Nicolette Bettencourt woke up and reached for her cell phone. She set the ringer and notifications on silent at night and checked her email and texts first thing in the morning. As soon as she turned on her phone, the messages and notifications popped up so fast she couldn’t keep up.
She pushed herself up and focused on a message from her modeling agent, Amelia Mitchell: Open this and call me immediately. You’re all over the internet.
Nikki looked at the link to the biggest tabloid site, one known for breaking the hottest stories in celebrity and entertainment news, and her stomach pitched. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
She clicked and studied the photo on the screen, trying to process what she saw. It was her bedroom, with the familiar chandelier hanging from the ceiling, the twin floral framed photos on the wall above the headboard, and the domed smart light on the right nightstand because Nikki found it difficult to wake up on workdays. What the hell?
Her pale pink duvet lay rumpled on one side of the bed, and then she took in the part she’d avoided looking at until now, the female lying asleep on the other side. Nikki tried but found it impossible to swallow. Heart pounding, she enlarged the picture, even though she already knew. She was the girl naked in bed, her ass exposed for the world to see. But how?
Nauseous, she scrolled lower only to find another photo of herself, her hair pulled up into a messy bun, her face visible as she slept on her back. Censorship bars covered her private parts but she was naked nonetheless. Shame washed over her and she started to tremble.
How had someone taken photos of her in her own home? Tears filled her eyes, and she glanced down at her nude body — because that’s how she slept… when she slept — and freaked out. She jumped out of bed, grabbed the silk robe slung over the footboard, and wrapped the material around herself, shaking as she tied the sash tight around her waist.
She felt exposed, violated, and utterly petrified.
She wasn’t ready to talk to her agent or anyone else for that matter. She scrolled through her phone, seeing her mother had called no less than a dozen times. Her parents would be furious, worried about how this would impact her senator father’s potential presidential campaign.
Any other twenty-one-year-old girl would call a friend, but Nikki didn’t have anyone she trusted completely. The closest person to her was Megan Cologne, another model. But Meg wasn’t the warm-fuzzy type, and Nikki needed someone to comfort her, not gloat. Meg was the gloating type.
Her doorbell rang and she froze. She couldn’t face anyone. Not now. Then she remembered the doorman would only let a select few people come up without calling. People she could handle seeing.
Pulling her robe tighter, she walked into the main area of her apartment and tiptoed to the door.
Someone banged again and rang the bell. “Come on, Nikki. Let me in.”
She let out a breath of relief and opened the door. “Derek!” She fell into her big brother’s arms, not bothering to hold back choking sobs.
“Come on.” He wrapped an arm around her and walked them inside, shutting the door and locking it behind them. “I don’t have to ask if you’re okay but how did this happen? How were pictures like that taken and exposed?”
She pushed herself out of his embrace. “I don’t know, okay? I admit I sleep naked but nobody’s been here!”
“No guys? Boyfriends or otherwise?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not since Lance Freeman. That was six months ago.” Her ex-boyfriend was a photographer she’d met through her modeling career.
They’d been casual, and Nikki always had a hunch he’d been with her for the wrong reasons. Namely her family name and modeling connections. But she’d been lonely and he’d been there. Eventually, they’d argued more often than not and she broke up with him. He’d seemed to agree it was over and that was that.
“I’ll be right back.” She rushed to the bathroom and grabbed some tissues, blotting her eyes and wetting her face before rejoining her brother in the family room.
“Have you spoken to Lance lately?”
“No. I ended things and it was as amicable as a breakup could be.” She lifted her shoulders. “That was it. I swear to you I have no idea how anyone got in here while I was sleeping. And that had to be what happened, right?” She shivered at the possibility.
Derek’s scowl would scare anyone except her. Nikki knew he wasn’t angry at her, he was pissed at the situation and worried. “I’ll figure that part out.”
Her phone rang from the bedroom and she groaned. “Mom’s been calling nonstop. So has my agent. I didn’t look to see who else left messages. I just know I’ve been slammed with notifications, too. I don’t want to deal with any of it.” She grew queasy at the thought of people viewing those photos, yet she knew half the world had seen them by now. God, what if the pictures had been uploaded somewhere without the black bars covering her most private parts? What if she was truly naked online for the world to see? Nausea filled her at the violation that was even worse than the fact that Senator Corbin Bettencourt’s daughter was in the headlines again.
Derek put a calming hand on her shoulder. “Go get your phone and call Mom while I’m here. Then we’ll figure out our next move.”
Knowing he was right, she nodded. She walked to her room and picked up her cell, suddenly uncomfortable being in the bedroom that had always been her comfort space.
She returned to Derek, who’d taken or made a phone call of his own.
