CHAPTER ONE - EXTENDED EXCERPT
“I'm an adult. I'm in control. I can do this. He's not that scary. He's just a man. I'm an adult. I'm in control...” Ellie repeated the words like a mantra, her fingers clasped tight about the steering wheel, her eyes fixed on the road with a rigid stare that belied how very distracted she really was.
On the surface, Elliot Taylor-Chapman was a very composed young lady with an aristocratic kind of grace which turned heads wherever she went. Thanks to her family's fortune she was one of the richest women under thirty in New York and so she had a great many reasons to be confident. Most people considered her to be above common phenomena like anxiety, for she had been trained never to give away any indication of discomfort, to be above it all, even when she was neck deep in it. Right now beneath the finely tailored and made up veneer, she was a quivering mass of nerves.
She'd done her best to maintain the illusion the world had of her and was dressed impeccably in a white suit. She'd chosen a professional blazer and skirt combination in an effort to seem composed. Her shoes were perfectly white too, aside from their bright red bottoms. She'd checked herself in the mirror multiple times before leaving her penthouse apartment, ensuring that she looked flawless. Her blonde hair was tucked up neatly in a chignon, a style which added a little gravitas to her appearance. At twenty five years of age, she was often mistaken for being younger. It was her round, full cheeks and wide brown eyes that seemed to confuse people, as well as her relatively short stature. The Taylor-Chapmans were not a tall family, but they were a powerful one.
Normally a driver would be conducting her through the traffic menace, but this was not a meeting she wanted anyone to know about. She was going to see someone she never thought she'd have to lower herself to be in the same room with again, a man so utterly frustrating and incredibly rude that she was surprised he had managed to be quite so successful.
She was so distracted by her nerves that she almost missed the building's entrance, but managed to squeak her 911 onto the ramp which took her to the underground parking lot. There she finished her preparations, putting on her largest pair of sunglasses, paparazzi reflectors. It really wouldn't do to be recognized here, much less photographed. She checked her lipstick before getting out of the car, replenishing the bubble pink coat. It wasn't as sophisticated as the rest of her outfit, but she liked the way it looked. It was the one little nod she allowed herself to how she felt inside, so much smaller and more vulnerable than her polished exterior conveyed.
Leaving the protection of her car, Elliot approached the elevator, already knowing where she was going. She'd looked this place up so many times. His offices were on the fifteenth floor, noted only by a minimalist logo: MM.
The initials stood for Maven Malone. One of the newest and most brilliant money hawks in the business. His fortune stood in the seven figures, so it was reported. She'd watched from an uncomfortable distance as his profile in her world rose. Others greeted him with open arms, but to her, he'd always be an interloper. Coming to him now made bile rise in her throat. Her gloved fingertip hovered over the elevator button. She had a sudden impulse to run back to the car and escape. Nobody knew she was here. She could still leave now without losing face.
No. She couldn't. This wasn't about her. There was more than her ego at stake. There was blood on the line. So she stepped into the elevator and stood stoic as she pressed the button for Maven's floor, doing her best to breathe deeply as the doors closed and she was swept up toward fate.
It would have been hard to explain to anyone why she was so nervous. On the surface, this should have been a pleasant, fun reunion. At one time, Maven had practically been family. He was her only brother's best friend, and all through high school he had been an annoyingly frequent fixture at their home. Elliot had never liked him. At first, it had been for purely shallow reasons she now had the decency to feel a little guilty about. He hadn't dressed well, he never had anything with a label on it and his clothes were often worn. Aiden hadn't cared about that, but she'd always noticed. Maven used to stick out like a sore thumb in their lavishly decorated home.
It hadn't been his fault, she supposed. Maven's family was poor. His father had died when he was young and he had been raised by his mother. Even back then though, he'd had a certain confidence that transcended his poverty. He was smart, attending the same school as Aiden by merit of scholarships. From the moment they met, he and Aiden had become best friends, and most of the way through school, he'd worn Aiden's uniforms second hand.
