Big badd wolf, p.25
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.25

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Panic shot through me. "I can't--" I swallowed hard; Carla's betrayal was weighing heavily on me, sitting in my gut like acid. "I can't handle that right now."

  "What do you want to do?" For once, Emily seemed to realize I was in no shape to be argued with.

  "Reroute."

  "Where?"

  "Anywhere!" I shouted. "I don't care. Anywhere. Not LA, and not New York."

  Emily hurried forward to confer with the pilots, and was back within minutes. "Seattle?"

  I nodded. "That's fine. Get me a hotel under a fake name, and get me in without being seen. Delivery door, cargo elevator, the works." I fixed her with my do not fuck with me glare. "Not one picture, not one question. I am on a hair trigger right now, Em. I will have a fucking meltdown."

  A few hours later, I was in a hotel room in Seattle under the name Sandy Olsen. Emily answered the door when room service brought me dinner and a bottle of cab, and poured us both a glass.

  "So." Emily took a sip, glancing me over the rim of her glass. "Now what do you want to do?"

  I'd been thinking about that question all the way here, and I'd arrived at the answer. "No one is going to like my answer to that. Just fair warning."

  Emily set her wine down and picked at the cheeseboard. "Seeing as you're supposed to be heading to Paris for the Dior commercial in two days and we haven't packed you yet, I'm guessing we won't."

  "Get Martin and Lindsey on the phone," I told her. "I'm not going to repeat myself when I say this."

  When the conference call was going, I took the phone from Emily and paced with it. "Martin, Linz, you're not going to like this, but after Carla selling that video of me, I'm just done."

  "Done how, babe?" Martin asked.

  "We can spin this," Lindsey said. "You were young, it was a private party, he was your boyfriend at the time. It doesn't have to be a big deal."

  "I've seen the video," I said. "It is a big deal. I'm all but topless in it. That bra--I still have it. It's basically sheer. I wore it for Harry--" I paused, anger and disappointment and sickness billowing through me. "Anyway. It's fuel for the whole sex symbol thing. Everyone is going to think I put it out there myself. It's already everywhere, and it's only going to get worse."

  Lindsey sighed. "You're right there, unfortunately. The buzz is...not good. I mean, you're trending all over Twitter, but you're spot-on in terms of the speculation."

  "We've already gotten at least fifty offers for you to do what amounts to soft-core porn," Martin added. "Hustler, Playboy, and Maxim all want exclusives. More serious offers all include significant sex scenes."

  "See?" I suppressed a sob. "I'm not that actress. I'll quit before I do any of that."

  "So what do you want to do?" Lindsey asked.

  "I'm taking a break," I said. "Indefinitely. Once the hype dies down, we can see about some serious scripts, but for now, I'm out."

  Martin groaned. "I can get you serious scripts, Low. You vanish now? You'll have to take bit parts again just to build your credibility back up. Demand is high for you, right now. And I know you hate the nature of the attention, but it's adding zeros to what you can ask for in a contract. I know you don't want to hear this, but if you did one scene, not even frontal, just a butt shot or something with a strategically placed towel--Jesus, Low, I could put you in the top tier of earners within months."

  "Fuck you for even suggesting it, Marty. I said no the first, second, fiftieth, and hundredth time you suggested that and I'm saying it again now. I'm not doing it. I won't." My sigh was shaky. "I didn't even want to do the bikini scene."

  "I'm just saying," Marty simpered. "It's my job to get you work, and to get you the most amount of money for that work. I'm just informing you what I could do for you, under the right circumstances."

  "Enough," I snapped. "I'm leaving Hollywood for a while. The city, and the industry. End of story."

  "How long?" they both asked in unison.

  "I don't know. Until I can handle the idea of going back."

  "Where will you go?" Emily asked. "Finding privacy is going to be tough, especially now."

  I collapsed backward onto the bed, sighing. "That's the part I don't know."

  There was a silence, then.

  Marty was the one to break it. "I, um, have a suggestion."

  "If it involves me doing a nude scene, you're fired," I said.

  "No, I meant about where you could go." I heard him tapping on a keyboard. "My second wife and I took a cruise for our third anniversary. One of those Alaskan cruises, you know? It was great. Beautiful scenery all around you, day hikes and things like that, whale watching, kayaking."

