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**SNEAK PEEK - Dark As Knight **




Chapter 1-Stella

I close my eyes, pulling in a long, deep breath. A burst of orange behind my eyelids signals the spotlight hitting me. I’ve timed it perfectly, my eyelids flying open the second the light hits me and I open my mouth to sing. 

“You’re no good for me.” The words roll from my tongue just as they have a hundred times before. The sultry tone comes natural to me; having a bit of a lower register as a woman comes in handy as a lounge singer at Freddy’s Jazz Bar. 

I let the music consume me, the slow thump of Terrance’s upright bass keeping time with Julio’s muted trumpet as Clyde tickles the ivories. I smile over at him as the song picks up, his head bopping along with his fingers as he smiles back at me.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the beautiful Miss Stella Porter,” Clyde’s smooth voice says into his microphone, a few claps echoing through the room. I smile, giving a small bow before launching into my second song. My eyes scan the room but I already know what I’ll find—the same four men that are always here sitting in their regular spots. My fingertips gently slide up the microphone stand, my body swaying with the music.

Oh, Mr. Ozanski brought a date tonight. Must be the woman he was telling me about last week.

The older woman next to him leans against his shoulder, her head listing to one side as she enjoys the music. The smile on his face that looks like he slept with a hanger in his mouth tells me that he’s in heaven right now. 

My eyes continue to scan the room. Mr. Percy is sipping his old fashioned that he nurses every single Thursday night. Jack Aiden is probably on his fourth whiskey of the night already, sitting in the front seat, his glassy eyes staring up at me like they always do.

And then my eyes spot him. The mysterious man who sits perfectly out of my view, obstructed by the bright light staring back at me. His silhouette barely visible, my eyes drop down to the only thing they can make out—a pair of expensive-looking shoes. 

This is my happy place. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, but for the last two years, it’s been my escape. The place I can lose myself for a night and forget that come tomorrow morning, I’ll be back at my full-time job. Shift manager at a coffee shop isn’t a bad gig but it’s not exactly my dream of being a full-time singer. The problem, this establishment isn’t exactly upscale or inviting so living off tips from the “regulars” isn’t going to cut it and the owner, Freddy, has a penchant for inappropriate advances that have become so overt I’m questioning how much longer I can continue to work here. 

The song ends and Clyde walks up onstage to kiss my cheek and hand me a rose, the same thing he does every single night I sing. I glance past the light, lifting my hand to shield my eyes as I try and catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger who’s been attending my performances for the last few months, but it’s no use; he’s already gone.

“You look beautiful tonight.” His whiskers scratch my cheek, the smell of stale smoke on his lips. 

“Thank you.” I hug him a little tighter. Clyde took me under his wing the night I auditioned to sing at Freddy’s. I don’t know if he could sense my loneliness at the time, but the two of us became friends almost instantly. Since then, he’s become like a grandfather to me. “How’s Violet doing?” 

“Oh, she’s perfect.” He smiles, reaching into his pocket to pull out his phone and show me the latest round of photos of his first great-grandbaby. “She is my pride and joy,” he coos, looking at the phone screen. You can see the love he has for her in the way he stares at the photos. “You know she just started tummy time this week.”

“She is just so darling.” My hand rests softly against my chest as I flip through the photos. Her cherubic cheeks practically make her eyes nonexistent in some of them, her toothless smile taking over her face. 

“Your time’s a’comin pretty soon.” He bumps my elbow. “You’re not gettin’ any younger, Miss Porter.”

“Soon?” I laugh, tossing my arm around his shoulders as we walk off the stage together. “I just turned twenty-four. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not even thinking about babies for another ten years.”

“Ten years! I might not be around that long, sweetheart.” 

“Oh please, you’re a spring chicken. You’re the youngest seventy-one-year-old I know.” I reach down and pull off my high heels, tossing them onto the floor of the run-down break room. I plop down onto the pale-blue couch that’s littered with stains, a thought I push from my head as I massage my foot. 

“You just wait; you’ll meet Mr. Wonderful someday and all of that will change.” He pats my knee, his eyes growing a touch glassy. “And I can’t wait to see that day. You deserve to be happy and loved, young lady.”

My hand settles over his and I give it a squeeze, unsure what to say because I’ve never allowed myself to have that daydream, and even though I’ve never said it out loud, Clyde knows. I’ve shared bits and pieces of my life with him, but he’s never pressured me to even if he was curious.

“The past is the past, Stella. You don’t live there anymore and it doesn’t define you—and neither does how you were raised. What matters is who you are now.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him at the time that I wasn’t raised by anyone, unless you count my parents bringing me home from the hospital only to have Child Protective Services take me away less than six months later. 

