Part #3 of The Enforcers series by Maya Banks
Hayley Winthrop walked morosely down the busy Manhattan sidewalk, her spirits sinking lower as she registered just how far she’d walked from her old apartment and the school of music in which she was enrolled part-time—for now. She glanced surreptitiously up at the sky and sighed, thinking the sudden cloud cover that had rolled in, marring what had been an otherwise spectacular spring day, was a direct reflection of her spirits. She hadn’t brought an umbrella because she hadn’t intended to venture this far in her search of a new place to stay, and, well, the forecast hadn’t called for rain. Just her luck. Bad, as always. Being an eternal optimist was beginning to wear on her as she’d been treated to dose after dose of cold, hard reality.
In a few days, she’d have nowhere to live, and she’d had no luck finding another place she could afford on her meager budget. She’d known when she’d fortuitously found an apartment to house-sit for that it wouldn’t be a permanent arrangement, but she had expected at least a few more months before being forced to move out. Unfortunately, the owners, a kindly elderly couple who were patrons of the music school that Hayley attended, had cut short their European tour because the wife had become ill and the husband wanted to bring her home to be attended by her own physician in the city.
They had been apologetic and had even offered their help in finding Hayley another suitable place to live, but it would be next to impossible to find something she could afford and she couldn’t—wouldn’t—accept any further help from them. They’d already been so kind to her, and the thought of taking advantage of their generosity made Hayley ill. She had pride. Perhaps more than was good for her, particularly given her desperate circumstances, but she was determined to make her own way and fulfill her promise to her dying father, the one she’d made him on his deathbed to pursue her dream of attending the prestigious school of music in New York City. A dream he thought he’d made possible for her by purchasing an insurance policy at exorbitant cost so that when he was gone, she would be provided for even when he was no longer alive to take care of her.
Tears stung her eyelids. Her father had had only the best of intentions, a pure and kind heart and so much pride in his only daughter, and he’d been taken in by a con artist who’d sold him a life insurance policy with more holes and exemptions in the nearly illegible fine print than a hunk of Swiss cheese. The only comfort she drew from the fact of his passing was that he would never know the shame and embarrassment of realizing that the money he couldn’t afford to spend was for absolutely nothing. The worthless piece of human trash had taken advantage of her father and had promised him that he was absolutely doing the right thing, all the while siphoning every penny of her father’s meager savings right from under his nose.
And while her father lay so sick in bed, dying a little more with each passing day, he’d exacted a promise from her that she would go to New York and pursue her dream of becoming a professional violinist, though she’d protested, telling him she refused to leave him and that they’d fight this. Together. She vowed never to leave his side and that nothing was more important than him fighting, overcoming and winning his battle. Then and only then would she pursue her dream. But not at the expense of his health and life. She’d work two, three jobs—whatever it took to give him the care he so desperately needed—but he wouldn’t hear of it. He adamantly refused, telling her that it was what her mother would have wanted and that he’d promised her mother when she too lay dying that he would ensure their little girl’s dream became a reality if it was the last thing he did.
In the end, she’d had no choice but to agree, though she’d hated the mere thought of moving to the city while her father had moved to hospice. She hadn’t wanted to be away from him, but he hadn’t wanted her to see him die, to continue to watch him waste away to nothing. Their final night together, he’d simply asked her to play for him, and so she’d stayed the entire night, playing her violin as he drifted between consciousness and unconsciousness, a smile on his face despite the crippling pain she knew he felt with every breath.
When morning came, she’d kissed his forehead, tears running freely down her face as she’d whispered her good-bye, and in a moment of rare strength and lucidity, he’d wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly to him, and told her in a gruff voice that he loved her and that she’d already made him proud, but now it was time for her to spread her wings and for her to pursue her dreams.
Two days after her arrival in New York City, her father’s nurse had called to tell her he’d passed away and that his last words had been of her, how proud he was that she was following her dream and that he could rest easy and finally join his beloved wife now that their daughter was finally taken care of.
She bit her lip, fighting back the tears of grief that threatened to fall. She cast a wary eye to the skies to see that the gray clouds had now covered all hints of the formerly sunny day, but as of yet, not a single drop of rain had fallen. Maybe her luck would hold. She needed to turn back. It was a long walk back to her apartment and whenever possible, she walked everywhere, saving every precious cent. The subway wasn’t exorbitant by any means, but she needed every penny.
Who was she kidding, spending days, hours, between her part-time school schedule and the many part-time and seasonal jobs she could pick up, pounding the pavement in search of an affordable apartment? There was no such thing as reasonable rent in Manhattan. And a roommate was out for her because the only time she had left to practice her beloved music was late in the night after she got off the late shift at one of her jobs, only stopping so she could get in a few precious hours of sleep before her early-morning classes the next day.
