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Table

of Contents
Prologue
Epilogue
Prologue
Prologue
Epilogue
Royal Beast
James
Rosemary
Preview: The Billionaires Bride
Ali
Zeke
Bonus: Guilty
Cole
Emily
Preview: Single Dads Fake Bride
Megan
Ethan
About the Author
ROYAL BEAST
A DARK FAIRY TALE ROMANCE
NIKKI CHASE
Contents

Royal Beast
Prologue
1. James
2. Rosemary
3. James
4. James
5. Rosemary
6. James
7. Rosemary
8. Rosemary
9. Rosemary
10. Rosemary
11. James
12. Rosemary
13. Rosemary
14. Rosemary
15. James
16. Rosemary
17. Rosemary
18. Rosemary
19. James
20. Rosemary
21. Rosemary
22. Rosemary
23. James
24. Rosemary
25. James
26. Rosemary
27. Rosemary
28. Rosemary
Epilogue
Preview: The Billionaires Bride
Prologue
1. Ali
2. Ali
3. Zeke
4. Ali
5. Zeke

Bonus: Guilty
Prologue
1. Cole
2. Emily
3. Cole
4. Emily
5. Emily
6. Cole
7. Emily
8. Emily
9. Cole
10. Emily
11. Cole
12. Emily
13. Cole
14. Emily
15. Emily
16. Cole
17. Emily
18. Cole
19. Emily
20. Cole
21. Cole
22. Emily
23. Cole
24. Emily
25. Cole
26. Emily
27. Cole
28. Emily
29. Cole
30. Emily
31. Cole
32. Emily
Epilogue
Preview: Single Dads Fake Bride
1. Megan
2. Megan
3. Ethan
4. Megan
5. Ethan
About the Author
Copyright 2017 Nikki Chase

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical
means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written
permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents
are either the products of the authors imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This book is for mature readers. It contains sexually explicit scenes and graphic
language which may be considered offensive by some.
All sexual activity in this work is consensual and all sexually active characters are 18
years of age or older.
ROYAL BEAST

A DARK FAIRY TALE ROMANCE


PROLOGUE

S ir, I My sentence hangs in the air. I know what I want


and I want to ask for it, but I cant bring myself to.
Tell me, what do you want? Prince James leans just close
enough to let his lips graze lightly against my pussy as he
speaks, making me gasp.
I want you to finish what you were doing, I say softly.
And what was that? he asks, prolonging my torment. I can
almost hear the smirk in his voice.
You were You were eating me out, Sir, I say again, my pussy
throbbing, both from the princes oral attention and from the
cocky, dominating way hes talking to me right now.
Good girl, he says, in the kind of voice that makes me want to
please him even more. But before that, lets get your
punishment over and done with, shall we?
Uh, punishment, Sir?
He picks me up into his arms, making me shriek in surprise. He
stands me up on my feet, then he sits on a chair by the big
wooden desk, on which lie a few stacks of books.
Lie across my lap, he says darkly.
As if hypnotized, I step forward and put my belly across Prince
James lap. I know whats coming. Ive seen it before. Ive
fantasized about it, but I still cant quite believe its actually
about to happen now.
Relax, the prince says, chuckling. Youre going to like it.
Despite his words, my muscles tense as he pulls the hem of my
dress up over my waist.
Naked and vulnerable, all I can do is lie here and wait, while the
heat from the princes lustful gaze sears into my flesh. I can feel
his anticipation. The thought of inflicting pain on my body
excites him.
I place my fingers on the marble floor to balance myself. The
princes shadow moves as he raises his hand in the air. I brace
myself for the impact.
Smack!
The princes palm lands on my ass cheek, making it hot with
pain.
I whimper.
Why did I ever think this would feel good?
Maybe Im not cut out to be a Submissive after all. I should tell
the prince Im not what he thinks I am.
As I part my lips, the prince rubs the part of my ass thats
stinging in pain. His hand feels so gentle and warm.
At his soothing touch, the heat from the pain turns into pleasure
that seeps through my skin and spreads throughout my body.
That wasnt so bad, was it, sweetheart? Prince James asks.
Nno, Sir.
You like it, dont you?
I remain quiet.
Did I?
JAMES

I almost cant believe my eyes.


But theres no doubt in my mind.
Its her.
Shes even wearing that same choker around her slender neck,
the one that looks a lot like a collar.
I cant forget a face like that. Or a body like that. The picture Im
looking at doesnt show any part of her below the neck, but I
remember.
Pretty, arent they? The man asks. Exhaustion is still written
all over his face, but hes beaming with pride.
Yes, theyre lovely, I answer, briefly tearing my eyes from the
mans phone that Im holding in my hands.
I couldnt care less about the other two girls in the picture. I only
have my eyes on her, the one with the big, doe-like eyes the
color of caf au lait, the one with the wavy honey-brown hair
tumbling down her back.
This is Clara, my oldest, he says as he points at the girl on the
left. Irina, the middle one his index finger moves to the girl
in the center, then finally to the girl on the right and
Rosemary, my youngest daughter.
Rosemary.
So thats her name.
It fits her. A name from the old world, classic and elegant. But
most importantly of all, that name is just another clue that she
belongs to me.
I havent stopped thinking about her since I saw her last month.
In fact, Ive taken screenshots and short videos of the moments
shes caught by the surveillance cameras.
That tight little yellow dress, covering her up while showing off
all her curves. That black choker around her neck. That golden
rose pendant that rests between her collar bones, pulsing to the
beat of her heart.
And now this old man is telling me that beauty is his daughter?
If I were a little more nave, Id be stumbling all over myself to
declare this to be the work of fate. Im not going to do that, but I
know an opportunity like this will not come by twice.
Theyre all grown up, I comment casually as Albert, my butler,
comes to pour us more red wine. He raises a questioning eyebrow
at me, but I press on. To the old man, I say, They must be
starting their own families now.
Oh, no. Wrinkles appear on the mans forehead and around
his brown eyes when he chuckles. My girls havent been lucky
when it comes to love, especially Rosemary. She hasnt ever had
a boyfriend.
And yet, despite the man having daughters of marriageable age
and me obviously staring too long at the picture, he makes no
mention of match-making.
It doesnt surprise me, of course. Even though Im royalty, my
reputation as a sadistic beast has preceded me.
Still, I suppress a smile from spreading across my face.
So shes really a virgin.
I had my doubts when I saw the white band around her wrist at
the club. There was a meaning attached to every color, and white
was for virgins.
But I thought a girl like her must have had many suitors. She
couldnt possibly be untouched.
I have to admit its good to have them all to myself, though,
even though that sounds selfish, the old man suddenly says,
smiling awkwardly.
Returning his smile, I wonder if he simply said that to fill the
silence. Im so used to quiet and solitude that it feels normal to
me.
Well, Quentin, I should retire for the night, I say. I have an
event to attend in the morning. Its the anniversary of the
womens division of the Royal Navy tomorrow.
Thank you so much for everything, Prince James. I mean, Your
Royal Highness, the old man says as he stands up.
Oh, please. No need to get up. Just sit back and enjoy your
meal.
Thank you, he repeats, stubbornly getting up. If it werent
for you, I dont know what wouldve happened to me. I couldve
gotten lost in the woods and gotten attacked by wolves. Youve
saved my life.
Dont mention it. I give him the same polite smile that I
usually give the press, then leave him with the mountains of
food on the table.
I live alone in this big palacealong with Albert and the rest of
the staff, of course. So when a guest comes, Albert tends to go
overboard.
I thought this old man was just an ordinary lost traveler. This
part of the woods is thick and it regularly swallows up hikers into
its depths.
But it turns out hes related to her.
Based on his non-reaction at my obvious interest in his
daughters, Quentin has probably heard about my depraved
desires. And just like the rest of the kingdom, he doesnt want
me to get close to any of them.
They seem like a nice little family, and he seems to think
Rosemary would be better off if she never sees me again.
Hes wrong, of course, but he doesnt know that.
In fact, I suspect Im the only one who knows about his
daughters dirty little secret.
ROSEMARY

H i,thebeautiful, a cop greets me as soon as I walk through


glass door and into the police station.
Hi Graham, have you heard any news about my father? I ask,
ignoring yet another one of his attempts at flirting. I need his
help so it would probably be smarter to get on his good side, but I
cant stand the guy.
No, Rose. I told you Id come to your house to personally deliver
the news if I heard anything, Graham says.
Theres no need for that. You know my number. You can just
call me, I say curtly.
Okay, princess, he says. He flashes me his rows of pearly
white teeth.
I can only smile politely in response. The way he says it makes
me cringe.
Sure, Graham has good looks, and some girls go for that. He has
also climbed the ranks in the Willowdale Police Department at a
young age, although a lot of his progress has to do with his
father being the Chief of Police.
But nepotism isnt why Im not interested in his overtures.
Theres something unpleasant about him that I cant quite put a
finger on.
For example, right now I know Graham doesnt care about my
father. He just likes the fact that Im dropping by his workplace
more often. He thinks he can use this opportunity to hit on me.
And when he said hed visit me with any news? Hes only trying
to get into my home, where my father doesnt usually allow male
visitors.
Yes, my father is more than a little old-fashioned. But he was
born in a different land, where values were a lot more
conservative, so I cant blame him. Hes only trying to protect
us.
How long has it been again, since you last heard from him?
Graham asks.
This is a waste of time. Ive already given him all the relevant
information. There should be no need to go through those same
details over and over again.
But I oblige. Anything to find my father.
Three days. He texted me before he left the city, I say.
Three days since he left Malvern, huh? It shouldve taken him
one day to get through the woods, so he shouldve been back two
days ago, Graham says.
Yes. I stop myself from reminding him that he said the same
thing when I came here yesterday. This is not new information.
It has been raining pretty heavily, so maybe he found shelter
somewhere, he says. The cell reception is bad in the woods.
Yes. Im familiar with this problem, but I probably shouldnt
mention it, especially to someone like Graham.
Even though Im already twenty-one, Im not supposed to leave
the sleepy town of Willowdale on my ownmeaning without my
fatherbut Ive done it, a few times.
The first time I came home from the city, I couldnt sleep from
the fear and guilt. But I kept doing it regardless, and I got better
at pushing those feelings aside.
I know its wrong and I know father wouldnt approve, but I cant
help it. All my friends go to the city on weekends, and Im the
only one stuck at home.
I mean, I love my books, my home, and my family. But
sometimes a girl wants to see whats out there.
Thanks, Graham, I say as I turn around to leave the police
station.
Any time, beautiful, he says.
Luckily, I already have my back to him, or hed see me scrunch
up my nose.
As the sun hits my skin and warms me up, I pull out my phone
from my bag. Still nothing from my father.
I hope hes okay.
He probably is. Nobody else but me seems to find it odd that he
hasnt made any contact in three days.
Even my sisters tell me hes probably just lost his phone
considering how absent-minded my father is, thats entirely
possible.
I really hope theyre right.
JAMES

W hat do you think youre doing? I ask.


