Back in her apartment, Vivi propped her feet on the chipped wooden table in front of her couch and opened her secondhand laptop. Although it’d been a couple of hours since she’d met with Landon Bennett, her heart was still racing.
Now, showered and fed so she wasn’t hangry, she had time to look into Club TEN29. The name sounded familiar, and she’d originally assumed it was because of their concert with Tangled Royal, but something else was niggling at the back of her brain.
She plugged in the club’s website and read through the information, impressed with everything she saw, from the classy look of the club to the detail and money put into the site itself. She moved on to the About page. There were three owners, Jason Dare, Tanner Grayson, and the man she’d met, Landon Bennett. Her stomach flipped at the thought of him.
She scanned the words, scrolling past the full-color pictures of each man, though she’d be lying if she said she didn’t stop and stare at Landon, until she and came to a dedication at the end.
Club TEN29 is named in memory of Levi Bennett, who died in a tragic accident on October 29, 2009. And beneath that was the photograph of a guy who appeared almost identical to a younger Landon.
And suddenly she knew why Club TEN29 sounded familiar, and it had nothing to do with their hosting of Tangled Royal. Her pulse pounded hard and nausea threatened, but before she panicked completely, she Googled her brother’s name — Victor Clark, Club TEN29, and bomb threat – and prayed she was wrong with the connection she’d made. Unfortunately, the articles came up, backing her hunch.
She picked up her cell and called Ellie, who lived in an apartment upstairs. “Come down,” she said when her friend answered.
She knew Ellie would hear the urgency in her voice, and sure enough, Ellie was banging on her door soon after. “What’s wrong?” she asked the second after Vivi let her inside.
Like Vivi, Ellie had showered and was now wearing a sundress but her hair was still damp.
“Remember on the way home from Owen’s, I said the club name sounded familiar?” Vivi asked.
Ellie nodded. “Come sit. You look green. Why is the name familiar?”
Vivi swallowed back the bile that threatened and followed her friend to her sofa. They sat down and Ellie waited for Vivi to talk.
“My brother, Victor, killed Landon’s twin in a horrible hazing gone wrong back in college.”
Ellie’s eyes opened wide. “Your brother who got out and then was thrown back in prison for terrorizing some guys?”
Vivi nodded. “He went after Landon’s partner, Tanner Grayson.” Thanks to the articles she’d pulled up, Vivi was now too familiar with the details. “He vandalized their club. He tried to attack Tanner’s girlfriend. He called in a bomb threat, which is a federal offense, by the way, and told the cops the bar was serving underage kids, causing a raid.” She blinked back tears. “He killed Landon’s twin.” She repeated the worst of the crimes because that was the one that mattered the most.
She’d spent so much time trying to disassociate herself from her brother. When Victor had been arrested for hazing and manslaughter, Vivi, sadly, hadn’t been shocked that her brother had been capable of hurting someone so badly. He’d been in and out of trouble for years, each time subjecting him to a beating from her father.
Unable to take it anymore, her mother divorced him during that horrific time, and the press had been so relentless, Vivi and her mother had legally changed their last names back to her mom’s maiden name, Zane,and moved out of state. At that point she hadn’t had a good relationship with her brother in years. He’d resented her so-called status with her father and treated her like shit anyway, so she hadn’t contacted him in prison and vice versa.
When he’d been released, he’d claimed to want a relationship, and they’d met for lunch. The next day he called her because he’d been arrested again. Obviously he’d been setting her up to bail him out if he got caught. He’d rambled about being accused of phoning in a bomb threat to a club and assault, among other things.
She’d hung up on him, and though she’d heard information on the news, including the club’s name, she hadn’t followed the case. She’d wanted nothing to do with her sibling. But she didn’t think Landon Bennett would care about her lack of a relationship with Vic. Because of her mere association, he and his partners would want nothing to do with her.
“Once Landon finds out I’m Vic’s sister, I can kiss any chance at the residency goodbye. I can’t take the job.” Her stomach hurt at the loss of such huge potential but not as much as it twisted in pain for Landon, whose brother was dead.
Ellie pulled at a nonexistent thread on her dress. “Or … you don’t ever have to tell him.”
Whipping her head up, Vivi stared at her friend. “What? No. I’m not going to lie about something that huge. I couldn’t live with myself.”
