While waiting for the bus, Andrea Ngo—Andi—had plenty of time to consider that answering an Overnight Help Wanted ad online may not have been the world’s best idea. But it wasn’t like her student loans were going to pay themselves; she was already working nights at the county hospital—and then there was the whole thing with her idiot brother’s bail. Danny had gotten into stupid situations before, but she never thought he’d run out on her, miss his court date, and leave her stuck with a ten-thousand-dollar bail bond.
So, what was another shift or two? Who needed sleep anyhow? Sleep was definitely overrated. She took a pair of thick black plastic framed glasses out of her coat pocket and put them on. She had perfect vision, but she knew from experience glasses on Asian girls made people think she was either super smart or super sheltered—both of which had worked in her favor before.
The bus came, picked her up, and deposited her as far as it would go across town, at the bus stop outside the Briars Country Club. Its ominously-thorned, wrought iron gate made her glad she knew when her last tetanus shot was. She pulled out her phone to text the mysterious number that said she’d gotten the job in the first place.
I’m here, she texted. Five minutes early, no less. She took off her glasses, which turned out to be quite dirty from underuse and fogged them with her breath to wipe them down. She’d never been this close to the BCC before—there was never any point when she was most definitely not, nor would ever be, a member.
But working at her glasses stopped her from staring at her phone. The person who’d given her the number when she’d gotten the job had claimed to be Damian Blackwood’s secretary. Andi found that hard to believe. What on earth would Damian Blackwood need a private nurse for one night for? Or—perhaps the better questions—for whom?
She’d talked to an ambulance transport nurse once who’d gotten paid for an entire day to follow around a Saudi prince in his rig. So she might be getting paid just to watch someone breathe, barring an assassination attempt, which sounded lucrative and exciting.
But she’d never get to tell anyone about it—not even her roommate Sammy—because they’d made her sign a nondisclosure agreement. And then the text that had told her when to be here had made it clear that this assignment was “no questions asked.”
Which would be hard because questions were like, her thing. Had to be. Because secrets could kill you—asking questions saved lives.
Andi ran an aggressive thumbnail over the left glasses lens, trying to scrape off a streak, and found a scratch too deep to ignore. She should’ve tried these on at home and brought one of her other half-dozen pairs. She sighed and pocketed them, returning to her phone to check the time.
And now they—whoever they were—were late.
Maybe this was all just an elaborate hoax. She crossed her arms in the dark, turning her back on the gates and the mansions behind them. She hated thinking like that because she knew the slightly paranoid anxiety that made her an excellent nurse was a double-edged sword when it came to life-coping skills.
But it’d stopped her from getting into the Subaru STI that Danny’d “borrowed” from a friend the last time she’d seen him—which stopped her from getting her prints in his freshly stolen car.
Andi checked the time again then jumped as the heavy gates behind her began to fold in on themselves, thorns disappearing like at the end of Sleeping Beauty. An all-black car—in a make she didn’t recognize—pulled up. But she realized it was for her as it parked and a driver in a suit emerged.
He was…breathtaking. A Caucasian man with black hair, strong nose and chin, full lips, and piercing light brown eyes that appeared almost golden. The crisp black suit made him look sharp, but he didn’t need it—which led to thinking about what he might look like without it, which was not appropriate right now, but Andi couldn’t help herself. He was injuriously handsome—the kind of hot you’d do a double take for and wind up getting hit by an oncoming bus you hadn’t noticed—and hot enough that there was no way he didn’t know it. She more than knew his type, and she steeled herself to give him no response.
“Miss Ngo?” he asked as he opened the passenger door for her.
“Just Andi,” she corrected him, getting into the back seat and scooting over. He took a moment to stare at her, and she felt a low-hipped thump of desire, which she concealed with a tight smile.
“Of course,” he agreed, giving her a slight nod and a much warmer smile as he closed her door. He took the driver’s seat again and looped the black car around to pull back behind the gates of the Briars like a tide.
She had no idea what kind of car she was in, but she had a feeling that Danny would lust for it. The interior leather felt buttery, and the drive was certainly a lot smoother than the city bus.
Too bad the whole “having a driver” thing made her uncomfortable. Admittedly, she couldn’t drive, so she really did need one, but her last boyfriend hadn’t even opened her door for her on their first date. And Josh had definitely not looked like that.
