Pretty Little Lion by Suleikha Snyder
The VIP Lounge at the Manhattan Grand sat just below the hotel’s trendy rooftop restaurant. Floor-to-ceiling tinted windows offered up near-perfect views of the city skyline awash in the neon lights of Times Square. Near-perfect because you had to ignore the periodic drone sweeps and the occasional ominous black helicopters…ignore them or lean fully into them, posting dramatic snaps with a drone in the background. Fortunately, Meghna Saxena-Saunders wasn’t interested in anything outside. Unfortunately, what did hold her interest wasn’t suitable for Instagram pics or Twitter updates.
Check out this view! #toomanykillersinthisroom #criminalactivity #relationshipgoals
Guaranteed to go viral? Sure. Also guaranteed to ruin everything. Just like the man across the room. A room with an ice sculpture of a naked woman—top-shelf vodka flowing down her breasts and painstakingly carved nipples. And scantily clad real women circulating with shots of the vile stuff. They’d signed ironclad NDAs to work the gig, knowing they’d walk away with hefty paychecks and tips besides. The hefty dose of fear was an unfortunate side effect. Not that you would know it from the way the three redheads strutted through the room in tiny bikini tops and leather miniskirts. She wanted to salute them, to applaud. They were bold, breathtaking, brave, under the slobbering scrutiny of the drunken guests.
But he was still watching her. He’d been watching her all night, tracking her movements around the party with the focus of an apex predator stalking prey…but with the care and caution of someone who existed in a hostile world that needed no excuse to punish him. All of the guards in the room operated under the latter assumption. Step one foot out of line and you die. He knew the consequences of being caught paying her too much attention, of drawing too much attention to himself. And yet he tempted fate.
Meghna wasn’t concerned by his interest so much as intrigued. She was used to the attention of men—counted on it, really. She wore bright-red lipstick to draw their eyes to her mouth, picked curve-hugging dresses to pull their gazes to her tits or her ass…and she smiled just so while sliding stilettos between their ribs. The pin in her coiled updo seemed to vibrate at that thought, like a sentient extension of her murderous impulses. Meghna shook off the tingle of anticipation, the burst of adrenaline, reminding herself that she was here to seduce, not to slaughter. It would not do to leave bloodstains on Mirko Aston’s carpet. Not tonight at any rate.
So she returned the man’s gaze, infusing it with an equal amount of focus and just a dash of sexual interest. It wasn’t a difficult task. Not the challenge it had been when she inserted herself into Mirko’s life, using all her training to tolerate his hands on her body and his cruel kisses. This man was as beautiful as he was dangerous. A black T-shirt and jeans, meant to help him blend into the background like the rest of the hired security, clung to his rock-solid body like a lover. His skin, several shades darker than her own light brown, glowed with health and vitality. She doubted it came from any kind of product—none of the high-end brand names she’d shilled as an influencer. The smooth curve of his shaved head begged for hands to cradle it…to guide it down between her thighs. Focus, Meghna. Observe. Find his weaknesses, not your own. She took the mental reprimand like a slap, all the while tilting her head and laughing breathlessly at something that had made Aston’s cronies chortle.
It was easy—pretending to be interested in what they were saying. They didn’t expect real engagement, didn’t expect her to actually listen. So most of the time, she eventually feigned disinterest and wandered away. Just a few feet. So she could eavesdrop in earnest with a drink in her hand. And the few times that she stayed in the circle…? Well, that was infinitely valuable as well. That was why she was here, with her arm looped through Mirko’s, periodically blinking her heavily made-up eyes at him in vapid adoration while his right-hand man seethed. Sasha Nichols had never liked her, regarded her with barely veiled suspicion. Born of a Russian mother and an American father, with loyalties one hundred percent for sale. Dual nationalities and an utter lack of conscience were something he and Mirko had in common. He required careful monitoring, even in situations like this—where she was nothing but a pretty prop for his boss.
Her watcher was getting in the way, though. Splitting her attention. Sending prickles across every inch of skin bared by her bias-cut slip dress. He was as different from Mirko and Sasha as night from day, and not just because her fair-haired and pale-skinned “protector” and his equally Nordic-appearing henchman were the whitest of white men. And Mirko a white human at that. The stranger, who was very likely not a security guard at all, was a supernatural like her. Her instincts identified him as a shifter of some kind, the specifics of which she couldn’t guess from this distance. Unlike Sasha, who had shifter blood but couldn’t actually shift and resented the whole of the universe for it, this man didn’t have any obvious insecurities. And unlike Mirko, who’d bought and paid for every companion in this room in one way or another, Mr. Shifter didn’t have to demand the room. He already owned it. Simply by standing in an alcove and spanning it with his gaze. Did that include her?
