Ask and you shall receive! I got so many messages from readers wanting to know Zach and Shannon's story, I couldn't possibly leave everyone hanging. I had a lot of fun getting to know this couple, and for all of you who love Leah and Jagger, you'll be pleased to see they make a few appearances. (Haven't started The Escort Series yet? No worries–The Passion Project is a standalone story.)
The Passion Project releases on August 1 as soon as I have decided on a new eCommerce platform for sales (see the likes of eCommerce solutions from FastSpring and similar companies to see what I mean) but you can have a sneak peek of it now. Keep reading for the first three chapters!
I never had a real fucking job before. I only had a job fucking. Didn't exactly make me boss material.
But here I sat at my dining room table, pretending I knew what the hell I was doing. I should've been an actor instead of an escort, or taken the hint when Barry closed up shop on the agency I'd worked at for over a decade, and tried my hand at a new career. I suspected the two professions weren't that different, and I was a master of selling myself in fucked-up situations.
I couldn't let the guy who'd come for an interview know I was as nervous as he was. One of the first things I learned as an escort was that if I didn't have confidence, neither would my clients. But the most important thing was how to read body language. Words couldn't be trusted, but bodies couldn't lie. Both things had made me damn good at my old job, but neither taught me how to hire my first new employee.
“How about a beer, man?” My business, my rules. I got up and headed to the fridge. No matter what his answer was, I was having one.
His eyebrows shot up. “Yeah. A beer would be great.”
“Porter? Lager? Fuck the beer and go straight for the whiskey?” Now that I was in charge, I had to be prepared for every scenario.
“Porter. Don't bother with a glass.” He smirked, running his hand through his long, dark hair, like Jagger used to do.
“Good choice.” I opened the bottle and pushed it across the table at him, then took a swig from my beer. This guy was named Brandon, and through a friend of a friend, I found out he was interested in joining the agency. There was no resume or application I could have him fill out. Nothing to make this easier on either of us. “Why do you want to escort?” I asked.
Brandon jumped like my question was delivered via electric shock. He held the bottle close to his lips, but the beer didn't cover his discomfort. He took his time answering. I liked that. He wanted this job.
“I was awarded full custody of my daughter. I was on the road the last few years with my band. One might consider that an unpaid internship for this job.” He grinned before taking another sip. “Now I need something that keeps me a little closer to home. My priorities changed, and I have to find a way to support her, part time.”
“How old is she?”
His face brightened. “Four.” He picked up his phone, but then glanced at me and put it down. He'd probably been about to show off pictures, like any proud dad, but he didn't know who the fuck I was, besides the guy he was asking to hook him up with women willing to pay for sex-which didn't make me the best person to show off the kid to.
We'd have to earn each other's trust, but I liked that he had a daughter and that he was a single dad. I hoped it meant he'd treat our clients with respect. I'd been an escort for twelve years; these women taught me about life. It wasn't just fucking for money-and not because we had to bill ourselves as paid companions to keep the business quasi-legal. It was also watching someone come into their own and claim their independence, or making a dream come true. Sex was power, and the sooner people started using it for good instead of evil, the sooner the world would become a better place.
“You choose the days you want to work and how far you're willing to travel. Or you can stay in Miami and specify that you're not available for overnight jobs. The clients book you in increments of two hours. Typical appointment is four hours. Of course, the more you're available, the more money you make. I'll have a survey for you to fill out, as lame as that sounds, so put down what you're into and what your limits are. I'll give the same survey to the clients, to make sure I give them the best match.”
He didn't look like a guy who showed much restraint. He hadn't accepted the beer to be polite; he was drinking it. His hair fell to his chest, and when he pushed it back, metal shone on his ears. He had muscular, tattooed arms and an easy smile. He might be the answer to my prayers-an escort the ex-clients of my best friend, Jagger Holiday, would consider. I used to laugh about Jag's magic touch when he worked as an escort, but now the joke was on me. I needed a guy on the roster with the it factor, or my new agency was doomed.