Quentins plump body jerks from the shock. Obviously, he didnt
expect to be interrupted. He thought he had the whole garden to
himself, the old thief.
If it werent for the surveillance cameras, I wouldve missed this.
Unfortunately for him, I always check the security footage.
He turns around, and I can see the shock in his eyes. Your Royal
Highness, he says in a squeaky little voice. I, uh, I was just
about to leave, and then I saw the garden, and
And you thought youd steal from me, I cut him off. I have so
many plants, so I wouldnt notice one or two missing. Have I
guessed correctly?
Im so sorry, he says, cowering as I approach. I really didnt
mean to steal. But I thought you were away, since you said youd
have an early start today, and
And you thought it would be the perfect opportunity, I finish
his sentence for him as I stand right in front of him.
Im aware of how much bigger and stronger I am than him, and I
know how intimidating I seem to him right now.
Despite my royal upbringing, Id gotten into more than a few
fistfights when I was a schoolboy. Older and wiser now, Ive
learned how to subdue an opponent without even touching him.
No, Your Highness, I swear I didnt mean to steal anything. I
just couldnt find you or Albert, Quentin says, his body
shivering despite the warm weather. I wouldve asked for
permission otherwise.
But you didnt, I say in a calm tone that nevertheless makes
my indignation known. Did you know this was my mothers
beloved garden?
Im sorry, Your Highness. I didnt know.
I suppose you also didnt know that its a crime to take
anything from palace grounds without permission.
I apologize, Your Highness. Please forgive me. I merely wanted
to bring something home for my daughter, Rosemary, he says.
My ears prick up with interest when he mentions her name, even
as anger continues to simmer in my blood.
Did she tell you to steal, too? I ask.
No, she would never do anything like that, Quentin says.
When I left for the city, I asked my daughters what they wanted
me to bring from the city.
Since my truck got stuck in the mud, I figured it would take
days or weeks for me to get it into town. And the gifts that I
originally bought for my daughters wouldve been destroyed by
the time I can retrieve them, and thats only if they havent
already been stolen.
Is there a point to this story? I ask impatiently. I was
expecting him to tell me more about Rosemary, and instead hes
talking about mud.
My youngest daughter, she wanted me to bring home a rose. I
bought her a bouquet of roses in the city, but at this rate the
flowers wouldve wilted before I got a chance to bring them
home, he says.
Your daughter, she likes flowers?
It seems like a strange request to ask for flowers from the city.
Judging by Quentins story about closing a particularly big deal in
the city, he probably couldve afforded better gifts on this trip,
like branded handbags, designer gowns, or even jewelry.
Yes, Your Highness. Shes a florist and she takes very good care
of my late wifes garden, he says. Please, Im just a father
trying to make his daughter happy.
Maybe you shouldve thought of that before you stole from the
kingdom. Your daughter wouldnt be very happy if you were
imprisoned in the dungeon.
Quentin falls to his knees, staining his khakis with damp soil.
Please, Your Highness, dont throw me in the dungeon. Ill do
anything.
Anything? I ask.
This could be interesting.
JAMES

LAST MONTH

W hen my gaze first lands on her, she's on the other side of


the big hall.
But I can see her clearly. It's like the crowd has parted to give me
a clear line of sight. Its like there's a spotlight shining on her
and following her around.
I know the lighting technician wouldn't do that, though. I hired
him myself and made it clear how important privacy is for my
clientele. He knows Id fuck him up if he ever violates my rules.
The spotlight should only ever remain on the stage, on the
performers and the handful of guests who probably get off on
public attention. Like me, the rest of the club prefers to remain
anonymous.
The difference is, they get to take off their masks as soon as they
step out of this club. Me, I normally wear mine home.
It's easier to blend into the crowd wearing a party mask than it is
to just walk down the street as myself. As the crown prince, Im
often recognized when Im out and about, which is why I prefer
to stay inside the palace.
I cant afford to have my pictures plastered all over the gossip
tabloids again, especially when my presence here at The
Dungeon is somewhat related to a past scandal. This is why I
only visit The Dungeon on Masquerade Night, a monthly event
that requires all attendees toyou guessed itwear masks.
The men wear black, unadorned masks that cover the upper part
of our faces. The womens masks have the same shape, but many
of them are made of sparkly materials, and some have colorful
bird feathers stuck on the,.
But she doesn't need these tricks to stand out.
Even amongst a sea of people, my eyes always find her.
At first, I notice the dress. It's a little too conservative for the
venue, but it's irresistibly sexy.
It's a yellow off-the-shoulder number that nips in at her narrow
waist and follows the curve of her hips. The way the dress
displays her dainty shoulders and elegant neck makes me want
to rip it off her body and see what secrets she's hiding
underneath.
Her body starts to sway seductively to the music. But she seems
uncomfortable, like she's worried she's doing something wrong.
Shes probably new and not sure what to expect hereand Id
love to be the one to show her the ropes.
My gaze travels down her slender arm and to her wrist, where I
see a white band. Her other band, a pink one, tells me she
doesn't have a master. She's a free agent, which means I can
claim her. But what's thata collar?
I move with the crowd, keeping my gaze locked on her lovely
form, even though I don't fully understand this pull toward her. I
can always watch her from my private booth upstairs, but that
won't be close enough.
It's bizarre; she's a beauty, but I see beautiful women all the
time, and none of them has this kind of an impact on me. She
gets me excitedmy heartbeat is faster than usualand it's
been a while since the last time that happened.
By the time I find a good spot to watch her, the host has gotten
up on stage and announced a new show. I don't care, though.
Not now. Not with her in the crowd.
Ive traveled all the way to Malvern to watch this show live, but
even that doesn't seem appealing anymore.
From up close, shes even more stunning. Her eyes are so big
they're almost cartoonish. Her hair catches the light from the
stage, making it seem like she has a glowing halo around herit
makes her appear even more out of place in this club full of
depraved people.
I take a closer look at the thing curled around the graceful
column of her neck. It doesn't seem to be a collar, but a choker
necklace with a small gold pendant.
Arousal rises within, kindling a flame inside me. Shed look so
good on her knees with a real collarmy collararound her
neck and nothing else.
She obviously needs a master. Even without her saying anything,
I can tell shed do well and even flourish, with the right master.
Just watch her. Really watch her. The tell-tale signs are subtle,
but they're there.
On stage, a man has tied up a woman to a wooden post on the
floor. The bottom part of the post looks like an inverted Y,
spreading her legs apart. A horizontal piece tops the post,
keeping her wrists spread and restrained. She has her knees on
the ground and her ass in the air.
You understand why Im punishing you? the man asks as he
menacingly raises his whip.
Yes, Master. Because I talked back to you, Master, she says in a
voice that betrays her fear and anxiety. With a blindfold over her
eyes, she can't tell what's going on around her. She can't even
see the hundreds of people watching her in her most vulnerable
state right now.
That's right. The man swiftly brings down the whip, the
leather slicing through the air with an audible sound.
As it lands sharply, the woman cries out. Thank you, Master!
she adds quickly, afraid delayed gratitude would earn her more
blows.
I dont even have to look at the couple on the stage to know
exactly whats going on from the sounds alone.
How can I watch something as mundane as the show, when
theres a captivating, innocent-looking angel in front of me?
Her brown eyes widen when the whip hits the subs ass again.
Her mouth opens with a gasp, and my cock stirs in my pants as
my imagination goes wild with all the filthy things I can do with
those full lips.
With every lash, she flinches like most of the audience, but the
way she bites her bottom lip tells me shell fantasize about this
scene when she goes home and lies alone in the dark, her
naughty little fingers in her panties.
All around us, men in suits and masks hold leashes that are
connected to their subs collars.
One man up in the booth has his sub kneeling on the floor
between his thighs, pleasuring him orally as he watches the
show.
A few feet behind me, a man leans back against the wall as he
puts one hand around his subs neck and another hand down her
skimpy panties.
My hands have never felt more empty. I want to take off her
stupid choker and replace it with my collar. Ill take her with me
to the club and show off her obedience and her commitment to
my pleasure.
I squint to take a better look at the gold pendant hanging
between her clavicles.
Is that...a rose?
I almost burst out laughing, but I stop myself just in time. I may
be wearing a mask, but I still can't afford to draw attention to
myself. It's too easy for someone to recognize me.
Me, caught in a BDSM club? That would be a paparazzis wet
dream. The tabloids would have a field day.
But a rose. That is too fucking perfect. It's like she has already
been branded with my family crest, like she's already mine.
I have to talk to her.
As if she can hear my thoughts, she whispers something in her
friends ear and leaves the crowd, making her way to the ladies
room.
Her friend is wearing a collar. I can't see the end of the leash
from where I'm standing, but it's safe to assume she's here with
the guy beside her.
I wonder if that makes my little rose feel lonely, being the third
wheel. Maybe she yearns for a firm hand to take control of her.
Judging from how much she enjoys the show, she probably does.
I follow her and find a spot by the restrooms where I can wait for
her.
My mind wanders to imagine what she's doing right now. I
wonder if her panties are soaked, if her pussy is throbbing with
desire.
After a few minutes that feel like hours, she appears.
She's teetering on her high heels, her hips swaying sensuously
with every step she takes. She stops as she faces the crowd,
craning her neck to find her friend.
I step in front of her and block her view.
You must be new here, I say to her bewildered face.
Her big brown eyes grow even bigger as she tilts her head up to
look at me. Uh...yeah, she says.
She's so small I can just throw her over one shoulder and take
her home right now, kicking and screaming, but that wouldn't
be much fun.
Id rather train her slowly and watch as she blooms before my
eyes. Id love to see her shed that self-consciousness and replace
it the quiet confidence of a submissive, secure in the knowledge
that only her masters opinion matters, and her master is
pleased with her.
But Im getting ahead of myself. There's still a long way to go
until she becomes my perfect submissive. But as I watch her, I
know she's a diamond in the rough.
I trust youve already been told to never make eye contact
unless explicitly requested, I say.
Her lips part in surprise, but no sound comes out. Instinctively,
she starts to raise her eyes to look up at me again, but she
catches herself and directs her gaze downward instead. Sorry,
she says softly.
And youre supposed to address men in the club with respect,
I add. I take another step closer to her, until there are mere
inches between us.
The proximity between us excites her. Maybe she likes it that Im
invading her personal space without asking for permission. Or
maybe it's the fact that I'm calling her out and putting her in her
place.
Whatever it is, she's responding to meat least her body is. Her
breathing picks up, and her face grows warm with color. She
even squeezes her legs together, the muscles in her toned legs
tensing.
She's getting aroused, and all it takes is a few words from me.
Sorry, Sir, she says, correcting herself.
The sight of her in that state, combined with the way she has
just addressed me, sends blood rushing through my veins. My
cock jumps in my pants.
I want to see how she reacts to my hand pulling her hair, and my
lips all over her smooth skin. I want to tie her up with her legs
parted wide and bury myself balls deep inside her.
For the second time tonight, I wonder how wet she is.
But judging from the white wristband and how unfamiliar she is
with this environment, she's not ready yet for something like
that. If I move too fast, she might run away like a scared little
hare.
No, an exquisite treasure like her requires careful handling.
Good girl, I praise her.
She seems taken aback by my words. Obviously, she has never
been addressed like that before. And evidently, she likes it.
You're supposed to express gratitude when you're given a
compliment, I say.
Im sorry, Sir. Thank you, Sir, she says, her breaths rapid and
heavy. She's a quick learner, and she's responsive to my
dominance.
Good, I say. Next time I see you, youd better remember the
rules.
Yes, Sir.
Or else Ill have to punish you.
Her breath catches, and I would've heard a soft gasp from her, if
the music didn't drown it out. God, what I wouldn't give to steal
her away to my palace, where I can hear every delicious little
noise she makes
You may leave now, I say, dismissing her.
She almost glances up at me again, surprised the encounter is
overand at least a little disappointed. She catches herself in
time and says, Thank you, Sir, before she walks away.
Too bad I have to let her go for now. But her reaction has just
confirmed that taking it slow would be the best strategy.
Keep her on her toes, and keep her guessing. She's already
wondering what Im doing, why I'm sending her away after
giving her a heady taste of what it means to submit.
Ive already gotten into her head.
Yes, this one will take some time to get ready, but itll be worth
it.
Ill find her again, even if it means I'll have to leave the palace
on my own more often, even if it means Ill risk getting caught.
ROSEMARY

