“What are you doing here, Claudia?”
I’m about to excuse myself from the conversation, but Linc’s expression stops me in my tracks. He’s glaring at the beautiful blonde – his mouth turned down at the corners; his arms crossed. And he’s moved so that he’s standing closer to me.
Tension emanates from him, yet Claudia smiles serenely. Unperturbed. “I came here to talk to you, of course.”
“Of course,” Linc mutters. “How did you get back here?”
“Kane let me through.”
“I wish he hadn’t.”
“Is that any way to talk to your future wife?”
A small gasp escapes me, but both ignore me.
“Don’t start, Claudia.”
“I’m not starting anything. I need to talk to you.”
The two of them are intent on staring at each other, and I’m clearly not needed here anymore. My gut is churning with the thought Linc might be getting married. Which is ridiculous. I shouldn’t care he’s engaged, or feel deceived because I didn’t know.
“I need to get back to work,” I say, interrupting the moment.
“I’m sorry, Brooke,” Linc says turning to me, regret in his eyes. “I have to go.”
He doesn’t need to apologise. This is his fiancée.
“I’ll catch you later.”
“Tell me,” Claudia says as she walks away with Linc, his hand on the small of her back. “Do you always apologise to your staff for leaving them alone?”
“Just leave it, Claudia.”
Jemma mentioned yesterday that Linc doesn’t do girlfriends, and Kane mentioned today that Linc only loves his club, but Claudia Henley referred to herself as Linc’s future wife, so Kane and Jemma both have it wrong, don’t they?
On the way back to the bar, I keep telling myself it’s none of my business. The gnawing in my gut and mental spinning out I’m doing over the idea that Linc is engaged needs to stop right now. I can’t afford to care that Linc is getting married. He’s my boss and my dance teacher, and he’ll never be anything more.
It’s just that I can’t stop replaying the way Linc looked at Claudia when she first spoke to him. It was as though…he really doesn’t like her.
“Who is she?” Claudia asks as we walk towards my office.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Lincoln. The girl you were just talking to, who is she?”
“Brooke’s one of my new bartenders.”
And my new accountant, hopefully.
Which is the only reason I’m not completely freaking out over the fact Brooke heard some of my conversation with Claudia. Brooke will know everything about this club and my contract with my parents soon enough. I also trust Brooke. I’m positive she won’t say anything to anyone. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I’d had time to explain things to her before Claudia showed up and introduced herself as my future wife.
Claudia glances at me. “Is that all?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.”
“Actually, it is my business. We’ll be married within the year, and I don’t need her running to the press and telling them every depraved thing you’ve done to her.”
We stop walking when we reach my office. “You have such a high opinion of me. Wouldn’t you be happier marrying someone else?”
“And disappoint our parents?” She smiles, but her smile quickly turns to a grimace of distaste when I open the door to my office and she sees the sparse furnishings. “We were promised to each other when we were born. You can’t fight fate.”
“And the fact I don’t love you doesn’t bother you at all?”
She can’t quite hide her flinch as she walks into my office, and I momentarily regret the harshness of my words. Once upon a time, we were friends. We liked and respected each other. But the older she gets, the more like her parents and my parents she becomes. Our values are completely different now. The fact that she’s willing to marry me when I don’t love her and I don’t want to marry her is just one more nail in the coffin of our relationship. She wants to marry me, but she wants to be Mrs Lincoln Rivers – wife to a millionaire. She doesn’t care about my club. She doesn’t care about any of the things I care about.
“There were elements of our relationship that were more than acceptable to you, if I remember correctly,” she says with a pout.
We had chemistry in the bedroom, I’ll give her that. But chemistry doesn’t equal like.
