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Royal Dragon Bind:

Royal Dragon Shifters of Morocco #1

A RED LETTER HOTEL ROMANCE

She must give up everything she is to become who she was meant to be.

Layla Price’s life isn’t what it should be. Bartending in Seattle sucks, and with a PhD in International Relations but no jobs available, she can’t afford rent, much less pay her student loans.

So when a ridiculously hot billionaire shows up at Layla’s favorite art gallery and purchases a priceless Moroccan wrist cuff, gifting it to her with an offer to work for him, should she take it?

The Red Letter Hotel is an exclusive business shrouded in secrets. But when Hot Mystery Guy runs out on her and all Layla gets is a business card with no name and an international number – plus the memory of his unreal aqua eyes that burn with hot desert winds – her life goes up in flames.

Call this number, he said. Become who you were meant to be.

But who is that – and does she dare find out?


CHAPTER 1 – ARTIFACT

The Moroccan wrist-cuff in the glass box was exquisite. Layla Price gazed down at the antique Berber artifact resting on its black velvet cushion, watching the gallery’s light reflect off the ornately-fashioned silver. Inset with red coral, amazonite, bone, and amethyst, not to mention exquisite turquoise and yellow cloisonné enamel, the cuff was part of a collection of North African artifacts featured at the Vermillion art gallery for August.

Leaning over the display, a glass of chardonnay to hand, Layla tucked a curl of her sable hair back up into its twist. The cuff, featuring a bone hamsa with a fiery red coral teardrop in the center of the palm, seemed to ward or forbid any who might touch it – as if it was not to be owned, lest it claim the one who owned it. Enameled vases and inlaid tables, Berber necklaces and archways of colorful zellij mosaics were forgotten as Layla stared at the cuff. Lifting her glass, Layla sipped her chardonnay, refreshed by the crisp, smooth flavor in the muggy space of the gallery. The Vermillion was a local spot in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the long, narrow space allowing almost no meandering room between the displays. The tiny gallery featured a bar in the back, though almost no-one wandered the exhibit today. It was a shame; the pieces were exquisite, and brought a feeling of desert spice and evening winds to the stuffy space.

As if called up from the hamsa-cuff, a breeze lifted the air inside the gallery, stirring Layla’s curls. She was still dressed in her little black work dress and heels, showing her slim curves and long legs. Simple but low-cut, the dress attracted attention when Layla shook up a drink at the Needle & Thread secret bar – from where she had just come, off her bartending shift for the night. 

Glancing over, Layla saw the zephyr was just the glass door, propped open by a geek-chic gallery host to let in the evening breeze. As the host set the door, a man slipped in from the street, nodding to the host then gazing around the fantastic display. Dressed in an elegant ensemble of a crisp white collared shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, narrow pinstriped charcoal trousers with a shiny black belt and Oxfords, he was obviously rich. Men didn’t get that lean, mean physique without dedicated training, and those tall, cuttingly handsome looks weren’t fed pizza and beer. 

Rifling a hand through his brush-cut black hair as he gazed around, his piercing green-blue eyes perused every glass case from the door as if searching for something. His gaze finally came to the hamsa-cuff and he noted Layla – then those eyes traveled up Layla’s curves from high-heels to hips, to cleavage, to her face. As the man’s eyes locked on hers, an electric current shivered through Layla. Piercing, drowning, she was suddenly unsure if those eyes were blue or green, or a searing Mediterranean aquamarine. Vibrant and molten, they devoured her as flecks of gold in their depths caught the evening sun through the gallery’s windows, scattering it like a sea on fire.

Staring at her, the man’s lips fell open. She saw him inhale, then lurch forward as if drawn to that electric sensation Layla felt tingling through her body. Like her entire nervous system had come alive at the sight of him, Layla’s breath was fast as she flicked her gaze away. Tingles and heat rushed through her. Her head reeled and Layla locked her eyes on the hamsa-cuff as if it were the only thing that could save her from the man’s intense, almost carnal presence. 

She felt him move closer – stirring the breeze from the door with a flush of heat that smelled of cinnamon and anise, even desert jasmine. But it was just his cologne wafting around her as he paused then moved on by, giving Layla a wide berth as he moved toward the bar with his hands thrust casually in his pockets.

Shaken by the man’s arrival, Layla breathed deep, one arm clutching her waist as she tried to hold her wine glass steady. She could still feel his heat surging across her skin with a palpable pressure – as if he had touched her as he walked by, even though he hadn’t. She couldn’t get enough of his inundating cologne; the scent intoxicating on her tongue. 