Survival was the only thing on my mind when I was passed from home to home, with some distant relatives, some complete strangers. I felt like a broken heirloom that was relegated to the fringes of these people’s lives, passed down over the years until finally someone realized that I was no longer just an inanimate object they could ignore; I was now a burden. So at sixteen, I had enough. I packed the few items I had into a garbage bag and ran away from my small town in Indiana to Chicago—never looking back.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” He cocks his head at me. “Have you seen that guy who’s been coming in the last several months? He always sits near the spotlight in the back.”

He furrows his brow. “I have. Nice man, quiet.”

“Who is he?”

He shrugs. “Don’t know much about him, just said hello in passing. Rich men like that don’t usually come to Freddy’s, at least not anymore.” 

“How do you know he’s rich?”

“The suit he wore was bespoke, tailored for him. My daddy was a tailor for forty-three years, only a few places left in Chicago that make a suit that fine.”

I guess my assumption about his shoes was spot-on.

“Why do you ask? Got a crush on the gentleman?” His scratchy laugh makes me giggle as well. 

“No, I’ve never even seen his face.” I playfully push against Clyde but my smile falters the second Freddy rounds the corner into the break room, his signature smarmy grin in place already. 

“Evening. You two seem awfully chummy tonight.”

“Evening, Mr. Freddy,” Clyde nods toward him before placing his hands on his knees and slowly standing up from the couch. “We’re just having a good time is all.” He pats Freddy on the shoulder twice before exiting the room, tossing me a wink over his shoulder before disappearing. 

“Stella.” His grin widens, making my skin crawl as he takes a step toward the couch. I stand up abruptly, afraid he’s going to sit next to me, but he holds out his hand to stop me. “Please, have a seat,” he says, gesturing toward the couch. I sink back down slowly just as he reaches over and closes the door behind him. 

My throat constricts, my chest tightening in anxiety as he closes the distance between us, taking a seat next to me. 

“Yes, Mr. White?” I keep my voice steady, not wanting him to sense my discomfort. Freddy is exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to own a dive bar—greasy, pudgy, and balding, with the audacity of a man who looks like Jason Momoa. If my creep-o-meter didn’t give him away, his brazen gawking at my breasts every time he’s within a hundred feet of me did. “What can I do for you?”

“That’s a loaded question.” His smile turns sinister, showing his crooked yellow teeth. I don’t respond and his smile falters as he clears his throat. “Look, kid, we both know you’re the star attraction for this place and now that my dearest granny finally kicked it, I can get moving on my plans to turn this place into a fancy establishment and start making some real money.”

My stomach churns at his callousness. “Meaning?”

“Meaning out with the old and in with the new. Tonight is Clyde’s last night, all of them actually. We need some young sexy blood in this place.”

“His last night?” I shoot toward the edge of the couch, then to my feet. “You fired him?”

“Yeah, the entire band. Look it’s not personal, it’s business. They’re old and tired. Nobody wants to look at a bunch of decrepit old men all night. We need some fresh young meat in here.”

The way he keeps referring to it as blood and meat makes my stomach churn even more. “We’re not commodities, Freddy. This place is Clyde’s life. He’s played here for two decades and you’re just going to take that away from him?”

“I don’t know why you’ve got your panties all up in a bunch; you’re not fired.” He hoists himself up from the couch, tugging his pants back up under his belly. He points his fat finger in my face. “And you, of all people, should be fucking grateful because I’m about to make you a very rich girl.”

“I’m not a girl.” I grit the words between my teeth, my fingers balling into fists at my sides. “I’m a grown-ass woman, Freddy.”

His eyes drop down my body slowly. “Yes, you are.” He leers. “And you should start dressing more like it.” He turns toward the door. “I want you here four nights a week and start dressing sluttier. Show your tits more. It’s time we bring in the big fish.” He sticks his tongue out, wriggling it at me before laughing maniacally as he walks down the dark hallway. 

Tears prick my eyes as my chest burns. I picture Clyde’s weathered face, his bright smile and the way his eyes light up when he plays. I can’t let this happen, but I don’t know what to do to stop it. 

***

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Matilda, my coworker who quickly became a best friend after only a few weeks of working here, looks over at me as she steams some milk. 

“Yeah.” I smile at her reassuringly. “I’m fine.” I’ve said the same phrase five times this morning, not only trying to convince her but myself as well. “Just a long night at Freddy’s.” 

“Oh, speaking of, I was actually planning on coming by next week. It’s been forever since I’ve heard you sing and my little sis, Chloe, who you met last Christmas, is staying with me for the weekend and she’s dying to see you. I told her we should do a girls’ night to celebrate her twenty-first birthday.”

