Alpha, p.11
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       Alpha, p.11
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         Part #1 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
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“Just that much. ”

  “That’s impressive. I’ve worked for Mr. Roth directly for five years, and for his company for eight. Meaning, I’ve worked for him for a total of eight years, five of which I’ve spent as his driver and pilot. ”

  “And bodyguard, and private investigator. ”

  “Yes, and those things. ” He banked again, and then resumed speaking. “I worked directly for Mr. Roth for almost a year before he even gave me that much of his name. And here you spend less than forty-eight hours with him, and you’ve gotten his name from him. Pretty impressive. ”

  “All I did was ask,” I said.

  Harris laughed. “I asked, too. A month and a half in. Know what he said? He said, ‘Ask me any more personal questions, Harris, and you’ll end up shoveling elephant dung for the circus. ’”

  “He actually used the word ‘dung’?”

  Harris nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He doesn’t like swearing under most circumstances. If he does, you know he’s serious as a goddamn heart attack. ” He gave me another glance, this one inquisitive, curious. “When I showed him what I’d found out about your…boyfriend…Steven…he was more upset than I’ve ever seen him, before or since. He said, and I quote, ‘Make sure that vile piece of shit doesn’t lay a finger on her, Harris. Make sure he knows who she belongs to. If he resists…fucking bury him. ’”

  I shivered. “Obviously Steven listened,” I said.

  Harris’s voice was cold and terrifying. “I didn’t leave him much choice. ”

  “I don’t want to know what that means, do I?”

  “No. Probably not. ”

  Silence extended between us. I tried not to think about Steven, or what I’d seen in that file. I wanted to enjoy tonight, this experience. I focused on the view outside my window, Manhattan beneath me, bathed in the golden light of early evening. Harris banked the helicopter a third time, and then I felt us going lower, watched as we approached a high-rise with a helipad on the roof. Soon the building was out my view, and we descended straight down. A gentle bump, and we landed safely.

  “Wait a moment for the rotors to stop,” Harris said. “Don’t want the wash to mess up your hair. ” He flipped a switch, and the engine’s roar turned to a receding whine, the rotors slowing to a stop.

  He stepped out and opened my door, placed his hands on my waist, and lifted me down. He gestured at the nearest door. “This way, please. ”

  I followed him through the doorway, which led us into a small foyer area and a single elevator. He pushed the call button and stood beside me, hands clasped behind his back, a distinctly military at-ease posture that seemed second nature. The elevator doors opened, and he gestured for me to go first. Then he stepped on and pushed a button for a few floors down. My heart was starting to beat a little harder, knowing I was about to meet Roth once more. The elevator doors opened, and I stepped off into a small, dark room. It was lit by dim red lights hidden behind thick stands of bamboo planted directly into the floor on either side of the room.

  Opposite the elevator was a set of double doors, black lacquer, thick and heavy-looking, banded with hammered black iron, the handles wrist-thick rings.

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  Harris moved to stand beside me, and glanced at the doors and then at me. He reached into his blazer pocket and pulled out a long strip of green fabric, the same shade and material as my dress. “Ready?”

  I inhaled, held my breath a moment, and then let it out. “Yes. I suppose I am. ”

  Harris tied the blindfold around my head, and then placed his hand on my shoulder. I heard a ring squeak on the door as he lifted one of them. I felt his balance shift, his fingers tightening ever so slightly on my shoulder as he pulled open the obviously heavy door. I smelled food, Asian, possibly. Rice, searing meat, vegetables. I heard flames leaping, low voices. Harris guided me through the door.

  “I’ll see you later, Miss St. Claire,” he said.

  “Wait…you’re leaving me here? I don’t know where I’m going, I’m blindfolded, remember?” I felt panicky, fearful. Harris was now familiar to me. I didn’t want to be left alone in another strange place. I wasn’t in Roth’s house anymore, or in a vehicle. I was in a restaurant. Were there people watching me, staring at me, wondering who this weird blindfolded lady was? I was embarrassed, hating the blindfold, hating the vulnerability, hating that people I didn’t know could see me when I couldn’t see them.

  I felt a hesitant, cool touch on my shoulder, heard a soft male voice with a faint Asian accent. “Miss St. Claire. Please, my name is Kim. I will bring you to Mr. Roth. He has given instruction. ”

  “You’re all right, Miss St. Claire,” Harris said. “Have a good night. ” I heard the heavy doors closing.