Alarm raced through her with her sudden attraction. The last time she’d experienced a heat so intense with anyone was Gavin, and what a train wreck that had turned out to be. Six months after they’d broken up, she could still feel the disaster of that relationship. Screaming and throwing art-vases at each other, Layla had stalked out of his penthouse apartment downtown and never looked back. Too-hot-to-handle Gavin could keep his tech money and his Tesla Roadster – and the five women he’d been fucking on the side. Now, two months post-grad from the University of Washington with a PhD in International Studies but with no proper job, Layla was only good enough to serve assholes like Gavin their drinks; the Seattle job market abysmal for non-tech positions. 

Feeling a presence return to the gallery, Layla’s gaze lifted to see Hot Guy idling near a tiled arch. His gaze shifted to her as he sipped a blood-red wine, as if he felt her watching. The sensation of a desert wind blew through Layla again as she met that searing aquamarine gaze – watching her with a level intelligence and dark passion. It rocked her and she dropped her eyes to the floor, the tiled mirrors – to anything but stare at Hot Guy Trouble.

Moving around the gallery, he took his wine and his tall, hot self in the opposite direction – idling at every mirror, gazing into every case of jewelry. Stepping to the wall, Layla avoided him. Admiring an inlaid vase, she was awed by the breathtaking detail. But the only piece that truly called to her of her mother’s Moroccan heritage, was the six-inch cuff in its spotlit box. Migrating back, Layla’s gaze sank into the shining silver, the bleak bone of the hamsa – the red coral like a drop of blood in the center of the palm.

“Arresting, isn’t it?” 

A smooth baritone voice at her side nearly made Layla drop her wineglass. Of course, her hot kryptonite had migrated to her side, admiring the wrist-cuff, his rakish good looks even more exquisite up close. She glanced over, trying not to stare and failing. His cheekbones were high, his jawline cuttingly defined, his short black hair thick and glossy. With slightly tanned skin, he looked Mediterranean, though those piercing aqua eyes with their flecks of gold were unreal. His short black stubble looked soft, and Layla fought an almost irrepressible urge to lift her fingers to his jaw and touch him.

“It’s lovely.” Layla returned, trying to make her voice firm. His heady desert-spice musk flowed around her as his presence pressed upon her like a hand caressing down to things unseen. Sipping her wine to cover her blistering reaction to him, Layla tried to ignore the wetness she felt down below and the hammering of her pulse. Usually, if she dismissed men long enough, her ardor got the hint. Working as a bartender in high-class Seattle establishments since undergrad had given her a lot of helpful tricks against sexy bad boys – and Layla set her determination firmly in place, knowing this one was as sexy and bad as they came.

“As if it could take you by the hand and lead you into danger,” he murmured, sidling nearer with his gaze riveted to the cuff. “Or out of it. Protection or devastation. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

“Rumi.” Layla’s eyebrows lifted; rich assholes didn’t speak poetry. She blinked as she turned to him, her determination to brush him off slipping. “The cure for pain is in the pain.

His lovely lips quirked, his aqua eyes smiling with delight – transforming him from devastatingly handsome to absolutely annihilating. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” His gaze flicked down to the cuff then back up to pin her; flooding Layla with his intense presence. “I feel a strange pull when I look at this thing. As if my only option is to surrender, and be bound by it.”

Layla wasn’t entirely certain they were speaking of the artifact anymore. Flooded with heat, she flushed across her own light olive skin, unable to draw her gaze away from drowning in her unexpected companion. “As if there could be no other way,” she mused, feeling the strange pull of not only the Moroccan cuff, but also the man beside her.

A moment passed between them, shivering with heat. Currents of air stirred from the open doorway, the lurid smell of the city blending with the man’s cinnamon spice scent. Layla could feel him; pulling her, surrounding her with an almost animal magnetism. As if their bodies understood each other, Layla found them moving closer as they tried not to fall into each other and failed. His gaze pierced her, drowning her; though she saw something equally annihilated in his arresting stare. His lips had fallen open as they pulled steadily closer.

Suddenly, Hot Mystery Guy cleared his throat, his beautiful black lashes blinking. He made a quick gesture to the gallery host, lingering by the door and fanning herself with a Japanese paper fan. Hustling over in her black T-shirt, black jeans and combat boots, she beamed behind chunky square-rimmed glasses, her blonde hair shaven on one side. 

“Questions?” She chirruped, adjusting her glasses.

“How much is this piece?” The man queried, his baritone smooth and rich like Turkish coffee. Layla suddenly realized he had a vaguely Mediterranean accent, though she couldn’t place it.

“Oh!” The gallery host blushed and adjusted her glasses again. “It’s not for sale; none of these pieces are. They’re being displayed from a private collection. I’m so sorry. But we are taking donations for the gallery, if you’d like to make a gesture of your appreciation for the show?”