It fucking stung that I wasn't that guy. I had to get over it. I knew what the necessary qualities were, and I'd do whatever I could to get the right people on board. We were a high-end escort service that satisfied our clients' needs, whatever those were.
“Think you're interested?” I had a good feeling about this guy.
Brandon took a sip of his beer and leaned back in his seat. “Yeah. I am.”
I wanted to cheer like he scored a touchdown, but I couldn't act like the fucking amateur that I was. “I'll run a background check and a credit check on you. You'll have to get tested, to make sure you're clean, before you start and once a month. I also have an NDA for you to sign. Not sure you heard what happened with the agency I used to be with.”
He scoffed. “Yeah. I did.”
Jagger knocked me on my ass in more ways than one. A scandal between him and his now baby mama shut down the company we worked for and sent our clients scattering. They were actresses, politicians, businesswomen, and wives. The whole fucking world didn't need to know what they did in their free time. That kind of trust didn't come back automatically. It was probably better that Jag stayed far away from this new business, wrapped in the security blanket of his happily ever after. A good escort wanted things. Jagger had it all.
“Then you know how important it is to stay discreet. So I should probably ask-how good are you at keeping secrets?”
Brandon set the empty beer bottle on the table, but he didn't let go of it right away. “I can do it.”
“But are you good at it?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“It doesn't matter how good you are at fucking, as long as-for those four hours or whatever-your client is the center of your universe.” That was kind of a lie, but he could learn the fucking part. The most important part was the trust. It took a certain kind of person to be good at that. “Whatever she wants, you do. She may literally put her life in your hands. It's your responsibility to keep her safe.”
“I won't let you down.”
Brandon got it. “You're willing to go forward with this?” I asked.
“Yeah. As fucked up as it sounds, it's the right opportunity at the right time.”
“I've been doing this for twelve years. Doesn't sound fucked up at all.” I was stoked to have this guy on board. He had the right balance of cockiness and humility, and something to keep his ass in line. Women would go crazy for him, and his little girl would want for nothing. “I'll get the paperwork over to you. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yeah.” Brandon leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk, eyebrow raised and lips pressed together.
I'd seen this look so many times, but it was usually from my clients. He was sizing me up. It didn't bother me; I had to prove myself to him as much as he did to me. I asked him to sell his body. I expected to have to explain a few things.
“Why are you an escort?” he asked.
I wasn't prepared for that question. I finished off my beer, pushing down a bullshit answer with every hard gulp. “Because I wasn't made for anything else.”
Brandon didn't blink, and I thought about handing him another beer. No. He had to make this decision with a clear mind.
“Are you in a relationship? You know-outside of the job?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Can it work?” he asked.
“Some guys try it.” Like Jagger, and here I was, digging myself out of the rubble. “And it never works.”
My grandma got me a good set of luggage when I graduated from college. She said I was going places, yet this was the first chance I'd had to use it.
I burst out laughing when the plane touched down in Miami. The passengers around me did a horrible job of sneaking some serious side-eye in my direction. I couldn't blame them. Everyone was on edge when it came to air travel these days. I was only twenty-six, but I'd let too much time slip by, doing what everyone else thought was best for me. So I left a job many people would sell a vital organ for, as an associate producer on Great Start Today, to help my embattled ex-boss make her dream of an interior design business blossom. I watched her build it once from nothing. She got knocked down, but not out. I owed a lot to Leah Godfrey.
She taught me that if I followed my passion, my dreams could come true. There was a ton of hard work waiting for me between the starting point and the finish line, but it was possible.
Until I met her, I did the worst thing possible-I settled. In college, I met the guy I thought was the answer to every question. When he proposed, I didn't even wait for him to finish the question. He could have said will you take out the trash, and I would have been on my way to the dumpster. I thought a solid foundation was all I needed to build my castle upon. Turns out we didn't want the same castle. A piece of me would always love him-he led me to Washington and then my job at Great Start-but ultimately, I loved myself more.
I had to stop looking to other people to solve my problems.
Leah put her arms around me when I met up with her at the baggage claim, and seeing her wasn't the only thing I was giddy about. Coming to Miami was an important step for me. Leaping before I looked wasn't so bad.
