With the Lights On (Playing for Pleasure Duet #2) - Jackie Ashenden

CHAPTER ONE

Magdalen

IT WAS DIFFERENT tonight and I knew it the moment I walked in the door.

Normally when I had an evening with Trajan, the lights would be dimmed and he’d have music playing in the background. Sometimes it was a woman singing, low and husky and sad, sometimes dark and dirty blues. He liked classical and opera as well, and occasionally there’d be something electronic and dreamy.

Music to fill the silence, I’d thought initially. But then after I’d got to know him better, and he’d got to know me, he’d put on music that we both enjoyed and that he wanted to share with me.

Tonight, though, there was no music.

And, tonight, all the lights were on.

I stopped just inside the door, letting it shut with a heavy thump behind me, my heart beating far too fast for comfort. I’d never actually seen Trajan’s apartment fully lit before—he was a fan of ‘diffuse’ lighting, as in so diffuse that it was sometimes difficult to see—but right now I was too distracted to take a proper look around.

I worked for Company of Strangers, which I’d heard some call a glorified escort agency, and to some extent they were right. But sex wasn’t its only purpose. Or, rather, it was only one aspect of its purpose, which was essentially to provide people with company. That company might be sex, if both parties agreed, or it could be simply dinner and conversation. A friend to have a drink with in a bar. A casual coffee and a gossip.

Clients tended to be mostly lonely business people who didn’t have either the time or the inclination to forge friendships and who were willing to pay someone to keep them company for a couple of hours. Sex could be included if that was desired, but only if the Strangers employee was willing. And it was, of course, extra.

From an employee perspective, Strangers was an excellent company to work for, since all clients were heavily vetted before they could access the services provided, and there were lots of systems put in place for the safety of both clients and employees. I’d never felt unsafe, not once in the years I’d been working for them.

However, that had changed over the last two months, though it wasn’t my physical safety I was worried about. It was my heart I was afraid for, especially since that last meeting with Trajan, where I’d exploded everything...

I took a slow, deep breath, trying to calm myself. My palms were damp, though I knew better than to wipe them on the red satin of my dress.

Honey; I had to be Honey. That was my persona, the warm, nurturing, sensual woman who was Strangers’ best and most highly paid employee. The most sought after, the most booked. She was expert at putting a client at ease, at figuring out what they wanted, and providing them with the best experience possible. She was never shocked or surprised. She always knew what to say and she always knew what to do.

But I was having a hard time holding on to Honey right now, because whenever I was around Trajan I always found it difficult to hold onto her. Especially now. Especially after what had happened between us two weeks earlier.

Never get involved. That was the motto everyone in my industry tried to stick to and it had never been a problem for me. Never, ever.

Not until now. Not until him.

Feeling slightly calmer, I walked slowly down the short hallway and into the big, open-plan space that was the penthouse apartment proper.

It was unusual for a client to invite me into their home. Normally meetings were in hotel rooms, bars or restaurants. But even from the first Trajan had been different.

He’d invited me to his private residence, a gorgeous penthouse that looked out over Central Park in Manhattan. It was decorated in a very minimalist fashion, with white walls and dark carpet and low, soft couches upholstered in textured white linen. The coffee tables and shelves were all of sleek powder-coated black metal, the only colour the rich, silk antique Persian rugs dotted at intervals on the floor and the velvet cushions scattered here and there.

There was no art on the walls, no photos. He’d told me he didn’t want anything to compete with the floor-to-ceiling views of the park, which made sense. Though, I suppose he could have hidden any personal decorative touches when I was there in order to keep his identity secret.

That was usual for Strangers. For