With a sly smile that made his handsomeness obliterating, the man produced a gilded pen from his pocket and a cream linen business card from a gold card-holder. Writing a number on the card, he held it out to the gallery host. “Please make a call to the owner. Here is my offer for this piece, and I can pay it right away. I’ll wait.”

She took the card, a doubtful frown pinching her ash-blonde brows. But when she saw the sum, those blonde brows climbed her forehead. “Sir! I’ll be right back.”

Hustling away so fast she was practically running, she headed for the bar. Layla glanced over, watching the man put the pen and card-holder back in his pants pocket, his smile rakishly delightful. 

“Couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Layla sassed, sipping her wine. “Just had to go flashing that money around to get anything you like.” Being brazen and cheeky was her back-up against hot rich men, if her body’s dismissal failed.

Which it had. Spectacularly.

His gaze pierced her, full of delight and carnal devouring. “I know someone this piece of jewelry would be perfect for. It would be a tragedy to leave it languishing in a glass case rather than gracing her perfect wrist.”

“Lucky her.” Layla’s gaze fell back to the cuff. She felt forlorn suddenly, that this rich asshole had purchased it, probably for his wife or lover. And that he could – just throwing around his money and his Rumi and aqua eyes and making the world do his bidding. And yet, the most disappointing thing was that he was otherwise engaged. It speared Layla’s heart suddenly that he had someone else – someone who was not her and never would be. Her ardor struggled, as if he’d trapped it and now it needed to be free. Her heat diminished as she sipped her wine, staring at the Moroccan cuff and letting conversation with Hot Mystery Guy drop.

“And how is it that an arresting creature such as yourself has come to be here on a Friday night, when all the rest of the world is out dancing?”

Layla blinked, realizing that he was striking up conversation while he waited for the judgement on his price. She glanced over, trying to not be arrested by his incredible eyes and still failing. “I just got off work. I heard this show was coming in and I’ve been looking forward to it.”

He cocked his head, giving her a keen once-over that made her flush and tingle again, damn hormones. “Bartender,” he spoke with a slight grin. “And half-Moroccan, if I’m not mistaken. You smell like twists of orange and lemon-peel with a splash of sweet bourbon. And that light olive skin and loose curls I’d know anywhere. Though those pale jade eyes of yours… I can’t rightly say where those come from.”

“Worldly, aren’t we?” Layla sassed him again, swirling her wine. It both pissed her off and impressed her that his assessment had been so acute – a little too acute. “I was born near Marrakesh, though my family moved here when I was an infant. My mother’s Moroccan. Have you been to Morocco?”

“I was born there also.” Uncouth, he clinked glasses with her, his incredible eyes witty. “I still have a place there, and family. I try to get back as often as I can.”

Of course he has a place there. Layla thought sourly. Probably has a palace in every corner of the world and thinks nothing of it.

“Your eyes are hardly Moroccan, either,” she bit somewhat harshly, irritated suddenly. 

“No, they’re not.” He cocked his head, brows furrowing at her terseness. “Tell me, have I—”

But he got no further as the gallery host whisked back, practically tripping in her haste, her eyes wide behind her chunky frames. “The owner said yes!”

“Fantastic!” The man’s face opened from worry to immense pleasure and he gestured to the case. The girl produced a bundle of keys and unlocked the glass. She slid the velvet pillow out with reverence, liberating the artifact. The red coral and bright silver caught the lights, dazzling as if exuberant to be free. While the white bone ate the light – devouring it as if hungry for more.

“I’ll just be a moment boxing it. If you’d meet me in the back?”

“Leave the item here; I’ve no need for a box. Run the sum on this – and please add a twenty percent tip for the gallery.” Reaching out, the man slipped a black credit card embossed with a scarlet R into the pocket of the girl’s black t-shirt. Eyes enormous, she set the velvet pillow with the cuff on top of the glass case. 

“I’ll be right back.” She spoke, then hustled off.

With slow reverence the man reached out, fingers hovering over the cuff. His aqua eyes were a thousand miles away as he set his fingertips to the scarlet coral, stroking the bone and inlaid silver as if stroking a lover’s skin. His lips fell open and his sigh seemed to fill the gallery, susurrating upon a sudden wind that intensified the scent of his cinnamon-jasmine cologne. As if responding to his touch, the bloody coral teardrop threw the evening light in a pulse like a beating heart – though it was just the last rays of the sun flashing out through the windows. 

“Hold out your wrist.” The man’s voice was a whisper in the empty gallery. 

“What?” Layla startled, glancing at him. 

“Hold out your wrist,” the man’s gaze caught hers, drowning like a Mediterranean ocean. “I want to make sure it fits the woman it’s for.”

