In the final Nine Circles novel, there is a fine line between pleasure and pain, between sin and salvation. Jackie Ashenden shows what happens when a dangerously irresistible man and woman collide, in and out of the bedroom.
In Bed with the Billionaire
Known to the underworld only as Jericho, billionaire Theo Fitzgerald is one of the most powerful men in the world. But his plan is to tear down the criminal empire his father created from the inside out—unless someone else does it for him.
He suspects a bold, seductive woman named Temple Cross might be trying to take him out with it—but for the chance to burn in the heat she gives off, he’s not sure if he minds…
A hired hit woman, Temple has been waiting to get close to Jericho her whole life. The man who destroyed her family is worth looking in the eye before she kills him—but when she’s finally alone with Jericho, he’s nothing like the ruthless barbarian she imagined. Her reaction to his touch is explosively sexual—and their emotional connection is too powerful for her to ignore.
Is she his shot at redemption? Or will he have to risk losing her love to save her life?
Revenge and redemption, pain and passion collide in this stunningly emotional, edgy, sexy romance from Jackie Ashenden.
Don't miss the other books in the Nine Circle series:
Book #1: Mine to Take
Book #2: Make You Mine
Book #3: You Are Mine
Book #4: Kidnapped by the Billionaire
Release date: November 1, 2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 432
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In Bed With the Billionaire
Temple had expected a lot of things about the moment where she’d finally be in the same room as the man she’d been planning to kill ever since she was fifteen years old. Yet now the moment was here and nothing about it was as she’d expected.
For one thing she hadn’t exactly imagined herself in one of the VIP rooms of the most exclusive and notorious strip club in Paris. Nor had she imagined that she’d be the stripper dressed only in a sparkly thong, a pair of silver star-shaped pasties, and silver eight-inch stilettos. She hadn’t thought there’d be a pole, or a spotlight, or a black-velvet armchair facing that pole, the chair shrouded in darkness.
Hiding the man seated in it.
She couldn’t see him because of the spotlight, but she knew he was there. Oh, yes, she knew.
The music began, filtering through hidden speakers.
Temple smiled in the direction of the armchair. The men who’d brought her in had been very clear: dance as if your life depended on it. Mainly because it did.
The choice was either dancing for the man they called Jericho or being sent straight away to the brothels of Eastern Europe the way they did with most of the other trafficked girls, where you’d be lucky to survive a month let alone a year.
Only the good ones, the pretty ones, were picked out to dance for Jericho and none of those chose the brothels. Everyone always chose the dancing. Because if you danced and you were good enough, you might get sent to one of the better establishments in Italy or Spain, where they looked after you, gave you nice clothes, made sure you looked good for their expensive clients.
But that wasn’t why Temple was there. She was there because of the rumors. The ones that said that the notoriously secretive Jericho chose a girl from his latest “shipment” every Saturday night and kept her for the entire night. And if she pleased him, the rumors went, then she might get special treatment.
Temple wanted to be that girl. She wanted to be the one he chose for the entire night. Because she had some special treatment of her own to deliver.
She hooked her leg around the pole and arched her back, bowing her body in a graceful arc. Then she grabbed the cool metal with one hand and pulled herself up it. Keeping one leg curled tight, she leaned out and back again, her ribcage and breasts lifted, her copper red curls tumbling over her shoulders. The only thing keeping her on the pole was the strength of that one leg.
She wasn’t a stripper. She hadn’t had any practice. But before she’d gotten herself captured by the traffickers a week ago, she’d been to plenty of strip clubs and watched, replaying the moves over and over in her head. With her martial arts training helping her with the strength and balance aspect, it was almost easy.
Hanging there with her head back, she narrowed her gaze in the direction of the chair, trying to see past the glare of the spotlight to the man seated there. But she couldn’t make anything out. Just his figure, long legs outstretched in front of him and crossed at the ankle.
He could be doing anything. He could even be fast asleep.
She knew he wasn’t though. He was looking at her and she knew because she could feel the pressure of his gaze like a physical force. An intense, focused beam of light almost as powerful as that fucking spotlight.
It made her want to stare back. Stare him down.
But no, that was a bad idea. That would give her away. She hadn’t worked this hard, for this long only to fuck it up now.
He was the most guarded, the most secretive, the most notorious crime lord in Europe and she had to be on her guard.
