From New York Times bestselling author Skye Warren comes the Endgame series.
Gabriel Miller swept into my life like a storm. He tore down my father with cold retribution, leaving him penniless in a hospital bed. I quit my private all-girl's college to take care of the only family I have left.
There's one way to save our house, one thing I have left of value.
A forbidden auction...
Gabriel appears at every turn. He seems to take pleasure in watching me fall. Other times he's the only kindness in a brutal underworld.
Except he's playing a deeper game than I know. Every move brings us together, every secret rips us apart. And when the final piece is played, only one of us can be left standing.
Book One: The Pawn
Book Two: The Knight
Book Three: The Castle
Book Four: The King
Book Five: The Queen
Age Rating: 18+
“Every pawn is a potential queen.” — James Mason
Wind whips around my ankles, flapping the bottom of my black trench coat. Beads of moisture form on my eyelashes. In the short walk from the cab to the stoop, my skin has slicked with humidity left by the rain.
Carved vines and ivy leaves decorate the ornate wooden door.
I have some knowledge of antique pieces, but I can’t imagine the price tag on this one—especially exposed to the elements and the whims of vandals. I suppose even criminals know enough to leave the Den alone.
Officially the Den is a gentlemen’s club, the old-world kind with cigars and private invitations. Unofficially it’s a collection of the most powerful men in Tanglewood. Dangerous men. Criminals, even if they wear a suit while breaking the law.
A heavy brass knocker in the shape of a fierce lion warns away any visitors. I’m desperate enough to ignore that warning. My heart thuds in my chest and expands out, pulsing in my fingers, my toes. Blood rushes through my ears, drowning out the whoosh of traffic behind me.
I grasp the thick ring and knock—once, twice.
Part of me fears what will happen to me behind that door. A bigger part of me is afraid the door won’t open at all. I can’t see any cameras set into the concrete enclave, but they have to be watching. Will they recognize me? I’m not sure it would help if they did. Probably best that they see only a desperate girl, because that’s all I am now.
The softest scrape comes from the door. Then it opens.
I’m struck by his eyes, a deep amber color—like expensive brandy and almost translucent. My breath catches in my throat, lips frozen against words like please and ~help~. Instinctively I know they won’t work; this isn’t a man given to mercy. The tailored cut of his shirt, its sleeves carelessly rolled up, tells me he’ll extract a price. One I can’t afford to pay.
There should have been a servant, I thought. A butler. Isn’t that what fancy gentlemen’s clubs have? Or maybe some kind of a security guard. Even our house had a housekeeper answer the door—at least, before. Before we fell from grace.
Before my world fell apart.
The man makes no move to speak, to invite me in or turn me away. Instead, he stares at me with vague curiosity, with a trace of pity, the way one might watch an animal in the zoo. That might be how the whole world looks to these men, who have more money than God, more power than the president.
That might be how I looked at the world, before.
My throat feels tight, as if my body fights this move, even while my mind knows it’s the only option. “I need to speak with Damon Scott.”
Scott is the most notorious loan shark in the city. He deals with large sums of money, and nothing less will get me through this. We have been introduced, and he left polite society by the time I was old enough to attend events regularly. There were whispers, even then, about the young man with ambition. Back then he had ties to the underworld—and now he’s its king.
One thick eyebrow rises. “What do you want with him?”
A sense of familiarity fills the space between us even though I know we haven’t met. This man is a stranger, but he looks at me as if he wants to know me. He looks at me as if he already does. There’s an intensity to his eyes when they sweep over my face, as firm and as telling as a touch.
“I need…” My heart thuds as I think about all the things I need—a rewind button. One person in the city who doesn’t hate me by name alone. “I need a loan.”
He gives me a slow perusal, from the nervous slide of my tongue along my lips to the high neckline of my clothes. I tried to dress professionally—a black cowl-necked sweater and pencil skirt. His strange amber gaze unbuttons my coat, pulls away the expensive cotton, tears off the fabric of my bra and panties. He sees right through me, and I shiver as a ripple of awareness runs over my skin.