  “This way, please. ” I felt Kim’s hand take mine, placing my fingers on his arm. “Follow, please. ”

  I moved with careful, precise steps, and my host seemed to understand the limitation of my dress, as he moved slowly enough that I didn’t feel rushed or off-balance. I heard the voices again, but they were all off to my right, and they all seemed to be speaking the same language. Chinese, maybe? I wasn’t sure, having very little familiarity with Asian languages.

  “Are there any other people here, Kim?” I asked.

  “No, no,” came the response. “Only Mr. Roth, me, you, the chefs. ”

  “Oh. Okay. Thank you. ”

  “Yes, yes. ” Kim stopped, and I heard a door, the slight squeak of oiled hinges, and a latch opening. “This way, please. ”

  Another few dozen steps, and then another pause, another door opening.

  “Miss St. Claire, sir,” Kim said, a hand on my elbow urging me forward.

  I heard a chair sliding, and then Roth’s hands were on my arms, my wrists, taking my hands in his. “Kyrie. Welcome. ”

  “Thank you,” I said. “Where are we?”

  He led me four steps, pulled out a chair, guided me into it, and then resumed his own seat. “This is Longjing. It’s a Chinese restaurant I own. ” His strong fingers tangled with mine. “You look…simply ravishing, Kyrie. I knew that dress would suit you when I had it made for you, but I had no clue how positively breathtaking you would look wearing it. ”

  I felt myself blushing. “It’s incredible, Roth. Thank you. ” I ducked my head. “For the dress, for the whole experience so far. ”

  “Do you like the jewelry?”

  I let out a disbelieving huff of laughter. “Like it? Roth, it’s…incredible. That’s not the right word…there aren’t any words. I’ve never worn anything like it. ”

  “That’s the point, my lovely. No one has. That set was designed for you, for that dress. ”

  “I…what?”

  Roth’s thumb caressed my knuckles. “You deserve the best, Kyrie. And that is what I intend to give you. ”

  “I just…I don’t even know what to say, Roth. Everything is so…much. I can’t even fathom how much you spent on what I’m wearing. ”

  “You want to know?” He sounded amused. “If you want to know, then I’ll tell you. Altogether, what you are wearing cost over one hundred thousand dollars. ”

  My mind was boggled. “Why?”

  He laughed. “It’s nothing, Kyrie. We’re not even going to be seen tonight, either. Not in the public sense, when what we wear would be judged. ”

  “Do you do public appearances like that?” I asked.

  “Very, very rarely. And only if I absolutely have to. ”

  “So then all this,” I gestured at myself with both hands, “is just for…what, for kicks?”

  “For…kicks?” I heard the puzzled frown in his voice. “You mean just because? No. Not at all. You are the most beautiful woman I know, Kyrie. You should be adorned to showcase your beauty. I had this dress made so you would feel beautiful, and so I would enjoy looking at you all the more this evening. ” His voice lowered, became intimate, close, rumbling. “Do you feel beautiful, Kyr
ie?”

  I gave myself time to think before answering. “Yes. I do. Very much so. ” I couldn’t allow myself to dwell on his most beautiful woman I know comment. I’d go crazy if I did.

  “Then it was money well-spent. ” A pause. “Stop thinking of the cost of things. That is my business, for me to worry about. I spend what I want, when I want. All you need do is be yourself, and try to trust me. ”

  “I’m working on it. ”

  “I know. Now, if I’m not mistaken, Kim is here with the first course. ”

  At that very moment, a door opened, and I smelled food. This time, having eaten with Roth once before, I simply sat and waited. I felt Roth lift my hand and place a glass in it. I lifted it to my lips, sniffed, smelled white wine. I heard utensils clicking and tinkling, bowls being set down, and then the door closed.

  “This is Sichuan Beef,” Roth said. “A little spicy. Open. ”

  I opened my mouth, felt chopsticks touch my lips, felt his hand at my chin. I bit down, and he withdrew the chopsticks. A little spicy, he said. It was fiery, and I had to blink against the burn.

  “God, Roth! That’s not just a little spicy, it’s f—it’s crazy hot!” I just barely remembered his dislike of cursing and caught myself. I took a sip of wine to wash away the heat in my mouth.