She was about to turn around and trudge back the way she’d come when she noticed a smaller building crammed between two imposing buildings, at least thirty floors high. It was obviously an apartment building, though modest, but surprisingly well-kept given its obvious age. It had five levels, perhaps six if there was a walk-out basement unit as so many buildings had.
There was no sign to indicate that there was a vacancy, but then most apartments—at least those in safer areas—had no need to advertise vacancies. They more often than not had waiting lists longer than both her arms. Oh well, what was the worst they could say that she hadn’t already heard? Either there were no vacancies, or if there had been, the rent was so high, even for the smallest studio apartment, that even working six jobs, she’d never afford the rent on her own.
Still, she hesitated outside the entrance with a sign above it indicating that the management office was inside, wondering how much more disappointment she could take in one day. But the fact that she only had three more days until she was homeless made her spine straighten. She sucked in a deep breath and pressed the bell, opening the door when it buzzed to enter.
Her gaze swept the empty lobby, her eyes widening in surprise. Despite the worn look of the exterior, the inside had an updated look that didn’t scream modern. It was warm and comfortable, a place where someone could immediately feel at home.
Don’t get your hopes up. You’ve been disappointed time and time again. Why would this time be any different?
When an older man appeared from the office just off the lobby, Hayley donned her most hopeful and warm smile but clenched her fingers together in front of her in an attempt to allay her hope and desperation.
* * *
Fresh from a shower, Silas sauntered through his living room, or command central as it was more appropriately deemed. Here he had a bird’s-eye view of not only his entire apartment building but the streets surrounding the block. After Evangeline, his partner and brother’s now-wife, had been abducted a few months earlier, he’d expanded his reach by installing street cams that extended well beyond the area immediately surrounding his domain.
He had slept past his usual time to wake, before dawn, because of a problem the night before that had taken him until well into the morning to handle. Thus, he was in a hurry to dress and report back to Drake that the issue had been taken care of. Something Drake would already know, but would want the details regardless.
He paused, coming to a complete halt when he caught sight of the monitor that gave him a view of the front office—and anyone who entered his building.
A young woman was standing in the small lobby, obviously nervous and ill at ease. Silas hurried to turn up the volume on the feed that recorded that area and took a seat, studying the woman more closely.
She was stunning. She had an arresting look that would make a man stop in his tracks and take a second and third look at her. Long, raven hair with startling blue eyes the color of the ocean at high noon on a cloudless day. And young. She looked far too young and innocent to even gain the notice of a man like Silas. He felt a hundred years old under the weight of all he’d seen and done in his lifetime just looking on the beautiful stranger.
“I-I was inquiring as to whether you had a vacant apartment for rent,” the woman asked hesitantly.
Silas wondered if she even realized that she wore desperation like a flag and that yearning hope glowed in her eyes.
“As it happens, we have a basement unit with a walkout to the street,” Miles, his property manager, said cheerfully. “It’s small, but utilities are included and we have very good security. And there aren’t any broker fees either.”
Silas watched as the woman held her breath, battling against the burst of hope threatening to bloom on her expressive face.
“When would it be available? And how much is it?” she blurted.
Silas watched as her face whitened at the amount specified, her shoulders sagged in defeat and any vestiges of hope leached from her eyes, leaving her looking utterly lost.
“I see,” she murmured. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time. It’s far more than I can afford, but thank you anyway. I’ll just be on my way. Again, my apologies for interrupting you.”
She handed Miles a small card, grimacing as if she realized the futility of her action.
“If . . . if you should have something less expensive come available, will you call me?”
She turned, like an aged woman instead of the vibrant young girl Silas had witnessed upon her arrival, and shuffled toward the door, head bowed. He thought he caught a glimmer of tears on one cheek as her profile was briefly presented when she opened the door to slip out onto the busy sidewalk.
Silas bolted from his chair, fists gripped into tight balls at his sides as he watched her walk slowly down the street, tears trickling down her pale cheeks. In that instant, he threw sanity and caution to the wind and yanked up his phone, punching the button that would immediately connect him to his manager.
Miles answered on the first ring.
“Yes, sir,” he said briskly. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“The woman who just left,” Silas said hoarsely. “Find her. Give her the apartment to the right of mine but tell her she won’t be able to move in until day after tomorrow. It will take that long to have the workers replace the wall dividing it from mine and to refurnish the apartment.”
“Pardon?” Miles asked in a shocked voice.