Her cell rang again and Mom showed up on the screen. “Might as well get it over with,” she muttered. Drawing a deep breath, she took the call. “Hello?”
“Nicolette Anne,” her mother cried out, her voice shrill, as she used the longer, proper name her parents preferred, refusing to call her Nikki, the shortened version she’d chosen. “How could you let such a thing happen? Do you have any idea how mortifying this is for your father and me?”
What about what how awful it is for me? Nikki wondered, not voicing the thought out loud. Her mother wouldn’t care. Thank God she had Derek by her side and always had.
Seeing he’d put a hand to his ear to block her voice while he spoke on his phone, she took a few steps away so they could each hear their respective callers.
“It’s not like I posed for the photo, Mother. Someone somehow took pictures of me when I was sleeping. They violated my privacy!”
“Come now. Do you really think I believe such a thing? You’ve constantly disappointed us. Between your grades in school and the issues with being on time for modeling shoots, your name in the papers when your contract details leaked–”
Nikki blinked, hating the tears her mother managed to bring out so easily. Normally she tried to be immune to the you’re a disappointment theme, but she was in a vulnerable place and her mother was using it against her.
“There were legitimate reasons for those things, too,” Nikki reminded her mother. But heaven forbid Collette Bettencourt acknowledged her daughter’s issues.
Nikki had inherited dyslexia from her mother’s side of the family, since her uncle suffered from it as well, and Nikki’s inability to read well had resulted in poor grades in school. Her mother had never allowed tutors because nobody could find out Nicolette wasn’t perfect.
“Nicolette, are you listening?” her mother asked, her annoyed tone one Nikki was used to hearing.
Her mother had been asking how they were going to explain naked pictures of their daughter to the press and digging in on what an embarrassment Nicolette was to the family. She’d tuned her mother out.
“I’m not interested in anything but making this go away. Who took the pictures?” her mother asked.
“I told you, I don’t know.”
Derek finished his call, slipped his phone into his pants pocket, and walked over, holding out his arm, palm up.
Nikki handed him the phone, their mother’s tone loud as her complaining continued.
At the sound of Derek’s voice, Collette stopped her berating and changed her inflection. “Derek, honey, please help us. Your sister–”
“Is in trouble, or don’t you care? Her privacy has been violated, she’s scared to death, and all you can think about is Dad’s career. If you can’t find compassion for your daughter, leave her alone. Goodbye, Mother.” He disconnected the call and turned to Nikki. “Now that’s taken care of. Let’s talk.”
Although there’d been a time Derek was more amenable to their mother’s needs and demands, after a broken engagement with a woman their mother had insisted was perfect for him, he’d taken a stand. Derek was his own man. Not that it stopped their mother from trying to manipulate him.
Nodding, Nikki followed him into the kitchen. In a daze, she made them coffee, finding the chore of doing something routine helpful in calming her nerves.
After she’d put milk and sugar on the table and joined him, they each doctored their morning brew.
Derek met her gaze. “The paparazzi are going to swarm outside the building soon, if they haven’t already. I’d like to get you out of here.”
Her stomach twisted at the thought. “And go where?”
Derek reached out and covered her hand with his. “I have an idea but you need to trust me. I’m going to talk to Asher,” he said of his close friend.
Asher Dare was a sexy, brooding man she barely knew, but she recalled making an awful impression on him when they’d met. She’d been seventeen, coming home from a rough photo shoot in Mexico, tired, miserable, and so ready to get home when a customs agent pulled her over thanks to a medication bottle found in her bag. Nobody believed she hadn’t bought the drugs herself, that she’d been set up. Flashes of being arrested had gone through her mind during the questioning, and panic had engulfed her.
By the time her father’s team had done their magic and gotten her out of there, she’d been sweaty, had had to pee for hours, and her mother’s yelling over the phone had upset her even more. Neither of her parents had picked her up after her ordeal. No doubt her mother had refused to come or let her father show his face – in case the media had caught on to the story. Her mother was the force behind the senator, and he caved to her demands.
Derek had picked her up and Asher had been with him. She admitted now that she’d been obnoxious and probably rude, but after what she’d been through, it was a miracle she hadn’t collapsed into a puddle on the floor. But Asher’s initial impression of her hadn’t been a good one.
She sighed. “Why talk to Asher?” she asked her brother.
“He has an estate on Windermere Island. It’s off Eleuthera, near the Bahamas. You can lie low until something else takes over the news cycle. You’ll be safe and no one will think to look for you there.”
“Will you come with me?” she asked.
Derek squeezed her hand. “I wish I could, but I have a closing this week.”
“Oh, right.” Derek’s company, Blackout Media, was purchasing a start-up social media group he planned to incorporate into his conglomerate. She didn’t want to make him feel any worse, so she forced a small smile. “Okay. If you think that’s best.”