I’ve met a million men in my life. Shaken hands. Smiled. I’ve never felt as seen through as I do right now. Never felt like someone has turned me inside out, every dark secret exposed to the harsh light. He sees my weaknesses, and from the cruel set of his mouth, he likes them.
His lids lower. “And what do you have for collateral?”
Nothing except my word. That wouldn’t be worth anything if he knew my name. I swallow past the lump in my throat. “I don’t know.”
He takes a step forward, and suddenly I’m crowded against the brick wall beside the door, his large body blocking out the warm light from inside. He feels like a furnace in front of me, the heat of him in sharp contrast to the cold brick at my back. “What’s your name, girl?”
The word girl is a slap in the face. I force myself not to flinch, but it’s hard. Everything about him overwhelms me—his size, his low voice. “I’ll tell Mr. Scott my name.”
In the shadowed space between us, his smile spreads, white and taunting. The pleasure that lights his strange yellow eyes is almost sensual, as if I caressed him. “You’ll have to get past me.”
My heart thuds. He likes that I’m challenging him, and God, that’s even worse. What if I’ve already failed? I’m free-falling, tumbling, turning over without a single hope to anchor me. Where will I go if he turns me away? What will happen to my father?
“Let me go,” I whisper, but my hope fades fast.
His eyes flash with warning. “Little Avery James, all grown up.”
A small gasp resounds in the space between us. He already knows my name. That means he knows who my father is. He knows what he’s done. Denials rush to my throat, pleas for understanding. The hard set of his eyes, the broad strength of his shoulders tells me I won’t find any mercy here.
I square my shoulders. I’m desperate but not broken. “If you know my name, you know I have friends in high places. Connections. A history in this city. That has to be worth something. That’s my collateral.”
Those connections might not even take my call, but I have to try something. I don’t know if it will be enough for a loan or even to get me through the door. Even so, a faint feeling of family pride rushes over my skin. Even if he turns me away, I’ll hold my head high.
Golden eyes study me. Something about the way he said little Avery James felt familiar, but I’ve never seen this man. At least I don’t think we’ve met. Something about the otherworldly glow of those eyes whispers to me, like a melody I’ve heard before.
On his driver’s license it probably says something mundane, like brown. But that word can never encompass the way his eyes seem almost luminous, orbs of amber that hold the secrets of the universe. Brown can never describe the deep golden hue of them, the indelible opulence in his fierce gaze.
“Follow me,” he says.
Relief courses through me, flooding numb limbs, waking me up enough that I wonder what I’m doing here. These aren’t men, they’re animals. They’re predators, and I’m prey. Why would I willingly walk inside?
What other choice do I have?
I step over the veined marble threshold.
The man closes the door behind me, shutting out the rain and the traffic, the entire city disappeared in one soft turn of the lock. Without another word, he walks down the hall, deeper into the shadows. I hurry to follow him, my chin held high, shoulders back, for all the world as if I were an invited guest. Is this how the gazelle feels when she runs over the plains, a study in grace, poised for her slaughter?
The entire world goes black behind the staircase, only breath, only bodies in the dark. Then he opens another thick wooden door, revealing a dimly lit room of cherrywood and cut crystal, of leather and smoke. Barely, I see dark eyes, dark suits. Dark men.
I have the sudden urge to hide behind the man with the golden eyes. He’s wide and tall, with hands that could wrap around my waist. He’s a giant of a man, rough-hewn and hard as stone.
Except he’s not here to protect me. He could be the most dangerous of all.
A man blows out a breath, smoke curling from his lips. He wears a slate-gray vest and lavender tie. On another man, it would have made him soft, but with the two-days’ growth on a strong jaw, with the devilish glint in his black eyes, he’s pure masculine power.
“Who do we have here?” he says.
There are other men in the room, other suits, but I don’t focus on them.
The man takes a seat near Damon, to the right of him and a little deeper in the shadows, his eyes turned to bronze in the dark. Like he’s watching all of us, like he’s set apart. I don’t focus on him either.
“I’m Avery James,” I say, lifting my chin. “And I’m here for a loan.”