My thoughts flash to Brooke. More specifically to the way she fell into my arms yesterday and my inability not to touch her. I should never have put my hands on her. The attraction I feel towards her is fierce. The chemistry is through the roof, but perhaps that’s because I like and respect her. She and Claudia are poles apart. I admire everything about Brooke and what she’s doing for her sister, and how hard she works. Combine that with the attraction I feel for her and it’s a recipe for disaster. If I didn’t need her help, I’d stay the hell away from her. But I do need her help.
My club needs her help.
Sitting down at my desk, I force myself to focus on the unwanted presence of the woman opposite me. “Why are you here? Because if I remember correctly, you don’t like my club and you think this place is a waste of my time. Weren’t those your words?”
“When you could be using the time you spend here for better things-“
“Like making the rich richer?”
Her smile is mocking. “You think you’re a modern day Robin Hood, but you’re not. What you do here is very selfish.”
“I’m doing something I love, and the people who come here love it just as much as I do. If you want to call that selfish-“
“We’re fated to be together, Linc. It’s destiny. You can’t fight it.”
“For someone ready to walk into a loveless marriage, you’re too romantic, Claudia.”
“No, I just understand life and our part in it much better than you do right now. Which brings me to the purpose of my visit.”
I rub my temples. “Yes, please get to the purpose.” As soon as this conversation finishes, I have a million different places I need to be.
“There’s a gala on the weekend of the twenty-fifth. Your parents and mine expect us to attend.”
Anger vibrates through me, more potent than anything I’ve experienced in months. With so much riding on my club making money, my parents are insane if they think I’ll leave my club on the weekend.
“Forget it. I’m not shutting the club.”
“Why would you shut it? Have someone else run the place for the night.”
She has no idea what she’s asking of me. My potential future wife spends her days socialising and shopping. If she needs something done, she pays someone to do it for her. But I don’t have that luxury. I have every intention of training Kane to manage the place, but it makes more sense to do that once the club passes the year mark. Then I can hire another bar manager to take Kane’s place without Mervyn blocking me.
“I’m not asking anyone to run the place for the night. You’ll have to go with someone else.”
“I don’t want to go with anyone else,” she huffs. “Besides, it’s in the contract you signed that we appear together socially.”
“And it’s also in the contract that I’m permitted to run my club how I like. I can’t close it, and my parents shouldn’t ask me to. When we signed the contract-“
“A contract you signed because you wanted them to fund your club, Linc.”
“I’ll pay them back every cent.”
“How? The club is losing money.”
Should I be surprised that Mervyn is sharing the details of my supposed failure with my family and Claudia’s family? Maybe not, yet fury rips through me at the thought of all of them sitting around discussing it. Dissecting other people’s failures is how my family bonds with Claudia’s family over Sunday brunch. I’ve escaped the ritual for the past eight and a half months, but I have that weekly event to look forward to if the club doesn’t start making money soon.
I was planning to wait another couple of weeks before asking Brooke if she’d come on board as my secret accountant, but I don’t think I can wait any longer. I know Brooke might be able to help me turn things around. I trust her already, and I’m running out of time.
“I have another three and a half months to start paying them back. I won’t talk about my club with you or them until then.”
“Save your breath, Claudia.” I stand up. “I have things to do. A club to run.”
“You know your parents won’t be satisfied with your answer.”
“Tell my parents the club is closed two nights a week. If they want me to accompany you to an event, it needs to be on a Monday or Tuesday night.”
“You could always tell them yourself.”
“Why? We both know you’re going to run to them and tell them everything I just said.”
“They just want what’s best for you.”
I laugh. “If they wanted what’s best for me, they wouldn’t want me to live a life that will make me miserable. They wouldn’t be trying to force me into a marriage I don’t want and a career I despise. And if you cared about me at all, neither would you.”
The guard she’s been wearing since she walked in here drops just for a second, but I still see it – the hurt in her eyes. I don’t want to be affected by it, but something about the way she’s looking at me right now reminds me of the better times we had together and the fact that we were once friends.
“I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” I offer.
“But it’s not going to change your answer, is it?”