“Oh! Sure.” Layla was shaking as she held out her left wrist, wineglass in her other hand. She wanted more than anything to have the cuff bound upon her, yet it was somehow terrifying. Draining his wine and setting the glass on a pedestal, the man’s long fingers claimed the cuff. With a deft touch, he pulled the long silver pin, then clasped the cuff around Layla’s wrist. The silver was so cold it burned, as if the cuff held an otherworldly energy. Setting the pin, the man’s hands slipped away. 

But at the last moment, his long fingers strayed over Layla’s wrist – touching skin-to-skin with the silver cuff between. A hard pulse rocked Layla. Like a firebrand had been thrust through her from the cuff and the man’s touch, it caused her to cry out in exquisite pleasure and terrible pain. The man grunted, doubling over as if he’d been punched, his hand spasming tight upon hers. 

With a roaring flow, a bright wind rushed through Layla as his hand clamped down – filling her nostrils with cinnamon and anise, jasmine and orange peel, destroying her with a vision of light. Vast deserts rolled away from her. Vistas of canyons; cities of ancient splendor. The feel of a desert wind as it surged through an oasis at twilight; the roaring demon of the sandstorm. She cried out again, shuddering and dropping her wineglass to shatter upon the gallery’s floor as the man’s fingers twined into hers – flooding her with a roaring, ancient passion.

With a gasp, Layla broke away from the man’s touch, staggering to the gallery wall to prevent herself from falling. The man stood near the pedestal, his iron-wrought frame shaking like a leaf in gale as he stared at her with eyes that shifted through every color now, including gold – amazing and impossible. Heat and pleasure continued to rock Layla, flooding from the hamsa-cuff and where the man had touched her. 

With a shudder, Layla hastily unpinned the cuff, dropping it. It was saved from landing in Layla’s shattered wineglass by the man’s serpent-fast reflexes. Cradling her wrist as surges of pleasure just this side of orgasm rocked her, Layla saw a red mark burned into her inner wrist. The hamsa with its bloody teardrop was seared into her flesh – right over the spot where the bone inlay had been.

The gallery host came running with a broom and trash sweep-up as Layla massaged her wrist, still unable to process what had just happened. Handing back the man’s credit card with a receipt, the host nodded to him, then began sweeping up the glass. 

“Forgive us!” The man murmured, making a nominal motion to help, though he was still breathing hard as if he’d just run a sprint. 

“No, it’s no problem!” She waved him off. “People break glassware in here all the time. And you’re all set with the purchase. Thank you so much for your patronage, we truly appreciate it! If there’s anything else I can do?”

With an unsteady step back and a shiver, the man produced a scarlet silk handkerchief from his trouser-pocket and wrapped the cuff, then pocketed it. His gaze simmered upon Layla, though his eyes had returned to their regular piercing aqua. Those eyes snapped back to the gallery host. “Yes. Best restaurant in a three-block walk?”

“Oh, I recommend Lark,” she answered. “Take Pike west to 10th, head south, then over and down on Broadway. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks.” 

Before Layla could react, the man set a hand to the small of her back, then whisked them out the door and into the Friday night bustle on Capitol Hill. He breathed out shakily as they passed through the door, heat rising from his body as he stepped close, his hand searing upon Layla’s back. With a chuckle, he flashed Layla a smile from his still-burning aquamarine eyes. 

“I could use a bite after all that excitement. Shall we?”

“Get dinner?” Layla balked, pulling back against his hand, shaken by what had just happened. 

“Unless you have other plans?” Though his touch eased as they gained the sidewalk, he didn’t let her go. Hot Mystery Guy cocked his head, his penetrating gaze gone so dark in the twilight it was cobalt. Layla was about to decline, but his gaze was so arresting, his hand at her back so hot that she hesitated. Her body still reeled from whatever had just happened; her pulse pounded with each whiff of his cinnamon-desert cologne as a flooding passion rocked her. The entire episode had left her unseated from reality – the mark upon her wrist vivid from the burn of cold silver.

“You paying for dinner?” Layla sassed at last. So much for all her protection mechanisms against Hot Guy Trouble.

“Of course. There is nothing I would love to do more.” Her Hot Mystery Guy smiled, annihilating like a falling star in the dusk, and Layla felt heat surge through her all over again. She was undone by that smile, she realized suddenly. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for it. As if it bound her heart, Layla felt her passion and pleasure leap to him – needing that smile in her world like she needed breath. It swept her away so completely that she was left dumbstruck by how fast he had snared her. How hard she had fallen to his searing touch, to that cinnamon-jasmine scent breathing around her like a desert zephyr – to this deep and ancient lust surging between them.