Andi-girl, you need to have fun and get out more. She could hear Eumie gently chastising her in her head, and right after that, her roommate Sammy, adding, And you need to get laid.
She was willing to admit that both those things might be true—but nothing like that would happen tonight.
“So, we’re going to Blackwood’s estate?” she asked the driver, trying to make innocent conversation as the car rose in the hills. She glanced up at the rearview—waiting for him to respond—and realized the defiant blue streak in her black hair was showing. Shit, shit, shit – she hadn’t gotten into nurse mode yet, but it was time. Her hands reached up and wound her hair into a practiced bun that hid the color.
“We are indeed,” said the driver, not taking his eyes off the road.
“Do you know who I’ll be taking care of?”
This made him look back at her in the rear view, brow lifted in bemusement. “Someone who needs your help—clearly.”
Andi groaned on the inside. “That’s a little vague.”
“Would you prefer to hear that I’m not at liberty to say?” His tone was clearly teasing.
“No, not really.” Andi rolled her eyes. Once again, hot did not equal charming. “So, what’s he like?”
“Who?” the driver asked, overly oblivious.
“You know who; come on,” she said, leaning forward in the car to talk to him between the front seats. “Damian.”
She’d googled him, obviously, but that hadn’t told her much. The Blackwoods were old money, rode over on the Mayflower-style: stocks, yachts, islands. But it seemed like no one had taken a picture of the man since he turned thirty—twenty years ago.
“And what makes you think he’d be involved with the hiring of temporary staff?” the driver asked, twisting to smirk back at her.
So much for blue-collar solidarity. Andi sank back into her seat and loosened her scarf. “Right. So, is there anything you can tell me about this gig? Or do you just do as he says, ‘no questions asked’?” she said in a tone of voice that mocked the text she’d gotten.
“Hmmmm. Asking too many questions of the Blackwoods is generally a bad policy,” he said in a cautionary tone. “Or of anyone, really.”
“Too bad that’s like half my job,” Andi muttered beneath her breath, then more loudly said, “No questions, huh? Sounds like a great person to work for.”
The car took a swooping right turn. “Just do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine.”
“Yes, of course,” she clipped. Good help didn’t gossip—and that was all she’d be. She wasn’t getting paid to be curious. The driver swung left without turning on his turn signal, and she swayed with the car.
The road rose as it curved, zigging and zagging up the side of a hill. She twisted to look behind her and caught a view of the city below, all lit up like a rippled sheet of gold. It was so unexpectedly beautiful she gasped—and then it felt like she’d been stabbed. In her chest. Right below her heart. She pressed a hand beneath her breast, trying to figure out what was wrong with her and if she should confide it to this strange man, but then the pain was combined with the strange impression that she should run back down to the city lights below where she knew that she’d be safe—from what, though?—as prickling terror rushed over her entire body like ice cold water.
“Are you all right?” the driver asked, glancing back at her in the rearview, his voice serious for the first time since she’d met him.
“Yes,” she said defiantly, even though she still felt like she was being stabbed—by fear itself. Her heart was hammering so fast, like the time she’d been chased by the cops because of her dumb brother or the time she’d been mugged—but she’d never felt such an intense urge to run-run-run.
She double-blinked and forced herself to breathe, looking out the window at the city’s golden streetlight tapestry. It swept out like wings to encompass the hills on both sides, and from somewhere in the depths of her childhood memories, her Auntie Kim’s voice burbled up: There are dragons in this world.
“Miss Ngo?” There was a note of concern in the driver’s voice that hadn’t been there earlier.
Why on earth did she think about Grand Auntie Kim? It had been years since she’d seen the old woman who had taken care of her as a child during the summer, who’d told her and Danny stories of dragons after their dad had walked out on them and their mother had had to work. Andi inhaled deeply and shook her head. Whatever this is, you are bigger than it. You have handled worse. You’re going to be fine.
Or, said a darker part of her mind, you’re having a heart attack at a freakishly young age, and in about three seconds, you should ask Mr. Handsome here to call 911.
“Andi?” the driver pressed.
“Do you know CPR?” Andi asked, half-joking, half-not—then the sense of terror lifted just as fast as it’d come on. “Oh my God,” she whispered to herself, sinking back into the car’s luxury leather interior. “Okay. Never mind. I’m fine. Honest.”