She'd been the little sister to them both, and he'd treated her like a snot nosed brat. She'd been a princess to everyone else, but never to him. The one thing she'd always had on her side was that she was rich and he was not - but now he owned half the city. It had been inevitable, people who'd known him back then said. He'd always been such a smart boy. She hoped he was still smart enough to help.
Stepping out of the elevator, Elliot made her way through frosted glass doors which bore his logo. She was greeted by a receptionist, a matronly woman who gave her a cool, appraising look.
“Hello, madam,” she said. “Do you have an appointment today?”
“My name's Elliot Taylor-Chapman,” Elliot said as a pang of annoyance spiked in her belly. “I'd like to see Maven, please.”
The woman looked at her blankly, apparently not recognizing the name. Trust Maven to hire some low rent secretary without the sense to recognize money when it was standing in front of her.
“Mr Malone has a full schedule, I'm afraid,” she said in haughty tones.
“He'll see me,” Elliot said with a tight smile. “Please, tell him I'm here.”
“You'll have to make an appointment, madam,” the receptionist said. “There's an opening in his diary three weeks from now.”
Elliot's business couldn't wait three weeks. Even if it could have, she would not have tolerated being told to wait. Taylor-Chapmans did not wait. They made other people wait. Gathering her purse under her arm, Elliot put her nose in the air and walked past the secretary's desk and through the doors beyond.
“Ma'am! Stop! Madame!”
The annoyance in her tone put a smile on Elliot's face – right up until the alarms rang out. In seconds, the hall she found herself in was occupied by two very large men made all the larger for wearing body armor under their suits. She may as well have tried to barge into a bank vault for the immediacy and intensity of the response.
“Stop right there, ma'am!” One of them addressed her in gruff, authoritarian tones which made her hackles rise.
“Get away from me!” Elliot screeched, irritated that they dared come near her. Their arms were outstretched, as if they had intention to take hold of her. She could not believe it. She was being treated like a common criminal by idiot oafs who didn't have the sense to know who she was.
Her cry brought a tall, dark haired man striding out into the hall. Her heart skipped a beat and then sank as she looked into the fiercely handsome features of the man she had come to see. His eyes met hers over the heads of the brawny guards and she saw them widen with shock.
“Help, Mav!” She called to him as she backed away from the oncoming guards. “Tell them to stop!”
“That's enough,” he called out. “She's fine.”
The men backed down, but stayed blocking her way, much to Elliot's annoyance. She was effectively trapped between two lines of irritating underlings.
“I'm sorry, Mr Malone,” the secretary said from behind. “I tried to stop her, but she just went through.”
“I bet she did,” Maven smirked. “Never were one for following the rules, were you, Ellie?”
“Call your dogs off, Maven,” Elliot said. “I've come to speak to you. Unarmed.” She flickered a scornful glance at the men.
Maven snorted. “Come in,” he said, gesturing toward his office. “Thanks gentlemen, but I'll handle this breach myself.”
“Paranoid about something, Mav?” She shot the question at him as he ushered her into his office, the security guards melting back through unmarked doors into whatever alternate dimension they had come from.
“I take necessary precautions,” he said from behind as he followed her into his office. “Can't have just anyone barging in. Could be someone dangerous.”
“It is someone dangerous,” she said, turning to him with a pert smile.
“Yes,” he said in gravelly tones, folding his arms over his chest as he inspected her from head to toe. “I suppose it is.”
For the next minute or so, they did nothing but stare at one another. It had been a very long time since they'd shared a room, and a lot had changed, for both of them. Elliot had seen pictures of Maven on social media and in the papers, but he was even more impressive in person. Pictures didn't capture the sheer energy of the man, the easy, confident dominance he exuded.
The years had definitely been kind to him. He was, what, thirty now? Five years older than her. Yeah. Thirty. He'd filled out, in a good way. He'd always been on the skinny side through high school, but he'd gotten broader. She could tell by the way the suit fell on him that he was well built now. The hard line of his jaw suggested that there still wasn't an ounce of fat on him.
