Thayer University’sannual alumni charity gala was the event of the season, but while it did raise money for the latest cause du jour, it wasn’t really about charity. It was about ego.
I attended every year.
Not because I wanted to be a philanthropist or reminisce about my college days, but because the gala was a fountain of information. Thayer counted the most powerful people in the world amongst its alumni, and they all congregated in the ballroom of the Z Hotel D.C. every August. It was the perfect opportunity to network and gather intel.
“…pass the bill, but it’ll get killed in Congress…”
I pretended to listen while Colton, an old classmate who now worked in government affairs for a major software company, droned on about the latest piece of tech legislation.
He rarely had anything interesting to say, but his father was high up in the FBI, so I kept him in my orbit in case I needed him in the future.
It was always about the long game—measured not in weeks or months, but in years. Decades.
Even the tiniest of seeds can sprout into the mightiest of oaks.
It was a simple concept most people didn’t understand because they were too busy chasing short-term gratification, and it was the reason most people fail. They spent their lives sitting on their asses and telling themselves “someday” when preparation should’ve started yesterday. By the time “someday” came, it was too late.
“…this IP issue with China…” Colton stopped abruptly. Thank God. If I had to listen to his nasal voice one more second, I would’ve walked over to the bar and stabbed myself in the eye with a fork.
“Who is that?” he asked, a hungry look overtaking his face as he stared over my shoulder. “She’s hot.” His voice was as hungry as his expression. “I’ve never seen her before. Have you?”
I turned out of mild curiosity. It took me a second to latch onto whatever unsuspecting girl had captured his attention. Colton was almost as big a womanizer as Josh.
When I finally located the source of Colton’s ravenous gaze, my muscles snapped into a rigid line and my fist closed around the stem of my champagne glass, tight enough the delicate glass could shatter at any moment.
She glided into the ballroom, her lithe body poured into a sleek gown that flowed over her curves like liquid, shimmering gold. She’d gathered her hair up in a fancy hairdo, exposing her swanlike neck and smooth shoulders. Dark eyes. Bronze skin. Red lips. All smiles and sunshine, unaware she’d walked into a pit of vipers.
A goddess entering the gates of hell, and she didn’t even know it.
A pulse ticked in my jaw.
What the hell was Ava doing here, wearing that dress? She wasn’t an alumna yet. She shouldn’t be here. Not around these people.
I wanted to gouge out the eyes of every man staring at her like they were starved and she was a juicy steak, which was pretty much every man here—including Colton. If he didn’t put his tongue back in his mouth soon, I’d cut it out for him.
I left him salivating behind me without a word and stalked toward Ava, my strides eating up the distance between us with angry, purposeful steps. I made it halfway before someone blocked my path.
I recognized her scent before I saw her face, and my muscles tightened further.
“Alex,” Madeline purred. “I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
Her scarlet gown matched the glossy lipstick coating her pouty lips. Blonde hair spilled over her shoulders in sculpted waves, and I was close enough to see the faint outline of her nipples through the silky material of her dress.
Once upon a time, that might’ve turned me on. Now, she might as well be wearing a potato sack for all the reaction her outfit and seductive smile elicited.
“I’ve been busy.” I sidestepped her; she mimicked my action and blocked my path again.
“You never made it up to me for canceling our date.” She trailed her fingers over my arm. It was a light, practiced touch, meant to leave the receiver wanting more.
All I wanted was for her to get out of my way.
My eyes strayed toward Ava again, and my already-tense muscles bunched up further at the sight of Colton by her side. How the fuck did he get over there so fast? I’d played basketball with him once in college; the man was slower than a turtle on morphine.
“And I never will.” I removed Madeline’s hand from my arm. “It’s been fun, but it’s time for us to part ways.”
Shock scattered over her face before coalescing into a mask of stunned anger. “You’re breaking up with me?”
“In order to break up, we’d have to be dating.” I nodded at one of the men staring at her ass. “The congressman looks interested. Why don’t you go say hi?”
Red tinted her creamy skin. “I’m not a prostitute,” Madeline hissed. “You can’t pimp me out to another man when you’re done with me. And we are not done. Not until I say so. I’m Madeline fucking Hauss.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. We’re all prostitutes in our own ways.” My smile lacked any semblance of warmth. “I’ll give you a pass for your tone tonight, given our history. But don’t contact me again, or you’ll find out the hard way how I earned my reputation for being ruthless. I’m not above ruining women.”
This conversation was over.
I left a sputtering Madeline behind me and walked away, irritated by the interruption and furious at the sight of what awaited me in the middle of the dance floor.
Ava and Colton swayed to music from the live band the university had hired for the gala. His hands rested on her hips, and I saw them inching lower with each passing second.
I arrived next to them right as she laughed at something he said. It rang through the air like silver bells, and the tic in my jaw pulsed harder.
He didn’t deserve her laugh.
“Something funny?” I asked, masking my ire with an expression of cool indifference.
Surprise and wariness flared in Ava’s eyes at the sight of me.
She should be wary. She should be fucking home, safe and sound, instead of dancing with a manwhore like Colton and letting him put his hands all over her.
“I was just telling her a joke.” Colton chuckled but shot me a warning look that said, Why are you cockblocking, man? He was lucky if all I did was cockblock. I was tempted to break every bone in his hand for touching her like that. “You mind? We’re in the middle of a dance.”
“Actually, it’s my turn.” I maneuvered myself between them and pulled him off her with a little more force than necessary. Colton flinched. “You have to leave the gala early. Business calls.”
His brow pinched. “I…” His eyes roved between me and Ava, whose own eyes did the same between me and Colton. Realization dawned on his face. Guess he wasn’t so slow after all. “Ah, you’re right. Sorry, man. I forgot.”
“We’ll get lunch one day,” I said. I didn’t burn bridges unless it was a business rival or I had to. Seeds. Oaks. “At Valhalla.”
The Valhalla Club was the most exclusive private club in D.C. It capped its membership at one hundred members, each of whom was allowed to bring one guest for a meal each quarter. I’d just handed Colton the ticket of a lifetime.
His eyes widened. “Oh, y-yeah,” he stuttered, trying and failing to hide the awe in his voice. “I’d like that.”
“Good night.” It was a dismissal and a warning rolled into one.