House of Sin, Book One
Murder, it seemed, was as lucrative as the supermodel business.
As I stood in the posh lobby on the forty-third floor of one of New York City’s most intimidating buildings and scanned the room, I tried to keep my temper in check. Phones rang while receptionists dolled up in the latest trends spoke quickly into receivers. A girl who looked to be twenty-five but was probably no more than twelve sat in a plush chair, glued to her phone.
So much for smothering that anger. It was already building inside me, bubbling like a brook rushing over jagged rocks. My gaze slid to the right, and I glanced over at a group of gorgeous women in barely there skirts and sky-high stilettos as they crossed to the elevators, whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. None looked my way. None knew why I was there. None even seemed to care that one of their own had recently been murdered.
I watched the models step onto the elevator. They were each just as tall as Elena. Each had the same long limbs and high cheekbones all models in the industry were born with. But they lacked something Laney had always possessed. Simplicity. Demureness. An innocence I seriously hoped my friend hadn’t lost in the last hours of her life. Hadn’t anyone else seen that about her? Didn’t they care that she was gone?
“Can I help you? Miss?”
The receptionist’s clipped voice snapped me out of my trance, and I looked toward the blonde behind the high counter and stepped forward. “Yes. Sorry. I’m here to see Ms. Clayborne. I’m Natalie James. I have an appointment.”
The blonde clicked long red nails against her keyboard and focused on the screen to her right. Behind her, in big silver letters, the word COVET was affixed to a wall of glass that held back a waterfall. “Ms. Clayborne had an unexpected personal situation arise. She won’t be able to meet with you today.”
“What?” I placed my suddenly shaking hand on the sleek marble counter and leaned forward. “Are you sure?” I couldn’t miss this interview. It was my only chance to figure out what had happened to Elena.
The blonde continued clicking on the keyboard, never once bothering to look up. Her perfectly threaded brows lowered as she scanned the screen and muttered, “That’s odd.” Then louder, “It seems as if Mr. Salvatici is handling her appointments today.” A perplexed expression crossed the blonde’s flawless features before she masked it and met my gaze. “Have a seat in the waiting area, please.”
I exhaled a relieved breath. “Thank you.”
That relief was short-lived, though, as I moved to a purple velvet chair that should look gaudy but didn’t in the opulent setting. Luciano Salvatici was the president and CEO of Covet. I racked my brain for information I’d read about him when I’d been preparing for this interview. He was thirty-two, Italian, and he’d recently taken over at Covet after his uncle had suffered a heart attack. Oh yeah, and he was richer than God. The Salvatici family had enough money to buy and sell heaven ten times over.
Nerves shot through my belly, twisting and twirling like a tornado. Money always intimidated me, probably because my father used it as a weapon against my mother before he died. And because my stepfather wasn’t much better.
Dammit, I wasn’t prepared for the president of the company. I was out of my element. But I’d been out of my element before. Most of my life, in fact. I could handle this. Docile, I repeated to myself. Be friendly and agreeable. And don’t do anything stupid to give yourself away.
Swiping at the perspiration dotting my forehead, I pictured Luciano Salvatici as a Mussolini caricature with a big whip while I eyed the redheaded teen across from me.
The teen wasn’t nervous. Her shoulders were relaxed, her skin flawless and sweat-free, her hair perfectly styled in soft auburn waves. She probably lived and breathed New York modeling. Without bothering to look up, the teen crossed one long leg over the other, sighed, and moved her fingers rapidly over the screen of her phone, playing a game as if the outside world didn’t exist.
I forced myself to relax into my seat. Coming here today was pure impulse, and I knew it. Two weeks ago, I’d stood in the cemetery, staring at Laney’s coffin, trying to hold back tears as I wondered what had truly happened to my best friend. The formal autopsy report said she’d died of a drug overdose, but I knew Laney better than anyone. She never would have touched drugs let alone taken so many she could OD. Part of that belief was the reason I’d flown to New York and volunteered to box up her apartment so her grieving father wouldn’t have to do it. The other part was hoping I’d find something in Laney’s place that would tell me what had really happened to my friend.
I hadn’t found any clues, but being in her apartment had only made me more suspicious. I’d lived with Laney in college. I knew how messy she’d always been, but her apartment had been spotless when I’d arrived. Too spotless, as if it had recently been white-gloved. And when I’d discovered from her landlord that her rent had been paid through the end of September by some mystery man, I’d known something was definitely up. Especially when I thought back to her last email to me, only hours before her death.
“I don’t want to listen, Nat, but I can’t seem to stop. It’s like I’m two people. The innocent model from Montana everyone knows by day, and the seductive bad girl at night who says ‘yes, sir’ and is willing to do anything he commands.”
