Tied to the Tycoon

By: Chloe Cox

And just as he killed his bourbon, he saw her. Standing there on the other side of the room, silent and unmoving in this swirling, drunken celebration, arms folded up around her like a wounded bird. She was wearing something thin that draped over all the right parts of her beautifully, reflecting shimmering shards of pale blue at him in the dim light, and her hair, piled atop her head in some artistic arrangement, was already starting to come down and frame her face. Her face. Christ, he hadn’t seen…he hadn’t been prepared to see her face again. He felt weak. Looking at her was the only time he could abide feeling weak. He couldn’t help but marvel at her, the perfect symmetry, their connection still unbroken, after all these years—even here, totally ignorant of his presence, she matched him: present, but standing apart. He stood apart because he had a singular purpose. But what kept her apart? What kept her standing on the sidelines, the discomfort evident in every line of her body?

This was something he’d remembered, too, from that one all-important senior year at school, when she’d transferred in. She had this impenetrable mask of cool, of charm, of flirtatious wonder, the beauty who could make anyone who talked to her feel interesting, and important, and like they belonged right there, talking to a woman who looked like that. Sometimes it seemed like he was the only one who could tell it was a mask at all. But he’d lived for the moments when the mask slipped, or those precious few nights when she took it off in his presence and was just herself. All awkward, shy, wounded, thoughtful, funny, and frightening intelligence. And eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes that could see everything, whether she wanted them to or not. She didn’t, for the most part, let people know that she could see most of the things that they tried to hide. On one of those nights, she’d explained it to him: she couldn’t help it, she’d said, she was perceptive, but it was kind of rude in a way. People needed their fictions. They needed their defenses.

She almost never let her defenses slip. And she almost never let them down voluntarily, not all the way. And then, the one night when she did…

Well, he was here to make up for that now, wasn’t he? He was here to repay her for everything she’d given him, whether she knew about it or not.

He put his glass down and tried to think of the best way to approach her. She would be wary, the way she was now, like a hunted animal. And he didn’t like how uncomfortable she looked. It had been ten years; he’d have thought she’d have a different reaction to a place like Club Volare by now. There was something that he hadn’t accounted for.

But then he watched it happen right before his eyes: she assembled herself. The version of herself that most people saw. She stood up straight, held her body like a dancer who’d never known injury and only knew how good it felt to move. Her eyes flashed. Her face became that mask. It was like watching someone put on a beautiful suit of armor, and it both impressed him and made him sad.

And then he watched her walk over to the baccarat table.

The baccarat table with the very unusual stakes and several very interested looking men sitting around it, like a waiting pack of wolves.

He put his glass down and moved out into the crowd.

~ ~ ~

Ava Barnett had just started to find her old, familiar groove, holding court amongst these elite men she didn’t know, holding them all in the palm of her hand and far away from anything that really mattered to her, when the stranger sat down in the darkness across from her and ordered the rest of the table to clear off. Except he wasn’t a stranger, even if she couldn’t see him well enough to place him—she knew she knew him. Yet, on what planet would she forget a man who moved like that?

On what planet would she forget a man who simply sat down and said, “Clear off,” and people actually did it?

Ava herself had started to get up, an instinctual reaction to that tone of voice, when he’d stopped her. “Not you,” he’d said. “Sit.”

And she had done that, too, and had been irritated at herself for it. Irritated, a little turned on, and very confused.

She wished now that she could see him properly, but he was in silhouette, leaning back towards the lantern that hung behind him. She could see his hands, his large, rough, calloused hands, deftly playing with the deck of cards. The rest of him was a dim shadow, the suggestion of a square jaw, high cheekbones, and close-cropped hair reclining there with confidence. Maybe he was famous? A celebrity? That would explain this haunting familiarity, but it wouldn’t explain anything else.

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