Panther's Cage  - Book cover

Panther's Cage

Kali Gagnon

Chapter 2


Both men stared, mouths agape, with a slight red blush creeping on their cheeks. One of them was Chris Jagr, a forward whom I’d heard a lot about.

I’d even had to do some damage control while in Paris after some scandalous stories were thrown around about him in the papers.

The other was Jace Crocker—a rookie defenseman who had blown away my mind with his performance at the game earlier.

“Hello, boys, I’m Piper,” she said, clearly infatuated by their looks. “I’m Kate’s best friend.”

Even with Piper trying to lighten the mood, the awkwardness kept intensifying by the second. The boys didn’t utter a word, too dumbstruck to speak; so I made it easy for them.

Giving them a curt nod, we walked out of the locker room. I kissed my uncles on the cheek, telling them to phone me with details of a meeting I needed to attend.

They attempted to get us to stay a little longer, but we rushed away to meet our friends at a nearby bar. I sighed in relief once we reached Russo’s. Eleven o’clock on a Saturday night, and the bar was naturally filled to capacity.

“That was fun,” Piper joked. “I should go to the games more often. Those boys were delicious.”

“Keep your hormones in check, Pipe.”

We pushed our way to the bar, plopping down on swiveling stools beside our other friends. Arms were immediately wrapped around my neck.

“Kate the Great!” Eliza shouted at the top of her lungs. She worked as a corporate event planner, the career suiting her well.

She was a tiny little thing, barely over five feet tall. Blonde hair and green eyes gave her small frame a beautiful pop.

Sara came up to me next. “You look incredible,” I said to her as she leaned in to hug me. Sara was a swimsuit model. I thought she could stand to eat a few burgers, but I kept that to myself.

Dark skin, hair, and eyes always added a touch of mystery to her already stunning look.

Piper was already throwing back shots beside me. I grinned at her, shaking my head. She passed one over to me.

“Let’s see how boring Paris has really made you,” she teased, knowing I’d want to prove our friends wrong.

“I am not boring.”

“Prove it,” Piper said with a sly smile.

I waved the bartender over and handed her my black credit card, asking her to open a tab. I then proceeded to order a round of tequila shots for every person sitting at the bar.

When the bartender announced the shots, the screams that followed near about deafened me.

Once the initial excitement wore off, Sara and Eliza used the opportunity to offer their condolences for my father.

“Thanks, guys, but the goal of tonight is to get my mind off all that. That’s why Piper forced me to come out tonight,” I said. “I’m pretending none of it happened.”

“We can discuss the fact that you’re about to become the most sought-after woman in New York.” Sara laughed, raising her glass.

We clinked ours together, and I toasted. “Here’s to my three friends, who I can go years without seeing and still feel like we never parted.”

Shortly after, the bar began to spin. We laughed for what felt like forever, going over our favorite college memories. For the first time in a few years, I felt comfortable.

I was back on my home ground, with people who loved me and knew me well before I became the businesswoman I was then.

They didn’t see dollar signs when they looked into my eyes, and they definitely didn’t see the stern CEO side of me.

“How many hotties did you nab in Paris?” Piper asked, a sultry smile curving her lips.

I rolled my eyes, throwing back another shot. “Ugh.” My friends glared at me, wanting every juicy detail I could offer. “A few, I guess.

“Some were a little crazy, some wanted to up their social status, and some just wanted my money. But they all had something in common: they were boring.”

My friends faked astonishment before breaking into a fit of laughter. “You’re just too picky,” Sara claimed. “But now you’re back in the dating pool we call New York City.”

My friends’ eyes had all turned slightly hazy from the excessive drinking. “I don’t have time for men.” I held a finger up to signal the bartender.

She nodded, then appeared with another tray of drinks. We had moved on to cocktails, knowing very well we couldn’t live on shots all night.

Piper looked up from her glass, raising a brow. Elevating her voice to be heard over the noise in the overcrowded bar, she asked, “Don’t have time?

“How can Kate the Great not have time for men? Spending too much time with Henry?”

Her lips curved into the devilish smile I knew all too well. Seeing her eyes trained behind me, I was about to follow her gaze until a voice spoke up and rumbled my body to the core.

“Well, now you have me curious,” the deep voice spoke. “How does one get the nickname Kate the Great? And who could Henry possibly be?”

I spun around on my barstool, my face an inch from his. I was struck by his dark brown hair, matching dark brown eyes, and a rather impressive jawline covered with neatly groomed facial hair.

He looked young too, younger than me. I opened my mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t slip out. He was hot, on fire even.

I doubted my mind would have gotten that boggled if I’d been sober, but a night spent reliving old memories over far too much alcohol had diluted my ability to think straight.

“I… I don’t know how I got that nickname.”

His eyes flitted above my head when one of my friends started speaking for me. “First, Henry’s her vibrator.

“Second, she got that name because she was the ultimate in college.” The guy’s eyes sparkled at the information. “She had men wrap themselves around her pretty manicured fingers, and then she’d walk away.

“This girl’s a heartbreaker, right here in the flesh.” Piper chimed her obnoxious two cents in.