Y ou've already killed Mother, and now youre going to take


Father away, too?
Nobody actually says it out loud, but I can hear those phantom
words. I see it in the accusing eyes of my siblings. Even my
father is avoiding my gaze.
We're sitting at our dining table, but the mood is somber.
Normally, on the rare occasion when Fathers home, the
atmosphere would feel more festive, more celebratory.
But there's nothing to celebrate today.
Father is homewhich is exactly what I've been hoping for. It
should be cause enough for a celebration. But he brings bad news
with him.
Father has just told us what had happened to him while he was
away.
It's all because of my rose. All due to a stupid flower that was
going to wilt in a few days anyway.
And now hell have to go back to the man who has threatened
him. Hell have to risk his safety. All for a dumb flower.
Father won't tell us who the man is, but hes probably someone
powerful. I mean, if picking plant matter at his residence is a
crime, then he must have some kind of a title.
He's probably someone like a Baron or a Viscount. Maybe even
an Earl.
Do you really have to go back, Father? Irina asks.
Yes, I promised the man, Father says.
The dining table goes quiet as all of us think about what that
means. Its only a flowersurely the punishment wont be too
harsh?
Did you get to buy my bag in the city, Father? Clara breaks the
silence.
Sorry, honey. I did buy them, but I had to leave everything in
the truck because the storm was so bad. Ill have to go back
another day to check if its still there.
Both my sisters turn their heads to stare at the long stem of rose
in my hands.
So only Rosemary got what she wanted, Clara says, giving me
the side-eye.
I drop my gaze to look at my pricey flower that Father will have
to pay for with his freedom.
It still has all its little leaves and thorns because Father didn't
have time to remove them before the man chanced upon him.
But the lone red rose is stunningly beautiful.
Most of the petals are still tightly wrapped around the center,
except for a couple that are starting to peel away from the rest.
It's like the petals are huddling close for safety, knowing how
dark and dangerous it is out here.
Father, if you're away, then how are we going to survive?
Father glances at me, but quickly averts his gaze. I understand
he doesn't want to put all the financial burden on me, but
there's no other way.
I don't know how long Ill be gone, but Ill try to talk to the
thrift-store owner and ask him to come over. There might be
some things we can sell, Father says.
Oh my god, Irina says, covering her face with both hands in
dramatic fashion. What are the neighbors going to say?
Ill ask for more shifts at the flower shop, I say. Mrs. Greene
has been asking me to start working full time anyway.
You mean you could've been making more money, this whole
time? Clara asks, her jaw dropping.
Yes, I admit, resisting the urge to snap at her.
Its never a good idea to bring up the fact that neither one of my
sisters work. It always ends with them sobbing hysterically, and
me feeling like Im the bad guy.
Besides, I deserve their anger this time, for putting Father in
danger.
I press my thumb against a thorn on the long stem of the rose,
pushing through that initial reflex to cringe away from the pain.
I have to welcome the pain. Pain is strength.
So we couldve gotten new dresses for summer? Irina asks,
just as incredulously.
Do you know how important it is that we look good, Rosemary?
We can't get the rich guys unless we look like the kind of girls
who belong beside them, Clara adds.
Yeah, were applying for the positions of their wives, so we
have to look the part. As they say, dress for the job you want and
not for the job you have.
Im tempted to ask her what she really knows about getting any
kind of a job, but I bite my tongue and force myself to smile.
You're making it hard for us to earn some money for the family,
Rosemary. Do you care at all about us?
Glancing down, I see red blood pooling where the thorn pricks
me.
It feels good.
It distracts me from my thoughts, keeping the hot anger within
me at a gentle simmer. This is not the time to make waves.
This is my fault. I have to face the consequences.
But how about your apprenticeship with Mr. Taggins, dear?
Father asks me.
My heart clenches. He's still thinking something so trivial at a
time like this. I keep failing him, and he keeps heaping kindness
on top of me.
Don't worry about it, Father. I give him what I hope is a
reassuring smile. I don't know what I was thinking, applying
for the apprenticeship. Our town already has one botanist and
doesn't need any more. Im happy with my job at the flower
shop.
Father, can't Rosemary go instead of you? Irina asks.
Yes, the flower was for her after all, Clara says.
He widens his eyes like a deer in headlights.
Really, my sisters shouldn't put our father in a spot like that.
Father has already gotten himself in trouble for me. My sisters
won't be happy if he sides with me now.
So instead of going against them, I ask, Yes, Father, is there no
other way?
We all want the same thing. There's no reason why we can't find
a solution together.
If I can go in Fathers place, I would. That would be better for
everyone.
Despite my good intentions, I always end up screwing things up
for everyone. I guess its true what everyones been saying about
me. I really do bring bad luck to my family.
Don't worry, Father says. Ill think of something.
I know what that means.
That means he has no idea what to do. He's reached a dead end.
He just doesn't want to admit it in front of us.

I SIT bolt upright and stare at my phone screen.


What is this?
A chill runs down my arms.
I twist to look around me. Im alone in my room, right?
The window is open.
That's it. Someone from outside can see into my bedroom.
I run to the window and pull the curtains closed.
I read the short email again.

Hello Rosemary,
There's no need to cry. I can help you help your father.

There's no clue as to the senders identity. It's one of those free


email accounts with a random jumble of letters as the address.
I sit back down on the side of bed by the window, clutching my
phone. My legs feel like noodles.
The email app refreshes. There's a new message.
My heart races as my shaking finger tap the screen.
No, I tell myself. Im being silly. Maybe this is not another
strange email. It's probably just another newsletter from some
romance author. I like those novels, but I feel like Ive been
getting too many emails from the authors lately.
Then, the new email loads.
Like the previous one, it comes from the same sender and it has
a blank subject line.

I was enjoying the view, but I understand. Now, would you


like to help your father? This is a limited-time offer.

My heart pounds in my chest. Someone's watching me! And he


knows Ive just closed the curtains.
I re-read the email. At least it doesn't sound like that person can
see me anymore.
My finger hovers over the reply button.
Am I really going to respond to this person? He sounds
dangerous.
But if it means saving my father
I can't not reply, right?
If something bad happens to my father, which seems likely, Ill
always wonder if there's anything I could've done.
I hit the reply button and start to type with my thumbs.
How are you planning to save my father?

I send the email, then raise my fingers to my mouth, biting my


nails. It's a bad habit for which Im always derided by my sisters.
They like to grow their nails long and paint them with colorful
polish. I dont love the way my nails look but I dont care because
they're always destroyed at work anyway.
New email.
Without hesitation, I open the email.

Im not going to save your father. You are.

I frown. That's not very helpful.


I type a short reply and send it.

How?

The answer comes swiftly.

If you come here, your father won't have to.


JAMES

S he knows she's walking around in circles. The breaking of


branches at regular intervals tells me she's marking her route.
I'm not offended. I'm impressed.
She's being smart. She doesn't ask unnecessary questions like
who I am, because she knows shell see me soon anyway.
Besides, I hold all the power here, so she doesn't have any
leverage. She knows Ill reveal myself if and when I want to, and
theres nothing she can do to make me do anything.
I send her the next email:

Take 100 steps to your right.

Im tracking her movements, and Im telling her exactly where


and how far to go.
Once she's in the woods, everything looks almost the same, with
only trees all around her. She can't even use the stars as a guide
because of the thick canopy of leaves and branches over her
head.
It's the perfect opportunity to obscure the route and make it so
she won't be able to find her way back on her own. The last thing
I need is for her to run away as soon as I get her into the palace.
Worse still, if she figures out the hidden route, she could lead the
townspeople here. And then who knows what would happen
next?
The tabloids could show up on my doorstep. Hell, Cheryl could
tag along with them. I bet shed like that.
She hasn't enjoyed much attention since I moved into this secret
palace; shed jump at the chance to get her face back on the
glossy pages of those fucking magazines, portraying herself as
the victim. My victim.
I watch as the bright red dot that represents Rosemary on the
map stops. It's time to give her the next set of directions. I think
Ill make her

Turn to your left, Rosemary, and take another 100 steps.

I send the email, then switch my attention to the next screen to


watch the red dot follow my directions. I never thought a red
circle could look sexy, but right now it does. Just look at the way
it sashays and sways between the trees, following my orders.
My cock rises, straining against the fly of my pants. It's been so
long since Ive had my own submissive. Im sporting a tent in my
pants like a horny teenager, just imagining her big doe eyes
looking up at me when she gets here, primed and ready for more
instructions.
Up until I saw Rosemary at the club, I didn't think Id ever take a
submissive again. But she looked so beautiful. And she was so
eager to absorb the sensual atmosphere around her. She obeyed
my orders the way only natural submissives could.
To be honest, I didn't think Id ever find someone like her. But
it's not trauma or anything like that, although Albert doesn't
believe me.
My last submissive turned out to be a gold-digging opportunist.
She has banished me and cursed me to a solitary life. I hate
everything she stands for, and I regret ever allowing her into my
life.
But I know I dont have to write off the whole lifestyle just
because of one person. I just need to use more care in choosing
the right submissive. I just didn't think the right submissive
the perfect submissiveexisted.
But there she is, the sexy red dot on one screen. Soon enough,
Ill also see her curves and the hypnotic sway of her hips on a
different screen.
She's the most exciting thing to have happened in my life in a
long time. Im so glad Ive finally found her.
Ever since that night at the club, Id been looking for her,
without success. When her father showed me that picture of her
on his phone, I realized why. Id been looking for her in Malvern,
where the club is. And she lives in Willowdale, a neighboring
small town.
When the old man took that flower, I was furiousat first. Until
I realized I could turn it into an advantage.
I was already confident I could train her and collar her, even
without this elaborate scenario. But I still would only have her
some of the time. It would be scandalous for a girl of
marriageable age like Rosemary to live alone with a man.
And if she has to go back and forth between this palace and her
home, that could raise the risk of getting found out.
Sure, I can just see her once at month at The Dungeon on
Masquerade Night. That would be easy, but it wouldnt be
enough.
The way things are going now, Ill have her under my roof 24/7.
My mind hasnt stopped coming up with ideas to train her into
the perfect submissive. Something tells me that shell love it,
that shell find satisfaction in the act of submission.
That will be the ideal scenario.
Its also possible that shell hate it and shell come to hate me,
like Cheryl did.
And even if she tries to do the right thing, its also possible that
shell finally get a big enough offer from some tabloid so shell
appear on some celebrity gossip show, talking about how Ive
used and abused her.
But thats the beauty of this whole situation with Rosemary.
Even if she wants to, she cant go to the journalists. She cant
talk to anybody.
If she blabs, Ill just report her father for the crime that hes
committed.
Some may call this blackmail, but nobody will have any proof. Ill
have paperwork saying that Rosemary is legally under my
employ in this palace, and Ill also still have the security footage
of her father stealing on royal grounds.
And then, even if people want to condemn me over it, so what?
Im the royal beast. Im used to people giving me the evil eye,
even as they try their best to remain respectful to royalty.
On a more human level, I guess its selfish. Ill admit that. But
everything in this world is motivated by self-interest.
For example, social workers who dedicate their lives to bringing
clean water to African villages do it to achieve some kind of inner
fulfillment, right? They simply value that reward more than the
monetary benefits of normal employment.
And those hippies who tie themselves to trees and stop loggers
from doing their jobs? Theyre doing it for future generations,
which means for the sake of their own offspringhardly a
selfless act. What about the loggers families? They have people
waiting for them at home, too, but those tree huggers dont care.
No, everybody only thinks about themselves. So its only natural
that I look after myself, too.
Besides, if it werent for me the old man wouldve been dead. I
think Ive done enough for him already. Ive literally saved his
life.
I need to protect myself. Even though Rosemary looks perfectly
sweet and innocent, she could be my downfall.
But Ive thought of everything. I have a plan.
As long as I limit this relationship to a physical one, everything
will be fine. And I dont think theres any danger of me breaking
this rule. Nobodynot even Cherylhas ever made me care
about anything other than a sexy, warm body to dominate and
fuck.
My gaze locks onto the third screen, where Rosemary is
appearing right now.
That infrared camera is such a good investment. I can see her
clearly in the dark, although shes green and her eyes shine like
theyre flashlights.
She takes her one-hundredth step, then she stops and looks
around. No doubt shes confused.
But she remains standing in her spot. She doesnt even budge.
She doesnt take one step more or less than I told her to.
Maybe shes afraid shes going to get lost if she doesnt follow
my instructions exactlyas if Id ever let that happen. Or maybe
she likes being told exactly what to do.
Blood rushes through my veins as I watch her, this beautiful
brunette whos about to be mine. My cock twitches as I think
about peeling those skinny jeans off her legs and spanking her
ass with my bare hands until her skin turns cherry red.
She looks down at the screen of her phone, which casts an eerie
glow on her face that lets me see her frown.
Maybe shes waited long enough. She deserves some praise for
having made it this far.
I pull my keyboard closer to the edge of my desk and type:

Good girl.
ROSEMARY

Good girl.