No. Never. Her kind belonged to no one. Don’t forget that, Meghna. Don’t forget why you’re here.
As if that were a possibility. She scoffed at the warning voice. She didn’t have the luxury of forgetting. Not in this world. Not in this life. Not after the Darkest Day, and the light that had been shined upon supernaturals afterward. Eventually, many humans had gone back to their idea of “normal.” Work and school and leisure activities. The grocery stores had been restocked after the calamities that had plagued the past few years. The grief for those lost to sickness and violence had dulled to a throb instead of the sharp, persistent spike. The economy was slowly rebounding. The TV shows and streaming channels and podcasts were much the same as they had been…though perhaps a bit more patriotic and pro-government than before. Those who had never experienced oppression or an -ism lived as they always had: oblivious, privileged.
Her own upbringing should have marked her for that callous delusion that the only color that mattered was the green of money. A rich man’s pampered daughter, born among the Washington elite, into a higher caste and generational wealth, raised in her uncle’s Bollywood and Hollywood circles. Should have. Could have. Would have. But she’d never had the chance to be simply that vapid socialite who voted conservatively because of her tax bracket, who thought she was better than everybody else because of an accident of birth. Because there was her upbringing…and then there was her other heritage. Her other inheritance. Her duty. Her destiny.
Meghna gently slid her arm out from Mirko’s. He barely noticed, caught up as he was in some outrageous—but no doubt still true—story about doing vodka shots in a Moscow brothel with the American president and the Russian prime minister. It was nothing she hadn’t heard before. Nothing she could use. But the handsome supernatural watcher in the corner…? He was an unknown quantity. He could make or break what she’d come here to do, what she’d worked so hard for. All because he couldn’t take his eyes from her.
Meghna saw only one solution. Well, one solution that didn’t involve the stiletto in her hair. She had to fuck him. Tonight.
* * *
She was a billion bloody times more gorgeous in person. The photos hadn’t done her one bit of justice. Flat, lifeless, caricatures of the flesh-and-blood woman crossing the room. She glowed—golden-brown skin, golden-yellow dress clinging to every curve. It was like watching the sun move across the sky. And Elijah Richter should’ve known better than to stare straight at the sun, but he did it anyway. Like he’d been doing all night. It was the job, right? The gig. The op. What the whole team agreed he’d do. Who the whole team agreed he’d do, rather than targeting Aston and the like.
Meghna Saxena-Saunders. Influencer, celebutante, ex-wife to a handsome Hollywood hotshot. Both of their faces graced entirely too many magazine covers while their names popped up all over digital gossip blogs. Everyone with a deciding vote at Third Shift had come to a consensus months ago that another pretty boy wouldn’t move her now. That had eliminated several members of the team outright. One would think they ran a modeling agency. JP, once Joe Peluso and now their newest recruit, whose face had literally been on Wanted posters, was a move to the other extreme. So that had left members like Elijah who were too rough and tumble to be considered pretty. He was tall, muscular, honed by the military and special ops. As different as possible from Meghna’s movie-star ex-husband and her string of smarmy Eurotrash lovers. More importantly, unlike JP or Danny, he was single.
“You’re the honey trap this time, mate! Our Pretty Little Lion!”Finn, who volunteered as their beautiful bait for most missions that required it, had crowed while they mapped out the initial op. When there had still been time for jokes. “I hope you’re up to it…so to speak.”
“Damn right I am,” he’d assured him before forbidding Finn from ever using that wretched nickname again. Naturally, that had made his entire team all the more determined to make it stick. They drove him mad, the whole lot of ’em.
But the hell of it was, he was very much “up to it.” His cock was swelling in his jeans just looking at Meghna come toward him. His skin was tingling with the awareness of her. The subtle scent of her perfume. The faint hint of her sweat. He wanted to lick it off her. Touch his tongue to the inside of her wrist and then the back side of her knee and see if it tasted the same everywhere. That was the cat talking. Wanting to mark her, so he’d know her anywhere. He’d lived with his dual nature for more than four decades, and most of the time, he could keep the lion leashed…but not right now. He didn’t have to right now. Not in this instant, where he needed to sell to his target that he was absolutely off his head for her.
