Dark Gold (Dark #3)


by Christine Feehan

Chapter One

"Joshua, this is a very important business meeting," Alexandria Houton cautioned her younger brother as she parked her beat-up Volkswagen in the large lot behind the restaurant. For a moment she rested her hand on his curly hair, looking down into his bright eyes. A rush of love instantly warmed her, pushing aside her fears and frustrations and her mouth curved into a smile. "You're so grown up, Josh, I don't know why I'm repeating myself. But this is my only chance at a dream position like this. You know we need this job, don't you?"

"Sure, Alex. Don't worry. I'll stay around back and play with my truck." He grinned at her, his beloved sister who had been his only parent since their mother and father died in a car accident before his second birthday.

"I'm sorry the baby-sitter flaked on us. She was - um, sick."

"Drunk, Alex," he corrected solemnly as he gathered up his backpack and toy.

"Where in the world did you hear such a thing?" she demanded, horrified that a six-year-old would know what drunk was. She slid from the car and carefully brushed off her one good suit. The outfit had cost a month's income, but Alexandria regarded it as a necessary investment. She looked far younger than her twenty-three years and desperately needed the edge a sophisticated, expensive suit could give her.

Josh hugged his favorite toy, a worn Tonka dump truck. "I heard you telling her to go home, that she wasn't fit to watch over me because she was drunk."

Alexandria had specifically told him to go to his room. Instead, he had lurked nearby to eavesdrop. He knew it was an invaluable way to pick up information Alexandria considered proper only for adults. Still, Alexandria found herself grinning at his mischievous upturned face.

"Big Ears, huh?"

He looked sheepish.

"It's okay, little buddy. We do better on our own, don't we?" She said it with far more confidence than she felt. They lived in a rat-trap, a boardinghouse patronized mainly by prostitutes, alcoholics, and drug users. Alexandria was terrified for Joshua's future. Everything depended on this meeting.

Thomas Ivan, the genius behind the top-selling, wildly imaginative video and computer games featuring vampires and demons, was looking for a new graphic designer. Ivan had graced the cover of nearly every magazine that counted. And he had been intrigued enough with her samples to request a meeting. Alexandria knew she was talented; now if only he wouldn't judge her on her youthful looks. She was competing with many more experienced designers.

Alexandria dragged her slim portfolio from the car and took Joshua's hand. "This might take a while. You have your snacks in your backpack, don't you?"

He nodded, silky curls bobbing across his forehead. Alexandria tightened her grip on his hand. Joshua was everything to her, her only family, her reason for fighting so hard to move to a better neighborhood, a better standard of living. Joshua was a bright, sensitive, compassionate child. Alexandria believed he deserved everything good that life had to offer, and she was determined to get it for him.

She led him across the restaurant's back acreage, graced with a grove of trees. A path led to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. "Don't go out to the cliffs, Joshua. The edges are dangerous. They can crumble right under your feet, or you could slip and fall."

"I know, you already told me." There was a hint of exasperation in his voice. "I know the rules, Alex."

"Henry is here tonight. He'll be looking out for you." Henry was an elderly homeless man from their neighborhood who often slept in the grove behind this restaurant. Alexandria had frequently given him food and loose change and, more important, respect, and in return, Henry kept an eye out to do her favors.

Alexandria waved to the thin, stooped man now hobbling toward them. "Hi, Henry. It's so nice of you to do this for me."

"You were lucky you ran into me at the market earlier. I was going to sleep under the bridge tonight." Henry looked around carefully with his faded blue eyes. "There's been some strange things happening hereabouts."

"Gang activity?" Alexandria asked anxiously. She didn't want Joshua exposed to the dangers or pressures of that kind of life.

Henry shook his head. "Nothing like that. Cops wouldn't allow that in these parts. That's why I sleep here. Fact is, they wouldn't let me stay if they knew about it."

"So what strange things have been happening around here?"

Joshua tugged at her skirt. "You're going to be late for your meeting, Alex. Henry and I'll be fine," he insisted, reading her distress. He settled himself under a canopy of trees, sitting cross-legged on a rock beside the faint path leading to the cliffs.

With creaking kneecaps, Henry sat down beside him. "Right. Go along, Alex." He waved a gnarled hand. "We'll just play with this fine truck, won't we, boy?"

Alexandria bit her lip, suddenly indecisive. Was it wrong to leave Joshua with just this worn-out, arthritic old man to look after him?

"Alex!" As if reading her concerns, Joshua glared at her, his manhood clearly affronted.

Alexandria sighed. Josh was far too old for his age, exposed to such a sordid life. Unfortunately, he was also right: this meeting was important. After all, it was for his future. "Thanks, Henry. I owe you for this. I need this job." Alexandria bent to kiss Joshua. "I love you, little buddy. Be safe."

"I love you, Alex," he echoed. "Be safe."

The familiar words comforted her as she made her way back through the cypress trees and around the kitchen to the steps leading to the balcony overhanging the cliffs. This restaurant was famous for its view of the crashing waves below. Wind tugged at her hair pulled into a chignon, spraying salt and droplets of sea foam. Alexandria paused at the intricately carved door, took a deep breath, raised her chin, and moved inside with an air of confidence her churning stomach belied.

