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Kate Wilkinson had a tell.
Great. A fine time for her own body to rebel against her. Just downright perfect for a night when she needed everyone to believe she was exactly who she said she was. And yes, she was working on fixing it, but nothing seemed to stop the traitorous twitch just below her left eye that screamed, to anyone who cared to look, that she was way, way out of her depth.
As she tugged on the hem of her hot-red latex uniform skirt to make the length just a little more acceptable to her slightly conservative tendencies, and wiggled her feet into four-inch-high black patent stilettos, she determined that she would damn well eradicate that twitch before she came face to face with Rey Doyle. No question, there was too much at stake for her to fail now.
Glancing one last time in the garish mirror in the staff bathroom of Doyle’s Soho Casino, she ran a recently manicured finger underneath each eye, smudging her charcoal-grey eyeliner to something that she’d read would give her a smoky ultra-sexiness, but in reality looked like she had a bit part in a zombie movie. Hoping that by some miracle the smudge would hide the tiny mischievous muscle. Then she smeared on blood-red lipstick, smacked her lips together, transformed now from Kate Wilkinson, journalist, to Kate Wilkinson, the hostess with the very mostest.
Allowing just one memory of her brother’s broken body to fuel her resolve, she made her way through the disorienting maze of tables and slot machines to the accompaniment of mechanical cheers and coin clanging, all washed over with the mellow soulful soundtrack of mind-numbing Muzak. It was all white noise to her though; she had one thing on her mind, and it wasn’t winning money.
She’d taken this job to get close to Doyle, to weed out the truth about his seedy secret fight club, to write an exposé and bring his reputation crashing down, back to where it belonged: in the gutter. For allowing her teenage brother to get hurt in a fight, almost beyond repair, Doyle deserved everything she could fling at him. If his casino business was also damaged in the fallout, that would be icing.
So, Rey Doyle, London’s casino king, was a marked man. He just didn’t know it yet.
The music in the VIP room was more upbeat, the carpet less tacky in an inoffensive beige with a midnight blue ‘D’, for Doyle, enclosed by a gilt crown, repeated ad nauseam from one end of the room to the other. The lights were dimmed, the ambience calm, unlike the jumpy beat in her chest, and the infuriating giveaway twitch under her left eye.
She walked to the bar, which was no mean feat in those damned shoes, and smiled at the ancient barman, Carlos. “Hey. How’s things?”
Carlos gave a weary shrug. “Hi, Kate. The big boss is coming in for a meeting, so we’re keeping things quiet in here for him tonight.”
That jumpy beat in her chest just got a whole lot jumpier. She played nonchalant, disinterested. But if Doyle was back from the Las Vegas casino for the first time in weeks she could scope him out. See how the man ticked, find his weakness. “Ah, yes, somebody mentioned that in the locker room … something about a … Hong Kong deal?”
“Oh, silly me … what do I know? Is he going to open a casino over there as well?”
Playing dumb seemed the easiest way to extract information from her colleagues, but she had to be careful not to ask too many questions … not at first. A few weeks working here and she’d just about managed to bite her lip and not go through her long list of questions about Rey’s murky past and dodgy present. With a bit more luck and a lot of strategic playing she would feature largely in his future, and he wouldn’t be overly pleased at the prospect. Slow and steady wins the race. The news of an impending Macau deal meant there were even more things at stake for the no-more-than-a-jumped-up thug if she published the truth about him. Perfect.
“Kate, you’re fairly new here, so you wouldn’t know … and you seem like a nice girl,” Carlos leaned over as he wiped down the bar with a towel, the same ‘D’ in a crown embroidered in the centre—my God, her new ‘boss’ was an egomaniac as well as a brute—“… but if I were you I’d use your mouth to be polite and to smile, and definitely not to mention Doyle’s business. He doesn’t take kindly to chit-chat from the staff.”
“Noted, thanks for the warning.” She gave Carlos a wide smile. “I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard so many things. What’s he like?”
“Doyle?” The barman raised an eyebrow, pausing mid-wipe. “Regardless of his reputation, he’s a fair man. Do right by him and you’ll be fine, do him wrong and you’ll live to regret it, believe me.”
“What reputation? I mean, I know he was a boxer years ago and he’s an astute business man …” Under the theory of knowing her enemy she’d researched as much as she could find, read press cuttings on the Internet of his stellar boxing career before he sank all his winnings into a global casino franchise, perused glowing reports of his empire acquisition. It seemed that everything he touched turned to gold. He was celebrated by many as the East End boy who triumphed over adversity.