Those words sent a shiver down my spine as I sat in the plush lobby of Covet. Ultimately, they were the words that had compelled me to cancel my flight home to Boise, to put in for a leave from my job, to stay in New York, and to finally apply for this internship. I knew the man in that email worked at this magazine. I knew from Laney’s emails and texts that she’d gotten sucked in by someone linked to Covet. I needed answers before I could go home. I needed to know what had happened to the only person in my life who’d truly been there for me, and who I’d let down in her darkest hour of need.
Startled out of my thoughts, I looked up at the dark-haired man striding toward me. The one who wasn’t just Mussolini intimidating, he was broad shouldered, imposing, and seemed to suck up all the air around him as if he owned the room. Which, I suddenly realized, he did.
He stared at me with raised thick dark eyebrows. Realizing he was waiting for me to respond, I shot to my feet, stumbled, and reached for the arm of the chair so I didn’t fall.
“Um. Yes. Mr. Salvatici. That’s me.” My cheeks burned as I righted myself, and I prayed he didn’t notice. Grasping the strap of my purse in one hand, I let go of the chair with the other and held it out. “Thanks for seeing me.”
His expression was more perturbed than inviting, and I swallowed hard as he eyed my hand, then finally returned the handshake. “Ms. Allen informed you that Ms. Clayborne is out today?”
His large hand closed around mine, engulfing me in heat, making me even more aware of his imposing masculinity. The way his thick Italian accent rolled off his tongue didn’t help matters either. “Yes.”
“Very well.” He released me and turned. “This way.”
The words were an order, not a request, and they brought the fine hairs along my nape to attention. Breathing slowly to bring down my raging pulse, I followed him past the reception counter and down a long hallway, sneaking looks even though I knew I shouldn’t.
He wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Instead of short and bald like Mussolini, he was tall and lean, with imposing shoulders that strained against his Armani suit jacket. Thick dark hair skimmed his collar, and just a hint of a shadow covered his square jaw. But what stuck with me the most wasn’t his height or hair or even his body. It was his eyes. I’d only gotten a quick glimpse before he’d turned, but one look was all it had taken to know they were the color of a stormy gray sky and that the left eye had a slight anomaly: a small gap in the bottom left corner as if the iris hadn’t completely fused, creating a keyhole pupil effect. One that made it seem as if even his iris was intimidated by the tempest that roared within him. One that told me he was not a person to be messed with.
Too bad. I was about to mess.
My spine strengthened at the inner pep talk, and my shoulders went back into power mode. He must have felt the change drift through the hall, because he slowed his steps, shooting an irritated look over his shoulder. “Problem?”
His face was all carved angles and tanned skin that looked as if it belonged on a statue rather than on a living, breathing man. He wasn’t handsome—not in the classical sense—but he was striking. And daunting.
I shook my head and met his gaze head-on. “No, no problem.”
He turned away with a frown, and as soon as his gaze was off me, I closed my eyes and gave my head a swift shake. I could do this. It was just an interview. I simply had to remember why I was here and not get distracted by expensive suits and sexy accents and intimidating, overbearing men.
Thoughts of Laney flittered through my mind, making my heart ache. Before I could get lost in the grief all over again, though, Mr. Salvatici turned out of the hall and moved up a curved flight of stairs, leading me into a wide hallway with intricate trim moldings and elegant paneling.
We passed open office doors, and he nodded and muttered hellos to both men and women busy at work, but he never once introduced me or slowed his pace to explain what departments we were passing. Not that I expected a tour. After all, I was only here for an internship. But part of me couldn’t help wonder if he was being dismissive because I wasn’t as flashy and model gorgeous as all the blonde bombshell Barbie dolls walking around.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was attractive even if most days I wanted to shave my curly dark hair and never look at it again. But I’d never be supermodel thin no matter what I tried—I liked ice cream way too much—and at five feet, four inches, the supermodel life just wasn’t in my future. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t need to be five-eleven and stick skinny to be happy. I was perfectly fine with my shape.
I eyed Mr. Salvatici’s broad back as we continued walking. Something else I’d never wanted was to be around formidable, controlling men who expected women to be perfect—I’d watched my mother deal with men like that for way too long. And even though I knew this man wasn’t my father or stepfather and that I was probably judging him unfairly, I didn’t care. It didn’t matter how alluring he was. I suddenly didn’t like him.
He slowed as we approached an archway at the end of the hall. Another blonde Stepford assistant, this one sitting at a wide desk facing an empty waiting area, looked up as we entered. “Mr. Salvatici.”
“Ms. Pascal,” he said in reply, heading for a set of double doors on the far side of the room, not—I noticed—bothering to introduce me. Again. “Hold my calls for the next ten minutes.”
