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.”
“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.
“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.