I didn’t break hearts; rather than falling in love, I just cared more about my education so I could work with my dad. I didn’t have time for love then, and I definitely didn’t have time for that now.

I found myself defending my honor. “No,” I butted in. “No. Definitely not a heartbreaker.” Glaring at Piper, I then turned back to the handsome guy leaning against the bar beside me.

“They’re making this up,” I slurred while my friends giggled.

His gaze had a fiery intensity to it. “But you don’t deny that Henry is who they say he is?” he asked with a smile.

“Uh…” I spun around to glare at my friends one last time before turning back to him. “No,” I said. “I don’t deny that.”

He laughed a laugh that made my body tingle. It was husky and raw. Sexy. “I’m Tyler,” he said, holding out a hand to me, which I graciously accepted. His touch was warm and strong.

“Kate,” I replied. I felt heat rush to my face; it had been quite some time since I’d felt flustered around a guy.

“You know, Kate,” Tyler said, craning his neck to the side and giving me a glimpse of a tattoo that peeked around the base of his neck.

“The way I see it, you’ve clearly been with the wrong kind of guy if you devote more time to Henry than to a real man.”

My cheeks reddened. We really needed to stop talking about my vibrator. “Or maybe there are no real men left in this world,” I replied, hoping I sounded confident and cool.

Tyler leaned in closer to my face, and I froze. The proximity, oddly enough, made me feel alive. “Or maybe there’s one standing right in front of you.”

His lips turned up before he looked away, signaling the bartender. When his gaze met mine again, I couldn’t help but let out a smile.

The cute bartender handed him a large mug of beer. Dropping some bills for her on the bar counter, he slid his fingertips across mine.

I wanted to pull my hand away, but I couldn’t move. The way his chocolate eyes rested on my blue ones had me transfixed…

“Well, Kate,” he said with a smile. “I hope you have an incredible night.” And he walked away.

What? He had left me hanging with every word of his. ~That asshole.~

I turned back to my friends. “Did that seriously just happen?” I asked them.

Eliza was still staring after him. “Y-yeah…,” she stuttered. “He’s so hot.”

I snuck a glance behind me, looking for him nonchalantly. He was leaning against an exposed wooden beam. Two guys stood in front of him; they were all sharing a laugh.

I don’t know if Tyler felt my eyes on him, but turning his head toward me, he winked. He legitimately winked at me. I quickly turned back to my friends and laughed hysterically. “Who does that?” I mumbled to myself.

The bartender brought another round of pink drinks. I ate its cherry garnish and shook my head with annoyance.

I tipped my glass back, letting the sweet liquid flow down my throat. I was already quite drunk, but after the awkward encounter with Tyler, I was thirsty for more. More of the alcohol and more of him.

“Oh!” Eliza exclaimed, and all our eyes followed her stare. “They’re hot,” she said, nodding her head toward a new group of men who had just walked into the bar. “Who wants to be my wing woman?”

“Let’s go!” Sara replied. They both flew off their barstools with urgency, making their way over to the men. Their movements slowed, becoming more graceful as they got closer.

Sara casually bumped into one of the men and started giggling. Piper and I watched in amusement as she used her finger to wipe the small amount of drink she spilled on his shirt.

She then popped her finger into her mouth, and by the look on the guy’s face, she had scored.

I turned back to Piper and laughed. “Those two are relentless,” I said.

“Hey. At least they’ve got it figured out,” added Piper, and I nodded, sipping on what was probably my tenth drink.

“Kate, I think I know exactly what you need to ease your mind about everything going on.” Piper’s eyes gleamed as she spoke.

“And what do you think I need?” I asked, even though I knew what she had in mind.

“A night with that guy,” she said. “He is smoking hot, and we are not just thinking that because we’re drunk. Every girl in this bar has checked him out at least once.”

Looking over my shoulder, she said, “And his two friends aren’t bad to look at either.”

“Normally, I’d tell you your ideas are not the ones to listen to.”

Her smile grew wide. “But?”

“But I’m so drunk that I may agree.”

She leaned in, hugging me tightly. “If you go talk to Tyler, then I’ll go talk to his friends,” Piper said with excitement.

“Are you trying to bribe me?” I raised a brow.

“Possibly,” she said. “I know you don’t want your best friend to be lonely tonight, so I suggest that you go talk to him so I’m not all alone forever and ever and ever.”

“Ugh. Fine. Just stop.”

I looked over my left shoulder only to see Tyler’s eyes staring back at me, a wicked smile on his face. If he found me so interesting, then why had he not made an effort to talk to me more at the bar?

Unless that was his game. He liked to leave women wanting more of him. Well, two can play this game.

“Game on,” I mumbled. “Tomorrow when I regret doing this, please remind me that you’re the worst friend ever.”

Getting off the stool, Piper straightened her shirt. “I would never remind you of such a thing.”

Closing my bar tab, I left the bartender a significant tip and began marching over to Tyler with purpose. His other friends turned and spotted us making our way through the crowded bar.

Dancing people, with sweat dripping from their bodies, rubbed up against me far too much, but I knew it would all be worth it once I stood an inch from him again.