Damon drops his cigar into a ceramic dish on the side table. He leans forward, pressing his fingers together. “Avery James, as I live and breathe. I never expected you to visit me.”
“Desperate times,” I say because my predicament isn’t a secret.
“Desperate measures,” he says slowly, as if tasting the words, treasuring them. “I’m not in the habit of giving money away for nothing, even to beautiful women.”
I find myself searching the darkness for golden eyes. For courage? Whatever the reason, strength infuses me like a thick gulp of brandy. “What do you give money away for?”
Damon laughs suddenly, the rich sound filling the room. The other men chuckle along with him. I’m their source of entertainment. My cheeks flame.
The man with golden eyes doesn’t crack a smile.
Damon leans forward, obsidian eyes glinting. “In return for even more money, beautiful. Which is why you have a problem. That high school diploma isn’t going to count for much, not even from the best private school in the state.”
It wouldn’t. And who would hire a James when my father has just been convicted of fraud? Part of me still refuses to see the truth. I keep flinching away from it. Every time it hurts. “I’m smart. I’m willing to work. I’ll figure out something. I just need time.”
Time to keep the creditors at bay, time to pay for my father’s medical care. Time to pray because I don’t have any other options.
“Time.” He gives me a crooked grin. “And how much is that worth to you?”
My father’s life. That’s what hangs in the balance. “Everything.”
Golden eyes watch me steadily, measuring me. Testing me.
Mr. Scott huffs an amused breath. “Why would I hand you twenty grand that I’m never going to see again, much less interest?”
More than twenty grand. I need fifty. I need a miracle. “Please. If you can’t help me—”
“I can’t,” he says flatly.
Golden Eyes reclines, face half in shadow. “That’s not quite true.”
The whole room stills. Even Damon Scott pauses, as if seriously considering the words. Damon Scott is the richest man in the city, the most powerful. The most dangerous. Who can tell him what to do?
“Who are you?” I say, my voice shaking only a little.
“Does it matter?” Golden Eyes asks, his tone mocking.
Righteous anger mixes with desperation. I’m already in a free fall—why shouldn’t I spread my arms? “Who are you?” I say again. “If you’re going to decide my fate, I should at least know your name.”
He leans forward, the light adding amber to his lambent gaze. “Gabriel,” he says simply.
My heart stops.
Scott smiles, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. He’s relishing this, anticipating it. It’s almost sexual, the way he watches me. “Gabriel Miller. The man your father stole from.”
Gabriel Miller smiles faintly. “The last man he stole from.”
Oh, and he made sure my father could never steal again.
Never do anything again.
Pinpricks against my eyes. No, I can’t cry in front of them. I can’t fall apart at all, because my father is lying in a bed, unable to get up, hardly able to move—because of what this man did.
This is the man who turned my father in to the authorities.
This is the man who caused my family’s fall from grace.
I push down the knot in my throat. “You—” A deep breath, because it’s taking all my self-control not to launch myself at him. “You’re a murderer.”
If Scott is the king of the underworld, Gabriel Miller is a god. His empire extends across the southern states and even overseas. He buys and sells anything worth money—drugs, guns. People. My father warned me to stay away from him, but then why did he secretly take bribes? Why did he betray Gabriel Miller, knowing how dangerous he was?
My father isn’t dead, but without a heavy dose of pain medicine, he wishes he were.
“I’ve killed men,” Gabriel says, standing to full height. I can’t help but step back a little. Would he hit me? Worse? His eyes narrow. “When they lie to me. When they steal from me.”
Like my father did.
That same sense of falling turns my stomach. I know I should be terrified, and I am—but I’ve been locked up in a cage my whole life. Part of me enjoys the wind against my face. “I didn’t steal from you.”
Scott gives a short nod, acknowledging that horrible truth. “His money still paid for your pretty shoes, didn’t it? The yoga classes that built that beautiful body?”
And my father paid a terrible price for that money. I still remember him bloodied, broken. Someone sent men to break him. Was it the men that my father double-crossed Gabriel Miller for?
Or was it Gabriel Miller who ordered my father beaten?
