Scarlett Ashford stared at the dilapidated single story building and her courage faltered. Why was she so nervous? It wasn’t the fact she was standing in one of the seediest back streets of downtown Los Angeles—or that the peeling façade boasted up-to-the minute security cameras, as though the occupants expected trouble and were more than happy to confront it.
No, her hands were clammy and her stomach churned because of the appointment she had with one of the owners in exactly three minutes.
She glanced at the weathered sign above the door.
That was it. Nothing to indicate who or what Graysons’ might be. They obviously operated purely by word of mouth. Well, wasn’t that how she’d heard of them in the first place? Not that anyone knew she’d taken note of the name and address when her work colleagues had been discussing Jackson Grayson’s methods of…persuasion.
She took a step forward and her finger hovered over the entry button. Was she really going through with this? Wouldn’t it be much easier to simply fall in with her soon-to-be stepmother’s plans? Ever since her dad’s heart attack eighteen months ago she’d walked on eggshells around him, afraid that the slightest upset would be disastrous for his health. “Oh Scarlett’s no problem, darling. She’s such a malleable little thing. Does anything she’s told in the hope of gaining Daddy’s approval,” her father’s fiancé had said to a friend on the phone.
It stung. Not because she and Clarissa were close. In fact, she thought Clarissa was a social climbing bitch.
It was the jibe about trying to get her dad’s attention. Because Scarlett knew it was true. Her two older brothers did whatever they liked, and Dad boasted about their exploits to anyone who’d listen.
All he wanted from her was a couture mannequin. That she was the image of her late mother didn’t help. That was the one thing she had in common with her dad. They mourned the premature death of her mom ten years ago. Maybe if she looked more like her dad, he’d see her as an individual.
Never going to happen.
She straightened her spine and jabbed the button. I’m more than a pale imitation of Mom.
“Yes?” The feminine voice through the intercom sounded bored.
“Scarlett Ashford.” Thankfully she sounded calm and collected. “I’ve an appointment with Jackson Grayson at two.”
The door clicked open and she stepped inside. The reception area was small and minimalist, with a couple of hard backed chairs for clients. Clearly not designed to impress, or for comfort.
A girl with pink spiky hair and a nose ring sat on the edge of a desk and raked her gaze over Scarlett as though she were making up her mind whether or not to throw her back out on the street. On the wall behind the desk was a massive glossy poster of a white Bengal tiger. Across the top of the poster ran the legend:
Humans Suck Ass.
For a second, Scarlett was tempted to turn around and forget the whole thing. Except, her other options were pretty much zero.
“Take a seat.” The pixie slid off the desk and pursed her jet-black lips in disapproval. The girl strutted across the floor toward the middle door at the back of the reception and, without knocking, opened it just enough to stick her head inside. “Scarlett Ashford is here for you, J.”
She didn’t hear any response but clearly Jackson Grayson made one, as the girl turned around and gestured her forward, opening the door for her.
Scarlett stood, and then forgot how to breathe.
The man before her, taking up more space than any mortal had any right to, was over six feet tall, with muscles filling out his black tee to the point of indecency.
He looks like Thor.
Her mouth dried as she dragged her fascinated gaze up from his biceps. Don’t think about his biceps. She focused on his stubble-darkened jaw instead, but that didn’t help. She’d never gone for the unshaven look before, but to hell with that.
Stop staring at him.
Good advice. A shame she couldn’t follow it.
The gossip at work hadn’t done him justice. He was so right for her purposes it was unnerving.
“I’ll leave you to it then,” the girl said. Scarlett had completely forgotten about her. She tried to ignore Jackson’s messy black hair, which brushed his collar. And failed.
Thor’s body. Loki’s hair. Could it get any better?
“Yeah. Thanks, Ella.”
Yes, it could. Even his voice dripped with sin. Dark and dangerous with a hint of deadly menace. Darts of pleasure stirred in places she’d almost forgotten she had.
How was that even possible? They hadn’t even touched, and she was more turned on than she’d been in ages.
