Sweet Persuasion Page 2


Serena closed her eyes. “I’m not hiring a damn gigolo. I want someone halfway normal. Preferably someone who hasn’t already made it with half the women in Houston. And I’d like more than one night. I don’t know, maybe a month. I won’t be able to discover anything about the reality if it’s only one night.”

Faith gave her a thoughtful look. “I know someone who might be able to help you.”

Serena’s mouth gaped open. “You?”

Faith stuck her tongue out and scowled. “I’m not as innocent as you and Julie like to think.”

Serena laughed. “Oh, I know, girlfriend. It’s always the sweet, shy ones who are the real dirty birds.”

“Dirty birds?” Faith sputtered. “Need I remind you of who is plotting to become a sex slave?”

Serena grinned. “It has such a forbidden quality, doesn’t it?” She put a forkful of lasagna in her mouth and closed her eyes. “You’re a wonderful cook, you know? I can’t even boil water. I bet Gray thinks he’s in heaven.”

“He’s not marrying me for my cooking,” Faith said dryly.

“Admit it. You’re a total dirty bird,” Serena coaxed.

Faith flashed an unrepentant smile. “I can give you Damon Roche’s phone number.”

“Damon Roche? Is he the guy you think can turn me into a sex slave?”

“Not him personally,” Faith corrected. “But he owns a . . . hell, I’m still not sure what to call it. I suspect Damon wouldn’t appreciate me calling it a sex club.”

“Sex club?” Serena raised one brow and stared at Faith in surprise. “What the hell are you doing hanging out in a sex club?”

“It was only once,” Faith muttered.

“Clearly you’ve been holding out on me.”

“It didn’t exactly come up in conversation,” Faith said with a laugh. “Anyway, back to Damon. If you called him and told him what you wanted, I bet he could help. There seems to be something for everyone at his . . . establishment.”

“Is it safe?” Serena asked doubtfully.

“Extremely. Damon has very tight security, and he screens his members very thoroughly.”

“Does Gray know about this Damon guy?” Serena asked, more to make Faith blush than any real curiosity.

Instead of blushing, Faith smiled broadly. “Gray knows all about Damon. Damon is flying us to our honeymoon on his private jet.”

“The sex club business must be lucrative,” Serena murmured.

“Oh, The House is a side diversion. Damon’s a business-man.” Faith frowned. “You know, I don’t think he’s ever told me what it is exactly that he does.”

“Oh, great. He’s probably a drug dealer.”

“He’s not a drug dealer,” Faith said in exasperation. “Call him. Tell him what you want. He’s very easy to talk to.”

“You’re not going to try and talk me out of my insanity?”

Serena asked. “You’re my friend. You’re supposed to be mean and give me lectures so that later we can go on Oprah and talk about what soul sisters we are.”

“Or I could go on America’s Most Wanted after I kill you and dump your body in the gulf,” Faith muttered.

Serena shoveled more lasagna down and followed it with several gulps of tea.

“All right, I’ll call him. Provided I don’t go home and chicken out. You were supposed to talk me out of this, not provide me the name of someone who can help me down the road to debauchery.”

“The debauched ones have more fun,” Faith said with an evil twinkle in her eye.

“So says the voice of experience.”

Faith walked over to one of the drawers and took out a note-pad and pen. As she returned, she scribbled on a sheet of paper and then tore it out.

She slid it across the bar toward Serena. “Go home and call him.”

CHAPTER 2

Serena walked into her office and paused by the window to stare over the Houston skyline. She was dressed smartly. Business suit, moderate heels. She knew she looked good. Efficient.

With a sigh, she turned around to face her desk. And the phone. The piece of paper with Damon Roche’s number was crumpled damply in her hand. She unfolded it and smoothed the edges as she sat down in the executive chair.

No, she couldn’t call from home the day before. She needed to do it here, where she could pretend it was just business. Here in her comfortable environment, she wasn’t nervous. It didn’t have to be about her. She could play it cool and pretend she was acting on the behalf of a client.

She picked up the phone and glanced down at the number again before punching it in. For several tense moments, she listened to the ring. About the time she decided no one was going to answer, a distracted voice muttered a terse hello.

She swallowed quickly. “Am I speaking with Mr. Roche?”

There was a distinct pause. “Who is this and how the hell did you get my private number?”

Shit. Damn Faith for not telling her this was his private line and apparently one he guarded closely. She’d managed to piss him off before she ever got to the hard part.

“Faith Malone gave me your number,” she said as calmly as her pounding heart would allow.

“Faith? Is she all right?” he demanded.

She hastened to assure him. “She’s fine. She gave me your number about a . . . business matter. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I hadn’t realized this was a private number.”

Before he could answer, she gently replaced the receiver and backed away from the desk.

Bad idea. Definitely a bad idea.

Her pulse raced, and she struggled to get her nerves back under control. She certainly wasn’t the assertive businesswoman today. With a rueful shake of her head, she turned her attention to her list of tasks for the day.

Her office door opened, and she looked up to see her personal assistant, Carrie Johnson, walk in, a warm smile on her face.

“Serena, I just got a call from Mr. Gallows. He was very satisfied with the work you did on his job.”

Serena sat back in her chair and smiled back at Carrie. “Oh, thank goodness. He was such a hard sale.”

Carried worked to keep a straight face. “It doesn’t help that his fantasy involved being head chef at Riganti’s.”

“Don’t remind me,” Serena said with a groan. “I may have lost my favored patron status with Carlos forever. He’s probably banned me from the restaurant over this.”