  Roth laughed. “It’s not spicy to me. But then, I suppose I do enjoy things a little spicier than most. I spent several years in China and the surrounding countries, and developed a taste for spicy food. ”

  “Let me try another bite, now that I’m ready for it. ” I parted my lips, bit down when he fed me a morsel of meat and rice, with some kind of vegetable. This time, ready for the heat, I was able to taste past it, and actually enjoyed it, although it did clear my sinuses a bit. “So, what were you doing in China?”

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  He answered as he chewed. “I was…developing business contacts, you could say. ”

  “That’s vague. ”

  “On purpose. Perhaps eventually I’ll tell you more about what I do, how I made my fortune. But not now. It’s not relevant at this time. ”

  I had kept my hand on my glass the entire time, so I wouldn’t have to find it again, or have him give it to me every time. I took a drink, sniffing past the bite of the spice. We talked more as we ate, again the conversation staying light. It was the kind of thing I usually hated, but it was also exactly what I needed, the appearance of normality to offset the oddity of being blindfolded. There were several courses to the meal, each better than the last, and almost all of them spicier than I usually liked. By the time the meal ended, my tongue was tingling.

  “Not so much spicy food next time, huh?” I said, taking a sip of my second glass of wine.

  Roth laughed. “Sure. For you, anything. But here, that’s just the way Kim cooks. He’s a master with la jiao. ”

  “La what?”

  “La jiao,” he repeated. “The chili peppers that made the food spicy. It’s Kim’s signature. ”

  “You mean Kim was the chef?”

  “This is his restaurant. I provided the capital and some of the direction, but he runs it and does the cooking. It’s very exclusive, very expensive. Normally, you wouldn’t be able to get a table here unless you had reservations six months out. ”

  “But for you…. ” I insinuated.

  “I get my way. ”

  “Clearly. ”

  I heard his chair scrape, felt his fingers trail over my shoulders and back. “Would you care for dessert? Or would you like to proceed to the show?”

  “I’m full,” I said. “We can go if you’re ready. ”

  “Good answer. ” He took my hand and led me back the way we came.

  I heard the heavy doors open, and then the sounds of the kitchen and the low chatter of voices receded. I heard the elevator whirring. A short ride later, we were moving across what sounded like a large foyer with marble floors, my heels echoing with sharp clicks. Another door opened, and Roth’s hand on my lower back urged me through and outside. The sounds of New York assaulted me, horns honking, voices, shoes, rushing vehicles, sirens. It was a warm evening, in contrast to the cool of the restaurant and the lobby we’d just left.

  I heard voices nearby. “Look…she’s blindfolded. I wonder why?”

  “Look at that dress!”

  “Did you see her necklace?”

  “That’s a Maybach, I think…. ”

  “Holy shit, he’s gorgeous…. ”

  And then I heard a car door open and Roth helped me into the car, gently nudging my head to make me duck. I slid in and across, feeling leather underneath my hands. The door closed and I felt Roth beside me, and then the engine purred and we were moving.

  Tension rolled off Roth. “Are you okay?” I asked.

  “I would have preferred a private entrance, but that wasn’t possible, unfortunately. ” He took my hand, and I found myself naturally threading my fingers through his. “We have a private entrance at the Met, thankfully. ”

  “What are we seeing?” I asked, ignoring my own embarrassment over the things I’d overheard, and the fact that I wouldn’t be really seeing anything.

  “La Bohème. A very enjoyable presentation. The bel cantos performing this are wonderful, and really, you won’t be missing much being blindfolded. The music is the thing. ”

  I’d heard of it, but knew nothing about it. The rest of the ride was quiet, but Roth’s tension was still palpable.

  “You really don’t like being around people, do you?” I couldn’t help asking.

  “What makes you ask that?” His voice was thin and razor sharp.

  I shrugged. “I can just feel how tense you are. That whole scene back there really upset you. ”

  “You can feel all that?”

  I nodded with another small lift of one shoulder. “Yeah. It’s coming off you in waves. ”

  I heard him suck in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “You are very perceptive, Kyrie. Especially considering you don’t have the use of visual cues. ” His fingers squeezed mine.

  I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. I heard car horns, and the sense of motion ceased, indicating we were stopped at a traffic light or were stuck in a traffic jam.