“I didn’t think you could,” her friend said softly. “I just had to offer it as a solution because you know that’s what Owen would tell you to do.”
“Fuck Owen. He only cares about money. Not about what I want or about people’s lives.”
Vivi met Ellie’s gaze. “Fucking Victor. He’s a terror even when he isn’t part of my life,” she said, as she watched her dreams shatter before she’d ever grasped them in her hand.
“You know I support you, right? Whatever you decide, I’m in your corner.”
Ellie squeezed her hand and Vivi smiled. “You’re such a good friend. I can’t believe we met at the gym only one year ago. I feel like I’ve known you forever.”
Ellie gave her a smile. “Fate works in weird ways. I needed a job and you needed an assistant.” Vivi had been working in a coffee shop during the day and singing when she could find work at night. She’d managed to pay Ellie very little to handle her website and help with social media, but she’d kept her job at a clothing store until Vivi started to get more steady singing work.
Eventually Owen had been in one of the venues where she’d been singing, heard her, and offered to sign her on the spot. Even then, she’d said she’d think about it and sent his contract over to her mom.
“Do it,” Ellie said, gesturing to Vivi’s cell. “It’s not going to get any easier.
With a sigh, Vivi picked up her phone, called Owen, and left a message, turning down the residency offer.
Then, knowing he’d call back screaming, she shut her phone off, pulled a pint of ice cream from the freezer, and shared the treat with her best friend.
Landon and Jason sat at the gym, where Tanner was fighting in the ring. Ever since Tanner had hooked up with Scarlett Davis, an assistant district attorney, and since Victor Clark had gone back to jail, Tanner’s anger issues seemed well under control. Where he used to fight at the gym to channel his aggression, lately it seemed he took more enjoyment in the sport.
They still showed up to support Tanner, and in truth, old habits died hard. They wanted to be here if something triggered their friend’s anger, although Landon didn’t see that as an issue any longer. Which meant they could focus on something other than watching Tanner kick someone’s ass in the ring.
“So how’d the visit with the viral girl go?” Jason asked, one eye on Tanner.
Landon felt the beginnings of a stupid grin on his face, and clearly Jason caught it, too, because he burst out laughing.
“I knew it would happen sooner or later. Tanner did, too.” Jason grinned.
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Because hedging was better than admitting that Landon had taken one look at Vivienne … he preferred Vivi because it suited her … and he’d fallen ass over teakettle, as his grandmother used to say. He’d thought it was as stupid an expression as Jason falling for Faith in a few short days and Tanner for Scarlett just as quickly. Now he understood. He wanted to get to know this woman.
“But it went well. I know her agent is completely on board, and though she tried to play it cool, she’s interested.” In more than just the summer residency, he thought.
And that feeling was completely mutual.
He’d been sitting in that office listening to the asshole agent try and blow smoke up his ass about how much money his client was worth when she’d come rushing inside. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail, that lush body encased in Spandex, and he’d had a good look at breasts made to fit in his hand and nipples that had puckered under his gaze.
His dick had hardened at the sight.
And then he’d had his first glimpse of her beautiful face, up close and personal. Gorgeous brown eyes the color of hot chocolate framed by porcelain skin, a sprinkling of freckles on the bridge of her nose, and dimples on either side of sexy lips made for kissing.
He’d been blindsided by not just her beauty but her strength of character. She’d stood up to her agent, letting him know the details of the contract were up to her. She didn’t seem to go for the money grab the man clearly had on his mind. More than a point in her favor.
“And you’re into her,” Jason said. “Because I’ve been talking for the last few minutes and you haven’t heard one word I’ve said. I brought her up and you got lost.” He chuckled to himself.
Landon rolled his eyes but he couldn’t deny his friend was right. His cell rang and he pulled it from his pocket, glancing at the screen. Vivi’s agent. His pulse picked up speed as he envisioned having her within touching distance all summer long.
He hit the accept button. “Bennett.”
“Mr. Bennett, it’s Owen Rhimes. I’m afraid I have bad news for you. Vivienne asked me to turn down your offer.”
“What? Why?” He had to admit he was floored. From the chemistry between them, which had been undeniable, to the generosity of the offer … he hadn’t expected her to reject him outright. Negotiate? Yeah, that he’d anticipated.
Jason glanced at him, brows furrowed.
Landon shook his head.
