Virtuous, Book 1 in the Quantum Series
Natalie & Flynn
The first installment in the New York Times bestselling Quantum trilogy by author Marie Force, writing as M.S. Force.
He’s a sexual dominant. She’s sworn off sex. There’s no way they can make a relationship work—or can they? Natalie Bryant has worked for years to reinvent herself into the woman she is today—a happy teacher fresh out of college and enjoying her first winter in New York City with her faithful dog, Fluff. Natalie isn’t expecting her life to change completely during a routine stroll through Greenwich Village on a blustery January day. But when Fluff breaks loose and charges into a park, Natalie gives chase and crashes into her destiny. Only after Fluff bites and draws blood from the man who accidentally knocked Natalie down does she realize Fluff has bitten the biggest movie star in the world.
He has no business being enthralled by the gorgeous, young, innocent teacher… Natalie captivates Flynn Godfrey the moment their eyes meet. And the only thing he knows for certain is if he lets Natalie get away, he’ll regret it for the rest of his life. But can he turn his back on the lifestyle that has defined him? And most of all, can he keep his truth hidden from her long enough to have forever with her? From Hollywood to Las Vegas, Flynn and Natalie’s whirlwind love affair has it all— romance, passion, steamy hot sex, relentless paparazzi and a murder that could be their undoing. Flynn is a dirty-talking hero who puts it all on the line for the woman he loves, who leaves no desire unfulfilled, who will do anything it takes to protect what’s his…
Other Books in the Quantum Series
Get started with the Quantum Series and read the first two chapters ofVirtuous.
Winter in New York City is dirty business. A nasty, grayish hue hangs over the city from November through late March. During my first winter in the city, I’ve experienced everything from slushy puddles that soak through even the most resilient boots to icy sidewalks to the delightful combo platter of fried onions from vendor carts melding with mystery steam from the underground, creating a smell that defies description.
I love every stinky, icy, frigid inch of it. While others hide out inside, I take to the streets with my dog, Fluff, on a leash. Her full name is Fluff-o-Nutter, but don’t judge me. I was nine when I named her after my favorite food group at the time, and fourteen years later, she’s still my most faithful companion and the one tie to my old life that I brought to my new life. She goes everywhere with me, except school.
I tried to get her in there—once—but was stopped at the door by stone-faced Mrs. Heffernan, who told me school is no place for animals. Even after I swore I’d keep her under my desk and out of the way all day, the answer was still no. She cited health codes and rulebooks, her spittle hitting me under my left eye. Taking Fluff home cost me a personal day, and I swear Mrs. Heffernan still checks under my desk every day when I’m on recess or dismissal duty, just to make sure Fluff isn’t there.
Because I can’t take my twenty-pound baby to school with me, I hired a dog walker to care for her during the day. That’s working out well, except for the time Fluff bit one of the poodles. The dog walker was irked, but I’m certain poor Fluff was only defending herself. She was quite indignant and put out by the entire incident. I told her she has to behave herself or get stuck inside all day if the dog walker fires us.
Fluff has behaved admirably ever since.
I’m rewarding her good behavior today with a long walk through the Village. The wind is bitingly cold and snow flurries fill the air on this early January day. It’s the kind of bitterly cold New York day that keeps even the hardiest of souls inside, so Fluff and I have Bleecker Street mostly to ourselves.
As I’m still somewhat new to the city, everything about it fascinates the girl from Nebraska. I love the architecture and the chaos as well as the taxicabs and the bikes that zigzag the streets on even the coldest of days. I love the stylish women who put together amazing outfits I’d never conceive of on my own, the handsome men, the diversity, the dreadlocks, the tattoos, the music, the theater, the piercings and the food. I despise the poverty, the homeless sleeping outside, the grime, the graffiti. Overall, I love a whole lot more than I hate.
My roommate made fun of me for weeks when I first arrived because I gave money to every poor person I encountered. She told me I’d be broke before Christmas if I kept that up. So I stopped, but my heart still breaks every time I walk by someone in need, because I wish I could help them all. Most of all, I love that I feel safe here. If you’re someone who worries the city is dangerous, you’ll think that sounds crazy. But when you’ve survived what I have, safety is relative. The way I look at it, for every one person who might hassle you on the street, there’re a hundred good people nearby who’d come to your aid. I take comfort in that.
