There was broke, and then there was busted-ass, livin’-out-ya-car, can’t-even-afford-Ramen broke. Jada Morgan had crossed that line more than a month ago. To say she was desperate to change her circumstances was like saying Snoop Dogg liked to smoke a little weed.
She sat in her car in front of Archer and Lily’s Beverly Hills home and took a couple of deep, calming breaths. Envy coated her stomach as she examined the spectacular ranch-style house with its large curving driveway, expansive windows, and lush landscaping. What would it be like to live here? To come home to a place like this and spend every night with the man of her dreams like Lily did?
As natural as such a feeling might be, she pushed it aside. It wouldn’t help her right now.
“Okay, Jada,” she said to her reflection in the vanity mirror of her driver’s side sun visor. “You got this. You’re fierce. You’re a fighter. You won’t walk out of this meeting without a paying job.”
She continued to stare at her reflection for a full minute after her pep talk. She sought even a hint of the urgency she felt. When she was confident she was the only one who would know her innermost thoughts, she nodded to herself and got out of the car.
She had parked in front of one of Archer and Lily’s four garages. There were already four other vehicles parked there. Having worked with The Void on a handful of social media shadowing opportunities over the past couple months, Jada knew the blue Camry hybrid belonged to the band’s sound specialist, Sage Strickland. Sage had likely brought his best friend, Void drummer Noelle Fox, along with him. The two seemed to travel together most of the time. The black Lexus sedan parked next to the Camry belonged to the band’s rhythm guitarist, Xander Phillips. If Jada had to guess, she’d say the new silver Honda CR-V still bearing the car dealer’s packaging details taped to the inside of the rear window belonged to the expectant parents, Keith and Sydney Connors. It looked like the vehicle had been driven right to the house from the lot.
The last vehicle, a burgundy Audi, belonged to Christopher Donahue, The Void’s manager. Seeing it made Jada break out into a stress sweat.
Spotting the security cameras tracking her progress, she did her best to remain cool and collected as she approached the massive front door and pressed the doorbell. She heard a faint, pleasant chime resonate inside the house. Less than a minute later, an attractive older woman answered the door.
“Hello,” the woman said warmly. “You must be Jada. Everyone is waiting for you in the parlor.”
Jada tried not to gape over the word “parlor.” She’d never been anywhere nice enough to have an actual parlor.
You got this, she told herself, plastering a smile on her face. “Great, thanks,” she said.
“Right this way.”
Jada’s eyes weren’t quite their normal size as she followed the woman through the open foyer. They passed a spacious dining area on the left that looked like it could easily seat twelve guests. To the right was a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and an inviting window seat overlooking a side garden with a water feature. Ahead of them, she spotted the edge of a gleaming kitchen bathed in natural light let in by sweeping panels of windows and glass doors leading to a pool and outdoor entertaining area. They turned down a hallway before entering the kitchen, at which point she heard several voices and a round of laughter. They must be nearing the parlor.
Her heart started pounding hard enough she felt it in her ears. She tried to be subtle as she wiped her damp palms on the skirt of the summer dress she had chosen to wear for this meeting. Lily had called only an hour ago and asked if Jada could meet her and the band at her home. Jada had known there was only one reason they’d want to meet with her: to discuss her future with the band.
When she initially won the Single Spotlight contest for her work promoting the “Not Mine” release back in July, the opportunity had been meant as a chance to shadow Lily in her role as the band’s social media manager for one day. During a meeting with Jada shortly after winning the contest, Lily had decided she wanted to explore more of Jada’s talent with photography. She reasoned it would give Jada a chance to experience what working on social media was really like to see if it was of genuine interest to Jada as a career. Over the past couple of weeks, Lily had dropped a few hints that she might be considering hiring an assistant now that she had accepted the role as the social media director for The Void. Jada supposed Lily had been trying to gauge if Jada would be interested.
What Jada hadn’t told Lily was that she would have taken the role—any role—even if she hated it. She couldn’t afford to be picky.
She figured saying such a thing wouldn’t make her look so appealing as a potential employee, so she had paid her dues and done her damnedest to impress Lily and the rest of the band over the past two months. Now she would find out if she had done well enough.