He nodded. “I do. If Asher agrees, I’ll be back to take you to his private jet. Can you pack while I’m gone?”
She hated the idea of going away alone right now. “Are you sure I need to leave?”
Derek rose and walked over, bracing an arm around her shoulder. “Would you rather stay in Manhattan until things die down and we figure out who did this?”
Her eyes filled again. The thought of staying in her home, where it had happened, was more terrifying. “No.”
He rose to his full height. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Meanwhile, you’re safe here. Not only did I put the fear of God into Preston at the desk downstairs, but I have a bodyguard hanging around incognito on the front sidewalk and another out back. Nobody’s getting into the building who doesn’t belong.”
They both knew her father ought to be the one to hire security for his daughter. He was the parent. It wasn’t Derek’s responsibility, but here he was, stepping up. As always. He’d been twelve when she was born and had been an amazing big brother. When her sleep issues kicked in, he’d been there, letting her use a sleeping bag in his room every time thunder and lightning struck or if she couldn’t get her brain to shut off. Even if she tossed and turned, Derek’s presence had always calmed her.
“Love you,” she said.
“Love you, too, peanut.”
He used the nickname he’d chosen as she was growing up and she groaned. “Don’t call me that.”
He reached out and tweaked her nose with his thumb and forefinger, another holdout from when she was a kid. “I’ll be back. Don’t let anyone in you don’t know.”
Nodding, she walked him to the door and locked up behind him.
After receiving a call from Derek Bettencourt, a business school buddy and good friend, Asher left a family barbecue early to meet him at Asher’s office. Derek’s younger sister, Nicolette, had gotten herself into another situation that required fixing. Compromising photos were splashed all over the internet, and Asher winced, knowing if it had been his sister, he’d want to kill someone. If Derek wanted to stash Nicolette at Asher’s island home until things blew over, that was fine with him.
He recalled meeting Nicolette when she was seventeen and he’d gone with Derek to pick her up at the airport. She’d been late, and it had taken a ridiculous amount of time to find out she’d been caught by customs with illegal drugs in her bag.
She’d sworn someone had set her up. Derek had believed her. The senator and his wife had not. Asher, who’d already had a bad experience dating a model, was inclined to agree with the elder Bettencourts.
Asher’s ex had been a model with a big-name agency. Christy had been doing well for herself. She was gorgeous, which, in his mid-twenties, had been a huge bonus. Over time, he’d learned she was flighty, consistently late for important events, and too self-centered for his liking. But she’d looked good on his arm, had been great in bed, and he’d been shallow enough to ignore the warning signs of trouble. He’d even given her a key to his apartment, which, by the end of their relationship, they were basically sharing.
He’d left work early to surprise her, something he rarely did, and came home to find cocaine spread over the table in the living area and Christy in his bed with her new yoga trainer. A flexible guy if their position had been any indication. He thought he’d been in love, though he knew better now. She’d been the second and last woman to break his heart. From then on, he’d thrown himself into short-term flings where the women knew not to expect more than sex.
As he turned into the parking garage, Asher acknowledged that his vision of Nicolette was skewed. Her behavior had brought back bad memories of Christy but he was still inclined to err on the side of caution when it came to Derek’s sister.
Asher pulled into a parking spot below the Dirty Dare Spirits offices in Midtown West. The company and the property were owned by Asher and his siblings, but he ran the business. As it was a long July Fourth weekend, the building was quiet.
The interior design consisted of four bars spread out on the ground level. Each served a variety of coffee and alcohol, depending on the time of day. A separate floor held a lab where mixologists created craft cocktails, and the office space was on the floors above.
He took the elevator from the underground garage to the main level, stepped out, and walked toward the front entrance. Derek was waiting outside and the security guard had yet to notice him. The building was locked on the weekends and Asher strode over to let his friend in.
Asher greeted Derek with a brotherly hug and pat on the back.
“Thanks for coming. I figured this place was the easiest for us to meet.” Derek ran a hand through his already mussed jet-black hair, a sure sign he had a lot on his mind.
“No problem. Let’s go upstairs and talk. Want coffee?” Asher offered. The coffee bars were closed but he could make them drinks.
Derek shook his head. “I’m wired enough already. Thanks.”
They started to walk toward the elevators, and Asher nodded at the weekend guard. “Hi, Tim. Good holiday weekend with the family?”
The older man, who’d worked there prior to Asher buying the building, nodded. “We had our barbecue yesterday. Thanks for asking, Mr. Dare.”
Asher smiled. “Have a good one.”
He and Derek took the elevator to his office floor. Once inside, Asher turned on the light. They settled into the comfortable chairs in the corner across from his desk, and Asher waited for Derek to talk.