I stothat it? Wheres the next instruction? What am I supposed


do now? Where should I go?
Besides That phrase Is it just me or is that unusual?
I dont often come across that phrase except in the pages of my
favorite romance novels. I also heard it in The Dungeon, where
one man even said it to me, and I promptly blushed got flustered
like the virgin I was.
Thats probably why he sent me away.
Right after, I told Elizabeth, my friend who took me to the club,
about the encounter. She squealed like a little girl and told me
how sexy it wasas if I needed her to tell me. She also insisted
that I try to find him.
With his tall figure, he shouldve been easy to find. But he was
also wearing a black suit and a black maskjust like 80% of the
male club-goers.
Besides, he seemed like the kind of man who wouldnt like
getting hit on. I was afraid of rousing his anger by approaching
him without his permission.
But Elizabeth assured me that a good dominants punishment
could be enjoyable. She didnt need to convince memy wet
panties had already done that.
Too bad I didnt see him for the rest of the night.
Well, actually, Ive been seeing him kind of. Every night since
the encounter, in fact. But only when Im alone in the darkness
of my bedroom, when Im indulging in my fantasies, my fingers
slipping into my panties.
I cant stop thinking about my limbs being restrained, while that
mysterious man paces behind me. In my imagination, the room
is silent, or maybe the atmosphere is so intense I block out all
other stimuli. The only sounds I hear are the tapping of his shoes
against the floor and my own quick, shallow breaths.
He rests his hand on my shoulder, then he drags it down my side
and my thigh. It feels like my nerve endings have come alive. I
can sense every little touch
Beep!
The sound of a new email interrupts my thoughts, making my
dirty fantasy dissipate into the crisp night air.
Its just as well. I shouldnt get obsessed with something thats
impossible anyway.
It was already unlikely that I was ever going to see that man
again, after the awkward way Id behaved in front of him.
And now, Im probably going to lose my freedom, and I dont
know what else. I have no idea whats about to happen, so Im
assuming the worst.
Its unlikely that Ill be able to even see that man again while Im
another mans captive. But he probably doesnt want me as his
Submissive anyway. A man like him, who oozes power and
dominance, probably has his pick of beautiful, perfectly trained
women to choose from.
Its better to focus on whats happening now. Ill worry about
everything else later.
The glare of my screen blinds me momentarily. My vision adjusts
and I narrow my eyes to read the latest email.

Turn to your left and take 45 steps.

I look to my left, widening my eyes so I can see more in the


darkness. It takes me a few seconds to confirm what I already
know.
Thats a dead end.
Where is this guy taking me?
I squint my eyes and re-read the message, letting my eyes be
assaulted by the glare. 45 steps to the left, huh?
Strange.
Firstly, every email since I reached the woods has told me to take
100 steps in a particular direction. Now, we have 45 steps. Am I
close to the destination?
Secondly, hes been making me go around in circles, but going to
the left means entering the narrow path between two rock cliffs.
Many such paths in this area only lead to dead ends. So where
am I going, exactly?
My heart races as adrenaline pumps into my blood. Whats
waiting for me when I get there?
I guess theres only one way to find out.
I pull my left leg out of the thick mud and take one step to the
left. My boot lands with a wet, sticky sound. With this leg secure
on the ground, I do my other leg and take my second step.
Jesus, this is a chore.
The mud mustve been worse when Father had gotten lost in the
storm. So how did he stray so far from the footpath and find this
mysterious mans hiding place?
I should ask him next time he comes home.
Oh, no. That reminds me I probably wont be there next time
Father comes home. My future is now determined by what this
man wants from me.
Well, at least I got a nice flower out of it.
I snort, laughing at my own private joke.
If Ill be on my own from now on, I should probably get used to
entertaining myself.
Maybe it wouldnt be such a bad idea to indulge myself with
fantasies about the mysterious man at the club.
I didnt see much of him because of the mask, and he also wore a
hat. Still, I could tell he had thick, golden curls, because a few
stray strands peeked out from under the rim of his hat.
His eyes were icy blueits strange that such a cold color could
ignite such a hot flame inside me.
I couldnt stop watching him when he spoke, because he
sounded so authoritative. I wanted so badly for him to just take
me, right then and there. He couldve taken my virginity before I
got involved in something like this.
It may seem crazy that I get lost in my imagination at a time like
this. But Ive learned to accept that I cant change a lot of things
in life, so I might as well enjoy what I can. Life is short, after all.
If all I have is my imagination, I should make the most of it,
right?
I stop after my 45th step.
Immediately, an email arrives. Beep!
Damn, is this guy still watching me?
All I can see around me are dark cliffs and shadows cast by the
taller trees. A cameraor even multiple camerascould be
hidden in the trees, or even on the cliff face. But its too dark for
me to see clearly
The email loads and shows up on my screen.

Turn to your right and push the rock as hard as you can.

Push the
Is this guy crazy? Maybe hes on drugs.
The rock refers to the cliff face. Were talking about tens of
thousands of tons of weight here. Does he really think I can do
anything to it?
He probably just wants to watch me fail and laugh at me. This
must be some kind of a cruel prank.
But if hes watching, I guess I should give him a good show. I
dont want him to think Im a worthless prisoner and decide to
take my father after all.
I put my palms against the rock. Its hard and unyielding. Its
cold, too, and its absorbing whatever body heat I still have
through my hands. Im not enjoying this.
I press on the rock, then I put my body weight behind it. I need
to look like Im really trying, for the sake of my audience, even
though we both know this is stupid.
Wait.
Did it
Did the rock just
Did it move?
What the?
I stop to look down at the sandy soil between the two cliffs.
Theres a clear line on the ground, where the rock used to be. It
has definitely moved.
I dont know whats happening. Apparently the laws of physics
dont apply tonight.
But I guess I just have to keep pushing. At least the guy is not
just pulling my leg, right?
As I push, I realize why its hard to tell that this rock can be
moved. The grains of sand keep moving as strong wind blows
between the two cliffs. This makes it impossible for any imprints
on the sand to remain for much longer than a minute or two.
Im also in the dark so its hard to tell, but the colors on this fake
rock look convincing.
Whatever this is, it wasnt made by some punk from the town.
This is a work of art. Whoever made this must be very proud of
his creation.
The rock keeps moving as I push on it. Im afraid of this guy
because hes a stranger and I have no idea what he wants, but
Im also impressed and fascinated.
A dark tunnel is revealed to my left.
The path is narrow, and the ceiling is low. Theres just enough
space for one person to pass through.
It looks like a pretty long tunnel. I cant see very far inside
because theres only one torch hung on the rock wall, close to
this entrance. Beyond that, theres only darkness.
Who does this place belong to?
A freaking tunnel inside a cliff, with a secret rock door?
Who could build something like this? Or, since a place this big
cant possibly be the work of just one pair of hands, who could
commission people to build something like this?
My initial guess was correct after all. This guy has to be
someone. I mean like, some wealthy nobility.
But what could someone like that want from an average girl like
me?
ROSEMARY

I hold the torch up, the heat warming up my face. The flame
dances on the wooden stick, and the warm light flickers in
the dark.
I tried to push the rock back to close the entrance, but it
wouldnt budge. I experimented with a few ideas, and none of
them worked.
I figured the guy probably didnt want me to close it anyway. He
wouldve sent me an email with the instructions if he wanted me
to.
So now a little cool breeze is still flowing into the tunnel. With
the torch, I can only see a few feet in front of me, but at least the
ground is not muddy anymore.
Here, the ground is made of rock. In fact, Im surrounded by
rock. It feels a little claustrophobic, although Im used to small
spaces.
Now, this rock ground Something about it is unusual. Its flat
and completely evenunlike regular caves, where there are
natural variations on the surface of the ground.
Someone has obviously taken enough care to even sand down
the hard, rock ground until its level.
This is crazy.
I mean, it was already crazy before, when I was volunteering to
take on my fathers punishment and let whoever this guy is
imprison me.
But now Now, it has gone up a few levels in crazy.
Secret doors and hidden tunnels? I thought these things only
existed in the movies.
Now, to find out theyre real and theyre still in use? That blows
my mind.
Add to that the fact that this place is within walking distance
from the town of Willowdale, and I just
I dont even know what to say anymore. Ive run out of words to
explain just how absurd everything has been since Father got
home.
Is it weird if I say that even though this secret tunnel looks old
and sinister, but it kind of improves my impression of whoever is
behind all this?
Ive always been into mystery booksdetectives and stuff. Little
clandestine routes appeal to me on a deep level.
When I was little and my father was away on business, my sisters
would pick on me. Theyd say mean things about me, and
sometimes theyd even lock me inside the closet when they were
particularly angry at me.
So Ive always wished for a space of my own, hidden from view. A
place where I could read in peace, where nobody could find me.
I cant believe Father didnt mention this cool rock tunnel to me.
He knows I love this kind of
Wait No, actually I can believe it.
He probably knew that Id get curious and try to find this place if
hed told me.
But Father is grossly overestimating me if he thinks I can find
this secret tunnel on my own, without any directions.
But how did he get here?
He didnt mention how he came upon the palaceonly that he
did.
I should remember to ask him next time we see each other.
Maybe Ill keep a notebook with all the things I want to ask
Father, so I wont miss anything when we meet.
My insides feel heavy as lead. I take a deep breath and let out a
big exhale, but my lungs still feel compressed.
The stale air inside the tunnel doesnt help. As cool as this place
is, it doesnt exactly have the best ventilation.
I seem to have reached the end of the tunnel. The narrow path
has been getting bigger and bigger. Where I am, theres a five-
foot space between me and either wall. The rock ceiling is about
three feet above me.
In front of me is a big wall. A big, red, hard wall of rock.
I hold my torch to the wall, checking to see if theres any
opening for me to go through.
I pull out my phone and check for new emails. I did set up a
notification sound, but its possible I missed it because I was so
fascinated by the tunnel.
But theres not even one bar of signal on my phone.
This cant be it. This cant be the end of the road.
From his emails, this guy seems to be well-prepared. He appears
to be a man with a plan.
There has to be something else.
I scan my surroundings and spot a piece of paper taped to the
rock on one corner of the wall in front of me. In a neat cursive, it
says:

Push here.

I put my hand on the paper, my heart and mind conflicted.