  I snorted. "I'm not doing a fucking cruise, Martin."

  "Well, not on a public cruise line, no."

  I sat up, starting to understand what he was saying. "Go on."

  "My buddy is a yacht salesman. I just sent him an email, should hear back by tomorrow. We get you a boat, and I don't mean, like, a little harbor jumper, I mean the real deal. Oceangoing, you can live on it indefinitely, that kind of thing. You head up the coast and get lost in all those little passages and inlets. It's deserted up there, Low, and I mean it's remote. But there are lots of little towns and fishing villages and stuff. Life is different up there, I'm telling you. Even if someone did recognize you--which they may not, way up there--they'll leave you alone. Maybe take a selfie to show their grandkids, but you don't have to even leave the boat if you don't want to."

  "So I live on a boat?" I asked, not sure how I felt about that prospect.

  "One of the stops on the cruise was a place called Ketchikan. Cute, quaint, remote--and accessible by boat or air only, and you have to take a ferry to the airport." I heard the glug of booze pouring into a glass, and he took a sip. "There's always yachts at the dock and cruise ships and stuff, since it's got deep water and it's on the main part of the Inside Passage, so one more boat shouldn't attract too much attention. If you keep your head down, literally, you should be able to hang out up there for a while and catch your breath."

  I thought about it, and the more I thought, the more I liked it. "Martin, you just earned your commission, my friend."

  "That one's on the house, baby. I'll email Emily some yacht options when Nicky gets back to me with some ideas."

  "Thanks, Martin."

  I heard him take a drink. "Low, baby, you're golden, okay? You get yourself some R-and-R, and when you come back, I'll get you a script you'll fall in love with, okay? That's a Martin Fitzpatrick promise."

  "Sounds good. Bye, Martin." I heard him disconnect. "Linz?" I prompted.

  "We'll ignore the video, and Emily can cancel all your slots--it'll hurt you, but we'll make it work, if you're absolutely sure you need this."

  "Linz, Carla selling the video put me over the edge. The straw that broke the camel's back. I need a break. Okay?"

  "Okay, honey. I hear you loud and clear. Consider it handled."

  "Thanks."

  I ended the call, and lay on the bed, trying to imagine several months alone on a boat, sailing along the Alaskan coast--no Wi-Fi, no blowouts, no manicures...but no paparazzi, no interviews, no rumors, no six in the morning personal trainer appointments, or nutritionists telling me to cut back on the carbs and eat more fucking celery. Just me, and the ocean, and whatever the hell I wanted to do.

  And just like that, I could almost breathe again.

  A few minutes later, Emily interrupted my daydreaming. "Okay, I have emails out to everyone, canceling all appearances, shoots, and interviews indefinitely."

  "Have all my phone calls ping over to you," I told her. "If it's someone I really want to talk to, you can have me call them back. I'm going off the grid, Em."

  "Can I come with you?" she asked. "It sounds nice, honestly."

  I laughed. "Hell no. The point of a vacation is to not need an assistant. Duh." I smiled at her. "But don't get too excited. I'll still need you when I come back."

  She let out a breath, and, for the first time since I
'd hired her, closed her iPad and put it aside. "What will I do in the meantime?"

  I shrugged. "I'll pay you for the rest of the year in advance, plus a little bonus for putting up with me." I waved a hand. "Go lay on a beach and drink rum and flirt with the pretty cabana boys."

  "Now you're talking." She waggled her eyebrows. "There's a bartender in this little dive bar I know in the Turks and Caicos, and...oohhh honey. He...is...fine."

  I laughed. "Go get 'em, tiger." I frowned. "After you work out the yacht and the crew and stocking it and getting me clothes and all that."

  Emily blew a raspberry. "That's already half done. I have a caterer ready to stock the boat, a hiring agency vetting potential staff--you'll need a chef and a butler, at least, along with the boat crew--and, oh what else? Oh yes, I have Iris gathering your wardrobe and shipping it to us."

  I lay back on the bed with another laugh. "And that's why you're getting a bonus, Em."

  Two weeks later, I was the owner of the newly rechristened Lola--a reference to my nickname, and my favorite childhood dog, a yellow lab named Lolly. The Lola was a thirty-meter cruising yacht with two full cabins and four smaller ones. It wasn't the newest, or the fastest, or the most expensive, but it had seemed the homiest and most comfortable, to me. Unassuming but lovely from the outside, the interior had recently been totally refitted in a sleek, comfortable, airy modern look, with every amenity you could imagine.