“That sounds great.” I try to be enthusiastic but the gravity of last night weighs on me. “How is Chloe doing? About to graduate, I assume?”

“Yup, she has one more semester left, then she plans to move up to Chicago with me. Since I’ll be starting my clinical rotations soon and no longer able to work part-time, it’ll be so nice to have someone else help with the bills.”

I nod, grabbing a large bag of coffee beans and pouring them into the grinder as the morning rush continues. Pushing another not so fun thought from my head that my closest friend and favorite coworker is about to be quitting. 

“I’ll be right with you,” I say with a touch of frustration in my voice when I hear a customer tap the bell on the counter. I grab another massive bag of beans that’s probably over half my weight and drag it over to the other grinder. “I thought closing shift was supposed to handle these,” I mutter. 

“I got it,” Matilda says as she scurries up to the counter from the espresso machine. “Good morning, what can I get for you today, sir?”

I stand back up too quickly, dizziness making me unsteady. I grab the edge of the counter and close my eyes for a second when I hear a deliciously deep familiar voice. 

“Coffee, black,” he says sharply. 

My hands dart up frantically, wiping away the thin sheen of sweat from my upper lip and shoving my wild hairs that have fallen from my braid back into place. I turn around, keeping my eyes cast down so I don’t meet his gaze. My stomach coils tightly, just like it does every Friday when he comes in. 

“Good morning.” I don’t have to look at him to know he’s speaking to me; I can feel his gaze on me. Every Friday, it’s the same thing… I pretend to be busy while he watches me until eventually he catches my eyesight and my face flushes and my stomach flip-flops.

“Good morning.” I smile, the words sounding rushed and way more chipper than I intend. I grab a towel and busy myself with cleaning off the counter before calling out the last two orders that are still sitting at the pickup area. 

I don’t know a single thing about this mysterious man, not even his name… I take that back; I know his coffee order. After seeing him every single Friday for the last nine months or so, I can still barely bring myself to make eye contact with him. 

“So, how’s your Friday going?” Matilda asks the man as I pour his coffee. “Got any fun date plans tonight?”

My face flames at Matilda’s overt attempts to find out if this man is single. Last Friday she asked him if he was taking his wife out for dinner. Somewhere along the way, Matilda decided this man has a thing for me and she’s determined to find out why he hasn’t asked me out.

“Date plans?” he says slowly, repeating the words back to her like he doesn’t know what they mean. His eyes burrow into me as I try to remain focused on not spilling his scalding coffee. I finish, turning to grab a lid, and my eyes finally meet his just as he replies to her question. “Afraid not.” 

The lid snaps into place and Matilda grabs it from me with a coffee sleeve already in her hand. She slides it onto the cup and plasters a huge grin on her face. 

“Coffee, black,” she says, handing it to him. “Well, date or not, TGIF.”

 “TGIF,” he says, lifting the coffee toward us before turning to head toward the door.

“Hi, welcome in. What can I get you today?” I step up to the register after he’s left, an instant wave of relief washing over me. 

“So, no wife,” Matilda whispers as she steps around me to start making a latte for the woman at my register. 

“That’ll be six fifteen.” The woman taps her card and steps away from the counter. 

“And no girlfriend.”

“He didn’t say he didn’t have a girlfriend,” I correct. 

“He said he didn’t have plans. ‘Afraid not,’” she repeats his answer back to me. “That means he wishes he did, so obviously single.”

“What about a boyfriend?”

“What is with you? This man is out of this world sexy and he’s clearly attracted to you.” She props her hand on her hip, her question certainly not a rhetorical one. 

“I’m just saying it’s not out of the question.”

“It’s not, but trust me, he’s into you.”

“Into me? Matilda, he comes here and orders coffee from us once a week. I think you might be reading into things in this situation.”

She gives me that look. “You know damn well that he doesn’t just come here for coffee. Please. The way he looks at you.” She fans herself and I roll my eyes. “What? You seriously wouldn’t go out with him?”

“No, I’m not saying that.” I try to hide my exasperation but it’s too late, the weight of what Freddy told me last night weighing on me. This silly conversation with Matilda just feels so unimportant to me in this moment I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m so overwhelmed at the thought of how I’m going to make working there four nights a week work when I don’t get home till after one in the morning and have to open the coffee shop at six. 

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing, it’s just—” 

“Grande toffee latte,” Matilda calls out, placing the cup on the counter and turning back to face me. 

“I think I’m done singing at Freddy’s.” My shoulders drop, my chin quivering. 