I really want to push the rock to reveal more secrets, but should I
really be so eager to meet the man who has threatened my father
with jail and is blackmailing me?
On the other hand, even though the charge is laughable, Father
did break the law. And so far, the sender of the emails has been
courteous. Maybe hes a kind person who wants to give our
family a chance to right the wrong that Father has done?
That said its unlikely that someone that benevolent would
resort to blackmail.
Besides, I have no idea why hes even chosen me. Why not
contact Irina, or Clara?
Theyve always fared better with boys, charming them and
laughing with them, while I have my nose buried in a book as I
occasionally watch them from a distance. They also dress
themselves in the latest fashion (as much as we can afford it)
and paint their faces with make-up.
I dont understand why hed choose me. Out of all the guys in the
town, theres only one who has overlooked my sisters to pursue
me. Im too weird for all the other men in our sleepy little town.
Oh, no This guy, hes not Graham, is he?
Id hate to owe something this big to Graham.
But this theory is not too far-fetched. Grahams family has lived
in Willowdale for generations, which is why his father is the
Chief of Police and his uncles also hold important government
positions. Its possible that they have a secret place in the
woods.
Whoever he is, I guess Ill have to meet him and listen to what he
wants.
So I press on the piece of white paper, and the rock wall moves to
the side, the sound heavy and dull.
My jaw drops open. I cant believe this.
I glance at my hand as the wall continues to slide, making a
deafening noise. I mustve touched some kind of a lever. There
has to be a trigger mechanism.
But I cant focus on my thoughts. I cant care too much about the
exact system that governs these secret doors.
Because as the rock wall disappears, I see something that takes
my breath away. Literally. I feel like I have to take deep breaths
to deal with the opulence in front of me.
Welcome, Miss Wilson, says a male voice, startling me.
Is this the guy whos been sending me emails? But he seems too
polite to be the same person. In the emails, he calls me
Rosemary. Hes even called me a good girl.
Weve been waiting for you, the same voice says.
I gingerly step forward, past the bit of rock wall thats sticking
out.
Is there more than one person? Whos we?
I turn to the side and find a tall man. Hes the most formal man
Ive ever seen. Hes wearing a three-piece suit: black jacket and
pants, as well as a grey vest. A crisp white shirt and a dark blue
tie complete the look. Hes also wearing a pair of white gloves.
The man seems to be in his sixties. The color of his thinning hair
matches the color of his gloves.
My name is Albert, he says, smiling. Lines appear on the skin
around his kind blue eyes. Welcome to Ardglass Palace.
I look around me, my mouth still hanging open. It takes me a
while to understand what the man is saying.
No wonder Father said it was like a dream. He told us the rose he
stole was the only proof that everything had happened the way
he remembered. And now I understand why.
Wait, did you say palace? I ask, tearing my gaze off the
beautiful interior to take a good look at Albert.
Yes, Miss Wilson. This is Ardglass Palace, the residence of the
crown prince.
ROSEMARY

E ven though I dont always get what I want, but I do always


have what I need. Without fail.
Just because my family doesnt have money in excess, doesnt
mean that were lacking in anything. Clara and Irina might
disagree, but thats what I think.
I mean, just looking around me
At my house, we have wooden floors. They're plain planks with
chips all over.
In this grand hall that Ive just entered through the secret
tunnel, the flooring is made of wood as well.
But the wood pieces are all kinds of different shades of brown,
and theyre arranged in intricate geometric patterns. Despite the
fact that the floor consists of hundredsno, thousands of little
pieces, the surface looks perfectly flat.
The floor, shiny from the lacquer, reflects the light from the ten
big chandeliers overhead. Theyre arranged in two straight rows
to distribute the warm light evenly throughout this great hall.
Each chandelier is a golden work of art with more little
lightbulbs than I can count.
Likewise, there are walls at my house, too. They work fine. They
do a good job at keeping rain and snow out, and theyve done
pretty well at protecting our private space from the curious eyes
of strangers.
The walls here are so different they may as well be a different
thing altogether. Theyre painted royal blue, but I can only see
glimpses of the color because there are white decorative panels
everywhere. The golden plaster on these panels forms designs
like delicate sprigs of leaves and luxurious drapes of fabric. I can
almost see these motifs movingwhich is impossible, of course,
but theyre so life-like!
There are more plaster panels on the ceiling, which is so high
that the furniture appears tiny.
Its almost like whoever built this place wanted to live inside an
artwork. Everything is so grand and extravagant its almost too
much.
And yet How is it that Ive never heard of the Ardglass Palace
before, when its so close to Willowdale, where Ive lived my
whole life? And why would the royal family build such a beautiful
palace in such an isolated area? Why all the secrecy?
I turn to look at Albert, whos patiently waiting for me to stop
gawking.
Sorry, I say. Ive just never Ive never been inside a place
like this.
Very few people have been inside the Ardglass Palace, Miss
Wilson.
So why me? I ask.
If theyve gone through all that trouble to hide this palace, it
doesnt make sense that theyd reveal it just because of one rose.
I mean, its a nice rose, but there are so many precious treasures
in this place. If someone intended to steal something, it
wouldnt be a worthless rose.
Im afraid I cant answer that, Miss Wilson, Albert says as he
continues to stand at attention. He looks perfectly ordinary, but
at the same time he appears tall and grand because of his suit
and the way he carries himself.
Whos the person who has been sending me the directions to
this palace? I ask another question, hoping to get an answer
this time.
Im afraid I cant answer that either, Albert says with a smile.
Is there any question you can answer? I pause, realizing how
harsh that must sound. Im sorry. I mean, is there any
information you can tell me? This is all very strange to me.
I imagine it would be, Albert says. If youre ready, you can
follow me to meet someone who can answer all your questions.
Who I begin to ask, but I stop myself. I purse my lips. You
probably cant answer that either, can you?
You are correct, Miss Wilson, Albert says. I was instructed to
meet you here and escort you to the study, but thats all Im
supposed to do.
Can I at least know why Im here? It cant be just because of a
flower, can it? I ask, wondering if Father really stole a flower or
if he did something worse.
Im sorry, Miss Wilson. Youll just have to follow me, Albert
says.
I nod. Theres no use pressuring this poor man. Hes too loyal to
his masterwhoever that isto give me any valuable
information.
Albert gives me a smile before he turns around on his heels and
starts walking, his steps echoing in this great hall.
As I follow behind him, I notice the two sets of oversized French
doors at one end of the hall. There are so many things in this hall
that demand my attention that I missed them before.
Above the doors, there are large paintings of men wearing thick,
red capes and elegant women in big, poofy dresses.
I recognize these paintingsIve seen their pictures on books
and their reproductions in peoples homes. These people are
long dead now, but they were kings and queens when they were
alive.
Albert is not lying. This is indeed a royal palacenot that I
doubted him before. He seems like an honest man and this place
is way too imposing to be anything other than that.
Albert opens the door and holds it open for me. I smile at him as
I pass. I can get used to this royal treatment, but its also kind of
stiff and awkward.
Thats probably the least of my worries, though. I wonder how
much longer Ill get to enjoy this. Seeing as Im here to take on
my fathers punishment, Ill probably sleep in a dark cell in the
dungeon tonight.
Albert steps into the hallway and asks me to follow him again.
This hallway looks just as opulent as the grand hall we were just
in. The walls are lined with decorative patterns and paintings.
The tables and mirrors are gilded gold.
Everythings so perfect. Maybe a little too perfect.
I mean, of course a palace is supposed to be luxurious. But not
one painting is crooked, and not one thing is out of place. Then
again, Ive never been in a palace before, so its not like I have a
frame of reference regarding what a palace should look like.
Still, for a moment, I wonder if maybe this place is a mere
ghostly illusion. It seems too strange to be true.
Maybe Albert is a spirit, and he cant give me any answers
because hes taking me to his leader, whos going to turn me into
one of them, to serve the apparitions of royal rulers of the past
forever.
I shake my head.
Im being stupid.
Yes, the events of tonight has been strange, but theres no need
to come up with silly supernatural reasons to explain things.
Like Albert said, Im about to meet someone who can tell me
stuff, so theres no need to speculate.
I wonder who Im going to see, though.
That person is probably a high-ranking member of the palace
staff. Maybe the chief of staff is unhappy that someones
damaged his garden, and now hes going to give me a set of daily
chores to do until Ive made up for Fathers wrongdoing.
Yeah, given the strange situation, that seems like the most likely
explanation.
The palace is quiet. Maybe theres only a bare-bones staff
maintaining this place. The royals probably stay at the capital
most of the time and only come here when they really need a
break from the outside world, from the crowds and the
paparazzi.
Alberts long legs come to a stop, and I abruptly halt, my
thoughts interrupted.
Were here, Miss Wilson, Albert says, turning around to give
me a smile.
Were standing in front of yet another set of big, white double
doors with gilded carvings of birds, dragons, and climbing
plants. Around the doors are a frame consisting of a tall pillar on
each side and two golden cherubs sitting on the top.
This looks like the entrance to an office that belongs to someone
really important.
I imagine a man, perhaps about the same age as Albert, sitting
behind a big desk. Hed have a stern face and hed preach to me
about the importance of being a gracious guest before he finally
tells me what he wants me to do.
Thank you, Albert, I say.
He nods, then he extends his arm to grab the door handle. As the
chunky wooden door slowly swings open, my heartbeat grows
faster and faster.
What could be waiting for me now? Who could be waiting to see
me?
Please, Albert says as he holds the door for me.
I take three steps and reach the open doorway with legs limp as
spaghetti.
When I look inside, my breath catches in my throat.
It cant be.
I snap my head to look at Albert, my mouth hanging open in
surprise, and he just smiles back at me.
Is that really?
I fix my gaze on the man, who looks way too familiar. Even
though Ive never met him before, Ive seen his likeness,
perhaps thousands of times over my twenty-one years of
existence.
Those startling blue eyes.
That golden hair.
That lopsided smile.
This man cant be anyone other than him.
But its impossible.
Whats Prince James doing here, in the middle of nowhere?
And why would he want to see me?
ROSEMARY

P lease, come in, the prince says.