“I can't believe I'm here,” I said against her shoulder, wriggling my arm loose so I could wave to her fiancé, Jagger. The baby kicked me when Leah gave me a squeeze. “I'm ready to get to work.”
She laughed. “I'm not a slave driver. We've got a lot lined up. You might want to ease into it. I placed the order for Claire's house, but we're not expecting anything until next week. You've got some time to get to know Miami.”
Claire was the first client for Leah's new business, and Leah gave me a ton of responsibility. It had been exciting when we talked about it, but now the reality was terrifying. I came from the marketing world, not the art world. But Leah saw something in me and gave me the courage to try my hand at design. So much was riding on this job. Failure was not an option.
“We got some of your stuff delivered to the gallery.” Jagger took my carry-on bag from me. It had been dangling painfully from my forearm, and I was happy for the relief. My ancient laptop was on its last legs, and I probably shouldn't tell Leah I worked on her website the entire plane ride to Miami. Work was fun for me. A lot of people didn't understand that. “Are we expecting more? It was only a few boxes. We can pick them up and bring them to your new place,” he said.
“That's it.” I'd acquired embarrassingly little stuff since I struck out on my own. Everything belonged to my ex. He liked things a certain way. Blargh. So did I, but I refused to waste my time thinking about him when I was starting my life over in Miami. I'd be able to look out almost any window and see palm trees. It was impossible not to be happy. “I rented a short-term apartment until I get to know the city.”
It was my insurance plan, to satisfy that nagging voice inside that screamed for me to play it safe-that moving here was irresponsible and foolish, no matter what kind of opportunity was on the horizon. My new job came with no guarantees. I lied to my grandma when I told her about the move. She'd freak out if she knew I was working at a startup. I was a grown-ass woman, perfectly capable of making my own decisions, but she worried about me. She wanted me to go places, as long as they were safe and had a good benefit package.
I understood why Grandma was overprotective, and I'd worked my entire life to prove to her I wasn't my mother. It wasn't that hard. All I had to do was hold a steady job and spend most of the time sober.
“Smart.” Leah's voice brought me back from the tunnel vortex I'd fallen into, listening to my inner bitch. “And these few days off will give you a little time to explore the city.”
The baggage claim belt buzzed, and we all jumped.
Leah put her hand over her belly. Her baby bump was starting to show. “The baby didn't like that at all.”
Jagger grinned. “Karate chop to the bellybutton?”
Leah groaned, and she and I followed him over to the baggage carousel. “Yeah. I need to stop eating Wheaties. She's strong.”
“I love it,” he said.
“Because she's not kicking you.” Leah wrinkled her nose at him. “Shannon's got super cute, striped luggage with pink bows on the handle. One bag or two?”
“One.” I stepped closer to her. Everyone was anxious to get where they were going, and travelers jockeyed for position to get their stuff. “Are you sure there's nothing you need me to do? Paperwork, which I know you hate? Need me to clear out your email? Seriously. Put me to work.”
Leah and Jagger shared a glance. I didn't know Jagger well, but I'd worked closely enough with him to know that look said oh, shit. I wasn't second guessing my move, but I didn't want to start it off on the wrong foot.
“I could use her at the gallery,” he said before dipping into the crowd to grab my suitcase. I'd packed it to the absolute limit, and I would've been dragged down the belt behind it. He lifted it like it was empty. “It would free up a couple of days to find new properties to photograph.”
I wiggled my eyebrows at Leah. She was as in love with Jagger's talent as she was with the man. I listened to her gush about it, even when she didn't realize she was doing it. It was adorable. Someday I hoped to be that hopelessly, completely in love with someone. But only if they were as crazy about me. And not any time soon. Men hadn't done me any favors lately.
She put her hand on my shoulder as we headed to the garage, like she thought I might make a run for it. “I guess it's a good idea. I'm worried about you getting burned out, though.”
“Don't be. It will be totally different than what I do with you. And I want to make myself useful.” I gave her a cheesy grin.
