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“Happy holidays, and have a safe trip.” As her last drop-off went on his way, Reyna let go a deep breath. Her day finally liberated, she slid in behind the wheel and removed the earpiece, head resting back against the comfy leather seat, eyes closed. Ah.
An incoming call flashed on the car’s dashboard screen. She measured for a long moment whether to ignore Frank Rasino as she threw the car in a pin circle and caught sight of the jet taxiing away in her rearview mirror. Frank never bothered her when she was working unless he needed something. Another ring. And another. Respect for the man won out. Still . . .
She connected. “Frank, whatever it is, don’t ask. I’m officially off work as of a minute ago. Lily is away with her father, so I’m taking a much-needed night off. See you tomorrow. Goodbye.”
“Wait, don’t hang up! Rey, you know I wouldn’t ask if I had anyone else available. Are you still at MIA? Your schedule shows you have a drop right about now.”
“I’m just leaving.”
“Don’t. Mel is stalled on Highway 836. The tow is on its way, but his fare should be arriving where you are any minute. Mind scooping them up?”
“Yes, I mind,” Reyna grumbled, but she was already catching the on-ramp to circle back.
“Come on. I’ll sign over the full fare, no split . . . pick up and departure all yours, which, by the way, is tomorrow, Sunday, at noon. I see here you’re free from eleven thirty to one. All good there.”
“That’s because I left it open to grab lunch. My schedule is pretty tight tomorrow.”
“Yes, I’m looking at it. North Star is reserved solid through the first week of January. Good. Very good, indeed. It pleases me to see your company is thriving. As for today’s pickup, the reservation was fully paid in advance at booking. Ace doesn’t get many private airline clients. I wouldn’t want to get a bad review on Yelp. Say yes to an old friend, why don’t ya? And it’s the Christmas season. You wouldn’t want to find a lump of coal in your shoe, huh?” A hearty chuckle, no doubt his round belly rolling animatedly with it.
Reyna was pulling into the airplane hangar as they spoke. She could never say no to Frank. When she was first starting out in the private car service business and searching for a parking lease, he’d been the only person willing to offer space in his company’s garage hangar.
Unlike Ace Car Service, which primarily reserved commercial passengers, North Star was exclusively private flight travel. Two years ago, Reyna poured every dime she had, on top of a small loan, into the purchase of two custom Bentley luxury line vehicles. She was slowly building her client list, having found a niche in the high-dollar private car rental sector. On occasion, Frank sent work her way, and in return, they had an eighty/twenty split in her favor.
“Well, will you do it?”
“Yes, I’ll take the fare. No splits. Now, you said them. How many are there?” The Bentley seated five comfortably—three on the front-facing bench seat and two in the rear-facing bucket seats. Plush accommodations outweighed practicability with Reyna’s usual clientele, who didn’t tolerate being sandwiched together, knocking elbows.
“Reservation says three. Name—Julian Swan. They’re headed to the Edition hotel downtown. Not a far haul. Check your email. You should have the contract.”
“This is your third car stall this month.” She grabbed her electronic pad from the passenger seat to confirm receipt but didn’t bother reading through the typical jargon. “Your cars are decent, Frank, but they could really use an upgrade.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’d love to have my entire line decked out like the Mulliner chariots North Star has, but that would cost me a small fortune. On that note, when you park later, stop by my office. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
Reyna could never tell by Frank’s forever-monotone voice whether he was happy or disturbed about something. The building could be on fire and he’d sound as though a piece of paper was merely singeing hot in a small, metal waste can. “What is it?”
“Just business. We’ll talk when I see you. Call if you have any issues with the pickup.”