Ten minutes. Wow. He was really giving me a chunk of his day.
The way the blonde said “sir” pushed aside my annoyance and sent a shiver down my spine, and I remembered that line from Laney’s email again.
“…the seductive bad girl at night who says ‘yes, sir’ and is willing to do anything he commands.”
My stomach tightened. I wasn’t naïve. I knew all about the power games some men liked to play. I also knew there were those who craved dominance and submission and that BDSM was a real lifestyle, not just a fantasy found between the covers of a book. I just hoped that wasn’t what I’d wandered into here. For Laney’s sake, I hoped that wasn’t what my friend had wandered into either.
I watched Mr. Salvatici’s jacket pull against the breadth of his shoulders as he pushed one side of the double doors open. Was he the him Laney had referred to in her email? He definitely had that dark and dominant persona going on.
He held the door open so I could pass, and my shoulder brushed the hard plane of his chest, sending warm tingles beneath my jacket. The unexpected contact distracted me from thoughts of Elena, and I caught my breath, drawing in a whiff of his scent—a heady mix of jasmine, musk, cedar, vanilla, and rum.
Straight to Heaven by Kilian. I was sure of it. Thanks to my prep work for this meeting, I’d read every fashion magazine I could get my hands on. Because I couldn’t resist, I’d even pulled the cologne samples from the pages and sniffed them, just in case. I knew them all by name, and this was one of my favorites.
Sexy, alluring, controlling, and he smelled divine. He was every woman’s wicked fantasy, but not mine. I lifted my chin and stepped past him. I wasn’t here for myself. I was here to find answers about what had happened to Elena.
My feet drew to a stop three steps in the room, and I fought to keep my mouth from falling open. His office was bigger than any I’d ever been in, with windows that spanned three whole walls and looked out over a view of the city. His desk sat near the view—a vast piece of chrome and glass that fit his polished exterior. To the right was a wet bar, a cluster of white leather couches, and the biggest flat-screen TV I’d ever seen. To the left, glass doors opened to a palatial conference room and a gleaming mahogany table surrounded by at least twenty chairs.
If I didn’t already know how wealthy and powerful this man was, I definitely did now. Perspiration dotted my spine, and my limbs grew hot and tight as I glanced over the room, realizing I wasn’t just out of my league, I was out of my friggin’ mind.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked, moving toward the bar.
Yeah. A double vodka. Fast. My mouth snapped closed, and I checked the response. “Water would be good.”
Ice clinked in a glass, then he uncapped a bottle and poured fresh, clear liquid into the tumbler. Handing me the drink, he motioned toward the couches.
I set my purse on the floor and crossed my feet at the ankles, feeling more intimidated by the second. Suddenly even the “expensive” suit I’d picked up at Bloomingdales didn’t seem close to good enough.
He sat opposite me, flipped open a folder on the coffee table between us, then leaned back and propped one foot on the opposite knee as he eyed me speculatively.
Prada. My gaze zoomed in on his shiny leather shoes. Those shoes he wore so casually probably cost more than my pathetic car.
“So, Ms. James,” he said in that thick Italian accent that did weird things to my blood. “An internship for a fashion magazine seems pretty far beneath your potential. I looked at your résumé. You recently graduated with a bachelor of business administration in entrepreneurship management, and you’ve been managing a store since. Why the sudden interest in New York fashion? And why should I waste my time on someone who’s overqualified, in all the wrong ways, for this position?”
I swallowed the water in my mouth. Friendly. Mild. Pliable. Be someone he wants to hire, not someone who wants to infiltrate his company to find a killer.
“Well.” Lowering the glass to my lap, I said, “I’ve always been interested in fashion. As a kid, I used to devour magazines like Vogue and Elle and Glamour. But, as you can see”—I glanced down at the black pencil skirt and fitted jacket I wore—“it was pretty obvious at an early age that genetics was not on my side and that I wasn’t cut out to be a model.”
His gaze slid over my body, from the top of my curly hair pinned up so a few soft tendrils framed my face, across the jacket pulled tight at my chest, then down my slim skirt and finally to the length of my legs and the sensible two-inch heels I’d splurged on for this interview. But it wasn’t a fleeting look. It lingered. Lingered so long, warmth gathered in my belly and inched its way up my skin until my neck tingled and my face grew hot.
He was checking me out. This daunting man who was surrounded by drop dead gorgeous models every single day was checking me out.
“I’m someone completely different with him…”
Laney’s email popped into my head once more, snapping me back to the reason I was here. The heat faded. My skin cooled. I set my glass on the coffee table and straightened my spine. If this was the man Elena had written about, I wasn’t about to fall for his games. I was smarter than that. I wasn’t here to be played. I was here for answers.
