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 had used it as a weapon against my mother before he’d 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. 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.