“You heard me,” Silas snarled. “Offer her a ridiculously low rent and let her know it comes fully furnished with utilities paid. Make up something. I don’t care. Tell her construction was finished ahead of schedule and you only just received notice that it would be ready for a tenant just after she left. Just make damn sure you find her.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir,” Miles stammered.
“And have my driver offer her a ride home. I’ll call him now.”
Hayley dodged the first few raindrops and then cursed under her breath as she glanced again at the ever-darkening sky. Yep. Perfect foil for the day she’d had. The week she’d had, for that matter. At least she’d had sense enough to leave her violin at home instead of bringing it with her in her urgent search for a place to live.
Knowing it would cost her precious money she didn’t have, she hurried in the direction of the nearest subway stop and dug into her pocket for enough to purchase a subway card to get home.
Her cell phone rang and for a moment she was tempted to ignore it, her focus more on getting out of the rain, but she’d left her number with every place she’d been to in her apartment search and couldn’t afford to assume it was nothing more than a telemarketer.
With a sigh and admonishing herself for allowing herself foolish hope, she pulled up her cell and uttered a polite greeting.
“Miss Winthrop, this is Miles Carver. You left here a few minutes ago where you inquired about an apartment.”
Hayley’s spirits plummeted.
“Yes, sir, I remember you, of course.”
“Hopefully I have good news for you, Miss Winthrop. You see, an upstairs unit has been undergoing renovation, and it was thought it wouldn’t be ready for another few weeks, which is why I didn’t mention it, but right after you left, the owner called and informed me that the apartment would be ready shortly. I called to see if you’d be interested.”
Hayley closed her eyes, disappointment keen. It was as if fate were taunting her with opportunities she in no way could take advantage of.
“It’s completely furnished and all utilities are included,” the manager hurried on to say. “But it wouldn’t be ready for you to move in until day after tomorrow. I hope that’s not too late for you.”
“No,” Hayley said gently. “That wouldn’t be a problem at all. The rent is the issue. I’m afraid it would be far more than I could afford.”
Then the manager stunned her by stating a ridiculously low sum for the monthly rent. Her mouth fell open in a gasp, and her heart started pounding so hard that her knees threatened to buckle. She was so rattled she had to ask him to repeat himself. Against her will, a pulse of hope began to beat a furious tempo in her head. Surely she couldn’t be this fortunate. Fully furnished, all utilities included and within her price range? It had to be a sick joke, or she was just imagining it all.
“It’s small,” the manager said. “Not quite as small as a studio but it does have one bedroom, an en suite bathroom, a small living room and a kitchenette.”
“I’ll take it,” Hayley said breathlessly.
There was a momentary silence. “You don’t want to come look at it first?”
“No,” she said firmly. “It sounds perfect. And I’ll be honest, Mr. Carver. I only have a few days remaining until I must move from where I currently reside, so as the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. Should I come right back to sign a lease?”
Again there was a pause, and then he said, “Yes, perhaps that’s best, unless you’re too far away now? It’s begun to rain and I could offer you a ride home after you’ve completed the paperwork.”
Hayley’s mouth dropped open at the generous, kind offer.
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly put you out like that. I’ll come by and fill out the paperwork, but there’s no need for you to give me a ride home.”
“I insist,” the manager said firmly.
Delight fizzed in her veins even as she started rushing back toward the small apartment building.
“I’ll be there in five,” she said breathlessly.
Four minutes and a quick buzz of the door later, Hayley burst into the lobby, her cheeks flushed, her hair plastered wetly to the sides of her head. Her clothing was soaked through, but at the moment nothing could dim her excitement. Finally, one less worry on her shoulders. She had a place to live! One where she wasn’t dependent on the kindness or charity of others.
The manager frowned when he took in her appearance and left the lobby only to return a moment later with a large, warm towel.
“Come into my office. It’s warmer and more comfortable there,” he directed.
“Here’s the application for the apartment you’ll need to fill out, and then two copies of the lease to sign. You’ll find it’s straightforward. It’s a standard one-year lease, and there is a guarantee that the current rate will not go up for the next five years upon renewal of this lease. No pets without the express written consent of the owner. No subletting and you are to be the sole occupant of the apartment.”
Hayley nodded her head eagerly, thrilled that she must have unknowingly lucked into one of the city’s highly coveted rent-controlled apartments—no wonder the rent was so low!—and began reading over the language in the contract. As Mr. Carver had stated, it was straightforward. No fine print. No tricky language. Just a basic agreement with the rules she was to follow and a place for her signature.
“If you’ll come by in the morning day after tomorrow, I’ll give you the keys and show you the apartment as well as give you your copy of the signed lease. You can begin moving in any time you wish after that.”