“As you can see from my résumé, my minor was in design studies. During my senior year, I was the cochair for the Design Gala, which celebrates outstanding achievements in design of all types, including fashion. And for the last two years, yes, I have been managing a store. An upscale boutique in downtown Boise, which has received several awards from the city council and which provides the women of Boise with cutting edge fashion choices. I’m interested in this internship for two reasons, Mr. Salvatici. To expand my knowledge of the fashion industry, and to prove what I can do. My background in business is only an asset to anyone I work with.”
He glanced at the folder between us. “Yes. I do see all that. Forgive me for asking, but have you ever been to New York City before, Ms. James?”
That wasn’t a question I’d anticipated. “No, but—”
“I thought not.” He reached for the file. “I see you grew up in a small town in Montana and that after high school you moved to Boise. I realize Boise, Idaho might be a big city to you, but it isn’t exactly the fashion capital of the world, cutting edge or not. In fact, judging from what I’ve seen today”—his gaze lifted from my résumé and skipped back over my black suit—“your little boutique probably wouldn’t stand a chance if it were located here in New York City.”
My mouth dropped open in shock, but I closed it quickly. He’d just dissed not only the town I called home but my style as well. In a flash, I realized that wasn’t interest I’d seen in his eyes moments before, it was disdain. For someone he viewed as beneath him.
Waaay beneath him.
My vision turned red all over again, but I held my temper because lashing out at this pompous asshole wouldn’t get me any closer to my goal. And I needed to keep that goal in sight if I had any hope of figuring out what had happened to Laney.
“Look, Ms. James.” He leaned forward to rest his forearms against the thighs of his designer slacks and tossed the folder on the coffee table between us. “I’ll be honest with you. You’re not what Covet looks for in an intern.”
“And what does Covet look for?” I snapped before I could stop myself. “Dumb blondes?”
His brow lifted, and I caught the flash of amusement in his odd gray eyes before the shutters came down. “Worldliness. Most of the models we use come from small town America, like you. Our goal is to expose them to new people and new experiences because a job as a Covet model will take them all over the world. As impressive as your résumé may be, to our models, you would forever be a reminder of what they’ve left behind. And for that reason, you are not the type of intern we are looking for.”
His logic made absolutely no sense. “And because you think I’m not worldly enough, you’re not even going to interview me?”
“I have interviewed you. In the process, I learned everything I need to know.”
Which meant he’d taken one look at me and decided I wasn’t hot enough to work for Covet. “You didn’t even give me five full minutes.”
He shrugged in an I-couldn’t-care-less move.
His arrogant attitude was all I could take, but I wasn’t about to admit defeat. “Mr. Salvatici, perhaps instead of looking for ‘worldly’ employees, you should be searching for ones who are highly trainable. An employee who can think on her feet is way more valuable than one who comes from a big city. I can assure you, I would not remind any of your mod—”
“And that’s you?” he interrupted with another lingering glance that traveled the length of my body before finally making its way back up to my eyes. “‘Trainable?’”
Something about the way he said that word—trainable—hit me as off. There was heat in his voice, yes, and in the way he looked at me, but I didn’t see any kind of interest in his eyes as they held mine. If anything, I saw disgust.
“Yes.” I managed, trying not to be shaken by him. Reminding myself I didn’t care if he was disgusted by my appearance or not. “I’ve learned a lot of things in my life. Quickly and well. As my résumé proves, I—”
“We’ve already covered your résumé, Ms. James. And you’re not what Covet is looking for.”
I stared at him in utter disbelief. It couldn’t be over so soon. I had to find a way to convince him.
“Perhaps I’m simply not hot enough,” I suggested coldly.
I cringed as the words echoed back to me and bit down hard on my tongue. Dammit. That wasn’t what I’d meant to say.
He flipped the folder closed. “This interview is over, Ms. James.”
Angry with myself for the way I’d screwed this up, at the way he’d labeled me before he’d even asked me one damn question, I snatched my purse from the floor and pushed to my feet. “Just tell me one thing. Why the heck did you even bother to schedule this meeting if you knew you weren’t going to hire me?”
“I didn’t,” he said casually, easing back against the couch to look up at me with narrowed, stormy eyes. “Ms. Clayborne did. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was scheduled as a courtesy. Seeing as you were a friend of Elena McCabe.”
My fingers grew cold against the strap of my bag, and the air caught in my throat.
Shit. He’d done his research.
“We were all very sorry to hear of her passing,” he went on, his voice cool and composed, not empathetic in any way. “She was a sweet girl. One we will all miss.”
A sweet girl…
In a rush, I realized that he’d known her. Personally. I could hear it in his taunting words. And that meant he could very well be the man who’d murdered my friend.