Despite everything I've done for my parents, I'll never be good enough for them. Instead of seeing a man to be proud of, they just see an embarrassment. I served four tours in Afghanistan but that doesn't mean anything to them. They only see the ink, the party life, and my short stint in jail.
And nothing else.
When they were in trouble, I handed over my life savings. I didn't think twice about it because they're my family, my blood. They raised me to be my own man and gave me everything I needed. It didn't matter that it was every penny I had. It didn't matter that the money was set aside for my future. My dreams.
Because they needed me.
But now they refuse to pay me back until I become the man they think I should be.
I have an unusual professional.
I escort men, acting as their date to family functions or work parties. It's my job to act deeply in love with my client. And I always nail it.
But it's not what you think.
I'm not a prostitute.
I'm not a call girl.
I'm an actress.
Get it right.
I'm not a prostitute.
I'm not a call girl.
I'm an actress.
Get it right.
There are strict rules when it comes to my profession. There is no touching, kissing, or anything but hand-holding. Those who choose not to comply will get a swift kick in the nuts.
But all this goes to hell when Ash walks into my life.
INTO THE FIRE BY E.L. TODD-CHAPTER
Into the Fire Chapter Reveal:
I got to the coffee shop early and sipped my coffee.
I had so many of these meetings that they blurred together.
It was easy to forget names and faces. I knew this guy’s name was Ash, and apparently he was hot.
My clients were hardly ever cute. If they were, what would they need my services for? But I did enjoy my job because it was fulfilling. I helped people get through difficult times. I was even friends with some of them.
The door opened and a tall man walked inside. He wore dark jeans that hung low on his hips and a dark green t-shirt. He had wide shoulders that reminded me of a soldier, and his chest looked broad and powerful. He was more than just fit. He looked extremely athletic, like a marine or something.
He had dark brown hair and fair skin. His eyes were blue like the ocean, and they were endless in their depth.
Damn, he was hot.
His arms were covered in sleeves of tattoos. Instead of being all black ink, there were various colors. Green, orange, and blue were prominent colors, and they were highlighted under the fluorescent lights.
There was no way he was my client. That would be a dream come true.
He looked around the shop like he was searching for something—or someone.
I opened the folder and flipped through the pages until I found a copy of his driver’s license.
Shit, it was him.
There was no way he was straight. He must need me to pose as his girlfriend to his family or something. I’d done gigs like that before.
I stood up and gave him a quick wave. “Ash?”
His gaze focused on me, and those blue eyes seemed even brighter. Approval was in his look as he approached me. He carried himself like he owned the room and everyone in it. His appearance was intimidating. I’d never seen someone so beautiful in my life. The tattoos just made him a million times sexier.
Get a grip.
He approached me and extended his hand. “Ash.”
“Alessandra.” I took it, and my hand felt petite in comparison to his. The skin was warm but calloused like he used his hands all the time.
“That’s a hot name.”
“Thanks…” I’d never gotten a compliment like that so I was a little flustered. “Ash is cool too.” God, why did I say that?
He sat down, and his torso completely blocked the chair.
I was normally the confident one but now I was a little shaky. This guy was too beautiful to be true. He had to be gay. The hot ones were always gay. “So…how can I help you?”
He shrugged. “I need a girlfriend so my parents will get off my ass. That’s where you come in.”
“Are you gay?” Ugh, why did I ask it like that? It was so abrupt and harsh.
“No…” He narrowed his eyes on my face. “How the hell did I give you that impression? I checked out your rack the second I walked in the door. And when you turn around, I’m going to check out your ass.”
He did? I didn’t even notice. And a comment like that would normally result in a slap across the face. But he somehow pulled it off without sounding like a perverted sleazebag. “I just…” Think of something intelligent to say. “Guys like you don’t normally need to pay for a date…unless they’re gay and need a fake girlfriend.”
“Oh, I get it.” He leaned back in the chair and rested one hand on the table. “Nope. I’m definitely straight.” His eyes moved down to my chest before he looked me in the eye again. Then he winked.
I should feel violated but I didn’t. “Okay…what do you need me to do?”
“Just act like my girlfriend when I’m around my family. That’s it. Nothing complicated.”
