CHAPTER ONE

It was nearly one in the morning when I realised that I was about to do something stupid. Ordinarily, I'm not someone who is prone to random acts of mischief. By day I'm as straight as they come. But get a few glasses of red into me, and suddenly that little devil on my shoulder starts sounding a whole lot more reasonable.

And tonight was definitely one of those nights.

I was sitting in a shabby little bar with two friends, celebrating Louisa's engagement. We'd only been there an hour, but the empty glasses were already starting to accrue in embarrassing amounts on the table in front of us. Our attention was focused on a finely dressed couple who were walking through a doorway at the back of the room.

"My money's on...international drug lord," I said.

"I'm going to go with local mafia," Louisa replied. We both looked expectantly at Ruth.

"Billionaire men's underwear mogul!" the other woman declared grandly, swaying a little in her seat. The three of us dissolved into giggles.

We were no strangers to a drink or two on a weeknight, but given that it was a special occasion, we'd wanted to take it up a notch. I'm not sure who actually uttered the words 'pub crawl', but all that mattered was it was said. Before I knew what was happening, we'd set off on a merry trek around Sydney. Five hours and four bars later, I was well on the way towards a killer hangover.

The bar we were in was not one of our usual haunts, and for good reason. It was the sort of place that might kindly have been described as 'a renovators dream,' or 'full of character.' In other words, it was a bit of a shit-hole. The angular metal tables looked like they'd been dug from some Soviet Cold War bunker, and the floor sloped away dangerously to one side, as though some of the foundations had simply given up and headed for greener pastures. The only wine they sold was a rather dubious house red, and it came served in the same squat, slightly grimy tumblers as every other drink on the menu.

If it'd been a normal night out, we'd never have considered visiting a place like this. It certainly didn't look like the kind of establishment that would be particularly friendly towards a couple of high spirited, professional women out on a bender. But the booze that was swilling around in our stomachs made us bold, and rather than continuing on our way, we'd found ourselves giggling and making a beeline for the entrance.

In retrospect I was rather glad we did, because there was something intriguing about the place, something that wasn't evident from first glance. Most of the other patrons were what I'd expected; sullen, rough looking, and wearing tradesman's clothes, they eyed us over their foaming cups with a kind of resentful curiosity. But shortly after we'd arrived, an unobtrusive doorway on the rear wall had opened, and a security guard had taken up position in front. Gradually, new people began to trickle in and disappear into the back, people that clearly didn't belong in a dump like this. None of the regulars seemed to care, but that little mystery had set my mind wandering.

"What about the girl?" Louisa asked.

Ruth snorted. "Professional trophy wife?"

"With a Ph.D in Pilates," I added.

"Who also happens to be the next Elizabeth Taylor, if only someone would give her a chance," Ruth finished.

Louisa chuckled. "We're such bitches. For all we know she could be perfectly lovely. It's probably a bloody banking conference or something."

I shook my head. "Bankers don't meet in strange rooms up the back of no name bars." My eyes were firmly fixed on the doorway now. To the casual observer, it might have looked unremarkable — just your everyday corporate gathering — but something about the whole situation struck me as strange. Maybe it was just the alcohol catching up with me, I don't know, but my curiosity was piqued.

None of the bartenders were any help. All they'd say was it was a private function. I couldn't even get a company name out of them. It didn't make any sense. Who were these people that their meeting was such a secret? And why hide it away back here in this place?

"Well, unless you plan on flashing the guard a peek at the girls so we can sneak in, I doubt we'll ever know," Ruth said.

"Don't give her ideas," Louisa replied, now staring at me. "She's got that look in her eyes again."

"What look?" I asked.

"The look that says, 'I'm preparing to make a giant, drunken ass of myself again.'"

"Now when have I ever done that?" I replied, unable to contain my grin. In truth, I did have something of a history of getting a little crazy on big nights out. Being an attorney is hard work. Eighty hour weeks, mounds of paperwork, Partners constantly hounding you; half the time I felt like a worn guitar string that was just a few strums away from snapping. So on those rare occasions that I did get some R&R, I tended to cut loose more than I should. It felt good to just put Professional Sophia in a box for a few hours and forget about her.

Louisa didn't look amused. "Come on Soph, why ruin a perfectly good night by getting yourself kicked out?"

"I haven't said I'm doing anything yet!"

"But you're thinking about it."

My grin widened. "Maybe."

Louisa sighed. "One of these days you're going to get yourself into actual trouble, you know."

The sensible part of me agreed with her. It wasn't exactly lawyerly to be getting tossed out into the street on my ass at one in the morning. But on the other hand, the situation was rather mysterious, and my brain had been marinating in alcohol for hours. I felt restless, energetic, daring; daring enough to do something I might regret later.

I watched as another couple slipped casually into the bar and headed for the back. Whoever these people were, they might as well have had dollar signs printed on their foreheads. Armani, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada; it was like Milan Fashion Week.

Most of the visitors were men. Suited and broad shouldered, they all exuded that kind of arrogant confidence that comes from a lifetime of getting exactly what you want. Some had partners on their arms as well; slim, rouged, perfectly varnished girls, many of whom looked barely out of high school. By glossy magazine standards they were probably attractive, but to me they just looked fake, more like ornaments than real people.

"Come on," I said, "where's your sense of adventure?"

"I'd hardly classify sneaking into some la-di-da business function as an adventure," Louisa replied.

"Hey, if she wants to try, I say let her," Ruth said. "Who knows, maybe she can bring back a couple of the suits for us. There were a few I wouldn't kick out of bed."


Tags: Maya Cross The Alpha Group Billionaire Romance
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