With a graceful gesture, he beckoned down the sidewalk. Trying to pull her shit together, Layla stepped into the throng before he could arrest her again. With easy strides he accompanied her, threading through the punks and early drunks with a serpentine grace, his hand never once relinquishing its place at the small of her back. As if he, like the hamsa-cuff that had marked her, couldn’t bear to parted from Layla.

And for her part, Layla didn’t shrug him off.

CHAPTER 2 – OPPORTUNITY

The restaurant’s open space was brightly-lit, cozy yet modern with a cascade of wine racks down one wall and enormous picture windows upon the other. Layla and her mystery billionaire were quickly seated at a two-top table near the floor-to-ceiling wall of wine; a cozy nook with the clink and chatter of people all around. Asking what kind of wine she liked, her mystery guy immediately ordered a bottle of the restaurant’s best chardonnay, and was given a crisp nod as the host poured their water. Settling in as darkness devoured the street outside, Hot Mystery Guy sipped his water, his piercing eyes never leaving Layla – though he seemed to have regained his composure.

“So,” he began, “tell me about yourself.”

It was an extremely open-ended question and Layla balked. It was unclear if they were on a date, his body language genial now that they were seated. She still felt like she wasn’t thinking clearly since the gallery, though he seemed to be taking the strange events in stride. Blinking, Layla amassed her wits, unfolding her cloth napkin in her lap and taking a drink of water to fortify herself. Lesson one of strange men: don’t tell them much about yourself. 

Lesson two: don’t sink into those amazing eyes, no matter what.

“Well,” Layla set her water down, her regular brisk nature coming back online, “maybe you could start. By telling me just what exactly happened in the gallery back there. That was not your normal Friday afternoon.”

He gave a chuckle, his eyes twinkling with mischief and also with a secret. “Seems like you had a pretty severe allergic reaction to the cuff’s metal. Gave you quite the burn.”

“Bullshit.” Layla leaned forward and was about to tear him a new one, her feisty nature truly coming back now that he had tried to pull a fast one on her, when the wine arrived. In that moment, Layla realized her mistake coming to Lark. She looked up into the face of their lean, impeccably-dressed server as he set down two white-wine glasses, giving Layla a quick smile and a waggle of his blonde eyebrows. Layla’s chest gripped; it was Arron Jacobs, one of her housemates. She’d forgotten he was working tonight, Lark one of his two regular serving jobs. 

The wine-dance began with the presentation of the bottle, followed by uncorking. From Arron’s smirk, he clearly thought Layla was on a date as he presented the first pour in Mystery Guy’s glass, who slid it over for Layla to taste. She swirled it, sipping and trying to hold back an embarrassed burn in her cheeks – to no avail. But the wine was lovely, smooth and buttery. She nodded and Arron poured the rest, then set the bottle on the table and whisked away with a grin, leaving two menus in his wake after announcing the specials.

Taking up her wine and having a good swallow, knowing she was going to hear it from Arron later, Layla leaned back towards Mystery Guy. “Look. You’re selling me a line about what just happened in the gallery, and I’m not buying. Something real happened in there; something I could feel. That damn cuff you purchased did something to me. I can still feel it like fire ants burning beneath my skin. So spill. Tell me the truth.”

He have a low laugh, swirling his wine and gazing down at it; stalling. She could see his mind working furiously behind those oceanic eyes and dark lashes, planning what he would say. At last, he looked up. “Would you believe it if I told you I’m a collector of rare artifacts?”

“Sure.” That, Layla did buy. His flagrant display in the gallery confirmed it, as did his scrupulous examination of every item in the place. But there was so much more he wasn’t saying. “What else?”

He chuckled again, but this time his eyes remained on her. “Artifact acquisition is not my only investment, but it is one that is important to me for personal reasons.”

“Heritage reasons?” 

“You could say that.” He nodded, swirling his wine and sipping. “I do only collect artifacts important to my heritage, like that cuff. The rest of the items in the gallery were common, but that one is special to my people.”

“Some tribe in Morocco? And special how?” Layla wondered out loud, digging for information. The more she could learn about him before telling him anything about herself, the better. She didn’t need any more Hot Enigmas in her life after Gavin with his secret harem of women and shady high-finance deals. 

“Indeed.” He nodded, watching her with the full force of those amazing aquamarine eyes. “My tribe’s heritage has been scattered over the centuries, and I’m trying to bring it back together. That particular cuff was crafted under unique circumstances. Rather like a talisman – and if you’re sensitive to energy dynamics like a psychic or a shaman, you likely felt its effects. Because of its unique crafting, that cuff is priceless. I admit I was tracking it down; the buyer was a fool for accepting my offer. He didn’t know what he had.”