I window-shop my way from one end of Bleecker to the other, lingering outside Marc Jacobs before the cold forces me on my way. A first-year teacher can only dream about shopping at Marc Jacobs, so there’s no point going inside, not to mention they’d freak about Fluff being in there.
Standing still is not an option today. My face is so cold at this point, it’s gone numb, and I have the start of an ice-cream headache without the pleasure of the ice cream. I’m thinking about heading home to the cozy apartment I share with one of my colleagues when activity in the playground at the end of the street catches my attention.
“Let’s see what’s going on, Fluff.” We head toward the park, Fluff pulling hard on her leash, though I can’t tell whether she’s hot on the trail of a scent or a sight. I’ve learned to let her investigate these things or put up with her pouting all day. She’s freakishly strong for a little old dog, and I find myself nearly jogging to keep up with her.
I’m not quite sure how to describe what happens next. All I know is one minute we’re trotting along until I slide on a patch of ice, teetering for a moment between disaster and recovery. By the time I regain my feet under me, Fluff has taken advantage of my momentary loss of balance to bust loose. Her leash goes flying out of my hand, and she takes off like a shot, making for the gate to the park on tiny legs that move with puppy-like speed.
Fears of her fragile body being crushed under the wheel of a taxi keep me running as fast as I can, calling her name as I go. She rounds a corner and disappears for a horrifying second before I make the turn into the park and bring her back into view. I’m laser-focused on her and terrified of her clearing the other side of the park and dashing into traffic.
“Fluff! Stop! Stop!” I run so hard my lungs are burning from the cold and the exertion. My eyes are tearing, also from the cold, as well as the sheer terror that my defenseless little dog is going to end up as roadkill if I don’t get to her—fast. “Fluff!”
I hit something hard and go down harder, landing on my back. You know what it’s like when you get the wind knocked out of you and for a whole minute—or even longer—you can’t breathe? That’s me, lying on the ground in the Bleecker Playground, staring up at the cloudy gray sky, unable to get air into my startled lungs.
I actually begin to wonder if I’m dead. Have I been hit by a bus or a cab or a bike or some other vehicle? Am I drifting between life and death? A crowd forms around me, numerous sets of eyes looking down at me. People are always so curious when bad things happen to other people. I hear angry voices. There’s pushing, shoving and jostling around me.
A face appears above mine. A handsome male face. He seems concerned—and familiar. Do I know him from the neighborhood? Someone screams in the background, and I think it might be me.
Then Fluff is there, licking my face, full of concerned obedience. That’s when I know I’m not dead—and neither is she. A flood of relief at realizing she’s okay relaxes my chest, allowing in oxygen I desperately need. The cold air hitting my lungs snaps me out of the stupor I’ve slipped into. I look up at soft brown eyes, a kind face, brows knitted with concern.
“Shut up, Hayden!” the kind face says. He has really nice eyes and dark hair shot through with hints of silver. I want to reach up and push it back from his brow and see if it’s as soft as it looks. His lips are perfectly formed, the kind of lips you want to kiss, and his face is arresting, captivating, lived in, if you know what I mean. “Can’t you see she’s hurt?”
That voice. Something about it is familiar. I want to ask if we’ve met before, but I can’t seem to speak.
“She fucked up my shot!”
“I said to shut up!”
“You shut up! It’s not your shot she fucked up!”
Looking down at me, the kind man rests his hand on my shoulder. “Do you think you could sit?”
I try because he asked me so nicely and because Fluff and I have obviously caused some considerable trouble for these people.
His strong arms come around me, helping me to sit up. He’s so close I catch a hint of his cologne. He smells expensive, a thought that nearly makes me giggle. Except my chest hurts, and Fluff is making a scene, yipping and trying to get my rescuer’s hands off me.
Did I mention she’s a bit territorial when it comes to me?