The click of the shutting door cut through her lustful thoughts.
Pull yourself together. She was here on business. Jackson Grayson would never take her seriously if all she could do was drool over him.
She slipped on the coolly polite mask she’d perfected in boarding school and stepped toward him. “Scarlett Ashford.”
His hand enveloped hers. His grip was firm but the way his fingers brushed the back of hers was oddly intimate. He didn’t appear to be in any hurry to break contact.
Up close and personal it was hard to breathe. His face was rugged perfection. Just like his body.
She pulled her hand free with as much dignity as she could.
Who gets wet just by touching a guy’s hand?
She wanted to hire him for a specific job, not to share her bed.
Are you sure?
Jackson folded his arms and leaned his butt against his desk. Although he’d run his own internet search on Scarlett Ashford before their appointment, it hadn’t prepared him for the reality.
Scarlett Ashford was fucking hot.
Her black shirt with matching pants and jacket weren’t especially sexy but she could probably wear a garbage bag and look good enough to eat.
“Thank you for seeing me at such short notice.”
Her voice was like honey—golden and rich.
“My pleasure.” It certainly was. After the shitty week he’d had, just looking at her was enough to lift his mood. Her glossy blonde hair fell in soft waves to below her shoulders, her skin was flawless, and her blue eyes gave her a strange sense of innocence.
An illusion. No one associated with the Ashford media and communications empire was innocent.
He pushed himself off the edge of his desk and waited until Scarlett took the chair he offered her before he sat down.
“You told Ella we’d been recommended to you. By who?”
“I’d prefer not to say.”
It had to have been a previous client. And no client would recommend a service they’d been unhappy with, so why did she feel the need to keep her source confidential?
He didn’t need another client, especially one who refused to answer the most basic questions. If she was being difficult now, the chances were she’d be a nightmare.
He should tell her he wasn’t interested. Except… he couldn’t.
You’re going to regret this.
She brushed nonexistent dust from her thigh before taking a deep breath that caused her breasts to strain against the silky material of her shirt. It took him a couple of seconds to drag his gaze back to her face. She’s a potential client. He didn’t hit on clients, no matter how hot they were.
“Call me Jackson.”
The tip of her tongue slid along her lips. He couldn’t work out whether she did it on purpose to distract him, or because she was nervous.
She didn’t look nervous.
“Jackson.” She inclined her head as though she were a queen. Then again, she was a princess in the world she lived in. “I want to hire your services for twelve hours next Saturday.”
It was an emergency job. She’d told Ella that on the phone the other day when she made the appointment. Not only had she declined to say who had recommended them, she’d refused to explain what the job entailed. This had not endeared her to Ella, who’d researched her online and discovered the twenty-four-year-old Scarlett was a trust fund baby whose father was getting remarried next Saturday.
Next Saturday. Jackson frowned. “Is this connected to your father’s wedding?”
If she was surprised by his remark she didn’t show it.
“Yes. I need you to accompany me to the wedding and reception. People would need to think that we’re a couple.”
A time waster. So why was he still interested?
“One problem with that, Scarlett.” He used her name even through she hadn’t invited him to. “I don’t run an escort agency.”
A delicate blush heated her cheeks. Anyone would think he’d just offended her. He should’ve been pissed at her, but he wasn’t.
Why would a woman like Scarlett Ashford want to hire a man for the night?
She could have any man she wanted.
“You misunderstand me.” The hint of huskiness in her tone did nothing to stop the graphic fantasies invading his perverted mind. “I don’t want to hire you for sex. I need a bodyguard.”
Jackson forced himself to lean back in his chair. He’d thrown the escort agency line at her to get under her skin. He hadn’t expected her to toss it back in his face like that. He wasn’t sure it was a good thing that her answer hooked his interest more than ever.
“Why not use one of your own personal bodyguards?”
“No one would believe we were dating. Fraternization is cause for instant dismissal.”
He laughed. She sounded so fucking prim and proper.
“And you expect me to believe you can’t find a date for your own father’s wedding?”