“Interesting.” Layla pondered that information, watching him. She had a very good bullshit radar, and it didn’t quite feel like a lie – actually more truth than lies, though she could tell he was holding back. The history of the cuff she could believe. Much pillaging had been done in North Africa over the past hundreds of years, and Layla could understand wanting to return objects of cultural significance to their home. If he was in a position to do so, go him. She wasn’t sure she bought all the energy-stuff, but she had been affected before by crystals, seances, and the like. Even to the point of fainting, once. 

“What else do you do?” Layla pressed, determined to wrest more out of him. “You don’t make money buying Moroccan artifacts and returning them home.”

“No, I don’t.” He chuckled, his aqua eyes flashing in the light of the brushed-steel spotlights overhead as he sipped his wine. “I am part-owner in a hotel chain, actually. Very elite; very exclusive. Think Hilton, but for only the top one-hundredth of one percent.” Here, he produced another fine business card from the gilded card-carrier in his pocket, extending it. Taking it up in her fingertips without touching him, though something inside her wanted to, Layla examined the card. A scarlet “R” in an elegant script was embossed on the front of the exquisite cream cardstock, surrounded by a gilded crown. There was an international telephone number imprinted in the lower right corner in scarlet ink, but that was all. No name, no address, nothing else.

“Shady,” she commented, offering it back. 

“Keep it.” He extended his hand to stop her. 

“Okay.” She set it down on the table by her plate. “Are you sure you’re not James Bond or something?” She joked casually, though her alarm bells were ringing from that business card.

“No, I’m not James Bond.” He gave a lopsided grin, adorable and sexy as hell – almost diffusing her alarms. “Though like James Bond, my work does keep me traveling, constantly. I rarely get to go home to Morocco and when I do, it is with great relief. And you?” He queried, sipping his wine. “You were born in Morocco, but you live here – Seattle?”

“Yes.” Layla nodded vaguely, keeping her information as clean of personal details as possible with a man she knew nothing about. “My mother is Moroccan but my father is from here. Bartending is temporary. My PhD is in International Studies.”

“Recently graduated?” He queried, interested. “Any employment prospects?”

“I’m exploring my options.” Layla lifted a dark eyebrow at him, swirling her wine and getting peeved at his pushing. 

He gave a low chuckle, those arresting eyes pinning her as a dark smile lifted his lips. “Now you’re the one who’s giving me bullshit. Let me guess. You were the shining star of your program, top of your class. Witty, argumentative, opinionated. Dissertation to die for. Gave a speech at graduation. And then you got passed over for that big position – maybe the United Nations, maybe some consulate – and you’re fuming, pissed. Wondering what your life has been for as you tread water and tend bar. Up to your eyeballs in student debt while barely managing to scrape by with a house full of roommates in the scalding competition of Seattle’s urban housing market. How close am I?”

Layla’s cheeks were positively crimson. She could feel them burning her face off. She set her wineglass down, staring at him. Other than the part about having given a speech at graduation, which she had been sick for and missed after finding out she’d not gotten the position with the United Nations in Paris, he was spot-on. 

Scary spot-on.

“How the hell?” She whispered, furious – while also relearning how to breathe.

“It’s part of my job to read people, and a natural gift.” His aqua gaze was penetrating; relentless but also calm. “Too many graduates find themselves in your situation. Excellent credentials, high-achieving, talented, stepping out into a flooded job market that doesn’t want them. A cutthroat world of too much skill and too many people, plus overwhelming expenses and debt. But what if there was another way?”

Excuse me?” Layla set her jaw, the conversation entirely too personal for her liking now. She crossed her arms, sitting back in her chair and lifting an eyebrow at him, making him see her rage. “Are you trying to sell me timeshares or something?”

“Not at all!” He laughed, his oceanic eyes sparkling, his own ease with the conversation warring with Layla’s tension. “I’m trying to say there’s a whole world out there that you are perfectly suited for. A life that could earn you everything you want, based on the credentials you have. If you’re willing.”

“Willing to do what?” Layla darkened, eyeballing him with fury coursing through her veins as she guessed where this was going. “Sleep with you?”

“No.” He smiled and actually blushed a little, his gaze almost embarrassed. “No, gods no.”

“Then what?” Layla’s brows furrowed. He was clearly working her up to something, but she still couldn’t place what it was. But that sketchy business card and his cagey dancing around the exact nature of his hotel chain was working her hackles up.

“I’d like to invite you to come work for my hotel.”