My rescuer’s eyes bug out of his head as he gasps. “Holy shit, that damned dog bit me!” He waves his arm around, trying to dislodge Fluff, whose tiny body jerks at the end of his arm. The jerking only makes her more determined to hold on. He lets out an ungodly howl.
The other guy, the one who’s been screaming at me, comes rushing over to assist him.
“Don’t hurt her!” My voice returns as they’re about to hurl poor Fluff across the park in their haste to remove her from the arm of my rescuer.
“Get her off me!”
I scramble to my feet and reach for her, my legs wobbling and my head swimming from the rush of moving too fast.
Thankfully, Fluff sees me on my feet and comes willingly to me, dislodging her victim.
“You’re fucking bleeding,” the man named Hayden says. “He’s fucking bleeding!”
I’m not sure who he’s talking to until a team of people descends upon the nice guy, tending to his wounds.
“Does he need the ER?” Hayden asks. He’s crazy handsome—tall, broad-shouldered, with dark hair and ice-blue eyes. He’s also seriously pissed. “Please tell me he’s not going to need the fucking ER. If we lose this entire fucking day—”
“Hayden!” The injured man waves the others away and dabs at the wound with some gauze. “Shut the fuck up! Walk away and take a deep breath.”
“Easy for you to say, Flynn. It’s not your ass on the line to deliver this thing on time and on budget.”
Hayden storms off, barking orders at people as he goes.
I finally take a look around and see cameras, ladders, light poles, electric cords snaking along the ground, a tented area off to one side and a lot of people milling about looking uncertain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you all were here. Fluff… she got away from me, and I went after her.” I venture a glance up at him, and that’s when it hits me. My dog has bitten Flynn Godfrey. The Flynn Godfrey. Flynn freaking Godfrey.
“You’re… Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into her. One minute we’re walking down the street, and the next… She’s biting Flynn Godfrey.”
His appealing eyes twinkle with mirth.
“It’s not funny!” I can’t believe he’s laughing.
“It’s kind of funny.”
“It’s not fucking funny!” Hayden shouts across the park.
“Shut up, Hayden,” Flynn says without taking his eyes off me.
“Are you all right? I’m so sorry. The biting is new. She’s fourteen and more of a terror now than she was as a puppy. And I’m totally babbling. And you’re Flynn Godfrey.” I take a step back, wishing for a way to simply disappear before I die of embarrassment right in front of the biggest movie star in the known universe.
I halt, because what else does one do when Flynn Godfrey issues an order?
“Are you all right?” he asks, his own injury apparently forgotten.
Words fail me under the potent glow of his magnetic beauty, so I nod.
“Yes.” I force words past the odd sensation in my chest and throat. “Are you?”
“It’s a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”
“Well, um… It was nice to meet you. I’m a huge fan of your work. Perhaps your biggest fan. But I’m not a stalker or anything.” I’m doing it again. I’m babbling in front of the biggest movie star on the planet. “I’m going to stop talking now. I’m sorry again for interrupting your work. Tell him I’m sorry, too.” I nod in Hayden’s direction. He’s still ranting and railing, and suddenly I want out of there because the guy is kind of scary pissed.
I tighten my arm around Fluff and make a hasty retreat, nearly tripping over a power cord on my way out of the park. That’s when I see the gigantic signs posted on the gates. “Closed Today for Film Shoot.” Great.
Acutely aware of everyone in the park watching me go—including Flynn Godfrey, the biggest movie star in the universe—I walk as fast as I can on rubbery legs.
Behind me, I hear male voices arguing, loudly. Then I hear his voice.
“Hey, wait. Don’t go.”
Is he talking to me? I’m afraid to stop to find out, so I walk faster. Fluff is squirming in my arms, wanting down so she can walk, too. “No way, missy. Your wings are officially clipped.”
She whimpers and continues to fight my hold on her.
“Don’t even think about biting me, do you hear me?”
It’s him, and he’s calling out to me. While everything in me is telling me to run, to flee, something makes me stop and turn. Much later, I will look back upon the decision to turn around as one of those life-changing moments that you don’t realize is changing your life as it happens, but with hindsight you can see how important it was.
He’s running after me. Flynn Godfrey is chasing me.