I force my shoulders back. “You said you could help me.”
Whatever happens next, I’ll face it with honor, with courage. With the same sense of strength I believe my father had. How had he taught me about honesty while lying the whole time? The James name used to mean something, and I’m trying to maintain the last shreds of our dignity.
“Take off the coat,” Gabriel says, his tone almost mild.
Everything inside me turns cold, bones frozen, breath a cold blast of air in my lungs. “Why?”
“I want to see what I’m working with. Don’t worry, girl. I’m not going to touch you.”
With shaking hands I untie my coat and let it slide from my shoulders. There are indistinct murmurs from the men around me—approval, interest. I have the sudden sense that I’m in the center of a bullfight, a stadium full of spectators hungry for blood.
Finally I meet Gabriel’s eyes, and what I see is a fire of desire, red and orange and yellow. The blaze scalds me from four feet away. The businesslike clothes I chose to wear don’t show much of my skin, but they show all of my shape. The flame of his hunger licks over my breasts, my waist, down my legs.
“Lovely,” Damon Scott murmurs. “But a beautiful body isn’t enough. You need to know how to use it.”
I shiver. He owns a string of strip clubs all over the city. “I can…learn.”
Something flashes in Gabriel’s eyes. “You don’t know how to please a man, girl?”
There had been stolen kisses, furtive touches in the darkened hallways outside society parties. Justin had pushed me, but I had pushed back. Something had always kept me from letting him have sex with me. And then my family name was disgraced.
You have to understand, Avery. I want to be a senator someday. I can’t do that married to a James now.
That was the day after the indictment.
In light of that impersonal phone call, I knew our relationship wasn’t about respect. It wasn’t about love either. Definitely not pleasure. No, I have no idea how to please a man.
“I’m a virgin,” I say softly, sadly, because even if this ruins everything, I can’t lie about it. Not when Gabriel Miller has confessed to killing men who lied.
Not when it would be so easy to confirm.
Damon Scott’s eyes widen, and something sparks in them, interest where there had been only denial. “A virgin, Avery James? Are you serious?”
A flush turns my cheeks hot. It might seem strange for a nineteen-year-old woman not to have sex, but I went to St. Mary’s Preparatory Academy in high school, an all-girl’s Catholic school. My father was protective, only allowing me out at night to society events he also attended. By the time I left for college, I was already engaged to Justin.
Gabriel makes a low sound, almost a growl. “She’s serious.”
Damon Scott looks conflicted. “She’s too young.”
“You have younger girls dancing at your fucking clubs.”
Except they aren’t talking about dancing. The thought makes my heart stop. They’re talking about selling my body for sex. My virginity. “No,” I whisper. “I won’t do it.”
“You see,” Damon Scott says. “She won’t do it.”
Gabriel’s gaze sweeps over my body. He meets my eyes, his expression intent. “She doesn’t have a choice. It’s the most valuable thing she owns.”
It’s not a thing, I want to scream. This is my body.
Except he’s right. It’s the most valuable thing I own—the only thing of any value left after the criminal fines and restitution had been paid, after the lawyers and the bill collectors.
Challenge burns in Gabriel’s eyes. He knows how desperate I am. He’s the one who made me this way. Does he enjoy seeing me brought low? I wasn’t the one who betrayed him, but like Scott said, it was still his money paying for my tuition, my clothes.
“How much?” I ask, the hard knot in my stomach a sign I’ve already lost.
Damon Scott gives a small smile. “We’ll have an auction.”
I’ve been to auctions before—of paintings, antique furniture. The audience with their glasses of wine and numbered signs for bidding. I imagine myself up on the stage. “Who would attend?”
There’s a hungry gleam in Damon Scott’s eyes. “I know a good many men who’d love to teach you the art of pleasure.”
I seriously doubt that I’ll feel any pleasure with a strange man, one who prefers to purchase a woman rather than date her. “How long would I have to—”
“A month,” Gabriel says, his eyes a bright flame.
Scott is silent a moment. “That would bring in more money.”