His eyes narrowed at her in the rearview. A flash of anger? That was on him, not her.
“Don’t worry,” he growled, suddenly a much darker man. “You’re allowed to be here.”
What an odd turn of phrase.
She would’ve asked him why he’d said it quite like that, but she was too happy to not feel like she was dying anymore. The car swung around again, and the pavement turned to cobblestones as they pulled through a final gate.
The driver slowed and parked in the roundabout, right in front of the mansion’s huge church-like doors, and she quickly got out to breathe fresh air before he could come around and release her. She leaned against the car and looked up.
Compared to any place Andi’d ever lived—or ever seen—the house was utterly ridiculous. It wasn’t a house so much as a castle, and it had the kind of turrets that you expected to see archers peeking out from—although, in this day and age, and with Blackwood-level money, machine guns seemed more apt. Stained glass windows dotted the upper floors, some glowing with light, while ivy grew aggressively up the lower ones, crawling out of a garden that could best be described as feral. A huge circular fountain behind her had a dragon head on top of it shooting out water instead of smoke.
The driver walked around her and opened up the front door, and light beamed from somewhere inside as he gestured for her. “Ready?”
Andi forced a lightness she didn’t feel into her voice and expression, plastering on a smile so sweet it was giving her cavities. “As I’ll ever be!”
Swallowing for strength, she walked behind him indoors. They were together in a vast entryway that had three sets of stairs, wide ones arching toward the right and left wings of the house, and an odd spiral staircase that shot straight up. Her eyes followed it to a circular door in the ceiling, two floors up. A belfry? Some kind of service hatch? Her guesses were interrupted by the driver reaching for her, and she stepped back quickly without thinking. “I-I didn’t catch your name?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
She stared at his open hand and then looked to him. The corners of his lips were turned upward, teasing her, and it felt like her heart stopped beating for a moment. Dammit. Was he taunting or flirting with her? Was he so hot he just assumed he’d get his way? Or was he so used to hanging out with rich people he thought he was one, just like when clerks were rude to you for no reason in fancy stores?
He cleared his throat and lifted his hand slightly. “Would you like me to take your coat, or do you prefer to wear it while nursing?”
She had a sudden urge to meet him late at night in a pool hall and see how much she could take him for, but she took off her coat and handed it over. “You’re assuming I’ll get the job.”
He shrugged. “I’m assuming you’re competent. But I’ve been wrong before.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. It-Doesn’t-Matter,” she said. Why wouldn’t he give her his name? Her roommate Sammy was convinced that answering an ‘Overnight Help Wanted’ ad online was Andi’s beginning of a true-life crime show on Investigation Discovery—and maybe she was right. Maybe Mr. No-Name was a felon or something? Something he’d have in common with Danny if she couldn’t talk her Uncle Lee into getting her brother an expensive lawyer. She squinted at the driver. His reluctance to tell her his name only made her want to know more.
He resisted her dig. “And your phone?” he asked. She handed it over, much more reluctantly. “You did sign an NDA,” he reminded her, as he put it in his pocket.
“But what if there’s an emergency?”
“We’ll give you a spare.”
A spare phone wasn’t the same thing as her phone, but she tried to shake it off.
He glanced at his watch, and his expression became serious. “If you’ll follow me,” he said, and then started walking without looking back to make sure she did so. She almost had to trot after him. He was so much taller than she was—at least six-three to her five-nothing—and he was apparently in a hurry. Then again, maybe she was relieving someone else—another hired hand—who needed to leave quickly.
At least chasing after him let her see his ass. His suit was particularly well cut around him, not leaving much to the imagination—not when your imagination was as good as hers. He surprised her by stopping and turning back around, as though he’d known she was looking. She stopped, too, like they were playing a game of red-light green-light.
“Coming?” he asked, waving her up.
“I’m trying to, sheesh,” she said, striding forward, almost out of breath.
“Come a little faster, then,” he encouraged her. His eyes narrowed briefly, and she knew he knew exactly what he’d said to her as he turned back around. She wasn’t sure if she should be irritated or ever-so-slightly pleased—her brain said the first, while her body said the latter.
Shut up, body. Andi always ended up falling for the broken, temperamental types. There was something alluring about trying to fix things—and people. But she knew better now, after several exes, and tried to get all of that out at work, where people actually did need fixing.