Gracefully she lifted herself back up, folding herself against the pole then sliding suggestively down it. As her feet touched the floor, she spun around so her back was to him and then she bent over, moving her hips in time with the music.
Some of the other girls she’d been brought here with had cried when their guards had tossed them the bag of stripper outfits and told them to get changed. Which was understandable given that they weren’t strippers, just a bunch of lost girls who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Girls nobody would miss, nobody would search for.
Girls like Thalia.
Had this happened to Thalia? Had her sister performed for this man? Wearing this kind of outfit? Her beautiful, intelligent, protective older sister dancing for this … fucking prick?
Temple whirled gracefully around to face the chair again, keeping her gaze on the shadows and her righteous fury in check. She’d picked up a lot of skills over the years, and teaching herself to be able to sense people even in the dark had come in useful.
Except it wasn’t so useful now with the spotlight shining directly at her. A deliberate tactic to prevent the girls from seeing his face.
She gripped the pole again, moving against it like a lover, doing a bump and grind, letting her breasts sway. She didn’t much care about the fact that she was nearly naked and her body was on show. In fact, she’d long since ceased to see her body as anything more than a tool, a vehicle she needed in order to get herself to this point. A weapon that would help her bring down the man sitting in that chair.
She didn’t need a gun in order to kill a man. She could do it unarmed, had done so before, and would do it again.
She’d kill him. She’d get the information she needed from him, and then she’d take his life as he’d taken Thalia’s. And after that? Well, she didn’t much care what happened after that. Her life wasn’t exactly a valuable commodity to anyone let alone herself.
Temple faced him again, trying to penetrate the darkness as she moved. Fuck. It was next to impossible to see anything. If she wanted to see beyond that damn light she was going to have to get out from under it. Which was going to be tricky. They’d told her to stay near the pole, that she wasn’t to approach him on pain of death.
They’d probably shoot her if she did. There was no one else in the small room, but she didn’t make the mistake of thinking that meant the man in the chair was unguarded. She could defend herself against most attacks but not from bullets, and certainly not in her current outfit.
But then she wasn’t aiming to kill him yet, and she wouldn’t be able to here anyway. No, she needed information first. And the only way to get that was to get closer to him, literally and figuratively.
Perhaps she could fake a stumble? Fall off those stupid heels? It might put at risk her chance of being chosen by him, but then at least she’d be able to see.
She was weighing up her options when very suddenly the music stopped. Caught in mid-grind, she blinked. Every instinct she had pulled tight, and she straightened, her body subtly tensing. Readying itself to launch into defensive mode.
There was a strange silence, full of the sound of her own heartbeat, already slowing in preparation for a fight.
“You’re not afraid of me.” A deep masculine voice rolled out of the shadows, rich and dark as the blackness around him. A beautiful voice, American, though she couldn’t tell the region.
For some reason it hit her like a kick to the gut, and she felt herself tense even more. As if that voice was a threat, a ribbon of the deepest, softest black velvet wound around her throat.
She swallowed, an instinctive reflex. “I-I am,” she murmured, injecting a shake into her voice and a small stammer for effect.
“No. You’re not.” He didn’t sound annoyed, but there was a slightly harder edge to his tone now, the iron collar concealed beneath that soft, sensual velvet. “Most girls don’t even look in my direction, but you haven’t looked away. Not once.”
Shit. That had been a rookie move. A thread of concern wound through her. She could not fuck this up. Not now.
Forcing herself to look away from him, she glanced down at the floor instead. The whole room had been carpeted in thick, expensive, dark-blue carpet, except for the area around the pole, which was wood. “I’m s-sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
Another silence. Then there came the sound of fabric rustling, the chair creaking as he shifted in it.
“Oh no, don’t spoil it now.” His voice was a low purr, pure sensuality this time, the iron gone. “You were doing so well.”
A strange shiver chased over her bared skin. That voice, that goddamned beautiful voice. It was like a spell he cast.
Anger stirred, because being actually affected by him was the very last thing in the world she wanted, and it was a struggle to fight it down. She had to though. Any sort of emotional reaction wouldn’t help her here.
“I-I’m telling the truth.” She hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself look frightened and small. Could she squeeze out a tear? Maybe she could. “Why am I here? W-what are you going to do to me? I don’t know—”
“Let’s dispense with the histrionics, sweetheart. We both know you’re lying.” And now there was the faintest hint of boredom in the words.