She closed the line. Just business. Her lease of Ace’s garage space was coming due at the start of the new year. An increase in rental fees—the first uptick in two years—likely would be the topic of discussion. Putting the matter aside for now, she got out and disposed of the empty peppermint schnapps bottles her last passenger had imbibed. Who drinks straight schnapps? You could tell a man by the liquor he drank, according to her friend and employee, Danielle. Reyna stuck the used glass with several others in a case kept in the trunk compartment, set to give them a scalding dishwasher spin later. She then placed four clean glasses in the rear cup drawer between the bucket seats. The back cabin of the car was otherwise tidy. Still, with sanitizing wipes from her utility bag and air freshener, she swabbed down the camel-leather seats, followed by a good buffing with a soft microfiber cloth, a quick run of the cordless hand vac, and a couple of mist pumps of Febreze Ocean Breeze. It did its work just as jet wheels met the tarmac with a slight bounce and slowed to a smooth stop.
The ground crew went to work guiding the plane forward. She waited until the airstairs lowered before she slid her sunglasses in place and drove out to meet her clients.
“I think that’s our ride.” Noah jerked a look over his shoulder. “Hawk got us riding in style. Sweet.”
His cell phone to his ear, Hawk paused in his note-taking. “Hold on a moment,” he told the parties on the conference call, then pressed mute. “Noah, what are you going on about?” He got up, crossed the cabin to his brother, and gave a look out the window. Their cousin, Asher, did the same. They watched as the sleek black vehicle, its high-polished finish reflecting off the late sunrays like smudge-free glass, slowed to a stop a short distance away from the plane.
“Maybe Mason ordered it. You know how he likes to do everything at level ten,” Asher remarked as the attendant handed him his luggage.
“I told Mason I’d handle our transportation and hotel,” Hawk groused on his way back to his seat, aware their friend tended to overindulge. “Flying us out here on his private plane was enough.”
“Dudes, our driver’s a woman!” Noah grinned, his face practically plastered to the glass.
Hawk and Asher pivoted back to the window. Decked out in all black, her stylish leather jacket flapping about at the knees, legs slightly spread in her trimmed-fitting slacks, sheen patent leather heels firmly planted, and hands linked at her back, she looked as though she belonged on the set of the Matrix. Especially with those opaque wraparound shades. Even the stoic expression on her face gave off a dark, sexy vibe.
She turned her face, chin angled upward toward the setting sun. The way the pink rays illuminated her brown skin stole Hawk’s breath.
“Today must be my lucky day.” Asher grinned wide and adjusted the tuck of his button-down shirt, then hurriedly ran his fingers through his intentionally mussed, blond-tipped, dark hair.
“There has to be a mix-up with the reservation. I’ll work it out later.” Feeling somewhat enchanted by the woman as well, Hawk centered himself and returned to his seat to finish up his conference call.
“In the meantime”—Asher was already heading for the exit before the stairs had been properly secured—“the lady awaits.”
Noah, wearing his Santa hat, followed him. He paused and looked back. “Hawk? Hey, what happened to no work this weekend?”
Hawk brought his eyes up from the notepad. “I’m right behind you.” He continued scribbling, trying to keep up as he listened to his accountant, his architect, and his attorney go over the exorbitant dollars it would take to acquire the vacant business property next door to his custom woodworking retail store. His current square footage was bursting at the seams. But since he was still on the fence about moving forward, and the fact that the flight attendant stood at the exit with his carry-on, her patient demeanor belied by her glance at her watch, he cut the meeting short. Best to get into that holiday party mode as Asher had drilled the entire flight out.
On exit, Miami’s unexpected chilly breeze struck Hawk’s face as he watched Asher’s big body crowd the lady, chatting . . . charming her in the way Hawk had witnessed his cousin do with women more times than he cared to count. Yet, aside from the small smile she allowed, their driver maintained that military pose beside the passenger-side rear door, her professional mien in full form.
“I was expecting three, the reservation under the name, Mr. Julian Swan, to be precise.”
“Good afternoon,” Hawk announced behind them. The men turned, both grinning like ridiculous hyenas.
“Hawk, meet our driver.” Noah stepped aside, revealing the lady in a way Vanna White would turn letters, fanning an exaggerated hand up and down her slender black-clad frame.