He'd grown up, gotten big. In a lot of ways.
“Elliot.” His stern demeanor broke as he smiled, shaking his head in happy surprise. “I haven't seen you since...”
“We don't need to talk about that,” she interrupted him.
His smile grew a little broader, his hard cheek dimpling at the memory. Of course he found it funny. It had been over seven years since she the last time she was in the same room as this man. It had been the night of her eighteenth birthday party, a grand affair. There had been hundreds of people there, hardly any of them were her actual friends, and most of them ditched the place for more exciting, less adult filled venues. She'd been stuck there...
“I didn't think you'd ever forgive me for that,” he said, interrupting her reverie. “Seriously, Elliot. It's nice to see you.”
Had he always had such intense green eyes? Yes. Of course the answer was yes. He'd been popular because he was handsome, even then when he was too damn tall and far too spindly. Her friends had always come over on weekends just to be there when Aiden and Maven got back from lacrosse.
“It's nice to see you too.” She forced the words, not feeling them. It wasn't nice to see him. The only reason she was there was because she absolutely had to be, because the big brother she'd worshiped her entire life was in some serious trouble, and only Maven could help.
“Come, sit,” he said, ushering her further into his office. He had a view of the city, of course. She wasn't impressed. She'd grown up playing in rooms just like this one, taking in vistas of unimaginable wealth and power as part of her natural background. She supposed he thought it all very grand.
“I've come to ask you for something,” she said as he perched at the corner of his desk, his legs still long under those designer trousers. Something made her eyes rise along the length of them to the apex of his thighs, where... it was the pinstripe, she figured. Yes. The pinstripe.
She didn't like feeling this nervous in his presence. She'd always looked down on him. Now he was quite literally looking down at her.
She wasn't entirely sure she knew who he was anymore. He and Aiden had lost touch over the last couple of years, and given Aiden had changed into an entirely different person in that time, the same could have been true of Maven for all she knew.
“It's not for me,” she said quickly. “It's for Aiden.”
“If it's for Aiden, why isn't Aiden here, asking for himself?”
She noticed a passing moment of disdain on Maven's features. It wasn't a surprise. Most all Aiden's friendships had soured over the last little while. He didn't have a lot of people to rely on now. Maybe Maven was one of the people who'd abandoned him, but she didn't think so. They'd been inseparable for a long time, and that had to count for something.
“Aiden's away somewhere,” she said vaguely.
“I don't really think I should say.”
“I think you should say,” he said, his voice taking on a deeper timbre.
She felt her skin flush with sudden sweat. God. He was already having that embarrassing effect on her. She looked down at her hands and willed herself not to fiddle nervously with the hem of her skirt.
“Tell me everything, Ellie,” he said, using her childhood nickname. “I can't help you if I don't know what I'm helping with.”
“Aiden got into some bad habits,” she said, keeping her comments vague. It was hard to admit what had happened to Aiden, even to herself, let alone say it to him. “And he needs, well, help.”
“Ellie, it's good to see you, but I'm a busy man,” Maven sighed, crossing his arms over his chest, and cocking his head to the side. “You came to talk to me, so talk to me.”
How was he making her feel like a schoolgirl? She was Elliot Taylor-Chapman, heiress to the Taylor-Chapman fortune. Technically, so was Aiden. He should have been able to get himself out of trouble, but the trustees had cut him off from his allowance and he was practically penniless now. It had been made clear to her that if she supported him financially, she'd find herself in the same boat.
Being vastly wealthy wasn't as simple as it had once been. The Taylor-Chapman fortune was walled by mass legislation and trusts, all protected by dogged three headed accountants. Neither she or Aiden had full access to it, and they never would. Their great grandfather had made most of the money and had been certain to structure his wealth so that no single generation could fritter it away. There were billions sitting largely inaccessible, under their father's control.
Maven had made his money himself. He didn't need to go crawling to any trustees to put his hands on liquid capital – and that was what they needed now.