“This isn't Great Start. They were experts at running people ragged. Don't get me wrong-we'll work our asses off. But on our terms. It's weird, working for yourself. At first, I kept waiting for someone to tell me what to do. It took me a minute to realize I was that person.”
“I'm not working for myself. I'm working for you.” The sunshine felt amazing. All airports looked the same, but once I stepped outside, there was no mistaking that everything had changed. And there were my palm trees.
Leah laughed. “You're already not listening to me. I told you to take a couple days off.”
“Wait a minute. Are you calling someone out for being a workaholic?” Jagger pointed at her, and then at me. “Because you shouldn't be giving anyone advice on how to relax.”
“It's a blessing to have a job you love.” She pushed his arm, then looked back to me. “Okay. You work at the gallery, starting tomorrow. Are you hungry?”
“We're taking you out to dinner. Our treat. What are you in the mood for?” she said. Jagger put my suitcase in the trunk, and Leah kissed his cheek.
“Something I can eat while looking at the ocean.”
Leah opened the passenger's side door and pushed the seat forward so I could climb in. She grabbed my arm. “Sold. I'm so excited you're here. It makes the dream a reality.”
Getting the hang of Miami wasn't as easy as I thought it would be.
Jagger's gallery was in Wynwood, the arts district of the city, and it got tons of foot traffic. It was sandwiched between a consignment shop and a Cuban restaurant. A couple other cafes and bars were visible through from the front window. The aromas that drifted into our space changed depending on the time of day, but were always heavenly. The longer I worked here, the fatter I was going to get. It wasn't an if I'd have to buy new pants; it was a when.
That was the other thing about Miami-everyone was beautiful. The art around here didn't only hang on the walls. It walked and talked and lived and breathed. And it intimidated the hell out of me. The last few months I spent working in New York City, I didn't pay much attention to myself, and it was painfully obvious in my new surroundings.
Appearances weren't everything, but I was about to launch my career in interior design. I'd be working with people with high standards for beauty. Leah didn't mess around, I noticed as I worked on filing invoices. She only had one client so far, but Claire wanted the absolute best. Leah relied on word of mouth to build her business, which would mean more people with expensive taste. My ponytail and worn-out sneakers weren't going to cut it.
I needed to up my game.
And so did Jagger.
The gallery got a lot of visitors. I struggled to talk to them about Jagger's art. But he did, too. He shot abandoned properties, which wasn't my aesthetic. I preferred colorful art, and he was all about the black and white. His face would light up when someone asked about the work and he could tell them all about the property's history, but he had a hard time closing the sale.
Leah pulled me aside on my first day of work. “He needs some help,” she said, shifting her gaze to him while he talked to a customer. “He's so talented, and he wanted this gallery so much, but it's not making any money. You're my marketing expert. Can you take a look through things and see if there's anything we're missing? I've encroached on the gallery, putting furniture in here, but I don't want to take over. But I had to do something. I'd hate for him to give up on his dream. We've got to turn a profit if we're going to keep the doors open.”
“I can do that.” For my dream to thrive, I couldn't let his die.
Leah was paying me out of her severance package, which shrank every day. My pay would increase once we had a steady clientele. Everything was on the line. I set up the social media portion of Leah's old design business, and that was my passion. I'd asked her if she wanted me to do that again, and she did. She suggested I set up affiliate accounts to supplement my income as we got started. I'd send Grandma the money I got from the online stuff, so things would be tight for a while.
“I'm headed out,” Jagger said once I got settled in that morning. “I heard about a property on one of the blogs I follow. It's an old bed-and-breakfast on the edge of the Everglades. A whole bunch of mid-century stuff. There's a huge market for that.”
He nodded toward the gallery. Leah had set up sitting areas around each installation, and she used a ton of mid-century pieces. It made sense, with the clean lines and bright colors of the city. Miami was too hot to be fussy.
“Have fun.” I fired up my laptop, twisting my ponytail around my wrist as I waited for it to start. It was one of those autopilot moves I did when I was lost in thought. I couldn't get rid of my ponytail, because I wouldn't be able to function.
Jagger put his motorcycle helmet under his arm. “Anything you need before I go?”