A month? God, what could a man do to me in a month? Even the thought of being with a stranger for a single night makes my stomach turn over. Bile rises in my throat. Would he want to sleep with me every day? More than that?
“What if—” I swallowed hard. “What if he hurts me?”
Scott shrugged. “It always hurts the first time. So I’ve heard.”
I always imagined that I would have sex with my husband, that he would take care to make it easier for me. A man who paid for the privilege would have no reason to restrain himself. “I mean worse than that. You know…kinky stuff.”
“Kinky stuff,” Gabriel says, the corner of his mouth turned up. “What do you know about kinky stuff?”
My face feels hot. “I’ve seen the movie, okay? I know about things.”
That’s a lie. I squirmed through the movie, lips parted in shock. How did people think of this stuff? Why would any girl like it? And I’m not just a random face in this city. My picture has appeared in the society papers. People know my father. Maybe some of the men were cheated by him, just like Gabriel. Would they want to hurt me in revenge?
“Tell me what you know,” Gabriel says.
The words are mocking, but something sparks inside me. “I know that some men like to hurt women. I know it makes them feel big and strong to hurt someone weaker.”
“And are you weak, little virgin?”
No, I want to say. Except I’ve lost everything in the past two months. My life, my school. My friends. I’m a shadow of my former self. ~Little virgin~ makes me fight back, though. Gabriel makes me fight back. “I’m doing what I have to do. Is that weak?”
His gaze flickers over my body, the yellow of his eyes brighter in the lamp’s glow. When he meets my eyes, there’s a begrudging respect. “Scott will screen the men who get invited.”
“Naturally,” Scott says. “I’m not promising these men won’t want kinky shit, but they’ll respect reasonable boundaries.”
That sounds a little vague—what qualifies as reasonable? But I would be stepping into their world, one with thorns and dark shadows. It would be dangerous.
It would be immoral. Daddy taught me to protect myself, but then he failed to protect me. I don’t know what to believe anymore. “I don’t—I don’t know if I can do this.”
Scott waves a hand as if it doesn’t matter to him. Maybe it doesn’t. “Go home, think it over. Come back tomorrow if you want to do it.”
I take a step back, relieved to be dismissed. The thought of making a decision hurts my heart, but at least I have a reprieve.
“Oh, and Avery,” Scott says thoughtfully. “If you do come back, bring some lingerie. We’ll want to get some pictures circulating to generate interest.”
I imagine myself undressed down to my bra, my underwear. More exposed than I am now. And photographs would last forever. That would only be the beginning, because when a man purchased my virginity, he could see every part of me. Touch every inch of my skin. Invade every place in my body. My eyes turn hot with tears. All I can manage is a curt nod, and then I’m practically running from the room.
I’m already in the hallway when I feel a hand on my wrist. Something inside me snaps, and I turn back with a cry of anger, of grief. Of defeat. I strike out with an open palm, trying to hit him, hurt him.
Gabriel subdues me with another hand on my wrist.
One step forward and he backs me into the wall. The rich wood paneling is cool through the cloth of my shirt. His body radiates heat at my front. I shrink against the unforgiving wall as if I can get away from him. He closes the space until we’re a breath away.
“I was going to say you forgot your coat,” he murmurs.
Then I see my trench coat draped over his arm. He’s doing something nice, and I just freaked out at him. God, I’m so messed up inside—fear and shame churning in my stomach. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re right to fight me. I’m not a nice man.”
And he was the one to suggest the auction. His hands are still holding my wrists against the wall, and I realize how exposed I am. “Are you going to let me go?”
His lips brush my temple. “Soon, little virgin.”
“Don’t call me that.” My voice trembles only a little, revealing the turmoil inside me.
“What else should I call you? Princess? Darling?”
“You could call me by my name.”
He dips his head, his mouth right by my ear, his voice just a breath. “There’s only one thing I’m going to call you. Mine.”
The possession in his voice makes me shiver. “Never.”
But a little voice inside my head says, Not yet.
He steps back with a quiet laugh. “You can run away, little virgin. But you’ll come back.”
I’m very afraid he’s right.