She rounded one last corner with the woman she assumed was the housekeeper and stood for a moment in the wide archway leading into the parlor. The room resembled what she’d always thought of as a living room, a place for receiving company that wasn’t quite as homey or lived-in as the family room. This room did look homey though. There was a white brick fireplace along the far wall with a dark wood mantle covered in colorful decorative items and a few framed photographs. In the center of the room, two long, comfortable-looking couches faced each other across a wood and glass coffee table. On the other sides of the table were two pairs of wing-back chairs. Every seat was in use except the chair next to Christopher.
The band’s manager was smiling, making his green eyes seem to dance. He had a cheerful disposition that did nothing to ease Jada’s nerves around him. She knew how powerful he was in the music industry. From the moment she had been introduced to him, he had intimidated her.
Keith Connors, the band’s bassist, also made her wary. The guy didn’t smile much, and his intense blue eyes seemed like they could pierce someone’s soul. Not much escaped his attention. When he looked at her, she felt as though she was being weighed and measured. It mystified her how he had ended up with the sweet and unassuming Sydney Ward—now Sydney Connors. Jada guessed something about their opposing personalities clicked for them. They sat next to each other on one of the couches, Sydney curled up against her new husband’s side with her eyes closed. Jada could admit they looked good together…like darkness and light.
Sitting on Sydney’s other side, Xander took up half the couch. The large, muscular, sexy-as-sin male simply dominated any space he entered. In his khaki cargo pants and tight camo T-shirt, he should have appeared out of place in the stylish Beverly Hills home. Instead, he looked just as at home there as he did standing on a stage playing his guitar. He had a way of adapting and blending no matter where he went.
Despite that, Jada couldn’t help but notice him anytime he was in her vicinity. He made every one of her senses stand at attention.
She deliberately looked away from him. Now was not the time to get distracted.
Her gaze swept around the remaining people in the room. As she suspected, Sage had driven to the meeting with Noelle, who sat on the other couch next to Lily and Archer. Sage sat in one of the wing-back chairs facing the fireplace. Jada could see his side profile as he leaned closer to the chair beside him. He held the hand of the person sitting there. She caught a glimpse of dark auburn hair when the person leaned closer to Sage, and reasoned that it was Lily’s sister, Rosemary. Sage and Rosemary’s relationship was a new development, one that made Jada curious. The last she knew, Sage had been dating someone else.
“Jada,” Lily said, rising from her place beside Archer. “Thanks so much for coming on such short notice.”
“Of course.” She stepped forward and accepted Lily’s hug, a form of greeting Jada still hadn’t gotten used to. “Congratulations to you and Archer.” When she pulled away from Lily’s hug, she looked over at Keith and Sydney. “And to you two, of course.”
Keith and Sydney had been married just two days ago. In a surprise twist, Lily and Archer had held their own ceremony just after midnight that same night. Technically the couples had been married on separate days even if they had shared the same venue, officiant, and even wedding guests.
Lily had asked Jada to help her out with the band’s social media after the wedding so she could focus on packing for her honeymoon. Jada hadn’t hesitated to say yes. It not only offered her great experience, she had enjoyed posting about both events over the past couple days. She had made excellent use of the photos and video clips Lily had shared with her.
If she did say so herself.
“Thanks,” Keith said in response to her congratulations. He kept his voice low, making her think Sydney might actually be asleep.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a gift,” she said, looking from Keith to Lily.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Lily replied, waving her towards the open chair. “You had very little notice about the weddings and you’re still getting to know all of us. We don’t expect gifts.”
Jada crossed the room and took the seat, barely avoiding issuing a Thank God. She couldn’t afford food, never mind buying anyone a wedding present. Still, she felt bad not having so much as a greeting card for either of the newlywed couples.
“I wanted to thank you in person for stepping in at the last minute to cover for me after the wedding,” Lily went on. “You did a wonderful job.”
“It was my pleasure,” she said.
In the back of her mind, she prayed that she hadn’t only been invited here for a thank-you. The light prickling of anxiety-induced sweat broke out along her hairline and under her arms. What was she going to do if she wasn’t offered a paid position?
Shut up, she told herself.