Oh god. Is he really speaking to me right now? Prince James is
actually addressing me?
It feels like Im standing knee-deep in drying cement. My legs
feel heavy.
But I cant just ignore the prince, can I? Im pretty sure thats
some kind of a criminal offense. Or maybe not. I dont know.
But oh my god, that is so not the point. This is not the right time
to wonder about whether its illegal to be rude to a prince.
I pull the corners of my lips up to form what I hope is a normal-
looking smile. I direct my gaze to the handsome prince.
Then, I lift my foot, pulling it up from the floor and putting it
down a few inches in front of me.
Okay. Thats one step. Well done, Rose, I congratulate myself.
Now theres a bunch more to take.
Wait. I havent greeted him, have I?
Now, what do I call a prince? We used to learn this in school, but
I never thought Id actually see a member of the royal family in
person. I never thought the information would come in handy.
Its so hard to jog my memory, while also simultaneously
operating my heavy legs and stiff lips. But somehow the words
come to me.
Thank you, Your Royal Highness, I say. My voice sounds
shaky, but Im just glad Ive managed to come up with an
appropriate response.
James looks at me with his blue eyes, appraising me. He doesnt
seem to feel awkward or uncomfortable, even though hes
blatantly staring.
A chill runs down my arm as the gravity of the situation dawns
on me. Still, my cheeks heat up with embarrassment at having
his gaze on me.
My heart pumps rapidly, sending blood rushing through my
veins. I almost jump when the door closes behind me with a soft
click.
It feels like theres some wet cement still sticking to my feet,
weighing me down. Every step feels heavy.
But I cant disregard the authority behind those eyes.
Its not just because hes a prince and Im a commoner. Theres
something about this man. Something that doesnt quite show
up in pictures and videos. Perhaps it has something to do with
his royal upbringing, but James has a dominant aura about him.
I mean, sure, hes a prince and he does literally outrank me in
basically everything, but theres something else.
Nothing that hes wearing even suggests that hes a prince. Hes
just wearing a business suitalbeit a nice, well-fitted one that
was probably custom-made by the royal tailor. In this modern
time, its not customary for royalty to wear their crowns, except
during certain events.
So all hes doing is sit behind a desk made of polished woodits
a nice desk, admittedly. Hes leaning back in his chair with his
elbows on the armrests and his hands clasped over his lap.
He looks perfectly at ease. Confident. Self-assured. Regal.
If Albert derives his dignified look from his formal demeanor,
James is the opposite.
His casual, relaxed stance tells the world that hes a man who
has nobody to fear, nothing to worry about. He reminds me of a
lion lazing around in the shade. He doesnt have to do anything
for me to sense hes in control.
Take a seat, Rosemary, he says in a low, gravelly voice.
I cant believe he knows my name. Prince James knows who I am
and hes calling me by my first name.
Suddenly, I remember what Im here for.
He must be the one who sent me the emails with the directions
to this palace.
It cant be anyone else, can it? Albert wouldnt call me Rosemary,
not even in text-based communication.
I suppose it could be another member of the staff who feels like
having a little fun at the expense of a poor family, but how likely
is that?
I almost burst out laughing.
Thats a ridiculous question. How likely is anything that has
happened so far tonight? And yet, unless Ive gone insane and
Im actually living in a padded cell in an institution, everything
has really happened.
Thank you, Your Royal Highness, I say as I take my seat across
the desk from him. This must be how Alice felt when she sat
down to have tea with the Mad Hatter for the first time.
This is surreal.
I cant believe Im only a couple of feet away from this man.
Everybody in the kingdom knows him. There are many rumors
surrounding his misbehavior so hes not exactly popular, but
everyone in this kingdom knows him.
I imagine you must be quite confused, Rosemary, he says.
I almost chuckle. That would be an understatement, Your Royal
Highness.
But you came here anyway. Why? he asks.
I want to save my father. I frown.
He does know why Im here, doesnt he? Unless Oh, I dont
know. I give up trying to analyze anything. Im sure what he says
next will shed some light on the situation.
Interesting, he says as he gets up, the wooden feet of the chair
dragging noisily against the floor.
My heart starts to pound in my chest as his intense blue eyes
study me.
Standing up at his full height, the prince towers over me. He
takes slow, deliberate steps around the table, knowing I wouldnt
dare to rush him.
My heart thrums when the prince rests his hand on the armrest
of my chair. Hes so close I can almost feel the heat emanating
from his body.
Dont bite your nails. Youre going to ruin them, James says.
I didnt even realize I was doing it. I let my hand fall away from
my mouth and onto my lap.
Such a good daughter, the prince says with a smirk. His blue
eyes darken as he gazes intensely at me.
If he werent the prince, Id say theres lust in his eyes. But its
impossible, right?
Prince James can take his pick of any girl in the kingdom. Why
would he be interested in someone like me?
He takes a step back to lean his butt against the desk in front of
me. Folding his arms across his broad chest, he says, Listen
closely because Im about to tell you something important,
Rosemary. Im not going to repeat this.
I swallow my nerves and look up at him.
Maybe I should be offended that hes addressing me like Im a
child. But hes the prince, and I still cant believe hes actually
talking to me.
But beyond that, something about him makes me want him to
talk to me like that, like he holds all the power and he knows he
can make me do things for him.
Ive never admitted this to anybody but my friend, Elizabeth,
who took me to the secret club, but Im obsessed with romance
novels about possessive men who claim their women and take
control.
I just have to imagine myself being under a strong, dominant
mans power, doing his bidding, and my panties would get
soaked. Based on my experience at the club, someone like that
would demand my interest in real life, too.
Come to think of it, Prince James kind of reminds me of the man
I met at the club. But he cant be that man, can he?
A prince wouldnt waste his time going to a club for commoners.
There must be some fancy balls he can go to, where royalty and
nobility can mix and mingle, without being bothered by
commoners.
Your father has stolen from my property, and he has to pay for
his transgression, he says. You want to take his place, and Ill
allow it.
Excuse me, Your Royal Highness, but did my father really steal
a flower? I ask.
Is that not what he told you? he asks back.
Well, yes. I just Its just difficult for me to understand that
hed steal anything at all. And to be honest, I take a deep breath
and steel myself despite my trepidation, it also seems like a
misunderstanding.
Are you saying Im being unfair? James asks.
No, of course not. I just
You just think Im being too harsh, he says with finality,
cutting me off. But a crime, no matter how small, is deserving
of proper punishment, dont you think? Or do you suggest we
just let go of everyone who runs a red light if it doesnt result in
an accident?
I shake my head. I feel like hes leading me into a logical trap.
Good. So we agree that someone has to pay for a crime, he
says with finality. Now, since its a small crime, the
punishment is light. Those rose bushes were my mothers
favorite, but your father didnt know that.
I raise my hand to my mouth, surprised by the revelation. My
mother has left us a garden to tend to, and I know Id break the
leg of anyone whod steal something from that garden.
Everyone in the kingdom loved Prince James mother, the queen.
When she died in an accident a few years ago, the whole
kingdom wept. James was famously close to his mother, and hes
been continuing his mothers charity work to honor her
memory.
Im sorry, I say. Father didnt tell me this detail, and I wonder
if he knew.
That's okay. Youll make up for it. That's what you're here for,
Rosemary, he reminds me.
Again, my heart skips a beat when I hear my name slide out from
between his lips. My nerve endings come alive; I can sense the
slightest change in the air. I find myself taking quicker,
shallower breaths.
This is so stupid. He's a freaking prince! What do I think is going
to happen between us?
He doesn't even know me. There's no way he's interested in me
like that.
He probably just needs a gardener to fix whatever damage my
father caused to the rose bushes anyway. Maybe my father
mentioned that I have a green thumb.
Honestly, that would actually be the ideal job for me. I may even
be able to use my experience here as a plus on my rsum if I
ever want to really pursue botany.
So, Rosemary Prince James cocks an eyebrow and leans
forward until I can feel his hot breath on my skin. A rose has
brought you into my home, and I see you're partial to the flower
as well, he says, glancing at the pendant hanging from my
choker necklace. Now, this is the part you need to remember,
he says, locking my gaze to his. Your safe word is rose.
I recoil in shock. Did he just say what I think he just said?
A safe word?
But that
That means he wants to..
What do you mean Your Royal Highness? I ask.
Amusement dances in his eyes. The corners of his lips pull up
and he says, I told you I wasn't going to repeat myself,
Rosemary. You heard me. He stares right into my eyes, making
me feel naked and vulnerable.
Strangely, that only causes the tingles between my legs to
intensify.
Now, are you going to apologize for asking me to repeat
myself? James asks darkly.
Im sorry, Your Royal Highness, I say, as if Im on autopilot.
Lets start with that. You are to call me Sir. Youll find it saves
a lot of time, he says.
Oh, that's right. Now I remember my third-grade teacher telling
the class it's acceptable to call a male member of the royal family
that, so I can safely assume that a bunch of people simply call
the prince Sir.
Im sure he's right about its time-saving benefits, but I feel like
there's something more. First, he says I have a safe word, and
now he's telling me to call him Sir?
There's no coincidence here. He knows about my dark desires,
and he's telling me he's about to dominate me.
My breathing grows heavy. My pussy starts to throb.
How does he know? How does he know everythingfrom where
I live, to my email address, to my sexual preferences?
For reasons I don't know, Prince James has vast knowledge of my
personal details.
Maybe I should care more about what this means for the
kingdom. Maybe this says something about the extent to which
government surveillance intrudes into the average persons life.
But I can't think.
At least my brain is not thinking.
Now, I know that sounds ridiculous, but my brain is not in charge
anymore, remember? Cut me some slack.
I feel like my baser instincts have taken control of the command
center in my body.
This is no longer about him being royalty. He's not my prince at
this moment. I can't handle that kind of high-level thinking
right now.
All I know is he's a man and Im a woman. He's big and strong,
while Im small and delicate. He smells like expensive liquor,
and he looks good enough to eat.
Millions of years ago, Stone Age cavewomen probably used to
have these same thoughts when they saw their men coming
home from a hunt, all hairy and masculine and sweaty and
victorious as they dragged their kills home.
Much like my ancestors, theres one thing I want to tell the
prince: Bring me to your cave and take me however you want me.
Youre supposed to call me Sir, Rosemary. Did you hear me?
James asks, whispering in my ear. His breath on my earlobe and
neck feels strange. It tickles at first, but then it starts to feel
good.
Yyes, Sir, I say.
Oh, no. Just calling him Sir makes me yearn to submit to him.
What magic has this man cast upon my body?
Good, he says as his lips graze my neck. But you asked me to
repeat myself and you werent supposed to do that. So Ill have
to punish you. Maybe tomorrow, after youve rested.
Punish?
Okay, theres no doubt now. He must be talking about about
the kind of things that people at The Dungeon do, right?
Spanking, whips, paddles
Prince James wraps one hand loosely around my neck and pulls
me closer. His lips land on mine and he tastes me with his
tongue. I cant help but part my lips and sigh into the kiss.
I knew you were a good girl. I was right about you, he says.
Oh god.
I cant believe this, but it cant be wrong.
The prince is the man from the club. He has to be.
I can see it now. The hair. The eyes. The lips that are now
planting kisses on my neck And that voicethe low,
demanding tone that I cant say no to.
Prince James, the crown prince, picked me up at a club. And now
hes telling me hes about to dominate me.
And that is supposed to be a punishment? I mean, I have my
reservations about losing my virginity, like everyone does. But I
dont think I can do better than the crown prince, as far as
candidates for my first time go.
If I ever tried to tell this story, nobody would believe me. Yes, not
even if they know about the princes reputation.
Thats right. Hes
My heart rate goes up when I remember who Im dealing with.
Hes the royal beast, after all. Hes a wild, angry animal, and he
wants to eat me alive.
He may seem nice now, but I shouldnt let myself get carried
away.
I need to be careful.
Rosemary, James pauses before he asks, youre a virgin,
arent you?
Yyes, Sir.
I remember putting on the white wristband at The Dungeon,
wondering if any dominant man would be tempted to claim my
untouched body for the first time. I had no doubt that at least
some men would beIm not completely hideousbut I had no
idea that the crown prince would be one of those men.
Thats good, he says. Ill make sure youre not one by the
time you walk out of this palace.
Its not that Im expecting the prince to propose marriage, but
thats I mean, yeah, I know Im just a commoner. I should
count myself lucky that the prince takes an interest in me.
But Im not a prostitute. I havent offered him my body for sale,
and he has no right to it.
And if Im being completely honest, it also bothers me that hes
already talking about our separation before anything has even
happened.
I pull away from the prince, leaning back in my chair.
If you think Im letting you do anything you want to me just
because youre a prince, youre wrong. Youve got the wrong
girl, I say, looking him straight in the eyes so he knows I mean
business, so he knows I wont just bend over and literally let him
fuck me.
Youve got some fight in you. James chuckles as he leans back
against the desk, placing both palms on the edge. I like that.
I glare at him, folding my arms across my chest.
Youre not going to let me do anything to you, James says,
making air quotes. His blue eyes darken as his pupils grow. A
smirk plays on his lips. Youre going to beg me to do everything
to you.
What?
Cocky bastard.
I dont beg, I say curtly with my arms over my chest, like Im
shielding myself from him.
I dont know why I was ever nervous to be around this man. He
may be a prince, but hes also arrogant and insufferable.
You dont now, he says with a raise of his eyebrow. But youll
be singing a different tune soon.
Look, Ill take on my fathers punishment, but I wont pay for
his crime with my virginity. My body is not for sale, I say.
Whoa, James says, holding his palms up. Who said anything
about buying anyone? Slavery is banned by Article Four of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
You said
I said I was going to make sure youre a woman when the time
comes for you to leave this palace, he says.
And when is that? I ask.
One month from now.
And what do you want me to do while Im here?
Youre free to do what you want, he says, to my surprise. You
can just enjoy living in a palace for a while.
You mean to say that the punishment for stealing a flower
from you is to live here in the palace for one month? I ask.
This is absurd.
Exactly.
After one month of doing nothing, I can go home?
Yes.
You know that if people were to find out about that, there
would be people climbing all over your walls and rushing in to
take all your flowers?
The prince bursts out laughing. Youre funny, too. I like that.
Can I leave now? I ask.
Yes, of course. Like I said, youre free to do anything you want.
He pauses, then adds, As long as its within the boundaries of
the law.
What kind of illegal things do you think Id do? I stare at him
in disbelief.
I dont know. Prince James shrugs. If youre ready, Albert will
show you to your room.
I get up without saying anything. I walk away with my back
facing him. I dont address him by his proper titlesor at all.
Mrs. Johnson, my third-grade teacher would be so disappointed
in me if she saw this.
So he wants me to beg, huh? He wants to take my virginity?
Ill show him.
Ive already been keeping my virginity for twenty-one years.
Whats another month?
Im practically a pro at staying virgin, at this point.