“What? Why?” She glances over her shoulder to double-check there are no customers in line before grabbing my arm and pulling me toward the back. “What happened?” Her arms cross over her chest, her chin jutting out like she’s ready to fight someone for me. 

“He’s firing Clyde and the entire band.” I shake my head, choking back tears, but it’s no use. A giant one rolls right down my cheek to the floor. To most people, this would just be a simple inconvenience or maybe a small bump in the road, but Matilda knows what this singing job means to me, what Clyde and Terrance and Julio mean to me. “They’re my fa—family.”

“Oh, sweetie.” She pulls me into an embrace, her long arms wrapping around my short frame so tightly. “I’m so sorry. Why now?”

“Because Freddy is a piece of shit. His grandma died and left him some money so he wants younger talent which I get, but this is a jazz bar and these guys are legends. This is their life.”

“And your life,” she says, grabbing my shoulders. “Listen to me. You tell that asshole that unless he brings back Clyde and the rest of the band, you’re not singing. Or go to a better club.” She gives me that look, the same one she’s been giving me for over a year whenever I talk about Freddy’s. “I know you don’t want to entertain the thought, but you can still see Clyde and sing at another club, a better, safer one that isn’t run by a fucking goon.”

“I know.” I squeeze her hands, not wanting to try to explain again to her that it’s not just about a better club or more money; it’s about singing with these guys who have become my friends. And it’s about my long-term plan to own Freddy’s. I don’t have a clue how, when I barely make enough to pay my bills now, but someday, I’m going to buy Freddy’s and restore it to what it used to be. 

“I’m sorry if that was harsh,” she apologizes. “I just worry about you there.”

“I know and you’re right, though. I’m just going to tell Freddy that unless he brings back the band, I’m not singing.” I toss my hands in the air with a huge smile, feeling a little silly I didn’t say that the second he told me he was firing them. 

“Good. There’s that beautiful smile.” She playfully pinches my cheek. “Now, I have some other good news to tell you.”

“Oh yeah? Good, I need it.”

“Trust me, you really need this.” Her lips curl into a suspicious grin.

“What?” 

“I gave him your number—wrote it on the sleeve when you were filling the cup.”

“What?” I say again, laughing in confusion as her comment doesn’t register. “You gave my number to som—” Then I realize who she’s referring to.

“Mr. TGIF.”

Chapter 2-Atlas

“Sir, as I mentioned in our last conversation regarding your father’s trust, the deadline is less than five months away.”

My eyes stay focused on the phone number staring back at me as I slowly twist the cup from side to side over and over again. 

Her bright-blue eyes stare back at me, her black hair piled on her head as a few loose tendrils tickle her neck. My fingers itch to reach out and brush them away from her delicate throat. They twitch, resting on my thigh, an image of them wrapped around her throat as I slide my tongue between her plump lips.

“Did you need me to throw that out, sir?”

“Hmm?” I glance over at Oliver, my house manager, completely unaware how long he’s been standing there. “Sorry, no.” I shake my head. 

“As I was saying, the trust, sir.”

“The trust.” I nod my head, chewing my bottom lip for a second as my pulse begins to return to normal. 

“Have you thought any further about asking Miss Tate?”

“No,” I say firmly, not wanting to have this conversation with him again. “As I mentioned last time, Oliver, Miss Tate and I are no longer together. End of discussion.” 

Oliver nods curtly. “Dinner will be ready at seven p.m. per the regular schedule. If you need anything else from me in the meantime, sir, I will be in the library.” He turns on his heel and walks toward the door of my home office. 

“I’m working on it. I have a plan.” My words stop him and he turns to face me, smiling softly while giving another nod. 

“I hope so, sir.”

Oliver has worked for my family for four generations, starting out as my father’s driver when he was barely eighteen years old to now running the entire house which means managing the chef and cooks and the garden crew, as well as driving me around at his insistence even though we have a driver, Mac, who works full-time for the house. He’s always been like a second father to me, but when he oversteps, I will remind him that I don’t need him meddling in my affairs. The same way I let my father know when he was still alive. 

The door shuts with an almost silent click. I reach into my middle desk drawer and produce the trust that Oliver was referring to. Almost as soon as I begin to read over it for the hundredth time, I toss it back onto my desk in frustration. 

“Bastard,” I mutter, standing to walk over to the bar cart in the far corner of the room. I pour a generous three fingers of scotch, taking half of it down in one gulp before refilling the glass. 