“Yeah. What's your website address? I've Googled this place six ways to Sunday, but nothing is coming up.” Except for the lawsuit a former client filed against Jagger when he was an escort. It caused the scandal that got him and Leah booted from Great Start Today. But it was like the gallery didn't exist.
“Don't have one.” His grin faded when I gaped at him. “Is that a bad thing?” he asked.
“Every business needs a website. If you do your SEO right, tourists will find the gallery when they're planning their trip to Wynwood. You could start a virtual storefront and sell your work online. You're leaving money on the table.”
“No doubt. But I have no idea how to do any of that stuff.” He clutched the helmet. “I take the pictures. I don't know what to do with them after that. Honestly, I never expected this place to pay the bills.”
“The good news is I do know how to do that stuff. Don't let what you don't know limit you.” Shit. I shouldn't have said that. I had a way of getting too excited about other people's projects. Leah was the only person who seemed to appreciate it. “Sorry.”
“Don't be. I need all the help I can get. Problem is I don't know what I don't know.”
I tingled all over with new project excitement. I wasn't sure how much of a market there was for Jagger's work, but there was no reason why the gallery couldn't turn a profit. “Let me play around, and I'll show you what I come up with.”
“Looking forward to it.” Jagger headed out the door. From the couple of days I'd been at the gallery, I picked up that he had a love-hate relationship with success. My job was to make success the sexy little minx he couldn't resist.
Without him here, all I could do was set up a hull of a site. I chose a black-and-white theme, minimalist and clean, not to take away from the main event-the art. I'd ask Leah for his bio, because getting it from Jagger would be like pulling teeth. He'd say something like, let the art tell them who I am. It didn't work like that. The gallery hosted an event called First Friday at the beginning of every month. It was invite only, and Leah told me they were using it as a way to get the art community to come see his work and make them feel like they were getting something exclusive. In a few days here, it seemed everyone in Miami liked to talk a big game, and if we wanted to succeed, we'd have to back ours up.
I wrote up a press release for First Friday-which I bet Jagger hadn't done-and stuck it on the page. He could pick the photos that accompanied it. Critical reviews were the last thing I had to get. From everything I knew about Jagger, he'd rather let the gallery fold than ask people to say nice things about his work, so I would do it for him.
None of the names stuck out to me when I looked over the invite list. They were probably important within their circles, but nobody had given a business email address. Jagger needed real street cred.
The rest of the afternoon was spent looking up local art critics and museums that focused on Jagger's brand of art. It was like learning a new language, and I couldn't afford to let anything get lost in translation.
I squeezed my eyes closed every time I hit send. I included the press release as well as a couple of my crappy cell phone pics of Jagger's work in each email, accompanied by a line about the website being under construction. Now there was nothing left to do but wait. I had no business barging into the art world, but Jagger hadn't done it yet, either. I prayed that overstepping my bounds paid off. It wasn't only Jagger's livelihood that depended on it. Mine did, too.
Jagger Holiday was all about appearances. He'd learned from the best. Me.
He came up with this event called First Friday-invite only. To make it special, he put out a tray of cheese and invited a guy to come play guitar. The first couple of months he hosted it, the sneaky bastard had me ask a bunch of our old clients to come, under the guise he might get back in the game. The ladies were willing to spend money on things they found beautiful. Either that, or they thought the fastest way back into Jagger's bed was through his photography. That door had been slammed shut, but one thing was clear-Jagger understood my clients better than I did.
I should stop giving him so much shit. His new business worked. Mine hadn't got off the ground yet. I didn't want to deal with the administrative and marketing bullshit. More like I had no idea what to do with it. I just wanted to get paid to fuck.
Something was different this month. There was never a line to get in the gallery before. I scanned the crowd outside and waved to Marianne, one of Jag's old regulars. She called me over.
“Jagger's doing so well,” she said when she kissed my cheek.
“He is. I didn't know you were into art.”
“I wasn't, until Jagger opened the gallery.” She gazed at the window, grinning at the full room like the people were there to see her son, not her former hired lover. “I'm here to support him.”