Up close, Hawk understood why both behaved like drooling idiots. Wind whipped her long ponytail about like the smooth ebb and flow of ocean waves, slashing across attractive features the color of rich, buttery cashews. Beneath that sleek leather coat, her silk blouse accentuated the perfect swells of her breasts and were neatly tucked, sketching the contour of her waist. The dark shades and scarlet lipstick pulled the whole superhero, don’t even think about crossing me, look together.
She was smoking hot, and Asher had gotten to her first. Noah, at six-one and almost as big as Hawk himself, had recently turned twenty-one. The young man had a few years before he could swim in the big-boy pool.
“I see you’ve met my brother, Noah, and my cousin, Asher.”
“I go by Ash.” He flashed her his bright white smile.
With her hands still clasped behind her, she inclined her head, not revealing anything in her steadfast visage, and centered on Hawk. “Good afternoon, sir. I’m Rey. Your original driver, Melvin, was detained. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me instead.”
That was just fine with Hawk as he studied her, trying to see what lay behind those opaque lenses. Her eyes would speak far beyond her words if only he could see them. The soft, breath-catching smile touching her lips when he was slow to respond snapped him swiftly back to the moment at hand.
“It’s Julian, but everyone calls me Hawk.”
“He means he prefers it,” Noah supplied.
Another nod. “I should get you all on your way.”
She clicked the car’s key fob, springing open the trunk, and they piled in their luggage, then settled in their seats.
Hawk elbowed Ash beside him. “Dibs. Back off,” he whispered and tilted his head at the lady circling the front of the car with graceful strides. “You’ll have plenty of women at the party to disappoint.”
Ash chuckled with an unperturbed look back at him. “Are we in sixth grade? What about you and Francesca? She’ll be looking for you tonight,” he whispered. “How about we flip a coin?”
“No.” Hawk glowered. “And there is no me and Francesca. It was one date,” he murmured, then rushed out, “Heads,” as his cousin gave a flick of his thumb, sending a quarter a short flight upward and caught it just as their driver—Rey—slid in behind the wheel.
“You might want to tell Francesca that,” Ash muttered under his breath amid revealing the winner of the coin toss.
Hawk smirked, triumphant. He took the branded good luck piece and stuck it in his pocket, taunting, “Merry Christmas.” Staking claim to their driver in such a way was infantile, barbaric even, but he didn’t care. “Fair play, my friend.”
“Pardon? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Hawk looked up. Rey removed her sunglasses and gave a look over her shoulder. Her head tilted to see past Noah in that obstructing Santa hat, situated in the bucket seat directly behind her. “Um, I said Merry Christmas.” His awkward smile was met with yet another nod.
“Oh. Yes, Merry Christmas to you all. By the way, it’s usually an easy twenty-minute ride to downtown, but traffic on a Saturday and with holiday travel, my route is showing major bumper-to-bumper. I’ll do my best to detour where I can.”
“It’s not a problem. I have no doubt we’re safe in your capable hands,” Ash quickly piped in, wearing his perfected suave grin.
Hawk shot him a narrowed side-eye before turning back to her compelling brown eyes. “There’s no hurry.” She made a slight adjustment to the rearview mirror. He shifted left ever subtly in his seat. It provided him an optimum angle of her face. And, consequently, her view of him.
“Fellas, how sweet is this?” Noah started opening compartments and pressing buttons. “Heated seats. Dudes!” He held up an assortment of travel-sized liquor bottles. “Cool!”
Rey met Hawk’s gaze in the mirror. “You’ll find glasses in—”
“Got ’em.” Noah pinned two plastic-wrapped shot glasses between his fingers. “Now this is how you start off a holiday party.”
“Please help yourself.”
The privacy glass began a slow roll upward. Hawk hastily tapped the button on the console, commandeering control, sliding it back down.
Rey looked back. “I thought I’d give you all your privacy. The rear cabin is virtually soundproof with the partition closed and the intercom on mute.”
“No need.” He reached across and snatched two whiskey mini bottles from Noah after watching him practically inhale his first drink straight from the head. “One’s enough.” Again, he met Rey’s stare in the mirror. “You’ll have to excuse my brother. We don’t let him out of his cage often.”