The few people on Bleecker pause in what they’re doing to watch him. Even in the frigid cold, the sight of the biggest movie star in the universe stops people in their tracks. His breath forms puffy clouds as he catches up to me. The intense look on his face disarms me.
“Don’t tell me you’ve decided to sue poor Fluff.” I go for witty over panicked. “Her net worth is a goose-down bed, a couple of chew toys and a very expensive—and apparently useless—leash.”
His lips quiver slightly, but his eyes… His eyes are deep and dark and determined. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Why do you want to know my name? You are going to sue me, aren’t you? Before you spend a ton of money on lawyers, you should know that Fluff’s net worth is quite a bit more than mine.”
“I’m not going to sue you,” he says, chuckling. “I wouldn’t mind some coffee, though. If you have time—and if you tell me your name.”
“You… you want to have coffee. With me.”
“If you have time, and if you tell me your name.”
I’m stunned speechless, and people who know me will tell you that happens well… never. They call me Chatty Cathy at school because I like to talk to my colleagues at lunch when most of them would prefer a few minutes of quiet.
“You do have a name, don’t you?”
“It’s, um, Natalie.”
“Natalie. That’s a good name. Does it come with a last name?”
“Bryant.” Sometimes my new name still feels funny coming off my lips, but the old name… The old name belongs to the old life, and neither has any place here in my perfect new life that’s just gotten a lot more perfect.
“Natalie Bryant. And Fluff.” He raises his hand as if to pet Fluff, but her growl makes him think better of it.
“That’s her full name. Fluff is her nickname.” I don’t know why I tell him that, but when he laughs—hard—my stomach feels all fluttery and strange. I made Flynn Godfrey laugh. As he wipes a laughter tear from the corner of his eye, I discover I quite like making Flynn Godfrey laugh.
Well, isn’t this turning out to be a rather interesting day?
She’s beautiful in the effortless, guileless manner of truly beautiful people who don’t know they’re beautiful. Her hair is a mass of dark curls, spilling from under a knit cap that looks homemade. The cold and the embarrassment of our encounter have heightened the color on her cheeks and make her full, lush mouth as red as a ripe strawberry.
I couldn’t let her leave without at least knowing her name.
Hayden was apoplectic when I told him I needed half an hour. “We’re all fucking freezing out here, Flynn. You’re going to make us wait half an hour while you chase after a skirt?”
Only because we are the best of friends—most of the time—did I resist the urge to punch my director and business partner in the face. We’ve been grating on each other’s nerves for weeks as this interminable shoot comes to an end with these final shots in Greenwich Village.
A half hour isn’t going to make or break our budget, and Hayden’s cozy trailer is nearby to keep everyone warm. That is, if the selfish bastard chooses to share it with the crew. In case he doesn’t, I gave the key to my trailer to one of the grips, with orders to invite the crew inside for a break.
The dog named Fluff-o-Nutter growls at me as I contemplate her stunning owner, Natalie Bryant. “So, coffee? Yes?”
Her deep brown eyes take an assessing glance at the neighborhood. “We can go to Gorman’s. They’ll let me bring Fluff in.”
I’ve never heard of Gorman’s, but it’s fine with me if it means I get to spend a few more minutes with her. “Lead the way.”
We walk the short distance in awkward silence and step into a coffee shop where Natalie and Fluff are clearly regulars. The owner, a big woman named Cleo, makes a fuss over Fluff, who wriggles with delight at the chin scratch.
“How’s school going?” Cleo asks Natalie as she serves up what looks to be a skinny latte with skim milk.
I’m guessing, because Natalie doesn’t actually place an order.
I can feel Natalie’s gaze darting between me and Cleo and can sense her trepidation as she carries on a conversation with Cleo, who either hasn’t noticed me or hasn’t recognized me. Yet.
“It’s good,” Natalie says. “I got the best possible class for my first year. I love them all, and even the parents are great.”
“You’re lucky. My daughter is a teacher uptown and got the exact opposite this year. Bunch a brats, and the parents are worse.”
“Yikes. That’s got to be tough.”
“Does Fluff want a biscuit?”
“No, she’s been naughty this morning. No treats today.”
Fluff whines in protest.