They practically raced through a living room, appointed with a mix of plush couches in old and modern styles, statuary of all kinds, two fireplaces on either end big enough to roast a bear in, and vases filled with flowers almost halfway to the cavernous ceiling. Past that was a dining room with a table elaborately set, too many chandeliers to count, and a long hall with many locked doors. She could tell they were locked because they were bolted from the outside—some with more than one bolt and the locks were exaggerated, even comical—like they were meant for the outside of pirate chests. She couldn’t help herself; she stopped in front of the last locked door and inhaled, a question on her lips.
“Mmm, mmm,” he said with a closed mouth, mockingly as if she were a naughty child, then he had the nerve to turn and wink at her. “No questions, remember?”
Andi’s jaw clenched. She was so going to find out his name. But he started walking again without waiting for her—until they reached a final door.
“You’re late,” said a voice from inside the room. Damian himself? She straightened her shoulders and walked in.
No. The man who’d spoken was far too young to be Damian. While Mr. No-Name was so attractive as to almost be otherworldly, this new man was the pride of the Midwest, a golden boy through and through. Hair the color of rust, lightly tanned skin, and a build that said he could pick a girl—or several—up.
“Sorry. Someone didn’t open the gates.” Mr. No-Name’s voice was almost acidic, and Andi realized that this is who he’d been mad at in the car, not her. But why? All the gates she’d seen had opened.
It didn’t really matter though, because just past the homecoming king, Andi could finally see why she’d been brought here.
She could tell the room had once been a library, even though the shelves were mostly clear, and the only thing remaining to hint at its prior function were leather couches pushed to the side and the scent of old books. Now though, the place where the couches had surely been was occupied by a man in a hospital bed, surrounded by the accoutrements of the sick and infirm—oxygen tanks, monitors, IV pumps on IV poles, a chest tube, a feeding pump spinning like a spindle, and, impossibly out of place for her nursing experience thus far, a small Siamese cat lay curled at the end of the bed.
“I was a little busy,” the other man defended himself, gesturing at the bedridden man. Apparently, no one was concerned about the cat.
Mr. No-Name opened his mouth to say something, and Andi cut him off. “Well, I’m here now.” She walked up to the bed, blinking in the dim light. She thought she recognized him, from grainy newspaper photos. “Is this…Mr. Blackwood?” It looked like him. A little.
Mr. No-Name came to stand beside her. “It doesn’t matter who he is. Can you keep him alive for eight hours?”
She tilted her head to look up at him. “Maybe—if you tell me what’s wrong with him, first.” What she could see of him was covered in splotchy bruises. There was an oxygen mask on his face, and Andi belatedly realized his tightly-restrained arms were both insanely muscled and covered in tattoos.
Definitely not Mr. Blackwood then—unless Mr. Blackwood was even more interesting than she’d assumed.
“He fell down the stairs,” said Mr. Midwest entirely unconvincingly. Andi looked over at him to ask for more information and caught him looking over her at Mr. No-Name, his face full of concern. “He’s starting to wake up. I don’t want the first face he sees to be a stranger.”
“Grimalkin’s here,” Mr. No-Name said, with a pointed look at the cat, and then he jerked his head toward the door. “I need you out with me tonight. You know why.” He held up a wrist and tapped on a watch that probably cost as much as the car he’d driven her in.
Drivers definitely didn’t make that kind of money.
Andi stopped herself from making a discomforted sound. She already knew from painful personal experience that rich people played weird games, and if it was more likely she’d get this job by pretending to be dumb, fine. It was only for one night, after all. The sooner she started working, the sooner she could make Danny’s bail, and then maybe all this would make sense—an emphasis on the maybe. “Look—can somebody here just give me a report?”
The man she was replacing dragged his gaze away from Mr. No-Name and started talking to her. At her, really.
She pulled out a pen and paper and wrote everything down, asking appropriate questions at appropriate times, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being partially shouted at and definitely judged. When he was through, she held up a hand. “Three things.”
“Go,” he allowed her.
“The cat?” She couldn’t help but ask.
The driver answered her. “He’s practically a family member. Presence nonnegotiable. Next?”
“Okay, then.” Weird-ass rich people. Andi shrugged and looked back at the patient. “So, why is he here? Why not a hospital?”
“In the city?” Mr. Midwest was incredulous.