“You’ve really impressed all of us since you won that contest,” Lily went on, invoking a series of nods around the room. “Even with everything that has aired on House of Archer and the huge amount of press about the band lately, you’ve approached your work with The Void objectively and with passion. It’s easy to see you enjoy what you do.”
Jada wasn’t a blusher, but having such pointed compliments aimed at her—not to mention having the undivided attention of one of the hottest bands in the world—had a flush working its way along the back of her neck. She glanced to her right and met Xander’s deep brown gaze. She struggled to swallow the nerves that rose up to tickle her throat.
“Thank you,” she said, turning her attention back to Lily. “It’s been fun getting to know all of you and pursuing something I love to do.”
Lily smiled. “I won’t beat around the bush. We’d like to have you officially join the team as my assistant.”
If Jada hadn’t been sitting, she just might have fallen to the ground, so great was her relief. Her smile wanted to burst from her. She decided to set it free.
“I would love to,” she said.
“I know it’s unusual to discuss a job offer with so many people in the room,” Lily said. “But we all wanted to officially welcome you if you accepted.”
Jada glanced over as the woman who had answered the door wheeled a cart into view. On the cart were two buckets holding bottles of champagne, champagne glasses, and two platters of food. Jada hadn’t even determined what was on the platters before her stomach immediately made itself known. She knew it had grumbled loud enough to be heard when Xander’s gaze once again moved to her. She pretended she didn’t notice.
“So we’ll do a little celebrating and discuss some of your responsibilities first and then kick everyone but Christopher out of the room to negotiate everything else,” Lily said. “Would you prefer champagne or sparkling cider, Jada?”
“For this? Champagne all the way.”
The housekeeper made the rounds, distributing the bubbling beverages and placing the platters of food on the coffee table. Even Sydney roused herself and accepted some sparkling cider. She gave Jada a soft smile and apologetic wave, as though she was sorry to have fallen asleep.
Christopher got to his feet once everyone had a glass in-hand. “We have a lot to celebrate today,” he began. “‘Infinite’ debuted at number six on the charts,” he said, referencing the latest song released from The Void’s album Eternal Muse. “‘Miracle Worker’ and ‘Not Mine’ are both hanging in the top twenty-five. House of Archer continues to sit in the top slot on the network’s rankings. An international tour is in the works. We just had two weddings and we’ll be adding to our little family at the end of April.”
Here, he tipped his glass towards Sydney, who smiled and leaned so her cheek rested on Keith’s shoulder. Keith turned and brushed his lips against the top of Sydney’s head in an almost absent show of tenderness that immediately made Jada’s heart warm towards him.
“And last but certainly not least,” Christopher continued, “we’re welcoming Jada to the team to help us grow even more. Jada, we appreciate all the time you’ve dedicated to The Void over the past couple months and we look forward to seeing everything you can achieve with us. Today we celebrate you.”
Everyone lifted their glasses and touched them to the glasses near theirs. Jada clinked glasses with Christopher first since he stood beside her, then turned and touched her glass to Xander’s extended one. He winked at her.
“We’re all lookin’ forward to working with you,” he said, taking a drink of his champagne.
His deep voice sent a shiver of awareness through her. Why did it feel like he was touching her even though they were still separated by a couple of feet? She couldn’t look at him too long without her thoughts turning inappropriate. It had been a problem since she first met him. She liked to think she was learning to work around it though. All she had to do was remind herself that Xander liked women—a lot—so her attraction to him was nothing special.
“Some of us would like to take you to dinner to celebrate,” he said. “Anywhere you want.”
She wasn’t about to turn down a free meal. “That’s very kind of you. I’d like that.”
“I wish we could go with you,” Lily said, “but Archer and I are leaving in an hour. We’ll have to celebrate with you when we get back from our honeymoon.”
“I have to extend my regrets on the dinner as well,” Christopher said. “I’ve got a meeting I couldn’t reschedule. But I’ll be there in spirit.”
Everyone was so gracious, she thought as she joined them in partaking of the appetizers. She had probably spent a total of ten hours with the band in its entirety in the course of her sporadic shadowing opportunities. In that time, she had learned how loyal they all were to each other. House of Archer was edited to make the public think otherwise. It had taken her a while to understand that. She wondered what else she might learn in her new role.