Hayley rose. “I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Carver. You have no idea what a godsend this is. I had no idea what I was going to do if I couldn’t find a place to stay.”
The manager looked discomfited by her gratitude, his face reddening.
“I’ll just be on my way now,” Hayley said. “I’ll need to start packing!”
“I’ll escort you to the car waiting out front,” Mr. Carver said. “If you’ll give the driver your address, he will see you home. It’s pouring outside, and getting a taxi will be impossible.”
Hayley flushed. “That isn’t necessary. Truly. You’ve been far too kind as it is.”
“On the contrary. The owner of the apartment insists.”
Puzzled by his cryptic statement, Hayley allowed herself to be escorted outside and into a sleek, very expensive car that she didn’t recognize the make of. As she slid inside, she nearly sighed at the buttery-soft leather as her body sank into its welcoming softness.
* * *
Silas downloaded the e-mail attachment sent to him by his manager and waited impatiently for the woman’s application to finish printing. As soon as it was done, he snatched it up, temporarily shoving his pressing meeting with Drake to the back of his mind. He sank into his office chair and began scanning the form, absorbing every piece of information on the young woman who’d so inexplicably captivated him from the moment she’d appeared on his security monitor.
His lips twitched in ironic amusement. It wasn’t lost on him that a similar thing had happened to Drake months ago when Evangeline had caught his attention the moment she’d entered his club and he’d seen her on the surveillance camera. The difference, however, was that Silas didn’t believe in love at first sight. Fascination, yes. Love, infatuation, even emotional interest, no.
He couldn’t say why she’d intrigued him so much or why her obvious distress and desperation had touched a part of his black soul that had never once touched the sun in all the years of his existence. He could only say that the feeling was . . . exhilarating. A rush he hadn’t expected and hadn’t welcomed at all. And yet he had been unable to deny himself the opportunity to observe her unnoticed. He’d taken in every single detail. Her beauty hadn’t escaped him, but what had stopped him in his tracks and made him take intense notice was the innocence and obvious, inherent goodness that shone from the depths of her soul, despite her weary, exhausted expression and the defeated look tugging at the delicate features of her face.
Perhaps he was just getting old and growing too soft, or maybe Evangeline was to blame for his instant keen sense of protectiveness when he’d laid eyes on the girl. No, not girl. A young woman, but hardly a girl. But it was easy to look at her and see Evangeline. Young, innocent and as of yet unjaded by life. For all practical purposes she had been Evangeline before Drake had swept into Evangeline’s life and spoiled her and lavished attention and focus on her.
Hayley Winthrop was twenty-two years old according to the application, and she was a student at a music college he recognized. Small but prestigious. From what he knew, admittance was extremely competitive and only the brightest, most gifted musicians were accepted. He frowned, however, when he saw that she’d listed herself as a part-time student but that she had two full-time jobs as well as a variety of other temporary jobs. No wonder she’d been dismayed when Miles had given her the price of rent for the vacant studio apartment. She had no way of affording it.
She listed no family. Not even an emergency contact person. Was she completely alone in a strange city? Much as Evangeline had been? He shook his head. Yes, it had to be the parallels between her and Evangeline that had touched a part of his heart he would have sworn hadn’t existed before meeting Evangeline. That was the only reasonable explanation.
Men like him certainly didn’t give in to infatuation or even fascination, and they definitely didn’t disrupt plans to renovate the entire upstairs into one huge apartment that would be his private domain where no one save him had access.
He sighed. It was done and there was no going back. He didn’t want neighbors. He’d never rented out the two apartments lying vacant on either side of the one he resided in, having always planned to remodel it into his quarters. But he couldn’t in good conscience rescind his offer to Hayley. Not when she was so obviously in need and had been so devastated when she’d realized she had no way of affording the usual rent. He could have simply had Miles inform Miss Winthrop that he’d misquoted the rent on the basement studio apartment, so she’d be as far from him as possible, but there were two problems with that. She would likely be suspicious over the drastic change in rent on the already-quoted unit, and, well, she wouldn’t be next door to him, where he could monitor her comings and goings, and he knew he would be keeping a very close eye on his new neighbor.
He would just have to do so very discreetly.
He checked his watch with a soft curse, knowing Drake would be wondering where the hell he was and impatient to go over the results of Silas’s task the night before. It wouldn’t do to keep him waiting any longer.
Hayley sank further into the heated seat of the luxurious car as they sailed through traffic, and she smiled, unable to believe her good fortune. How fast things changed and how quickly she’d gone from desperation and resignation to excitement and optimism about her future.
Tears glittered and clung to her eyelashes.
Kept by Maya Banks / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on45 votes