“You’ve seen the photos?” Derek finally asked.
Not wanting to make things worse, Asher said, “Just a glimpse.”
“But enough to know what we’re dealing with.”
“Yeah. Is your father livid?” Asher said.
“Haven’t heard from him but my mother sure as hell is.” Derek’s expression grew furious, his mouth turning downward in a scowl. “And not for the reasons she should be. As usual, she’s concerned with dad’s reputation. I’m worried about my sister. Somehow, someone got into her apartment to take those photographs, and she’s a mess. Scared, embarrassed, you name it. I’m not sure there are enough words to cover it.”
Asher winced. Jade was right. He’d been judgmental without knowing the facts. Still, once again, Nicolette was in trouble that she claimed someone else had caused.
He got right to the point. “So, you want to send your sister to my island house?” A place he’d purchased once Dirty Dare Vodka, as it was then known, had succeeded. His getaway had become a family escape.
Derek nodded. “I know it’s a big ask, but I need to get Nikki out of town until things blow over in the press. It’ll also give me time to have someone figure out when and how those photos were taken.”
Asher met his friend’s gaze. “No problem. But we didn’t need to meet in person. I’d have said yes over the phone. What’s going on?”
Derek steepled his fingers, his gaze steady on Asher’s. “I want you to go with her and stay so she’s not alone.”
Asher blinked in shock. “Seriously? Why don’t you take her? I’m sure she’d be more comfortable with her brother than someone she barely knows.”
Inclining his head, Derek groaned. “You’re right and I would, but I have a deal closing this week.”
“Shit. Does she want to go with a friend?” Asher wouldn’t mind letting two women use the guest rooms at his house. That way he could do his friend a favor and avoid babysitting a woman with a penchant for finding trouble. One who reminded him of his own bad choices.
Derek shook his head. “Our family name makes it hard for her to trust. People in the modeling industry think she got where she is because of connections. There have been a number of incidents over the years in both social media and the news that make her look bad.”
Asher kept his opinion to himself.
Derek leaned forward. “Listen, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really need the favor. I can’t send her alone, she’s too shaken up, and I trust you.”
Asher pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t have any pressing business coming up, but he wasn’t a good choice to be Derek’s sister’s companion. They had nothing in common, not to mention, Asher wasn’t sure she was as innocent as her brother believed. Not with the way she jet setted across the world and the fast crowd he’d seen photos of her running with.
“I didn’t want to do this,” Derek said in the wake of Asher’s silence. “But remember the stage-five clinger you couldn’t shake? You owe me.”
Asher groaned. After Christy, he’d tried to be selective and not get into long-term relationships. The woman Derek mentioned though? She’d been impossible to get rid of despite the fact that he’d been blunt up front. He hadn’t been looking for anything but fun in bed.
At first, he’d tried being pleasant, but she wouldn’t take a hint and brought him lunch every day at work for a week until he’d had to tell the guard to turn her away. She’d shown up outside his apartment each time he went to the gym, and he’d had to change his schedule. He had no idea how she’d known where he lived or what his plans were until he’d discovered she’d befriended his personal assistant, who had shared his information. Then he’d had two women to get rid of.
Asher had been at his favorite upscale bar with Derek, and she’d arrived uninvited. Apparently, she’d decided the best way to get Asher’s attention was to make him jealous, and she’d started hanging all over Derek.
“She sure as fuck transferred her affections easily enough and then she became my problem. I had to change my cell phone number and make out a police report,” Derek muttered.
The man had a point. Asher did owe him. Besides, he’d been about to agree anyway, because he valued the other man’s friendship. “Okay. I was just wrapping my head around the idea of taking Nicolette to the island.”
“She likes to be called Nikki. Only my parents call her Nicolette.”
“And the media,” Asher said, but once they reached the hangar where his plane was, they wouldn’t have to worry about the paps.
“Thank you.” Derek slapped him on the back. “There are only a handful of friends I trust with my baby sister, and you’re one of them. Plus, you have a house on an island,” he said with a chuckle. “Look at it this way. This time I owe you one.”
“It’s no problem,” Asher lied.
“I’ll bring Nikki to Teterboro,” Derek said of the private airport where Asher kept his jet.
Asher nodded, wondering how the hell he’d handle being alone with a twenty-one-year-old girl with a diva-like reputation, who’d no doubt been pampered throughout her life. Even if spoiling her seemed to be a way for her parents to keep her at a distance. Knowing what it was like to have a close family, he felt a tug of conscience for what Nikki had been through, but at least she’d had her brother.
Asher would give anything for Derek to have chosen someone else for this job, but as he’d pointed out, Asher had the home on the island. And a promise was a promise. Even if this trip was guaranteed to be the longest of his life.
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