Fuck. Boredom certainly wasn’t what she was after. Okay, so clearly her lack of fear had intrigued him. Perhaps that hadn’t been such a dumb move after all.
Slowly Temple put her shoulders back and lifted her head, stared through the blinding light of the spotlight to the shadow in the chair. “Okay,” she said in her normal voice. “You got me. No, I’m not afraid of you.”
Another stretch of silence, longer this time.
He was watching her, she could feel it. Except his focus had shifted, had become sharper, more intense. She fought not to fidget, something she hadn’t done since she’d been a little kid.
“Why not?” Curiosity in the words.
Because I can kill you with my bare hands. And I will.
“Because I’m not afraid of the dark.” She didn’t bother to hide the fact that she was trying to see him or mask the note of challenge in her tone.
“You should be.” That voice curled around her, the velvet around her throat pulling tight. “The darkness isn’t kind to little girls.”
It made no sense at all to feel a small thrill shoot down her spine at the implied threat in those words. Then again, considering how dull the last three or so years had been, maybe it wasn’t any wonder. Just contract after contract of easy pickings. Dirtbags and assholes who’d needed taking down. All in aid of perfecting her skills for this final showdown.
The meanest motherfucker of them all. Jericho.
She’d been working toward this for so long, and getting to this point had been surprisingly easy. Disappointingly so. She was hoping for more. She was hoping for a challenge.
Perhaps, now, here it was. A man worthy of her skills.
Temple lowered her eyelashes. “Oh, but I’m not a little girl. And maybe I’m not the one who’s scared either.” She paused and let one corner of her mouth curl up. “Considering you’re the one who’s hiding.”
It was a calculated risk to be so blatant. To reveal her lack of fear when every girl who came in here must reek of it. It would prompt all kinds of questions. Questions she didn’t want him to ask. But if she wanted to get close to him, then she was going to have to take those risks, throw the dice a few times. It had worked in her favor before. Maybe it would work again.
More silence. So complete it was as if her hearing had suddenly been taken away.
She lifted her hand to the pole in a casual pose, keeping her gaze on the shadows, knowing he was studying her. Feeling the intensity of it, as if he was memorizing every part of her.
Somewhere deep inside her, something she hadn’t felt for a long, long time shivered awake. Fear.
Then came the sound of movement. Fabric sliding against fabric. The creak of the chair.
She stilled, internally every sense she had on high alert.
A man stepped suddenly into the light.
She’d studied that file Zac Rutherford had given her on him so she’d known who and what Jericho really was.
He was Theodore Fitzgerald, the son of Evelyn, a well-known New York high-society figure who’d been murdered a month ago, apparently by a business rival. Theodore, who’d faked his own death sixteen years earlier, had infiltrated the crime syndicate his father had secretly been hoping to take over.
And somehow she’d expected the stunningly handsome young man of the file photos to have changed over the years. For him to have become bloated through excess, aged and stained and jaded by the crimes he’d committed.
That wasn’t what she got.
In fact, he was as far from any of those things as it was possible to get. He had to be in his late thirties, if she had to guess, and was tall. Way, way taller than she was, which wasn’t difficult since she was only five foot two. He, on the other hand, looked to be six three or six four at the very least, with wide shoulders that stretched the cotton of his plain white business shirt, which he wore with no tie, the top buttons undone, the sleeves rolled up.
Yet that wasn’t what made her stare. It was his face. Because that stunningly handsome young man in the photos she’d studied had somehow become even more beautiful. Genuinely drop-dead beautiful. His hair was longish, dark tawny at the roots, fading to light gold at the tips, his straight eyebrows the same deep, dark gold. He had high cheekbones, a straight nose, a long and sensual mouth. It was the kind of perfect, masculine beauty that graced magazines and movie screens around the world.
At least, it would have been perfect if not for his eyes. Because it was his eyes that gave him away. They were green with the faintest hint of gold, like a cat’s, like sunlight on a deep, green ocean. A beautiful, haunting color, just like everything else about him. Except there was no warmth in those eyes, only shadows. Only darkness. The eyes of a man who’d done every evil thing under the sun and then some.
Yes, he was beautiful. But in the way a man-eating tiger was beautiful. Lovely to look at, but you wouldn’t want to get close in case you saw the blood on his fangs. And you definitely wouldn’t want to touch.
Very much like herself in too many ways.