She fell in love with me while we were dating. Maybe she even fell for me before then. But I’m never going to care about her the way she wants me to. She reminds me too much of my mother. Claudia’s cold demeanour and willingness to step on people to have the life she wants – the life she thinks she’s entitled to – is eerily similar to my mother’s. The fact that she agrees with everything my parents say doesn’t endear her to me, either. A life with Claudia would be like a prison sentence. I’m sorry she’s hurting right now, but I’m never going to love her. I wish she’d accept that.
She stands before leaning in and giving me a kiss on the cheek. “Take care of yourself, Lincoln.”
“You too, Claude.”
She smiles at the affectionate name I used for her when we were together.
“Come on, I’ll walk you out,” I tell her impulsively.
I regret my offer the moment we begin walking across the dance floor. The way she looks around my club with disdain, as if everything around her is beneath her existence – as though what I’ve created is tawdry and cheap – reminds me why we’re not friends anymore.
She doesn’t get this place and she never will.
“I’ll be in touch,” she says once we get to the door that leads out of the club.
I nod to my bouncers, Mike and Shane, before putting my hand on Shane’s shoulder. “Will you walk her out for me, please?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
With Claudia gone, I can focus on club business. First order of business: seeking out Brooke so I can ask her to meet with me on Monday.
The first thing I notice as I make my way back across the dance floor is that Saxon is in Brooke’s space. She’s trying to serve a customer and he’s practically falling all over her. With the way I have the bar set up, there’s no reason for them to be working like that. I watch as Brooke moves for something, bumps into Saxon, and he takes advantage and cops a feel.
I don’t care that Saxon has just said something to make her smile – probably an apology. The look on Brooke’s face…the innocence and discomfort she clearly felt a second ago…it was obvious she wasn’t expecting the grope. There’s no denying the fierce wave of protectiveness surging through me as I push through the crowd in record speed.
By the time I get to the bar, I’m ready to tear the shit-head a new one.
“Are you okay?” I yell at Brooke first.
She looks shocked to see me standing there. After a moment she nods, even as she frowns.
“Claudia Henley!” Saxon shouts at me across the bar while still standing far too close to Brooke. “Nice.” He puts his fist out for me to bump.
“She’s a friend,” I shout, ignoring his fist.
Saxon laughs as if I’ve just said something hysterical.
Brooke motions to her cheek. When I put my hand up to touch my cheek, mirroring her action, I realise Claudia has left her mark on me – red lipstick.
“We’re not together!”
I’m not really sure why I yell this across the bar to Brooke. I’ll tell her everything on Monday, if she agrees to meet with me, and it’s none of Saxon’s business.
“Can you hook me up, then?” Saxon asks.
Brooke glances up from the cash a customer has just handed to her and laughs at the expression on my face.
I ignore Saxon’s request and launch straight into what I came here to say to him. “Stay out of Brooke’s space! She doesn’t need you on top of her. You’re going to cause an accident!”
Saxon grins, looking completely unapologetic. “I’m just having fun.”
“I don’t care.” I look at Brooke and then back at Saxon. “Keep your hands to yourself or get out of my club.”
Finally, Saxon loses the cocky attitude. “Okay. We’re just playing around, but I’ll stop.”
Kane turns around from the box of liquor he’s unpacking and walks straight over and joins the three of us, clearly wanting to know what’s going on.
I point to Brooke and Saxon. “Your new bartender just copped a feel.”
“It was an accident,” Saxon tells him.
“It’s fine,” Brooke adds.
“It’s not fine,” I tell Kane. “Keep an eye on it.”
Brooke and Saxon return to serving, but Kane stays where he is.
“You all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Kane raises an eyebrow, as if I’m an idiot for asking. He doesn’t know everything about the contract and the accounts. He doesn’t know why I hired Brooke, but he knows that Claudia is my ex and I don’t like to see her.