“Yeah, he’s a new twenty-one,” Ash added while already tossing back a second bottle of the dark liquid in a glass himself.
“She said it was okay,” Noah grumbled, but did exactly as ordered, relinquishing his empty glass to the drawer compartment. “Hawk, are you going to be a buzzkill the entire trip?”
He shrugged. “It’s looking that way.”
Slouching with arms crossed at his chest, Noah aimed his scowl at the dark-tinted window. “I should’ve gone skiing with Tuck and Rob. Fresh snow on the ground in the Berkshires would be better than this.”
“North Star Private Car. Reyna Star, Proprietor.” Hawk held up a business card he found in the cupholder, completely ignoring his brother’s sulk. “My reservation was with Ace Car Service.”
“I own North Star. But on occasion, I assist Ace when asked. It’s our busiest time of year. All hands on deck.”
“A business owner who doesn’t just sit behind a desk. Is your company strictly private charter?”
“Yes. So, what brings you all out to Miami for such a quick turnaround? I have you leaving out tomorrow afternoon.”
“Ash’s and my college roommate is throwing a Christmas party.” As Hawk stuck her card into his pocket, he kept eyes on her reflection, appreciating how the dipping sunset seemed to glow in her eyes like pink flames behind warm embers. “Is it Miss or Mrs. Star?”
“Ms.” A slight smile twitched back at him.
He confidently returned the gesture, noting how she continued to watch the road, then him, back and forth, provoking a sudden quickening of his pulse. “Ms.” He grinned. “I can work with that.”
“Hawk, it doesn’t mean she’s single,” Noah cut in as he texted on his phone.
“Noah, shut up,” Ash growled low.
That brought the get-to-know-you to an awkward pause. There was a somewhat remote look to her features. Her attention now stayed planted on the cars ahead. Hawk wanted to toss his brother through the window into slow-moving traffic.
“Nice plane,” she said after a stretch of silence. “Helps to have it with quick trips, I’m sure.”
Hawk blinked. “Pardon?” He was glad their dialogue had resumed.
“Your jet. Is it a Bombardier Challenger or a Citation X? I see plenty of them in my line of work. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what they are. But the nose on the Challenger 604 and Citation X are very similar.”
“Oh. Um, I—”
“It’s a Citation X, right, Hawk?” Ash delivered a subtle prod with his elbow while rapidly nodding his head.
“Ash, what are you talking about? Hawk doesn’t—ow!” Noah groaned and rubbed his leg. “Hawk, man, you nearly cracked my shin.”
Hawk cleared his throat. “Ms. Star—”
Another smile. He couldn’t contain his own because hers was so lovely. “Reyna, any holiday plans?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Maybe I can change that. At least for tonight. How about you join me? We’re allowed to bring a guest to the party.”
She held his stare with short hesitation. “No, but thanks.”
“I know we just met, but I promise, I’m a gentleman. One might even say”—still smiling, he scratched the neatly cropped hairs on his cheek—“straitlaced.” He winked and was rewarded by a soft chuckle.
“Sadly, he really is,” Ash unceremoniously vouched for him. “He’s as narrow-path as a saint.”
“Yeah, he’s a stickler for following the rules,” Noah muttered. “Trust me, you have nothing to worry about with my brother. That’s if you don’t mind being bored to death.” He jerked his legs to the side, laughing. “Hah, you missed me that time.”
After sending a quick threatening look at Noah, Hawk leaned forward, putting a strain on the seat belt strap to its full capacity, and observed Reyna’s watchful eyes shift between him and the road. “A copy of my driver’s license was supplied with the reservation. You can easily look me up.” He grinned alongside an innocent flutter of his lashes. “I’m as harmless as a kitten.”
“Their sharp claws are hidden.” She hadn’t taken her focus off the road, yet a touch of a grin remained, surfacing past that all-business exterior. Then she brought her gaze up. A full-on smile curved her pretty, ruby lips, followed by soft laughter floating and touching Hawk like a thousand wisps of delicate fingertips.
