty-five-year-old single girl’s wet dream.

Thinking about giving up for the night, I located my two best friends and headed in their direction.

Heather and London stood at the end of the drink table, their heads close together in conversation. They’d both done their hair up for the night, the messy updos nearly matching, the only difference the color of their hair; Heather’s blonde hair and London’s brown tresses made for an attractive contrast.

“Quinn, who was that you were talking to?” Heather asked the second I got to her, her big blue eyes going wider. She stirred whatever was in her little plastic cup with a tiny black straw.

“Ugh. No one of interest. I told him I was a business consultant and he made some joke about decorating offices. At least I think it was joke. Hell, maybe he actually wanted to let me know he thinks that’s where I belong.” I grabbed London’s cocktail from her hand and took a swig before passing it back.

“Still,” Heather pressed. “He’s kind of hot.”

My nose wrinkled. “Try talking to him. Trust me, your opinion will change real quick.”

London laughed and asked Heather, “Aren’t you still married?”

“Hey, I can still look.”

“You have a good man. Give the rest of us a chance.”

I defended Heather. “Being with one man for five years sucks. Who wouldn’t be looking at the goods?”

“Hey!” Heather gasped. “I’m not looking to cheat. I love Dan.”

I winked at her, enjoying how easy she was to tease. “That doesn’t mean your vagina doesn’t have its own needs and desires.”

Heather folded her arms and looked away.

“So where is that guy now?” London asked. “Did he leave?”

Heather jutted her chin upward. “Quinn just said that guy was a jerk.”

My gaze floated around the gallery again. The place was filling up, the opening our friend Rory shared with two other artists proving to be a hit. On the other side of the expansive space Rory beamed in the middle of a circle of people, her cocoa skin glowing and her teeth flashing white, as she laughed like it was the best night of her life. Chicago’s lights sparkled behind her, the perfect backdrop to the scene.

Warmth that had nothing to do with the drink I’d stolen from London’s cup filled me. “She looks happy,” I mused out loud.

“Yeah,” London agreed. “This is a great night.”

“She deserves it.”

Someone passed between me and Rory, obscuring my vision. I started to turn away, but then did another take.

H…E…L…L…O.

The stranger was tall, but not more than a head above me—just the way I like it—and possessed broad shoulders and thick brown hair. With a finely lined profile, he looked like he belonged up on the wall with the rest of the art. Blondie from before seemed like less than nothing in comparison to this new man.

As if feeling my gaze on him, the guy turned and looked right at me. His deep blue eyes melded with mine, sealing our gazes together. I couldn’t look away.

I smiled coyly at him, just enough to show my interest, and then turned back toward my friends, not waiting to see what his reaction would be.

If I knew anything about men, he would come over and say hello to me in about thirty seconds. That or he would wait till I was alone, not surrounded by other women, and make his move then.

“What are you grinning about?” Heather asked.

“Oh, nothing.”

I held my breath and waited to see if the guy would do as predicted. A few seconds ticked by. Then another few. Heather started telling London about her sister’s baby shower the next weekend. As inconspicuously as possible, I peeked over my shoulder.

He was gone.

“Damn it.”

“What?” Heather questioned.

“There was a hot guy over there,” I said in a low voice. “And now he’s gone.”

Maybe I hadn’t given the look long enough. I’d turned away too soon. That had to be it.

“Hey!”

I nearly jumped out of my high heels. Rory looped an arm around my waist, her long, tight braids sweeping across my shoulder.

“Hey,” I gasped.

My three friends each gave me their own versions of puzzled looks.

“You okay?” Rory asked. “You sound like you suddenly developed asthma.”

“Yes. Totally. I was just… You surprised me. This turn out is awesome, by the way. And that new piece is even more amazing.”

London and Heather added their agreements.

“Thanks,” Rory smiled. “Are you guys coming to the after party? It’s at Jones Street Pub, right around the corner.”

“Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I snuck another glance around the room. “Hey, did you see that guy who was just here? The one with brown hair.”

“Quinn’s soul mate,” Heather joked.

I playfully jabbed her with my elbow. “Yeah, totally.”

Rory’s eyes drifted to the side as she gave it some thought. “What was he wearing?”

“A t-shirt and jeans.”

“To an art opening?” Heather asked. “Who would do that?”

Rory tapped her jaw. “Are you talking about Seth what’s-his-name?”

“Maybe. I just got a glimpse of him, that’s all.”

Seth. The name fit him perfectly.

Rory shook her head frantically back and forth. “Nu-uh. Quinn, you do not want to go there.”

“Why not? He’s cute.”

“Oh, I know he’s cute. No, it’s because he’s a… I can’t really think of a nice word for it.”

“Spit it out,” I said. “I’m a big girl. I can take it.”

“Dick?” London offered.

“Ass?” Heather questioned.

“And like I care?” I put in. “Rory, have you met me? Since when am I looking for a boyfriend?”

Rory sighed. “All right. Have it your way.”

“Okay, so you do know him. Can you introduce us?”

“No, I don’t really know him. I’ve only… heard about him. He’s Justin Pruitt’s friend.”

“What have you heard?” Heather asked.

“Apparently he gets around.”

“Again,” I pointed out. “Do I care? That just means he won’t be lounging around in the morning waiting for me to cook him breakfast. Good. Go. Grab something at the drive through on your way home.”

“You’re so bad,” Heather laughed, her eyes sparkling in a way that said she actually loved it.

I winked at her again. I wasn’t actually mean to men. Though I didn’t have a regular boyfriend, I liked to think I treated my lovers with a fair amount of decency.

“It looks like he’s gone,” London said. “I don’t see him anywhere.”

I sighed. “Damn. Looks like it’s sexist, poor man’s Thor after all.”

London giggled. “Maybe his skills in bed will make him a little easier on the eyes.”

Rory stared. “Huh?”
“Never mind.” I squeezed her hand. “You go schmooze. Do your thing. We’ll see you at the bar.”

Twenty minutes later, London, Heather and I walked arm in arm down the sidewalk. I skirted a large heap of trash, barely avoiding getting my stilettos stuck on a plastic bag. “I can’t believe that Seth guy left,” I mumbled.

London laughed. “What did you expect? For him to rush across the room and just dive into your vagina?”

“No,” I pouted. “But I gave him the look.”

“The come-hither look?”

“Yes.”

She laughed again. “Poor Quinn Laurent. Her first time ever being turned down. Don’t worry, you’ll get over it. The rest of us have to deal with it on a regular basis, by the way.”

“Oh, whatever. Don’t act the victim. Men are falling all over you.”

From the other side of London, Heather spoke up. “Maybe he heard you chew men up and spit them out.”

“Hey,” I snapped, seriously annoyed. “I don’t do that! Guys know what they’re in for, okay? It’s not like I make them any promises. Besides, most of them aren’t looking for anything long-term anyway.”

Heather opened her mouth to argue, but London interrupted. “Everyone does their own thing. Quinn doesn’t have time for a serious boyfriend.”

“Thank you,” I pointedly told her, still annoyed at Heather. “Now let’s go get some drinks.”

The pub was narrow and long, as well as packed. We pushed our way through, angling our bodies toward the counter in hopes of snagging a bartender. Halfway down the bar Rory sat engaged in a conversation with a gray haired man. No doubt she would be occupied most of the night. If so, I would just have to send her a text tomorrow to tell her once more how great the opening was.

“You guys go find a spot,” I told Heather and London. “I’ll get drinks.”

I turned sideways and pushed myself up against the bar. The nearest of the two bartenders mixed a drink two patrons down. I kept my eyes on him, ready to grab his attention the second he turned my way.

“What are you drinking?” a male voice only inches away asked.

I cocked my hip and glanced to my side, ready to accept the invitation to flirt… then froze.