My father, Byron Knight, one of the last truly self-made billionaires this world has known, loved nothing more than to make everyone else feel stupid. It was the only thing in life that truly made him happy, making others feel less than. He was fucked in the head. But what really pisses me off is that he knew exactly what he was doing when he had this trust written. When he died, he left me all of his physical assets, money, investments, you name it. The only thing he didn’t outright leave me was the only thing he knew I wanted or cared about—Knight Enterprises. 

I have spent every fucking second of my adult life, most of my teenage life, and even some of my true adolescence dedicated to this company. I’ve made more money than I’ll ever spend. I own houses and cars I’ll never drive or sleep a single night in. But what I don’t own… a majority stake in the company that has my goddamn name on it. Being CEO of my father’s company isn’t enough. I deserve those majority shares and I’ve done more than enough to deserve the fucking power. 

And that is where she comes into play—Stella Porter. 

The night I first saw her, I had drunkenly stumbled into a jazz bar on the opposite side of town from where Eleanor Tate, my live-in girlfriend was currently cleaning out her side of our closet. The same closet I had custom made for her a year earlier. The same closet I had stood in just a few hours ago when she looked me in the eye and told me she wasn’t in love with me anymore.

Stella captivated me. Her long, black hair was pulled away from her face, her full hips encased in a burgundy velvet dress. Her pouty lips were painted bright red, begging to be bitten. Everything about her was mesmerizing. I sat wondering how someone as beautiful and talented as she was, wasn’t headlining a club in the heart of downtown or a show in Vegas. 

I swirl the remaining ounce of scotch in my glass before bringing it to my lips and finishing it. I savor the burn, the sweet afternotes hitting the back of my throat. For the last nine months, I’ve spent every spare second researching a loophole in my father’s trust but it’s pointless. I have until my fortieth birthday to marry or all of his shares will be released back onto the market. 

“I’m tired of asking you, son, so I’m going to start demanding an answer. When are you going to settle down with Eleanor?”

“We are settled down, Dad. She moved in a month ago. I’d say that’s pretty damn settled.” I finish the remainder of the brandy in my glass and place it back onto my father’s marble bartop.

“You know what I mean, Atlas. I’m tired of having this argument with you. You know damn well that I worked my ass off to make this company what it is and I’ll be damned if you don’t keep it in the family. As an only child, you owe it to your mother and me.”

“Then be dammed,” I reply, adjusting my cuff link absentmindedly. His face grows redder than I thought possible, a hint of purple staining his cheeks. If he were a cartoon character, steam would be blowing out of his ears. 

“This is exactly what I told your mother would happen to you if she coddled you like she did.” He sneers at me, his bottom lip curling as he points a crooked finger at me. “I told her she’d ruin you.”

“Are we done here?” I stand, buttoning my coat. My father stares at me, his eyes glassy as he sits hunched over in his chair. He doesn’t look like the same powerful man I saw eviscerate people time and time again growing up. The same man who could silence a room of thousands just by standing. The same man who could financially ruin his opponents before nine a.m. on a Monday. But life hasn’t been kind to him these last few years and if you ask anyone who knows the name Byron Knight, they’ll tell you the same thing: it’s karma.

“Dad, I’m in love with Eleanor. I’m happy with her. I’m not going to promise you I’ll marry her because I’m not there yet. It could come to that, it could not, but if you plan to take this to your grave, that’s on you.” And with that, I turn and walk out of his house.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he was so hell-bent on me marrying someone. It wasn’t until I met with his lawyer after his death that I found out he had added an addendum to his trust the day we had that conversation. 

Which leaves me with only one option as far as I’m concerned. Ask a complete stranger to marry me… with compensation, of course. A simple contract outlining that they will be required to stay married to me for one year, live together, zero requirements or desires for any sort of sexual relationship. The cold and callous look in Eleanor’s eyes when she walked out of my life was exactly the reminder I needed to stay focused on the only thing that matters, taking over Knight Enterprises. Never again will a woman hold that kind of power over me.

I can’t keep the smirk off my face at the thought that my father died thinking he’d won. If there’s one thing my father did teach me, it’s that control is the ultimate form of power and to be completely heartless in the pursuit of it.

Between another glass of scotch and staring at my computer screen, my attempts at distraction are fruitless. The only thought on my mind since she wrote her number on that coffee sleeve is Stella. 

Who the fuck are you kidding? The only thought that’s been on your brain since you first saw her… is her or some variation of fucking her.

So I do what I always do when I can’t focus my thoughts; I call my driver. While I know she only sings on Thursday nights, I find myself telling Mac to take me to Freddy’s. It’s the only place, besides her job at the coffee shop, where I know she goes. The only place that weirdly feels close to her. 

Shit. Fuck. 