“That’s three twenty-five, honey.”
“I’ve got this.” I step up to the counter before Natalie can pull out her wallet. I invited her. I’m paying.
Cleo’s eyes widen, and her mouth falls open. “You. You’re. You’re…”
“Flynn Godfrey. Nice to meet you.”
She screams. Loudly. So loudly that Fluff starts barking frantically while squirming in Natalie’s arms.
Cleo’s scream brings the entire staff to the counter along with some of the patrons. By the time I sign autographs, kiss Cleo’s quivering cheek while one of the staffers takes pictures, and get around to ordering a coffee for myself that she won’t let me pay for, I’ve used up a big chunk of my precious thirty minutes.
Looking at Natalie, I point to a table in the corner. “Join me for a minute?”
She glances around at the prying eyes fixed on us, and I hate how uncomfortable she seems. “Um, sure, for a second.” She settles into the chair I hold for her, adeptly managing the squiggling dog and her coffee.
This is the part of fame I absolutely hate. I’ve met a woman I find interesting, but I can’t take her for coffee without causing a three-ring circus. In fact, I rarely go out in public anymore without security, but I’ve decided to risk it for a chance to talk to Natalie. By now she’s probably convinced I’m far more interested in myself than I am in her.
I walk a fine line—how do I deny Cleo and her staff a few autographs and a couple of pictures without looking like a jerk? On the other hand, how do I indulge them without appearing self-centered to Natalie?
“Sorry about all that.” I tip my head toward the counter where Cleo leans, her rapt attention fixed on us.
“Probably happens all the time, huh?”
I shrug, not wanting to talk about myself. I’m sick of myself and far more interested in her. “So you’re a teacher?”
She seems surprised by the question. “That’s right. Third grade at the Emerson School, one of the top charter schools in the city.”
“Sure, it is,” she says with a laugh that makes my gut clench with desire. She is stunning. Fresh-faced and full of life and exuberance and passion.
“It’s very impressive. I give you so much credit. I’d go crazy spending seven hours a day with seven-year-olds.”
“My kids are eight, and it’s six hours a day.”
“I stand corrected,” and captivated, which I don’t share with her. She’s young, I think, as I take a sip of my coffee. Far too young and fresh for me, and yet… I’m captivated. “Are you from the city?”
She shakes her head. “Nebraska. I applied for a special program that brings first-year teachers to the city. They help us find housing and roommates and get settled in exchange for a two-year commitment to the program. They also help with our student loans.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“And loving every minute of it.”
Young and vanilla and from the heartland and so far removed from the kind of woman I normally pursue… I need to get out of here and get back to work before Hayden has me killed, but I can’t bring myself to move. Not while the young and stunning Natalie Bryant sits across from me, looking slightly shell-shocked to be sharing coffee with me. I hate that part of fame, too. Right now, I wish to be just a man having coffee with a gorgeous woman, but I’m always Flynn Godfrey, Movie Star. It’s as if the words “movie star” are part of my name, like Junior or Senior or Roman numerals.
She regards me with a glint of humor in her eyes that I find wildly attractive. “I’d ask you what you do, but I already know. Movie star. I’d ask where you’re from, but I know that, too. Beverly Hills. I’d ask how old you are, but I know you’re thirty-two—”
“Thirty-three,” I say, amused by her recitation. “I’m surprised you don’t know about the Christmas birthday.”
“I know that superstar actor Max Godfrey married superstar singer Estelle Flynn, and when their son was born on Christmas Day, Flynn Godfrey was anointed Hollywood royalty. I could ask if you have siblings, but I know there’re three sisters, all of them older. So what else should we talk about?” As she poses the question, she props her chin on her upturned hand and gives me a cheeky little smile that slays me.
I’m slain. I’m enchanted. And I’m late. “We could talk about dinner,” I say before I give myself even two seconds to think about what I’m doing. I can’t let her get away without knowing I’ll see her again. I need to see her again.
“Are you familiar with the third—and often final—meal of the day?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never had it with the biggest movie star in the world.”
I grimace, because at this moment, I hate that I’m the biggest movie star in the world, especially if it’s going to cost me the chance to spend more time with this incredible woman. “Is that a major turnoff?”