  “You are correct, of course,” Roth said, after a few minutes of silence. “I dislike crowds. It’s not that I don’t like people, per se. I merely prefer my interactions to be…one-to-one, on my terms. There is so much one cannot control in a public, crowded setting. And my life experience has taught me to…shun…such situations whenever possible. ”

  The vehicle moved again, and we rode in companionable silence. After twenty minutes in the car, which was punctuated with sporadic conversation, Harris stopped the car, and I heard him get out and come around to open our door. Roth slid out, and I extended my hand. He pulled me, helping me out of the car. A wash of overlapping voices hit me from my left, cameras clicking, questions being shouted.

  I heard another door open, this one right in front of us, and Roth’s hand on my lower back urged me forward. I moved as quickly as I could in my three-inch heels and tight dress, knowing Roth would want to get inside before the photographers caught sight of us. After a dozen steps, the door closed behind us, shutting off the babble of noise from the street.

  “This way please, Mr. Roth,” I heard a soft, awed female voice say.

  Following the usher, I assumed, Roth guided me onto an elevator, down what I guessed was a hallway and into—I assumed—a private box. I could hear the orchestra warming up, the jarring cacophony of instruments. Now more than ever I hated the blindfold. I wanted to see. My first time at the New York Met, and I was blindfolded. I couldn’t see the stage, the architecture of the theater, the seats; I couldn’t watch the people filing in and taking their seats, adjusting wraps and suit coats. I couldn’t look for famous faces.

  Roth helped me find my seat, and then I felt him
settle in beside me. “The show should begin shortly. Would you care for a drink?”

  I shrugged. “Sure. Whatever you feel like is fine. ”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I’ve never been to the opera, never been to the Met, and I…I just want to see everything. This blindfold is frustrating. ”

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  His thumb skated over my shoulder, and I felt him lean in close to me. “I know, Kyrie. I know. I’ve got a phone call to make. You can look around while I’m gone. ” His lips touched my shoulder, my neck. I shivered, felt my skin pebble, my blood race. “I’ll be back soon. I’ll send someone in with a glass of wine. ”

  “Okay. Thank you, Roth. ”

  “Of course. ” I heard him leave, and I was alone.

  I reached up behind my head and untied the blindfold, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the sudden influx of light. Oh…oh, my god. I’d seen pictures of the Met, of course, so I sort of knew what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality. It was huge. The box I sat in was directly opposite the stage, at the very top, so the entire theater was on display for me. Of course Roth would have the best seat in the house. The seats were filling quickly, the stage curtain was pulled closed, and couples filed down the aisles, led by ushers, to find their seats. A pair of opera glasses sat on the seat beside me, recently vacated by Roth. I used them to get a closer look at the people in the audience, scanning for familiar faces. The door to the box opened and a server came in, carrying a tray bearing a single glass of white wine.

  “Anything else I can get for you, ma’am?” he asked.

  “No, I’m good. Thanks. ” I expected him to leave, but he didn’t. He shrugged and gave me an apologetic smile. “I’ve been given instructions to wait here with you until Mr. Roth returns. ”

  I frowned. “Well, whatever makes you happy. ” I went back to scanning the crowds and sipping my wine, making the most of my time without the blindfold.

  A few minutes later, the lights began to dim, and the orchestra struck a single note. A knock on the door behind the server made me jump in my seat, but he seemed to be expecting it.

  “I’m supposed to…errrr, tie a blindfold on you…now. Ma’am. I’m sorry, but those are my instructions. ” The server was a very young man, barely out of his teens, acne-scarred and awkward.

  He took a step toward me, and I handed him the blindfold. “Ah, that explains why you had to wait here. ” I closed my eyes as he placed the cloth around my head and tied it. It was way too tight, but I could feel his hands shaking, feel the awkward nerves billowing off him, so I took pity on him. “That’s fine, thanks. ”

  “Sorry, ma’am. ”

  I shook my head. “It’s not your fault. ”

  “Can I…can I ask why…? Why the blindfold?”

  I wasn’t sure what to say. “I—um. It’s kind of a long story, actually. It’s…a game my boyfriend and I are playing. ”

  The door opened, and I heard Roth’s tread behind me. “And it’s none of your business, Michael. More wine for the lady, and your best single-malt Scotch for me, please. Thank you. ”

  “Right away, sir. ” Michael sounded relieved to have something to do that would take him away from me, from the blindfold, and from Roth.

 
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