“I have to admit I’m taken off guard myself. She’d been clear about wanting to stay in town. I even had a list of wants for her. But she wouldn’t let me negotiate. Just gave me a firm no.” The man sounded frustrated, too.
“Thank you.” Frowning, he disconnected the call.
“What’s up?” Jason asked.
Landon shifted in the metal chair he’d been sitting on for too long. “She turned down the summer residency offer.” Dammit.
“What are you going to do about it? We can meet up and brainstorm someone else,” Jason said as Tanner stepped out of the ring along with his sparring partner, who stomped away, pissed he’d lost.
Landon clearly recalled the interested look in her eyes when she’d first seen him and the flicker of excitement at the mention of the summer residency. Oh, she’d tried to hide it and act professional, to not tip her hand so she’d have leverage to negotiate, because she’d acted like she could take it or leave it … but he’d seen and sensed how badly she’d wanted the gig.
“No. Nobody else. She’s our first choice, and I’m going to talk to her and see why she’d turn down such a lucrative contract.”
A decent agent wouldn’t share his client’s address, but he had a feeling Owen Rhimes wasn’t as decent of an agent as he claimed to be. Then again, Vivi was an unknown talent, so she’d probably taken what she could get.
He called Owen back. “I’d like to talk to your client. Any chance you can tell me where to find her?”
“Well … it would really be unethical of me to share her personal information, Mr. Bennett.”
He glanced at Jason, who was watching him, amusement in his gaze. Even Tanner had figured out what was going on if his smirk was anything to go by.
“Really? That’s too bad, because I think I can convince her to take the deal, and I know that’s what we both want.”
He heard the pause at the other end of the line, and he didn’t really believe the man was struggling with his conscience; rather Landon figured Owen was trying to make him believe it.
A few seconds later, Landon had Vivi’s address in hand. He’d give her tonight to think about the what she’d given up … and he’d be on her doorstep in the morning.
When the knock sounded on Vivi’s door the next day, she wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t thought Owen was going to let this go with a voicemail message and a follow-up phone call. Even so, Vivi had made up her mind. After what her brother had done to Landon and his partners, it wasn’t fair for her to take the job. She also had no intention of revealing who she was to them and subjecting herself to their disdain. She didn’t know Landon, but she knew she’d fall apart if he turned his rightful hurt and anger on her.
Preparing herself to deal with Owen, she flung the door open and came face-to-face with Landon instead. “Oh.”
Wearing a pair of jeans and a collared tee shirt, he looked sexy instead of uptight like Owen when he wore a similar outfit. The top two buttons were open, leaving his tanned chest and a sprinkling of dark hair visible for her to see, and she imagined her hand settled there, her fingers running over his skin.
She pulled her gaze upward and met his stare, glad she was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt of her own. Being fully clothed put her on more equal footing than her skimpy gym wear. And it covered her body’s instant reaction to merely looking at him.
“Hi.” He greeted her with a grin.
“Hi.” She didn’t ask how he’d found her. She knew Owen would cross any boundaries to get her to take this job.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
It would be rude if she said no without hearing him out, so she nodded. “Sure. Come on in.” She led him into her small apartment, all too aware of the shabby furniture and chipped paint on the walls.
It wasn’t going to make sense to him why she lived in such a run-down place and was turning down his offer. She gritted her teeth and hoped she could find a way out, short of explaining who she was.
“We can sit here.” She led him to the sofa and they sat across from each other. She clasped her hands together, trying to hide her nerves. “So what can I do for you?”
His addictive grin did funny things to her insides, and she trembled beneath that seductive gaze.
“I’m not here to ask why you said no to my offer,” he said, his words taking her by surprise. “But I am going tell you all the reasons you should say yes.” He leaned back against the sofa and held her stare. “My partners and I have been through hell these last couple of months.”
She stiffened in shock. Of all the things she’d expected, him confiding in her hadn’t been on the agenda. “I’m sorry,” she said, twisting her fingers together.
“When we were younger, we went through an … unimaginable experience and my twin died.” He paused, glancing away, his eyes clouding over. “Actually he was killed.”
Jesus. “Landon, I’m so sorry.” Her throat swelled and the truth swirled around in her head, but she knew better than to admit it now.