“But why do you need me?”
He rolled his eyes like the question irritated him. “It’s a really long story, but basically my parents owe me money but they won’t give it to me unless I have a serious girlfriend.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I couldn’t agree more, sweetheart.”
“Why do they owe you money?”
“They have a software company and it took a bad turn when this competitor got big. My parents needed the cash for a prototype so I lent it to them. Five years later, I still haven’t gotten it back even though their company is making bank. They don’t approve of my lifestyle and my interests. I need the money to open up my own shop, but I can’t get a loan because my credit is terrible. So, I have to play by their rules or kiss my dream goodbye.”
That sounded complicated. “What kind of shop?”
He presented both of his arms. “Tattoo shop.” Every inch of his skin was covered with ink. There were different images, like a ladder that led to nowhere, song lyrics, and a Hawaiian flower. “My parents think I’m a worthless loser. And perhaps they’re right. But I don’t care. I need to get this shop open. I’m tired of working for someone else.”
I replayed his story in my head. “That’s just wrong.”
“What?” He returned his arms to his sides. “My ink?”
“No, that your parents are controlling. You helped them out when you didn’t have to and this is how they treat you?” I’d struggle to smile in their presence.
He rolled his eyes. “They’re lame. I know.”
“Why don’t you sue them?”
He chuckled. “That would cause more headaches. And money. They could afford a much better lawyer than I could. If I just play their stupid game, I’ll get my money. Then they can kiss my ass.”
“I’m still a little confused…how does a girlfriend change any of this?”
“They think if I have a serious woman in my life, it’ll change me. Because nothing they have said or done has made a difference, maybe a wife will.” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “I don’t understand their thought process. But whatever. The sooner I get this shit over with, the sooner I can move on.”
I’d had a lot of unusual clients but this seemed to be the strangest one. “Well, I can do that for you.”
“Great.” He drummed his fingers on the table like he was playing a song. He could hardly sit still and he talked a lot. It was like he had ADD. “So, we’ll go out to dinner with them and begin this stupid charade.”
“Whoa, hold on.”
He stopped drumming. “What?”
“You can’t just show up with a girlfriend that quickly.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Let’s get the ball rolling.” He did a quick drum solo with his fingers.
“Don’t you think that would look suspicious to have a girlfriend twenty-four hours later? You’re going to need to wait at least a few weeks.”
He groaned then covered his face like he wanted to scream. “A few weeks? I don’t have a few weeks. Sweetheart, I got shit to do.”
“Well, it’s just not believable. You’ll have to be patient.”
He lowered his hands and sighed like I was right. “Maybe I should just hire a hit man. I’d get a much higher return on my investment that way.”
I knew he was joking. Well…I hoped he was joking. “There’re a few rules I want to go over before we do this.”
“Yeah, me too.” He stopped drumming and leaned forward across the table. “Look, I know this is a business transaction and you’re just doing your job, but nothing is going to happen between us. I’m not the boyfriend type and I never will be. I don’t want you to get your hopes up just to be disappointed.”
“Girls always think I’ll change for them and I’ll fall so madly in love that I won’t be able to live without them. That’s not the case. I’m set in my ways and I won’t change for anybody. So, don’t expect anything. I really don’t want to break your heart like I did to all the others.”
What the hell is he talking about?
“And since this is a business relationship, I’m not going to hook up with you either. I just want a professional—”
“Do you ever stop talking?”
He halted in midsentence and shut his mouth. Man, I’d never met someone so cocky in my life. “I’m not sure what I did to give you the impression that I want to jump your bones, but I don’t. You’re my client and I will give you whatever you need to reach your goals. I’m not looking for a hookup or a boyfriend, especially from a client. Don’t make assumptions.”
“I’m not making an assumption,” he said. “I’m just warning you.”
“Warning me?” I asked. “You aren’t my type so we have nothing to worry about.”
“I just like to be honest with my intentions. In the past, women have misinterpreted my actions and it always leads to them crying their eyes out. And they always say, ‘You are the one. Let’s get married. I can’t live without you. Blah blah.’ and it’s super annoying.”
“Damn, you’re a dick.”