“Of course I can find a date. But I don’t want a date. I want you.”
Her last word thudded in the air between them.
I need to end this now. Scarlett Ashford was trouble.
“You want me, huh?” He gave a mocking smile so she wouldn’t guess how much he wanted her to say “yes”.
“Purely business, of course.” She cleared her throat and brushed another speck of imaginary dirt from her black pants. “There’s a reason why
I need someone who looks as though they won’t take any crap from anyone. It’s… personal.”
“You mean you want a bit of rough on your arm.”
She frowned. “No, that isn’t what I meant. I need someone…” Her voice trailed away. Her gaze lingered on his biceps and chest. He had the strangest conviction she didn’t even realize what she was doing. Finally she finished checking him out. “Someone who won’t be intimidated by my family.”
No chance a bunch of entitled assholes could intimidate him. And then a possible reason for her odd request occurred to him.
“Has someone in your family threatened you?” Why else would she hire a complete stranger to pose as her date?
She sighed. “It’s nothing so melodramatic. I just need certain… people to know that I’m not available.”
Now he got it. She wanted to warn off an ex-lover who refused to take no for an answer.
He could do that. In fact, he was looking forward to it. Not that he was going to let Scarlett Ashford know that yet. She had secrets, and he didn’t like being kept in the dark.
“If I accept this assignment, what are the boundaries of our relationship?”
It was obvious she didn’t know whether to take issue with his use of boundaries or relationship first.
“I’m not sure I quite understand your meaning.” She fixed a polite smile on her face.
He folded his arms on his desk and leaned toward her. He was enjoying this, probably more than he should, given that Scarlett was soon going to be his client.
“I don’t want to cross any line.” Not that he’d mind but he didn’t want her to give him a bad Yelp review. “So I need to know in advance how physical you want us to be in public.”
The tip of her tongue peeked between her lips again, for one tempting second. “Physical?”
“Yeah. I take it holding hands is okay. What about wrapping my arm around your waist when we dance?”
“Uh.” Scarlett looked as if he’d just sucker-punched her. “I guess that would be acceptable.”
“And kissing? Will that be cheek contact only, a brief touch of the lips, or major tongue penetration?”
Grayson 1, Ashford 0.
“Major tongue penetration might be required. Does your standard fee cover it, or would that incur hazard pay?”
He gave her a slow grin, not bothering to hide his interest. She’d thrown down the gauntlet.
Grayson 1, Ashford 1.
“I’ll give you a special rate.”
She didn’t even flinch, and his respect for her went up a notch. “Does that mean you accept the job?”
He liked that she hadn’t assumed anything. Given her background, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she thought she was doing him a favor by wanting to hire his services.
“We need to fill out some paperwork, but yeah.” He’d let her keep her secrets, if they meant so much to her. But when it came to the financial side of things, he never left anything to chance.
~ * ~
Twenty minutes later he saw Scarlett off the premises and to her car. As he watched her drive away, he realized Ella was by his side in the doorway.
He slammed the door shut. He hoped she hadn’t seen the grin on his face.
“Put your tongue away, J.” Ella gave a snort of laughter. “You’re drooling.”
“I don’t drool over clients.”
“So you’re going to do whatever it is she wants? Why am I not surprised?”
Jackson sighed. He and his brothers had grown up next door to Ella and her family. She was the little sister they’d never had, and the obvious choice to join them five years ago when they’d set up their bodyguard and security business.
Her street smarts and take no prisoners’ attitude had quickly evolved into a sharp business brain. She kept the Grayson brothers’ shit straight, and they’d be lost without her.
And she knew it.
“The money’s good, and I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.”
Ella narrowed her eyes. “You don’t need the money, and you despise the rich and famous. There’s only one reason why you’re taking this job.”
“And why’s that?” He towered over her but she didn’t back down. Ella never backed down.
She smiled up at him, deceptively sweet. “Don’t forget the Grayson’s’ cardinal rule, honey. Never fuck clients.”