Temple’s fingers tightened on the stripper pole.
Jericho smiled, and that beautiful, beautiful voice flowed over her. “Coming, ready or not.”
And the alien feeling, the one she’d thought she’d gotten rid of long ago, that fear, deepened.
* * *
It had been years since Jericho had been able to appreciate beauty in a woman simply because she was beautiful. Without automatically pricing her figure, her hair, her skin, or her general demeanor. And he didn’t now, the habit was simply too ingrained.
Small and slender as a whip. High, firm breasts. Muscled like a dancer. An air of fragility. Curls red enough to start a fire with the color alone. A delicate, cat-like face. Large golden eyes … Yes, she would fetch a good price in any of his markets. Actually, probably more than good. She could fetch top dollar, especially with the dancing skills she’d just displayed.
Yet it wasn’t her money-making potential that had propelled him off that chair, out of the protective darkness and into her spotlight. It was curiosity. Because it had been a long time since a woman hadn’t been afraid of him, long enough that he couldn’t remember what it was like to even have her meet his gaze. But she had met it. And she definitely wasn’t afraid. He’d gotten to be exceptional at reading people, and this girl … well, she wasn’t lying.
She was surprised to find him standing in her spotlight, however. At least, he’d caught a glimpse of it in her magnificent golden eyes, the barest flicker before she’d managed to hide it. She didn’t bother to look away like the rest of them did, though. She didn’t cower or weep. She didn’t have that familiar, sour smell of terror about her that those girls always did, and she didn’t beg either.
She only looked at him from underneath thick, coppery lashes, one small hand holding onto the metal of the stripper pole. It was very nearly flirtatious, that look. Different from the way she’d stared in his direction before, when she’d been dancing. Then it had been focused and sharp, determined. As if she’d been looking for him on purpose. And that alone was enough to spike his curiosity, because no one looked for him. No one who valued their life at least, still less a woman.
“I thought you had to stay in the dark so we couldn’t see you,” she said, her accent American, her voice light with a slightly husky edge he found inexplicably compelling.
He ignored what she’d said since it should have been obvious he could do whatever the fuck he wanted, studying her face instead, searching it for any signs of fear. There were none. “You really aren’t afraid.”
Her mouth, a small, perfect cupid’s bow, turned up. “No.”
“You were looking for me.” He didn’t phrase it as a question.
She gripped the pole and slowly swung around it, like a child on a jungle gym, the dim blue lights that gave the room an underwater glow shining over her pale skin. That small almost-smile curved her mouth, as if she knew a secret he didn’t. “Maybe.”
Nothing surprised him anymore. Nothing intrigued him. Those emotions had been wiped from him over the course of the past sixteen years, along with everything else. Love. Fear. Hate. They were all gone. Scoured away by what he’d done, by what he’d had to do in pursuit of his goal.
He didn’t feel them anymore. So why he should be curious about this young woman simply because she wasn’t afraid of him was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was the paranoia kicking in. God knew, he’d always had to be careful and now, so close to achieving what he’d set out to do all those years ago, he had to be even more careful.
Nothing could get in the way of his mission. Nothing.
He watched her revolve around the pole for a moment, letting her keep that smile on her face for a few seconds longer. Then he said casually, “Tell me, little girl. I really don’t want to have to kill you.” Because he could. All it would take was a certain hand gesture and the room would be full of men with guns, shooting to kill. Either that or he could snap her neck. He’d done both before.
She came to a stop, eyeing him. Not a flicker of fear crossed her face, as if she had death threats every day. And shit, given how the girls usually appeared here, maybe that was true. Maybe she’d become so inured to living with death she didn’t notice it any more.
But no, that wasn’t the case with her, he was certain. Because again, he’d seen girls who’d long since ceased to care about their lives. They were dull with fear, the spark inside them extinguished. Yet not with her. As she stared up at him, he could see that spark still glowing in the depths of her eyes, so fucking bright.
“I guess you could.” She tilted her head to the side, the brightness glinting through her lashes. “Or perhaps I’m here to kill you.”
He nearly smiled at that. Plenty of people had tried; she wouldn’t be the first or even the first woman to do so. But he was exceptionally hard to kill, as many had found out.
Jericho let his gaze travel down her undeniably lovely body, taking in the tiny pasties that were all that concealed her nipples and the even tinier thong that only just covered her pussy, leaving the taut curve of her rear bare. Then he lifted his attention back to her face again. “With what?”
