So the people have spoken…you want this first chapter. And I must deliver.
Keep in mind that this takes place six years before Sins & Needles. As such, it doesn’t contain any spoilers for those who haven’t read Sins & Needles…I’ve engineered On Every Street so that it could act like a standalone.
On Every Street — An Artists Trilogy Prequel Novella #0.5 — coming March 12
(unpublished version, subject to change)
I’d been watching the man for almost a month now, the exotic man with the peridot-colored eyes. From a distance they’d always sparkled like the gemstones, but now that I was in the same room with him, I could see they had an amber tinge to them, rendering them almost reptilian.
That should have been my first warning, that this was all a horrible idea. It was too risky and I was too emotionally involved. But I felt I didn’t have a choice. The man with the yellow-green eyes was just feet away from me, representing the first step toward freedom. Vengeance was a terrible prison.
“Can I help you, miss sunshine?” the balding clerk at the counter asked, cutting into my thoughts. I tore my eyes away from the man, who was now sitting with a cup of tea in the corner, and looked at the clerk with an awkward smile. I felt a flush heat my cheeks, knowing I’d been caught staring. What had Gus taught me again? Never let your thoughts drift. Guess at the time I hadn’t known I’d be stalking a Latino heartthrob.
“Yes, sorry,” I replied dumbly. “Can I get a medium latte? Please?”
He nodded, flashing me a warm smile as I handed over the exact change. I stuffed a dollar into the tip jar, making sure he saw it before he started on my coffee. People in Mississippi were as friendly as they ever were, way friendlier than back in California. It felt like I was visiting the state for the first time, despite having lived here for a few years when I was a child. But I suppose life colors how you see the world, and the Mississippi I knew back then was completely black and white. Now there was a hue, that dangerous citron I could feel on my back.
I took in a deep breath and resisted the urge to turn around. Instead, I pulled up my long blonde hair that was sticking to my sweaty neck and glanced out the door of the coffee shop. My rusted Chevy truck was sitting just out of view. I wondered if I was getting too ahead of myself. I’d been following the man from his house to his, well, work, nearly every day, and there was a huge chance that he’d recognize me or my truck. I had been careful, remembering everything that Gus had drilled into my head, even remembering what my parents had once taught me, that there was no room for error in a con. But this was unlike any con I’d done in the last few months. This was the big one. This was the one that meant something. This meant having my life back.
I could still feel his eyes though, burning into me, like my back was as flammable as parchment paper. I had to remind myself it didn’t mean he knew. I was wearing my most ass-supporting jeans and a tissue-thin tank top that showed off my tan. My hair was naturally blonde, but I’d gotten a few layers cut in and champagne highlights added just the other day. My makeup was as natural as I could muster without being boring. I’d prepared for today because I wanted the man to stare at me. I wanted his attention because he sure as hell had mine.
The clerk handed over my coffee, and I took a quick sip before gathering my courage. This would go down a hell of a lot better with whisky in it. I slowly turned around and let my gaze do a sweep of the room, as if I was looking for somewhere to sit. The man was no longer staring at me—perhaps he never was—and was relaxing in the wicker chair, flipping through a magazine. He held his cup of tea in such a way that it exposed his large watch. Even from where I was standing, I knew the thing had probably cost a fortune. When I was younger my parents taught me how to spot the real ones from the fake ones. They’d also taught me how to steal them.
The man was the epitome of the word debonair. The watch, combined with his smooth linen shirt and clean, dark jeans, suggested understated elegance, a man from money. But his pose, the way he held himself, reminded me of a lion on his down time, relishing his relaxation, knowing he still ruled the land. I’d had such thoughts about him before, but now, up close, I could just feel the power vibrating off of him, filling the room.
I wasn’t the only one to notice this either. Men in the café shot him curious glances, as if they should know who he was, while the women timidly tucked their hair behind their ears, eyes darting to him and back again. I couldn’t blame them. The man wasn’t stereotypically handsome and yet you couldn’t stop staring at him. At least I couldn’t. And that was going to be a problem.
I spied a couple getting up from the couch nearest to him and took the opportunity. I walked slowly over, and gently, ever so casually, took my seat on the couch. I placed my coffee on the table that sat between us, taking a moment to let my eyes feast on him. He was so close now, just a couple of feet between us. I felt like I was at the zoo, the glass between me and the beast suddenly removed.
He was even more striking from this distance. His eyes moved back and forth as they scanned the page, sparking with intelligence, the color of budding leaves. His mouth was wide, twisted in a smirk, and his nose looked slightly too wide for his face and had obviously been broken a few times. His skin was golden and so smooth that I had to recalculate how old he was. Perhaps he was closer to my age than I had originally thought. Still, he didn’t look like any twenty-year-old. He didn’t look like anyone I’d ever seen before.
He brushed his shaggy dark hair behind his ears, his palm grazing his cheekbones, and I had the chance to look away. To not get caught gawking at him. To save myself. But I couldn’t help it. I was naïve and young and caught in the spark that would create the flames.
He looked up from his magazine and our eyes met. I’ve never believed in love at first sight. I barely believed in lust at first sight. I didn’t believe in anything except righting all the wrongs in my life. But at that moment, this man saw me. The real me underneath the bombshell mask. I felt like he must have seen everything.
And that’s who his smile was for. It reached through me and did something to my heart, to my lungs, to my nerves. It pulled at me, tugged somewhere deep inside, like a window shade being drawn open. It was dangerous to love that feeling, but I did.
“Hello,” he said, his Mexican accent light and melodic. His teeth were white, his smile captivating, and it took every brain cell to remember why I was there and what I was doing. And that my name was no longer Ellie Watt. It was Eden White. And I had a job to do.