But looks could be deceiving, because she also knew, too damned personally, about the illicit and savage bare-knuckle fight club that he was involved in. Only, the trail had gone cold, with no real proof of his involvement other than a description given by her brother, and some shifty-looking messages she’d decoded on a chat room on the Darknet, the Internet’s seedy underbelly. She’d got close, though, so close to decoding more messages detailing the fight club members and fight venues.
But nothing beat up close and personal, so here she was, dressed like a hooker and playing a dangerous game; looking for concrete proof—something to connect him with the group who hurt her brother. Doyle was a fraud and as far as Kate was concerned it was high time everyone knew.
Luckily Carlos didn’t mind a little chit-chat of his own. “Back years ago, when he was still boxing, he had a nickname, The Destructor, because he would he would not stop until his opponents were totally destroyed. He was cold. Calculating. Precise. Deadly. He showed no emotion and no fear, some said he had no heart at all. Then later, in his business dealings, he was the same.”
“Deadly …?” Kate couldn’t prevent the shudder down her spine. As if she needed a reminder of how destructive Rey Doyle could be.
Carlos looked at her with a little concern and gave her a smile. “Hey, chick, don’t worry, he’s fine with his girls. Serve his drinks and look pretty, you’ll do okay. Look, here he comes.”
A frisson of change in the atmosphere, like a sudden electric charge, had her turning to the entrance where two beefcakes dressed in expensive-looking dark suits flanked a similarly attired man who … she inhaled sharply, her heart rate faster now. My God … Famously camera-shy, there had only been grainy photos of Rey Doyle via Uncle Google, but nothing had prepared her for what he was like in real life. As he came closer he loomed larger and broader, his coiled, energised presence filling the space. The man was tall. Big. And, unexpectedly, almost arrogantly … beautiful.
She’d been expecting a shorn bulkheaded Neanderthal, not … not a man with a riot of unkempt dark hair that was scraggly, yet somehow perfect. A face that bore scars of his boxing days, a nose bent out of shape at some point made him appear more rugged, more masculine, raw. Cheekbones slashed across his face, high and sharp, emphasising a strident jaw.
His hands were rough, but not unattractive. In fact, there was something about them that had her transfixed as he straightened his cuffs and secured gold cufflinks—those hands would save you, she thought, if you fell. A safe haven. Although, they’d ended many a man’s career in one way or another; almost ended a few lives too, as she knew to her cost. She thought about turning away, she even thought about leaving, right now, but for some reason she went right on looking, taking him in, all of him.
As if he sensed her gaze on him he turned. Cold grey eyes caught on hers, a look of surprise flashing momentarily, then it was gone, banished. He didn’t like to show emotion, Carlos had said, but for one tiny second she’d caught Rey Doyle off guard, and that fuelled her confidence.
For a foolish moment she noted that the gunmetal-coloured shirt he wore gave his eyes a deeper, more dangerous edge. Then she pulled herself together. She hadn’t been a small-town journalist writing soppy copy for a year now; she was hard-hitting, serious and undercover. And while she was also a hot-blooded woman with fully working ovaries, she refused to find anything about Rey Doyle that she liked. Nothing would distract her from this story. She hesitated to call it revenge: he would just be getting what he deserved.
Yet, as her eyes met his, a rush of something she couldn’t describe chased through her. His easy stance screamed confident and calculated, but a keep-out sign might well have been tattooed on his scarred forehead. There was caution there, mistrust—an altogether different vibe, guarded. And still her heart jittered with something akin to excitement. She put it down to the adrenalin spike of being in her adversary’s lair.
Doyle nodded at Carlos. “The usual. And who is this? Where the hell is Monica?”
“Monica is away on holiday, Mr Doyle. So, Kate is here for you tonight instead.” The barman pointed towards Kate as blood hit her cheeks in a hot intense blush. What should she do when introduced to the casino king? Bow? Curtsy? No freaking way.
“Good evening, Mr Doyle.” Drawing a line at calling him ‘sir’, she summoned what she hoped was a confident smile and nodded at Rey. “Please, take a seat. I’ll bring your drink over.”
“Kate.” He tested the word out, and appeared to be decidedly unimpressed, if his frown was anything to go by. Those intense grey eyes scrutinised her body and rose back to her face. The heat from her cheeks suffused every pore as Doyle shrugged. “I’m expecting guests, so I need your full attention tonight.”
His accent was laced with his East End roots but his voice was deep and lush and did something fizzy to her usually unflappable insides. Which was inconvenient, but not debilitating. Strange, though, for her to have such a physical reaction to a man. She guessed it was the lair thing happening again. “Yes. Absolutely.”
“And make sure you’re around for anything else I need.”
Now her mind was working overtime. What more would he need other than drinks? But she plastered on the smile. “Of course, Mr Doyle. Just ask.”
Her eye began to twitch.
End of Excerpt