“Yeah. Why not? There’re good hospitals there.”
“Hospitals aren’t safe,” Mr. Midwest stated—like that was a known fact.
Andi bit her lips, hard, to not say anything about his bizarre opinions. “All right, then,” she went on. “Third is, who are you? Medically, I mean.”
“His name’s Austin; he used to be a paramedic,” Mr. No-Name said for the man.
“And in the Marines,” Austin added.
She stuck her hand out, so Austin would have to shake it. “I’m Andi.”
“Ah. An Andi, not Andy,” Austin said, with slightly different emphasis, giving Mr. No-Name a glare.
“It’s not my fault your assumptions were sexist,” Mr. No-Name said, a slight grin flickering at the corner of his mouth. He looked meaningfully at his watch again, and Austin disappeared down a hall. “So. Eight hours?” Mr. No-Name asked her.
From Austin’s report, this patient mostly sounded like a wait-and-see. He was injured and unconscious, but there was no real reason he hadn’t woken up yet—other than possible brain damage. Which, yeah, made this whole level of secrecy, perhaps understandable? If you were the head of a household worth a fortune and someone got injured on your watch, you might need to keep their issues under wraps. She glanced at the patient’s vitals on the monitor, the level of urine in the foley, and the slowly draining chest tube. She could keep almost anyone alive for eight hours—at the hospital. But what would happen here if things went poorly? This situation was bizarre, and even though they were paying her a ton, she still had her license to think of. She glanced up and found Mr. No-Name watching her shamelessly—so shamelessly, she flushed.
Austin reappeared, pushing a crash cart before she could stutter out any words. “You know what to do with this?”
“Of course.” The presence of a crash cart allayed only some of her fears. “But…I’m not a doctor.”
“If he needs a doctor, just call me, and I’ll get one. My number’s preprogrammed.” Mr. No-Name handed her a phone as Austin went on.
“And who should I ask for?” she asked, trying not to sound curious in the least.
Mr. No-Name let out a snort as if to say, nice try. “I’ll know it’s you.”
Austin interrupted. “There’s more oxygen tanks against the wall. Just keep him comfortable until we get back.”
Andi looked between them. None of this made sense—not the cat, not this job, not this house, and definitely not these two extremely handsome, yet extremely odd men. “Where are you going anyhow?”
Mr. No-Name shook his head at her question. “Out. But we’ll return by dawn, and I promise you’ll be on the first bus back to the city. Okay?”
Mr. No-Name’s gaze pressed her, as Austin loomed.
She inhaled—to tell them how insane all this was and back out—but then she reminded herself that the only thing that needed to make sense was the fact that one night here would equal a month of her normal paycheck. She glanced at the patient and did her best to ping out with her inherent nurse-radar, honed by months of taking too many shifts, taking in his color, and the numbers on the screen. He was the most normal thing here, hands down. “Yeah, okay,” she said, deciding. She pulled out the phone she’d been given and waved it at Mr. No-Name. “I’ll call if anything happens; otherwise, I’ll see you in eight.”
“Good,” Mr. No-Name said and smiled at her—fully—for the first time all night. The sensation of his pleased attention on her was almost as bad as whatever had happened to her on the road here. She wanted to run away, but she found she couldn’t. She was struck—pierced—like she was a deer in headlights. He was just too much.
Then the cat leapt off the bed and wound around Mr. No-Name’s legs. He glanced down, and the moment was over. The spotlight had moved on. She sagged, caught herself, and hoped he hadn’t seen it. It didn’t seem like he had as he knelt down to knuckle the cat’s head softly.
The cat meowed at him, repeatedly, as if it had strong opinions, and Mr. No-Name gave it a dour look. “No, she didn’t bring anything for you,” he told the cat, and then looked back to her. “If you hear any sounds in the house, just ignore them. It’s an old house; it creaks a lot.” Austin coughed from the door, and Mr. No-Name headed toward him. Her audience was over. The men left, and the cat followed them.
Andi relaxed, then became embarrassed by how she’d felt. What was she, some kind of schoolgirl? You know better! Whoever she’d been in the moment he’d looked at her—stupidly happy, foolishly hopeful, and just a teensy bit terrified—it wasn’t the real her.
The real Andi was a nurse who knew what to do—every time, all of the time.
She went to the bed, unlooped her stethoscope from her neck, and started to assess her patient.