I gave him a pretty smile and knew that damn flush was coming back on my cheeks. I had inexperience written all over my face.
“Hi,” I replied, leaning forward to pick up my coffee, hoping that he’d get a good look at my chest. I didn’t have the biggest breasts, but they looked downright perky in this top, and I was certain that I could poke his eyes out with my nipples. Thank god for air conditioning.
But his eyes never strayed from mine. Either this man had manners or he wasn’t into women. I’d never considered that scenario in the last couple of weeks. Perhaps my attempt to get to know him would backfire. What use was having womanly charms if he preferred them the cock variety?
“I’m Javier,” he said, extending his hand with the watch on it, the rich brown leather gleaming under the lights.
Javier. He now had a name. And from the way his eyes were still cutting into mine, how his grin lit up his face like he’d just won the lottery, I knew Javier wasn’t immune to women after all.
I ignored the butterflies in my core and placed my hand in his. His shake was strong and warm with confidence.
“I’m Eden,” I said, trying to feed off his self-assurance. I was Eden now. It had taken me a while to get used to my fake name, but now it was slipping on like fine silk. Maybe pretending to be someone else would be easier than I thought.
His thumb rubbed against my knuckle, softly and sweetly, before he let go of my hand. I fought the urge to bite my lip. The young schoolgirl shit probably wouldn’t jibe with him, even though that’s really all I was. I wasn’t in school, but around men I was as green as a young filly. And this man’s touch was igniting something in me that I’d never felt before.
“Nice to meet you, Eden,” he said smoothly. I watched his mouth as he talked, feeling a blanket of warmth coat me as he pronounced my new name. Shit. I was supposed to be seducing him, wasn’t I? Not the other way around.
“So what brings you here?” he asked, leaning forward on his knees, his hands clasped together.
I swallowed hard and raised my cup at him. “Coffee?” My heart began to beat louder, whooshing in my ears.
He smirked. “I can see that. It’s just that I’ve never seen you here before. I come here every day and I think I’d remember someone as beautiful as you.”
Oh, this Javier—he was good. It didn’t surprise me, considering the way I’d seen him acting at his “job.” Or, to put it better, the way his colleagues acted around him. I should have known he’d be a smooth operator with the ladies.
I quickly recalled my story. “I just moved to Ocean Springs and thought I’d check this place out. Seems to be one of the more popular coffee shops.”
The corner of his mouth twitched and his eyes narrowed deviously as he appraised what I said. I swear, my heart could have replaced the drummer for Slayer at that moment.
“Interesting,” he commented.
Interesting, I think I’ve seen you in your truck, sitting outside my boss’s house all day? Interesting, I think you’ve used a fake name? Interesting, I think you’re lying through your teeth? I was prepared for him to elaborate by saying any of those.
But he tilted his head, a small gold chain necklace nestled in his shirt collar catching my eye, and said with a lowered voice, “Do you believe in fate, Eden?”
Well that caught me off guard. Maybe that was his intention. I frowned and straightened up, unsure how to placate this strange animal.
“Sometimes I do,” I managed to say, trying to keep the breeziness in my voice.
“I think it was fate that brought you to me today,” he said. The hairs at the back of my neck stood straight up and I knew I couldn’t blame the air conditioning on that.
“You do?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
He nodded, cool and confident. He sat back in his chair and drummed his fingers on his leg, watching me so closely, too closely.
“I think you’ll look back at this in a few years and you’ll know what I know.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, forgetting everything I’d been planning to do, just so completely and utterly enthralled.
“You’ll have to find out for yourself. Better yet, I can get you started. This Friday.”
My face must have looked blank because he went on with a wry smile, “I’m going to take you out on a date.”
Shit. That was fast. That was easy. And extremely cocky of him.
“How do you know I don’t have a boyfriend?” I asked him, wondering if my singledom and virginhood was stamped all over me.
“Because I don’t believe in accidents,” he said, licking his lips. “But I do believe you’ll say yes.”
I had half a nerve to make my lie worse, to tell him I had a boyfriend and that I didn’t want to go out with him, a total stranger. But that would defeat the whole purpose of the long con, the reason I had sought him out. Besides, those lips and those eyes, that swagger in his lilting voice, was igniting a fire in me where I’d never been burning before.
I was doomed.
“Okay,” I said shyly. He gave me that prize-winning grin again and pulled out a business card from his full wallet, handing it to me.
I turned it over in my hands, feeling the grooved paper.
“Javier Bernal,” I read out loud. “Consultant.”
And that was it. Just his phone number.
“Who do you consult?” I asked, looking up at him.
I could have sworn his face went rigid for a second, but maybe because I was looking for it. Maybe because I knew he wasn’t a consultant. Maybe because I knew who he really was, part of a drug cartel, working as a henchman for one of the most powerful drug lords on the Gulf Coast. Maybe because I knew he had more secrets to hide than I did.
But he just shrugged and said, “People who need it.”
He got out of his chair with all the ease of a panther and tapped the card with a well-manicured finger. “Call me. Soon.”
Then he left the store, tossing his tea in the wastebasket without looking.
It took a good few minutes for me to calm down and get my heartbeat back to an acceptable level. Ever since I left California and came here, I knew what I had set out to do. I had prepared for it as much as I could. I was going to find Travis, the man who scarred me as a child when my parent’s scam went wrong. I was going to get to him by seducing someone close to him, someone who could get me in close. Then I was going to have my revenge, the only thing that had kept me going over the years.
It’s just when I choose Javier as my mark, I never thought my mark would choose me. Because that’s what Javier had just done. I wanted to win over his heart so I could get what I wanted. But I had a feeling he was about to get to my heart first.