It’s not just Claudia’s visit which has me ready to vault over the bar and take Saxon’s head off, though. My adrenaline is still pumping after seeing Saxon touch Brooke the way he did. I need to shake it off.
“I’ll cover your break after the next stage show,” I tell him.
It’s a peace offering. I trust him because he does a good job. He doesn’t deserve to have me tell him how to manage the bar. I might own the place, but Kane is part of any success this place has had.
Kane motions to Brooke, Layla and Saxon. “They can handle the crowd tonight.”
I shake my head. “Take a proper break. I owe you one.”
He studies me for a moment and then shrugs. “All right.”
“I’ll be back after the show.”
I look at Brooke quickly before I leave the bar. I need to make an appointment with her to discuss the club accounts, but it can wait until I come back. If I ask her while I’m in this mood, she’ll probably think she’s in trouble.
After dancing the second performance of the night, I feel a hell of a lot calmer. A quick, hot shower after the workout on stage and I feel a lot less like a caged tiger needing to rip someone’s head off. As soon as I’m ready, I check in with my security team and then make my way back behind the bar.
When Kane sees I’ve arrived, he finishes serving a customer. I motion for him to follow me out of the bar as soon as he’s done.
“How are the new staff working out?” I ask once we’re on the other side of the bar door.
“You mean aside from the fact Saxon is like a boy with his hormones on steroids and I had to give Layla and Brooke the lecture about how you don’t fuck staff?”
Kane rolls his eyes. “Layla and Brooke were both drooling after you like they were seconds away from stripping off and throwing themselves at your feet. I told them you have one love and it’s this club.”
Something hot and primal moves through me at the thought of Brooke stripping off and falling at my feet. Which is messed up. I’ve had more than enough trouble with staff wanting more from me than just a working relationship since the club opened.
Maybe I need to worry about Layla, but I doubt Brooke will come on to me the way other women have before her. And thank God. I don’t think I could turn down what she’d be offering, and screwing the woman I need help from would be insanity.
“What did they say?” I ask.
“Layla said you’re nice to look at, but she’s got a girlfriend. I doubt she’ll be a problem.”
My heart pumps faster, and my temperature soars, even as Kane shakes his head.
“She’s not going to make a move. She’s a good girl, a great worker. She won’t cause you any trouble.”
I’d already figured as much. No matter how strong the attraction between us, Brooke’s focus is on giving her sister the best life she can.
I respect that.
And knowing that should make it easier to focus on my club when I’m around her. I hope, anyway.
Kane frowns. “You were right to point out Saxon, though. He’s all over Brooke, and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. I warned him before we started that he wasn’t to hit on her, but I ended up swapping places with her anyway.”
“Good.” I motion for him to get going. “I’ll see you in thirty minutes.”
He doesn’t need to be told twice. As soon as I walk through the bar door again, I step straight into Kane’s spot, between Brooke and Saxon – something Saxon doesn’t look happy about. Not that I care. I do care, however, about the tension that seems to be emanating off Brooke as we start working side by side. I can’t tell if it’s because of me and what she witnessed with Claudia or because of what happened with Saxon, or both.
We work in silence for a while. The stream of customers is steady, but with the four of us working it’s nowhere near as bad as it was last week. As soon as Brooke looks like she’s starting to relax, I make a couple of jokes, relieved when she smiles. It’s too loud to maintain a conversation for long, but I manage to ask her a couple of things and she describes some of our crazier clientele with her hands, making me laugh at her crazy hand gestures.
I would have missed this if I hadn’t decided to fill in for Kane on his break. Brooke is a very easy person to be around. Providing I don’t forget what’s at stake and cross the line, I think we’ll work well together, and I think we could be good friends. Which would be a plus with all the time we’re going to be spending working together if she agrees to help me.
“Hey,” I say when both of us are working on the back bench, making cocktails. “It’s okay to tell a guy to fuck off if he’s touching you. You know that, right?”
When she grimaces, I don’t know if it’s because of the lemons she’s cutting up, or because she’s embarrassed by what we’re discussing.