  It came with an experienced captain and crew, each of who had been thoroughly vetted and had signed ironclad, draconian NDAs. I paid cash for it--my financial gurus had balked, but I'd told them in no uncertain terms that I'd earned the money and would use it as I saw fit; sell the New York condo, if they wanted extra moveable cash. Five million dollars later, she was mine, rechristened, fully stocked with months' worth of food--healthy food as well as comfort food, thank you very much--and a large selection from my wardrobe. My phone was off, my email and calls rerouted to Emily, who could contact the captain if I was truly needed--e.g., a medical emergency with my parents, for example--and we were motoring up the coast. I was sitting on the deck, reading a book, and drinking a glass of wine at...well, before noon, possibly. I wasn't sure of the time, and I didn't care.

  We would reach Ketchikan in another few days, the captain had informed me. We could hold there, or keep going up the coast if I wanted, and circle back. Or go wherever. Now that I owned the Lola, I could go literally anywhere.

  I don't know why I hadn't thought of this before.

  Ketchikan was not what I expected. At once cute and charming and rustic, it was larger than I expected. I decided to put in for awhile, give the crew some time off and just be totally alone on the boat. After all, the chef had prepared several weeks' worth of meals, so all I had to do was heat them up.

  Thus, I found myself on the Lola, tied up to a slip at the end of a long series of docks. There were several other ships near mine, smaller sailboats, a few larger fishing vessels, a couple pleasure crafts, and another cruising yacht like mine--my Lola didn't stand out at all, which was exactly how I liked it. I could sit on the deck, sip coffee in the mornings, watch the locals and tourists come and go, and enjoy the peace and quiet.

  I'd been in Ketchikan about a week when trouble finally caught up to me.

  I was on the front deck, nearest the shore and the docks, doing yoga. I had some nice peaceful piano music going, and I was halfway through the first series of poses when I heard footsteps on the docks. Running feet, a quick, light, powerful tread. My slip was on the very end, so the only place to go was to turn back around, which made me wonder why anyone would jog this way--there were plenty of other, more scenic places for a morning jog than the far end of the Ketchikan docks.

  I shifted poses, which allowed me to get a look at the runner.

  Name a Hollywood hunk, and I've met him. Nice guys, most of them. All gorgeous, obviously. Rich. Suave. Cultured.

  None of them did a damn thing for me.

  This guy? Heart palpitations.

  I don't know why, either. It was just...something about him. I mean, duh, he was damned beautiful--over six feet tall, lean and shredded, with perfect abs and nice arms. Tattoos on his forearms, and dark, almost black hair held out of his eyes by a running headband, earbuds hanging from his ears. Sweat all over his body, pouring off his face, running in rivulets down his chest. Even from twenty feet away, I could see his eyes were a shocking, intense shade of green... and they were locked on me.

  Did he recognize me? I wasn't sure yet. I wasn't going to give myself away by bolting inside, but nerves hammered through me. The last thing I wanted was for my nice peaceful morning yoga session to be interrupted by an awkward, sweaty fan thinking he had a shot with me.

  Keep running, I chanted to myself, continuing to the next pose. Just keep running.

  But holy hot damn, the boy was beautiful. How old was he? A little younger than me, maybe? Twenty? And so pretty. I mean...I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel butterflies in my stomach--and lower--when he ran closer to my boat. God, those abs. That chest? Those arms. Ugh. Distracting, is what he was.

  I started a complicated variation of the Warrior Three sequence as he approached--a bit of a show-off, but hey, he was looking, so why not be at least a little impressive, even if I didn't want him to know who I was, or stop to talk? Looking was free, right? And if he didn't take a picture or bother me, what was the harm?

  Only, I was distracted by him.

  My foot slipped on the mat, and then my ankle rolled out from underneath me mid transition, and...

  I fell.

  My head cracked against the deck, and I saw stars, dizziness keeping me flat on my back as pain blasted through my skull in waves.

  I heard the runner curse, and caught a dizzy image of him making a running leap from dock to deck, a lithe, impressive move, I noticed, even in pain and dizzy.