Wearing a halfway-zipped black sweater and jeans that highlighted his perfect butt, Tyler looked effortlessly great. His grin grew wider seeing us approach. Surely, he thought he’d won that little game of his.

The moment we reached them, Tyler opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off by throwing my hands around his neck and pressing my lips hard against his.

His arms circled my waist in a matter of seconds. I grew weaker wrapped in the strength of his grip. The kiss was far more amazing than I’d imagined. It was hungry and passionate, everything I’d never had.

The other men I’d been with were nothing like him, always wearing suits and sitting in boring business meetings. And when they kissed me, it felt like kissing a friend—light, sensitive, and average.

I’d been fine with that in the twenty-seven years of my life, but I hadn’t known anything else. Until then.

It took much strength, but I was able to pull away from him a minute later. His mouth remained hung open, wanting more. He leaned in, trying to pull my body back against his. “Well, Tyler,” I copied him.

“I hope you have an incredible night.” I turned and rushed away from him, knowing Piper would follow behind. Tyler yelled for me to wait, but I kept moving.

From the corner of my eye, I saw him watching me, shaking his head with a grin on his face.

I waited outside for Piper to catch up, and when she finally did, she was winded. “That kiss had me feeling hot and heavy!” she exclaimed. “You’ve still got it, Kate the Great.”

I laughed and threw my arms around her. “Thank you. I needed that, and I never would have done that if you hadn’t forced my hand.”

She texted our other two friends, who had been fiercely making out with two of the men they had walked up to. I had no doubt that they’d end up going home with them.

Piper and I giggled while waiting for a cab. I couldn’t believe I had kissed a stranger at a bar; that was very unlike me.

Once inside the cab, she looked at me expectantly. I turned to her. “What?” I asked.

“I gave that guy with Tyler my number. His name’s Ben, and he has already texted me.”

I raised a brow. “Wow,” I said. “He moves fast.” I laughed but noticed she wasn’t laughing.

“Don’t be mad.”

“What’d you do?”

Piper smiled a sweet smile, the same smile she put on whenever she was trying to get what she wanted. “Ben texted me asking for your number.” She paused briefly. “For Tyler.”

“Don’t give it to him,” I insisted. “Yes, he was hot, and yes, that kiss was hands down breathtaking, but I do not have time for a guy in my life.”

She pressed a button on her phone, her eyes never leaving mine. “Oops.”

I glared at her. I should have known she’d send it anyway. “I hate you.”

“No, you don’t.”

The rest of the cab ride, I wanted to yell at her, but couldn’t. After all, she had given him my number thinking it was for the best.

Granted, I could use a wild night with a delicious guy, but I had to get my priorities straight.

I had many meetings over the next couple of days, my dad’s funeral, a decision to make about what to do with his penthouse, and the task of finding a CEO in Paris. I had too much on my mind to deal with Tyler.

But really, what were the chances of me seeing him again?

I entered my dad’s house quietly, not wanting my loud high heels to wake my sister. Her door was slightly ajar, but all the lights were off.

I debated going in to talk to her, but if she was still mad at me, the attempt would prove pointless. Pulling my heels off, I left them in the hallway and made my way to the kitchen.

Dehydrated and exhausted, I needed water. Taking a huge sip from a bottle, I pressed a button on a remote my dad had left on the counter. A small light illuminated above the sink.

I laughed, thinking of my dad and his damn remotes. He had one for everything. The note I’d left for Nicolette still sat on the counter, except now a pen lay next to it. I picked it up to see if she’d written something back to me.

“I hate you.”

“Okay, then.” I crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the trash, then made my way to my old bedroom. I undressed quickly and jumped in bed, wearing only underwear and a t-shirt.

I kept the lights off—I always had an easier time thinking when it was dark. When the lights were on, I’d find myself distracted by anything and everything I set my eyes on.

I weighed my options. I could send Nicolette back to France with my mom, but I knew Dad wouldn’t want that. Our mom had stopped being a good woman the moment she had me.

Alcohol and prescription pills diluted her every waking moment. My dad always said she had mental issues, but I knew she felt true hatred for me.

When I was ten, I found a journal she wrote in. Multiple entries were dedicated to her jealousy toward me. She thought my dad loved me more than her, but that wasn’t true. He just loved us differently.

When Nicolette came along, our mom devoted her time to my sister, making sure she wouldn’t feel the supposed hurt of my father loving me the most. Of course, that never happened.

My dad adored Nicolette; she was his baby.

The only reason he had left the whole business to me upon passing was that I was the only one who showed any work ethic. I had been my dad’s right-hand man since I was a child.

I accompanied him on every business trip, loving every moment of it. I sat beside him in meetings, pretending I was truly involved.

The interest I had shown in his work growing up was what had put me in the position I was in: a twenty-seven-year-old heir to hundreds of millions.

The difference between me and the majority of kids who inherited a fortune was that I had actually worked for it. Running the foreign sector in Paris was no easy task.

Unfortunately, now I’d have to give that up and recruit a CEO to run that domain for me.

With everything going on in my life, I was surprised by the one face I saw in my head before drifting off to sleep. A sexy guy I’d kissed at a bar.

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