Okay, thats not the kind of thing I usually brag about.


But what I mean is, prince or not, I am not giving him my
virginity, much less begging him to take it.
JAMES

I wake up this morning and immediately look for my new toy.


I go to her bedroom and shes not there.
I ask Albert and he hasnt seen her either.
I ask Mrs. Parker, the cook, in case Rosemary has visited the
kitchen looking for something to eat, but I have no luck there
either.
And then, from the second floor, I hear some leaves rustling,
even though theres no wind.
I take a few long strides toward the edge of the balcony. Between
the gaps in the black-and-gold iron railing, I can see my
mothers rose bushes moving.
What is that? Some kind of a wild animal? Or could it be her?
My questions are answered when a head of honey-brown hair
emerges from between the plants. She has been crouching.
Rosemarys inspecting the rose bushes closely, as if shes
looking for something. She doesnt think theres another secret
tunnel she can use to escape, does she?
As she walks slowly, her hand hangs straight down, like its
holding something heavy.
What is that?
It looks like there are long blades attached to it.
A weapon?
I almost burst out laughing when I recognize the dangerous
thing Rosemary is holding.
Its a pair of garden shears, held by hands that are wearing
gardening gloves.
She wasnt looking for an escape tunnel when she was crouching
down; she was gardening. And she doesnt intend to use those
garden shears as a weapon; shes just fucking gardening.
She looks like such a delicate little flower, my Rosemary. And yet
there's a strength to her that I didn't see in the beginning.
Just look at her right now.
The past few days must've been strange and terrifying for her.
First, her father didn't come home. Then, she found out he was
to be arrestedor worse, over something that he did for her.
Now, she's a prisoner in my palace, unable to leave for a whole
month.
And what does she do?
She's gardening.
In a way, thats more admirable than trying to escape.
Its only one month and she can do whatever she wants, so shes
just going to enjoy herself while shes here.
Many girls in her position would be terrified, but shes more
resilient than that. She just takes it in her stride and carries on.
I like that. It shows that she trusts me. She knows that I wont
let any harm befall her and that Ill let her go when the time
comes.
Even though she tried to defy me last night at the end of our
meeting, I know in her heart shes already my submissive.
She threw a tantrum, but she knows that things are going to
happen the way I want them to. Thats why she has accepted her
punishment and shes making the best of her time here.
She may not like every decision I make, but she knows that what
I say, goes. She trusts me. And she has already submitted to me
in little ways. She looks delicious enough to eat, especially when
shes opening up for me, drawing closer to me with ragged
breath.
My cock stirs in my pants just thinking about it.
It doesnt help that shes wearing a dress today. Its blue and
there are little flowers on it. When a breeze blows the light
fabric, it clings to her body, giving me an idea of what she looks
like underneath.
And when the sunlight hits just right, her dress appears almost
transparent. I can just make out the outline of her tits and the
flare of her hips.
Its like even nature is tempting me to just take her right now. I
have a feeling that, despite what she said last night, she
wouldnt have resisted if Id spread those legs and fucked her.
But I have to be patient. The goal is not just to get my dick wet. I
can do that with just about any girl in the kingdom.
What I want is her sweet submission. Ive had a little taste of it,
and its intoxicating. Now I want more. I want her to voluntarily
give me full control of her body and mind.
And I cant have that unless I wait until shes ready.
Shes going to beg me. Just watch and see.
I tear my gaze off her and get back inside the palace. I go down
the stairs, two at a time, and follow the hallway leading toward
the garden. The greeneries are coming into view through the
open doors.
I see youve found her, Sir, a voice startles me.
I look over my shoulder to see Albert. Hes walking in the same
direction as me, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and some baked
goods.
I apologize. I didnt know you were going to be present as well. I
only have one cup with me, he says.
Thats for Rosemary? I ask.
Yes, Sir.
We walk silently, side by side, through the doorway. My mother
used to spend a lot of time in the garden, and the palace staff has
continued to keep these doors open, even though theres usually
nobody in the garden anymore.
I squint when the sunlight hits my eyes. The flower-scented
wind carries the faint laughter of a woman.
Rosemary?
She was here on her own. Who is she laughing with?
When my eyes adjust to the brightness, I see her holding out her
gloved hand, while birds perch on branches close to her and
squirrels gather at her feet.
Thats crazy.
My mother used to do that, too.
I remember trying to emulate her when I was little. But the
critters wouldnt come near me. Maybe they sensed the darkness
inside me, even at my young age.
Breakfast, Miss Wilson? Albert asks, standing a few feet in
front of me.
Oh, thank you, Albert, Rosemary says, without taking her eyes
off the little blue bird balancing itself on the palm of her hand.
And please call me Rose.
Of course, Rose, Albert says.
In the past, Albert has had some problems with addressing
people a little too formally.
Hes an old-fashioned man who used to live in a world with rigid
social hierarchies. We used to have valets, housemaids, nurses,
grooms, and footmen in Ardglass Palace, but weve done away
with a lot of positions. Other than Albert, now we only have a
cook in the palace, as well as a bunch of cleaners.
It used to be difficult for Albert to speak casually with a palace
guest, but hes a lot better at that now.
The little blue bird flies away, finished with its meal. Rosemary
dumps the rest of the seeds in her hand and rubs her palms
together.
As squirrels and birds scramble to get a piece of the action,
Rosemary turns her attention to Albert. He leads her to a hidden
part of the garden, where a set of table and chairs is shielded by
tall hedges, and I follow them.
Albert rests the tray on the table and pours some tea into a cup.
As Rosemary bends down to take a cookie, she catches me in her
line of vision.
Her gaze takes me by surprise. I dont know why. I know shes
right there and Im not wearing some kind of a magical invisible
cloak.
But the last few seconds had felt like a dream. It was like I wasnt
really here, like I was just an outsider watching events happen,
purely as a spectator.
Dont feed your food to the wild animals too, I say, blurting
out the first thing I can think of.
Why? Is that a crime, too? Rosemary asks, challenging me.
Its not, I say as I step closer, my shoes landing on soft grass. I
pull out a garden chair. But you probably need some strength
after spending all morning working on the garden.
Surprise registers in her big brown eyes. She probably expected
some kind of an abrasive comment from me.
Those expressive eyes tell me all I need to know about whats on
her mind. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then this girl has
huge, floor-to-ceiling windows that let me peer inside and
watch her, even when shes naked in the shower.
Quietly, she pulls out a chair and takes a seat across the table
from me.
I found this dress in the wardrobe in my room. I dont know
who it belongs to, but it fits me and my clothes are dirty, she
says, obviously feeling guilty about it.
Youre welcome to wear anything you find in there. The palace
staff has deliberately prepared the wardrobe for you.
So this is mine? she asks.
Yes.
Oh.
Who did you think the clothes belong to? I ask.
I thought maybe a previous guest left them. My friend works at
an inn and she says travelers forget to take stuff home all the
time.
I cant help but laugh.
Does this look like an inn to her? We dont keep the things
guests leave behind; we either mail the items back to the
owners, give them to charity, or throw them away.
But this little glimpse into her everyday life intrigues me. So she
has a friend who works at an inn. I want to know more.
Tell me, Rosemary, what do you do for fun? I ask.
I, uh, usually Im too tired from my job to do much else. Mostly
I just stay home and read a book.
What kind of books do you like to read? I ask.
All kinds. Anything I can get my hands on. I usually just read
whatever new books the library has. We dont often have much
money left over for non-essential stuff.
And you spend your weekends reading those books, instead of,
say, going to a club? I ask, casually alluding to our first meeting
at The Dungeon.
Yes, she says, seemingly unaware of my hidden meaning,
and I read them during breaks at work, too.
Do you need me to bring you a cup, Sir? Albert asks.
No, Albert. Thats fine. Leave us alone, I say.
Very well, Sir, he says before walking away.
When I turn to look at Rosemary, her expression almost makes
me laugh again.
She has frozen in place, holding a cookie in one hand, while
staring at me with shock in her eyes.
Whats wrong? I ask.
Everything is exactly the same as it was just a few seconds ago.
There is absolutely no danger here.
So what is she worried about?
ROSEMARY