I didn't get one of the coveted invites. Big surprise there. If I didn't initiate contact with Jag lately, I didn't hear from him. I caught his eye for a second through the window, but he looked away. Shit. Leah saw me and glared. She had her hands all over Jagger, aware the room was crawling with women he'd had sex with. She had nothing to worry about. He talked to a couple I'd never seen before. There weren't many times I'd seen Jag get excited in the past decade, but his face glowed like they told him he won the lottery.
If he did, I was totally asking him for a loan to get the new agency off the ground. It was the least he could do.
A cute girl with a long red ponytail was at the front door. Never seen her before, either. She was in her twenties, tiny black dress barely keeping her cleavage under wraps, and freckles blossoming over her skin. She opened each invite and checked it against the list on her clipboard. No wonder this was taking so long. She laughed a little too loudly at one of the people in line, wrapping her ponytail around her wrist as she glanced at the full gallery.
My dick strained against my jeans. The things I could do with that ponytail…
She hadn't turned anyone away yet. Which was good, because I hadn't been invited.
“Hi.” She smiled brightly at me. “Do you have your invitation?”
“I'm here to see Mr. Holiday.” That was what the person in front of me had called him. “I can't even say it with a straight face. I'm here for Jagger.”
Her smile wavered, and she glanced down at the clipboard. “But you didn't get an invitation?”
“What's your name? Maybe he added you to the list. I thought I sent invitations to everyone. You should sign up for our mailing list, to make sure you get an invite to next month's event.”
“I've known Jagger for twelve years. I don't need to get on a mailing list to come to his party.” Apparently, he was doing better than I thought, if he hired this woman to make a mailing list and guard the door.
She did that thing again-wrapped her ponytail around her wrist. I'd love to see her hair down. It would reach her waist. And as if she knew she was torturing me, she gave it a good tug. My mouth watered.
“The line's getting backed up. I've got to let in the people with invitations.” She looked over my shoulder and gave the person behind me the same smile she'd given me. I wasn't special. Even worse, I'd been dismissed.
No way was I leaving. I stepped aside, running my hand over my hair, hoping it had the same effect on her like when she did it. But my hair was shorter, and she didn't care about anything but those damned invitations.
I tried to catch Jagger's eye again, but Leah was in his lap, and he didn't give one shit about me. I refused to give up. I had to get in there to talk to our old clients. Let them know I was back in business.
The redhead waved me over when the line died down. “Sorry. We're trying to make First Friday an exclusive event, so if I let everyone in, it defeats the purpose.”
“Who are you?” I looked her up and down, and she grabbed her hair, like it would protect her from me. “I've never seen you before, and suddenly, First Friday is a red-carpet soiree. Are you some sort of PR person?”
A flush spread over her cheeks, connecting the dots of her freckles. “Kind of. That's my specialty. I'm helping Jagger out.”
“Maybe I should hire you.”
She widened her eyes. “I'm not looking for a job, but maybe I could give you a few pointers.”
I could definitely give her a few pointers. My dick ached at the thought. “I'd like that.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I'm an escort.” There was no way she didn't know about Jag's old job. The lawsuit and the scandal had been in everyone's faces for weeks. He could play straight all he wanted in here, but I'd seen him do things to half this room that most people didn't dare dream about.
“Oh. Are you the one starting the new business?”
Didn't see that coming. I thought Jag had shoved me into a closet with the rest of his skeletons, now that he was a family man. “Yeah.”
“I can help you out.” But she still wasn't letting me into the damn party. “You're Zach, right?”
“Zach Collins. I'm afraid to ask what he's said about me.” I held out my hand, and she squeezed it. Her skin was soft and warm. This woman would be amazing to have on my team. She'd put new clients at ease, and if she could make Jag's event exclusive, I could only imagine what she could do for me. That is, if it was possible to do promotion for an escort service.
“All good things.” She glanced at the clipboard like she was giving me a second chance.
“You won't find my name anywhere on that list,” I said.
Her mouth opened in a sparkly, peach O. “Why not?”
“Because he hates me.”
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