Thoughts like that are the ones that get you in trouble. Thoughts like that will have you falling in love and getting your heart ripped out while losing sight of what’s important. I have to stay focused. She is my only option right now for a contract and based on what I’ve witnessed of her life, she isn’t exactly in a position to turn down a million dollars and taking life off for the next year. 

So, the fact that I’ve imagined fucking only her in every way possible while I stroke my cock these last months won’t even be an issue when she says yes. I won’t let it be an issue because as far as she will be concerned, I’ll want nothing to do with her. 

A few moments after Mac stops outside Freddy’s, I open my mouth to tell him to head back home when I see a cab stop a few feet away and a woman emerges. It’s Stella, her long black hair flowing in the wind behind her as she runs across the street and ducks into the bar. 

I reach for the car handle. What am I doing? Am I approaching her tonight with the offer or am I thinking with my cock?

This isn’t a situation where I want to feel unprepared. I need to have the upper hand. I slowly release the handle, sitting back in my seat. “Head back home, Mac. I don’t feel like being social tonight, after all.”

Chapter 3-Stella

The door swings open; the ever-present stench of stale smoke and nicotine permeating the thirty-year-old carpet in the entryway wafts upward. There’s a lot more to this place than meets the eye, remnants of its days of glory still present with the stunning crystal chandeliers that have turned dingy and gray, and the copper detailing on the bar having oxidized more than a decade ago. Even a deep cleaning would give it a facelift, but according to Julio, Freddy has snorted more money than he’s ever put into this place. 

“Hey, Dennis, is Freddy in?” I don’t bother stopping by the bar; I just ask the question in passing as I head straight to the back office. 

“Oh, hey, Stell, what are you doing here?”

He doesn’t answer my question and I don’t answer his either. I just grab the door handle when I’m within reach and fling open Freddy’s office door.

“What the fuck?” He stands up, brushing a powdery substance from his nose. “What the hell are you doing here?” His tone softens a touch when he sees that it’s me, his eyes doing their usual perusal of my body like I’m a piece of meat.

“I’m here to talk about your demands—the extra performances and a new band.” I pull a rusty chair away from the wall and drag it till it’s facing him across from his desk.

“What is there to talk about, sweetheart? I’m the boss, remember?” A string of saliva pulls between his lips as they widen into a grin, my stomach knotting at the sight. 

“And I’m the talent,” I say confidently. “We both know that you need me here and I won’t perform unless you bring back Clyde and his band.” I cross my arms over my chest, regretting it instantly when his eyes drop. I release my arms, placing them awkwardly in my lap. 

“Babydoll,” he grunts, hoisting himself up out of his chair, “you might be the talent, as you put it, but you don’t bring in a crowd.” He walks behind me, my eyes following him until he’s out my peripheral. I jump when I feel his sweaty hands come to rest on my shoulders. He presses me down into the chair as he leans forward, his rank breath coming out in small puffs against my cheek. “You’re easily replaceable just like those old bastards so don’t push your luck with me.”

I lunge up out of my chair, brushing his hands off me in one motion before turning around to look at Freddy. “Fine, I’ll do the four performances a week and I’ll—” I swallow down the vomit that threatens to rise at what I’m about to say. “I’ll wear sluttier clothes.” He smiles grotesquely. “If,” I say, holding out my hand, “and only if, you bring back the band.” His smile falters but I can tell he’s considering my offer. 

“Fine.” He nods. “You win. I’ll bring them back, but you better be here this Saturday night to perform and your tits better be out.”

“Done. Thank you.” The smile I offer is fake. “And one more favor?” He lifts a brow. “Can you let me tell Clyde about the new plans?”

He grunts, clearly still agitated at the fact that I got my way. His eyes narrow and he points his finger in my face. “Yes, but no more favors or I’m going to start demanding some of my own.”

I don’t respond. I just give a nod of understanding before exiting his office and running back out of the bar. My shoulders sag in relief and I let out a long sigh. A smile breaks across my face as I walk the two short blocks to the train station. 

Through the entire ride back to my apartment and my routine of making myself a cup of lavender chamomile tea while drawing a bath, my mind races with how I can bring in more money to save up. 

Maybe the extra three nights a week will mean more tips. I visibly frown in the mirror as I brush my hair. 

“Be realistic,” I tell myself as I pull my hair back in a slicked-back bun to keep it from getting wet in the bath. The water is perfect, and I slide my foot beneath it after dipping my big toe in to test it. The warmth engulfs me and I close my eyes to try and will myself to relax. I’ve been using my bath time to remind myself to remain positive about ever having enough money to buy Freddy’s, but some nights it just feels impossible. After several minutes, my eyes fly back open and I stare up at the flaking paint on my ceiling. “Yeah,” I say to myself, “you’re gonna need a miracle.”