It took a heroic effort on her part not to overindulge on the delicious appetizers. It helped knowing dinner was still to come, and before too long the only people left in the room were her, Lily, and Christopher.
They discussed the expectations for the position, which would start as part-time with the potential to transition to full-time. She would support Lily with The Void’s social media efforts, going with the band to various engagements, taking photos and videos, and helping come up with creative ways to engage the fans. The role would also require her to sign an updated nondisclosure as well as a release form to appear on House of Archer.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Lily said, probably reading her uncertainty. “You’ll be working with us on some sensitive stuff and there’s no question you’ll end up in show footage, so there’s really no other option.”
Jada pushed aside her concerns. She’d sign away a kidney to get this job.
“Since we know this job is more intense and, let’s face it, invasive than most,” Christopher said, “we’re offering a higher rate of pay than the industry standard. Fifteen dollars an hour to start with room to discuss a bump after ninety days.”
She wished she had more champagne to help moisten her suddenly dry mouth. The thought of negotiating for more didn’t even cross her mind.
“That sounds fair,” she said, pleased her voice didn’t come out in a croak.
Lily leaned forward and took another one of the chocolate-covered strawberries from a platter. “There’s more. With me unexpectedly leaving on my honeymoon, I need to see if you might be able to step in right away. I understand you have another job, but do you think you could spare time every day to do some Void social media in my absence? We’ll pay your hourly rate up to forty hours per week until I get back.”
The idea of lying to save face briefly crossed Jada’s mind. She dismissed the thought almost instantly. The Void had a top-notch security team working with them. If they hadn’t already done a thorough background check on her, they would most certainly do it once she officially became an employee.
“Actually, I haven’t been working at my other job for a little while now,” she admitted. “So I’m free and clear to do whatever you need while you’re on your honeymoon.”
Lily’s brief look of surprise transitioned into relief. “Thank goodness! That’s a big load off my shoulders. You’re a real lifesaver, Jada.”
“You’ll receive an e-mail from Millie in my office with the employment paperwork,” Christopher said. “I know this is all coming at you fast, but if you could take the time to complete the paperwork as quickly as possible, that’ll make paying you a whole lot easier.”
Jada smiled. “No problem.”
They spent the next thirty minutes reviewing Lily’s social media plan for the next two weeks. Jada took careful notes on her phone and felt confident she could handle it.
When it came time for Lily and Archer to head to the airport, everyone else piled into their cars to drive to the restaurant for Jada’s celebration dinner. She’d chosen a fusion restaurant that she loved both for its food and its location. As they all pulled into the uninspiring strip mall parking lot, however, she worried the band would find her choice questionable. They were all surely used to much finer dining.
Oh, well. There wasn’t any use second-guessing now that they were already there.
As it turned out, no one seemed concerned as they headed into the restaurant to find a table. They were all too busy talking amongst themselves, including Jada in their conversation. Soon they all sat around a circular table reserved for large groups like theirs. Rosemary sat to Jada’s left and Xander to her right. They were close enough in the small restaurant that she felt the heat from his body against the side of her thigh.
Once again, she felt hyper-aware of him. Once again, she reminded herself that he was a player in every sense of the word.
“I’ve wanted to try this place for ages,” Rosemary said as she scanned the menu.
“Their falafel is the best I’ve ever had,” Jada advised.
Rosemary closed her menu. “Sold.”
“What else is good here?” Xander asked.
Jada looked over at him. His soulful eyes drew her in so much that she almost forgot the question. She had to turn her focus to his lightly stubbled chin to regain her senses. When he grinned at her, she knew he was well aware of her reaction to him.
“Do you like lamb?” she asked.
“Don’t know that I’ve ever had it.”
Her eyebrows lifted and she forgot to avoid his gaze. “Allow me to educate you.”
It turned out to be a fun time for everyone. Xander wasn’t the only one who hadn’t eaten much Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine, the restaurant’s main specialties. Rosemary and Jada, being the experts among them, helped guide the others through the menu. They ended up ordering several dishes family style so everyone could try them.
Jada wished the evening would never end. It seemed all too soon that everyone walked out to their cars to head home.
She merely headed to her car.