He watched her with a level directness, gauging Layla’s reaction. She blinked at him, feeling absolutely hostile even though he was still hot as hell. “Is this some kind of fluff-and-buff Dubai prostitution ring? Because if it is, you are going to get a drink your face and you’ll see my pretty ass walking out that door, stat.” She nodded to the tall glass doors at the front of the restaurant. “My life sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as that. No fucking thank you.”

He sat back, watching her closely, something mysterious settling about him as he swirled and sipped his wine. Layla realized he’d hesitated. She shook her head, an incredulous look taking her face. Lifting her napkin from her lap, she slapped it to the table and pushed up out of her chair. She was two steps into ditching his ass and this whole damn cluster-fuck, when he reached out, snagging her wrist. An intense sensation shivered all the way through Layla’s body, and it was all she could do to not throw her head back in ecstasy at his touch. Her body shuddered, flaring with passion so hard it left her breath heaving, and a small sound escaped her lips. Heat flushed Layla’s face; both from embarrassment and from her response.

Her body wanted him; hard. As his fingertips brushed the inside of her wrist where the cuff had burned her, she felt a thrill sear up her arm – deep into her chest and down into her groin. A breath left Layla’s lips as she stared at him, incredulous. His aqua eyes flared, the gold in them bright as a shudder passed through him also. Whatever was happening wasn’t just her, and as Layla turned to face him he rose from his seat, his fingers still at her wrist. Smoothing a circle on her inner wrist with his thumb, he gazed down, Layla staring up into his incredible molten eyes. They were so hot they could have burned the Sahara, a match to his burning touch at her wrist, and she realized they were breathing together – sharing breath, matching each other sip for sip.

“No.” He spoke at last, something intense in his visage. “It’s not prostitution.”

“You hesitated.” Layla breathed, feeling his closeness, wanting it and not knowing what the hell was going on.

“I did.” He nodded, something dire in his gaze. “Please sit, and I’ll explain.”

Layla was one step from bolting or two steps from retaking her seat. The solid heat of his nearness pressed her like a hand, stroking an amazing, shivering sensation through her. It was so strong she shuddered again, her eyelashes fluttering involuntarily. Though she flushed with embarrassment that he had such an effect on her, she saw an answering tremor wrack him.

And an answering flutter of his own black-lashed eyes.

That swayed her more than anything he could have said. Whatever was going on was not just her. Layla felt a deep mystery as he gently released her wrist, beckoning to her chair. She reclaimed it, watching him warily like a bird with a snake. But something about her was having an effect on him too – so perhaps they were two snakes facing off across the table.

“Talk.” Layla took up her wine, downing what was left and pouring again from the bottle. She didn’t refill his glass, eyeballing him with a tense composure. He downed what was left of his own wine and after he’d refilled his glass, drank another big swig before he set it carefully down.

“The Red Letter Hotel,” he began, watching Layla intently, “serves the most elite clientele on earth. Don’t bother researching it on Google or anywhere else. You won’t find anything.”

“The Red Letter Hotel.” Layla pinned him with her gaze. “What’s that? This?” She held up his business card. 

That,” he nodded soberly at the card, “is an exclusive invitation. To become part of one of the most elite organizations on earth. Elon Musk wishes he had our connections. And that card in his fingertips, just as you have now.”

“But you prostitute people.” Layla frowned.

“No.” He tapped the pedestal of his wine glass with one finger, watching her with his searing gaze. “We invite luxury clients to have a one-of-a-kind experience during their stay with us. It can include sex, but not necessarily. We provide an experience that will blow a person’s mind, body, and spirit, and re-configure everything they ever knew about the world. Our guests value us for providing that perspective and pay handsomely for it. I’m inviting you to come be a part of it. To start in Concierge Services, using your formidable talents to navigate tricky political situations with grace, wit, and fire, for the benefit of both yourself and our establishment. Learning on your feet and coming to understand a whole new world by being a part of it. A thorough understanding of who you really are, and how much power and benefit it can bring you. If you’re ready.”

Layla was stone-cold for a long moment. “Who the fuck are you?”

He had opened his lips to respond when something near the door caught his eye. Layla could practically feel him bristle as he came alert, like spines or barbs prickling in the air. She could feel it all over her body, and she shivered as the man’s hand snaked out lightning-fast to a steak knife upon the table, touching it like he might attack someone. He paused, watching the door with a rigid, animalistic fury that made his eyes flash gold once more. The moment stretched, Layla barely able to breathe from the intensity flooding from him. Her breath came in small gasps, and his eyes flicked to her. Worry creased his handsome features, and taking a deep breath, his fingers eased from the knife – that bristling sensation in the air diminishing slightly until Layla could breathe again. 