***

“Did he call?”

“Who?” I glance over at Matilda.

“You know who.” 

“Oh.” I roll my eyes. “No, of course he didn’t. Did you actually think he would?” I grab the tray of muffins she’s handing me and slide them onto the bakery cart. 

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “Why wouldn’t he?”

I shake my head half in exasperation, half in humor at the fact that I’m seriously having this conversation with her. “Mati, I say this as no slight to myself,” I clarify, knowing full well how much she hates my self-deprecating jokes. “But he’s literally the kind of guy who looks like he walked off a mega yacht that he owns and was filming a cologne commercial on surrounded by half-naked models. He’s not going to call the coffee shop girl who can’t even make eye contact with him. This isn’t a Hallmark movie.”

She scowls. “For all you know, he’s knitting with his grandma right now and he saves kittens on the weekends. He’s looking for love but in all the wrong places because he just hasn’t met the right woman yet.” She clutches at her heart, her eyes brimming with fake tears like she’s practicing for an audition.

“You’re right.” I chuckle. “But I’m not going to bank on it. That being said, if a man who looked like him ever did ask me out, I’m breaking my not on the first date rule.”

“I mean, duh.” She fans herself and we both burst into laughter, all thoughts about Freddy’s gone for a few minutes. 

“Hey, I need your help with something.” I hold back, questioning if I should mention it but the truth is, I really do need her help. 

“Yeah, sure. Anything.” She wipes her hands on her apron and leans against the bakery cart. “What’s up?”

“I, uh, I had that talk with Freddy and he did agree to bring the band back.”

“Oh my God!” Her hands shoot upward. “That’s great news.”

“It is, but I had to compromise.” Her excitement fades. “I agreed to the four nights a week which will mean more in tips so that’s good, but I also told him I’d dress sluttier,” I say, using air quotes.

“Eww, was that at his request?” I nod. “Gross fucking piece of shit. What do you need help with, burying his body hopefully?” She smiles at her own comment. 

“I need something slutty.” 

“At least you got that part right,” she says. 

“What do you mean?”

“Coming to me to find something slutty, you know I’ve got good taste.” She winks. “We’ll go after our shift.”

“Perfect. I’ll go over to Clyde’s apartment after we’re done so I can tell him the good news. I called him after Freddy fired him and he was still so positive about it all, but I could hear it in his voice, he was heartbroken.”

The next four hours fly by. I toss my apron in the dirty bin and say goodbye to my coworkers as Matilda and I walk toward the exit.

“I know the perfect place to find you a dress that’s slutty, yes, but in a very sophisticated, classy way.”

“Is there such a thing?” I give her a skeptical look and she pretends to gasp.

“Rude, don’t question my abi—” Her hand darts out and stops me in my tracks as we exit the coffee shop. 

“What?” I look up at her, my eyes then following her gaze to across the street where an expensive-looking black sedan is parked. It’s not the car that has her mouth hanging open; it’s the fact that Mr. TGIF is leaning against it, staring at me.

Oh my God,” she says over and over in a hushed tone. He pushes off the car, closing the distance between us as he crosses the street. 

“Good afternoon.” His deep voice sounds even sexier when it’s directed solely at me. His eyes are hidden behind tortoise Wayfarer Classics; a single lock of his dirty-blond hair that’s usually perfectly styled has fallen over one corner of his sunglasses. His navy suit fits like a glove, like it was made for him. I recall my conversation with Clyde about his father who was a tailor. Now I realize why they cost so much. The man is definitely wearing the suit in this situation, not the other way around. His broad chest looks accentuated, his thighs filling out the pants perfectly. 

“Say something,” Matilda whispers, nudging me. “You look insane.”

“Afternoon,” I repeat back to him hurriedly, completely unaware how long I stood lost in thought. 

“Did I catch you at an okay time? I had hoped to discuss something with you.”

“Yes,” Matilda answers for me, shoving me toward him before I can protest. “She was just saying she had no plans.”

I look back at her, my eyes wide. What the hell?

“Great. Would you mind coming with me?” He holds out his hand, gesturing toward his car. 

This is crazy, he’s a complete stranger. An extremely hot and very built-looking stranger but still… I feel another shove against my lower back from Matilda. 

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” She waves at me and I turn to face her so that he can’t see my face. I flash her my what the hell is going on look, hoping she sticks around, but it’s not working. “Have a great night, you two.” She emphasizes the word night even though it’s just after one p.m.