“Not a turnoff, per se, but you have to admit that for a school teacher from Nebraska spending her first year in New York City, this has been a rather surreal morning.”
“I can see how it would be from your perspective, but from mine, it’s been a rather refreshing kind of morning. I was hoping it could also be a refreshing sort of evening, too.”
“I won’t sleep with you.”
I’m stunned speechless, which almost never happens. I can’t recall the last time someone has surprised me so profoundly.
Her face flushes with color that only adds to her beauty. I want to feel the heat of her cheeks under my lips, and my cock stirs to life as that thought makes it to my addled brain.
“I’m sorry. That was rude. You weren’t asking me to go to bed with you.”
“No, I wasn’t.” I smile at her flustered state. “Not yet, anyway. I thought we could begin with dinner and go from there.”
“As long as ‘going from there’ doesn’t involve a bedroom, I’d consider having dinner with you.”
I’m far more relieved than I should be to know I’ll get to see her again. “I promise there’ll be no mention of bedrooms.”
“Or sofas or backseats or any other horizontal surfaces.”
“You forgot walls, stairwells and shower stalls. I do some of my best work vertically.”
Her eyes widen and her mouth forms an adorable O that makes me want her fiercely. “You’re rather experienced at these things.”
“It’s more about imagination than experience.”
“I, um, I should go and let you get back to work.”
I want to kick myself for taking our flirtation a step too far and unsettling her to the point that she wants to get away from me. “I apologize for being forward. I was only teasing. You have my word I’ll behave as a perfect gentleman while in your presence, and I’d be extremely honored if you would have dinner with me tonight.”
“You… you’d be honored.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Why?” She seems genuinely curious. “You could go out with any woman in the world. Why me? My dog bit you, made you bleed. I’d think you’d be furious with me, not asking me out.”
Does she not have the first clue how adorable she is? “Why not you? I told you. It’s just a scratch. I’ve already forgiven Fluff.”
At the sound of her name, Fluff bares her teeth at me.
“That’s nice of you. I haven’t forgiven her yet.”
“Could I have your address?” I withdraw my phone from my coat pocket so I can type it in as she hesitantly shares the information. “How about your phone number so I can call you if I’m running late?”
The area code is one I don’t recognize, so I assume it’s a Nebraska phone number. “Got it.” I stand, reluctantly. “I’ll text you so you’ll have my number if you need to reach me.” I wish I had nowhere to be on this cold-ass day. I’d like to spend more time with her. “Sorry to drink and run.”
“Thank you for the coffee.”
I don’t mention that she should be thanking Cleo, who wouldn’t accept payment for either drink. “I’ll pick you up at seven?”
She rolls her plump bottom lip between her teeth. I’m instantly hard and grateful for the coat that covers the evidence of my arousal. Nodding, she says, “What should I wear?”
I think about that for a second. “A dress. Maybe a black dress. You’re a New Yorker now. I assume you have a black dress?”
“I have a black dress,” she says with a small, shy smile.
“Excellent. I’ll see you soon. Fluff, it’s been a pleasure. Take good care of your mom and behave on the way home.”
Fluff again bares her tiny—and very sharp—teeth and growls.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know why she’s behaving this way. It’s not like her.”
I wink at Natalie. “Not to worry. At least she didn’t ask me for an autograph.”
I leave her laughing, pleased with myself and with her and looking forward to this evening with far too much anticipation as I jog back to the park and Hayden’s wrath, sending the text I promised her on the way.
He’s pacing the length of the playground when I return. “What the fuck, Flynn? Are you all done seeing to your personal agenda? Can we get back to work?”
I ignore the first two questions. “Yep.”
“What’s the deal with the girl?”
“No deal.” It’s none of his fucking business, but unfortunately, he’s known me forever and can tell I’m lying to his face.
“Dude… Seriously? She’s an infant. You’ve got no business dragging a sweet girl like that into your world.”
The sad part is, he’s totally right. There’s no place at all for a nice girl like Natalie in my world. No place at all. But I’m fascinated nonetheless and counting the hours until I can see her again.