Deep blue eyes. Rich brown hair. That strong jaw.

“Well, hello Seth,” I replied, letting his name smoothly roll off of my tongue.

If he was surprised to find I knew his name he didn’t show it. Instead, he gave me a half smirk. Up close the stubble on his jaw was visible, as well as a thin scar cutting through his right eyebrow. I hadn’t noticed the scar before. It made him even more attractive, gave him character and the mystery of a dangerous past. Had he gotten it in a fight? A daring attempt to rescue someone from the wreckage of a car accident?

“So what are you drinking?” he asked again, at the same time the bartender came up and pointed at me like I was already wasting his time.

“Three vodka cranberries,” I told the bartender.

Seth quickly spoke up. “And a pale ale.”

The bartender nodded and hurried off.

I turned back to Seth. “Thanks, but I’m getting my friends’ drinks.”

And I won’t make you pay for all of us.

His lips perked up, showing off a lopsided smile. “What brought you to the gallery tonight?”

I leaned my back against the bar and looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling, pretending to take my time with my answer. Really, I was just giving him a good view of my figure. Though not as tall as I’d like to be, I was pretty darn proud of my curves. Having Seth approach me after thinking he’d bailed at the opening gave me a big boost of confidence. It felt good to know that the brief and silent exchange in the gallery had left an impression on him. It’d been a while since I lost hold of a guy I wanted, and I wasn’t quite ready to experience the bitter taste of defeat again.

“I know one of the artists,” I told him, lowering my gaze back down onto his eyes. “Rory Marsden. Do you know her?”

“Not really,” Seth said, placing an elbow against the bar and leaning into it. “My friend knows her. He told me he was going to this tonight and so I tagged along.”

“And what did you think of the art?”

“It wasn’t really my thing.”

“Oh… None of it?”

“Yeah, not really.”

My expectations plummeted. He’d quickly dismissed the art while, presumably, trying to pick me up. He could have at least pretended to like my friend’s show. “I’m sorry to hear that. What kind of art do you like?”

He shrugged. I remembered Heather’s snide jab about wearing a t-shirt and jeans to an art opening. I didn’t think it was such a big deal… until Seth basically admitted he didn’t like art.

So he didn’t have any pride when it came to personal style or interest in art. Okay. I could overlook one of those things.

But together they were a little difficult.

Just a minute into the conversation and I was already losing interest in this guy.

Where had the hipsters from earlier gone to? Maybe they’d splintered off from their group and were now in approachable singles or pairs.

Then again…

I eyed the muscles of Seth’s arms. I wasn’t looking for much from a guy. With my crazy work schedule, which often occupied evenings and weekends, all I really had time for was fun. Maybe Seth and I could have a few nice days together. Guys without class still got boners.

“What about you?” he asked. “Did you like the show?”

“I thought it was great,” I quickly said, eager to change the topic. His apathy over my friend’s work annoyed me, and I didn’t want to think about that if I was going to bang him. “So what do you do, Seth?”

“I’m in the Army Reserve.”

“Oh…wow,” I added, my interest gaining with the nearly sure knowledge that the muscles trapped beneath his clothes were as ripped as his arms.

He sidled a little closer, stopping just a few inches away. I let him make the move, keeping my gaze on his face.

“And what about you?” he asked.

“I’m a business consultant.” I eyed him, waiting to see if he would question my expertise. The exchange with the blond doofus at the gallery hadn’t been a rare one. People often questioned my experience, both due to my being twenty-five and a woman. Snidely letting them know I graduated high school a year early and then left NYU in the top five percent of my class often shut them up. I liked to give people a chance before I dropped that part, though, just to see if they really were as sexist and ageist as they seemed.

Sometimes, just to really screw with them, I hinted at how much money I made. But only by casually mentioning my next trip to Europe or the upcoming remodeling of my pool. There were some things a lady never revealed, after all.