“Shall we?” I smile, resting my hand in the crook of his elbow as he leads me toward his car. He opens the back door and motions for me to slide in. After closing the door and walking around to the other side, he gets in and the driver pulls into traffic. 

“Oh.” I look in the opposite direction. “I actually live back that way.” I thumb over my shoulder. 

“We’re not going to your place, Stella.” He slowly pulls his eyes from looking straight ahead to looking right at me. It feels like the breath has been sucked from my lungs being this close to him. He takes up space, his legs spread wide and stretched out in the back seat of the car. His woodsy cologne permeates the small space that I’m now very acutely aware of. “We’re going to mine.”

Instead of coming to my senses like a normal person and asking him to drop me off so I can grab a cab home, I reassure myself that a man who looks like him, drives a car like this, and wears suits that expensive wouldn’t risk it all for some silly little nobody… Then again, these are exactly the kind of rich people that get away with stuff like that.

“How’d you know my name?”

He lifts his hand, a smirk forming at one corner of his mouth as he slowly leans toward me and touches my name tag. 

“Oh.” My cheeks flush with embarrassment. “Right.”

“It was also written on the coffee sleeve along with your number.” He’s turned his gaze back forward, one of his massive hands resting on his thigh. A gold ring encrusted with rubies sits on his pinky finger, a Rolex just a few inches up on his wrist. This is exactly the kind of man who should be wearing a pinky ring and weirdly, it looks good. 

“I-I didn’t write that,” I say in a half-hushed tone. 

“I know.” I continue looking at him, but his eyes stay forward, fine lines crinkling at the corners. “That’s why I didn’t call. If you had wanted me to call you”—he looks over at me again—“you’d have given me your number, wouldn’t you?”

I nod, unsure what exactly I’m agreeing to but something about this man, his presence has me so off-kilter, so giddy, and yet scared that I feel completely unlike myself. 

We sit the rest of the ride in silence. He remains focused on his phone while my hands nearly tear through my purse strap as I nervously knot it over and over again in my lap. I watch out the window as we drive farther north, just outside the city, until the car slows in front of a large gate that opens up automatically. The driveway curves through trees, rounding a corner and coming to a clearing where a massive, almost gothic-looking Victorian mansion sits far back on a lush green lawn that is very clearly professionally manicured.

“This is your house?” I try to sound nonchalant but the size of my eyes as I look around give me away. I lean toward the window, craning my neck to take in the magnitude of the estate. 

“It is.” He’s already opening his door and getting out the second the car pulls into a massive garage. He walks around to my door, opening it and holding out his hand to me. I reach forward, my fingers delicately gracing his before yanking my hand back. 

“Wait.” I look up at him nervously. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Atlas Knight.” He extends his hand out toward me again.

I take it. “Stella Porter.” I smile and he shakes my hand before helping me out of the car. His other arm is behind me, his hand coming to rest at the small of my back as he ushers me toward a door that I assume leads to the house. I’m suddenly very self-aware that I’m in my work uniform. My jeans are still peppered with flour, a few coffee stains on my pale-blue polo, and I’m sure my makeup is half-melted off along with my hair that’s fallen down. 

“This way.” Atlas gestures as we walk through a long hallway with vaulted ceilings. Wooden beams stretch the entire length of the ceiling. We pass a kitchen that looks like it could be featured in Architecture Digest, complete with a massive La Cornue oven. We round another corner and walk down another hallway until we reach a massive wooden door that he pushes open. “My home office.”

Office? Weird place to discuss a date. I take in the room, trying not to gawk or seem overly impressed when it feels like I could spend hours exploring in this place. 

“Please, have a seat.” He gestures to two large leather chairs that are placed exactly opposite his desk. He stands next to his chair, unbuttoning his suit coat and taking a seat. I follow his lead, plopping down almost unceremoniously. 

“So, Mr. Knight, what did you want to discuss with me?” I try to flutter my eyelids, crossing one leg over the other as I tilt my head.

Do I sound flirty? I want to sound flirty. Hell, I want to toss everything off his desk and crawl across it like I’ve seen in movies. Grab him by the tie and tug it until his lips are—

“Straight to business, I like that. How old are you, Miss Porter?” 

“Twenty-four,” I say. “Why? How old are you?”

Completely ignoring my question, his eyes narrow on me, like he’s trying to figure me out or perhaps he’s second-guessing asking me here. Maybe he thought I was older than I am. But then he joins his hands together in front of him, placing them on the desk as he leans slightly forward.

“I need to get married, Miss Porter, and I want you to be my wife.”

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cannot wait to read the whole book of Dark as Knight

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