“Aiden got into some bad habits, with… you know.”
She hated saying it.
“Drugs?” Maven helped her out with the word that was still so difficult to form. Drug problems were for poor people as far as she was concerned. Poor people and celebrities, perhaps, but not men like Aiden. Aiden had no real excuse for a drug problem, but he still needed her help.
“Yes,” she said. “Drugs. And he couldn't afford them after a while, and daddy cut him off, so, he found another way to get money, from some people he knew. But they're not very nice people and they're threatening to do unpleasant things to him if he doesn't pay them.”
“So you're here for money.”
“I'm not here for money,” she said, offended. “I'm here to ask you to help Aiden.”
“And by 'help Aiden', you mean bail him out,” he said, shaking his head. “I don't know, Elliot. I don't think that's the kind of help he needs.”
“He needs someone to step in and stop him from being killed!” She burst out, her facade falling. She was desperate. Aiden had been calling her all week, telling her that people were coming for him, might even be able to get him inside the rehab facility. The panic and fear in his voice had been enough to drive her all the way, well, here, to the last man she wanted to be in a room with. “I know you hate me, Maven, but you and Aiden are practically brothers and...”
“You think I hate you?” He interrupted her with a frown. “Why do you say that?”
“We've hated each other for years,” she said with a snort. “We've never gotten on. I know that hasn't changed just because I've come begging you for Aiden.”
“I've never hated you,” he said evenly. “And if you hated me, it's only because you were raised to be just as spoiled as he was.”
“I'm not here to talk about me,” she said, blushing in spite of herself. She wished she could remain ice cold around Maven, but he'd always had a way of getting under her skin and apparently that hadn't changed, though so much else had.
“Let's talk about you anyway,” he said. “How have you been, Ellie?”
“My name is Elliot,” she said, frostily. “And I've been fine.”
“Any husband?” He looked at her hands and she slid them away all too late. There had been an engagement ring on her finger up until two months ago. It wasn't there any longer. Another sore spot which of course, he'd instantly honed in on. Six months ago, her engagement had been announced in every society circle. Everybody knew she was getting married. Except, of course, now she wasn't.
“Any wife?” She asked the question back, spitefully.
“No,” he said, his cheek dimpling with amusement.
“I suppose that makes us even.”
“It's not a competition, Ellie.”
“Elliot,” she corrected again. “And no, you're right, it's not.”
“So defensive,” he said, frowning slightly. “You still don't know how to ask for a favor, do you.”
“And you still don't know how to... how to...” she stammered to a stop. “Can we just talk about Aiden, please.”
“Not yet,” he said, a deeper timbre in his voice. “I want to know what's going on in your life.”
“I'm in college.”
He quirked a brow. The unspoken question, still? hung in the air between them. She should have graduated by now, but things hadn't been straightforward for her either. She'd taken a year off after high school to travel, and one year had turned into two. She was twenty before she got to college, and twenty one before she actually managed to attend a class. She'd been planning on dropping out and marrying the man of her dreams, before he turned out to be more a man of her nightmares. She didn't want to discuss any of it with Maven. He'd gloat about her failures in life and love, she was sure.
“Yes,” she lied through her teeth. It didn't matter what she told him about herself, she figured. She just had to charm him enough to help Aiden. Thus far, she hadn't been that charming, but it was difficult. She didn't feel like a sophisticated young heiress when she was in the room with him, she felt like an awkward teenager in trouble.
He gave her a long, searching look which made her begin to squirm where she sat.
“Look,” she said, gathering her purse into her lap. “Maybe you can't help me. That's okay. Aiden's lost most of his friends already.”
“I didn't say I couldn't, and I didn't say I wouldn't,” he said. “Did you really think you could just walk in here after all these years, have a two minute conversation, and the problem would be solved?”
“I thought I'd tell you that a friend of yours needed help and you'd help him.”
“It's not that simple, Elliot,” he said, his expression growing cold. She almost missed him calling her Ellie. She was pissing him off, and she couldn't afford to do that. Aiden couldn't afford for her to do that.