So when Meghna stopped just a few feet away from him, chatting with one of the waitresses and taking a glass of champagne from her tray, Elijah amped up his own glow…or what passed for a glow at any rate. The brooding stare he’d been told “melts panties.” “Not mine,” Finn had interjected during that particularly awkward digression. “But only because I go commando.” Luckily there was no such thing as sensitivity training in a black ops outfit. Elijah reckoned half his team would fail the course. Mostly Finn Conlan. All Finn Conlan. God save him from pansexual vampires who couldn’t keep their gobs shut. And God send him straight to this woman sipping slowly from a crystal flute as she glanced at him from the corner of her eye.
Smart.She couldn’t flirt with him right out in the open. Not with Aston holding court so close by. So she drank. And studied some hideous piece of art on the wall. Then another. Until she found herself directly in front of him. “Who are you?” she wondered in a throaty murmur that was a sharp jolt to his groin. “You’re not one of Mirko’s usual guards.”
“Mack.” An alias. For one of his men whose sacrifice would never be forgotten, whose loss still stung. It was a good reminder, too, of what he was actually here for. The mission. Always the mission. “A friend got me this gig,” he added gruffly. “Said it would be easy money as long as I could be discreet.”
She tilted her head, studying him like he was a piece of art. Her thick black hair, coiled up high like she was from a fifties girl group, didn’t move at all. Pinned in place. Just like she had him pinned in place. “Is it?”
He made a show of swallowing hard. Of scuffing the carpet with one boot. All while keeping his gaze steady—professional now that he had company and parties interested in that company keeping an eye on her whereabouts. “Is it what?”
Her red lips curved into a sultry smile. She had to know the power of it. Like a siren. Maybe she was a siren. Or Jessica sodding Rabbit in human form. “Easy?”
Fuck.Elijah barely restrained a laugh, maybe a groan, and then he took his first big risk of the op since getting assigned to the party’s detail. “Don’t know about it, love, but I am.”
Twin flames lit up in her toffee-brown eyes, melting the irises. Melting him. And he wasn’t wearing panties either—thank you very fucking much, Finn. So he knew his risk was paying off even before she murmured, “Hall closet, five minutes,” and sashayed away. Damn. That fast. That simple. Probably a trap. But he couldn’t not go. It was too important. So he counted off in sixty-second increments. Watched Meghna touch Aston’s arm, whisper some excuse, and then leave the VIP Lounge. He kept his eye on Aston after that. Jealousy, possessiveness, too much give-a-shit about where his girlfriend had gone wouldn’t serve Elijah’s purposes at all.
His luck held out. The oily blond arms dealer barely blinked when Meghna walked out of the room. He went right back to braying to his mates. They were most certainly racist. Assuming their largely Black and brown security guards were basically furniture, treating the female waitstaff like playthings. A who’s who of rich, entitled criminals who thought themselves above the law. He recognized a Chicago crime boss, an LA movie producer, and a few of New York’s most notorious Eastern European mobsters. All being recorded, thanks to the Spider hidden in the sole of Elijah’s shoe. The specialized bug, invented by Third Shift’s hacker extraordinaire, spun into every bit of available tech and fried the original unit, leaving no trace. Handy for keeping tabs on this unsavory lot. Crawling into their smartphones, the hotel’s security cameras, and whatever other devices might be in the room. And it meant Elijah didn’t have to surveil them personally. Good, because he’d already had enough of their boasts and their toasts. Of their casual disregard for human and supernatural life. He’d spent years watching bastards like this strut ’round like they owned the world. Before and after 2016. Marching in Charlottesville. In Washington. Dancing to the tune of their dictator. Doing things in clear view of law enforcement that no one with darker skin would ever get away with. All while Elijah had to keep his own temper in check, his voice soft and his shoulders hunched to minimize his size lest he get three slugs to the back for jaywalking.