He shot her an appreciative glance while running a hand through his hair, messing the long strands. “Then, a few months ago, the bastard who killed him got out of prison and came after us,” he said, jaw tight. “I don’t want to get into the specifics, but the point is the club took a hit. People stopped coming in. The Tangled Royal concert was a way to bring the customers back and to make them feel safe.”
“I assume it worked?” she asked.
He nodded. “To a point. But summer is coming. People go away, leave for the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore. We want to keep our numbers up, and we believe you’re the key to that.”
She stared at her ugly flowered sofa. “I’m sure there are other artists who could step in and accomplish the same thing.”
But despite her words, she had to admit he was persuasive. She wanted to help him, if for no other reason than to undo a small measure of the problems and pain her brother had caused, and she couldn’t deny the money he offered would help her personally and the job itself would build her brand and get her name out to the public.
He leaned in closer, as if sensing he was getting to her. “Your numbers on YouTube prove how much people like you. Imagine building your presence on a stage in one of the biggest up-and-coming clubs in Manhattan?”
The idea was exciting and everything she wanted, but she felt guilty accepting knowing who she was. “I don’t know.”
He looked around her apartment, and she didn’t have to follow his gaze to know what he saw. Peeling walls, stained carpet, scuffed floors.
“I assume you aren’t making much now. Have you looked at the contract?” he asked in a nonjudgmental voice.
She shook her head. She hadn’t wanted to be tempted by a lucrative amount of money.
He narrowed his gaze in confusion, as if he didn’t understand her, but continued. “We’re offering you an apartment above the club for the summer. The place is immaculate. A fully stocked fridge with anything you want inside it and weekly deliveries. We’ll cover your incidentals in addition to pay per performance. And your manager mentioned you want to record your music. I’m willing to cover your studio fees for the duration of the residency. And I’m assuming you have debt? The salary will help alleviate that without you having to pay rent and utilities.”
Oh, God. He was offering the world, at least the world she wanted. “Why me?” She blurted out the main question circling her mind. “I mean there are any number of artists in the city. Why are you offering all of this to me?”
He blew out a breath and she sensed his internal struggle, as if he had more to say than he wanted to admit. “I used to play. Piano, guitar, whatever.”
She blinked in surprise.
“I know talent,” he said with a shrug. “I can feel that you’re meant for big things and I can help. It’s a leg up. Promoters and better managers than Owen will stop by Club TEN29 over the course of the summer. Do you have any idea what this can do for your career? Not to mention how much you’ll be helping us out?”
She hung her head and sighed. How did she take this job knowing what she did about their connection? Yet how did she turn it down?
When she hesitated again, he waited until she met his gaze. “Now I have to ask why. I saw the initial interest in your eyes. What changed your mind?”
She dug her nails into her skin. “I … I don’t think I deserve it.”
He eased in closer until his legs touched hers. “Of course you deserve it. You just have to reach out and take the chance. Accept the opportunity. Help me and my partners,” he said, his tone imploring her to say yes.
She blew out a long breath, doing her best to ignore the heat of his body so close to hers. He was distracting her with his masculine presence and scent, and his argument was compelling and alluring.
He added to her confusion by taking her hand in his bigger, warmer one. “My club needs you. My partners and I need you. And we’re giving you back so much in return.” He turned those gorgeous blue eyes on her. “Say yes, Vivi.”
Her internal struggle wavered. Bottom line, she needed this job as much as he said they needed her, and she reasoned that it was only a temporary gig. A few months and she could pay off her bills, finance her career, and move on without them knowing the truth.
“Yes,” she finally said, hoping if he ever found out who she really was, he’d understand why she’d withheld the information. With luck, the truth would never be brought to light.
Landon wiped down the bar, happy to be making himself useful in his own place of business. As usual, his thoughts strayed to Vivi. After she’d agreed to the summer residency, he’d immediately had the contract updated to include her studio fee and other things Owen had insisted upon that were minimal, at least as far as Landon was concerned.
Although he hadn’t heard from her in the week since their meeting, he’d received the signed contract yesterday and had breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t know what it was about her that intrigued him so much, but he’d wanted her locked into their club for the summer.
Tied to him.
Now that he knew he’d be seeing her often, he could definitely make his play. She interested him in a way no woman ever had, and he knew better than to ignore such a strong attraction when he’d never thought fate would give him the same happiness his friends had found.