“What?” A blank expression came over his face. “I’m just being honest.”
“Well, stop talking. Now, can I say what I need to say?”
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “The floor is yours.”
He was such a beautiful man, but he was such a dick underneath that pretty package. I should have known there was something wrong with him. “This is a strictly professional interaction. There will only be handholding and waist touching. No kissing, no feelings, and no sex.”
“If you ever cross the line, our arrangement is terminated.”
“This is not a dating service—”
He rolled his eyes.
“Sorry, am I boring you?” I snapped.
“Shelly already told me all of this. I know the rules.”
“Well, people choose to break them anyway and I need to make sure you won’t.”
“Believe me, I can control myself. You’re smoking hot and have a perfect body, and you’re nice too, but I’m not some weird creeper that’s going to stick my tongue down your throat just because my dick is hard.”
He could be really sweet, but he was an arrogant jerk at the same time. At least he was thoughtful and nice some of the time. “Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way.”
“It sounds like we understand each other,” he said. “So, this should be no problem for either of us.”
“Why didn’t you just get a real girl to do this?” I asked. “I’m not cheap.”
“And use her then toss her aside when I’m done with her?” he asked incredulously.
I assumed that was something he did on a regular basis.
“No, that’s not my style. Hiring someone is much easier.” He rose from the seat. “I’ll call the office when I need you.”
“Uh…where are you going?”
“They’re having a sale on acoustics at Guitar Center. I was going to check it out.”
He was such a scatterbrain. “Well, we aren’t done here.”
“We aren’t?” He sat down again. “What else do you want to talk about? The weather?”
“I need to get to know you so I know how to behave in front of your parents. If I know nothing about you, they’re going to know it’s all an act.”
He released an irritated sigh. “I’m not that interesting.”
“Then it shouldn’t take long.”
He drummed his fingers again as he tried to think of something to share. His hair was slightly messy like he ran his fingers through it often. On him, it looked sexy. He had such nice features he could get away with pretty much anything. Even in t-shirt and jeans, he was a nice piece of eye candy.
I took the reins since he was taking so long. “You play guitar?”
“Yeah, I’ve been playing for a long time. I’m pretty good.”
“Do you play the drums?” I could only assume so since he kept drumming the table.
“Yeah. And I play the keyboard but that’s my least favorite instrument.”
“You like Led Zeppelin?”
His eyes narrowed. “How did you know that?”
“You were drumming it on the table.”
“You recognized the song?” His eyes lit up in interest.
“Wow, that’s cool. Most girls I know listen to Taylor Swift and shit.”
“I listen to Taylor Swift.” I rested my hands on the table. “I listen to everything.”
“Taylor Swift isn’t music. That’s just some girl whining about every boyfriend she’s ever had.”
“How would you know?” I asked. “Have you actually listened to her? Because she writes about other things besides that.”
“Like being happy. Being alone. Stuff like that.”
He didn’t seem convinced.
“Anyway, yes, I listen to Led Zeppelin.”
“What else do you listen to?” he asked.
“Aren’t we here to talk about you and not me?”
“Just answer the damn question.” He held my gaze without flinching.
“I really like folksy stuff like Mumford and Sons.”
“I prefer rock music but they’re good,” Ash said. “I’ll give them that.”
“I’m glad you approve.” My voice was full of sarcasm. “I also like the classics like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Doors.”
He winked. “Excellent taste, sweetheart.”
“Could you stop calling me that?”
“What?” he asked innocently.
“Sweetheart. I have a name.”
“I’m afraid to use it,” he said. “It’s too sexy.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s just a name.”
“Alessandra…” He shivered visibly. “See, it makes my spine wiggle.”
I continued on like he hadn’t said anything. “And I like modern stuff too, like Katy Perry—”
“No!” He covered his ears like he was in pain. “That’s not music. That’s just noise.”
“Well, I like her and I don’t care what you think.”
“Thank god, you have some good taste. Shit like that poisons people’s minds.”
“Just because I have different taste than you doesn’t make your preferences superior to mine.”
He seemed to realize his mistake. “You’re right. I’m being snooty.”
“You’re being a dick, actually.”