Home, sweet home, she thought with a sigh as she settled into the driver’s seat. When she was sure the rest of the band had gone and no one else in the parking lot was paying her any attention, she lowered the sun visor and looked at her reflection in the vanity mirror.
“Great job,” she told herself. “You busted your ass for this. You deserve it. Now stick with it and don’t ever fucking give up.”
Once upon a time, she would have felt sorry for herself that she was the only one she could turn to for support and encouragement, especially for such a huge moment. Now she chose to look at the bright side. At least she wouldn’t ever let herself down.
The restaurant closed an hour later. When the night manager turned the lock and spotted her sitting in her car, he frowned and headed over to her. She obligingly rolled down her window.
“Hey, Nico,” she greeted him.
“Hi, J,” he said, stopping a few feet from her car. “Been awhile.”
“Yeah, it has. Listen, I need a favor.”
“Please, Nico? I swear it’s just for tonight. I was here celebrating my new job.”
That had the discomfort easing from Nico’s expression. “Is that right?”
“It is. I’ll only be mobile another couple weeks until I get my first paycheck. ‘Til then I just want to make sure I’m somewhere safe to sleep at night. This is a well-lit parking lot and I know you won’t call the cops on me.”
The faint sound of a throat clearing had Nico glancing over the roof of her car. Jada looked out the passenger side window to see who had interrupted. When she saw a camo T-shirt tucked into a pair of khaki cargo pants, her spine stiffened. Xander was too tall for her to see his face but there was no mistaking that spectacular body.
Had he heard their conversation?
“Hey, man,” Xander said to Nico. “You work here?”
“I think I left my phone earlier. Can you help me out?”
Nico immediately turned and walked back to the restaurant, fishing his keys out of his pocket as he went. Jada forced herself to stay calm. Xander had been standing on the far side of her car and that window hadn’t been open. He probably hadn’t heard anything, she assured herself.
She heard the sound of his heavy boots crunching gravel as he strolled over to her side of the car. It was impossible not to notice how gracefully he moved, like a powerful predator. Her hands gripped the steering wheel for no good reason other than she didn’t know what else to do with them. She swallowed audibly as Xander placed a hand on the roof of her car and leaned over so he was looking in her window. He was so close she could smell the mouth-watering scent of his aftershave.
“Hey there, Jada,” he said casually. “Or should I call you J?”
Fuck. He’d heard everything.
Her eyes refused to meet his. She stayed focused on the window leading into the restaurant as she willed Nico to hurry out with the cell phone.
“Either is fine,” she said, attempting to sound indifferent. “Forgot your phone, huh?”
“Yep. So you gonna explain what I walked in on here or am I supposed to guess?”
She wanted to snap that it was none of his business but knew she couldn’t. Technically he and the rest of the band were her bosses. She wasn’t about to lose this job over a matter of pride before it had even officially begun. Gauging him based on the limited time she’d spent with him, she decided that honesty was the best policy.
“Look, I’m between places right now,” she said, forcing herself to meet his gaze. “I lost my last job due to…difficult circumstances. Funds are tight. I swear this won’t impact my ability to do my job.”
His brow furrowed. “Why didn’t you mention this before?”
Her back teeth set and she had to force her jaw to release. “Because it’s my business,” she said, deliberately cool. “And it doesn’t hinder my ability to do my job. You’ve had no complaints so far, have you?”
“How long have you…?” He trailed off as he studied her. “Know what? Never mind. That’s not important. You can stay with me.”
She felt her entire chest give a solid thunk. “Huh?”
Nico finally emerged from the restaurant, locking the door behind him. “Is this your phone?” he asked as he got closer, holding up an iPhone with an Air Force logo on the case.
“That’s it. Thanks, man,” Xander said, accepting it from him.
“Sure.” Nico glanced at Jada. “Um, as for your request, J…”
“Don’t worry ‘bout that,” Xander said. “We’re good here.”
Jada felt her ears growing hot. “Now just a minute—”
“Do you really think I’ll let a fellow Void team member spend the night in a parking lot when I’ve got a perfectly good spare room?”
She sensed no judgment in his tone or his gaze. He had presented the question so sensibly and had referred to her as a Void team member so nonchalantly that she found all of her anger and resistance fading.