  He knelt beside me, breathing hard. "Are you all right, miss?" There was an odd formality to his manner of speech. "Are you injured?"

  I groaned. "My head."

  "Do not move, please." He tugged a cell phone from the pocket of his running shorts, pressing a button that silenced the tinny music from the earbuds now dangling from his neck, and then turned on the flashlight on his phone. "Look into the light, please, miss. Look to the side...the other direction, now, if you please..."

  With just his fingertips, he lifted my head up off the deck, and then probed where I'd hit my head--at his touch, as gentle as it was, I moaned. "You are bleeding, and I believe you have a mild concussion."

  "Are you a doctor?" I asked, my voice tight with pain.

  "No. I have received concussions before, however, and I am familiar with their symptoms." He stood up, flexing his hands into fists and then shaking them out. "Can you stand up on your own?"

  I tried, but dizziness washed over me, and I only made it to one knee before I nearly fell over. His hands were strong and warm on my bare arms as he caught me, and then he helped me to my feet, but let go of me immediately, wiping his palms on his shorts. Strange, but okay. Germaphobe, maybe? I'd certainly met plenty of those in LA, but it seemed odd in Alaska, unless he was a tourist.

  I wasn't making sense, even to myself.

  I tried to keep on my feet, and even managed a few steps, but a wave of pain washed through me, nearly knocking me to my feet. "Jesus. I hit my head harder than I thought."

  "May I help you inside?" He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, carefully holding me upright.

  Which was weird. Anyone else would have used the opportunity to put his arm around my waist, probably as low as possible. I was only wearing a pair of tight capri yoga pants and a sports bra, so there was plenty of skin, yet his arm went to my shoulders, holding me up but taking no liberties at all.

  I pointed the way to the saloon--the living room--and he helped me to the couch.

  "Thank you. I'll be fine, now," I said.

  His smile was tight and uncomfortable. "You should ice that bump be
fore the swelling becomes too bad." He glanced around. "I could get you ice, if you wanted."

  I gestured. "The...god, it hurts... the galley is over there. Through the door."

  I heard him go past, and then heard him rattling around in the kitchen. In a moment, he was back beside me, kneeling on the floor and touching a makeshift ice pack to my head. He smelled good--like sweat, but not body odor. His eyes were truly shocking in their green intensity and, up close, his features were even more beautiful than I'd first thought.

  "My name is Xavier Badd," he said. "I apologize if I distracted you. I did not mean to stare, but you are very beautiful--that is...I mean--" He blinked rapidly. "I should not be so forward."

  God, he was an unusual one, wasn't he? I didn't see any sign that he knew who I was--just that I was a beautiful woman, it seemed.

  "I'm..." I hesitated. "My name is Low."

  He frowned. "Low? As in, the antonym of high?"

  I nodded, and then winced, regretting the movement. "Yeah. Exactly."

  "Low." He smiled, another of those tight, uncomfortable, practiced smiles. "I am sorry we met under such circumstances."

  I grinned. "Well, I'm not. If I'm going to fall and embarrass myself trying to show off, it may as well be in front of a hot guy, right?" I groaned. "God, I'm still embarrassing myself."

  "Hot guy?" he asked, seeming confused. "Whom?"

  I snorted. "Funny. Like a guy as sexy as you doesn't know what he looks like."

  He blinked at me again. "Oh. You were referring to me?"

  He was serious? "Um, yeah. Me, Low. You, hot guy. Xander, you said your name was?"

  "Xavier."

  "Xavier, sorry." I winced again. "I'm usually better with names."

  "Difficulty with short-term memory is a common side effect of a concussion."

  "And you're not a doctor?" I asked.

  He shook his head. "No, I am not a medical professional."

  "So...what do you do, Xavier?" God, I was flirting with him? The concussion must have knocked my better sense out of my head.

  He shrugged. "I, um. I build robots and sell them on my website. I also work at a bar I own with my seven brothers."

  "You build robots, work at a bar, and you have seven brothers?" I let my head rest against the back of the couch.

  "Yes."

  "And you look like...that?"

  He frowned. "I--ah. Well...I do not see the relevance of my appearance to this conversation." He winced, closing his eyes hard, and then opening them again and fixing them on me. "Sorry. My social skills tend to suffer when I am nervous."

 
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