He smiled slightly. “I have a bad habit of doing that. I’m surprised my parents didn’t name me Dick instead of Ash.”
“You can always go down to the courthouse and change it.”
He chuckled. “Discreetly insulting me…nice.”
“So, back to you. You like guitar?”
“Yep. It’s my favorite instrument.”
“What do you care more about?” I asked. “Music or inking?”
He cringed. “Baby, don’t make me choose.”
“Don’t call me baby. It’s Alessandra.”
He growled quietly. “Fine. I can’t choose. It’s too difficult.”
“Why do you like inking?”
“What kind of question is that?” he asked. “Why does an artist like to paint? He just does. Inking is artwork and I love it. I create something that stays on someone’s skin forever. What’s cooler than that?”
“It is interesting.”
“Do you have ink?”
“No.” I’d thought about it a few times but never had the courage to go through with it.
“Good.” He released a sigh.
“Why is that good?” I assumed he would want me to have ink.
“My parents don’t approve of tattoos. It’s better if you don’t have any.”
That made sense. “When did you get your first tattoo?”
“On my eighteenth birthday. I would have done it sooner but my parents wouldn’t sign the permission papers.”
“Is there any particular taste you have in ink?”
He rubbed the back of his neck as he shrugged. “Whatever looks cool.”
“Do you have any piercings?”
He stuck out his tongue. A black metallic ball sat in the center of his tongue. He retracted it and shut his mouth.
I’d never known a guy with a tongue piercing so I never had an opinion about it before, but Ash made it look sexy. He was oblivious to other people’s feelings and he was full of himself, but he was still hot. “Did that hurt?”
He seemed like the type of guy who would lie about it just to be macho. “Any other piercings?”
He grinned in a wicked way. “I would show you but that would endanger the professionalism of our relationship.”
My neck and cheeks suddenly felt warm. “Now that had to hurt.”
“A little,” he said. “The healing part of it hurt the most.”
“Because I couldn’t have sex for three months until it healed. I couldn’t even jerk off. It totally sucked.”
“Hey, you asked.”
I’d never known a guy with a dick piercing either. Was it uncomfortable for the girl?
“And I doubt my parents are going to ask you about it since they have no idea.”
“Why did you pierce it?”
“Girls like it.”
That arrogant smile came back. “You obviously haven’t tried it. I highly recommend it.”
“Doesn’t it tear through the condom?”
“Not if you know what you’re doing.”
Talking about him having sex with a dick piercing was giving me ideas I shouldn’t think about. “Anything else I should know about you?”
“You’re blushing.” He kept grinning and wouldn’t stop.
“I’m not blushing.” I lowered my face in the hope that would help.
“I’ll show you if you’re interested.”
“Let’s change the subject,” I said quickly.
“Whatever you want, Alessandra.” He said my name slowly and rolled the R.
I ignored him.
“I was in the army for four years. They’ll expect you to know that.”
“Really?” I blurted. I didn’t expect that from him.
“Don’t think I’m honorable,” he said quickly. “I enlisted to piss off my parents. I would have enjoyed it more if I could have actually seen them pissed off more often. I was overseas for fifteen months.”
“Why would that piss them off?”
“They kept telling me they wanted me to be a better person so I decided to pledge my life to keep my country safe. But I risked my life in the process so I made them eat their own words.”
“Wow…that’s a big deal.”
He shrugged. “I don’t regret it. It gave me a lot of perspective. Now my tolerance for bullshit is even lower. When my parents bitch about my immaturity and stupid life goals, I think about all the men in my tour that never came home. They spend so much time caring about something so stupid instead of just letting me be who I am. Maybe they should go over there so they can grow the fuck up.” He shook his head then looked out the window.
Ash was more complex than he seemed. He was an asshole sometimes, but there was a lot more to him than what he projected. “What did you do over there?”
“Grunt. When I took the exam, I had really high scores. They wanted to put me in other areas of the field that wouldn’t land me on the ground. But I told them I wanted to be a soldier.”
“You’re so brave.”
Instead of saying something cocky or arrogant, he didn’t say anything at all.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life. I can sit here and pretend like there weren’t times when I thought I wouldn’t make it back home, but that would be a lie. I’m not ashamed to admit that.”