Since losing his twin, it was as if a part of him was missing, and he understood he’d never replace or fill that hole in both his heart and his soul. But he wouldn’t mind discovering some form of that happiness in his personal life.
They had three weeks before the summer, which didn’t give her much time to pull an act together for her performance. If it hadn’t been for Vic taking up the bulk of his time and concentration, he would have put this into motion sooner … but then maybe he wouldn’t have seen the video of Vivi. Everything worked out for the best or so he believed.
He tossed the damp rag into a bin behind the bar, wondering when Vivi would come by and check out her new digs.
“Uncle Landon!” His ten-year-old nephew ran around the bar and barreled into Landon, wrapping his scrawny arms around his waist.
“Hey, buddy!” he said to LJ, named after Landon’s twin, Levi.
Amber Davis, the woman he assumed would have been his sister-in-law had Levi lived and the mother of his nephew, leaned against the bar and grinned. “Surprise!”
“Amber, what brings you to the city?” he asked.
A sheepish expression etched her features. “As you know, LJ and I are staying with your parents in Connecticut until we can move into our new house, and since he’s going to be traveling with them while I get settled, I thought I’d familiarize him with Manhattan.”
He shook his head. “Worried mom, hmm? He’s going to be fine with my folks. I promise. And you will get a head start on your new life.”
He and his partners, Amber’s good friends and LJ’s pseudo uncles, had finally convinced Amber to let them buy her a house near Landon’s parents, in Connecticut. She planned to go back to school to get her degree in education, having dropped out ten years ago during her freshman year after finding out she was pregnant. After Levi had died.
She grinned. “Thanks to you and the guys.”
She glanced at her son. “So this is Uncle Landon’s club. You won’t be here when it’s busy at night, but I’m sure you’ll spend some time here with Uncle Jason and Uncle Tanner, too.”
His eyes lit up at the mention of his uncles. “Are they here?” he asked.
Landon nodded. “Up in the office. Why don’t you take the elevator.” He gestured to the elevator across the way that opened directly into the offices upstairs. “Hit two and it goes right to the floor.”
“Cool! Then can we go to that place you promised, Mom? With frozen hot chocolate?”
She nodded. “Serendipity. Sure, honey.” He and Amber watched him run to the elevator and hit the button. As soon as he was in the enclosed space and the door shut, they faced each other.
“You’re worried about him missing you this summer?” Landon assumed that was what was on Amber’s mind.
She sighed. “I’m more worried about me missing him. I thought if I got a sense for where he’d be, I’d feel better.” She gestured to a low table and chairs, and he followed her over, pulling out her seat.
After she settled, he lowered himself into his chair. “Look, for a long time, it’s just been you and LJ, and your parents in Florida. It’s going to take time to adjust to a life where he travels to visit relatives.” He reached out and placed his hand over hers. “It’s going to be great. I can’t wait to drive up and play ball with him this summer. And maybe we can convince you to have a barbeque for all of us.” He winked at her. “Relax, okay?”
She blew out a shaky breath. “I agree or I wouldn’t have left the Sunshine State and come here to start over. I want him to be closer to Levi’s family. To you.”
He grinned. He appreciated his friendly relationship with Amber. Despite the fact that he looked exactly like his twin, there had never been any sexual vibes between them, and for that he was grateful. She was family, pure and simple.
“How about joining us for some frozen hot chocolate?” she asked.
“I could be persuaded.” He didn’t have a sweet tooth but knew it would mean a lot to her, plus he’d be able to spend more time with LJ.
“Great!” She rose and pulled him up and into a hug. “I don’t know what I would have done without the three of you all these years. And your parents.” His mom and dad had accepted Amber and LJ from the moment she told them she was pregnant with Levi’s baby.
“We’re always here for you,” he said, about to let her go.
“Umm, excuse me. I came by to check out the club. I called earlier and Jason Dare told me to come over,” a familiar female voice said.
He jerked out of the embrace, turning to see the woman he couldn’t get out of his head watching him with a curious expression on her pretty face.
He’d been waiting for her to show up and make arrangements to move in, and now she was here. He took in her outfit, a flirty spring dress with a pair of chunky-heeled mini boots, his gaze taking in her long legs and the flowered dress that hugged her curves.
He couldn’t stop the slow grin of appreciation at the sight of her. But he did not want her to get the wrong idea about his relationship with Amber.