The air in his chest stilled, leaving no room for his heart to momentarily beat. Ash’s light nudge with his knee pulled Hawk’s steady stare from the rearview mirror to his cousin’s twisted smirk. Noah’s expression matched Ash’s. Only then did Hawk realize he himself had been beaming like a cockeyed teen.
He sat back, putting himself in check. Though she continued to send short glimpses his way, her silence held through the stretch of highway and side streets, then the car came to a stop in front of the hotel’s entrance.
They exited before Reyna could assist with the rear door. Two hotel attendants came forward, one rolling a shiny brass luggage cart, but were waved off.
With their bags in hand, Ash and Noah thanked their driver for the ride.
Reyna’s erect spine, her tall heels firmly rooted, hands linked behind her, severed any connection they might have formed, but Hawk dismissed caution. “I’d like to get to know you. When you get off, maybe we could grab a drink. A coffee perhaps?”
“I don’t date clients.”
“How about making an exception?” He managed to pull another cute smirk from her that seemed to carry with it a long breath of contemplation. “It’s one date. We don’t have to call it a date. A meet and greet. I like to think I’m good company.”
“It seems you would be. But no. Your departure is tomorrow at noon?”
“Is eleven for pickup okay?”
Her head turned, then rotated back to him. “I’m afraid I have a call coming in. Enjoy your evening. Happy holidays.” She tapped her earpiece and strutted off.
A hand landed and gripped Hawk’s shoulder. Startled, he hadn’t noticed his cousin’s close proximity to him.
“That was painful to witness. You were so close.” Ash tsked and shook his head as they strode inside. “You’re like Icarus.”
They’d been best friends from the cradle, born within days of each other. More like brothers than cousins. But they were gravely competitive in all things. Both had their share of beautiful women. Except, unlike his cousin, Hawk had grown tired of the chase and wanted to settle down.
He gave Ash a side look, knowing better than to encourage him, and yet . . . “I’m sure you’re eager to share how that is.”
“It’s simple. You flew too close to the sun . . . or in this case, ‘Star.’” Ash fell into robust laughter, and Noah joined in as they situated themselves in the long check-in line. “My point,” Ash added, sobering. “Reyna Star has access to the rich and famous. Hawk, my man, you’re not in her lane. Neither am I for that matter, but what do they say? ‘Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, at least you’ll be among the stars . . . Star.’” Ash laughed more at his own ridiculous wit.
“Yeah, bro,” Noah chimed in. “You saw her. She’s a sophisticated lady, used to the finer things in life. You . . . well, you’re an ogre.” He jerked out of the way of the large, open palm aimed at the back of his head.
“But, no fear, my friend. Reyna Star was a mere blip on your timeline,” Ash continued.
Hawk gave a nod. “Already forgotten.” If only that were true. There was something about her that pulled at his senses. He knew he’d shot high with Reyna and indeed got burned down to the bone. As he licked his wound, he tried to steer himself back to the objective for being there. “We’re here to have a good time.”
“We’re here to indulge in the opposite sex,” Ash proclaimed.
“That we are.” Hawk agreed. “And when it comes to an ample supply of beautiful women, our buddy, Mason, never disappoints. There is sure to be plenty at the party tonight for—”
Hawk swung around to the sultry lilt that had easily imprinted on his brain. His chest constricted, air trapping in his airway. It felt almost as though he’d conjured her from a dream to reality.
Her stare was sharp and steady, shifting from him to Ash, over to Noah, then pressed upon Hawk. “Didn’t mean to interrupt. One of you left your phone in my car. I always double-check the cabin just in case.”
Hawk took the device he knew to be his. “Thank you.”
She inclined her head, her eyes unwavering, her stare about as frigid as her voice was gentle. “Enjoy your party. Sounds like it will be a memorable one.”
An awkward shared silence hung for a moment. “If I might put in context—” he started.
“Gentlemen, have a good evening.”
“How much of that do you think she heard?” Ash asked as she strode off, aiming her unhurried steps toward the exit.
Hawk clenched his molars, quite certain she’d gotten an earful.
End of Excerpt