I held his gaze and felt my heart ache. “You wouldn’t be brave if you also weren’t scared. That’s the whole definition of it.”
“And the scariest part of all is something you’d least expect.”
I didn’t ask what it was.
“Coming home. After being over there for so long, I was constantly on my guard. Anytime I heard an unusual sound, I grabbed for my gun. I had nightmares for a long time about the things I’ve seen. I dreamt of the faces of my dead comrades. It took me a long time to finally integrate back into society. My parents never understood that. The second I was on American soil, they tried to get me to change my life and take a better path than I was on before.” He removed his gaze and looked out the window. “I’m sorry…I’m rambling.”
“I asked. And I’m very interested.”
He turned back to me. “I don’t want you to think I’m a broken soul or something. I hardly think about my time over there. I never let myself think about it.”
“Well, thank you for your sacrifice.” I meant what I said and wasn’t just giving him empty words. “I love having my freedom.”
He smiled slightly. “You’re very welcome.”
I stared down at my hands because I couldn’t hold his gaze any longer.
“Anyway…they’ll expect you to know that about me.”
“I’m surprised you can’t get a VA loan.”
“I destroyed my credit when I bought a bike.” He shook his head. “I bought it even though I couldn’t afford it and then I crashed it. It was right when I came back from the military and I was a little reckless.”
“Were you injured?”
“In the military?”
“I meant in the bike accident…” But I wouldn’t mind hearing the answer to that question too.
“Oh, no,” he said quickly. “Just a few bruises and no one else was hurt. But I was shot in Afghanistan.”
My eyes widened. “Oh my god…are you okay?” It was a stupid thing to ask since he was obviously fine.
He touched the left side of his torso. “A bullet grazed me from the side. It didn’t hit any organs so I recovered quickly. But I had a really bad scar there.”
“I inked over it. I ink all my scars so you can’t see them.”
“Oh…” He had more than one?
“I had a cut on my forearm but I covered that.” He pointed to the area where a tattoo of a dog tag sat. But his name wasn’t on the metal. “That’s my buddy’s name. He died over there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He was a good guy. Had a wife and everything.”
“She’s really nice,” he said. “I’ve been paying her rent for a while now. That’s also why I don’t have much cash right now.”
“You pay her rent?” It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.
“She didn’t have a job when her husband died and she had no way to get by. If I had a wife and I died, I know he would have done the same for me. And she’s a really sweet person. She has a job now but it doesn’t pay much. She’s looking for something better.”
I didn’t know what to say. His layers were endless. “That’s really sweet of you.”
He shrugged and looked out the window again.
Maybe I got a bad first impression of him. There was obviously more to him than his arrogance. “Is there anything else?”
“Like I said, I’m not that interesting.”
“Do you have siblings?”
“I’m surprised you aren’t spoiled rotten.”
“I used to be when I was younger. But when I started listening to rock music and playing my guitar, my parents assumed I was on the way to drugs.”
“Have you ever done drugs?”
“Hell no. My parents are just paranoid people.”
I hadn’t even met his parents but I didn’t like them. They had a wonderful son who was just rough around the edges. Underneath all of that, he was a great person. “You deserve better.”
“There are times when I wish I had different parents, but they did raise me and put a roof over my head. It wasn’t always bad like this. I do my best to get along with them, but sometimes I feel like they aren’t giving me that same effort. In the end, I do love them— even when I want to murder them.”
“They’re lucky to have you.”
“I don’t know about that…I was a handful. They deserve a medal for raising me.”
I chuckled. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating.”
“I wish I were.” He crossed his arms over his large chest. “So, anything else you want to know?”
“I assume you didn’t go to college?”
He just stared at me.
“That’s a no…”
“I’m not college material.”
“I’m sure you could do anything you put your mind to.” I made a few notes in my notebook.
“What’s your story?” he asked. “Why are you an escort?”
I spun the pen in my fingers. “We’re here to talk about you, not me.”
“We can’t be friends?” he asked. “Don’t I have to know something about you before I bring you home to my parents?”
“Well, I need to create an alias. What do you think your parents would like?”
“A goodie goodie. Someone well mannered and educated. Something boring.”