“I have it on good authority that the staff at Riganti’s loves you, and that Mr. Gallows’s short employment there actually went quite well. Mr. Gallows hinted that he was applying to culinary school in Paris, as a result of his experience.”

Serena sighed. “Oh, that’s lovely. It’s so nice when there’s a happy outcome. About half the time, the client figures out that some dreams are better left in the realm of fantasy and not ever brought to light. Reality is harsh, unfortunately.”

Carrie’s eyebrow lifted in surprise. “That doesn’t sound like you, Serena. Something going on that I need to know about?”

“No, not at all.” Liar. “I can’t be Pollyanna all the time. There is a certain risk in what we do. We have the power to make someone’s dream come true, but we also have the power to crush it forever.”

Carrie shrugged. “Sometimes a healthy dose of reality is needed. You can’t live in fantasy land indefinitely. I’d say you’ve done a lot of people a favor by making that clear.”

Serena shook her head. “That’s not my job. People don’t pay me to give them a wake-up call. They pay me to fulfill a fantasy. To give them something no one else can.”

“And you do it very well.”

“Maybe.”

Carrie cocked her head. “You’re in a strange mood, Serena. Maybe you should take the day off. Come back when you’re not so . . . morose. Or at least let me talk to clients today.”

A smile cracked the corners of Serena’s mouth. “I’m fine, Carrie. Really. I promise not to scare away potential clients with my dose of reality. Besides, today we have to outline the details for Michelle Tasco’s fantasy.”

Carrie’s expression softened, and Serena smiled in satisfaction. Carrie really was the perfect assistant. She had a heart of gold and an undying commitment to making people happy.

“Her parents called a few minutes ago to thank you,” Carrie said softly. “This means the world to them. I think it was wonderful for you to make the arrangements at no charge.”

Serena shifted uncomfortably, her cheeks tightening under Carrie’s scrutiny. “Yeah, well, it’ll make a nice tax write-off.”

Amusement glinted in Carrie’s eyes. “You can’t fool me, Serena. You’re a big ole softie, even if you won’t admit it.”

“Did you arrange the tour?” Serena asked impatiently.

Still grinning, Carrie plopped a folder onto Serena’s desk. “All done. You just need to call Michelle’s parents with the final dates and times after you’ve touched base with the cruise line.”

“Okay, I’ll do that now,” Serena said. “Then we can mark one more fantasy off our list.”

“And don’t forget to eat lunch,” Carrie called over her shoulder as she walked out of Serena’s office.

“Yes, Mother,” Serena muttered.

She glanced down at the file that Carrie had dropped on her desk. Michelle stared back at her, a waiflike little girl who’d seen way too much horror in her young life. If Serena could make her smile, even for a short while, it was worth every penny.

She picked up the phone and dialed her contact at the cruise line. A few minutes later, she rang off, satisfied that all the arrangements had been made for Michelle’s once-in-a-lifetime trip. She hesitated as she started to dial Michelle’s parents’ number then changed her mind and buzzed for Carrie instead.

“Can you call Michelle’s folks and let them know that everything has been taken care of? I’m going to go grab lunch.”

A light chuckle worked over the intercom. “Chicken. Yeah, I’ll call them. You can’t avoid them forever, Serena. They’ll want to thank you in person.”

Serena grimaced and broke the connection. This was why she had an assistant. Meeting grateful parents was much more Carrie’s forte than it was Serena’s. Serena could make decisions, run the business, but Carrie had a natural affinity for people that made her a better choice as the company’s spokesperson.

Stretching her feet to feel around for her shoes, she snagged them with her toe and then slid them on. After grabbing her handbag, she tossed her cell phone inside and headed for the door. As she walked by Carrie’s office, she heard her assistant’s cheerful voice as she passed on the information to Michelle’s parents.

A smile crept over her mouth despite her attempt not to become involved in the more personal details of Michelle’s trip. She stepped into the hot summer air and closed her eyes as the sun brushed across her face.

It was muggy and hot, but she loved the weather in Houston. Even the perpetual haze that hung over the city in the summertime didn’t bother her.

As she reached for her car keys, her cell phone rang. With a sigh, she fumbled for it and looked at the LCD. She frowned when she didn’t recognize the number. It could be a client.

“This is Serena James,” she said by way of greeting as she continued on to her car.

“Miss James, this is Damon Roche.”

His deep voice crawled up her spine and hit her right at the base of her skull. She hadn’t expected to hear back from him.

“How did you get this number?” she demanded, then winced when she realized she sounded exactly as he had when she’d first called him.

His chuckle rolled through the line. “It’s my turn to intrude. Your number didn’t register when you called me so I had to track you down using other methods. You’re a hard lady to find.”

“Not too hard, apparently,” she murmured.

“I called Faith,” he said simply. “I apologize for my earlier rudeness. It was uncalled for, particularly as you are a friend of someone I care a lot about. Now, what can I do for you?”

Serena grimaced. “Faith didn’t tell you?”

“Of course not,” he said smoothly. “She only told me that you needed my help. Have you had lunch yet?”

She blinked at his abrupt shift in topic. “Uh, no, was on my way right now, as a matter of fact.”

“Perfect. Why don’t we meet so we can discuss your . . . problem.”

Hell. She drew in a deep breath. She’d already chickened out of her grand plan to seek out her fantasy. It was absurd to think she could go through with it. She hadn’t counted on him calling her back after she’d hung up on him.

“Miss James?”

“Call me Serena, please.”

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