“I know. I just…I haven’t had to do that for a while.”
No one hit on her when she worked as an accountant. Got it. That won’t be the case here, though. She’s gorgeous. If I wasn’t the boss – if I had time in my life for more than just this club, and if I was interested in more than just sex – I’d want her in my bed. For a lot longer than one night.
My gaze drops down her body, taking in the way her corset pushes her breasts up, before sliding lower, over her stomach, her hips and her thighs.
Damn it, how long until it sinks in that she’s off limits?
I force my eyes back to her face right as she picks up the cocktail she’s just made.
“It’s not a big deal, Linc.”
Maybe not to her, but it is to me. I don’t want to see her look so vulnerable and uncomfortable again.
“I just don’t want you to worry about offending anyone. You take care of yourself, and if you find yourself in trouble, call me.”
I mean it. And it’s not something I would usually say. Kane will look out for Brooke behind the bar, but I still want her to know she can call on me anytime. Even if she’s somewhere outside of Midnight Frenzy. I would come to her rescue if she needed me to.
“Thanks, but I can handle it.”
Like she takes care of everything and everyone else in her life.
I know she has Jemma, and I know she has her neighbour. Is there anyone else in her life she can call on when she needs it? If we become friends, I can be one of those people.
She shoots me a quick smile before taking the cocktail she just made back to the waiting customer. I finish making the Sex on the Beach I started minutes ago and get back to serving, ignoring Saxon’s interested look.
I came down on him hard before. I don’t regret it, especially when he made Brooke feel so uncomfortable, but I’m aware he’s my employee. My goal has always been to have a good relationship with the people who work for me. It ensures loyalty and carries good will and good feeling through the workplace. I make an effort to say a few things to both Saxon and Layla and get to know them as well as I can considering the steady stream of customers and the loud music.
Before I know it, Kane is back and I still haven’t asked Brooke to meet with me. As he takes over, I look at Brooke and see her dancing in between serving customers. I recognise a couple of the moves I taught her yesterday. Has she been practising them?
Catching me watching her, she blushes. “Sorry.”
I grin. “Don’t be. I built this place so people would dance.”
She shakes her head. “I can’t seem to stop dancing these days.”
There’s something in her expression that reminds me exactly how I feel when I dance. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You should. This is an amazing place, Linc.”
Her eyes meet mine, and I can see the truth behind the words. Just like that, I know she’ll say yes when I ask for her help. Unlike Claudia, Brooke sees what I see when I look at the dance floor – an escape and a chance to live out a passion. A passion we seem to share.
“Come with me a sec.”
She glances quickly at Kane, who nods, before following me out of the bar.
As soon as I shut the bar door behind us, I lock eyes with her. “I actually have some club business I need to discuss with you. Can you come in on Monday to go over it?”
She can’t quite hide her surprise or the wariness that follows it. Perhaps she thinks I’m going to talk to her about Saxon again. Before I can explain that I’m not, she nods.
“Yes. What time?”
“Does one-thirty work for you?”
“Great. It’ll probably take an hour or two.”
“I’ll have Belle take the bus home from school, then.”
“That isn’t going to be a problem?”
She shakes her head. “I’m sorry about yesterday – Jemma and I arguing in front of you.”
“Forget it. I admire your dedication to your sister.”
“It’s nothing, really.”
It’s not nothing, but I don’t say it. Instead, we share a look full of respect and understanding. Then she opens the door and returns to work.
I need to do more than just let her in on my secrets and ask her to help me when she comes in for the meeting on Monday. I need to lay everything out for her and put a boundary down between us. Even if she’s not going to make a move on me, the attraction between us is overwhelming at times. I’ll pay her for her time, and I’d like us to be friends. But there will never be anything more than friendship and a professional working relationship between us. Both of us will need to remember that. I hope I can work out how to say all that without embarrassing both of us.