“Okay,” I said. “How about I say I attended NYU for literature and then started running a flower shop in Brooklyn? Where do your parents live?”
“So, they probably don’t know all the flower shops in New York?”
“Doubtful. That works. You look like you’d work in a flower shop anyway.”
“Thanks…or are you calling me boring?”
“No.” He gave me a smile. “Actually, that’d be really cute. I’d totally make a pass at you if I saw you priming roses in the window of a shop.”
My cheeks felt warm again. “Thanks…I guess I’ll have to research different flowers and what not.”
“My parents aren’t going to interrogate you that much.”
“I’d rather be prepared,” I said. “It’s what you’re paying me for.”
“I feel like all my money was spent on your beauty.” He said it with a straight face. “Are you a model and just do this on the side for money?”
It was the biggest compliment I’d ever gotten. “Uh, no. This is my only job.”
“Really?” he asked in surprise. “You fooled me.”
“It’s good money and I have control over my hours.”
“Do what you like and don’t give a shit what anyone else says,” he said bluntly. “I’m just surprised you don’t get tired of men gawking at you all the time.”
“They don’t,” I said. “Some do but not all.”
“Maybe I should get into this business.” He winked at me.
“You would get fired so fast.”
“Why?” he asked defensively.
“Because you’d sleep with all the clients.”
“So?” he asked. “What’s wrong with that?”
I rolled my eyes. “The second you sleep with them, you’re breaking the law.”
“How so?” He was totally clueless.
“Because it’s prostitution.”
“Oh…” His eyebrows furrowed. “I didn’t think about it that way.”
“So, you’d never be able to work here.”
“That’s a shame,” he said. “I’d bring you a lot of business.”
“We bought the company from a group of guys a few years ago. Now we’re just a group of women running it.”
“This seems like a good gig. Why give it up?”
“They settled down. They didn’t want to moonlight as other people’s boyfriends anymore.”
“I guess that would be a conflict. If I ever had a wife, I wouldn’t let anyone touch her.”
“You think about getting married?” Earlier he said he didn’t do the girlfriend thing so I was a little confused.
“No. That’s why I said if and not when. Relationships aren’t for me. I get what I need and then move on. And I’m happy that way.”
“Sounds lonely to me.”
He gave me a dark look. “I didn’t ask for your opinion and you have no right to judge me.”
“I wasn’t judging you.”
“It seemed like it.”
“I would just feel empty going from person to person forever. It would be nice for a while but one day I’d want a single person to share my life with. I’d want kids and stuff…”
“I don’t want kids.” He said it bluntly. “I’m not meant to be a father.”
“Why do you say that?"
“You haven’t figured it out in the hour you’ve been talking to me?” he asked incredulously. “I’m an ex-military tattoo artist that can’t even open his own shop. I’m not exactly a role model.”
“I don’t see what the problem is with any of those things. All a parent needs to do is love their child unconditionally. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living.”
He stared at me with his lips pressed tightly together.
I looked down at my notes because his stare was becoming too intense. “Is there anything else I should know? Like an ex-girlfriend or something?”
“You’re the only one.”
Even though he meant that in a specific context, I felt my heart skip a beat. “Well, it looks like I have everything I need…”
“Good. I’ve got to get to Guitar Center. There’s this beauty…in the window. I must have her.”
I tried not to laugh. “I hope you get her.”
He stood up and looked down at me. “You know what I’m going to name her?”
Amazon Bestselling author, E. L. Todd, was raised in sunny California where she still lives today, claiming it’s the best place in the country. Easily hypothermic and hateful of the cold, she prefers to be warm all year round. She attended California State University, Stanislaus and received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, but still pursued her dream to be a writer. She’s written several novels and many series’, and her imagination can’t seem to stop. She tries to find the good in people and she exploits that in her writing, proving that people can make mistakes and rise above their past. Her hobbies include sunbathing, swimming, eating at Surf Taco in San Diego, reading, and learning everything she can about hippopotamuses’, her favorite creature. Her greatest dream is to make people forget about the harshness of reality and dive into a good story with lovable people. When fans tell her they love her work, it gives her the greatest sense of accomplishment.