Elijah tried to keep his expression impassive as he scanned the group one more time. You wouldn’t think from looking at these arseholes that they’d lost one of their own just a handful of weeks ago. Aleksei Vasiliev. Dead on a Brooklyn warehouse floor. He’d already been replaced in the cabal by another ambitious mob boss. One villain was as good as another. No wonder Meghna’s departure hadn’t made much of a dent. Because women didn’t mean anything either, right? They were just accessories or sex toys and nothing else. Elijah would’ve dinged himself on the same account, but misogyny wasn’t what was driving him tonight. Or any other night. His mum had raised him better than that. If he’d had the luxury of fighting his way into this shit show with Meghna as his equal, he would’ve taken it. But he didn’t have that luxury. He didn’t have that time. Whatever Aston and his crew were up to, he needed a way in now, and she was the most expedient way to get that foothold.
He left his post with a curt nod to the rest of the hired muscle. Names and faces he didn’t need to remember. Hopefully they wouldn’t remember him either. The top floor of the posh Midtown hotel had a basic layout. Everything in clean lines and variations of beige. A few suites, one event space, the swanky VIP Lounge, two closets, and some washrooms. Half of why it required little effort to get him on the party’s security detail. Just a few hacks, a few words whispered in a few dirty ears. He exited the lounge and easily found the hall closet. Before five minutes were even up. And hesitated with his hand on the doorknob.
You can just tag her with a tracker and be done with it.Or he could test out the new subdermal bug that Joaquin had been working on for months. “And exactly how am I supposed to get under her skin, ’Quin?” “I’m sure you’ll think of something, Teacha.” He didn’t have to be Meghna Saunders’s honey trap to reel her in this way. He and Jack would never demand such a thing of their operatives, and he tried to hold himself to the same standard.
He didn’t have to…but he wanted to. Hell. It was that, not anything else, that made him pause for a half minute before he yanked open the door and went in to her.
“Second thoughts?” The closet was cramped, dark, but her voice was like a beacon even as his eyes adjusted. Her scent too. Rich and spicy. Guiding him toward her. Around a box on the floor and something like a mop or a broom.
“No thoughts,” he told the shadowy shape of her, “just action. That’s what you want, right? Why we’re here?”
“What if I told you I just really like closets?” she asked in the driest of tones, reaching out to grip his shirt, curling her fingertips into his chest. He’d noticed earlier that her nails were painted the same alluring red as her mouth, but now he could feel that they were clipped short. A practicality at odds with her bombshell image.
“We can do a whole world tour of closets,” he offered. “All the posh hotels. Even Buckingham Palace if you like. Only the best for a beautiful woman like yourself.”
“Sandringham’s are better,” she said in the offhand way of the very rich—the way that told him she’d been in the queen’s country home more than once.
And him growing up on a council estate. Fuck. Meghna Saxena-Saunders wasn’t just out of his league, she was out of his tax bracket, out of his entire bloody universe. A concern if he were embarking on some sort of relationship instead of a targeted seduction. But one night, a handful of nights if this went well, and then it was over. Elijah couldn’t afford to forget that. And he couldn’t afford to waste time with banter either. So he covered her hand with his, pressing it flat above his heart. And then he peered down at her, lion eyes adjusted to the darkness, taking in her whole gorgeous face and the “well, get on with it” tilt of her chin. If she was disconcerted by the shine of his pupils, she didn’t let on in any way but the soft catch of her breath…right before she arched up and kissed him.
Because she had no time for banter either. Just this. Slipping her free hand around the back of his neck. Pressing her open mouth to his with no teasing preambles. It was focused and fierce and went straight to his veins. Like a drug. A drug that tasted of sweet honey and pepper and skin. The heat of her tongue finding his. It was the most passionately planned of assaults. More professional than any siege he’d ever laid. Lije knew the exact minute he lost the upper hand…if he’d even had it to begin with. It was when she smiled against his lips, the victorious curve rocking him to the core.
“I don’t just like closets,” she whispered. “I like the look of you, too.”
Christ.It went right to his cock, that whisper. He was at full mast, his own plans be damned. He had to turn the tide. So he hauled her against him, palming her arse over the clingy silk of her dress, slanting his mouth over hers. He didn’t touch her hair. Knew better. It was too perfect. If it went one strand out of place, it would rouse suspicion neither one of them could afford. But he touched everything else, by god. The long column of her throat. Her satin-smooth arms. Her thighs, bared once he hiked up her skirt. The heat between them. He wasn’t shocked to find she, too, had gone commando. And the reminder of his teammate’s TMI should’ve deflated his erection, but all it really did was crystallize his resolve. Remind him what the real goal was here. Not the sex he was initiating as he slipped two fingers inside her but the connection he was making because of it.
Meghna was a means to an end. Nothing more, nothing less.