Soft music, crystal chandeliers, and a jungle of beautiful plants gave the illusion of stepping into another world. The room was divided into private little nooks, its huge, flickering fireplace giving each recess a warm, intimate feel.

Alexandria flashed the maitre d' a smile. "I'm meeting Mr. Ivan. Has he arrived yet?"

"Right this way," the man said with an approving look.

Thomas Ivan choked on his Scotch as the beautiful Alexandria Houton approached his table. He often brought his dates to this cozy restaurant, but this young woman was a decided improvement. She was on the short side, slender, but with full curves and fantastic legs. Her large sapphire eyes were fringed with dark lashes, her mouth lush and sexy. Her golden hair was twisted into a severe chignon that emphasized her classic bone structure and high cheekbones. Heads turned to follow her progress. She didn't appear aware of the havoc she was creating, but the maitre d' seemed to be escorting royalty. There was definitely something special about this woman.

Thomas coughed to clear his throat and find his voice. He rose to his feet, shook her extended hand, and privately gloated at his good fortune. This gorgeous young creature needed him. A good fifteen years her senior, with money, influence, and fame, he could make or break her career. And he meant to exploit every pleasurable possibility of that very favorable position.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ivan," she said softly. Her melodious voice played over his skin like the touch of silken fingertips.

"Indeed." Thomas held her hand a moment longer than necessary. The sweet innocence in her eyes made her natural sexiness all the more provocative. He wanted her fiercely and set his mind to having her.

Alexandria kept her hands clasped together in her lap so their trembling would not betray her nervousness. She couldn't believe she was actually sitting with such a brilliant man as Thomas Ivan. Even more, being considered as the artist for his next project. It was the chance of a lifetime. When he remained silent, studying her intently, she searched for something polite and fairly intelligent to say. "This is a beautiful restaurant. Do you come here often?"

Thomas felt his heart leap. She was interested in him as a man! Why else would she make the inquiry? She might look cool and untouched, even faintly haughty, but she was fishing for information about his personal relationships. He lifted one eyebrow and gave her his carefully cultivated smile, the one that always took their breath away. "It's my favorite restaurant."

Alexandria didn't like the suddenly smug look in his eyes, but she smiled anyway. "I brought some sketches with me. Samples of ideas, drawings of the story line you suggested for your next game. I see so clearly in my mind what you're describing. I know you've been using Don Michaels for Nighthawks. He's very good, but I don't think he captures exactly what you envision. I see so much more detail, so much more power." Under cover of the table, Alexandria twisted her fingers together but tried to remain outwardly composed.

Thomas was startled. She was absolutely right. Michaels was a big name, with a big ego to match, but he'd never fully understood Thomas's vision. However, Alexandria's obvious professionalism irritated him. She looked so cool and untouchable. She wanted to talk business. Women usually threw themselves at him.

Alexandria could see the annoyance gathering on Thomas Ivan's face. She dug her nails into her palms. What was wrong? Doubtless she was coming on too strong. A man with his rakish, debonair reputation probably preferred a more feminine approach. She needed this job; she certainly couldn't start right out making him angry. What harm was there in a light flirtation? Ivan was a wealthy, handsome bachelor, exactly the kind of man she should be attracted to. She sighed inwardly. She never seemed honestly attracted to anyone. For a while she'd put it down to the unsavory men in their neighborhood, to her many responsibilities with Joshua. Now she secretly thought she might be truly frigid. But she could fake it if she had to.

Thomas Ivan's next comment proved her right. "I don't think we should spoil our dinner with business talk, do you?" he said, flashing a charming smile.

Alexandria blinked away the image of a barracuda and allowed a soft, flirty smile to curve her mouth. It was going to be a long evening. She shook her head when he would have poured her a glass of wine and applied herself to her shrimp salad and the small talk that seemed to make her occasional dates happy. Ivan leaned toward her, frequently touching her hand to make a point.

She managed to escape once to check on Joshua. Under the sinking sun she found Joshua and Henry playing blackjack with a battered deck of cards.

Henry grinned up at her, thankfully took the food she had managed to smuggle out, and waved her off.

"We're doing fine, Alex. Go get that job you want so much," he instructed.

"Are you teaching Josh to gamble?" she demanded with a mock-severe frown. Both culprits laughed mischievously, and it was all Alexandria could do not to hug Joshua close. "Henry says I could probably support you with this game, cuz I always win," Joshua told her proudly. "He says then you wouldn't ever have to pretty up to a no-good hound dog again."

Alexandria bit her lip to hide both her amusement and her overwhelming affection. "Well, until you're a full-fledged card sharp, I'll see to our support. So I'd better get back inside. If you guys get cold, there's a blanket in the trunk." She handed the car keys to Joshua. "Take good care of these. If you lose them, we'll be sleeping out here with Henry."

"Cool!" Joshua replied, his blue eyes dancing.

"Very cool. Cold, in fact," Alexandria warned. "Be careful. I'll be as quick as I can, but this man is not very cooperative. I think he thinks he's might score big tonight." She made a face.

Henry shook a gnarled fist. "He gives you any trouble, you send him my way."

"Thanks, Henry. You two boys behave while I'm working." Alexandria turned and began to make her way back toward the restaurant.