If she found his scrutiny in any way embarrassing or affecting, she didn’t show it. Instead she looked down at herself too. “Hmmm. True. Not exactly anywhere to hide anything.” She glanced back up at him. “So maybe I’m not here to kill you. Maybe I’m here to seduce you instead.”
Again, she wouldn’t be the first, nor would she be the last. But he hadn’t fucked a woman in years, least of all felt desire for one. Of course he had an image to maintain, and so he made sure it looked like he was discerning and perverse with his tastes, choosing one woman a week from his latest top-class shipment. Except he didn’t sleep with them. He rescued them. It wasn’t much to balance out all the shit he’d done—a drop in the ocean really—but it was the one direct, personal action he could take. The only one. Until the time came for him to pull his empire down.
Which he would. Very, very soon.
“Are you?” he murmured, holding her gaze. “And why would you want to do that?”
“Perhaps I’ve heard rumors. That the women you choose for a night get special treatment.” She made another slow revolution around the pole, as if she wasn’t standing next to the most dangerous man in Europe. A man who could have her killed in a matter of seconds if he chose. “And perhaps I want that kind of special treatment for myself.”
Ah yes, the rumors. The ones he’d started. They thought he chose the girls on the basis of beauty, of lust. But he didn’t. No, he chose them on the basis of fear. The ones who were terrified, but not too broken to recover or save themselves once he’d set them free.
This girl was not one of those.
“What makes you think I’ll give it to you?” he asked lazily, watching her. Studying her. “Actually, what the fuck makes you think you can seduce me at all for that matter? I’m a man of singular tastes. And maybe I don’t like cocky redheads who answer back.”
Perhaps she heard the undercurrent of threat he’d put into his voice, because she stopped revolving around the pole, the look in her eyes shifting, changing. Reassessing.
Jesus. She might have told him the truth. She might very well be here to kill him. It was certainly an option he couldn’t discount, and he hadn’t survived this long by discounting options.
Ah, Christ. He should ignore this curiosity. It was dangerous. He should get rid of her, ship her off to the markets in Eastern Europe and hope she survived long enough to be freed when he put his empire to the torch. It would certainly be one less thing on his plate.
She frowned at him, her eyes narrowing. “I tell you what. Let’s make a deal. I’ll try and seduce you, and if I can’t, I’ll tell you the truth about why I’m not afraid of you.”
Well, full marks to her for effort. But he wasn’t a man who made deals with anyone, not these days. “Nice idea.” He allowed himself a slight smile. “Except you’re in no position to bargain for anything.”
Her mouth pursed as if that answer didn’t please her at all. Releasing the pole, she walked over to him, her breasts swaying, her hips swinging, perfectly balanced despite the height of her stripper shoes.
And at which point he should have signaled Dmitri, his Russian bodyguard, to get her out of here and end this … diversion.
Yet he didn’t. Because he was still curious. Because it had been too long since he’d felt anything at all. And because he was the fucking boss. He could do whatever the fuck he liked.
So he stood there as she came closer, not taking his eyes off her. Intrigued by the way she held his gaze, since no one ever looked him in the eye. As if she didn’t see the shadows that lay there or the demon that those shadows hid. As if all she saw was a man.
She stopped right in front of him, glancing up from underneath her lashes, gold glinting, flirtatious and confident of her appeal. Those sparkling star-shaped pasties were inches from his chest and he could smell the scent of her. Not fear. Not despair. Not hopelessness. But a subtle, feminine muskiness he found oddly disquieting.
She wasn’t like the other girls, the ones that came to him distressed and terrified and broken. She was different.
Her small hand settled in the middle of his chest, and for some reason it hit him like a bullet to the brain that this was the first time a woman had come close to him in years. The first time a woman had even touched him voluntarily.
An echo of … something he couldn’t immediately identify went through him. As if her touch was a stone thrown into a still pond, sending out ripples, vibrations.
She pressed her hand a little harder, her burnished gaze flickering up to his. “Am I in a position now?”
There was a confidence to her that bordered on arrogance that he wouldn’t stand for in any other person, man or woman. And for some reason it made those ripples become currents, those vibrations a quake, adrenaline surging through him.
Fuck, he’d let her call the shots for long enough.
Now, it was his turn.
Copyright © 2016 by Jackie Ashenden
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