He leaned forward, dropping his voice. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to upset you. But I can’t tell you my name. Not here, not now. It’s not safe. But please know, Layla Price, that with your International Studies PhD, the seven languages you speak fluently and how easily you pick up more, and with your mother’s heritage out of Marrakesh – that you are precisely the person I’ve been looking for. The cuff’s reaction to you tonight confirms it. Consider all that I’ve said. Please. I’m begging you to.”

With that, he rose, snagging Layla’s roommate Arron by the arm as he passed, pressing his black credit card into Arron’s hand. “Anything the lady wants, please see that she is taken care of. I have to leave, but make certain she gets this card before she goes, to take with her and use as she sees fit.”

“Sir.” Arron’s blonde eyebrows climbed his forehead as he nodded. He glanced between them with an incredulous look at Layla, then bustled off to the server’s station with the card. 

Gazing down at Layla, a complicated look washed through her mysterious stranger’s eyes. They seemed to change again in the bright light of the restaurant – like an ocean roiling with currents of sea green, royal blue, then gold. Layla’s breath caught, feeling like she was rolled under the Mediterranean – drowning in his desert-spice scent as waves of heat and cool flooded off his skin. 

Her breath was fast again as he reached out, touching her fingertips. At his caress, a spear of electricity shot straight through Layla. Blistering heat rolled from him; an answering heat rolled hard through Layla as he held her gaze and lifted her fingers to his lips. At the touch of his lips, so impossibly smooth upon her skin, passion roared through Layla’s every fiber. She could suddenly feel those lips kissing her everywhere. Her neck, her nipples, her groin – lust hammered her, then disorientation as if she were seeing him in a hundred different skins.

All of them changing except for the piercing blue of his desert-ocean eyes.

Sliding his free hand into his pocket, he retrieved the hamsa-cuff and set it on the table by Layla’s plate. Guiding her hand from his lips, he set her fingertips to the red coral and white bone. “This is yours. Call the number on the card. Become who you were meant to be.” 

With that, he released her, something like agony flickering across his face and flaring deep in his eyes as he devoured her one last time. And then he was gone, sidling through the restaurant and out into the night so quickly it was like he’d never been.

Stunned, Layla still simmered with annihilation, every nerve on fire. Reaching out, she claimed her wine, downing it. Arron was there quickly, refilling her glass, his big grey eyes deeply alarmed. “Layla? What just happened? Did your date just ditch you?”

“I don’t know.” Layla gave a slow blink and looked up at him. 

“Are you ok?” He spoke again softly, reading her distress. 

“I don’t know,” she spoke again, still reeling. 

Watching her intently, Arron slid to the chair that Layla’s stranger had just vacated. Reaching out, her sweet lean twink of a housemate took her hand. “You look flushed. Maybe you should eat something, sugar. Perhaps your date was an asshat, but he did leave his card. We can burn a hole in his plastic; give him what-for. I say good riddance. You don’t need another Gavin.”

Layla laughed despite her current state of shock. She realized it looked like she’d just been walked out on by some high-finance asshole who was trying to pay her off with his little black credit card. Layla looked up, a sly smile curling her lips. “Charge my meal and drinks to his card, Arron. Hell, use it to buy everyone’s dinners tonight and give you and your staff a hundred percent tip for every meal. I don’t want his little black card. He can shove it.”

“You go, girl!” Arron grinned, impish with delight. 

“And don’t stop with the wine, ok?” Layla swigged back her chardonnay. “Even if I get plastered. I’ll call a Lyft to get back to the house tonight.”

“Or if you get hammered long enough, I’ll drive you back at the end of my shift.” Arron laughed with tinkling delight, then whisked a second bottle of chardonnay out of the rack-wall and uncorked it, setting it to the table. “Be right back with some appetizers.”

Arron whisked away, leaving Layla staring at the door. Watching; waiting. She realized some part of her was hoping her hotel-owning billionaire with his absurd proposal, strange heat, and oceanic eyes would be back. But as she gazed around the restaurant, she noticed she was alone now in her little nook.

Except for the Moroccan wrist-cuff by her plate. The damn thing held court there, looking at her with its bloody coral teardrop and bone-white hamsa. Challenging her; forbidding. Layla reached out, touching the bone of the hamsa with her fingertips. But there were no fireworks now and the silver of the metal had warmed in the restaurant, freed from its climate-controlled case in the gallery. Sliding her hand out, she set her forearm in the open clamshell. Nothing. No burn, no sparks. Closing the cuff, she slid in the silver pin, setting it. Turning her wrist over, she admired the hamsa design, now on her outer forearm. It gazed back as if asking a question with its burning coral centerpiece. 

What was she going to do with everything she had discovered tonight? 

What was she going to do – with the rest of her life?

Copyright 2018 Ava Ward. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or used without the author's written permission.