“What field do you specialize in?”

“Science and engineering.”

“In-house or externally?”

I suppressed a smile. So Seth could keep up in a conversation. Perhaps art wasn’t his thing, but he had some stats down when it came to other areas of interest.

“Externally. I work with many of the same businesses over and over, but also accept new clients. I have an office downtown with a few other consultants working under me.”

The bartender arrived and set the four drinks down. “Thirty-eight,” he simply said, addressing a spot in the air above my head.

Seth went to pull out his wallet but I quickly slipped a fifty from my clutch and set it on the pock-marked wood. “Keep the change.”

The bartender scooped the bill up and left. Our time was up. Now I needed to make the next move, in the form of inviting Seth over to sit with me and my friends.

“I hear the tech industry around here is headed for tough times,” Seth suddenly said.

I froze and eyed him. “And why do you say that?”

“Because of the numbers coming out of San Francisco.”

I barely managed to swallow my scoff. “Trust me, the industry here is doing better than it ever has. I’m busier than I need to be, and so are all my clients.”

Seth shrugged in a whatever way, then tacked a smile on the end, like that last bit made it all better.

Irritation pricked me. What was this guy’s deal? And did he even know what he was doing, coming over to hit on me and insulting me instead? Was it possible he was really that clueless?

Forget inviting him over to my table. That plan was out the window and never coming back.

I tucked my clutch under my arm, pushed my three drinks together and picked them up. “It was nice talking to you, Seth, but I should get back to my friends.”

“That soon?” he asked, rolling the two simple words seductively over his tongue.

I looked pointedly at him. His tone worked on me, sending delicious shivers down my back, and I hated that. “Yes, that soon,” I nearly snapped, no longer caring about being polite. The guy got under my skin, in both a bad way and a good way, and I didn’t care whether he knew how displeased I’d become or not.

“I didn’t get your name.”

“It’s Mahogany,” I lied, spouting out the first stripper-esque name I could think of. “And my friends Cherry and Baby are really thirsty, so I’ll see you around.”

Seth smirked again, making me want to throw the drinks in his face then drag him into the bathroom and fuck him senseless. How could it be that, sometimes, even when I found a man despicable, I still got hot for him? Usually a sour personality lowered a guy’s appeal, like with the blond from earlier, but sometimes that wasn’t the case. It only happened when the man in question was really sexy. Unfortunately, Seth was exactly that.

I didn’t like his cocky attitude… but I liked his face… and his body… and something about the way his eyes settled on my own, like he was working on figuring me out, bit by bit… Because of that I hated him even more.

I expected a jab about the stripper joke, like an inquiry into where the three of us were working that night and whether or not we accepted tips in change.

But he just rested his hand on my wrist. I froze and sucked in a breath through my teeth. The tumblers in my hands shook slightly, the glass clinking together.

If I drop these drinks right now I will never forgive myself. Not… Ever.

Shifting his body ever so slightly toward mine, Seth lowered his voice. “I can’t let you get away just like that… And if you want me to call you Mahogany… That’s just fine with me.”

Holy… Shit.

I gulped, not able to move or speak.

I could tell him to meet me outside in fifteen minutes. I could take him home and screw him and then let him go. Hell, we could even go to a hotel. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about him knowing where I lived and finding me again. I’d done that a couple times before and not felt bad about either occasion.

But I didn’t want to give Seth the satisfaction of having me for even an hour.

I made sure I had full control of my voice before I spoke so that it wouldn’t shake. “Letting me get away is something you’ll just have to live with.”

I stared him down. His eyes didn’t waver from my own. My knees shook a little bit and heat filled me.

Damn him.

It didn’t matter how sexy he was. At this point, he’d offended me beyond reparation. No way could I screw this guy and still hang onto my self-respect. Even if I took him to a hotel and then snuck out while he was taking a post-coital shower.

I pulled my arm from his touch and shimmied through the crowd, doing my best to hold my head high.

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