“Just for tonight,” she said.
“We’ll start with that,” Xander agreed.
She frowned. “I meant—”
“You can follow me into the garage,” he said as though she hadn’t just spoken. “I’ve got two reserved spots but only use one. Just park next to me on the right.”
Turning to Nico, he gave him a quick two-finger salute. “Thanks again. Loved the food by the way. I’ll definitely be back.”
Nico beamed. “Thank you! We’re on Uber Eats too.”
Jada watched the interaction as she struggled to find her voice and her pride. She couldn’t just stay the night with Xander Phillips, the notorious playboy, even if it was in a spare room. He was practically her boss. It was all kinds of inappropriate. And where did he get off thinking he could just order her to stay with him?
The arguments running through her head were all valid.
The idea of a hot shower and a comfortable bed overrode them all.
That was why she found herself starting her car and following Xander out of the strip mall’s parking lot. It was why she managed to turn her car into the parking garage of the building where he lived instead of turning around. It was why she pulled into the parking spot he’d told her to and turned off the car’s ignition.
Then she sat there staring at the concrete wall of the garage in front of her wondering what had possessed her. This was insane. And, okay, more than a little humiliating.
Xander rapped a knuckle against her window. “Pop your trunk,” he said. “I’ll carry your bag up.”
She didn’t know how he knew she had a bag ready to go for situations like this. Just like before, he’d said it so matter-of-factly and with such authority that she didn’t think to argue. She just popped the trunk and opened her door, collecting her purse before stepping out to join him behind her car. He lifted her single suitcase like it weighed nothing.
“Need anything else?” he asked.
Wordlessly, she grabbed the small bag she used in gas station restrooms to take care of her personal grooming needs. After she stepped back, he closed the trunk.
“This way,” he said, placing a hand on the small of her back to direct her towards an elevator.
Her dress had a low keyhole back, so his fingers brushed her bare skin. It felt like he’d branded her. Her skin flushed hot over the innocent contact. She stepped away from him, certain she would do something stupid like throw herself at him if she didn’t.
He appeared oblivious to her behavior. “I’m on three,” he said as they reached the elevator and he pushed the button. “Usually take the stairs, but I don’t have to wear heels like those.”
The grin he flashed her made her heart do a slow spiral. It was easy to see why so many women fell victim to his charms.
Not me, she vowed. That’s the last thing I need.
“I appreciate the consideration,” she said, hoping he understood she meant more than just the decision to take the elevator.
“I got you,” he said.
She could have read all kinds of things into those three words, especially when she saw the teasing light had faded from his eyes. Thankfully the elevator arrived, giving her a reason to look away. It was best not to infer or draw conclusions. She hardly knew him.
He shared a few details about the building as they walked from the elevator to his condo. She only listened with half an ear. After all, she’d only be staying the one night.
It was hard not to be impressed with the condo itself. She loved the clean lines and contemporary feel of the place. A hallway off the foyer led to the living space with a fully appointed galley-style kitchen to the right and a cozy eating area to the left. Just beyond the eating area was a spacious family room decorated in warm browns, beiges, and creams with a few pops of color in the artwork and accent pieces. On the other side of the condo were two bedrooms, an office, and a bonus room clearly dedicated to music based on the brief glimpse she got as Xander walked her to the guest room.
Her eyes widened when they entered the room where she’d be sleeping. It was large enough that she would have assumed it was the master. The queen-sized bed had a wood headboard that ran the entire height of the wall, drawing attention to the high ceilings. It had a soft cream comforter and decorative pillows in shades of aqua, taupe, and cream. There were even two scoop chairs on the far side of the room. Xander walked over to one and set her suitcase on it.
“There’s a guest bath right around the corner,” he said. “It’s all yours. Make yourself comfortable.”
Jada had never found it easy to accept help. She wasn’t sure why Xander somehow made it simple, as though this arrangement was perfectly natural. There was something both touching and dangerous about that.
“Thank you,” she said. “I promise to be out of your hair come tomorrow.”
It sounded resolute and unbending coming out of her mouth. When Xander just winked and strolled out of the room, she somehow felt as though the words had rolled right over him.
What the hell had she just gotten herself into?