“I know Aiden's in trouble,” he continued. “I tried to help him months ago. He didn't want my help then, and I don't really see why he'd accept it now.”
“Because if someone doesn't help him, he's going to end up dead. He keeps talking about people coming for him. I don't know who they are, but he says the police can't help him, and my father doesn't believe a word he says anymore. He doesn't have anyone left to help him.”
“But you think I can?”
“You've always been able to do things other people can't,” she said. “If anyone can help him, you can.”
He smirked slightly. “I think that's the first nice thing you've ever said to me, Ellie.”
“I'm not saying a nice thing. I'm just telling the truth.”
“Of course not. You still haven't forgiven me.”
She kept her mouth shut.
“You deserved every bit of it,” he said. “I can't believe you're still sulking after all these years.”
“I'm not sulking,” she lied. “I just don't have time to reminisce about the past. Aiden's in real trouble.”
“I know,” he nodded, clasping his hands in front of him. “In fact, I know more about it than you likely do. The trouble Aiden's gotten himself into isn't just about money. It's more than that, and fixing it isn't going to be easy, or without risk.”
“But you'll do it?”
He snorted. “Still living in a world where people jump just because you tell them too, huh, Elliot? It's going to cost me a lot to help Aiden, and frankly, he hasn't been the best friend over the last few years. My help isn't going to come free of charge.”
Hope sprang up in her. If all he wanted was money, maybe some arrangement could be come to. Her father still liked Maven, more importantly, he still trusted him. “I can talk to my father, to the trustees, see if we can release some funds...”
“I don't want your family's money,” he said, holding up his hand to stop her in her verbal tracks.
“What do you want then?”
He fixed his gaze on her in a way that was suddenly very intimate and very unsettling. “I want you, Elliot.”
“Me? You can't have me. What does that even mean?”
“You want help for Aiden?”
“Yes. Please.” She said the words through gritted teeth, already hating him for how he was making her beg. She'd never been able to tolerate Maven, and now she needed him, he was more arrogant than ever. He didn't have to say anything, just the curl of his lip, the little sneering smirk made her want to slap his face. She couldn't do that though, not as she had when she was sixteen and still immune from the consequences of her behavior.
“I'm a businessman, Elliot, so I'll make you a deal. I will help Aiden. I'll square his debt and get the people off his back, but you'll be the one paying me back.”
“How am I supposed to pay you?” It was her turn to sneer. “You want me to sleep with you, don't you. Ugh. Gross.”
“Sleep with me?” He chuckled softly. “That's not the half of it. You'll have to earn the right to sleep with me.” He leaned down, his green eyes holding her in a darkly enchanting gaze, and spoke in a low rumble which captured her attention completely. “You'll be mine. I'll own you. Every part of you. You'll do what I say, when I say it. You'll be at my beck and call, available for my use at any hour of the day or night.”
She stared at him, shocked to her very core. She understood the words, but she couldn't believe they were coming out of Maven's mouth, and she couldn't believe he really wanted... that.
“Are you... serious?”
“Absolutely, Ellie. You've needed something like this for a long time.”
“I've needed to be treated like some kind of sex toy?” Her voice rose to a high pitch. “Maven, what are you talking about?”
“You've lived your entire life thinking you're above everything, everyone. You don't even know what it is to be a real person, Ellie. You walk into high rises and you make demands and you expect the world to fall at your feet. You need to spend some time on your knees.”
Her shock turned to outrage. Secretly, below her skirt, she could feel a fluttering sensation, a tightness and an excitement that didn't make any sense to her. She crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the sudden rise of her nipples beneath her blouse. She was almost more shocked by her reaction than by what he'd said.
“That is absolutely not happening,” she said, her voice cracking.
He straightened and gave the faintest of shrugs. “Then Aiden is on his own.”
“Fuck you, Maven,” she said, filled with righteous indignation and fury. “Go to hell.”