O h god.
Ive been so angry with him that Ive totally forgotten.
This whole time, in my head, Ive just been calling him cocky
bastard.
It doesnt occur to me that this bastard happens to be a prince
and Im supposed to show him the appropriate respect.
I havent been calling him Sir like Im supposed to. I only
remembered when Albert was speaking to him.
Has he noticed?
Whats wrong? James asks.
Hes wearing a pair of khakis this morning, as well as a blue
button-down shirt that matches the color of his eyes. Could it
also be his more casual clothes that made me forget who he is?
Uh, nothing, Sir, I say, slipping the word into my answer as
casually as I can. I sound unconvincing, even to myself.
He frowns and studies me, his gaze capturing mine, boring deep
into my soul. Hes making me nervous.
I rack my brain, trying to come up with something to say.
Anything.
There is something I want to ask him. He seems to be in a pretty
good mood, despite my mistake. Maybe this is the right time.
Sir, Ive been thinking My father must be worried. May I give
him a call? I ask.
Ive been trying to contact him all night, but there's no phone
signal anywhere in the palace. It's not like Ive checked every
single room here, but Ive tried about fifty and I haven't gotten a
single bar of signal on my phone. I wonder if there's some kind
of blocker to keep this palace hidden.
Sure, James says. Albert will be happy to show you where the
phone is.
Thank you, Sir.
No problem. The last thing I want is for the townspeople to
arrange a search party to find this palace.
That was easier than I expected. Maybe I should ask him my
other question.
When I go back home, what do I tell people about where Ive
been, Sir?
You can tell them anything you want, as long as you dont
compromise the location of this palace.
Can I I take a deep breath. Ive been thinking about this all
night. Can I say that Ive been working at the royal garden,
Sir?
Sure.
Thank you, Sir.
Prince James smirks, looking like hes laughing at a private joke.
I pick up my cup of tea and hold it up to my mouth, covering the
lower part of my face. Its piping hot. I can see the white steam
rising from the cup. I blow on the surface, acutely aware that
James is watching me with a mysterious smile on his face. I tip
the cup to take my first sip.
You dont have to call me Sir in every sentence, he says
suddenly, but you cant leave it out altogether either.
The surprise makes me tilt the cup a little too much, causing a
little too much tea to spill into my mouth.
Oh, no. My tongue is burned now.
Are you okay? the prince asks as he gets up from his chair.
Yeah. I mean, yes, Sir.
Stand up and let me take a look, he says, standing by my chair
now.
Theres something about that voice that compels me to obey. So
without even putting the cup of tea back on the table, I stand up,
letting the back of my knees push the wrought-iron garden chair
back.
Open your mouth, he says, and stick out your tongue.
I do as he says.
He holds my chin with his fingers and makes me face him. His
touch is light, but it reminds me of how much I want him to take
control of my body.
Your tongue is burned, he says. You should be more careful.
My heart beats as loud as African drums. Everything may seem
serene on the surface, but theres a war waging in my chest. I
want to surrender to him
But Im better than thisstronger. I still remember what he said
last night about taking my virginity. I cant believe he had the
nerve to say something like that.
He may be a prince, but I cant give in to him and prove him
right. His arrogance irritates me.
The sound of some kind of liquid spilling onto the grass
interrupts my thought.
Ive spilled some of the tea in my cup.
Now look what youve done, James says. His blue eyes have
darkened. Something dangerous is lurking in their depths.
Something thats hungry for me.
Sorry, Sir, I say as I bend down to put the cup on the table.
Stop, he says with authority. Keep holding that cup.
As if my body is moving on its own, I straighten my back with
the cup still in my hand.
Why cant I say no to him? Its like his words bypass my normal
human brain and speak directly to my lizard brain, forcing me to
be a slave to my own instincts.
Good girl, Prince James says with a satisfied smile.
Then, he leans in.
Again, without even thinking, I close my eyes.
His hand on my chin move to the back of my head. He pulls me
closer and his lips land on mine. Softly. Gently. Like a feather.
Even though I know its coming, the kiss takes me by surprise. I
thought hed be more forceful.
I dont know if Im pleasantly surprised or disappointed.
This is nice, but I want more. I need more.
Then, the prince pulls away.
He leans his forehead against mine. I can still feel his breath on
my skin. And I can still taste those lips
I tilt my head up, my lips searching for his. Hes so close, and I
need to close this small distance between us.
Instead of letting me kiss him, the prince takes a step back and
stares at me, his gaze roaming all over my body.
The dangerous glint in his eyes only makes me curious. I want to
know what he wants to do to me. I want him to unleash that
desire on my body.
Keep that cup balanced, he says in a low, demanding tone as
he walks around me and stops right behind me.
I stay still as a statue.
What am I doing?
What is the point of holding up this cup?
Then I feel his hot breath on the back of my neck, and I forget all
my rebellious thoughts.
I realize I dont have to follow James orders, but I cant help it.
For some reason, Im not able to resist his demandseven the
stupid ones.
Because when hes around, he overwhelms my senses so much
that theres no space in my brain for high-level thinking. I can
only let my body run on autopilot.
I close my eyes when his arms wrap around my waist. His body
feels warm and solid. I lean back against his hard, broad chest.
Something warm and wet lands on my feet.
You spilled again, the prince says. With his neck so close to
me, I can feel the vibrations of his vocal cords.
I stand up straight and look down, only to see that hes right;
Ive spilled a little more tea on the grass. The gladiator sandals
that I found in the wardrobe are wet. Good thing they arent
mine, I guess.
But I dont really care about the sandals. All that matters is these
strong, powerful arms wrapping around my body.
The prince has rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and I can see
the veins running up and down his forearms. Every time those
arms move, the muscles beneath his skin ripple.
Keep those hands steady now, the prince says darkly as he
moves my hair over my shoulder, out of the way. Then, his lips
make contact with my neck, sending electricity crackling within
me.
As my breathing grows heavy, I struggle to keep the cup
balanced. I want to let it fall and focus on the princes lips and
tongue, his rough stubble grazing against my skin.
But I know hell stop if I just put the cup down on the table. And I
dont want him to stop.
So, even as my senses are claimed by the sinful sensations the
prince is causing, I dedicate what little brain power I have to
keeping the cup balanced.
It gets harder and harder.
The princes hands are starting to roam. He grabs my waist and
hips. His fingers trace my curves. Then, possessively, he grabs
my breasts as he licks and bites my neck.
I part my lips and a small moan escape. My cheeks heat up
usually, Id blame it on embarrassment, but right now that
would be hypocritical.
As a light breeze cools my skin, I remember were outside. I
know were surrounded by tall hedges, but anyone standing in
the right place can see us right now.
Should I tell him to stop?
I should, shouldnt I?
Otherwise Id just be confirming his belief that Ill be begging
him to take my virginity before the month is up. This royal
asshole doesnt need yet another reason to be cocky.
But his big hand is on my thigh right now. I can feel the heat of
his lust over the flimsy fabric of this dress Im wearing, and the
excruciatingly slow rate at which his hand is creeping up my
thigh.
Suddenly, he flips the hem of my dress. I gasp when his fingers
touch my thigh, making me realize Ive been holding my breath.
The prince runs his hand up my inner thigh until he reaches the
top.
He gently rubs his fingers over my panties, feeling and exploring
the outer shape of my pussy. I have to bite my lower lip to stop
myself from screaming. This feels wicked, frustrating, sinful,
and dirty. And Ive never felt more alive.
The princes breath feels hot on my neck, and its all I can hear.
Im sure there are leaves rustling in this big garden, maybe even
animals calling but none of those other sounds matter.
I freeze in place. My body is losing strength and going limp, yet
some of my other muscles have tensed up. It feels like Im
keeping precarious balance between all the different parts of my
body, and thats hard enough to do without also holding this
damn teacup in my hand.
Somebodys getting wet, James whispers in my ear. His breath
tickles, and it makes me squirm.
A moan escapes my lips when my own movement makes the
princes fingers rub harder against my pussy.
The prince chuckles. I bet that felt good. You can move your
hips if you want to. Ill allow it.
Allow it?
He may be a prince, and I may be his prisoner. But he doesnt
own me.
Really, Im outraged
But my outrage can wait.
Everything can wait.
Because Prince James is slipping his hand into my panties, where
no man has ever touched me. And it feels so good.
The prince runs his fingers along my lower lips, sliding back and
forth, aided by my wetness. My mouth hangs open, and my
breath grows ragged.
He presses one digit at my opening and pushes in. Now hes
literally got me wrapped around his finger. His arm across my
waist and his finger in my pussy keeps me in place. Theres no
place for me to go, and theres no space for me to move.
This feels dangerous. Taboo.
I can feel the sun and the breeze on my skin.
Im not supposed to do this. I shouldnt do this here. And
especially not with him.
But even though those thoughts try to tell me to stop, they
remain in the back of my mind. Meanwhile, my animal instincts
have taken over, and theyre screaming at me to submit.
Im in the hands of a strong, powerful man, who has also made
me soak my panties with just his commanding voice. In his
presence, I cant help but want to surrender, to give in to his
demands, to let him use my body for his pleasure.
And I can tell hes pleased right now. Because even though Ive
never been with a man, I know the thing poking against my butt
right now isnt a roll of quarters.
For starters, it wasnt there when James first started holding me
from behind. Its also way thicker than a roll of quarters would
be. And its hot.
I cant help but imagine the princes cock at my opening right
now instead of his finger. The thought excites me and scares me
at the same time.
I almost whimper when the prince pulls his digit out of me and
takes his hand out of my panties. I bite my lower lip to stop
myself, which hurts a littlebut thats exactly what I need.
Is it over?
Did I do something wrong?
Open your mouth, the prince orders, in the kind of voice that
doesnt take no for an answer.
Without even thinking, I part my lips for him.
Suck on my finger, he says as he brings his hand up, his
middle finger coated with my desire.
Ive tasted myself before, just to find out what its like. But this
is different. This is not just about the act of tasting my wetness.
Its more than that.
I dont mind the taste of myself. But its also not something I do
for my own pleasure when Im alone in the dark. So if I do this,
Ill be doing it for James.
The thought should offend me, but as the prince puts his middle
finger in front of my mouth, I lean forward and wrap my mouth
around it. I lick it upits thick, musky, and a little sweet. I run
my tongue all over James finger, making sure to clean it up.
Good girl, he says as he pulls his finger out of my mouth.
Thank you, Sir. My voice is hoarse and my breath is ragged.
I knew you were a good girl. The prince pauses, making my
heart race as I wonder what hes going to do next. He asks,
Now, do you want me to pick up where I left off?
I hesitate but only for a few seconds, until James lazily rubs my
pussy over my panties. When my mouth opens, theres only one
word that comes out: Yes.
Yes, Sir, he says sternly, correcting me.
Yes, Sir, I repeat.
Good.
The prince slips his hand back into my panties. My body is
trapped now. His chest is behind me, his arm is wrapped around
me, his hard cock is pressing against my ass, and his fingers are
playing with my pussy lips. Im surrounded by him.
True to his words, he glides his fingers over my wet folds. My
breathing grows heavy. Then, he finds it. My pleasure button.
With the tip of a wet finger, the prince draws circles around it.
Without even thinking, I push my hips forward. Hes so close to
my clit, but hes not quite touching it. Its frustrating.
My whole body tenses up as the circles he draws get tighter and
tighter. Finally, hes rubbing my clit, and it feels better than I
thought it would. It feels so different from when I do it on my
own.
With my own fingers, its like a slow acceleration. Now, though,
its like my engine has been hot and revved up for a while, and
now suddenly the brakes are off and Im going full speed ahead.
I hear little moans and grunts before I realize theyre coming
from me. Everything has faded away until all I feel are the
sensations between my legs. It feels like electricity is crackling
throughout my body, jolting me awake.
It feels so close. My brain has stopped coming up with
objections. Right now, I have one objective, and Im almost
there...
Without a warning, Prince James takes his hand away and lets
me go. I grab onto the edge of the table and rest my palms on the
surface to support my weight. My legs feel weak.
What just happened?
I told you not to drop the cup, sweetheart, he says.
My gaze drops down to the grass, where the cup is lying, the tea
already seeping into the soil. It mustve hit the leg of the
wrought-iron chair on the way down, because theres a little
chip at the top.
Shit.
That must cost a fortune.
Hes not going to make me pay for it, is he?
Is this going to make my sentence longer?
Im sorry, Sir, I say.
Slowly, I raise my gaze to meet the princes.
Hes watching me, waiting for a reaction. I can see the cocky
anticipation in his darkened blue eyes.
He nods quietly, then he says, We can go back to what we were
doing. I can make you come and scream out my name. All you
have to do is beg for it.
No, I answer resolutely. He may have had me in a trance
before, but now the spell is broken, and I can think clearly again.
Very well, he says as he bends down to pick up the chipped
cup. But instead of putting it back on the table, he curls a finger
around the handle and walks away toward the entrance into the
palace.
I watch his broad back shrink as he gets further away, my mouth
agape.
Hes just going to leave me here, just like this, after whats just
happened?
The prince suddenly stops and turns around. Oh, Im sorry.
How rude of me to just leave.
Did he just read my mind?
Is he coming back now?
Is he going to touch me again?
Do I want him to?
A million different scenarios play out in my mind in this
moment that stretches forever.
But the prince just smirks and says, I almost forgot to tell you
to enjoy your breakfast, before he turns around again and really
leaves.
ROSEMARY

W here have you been, Rose? Clara screams into the


phone, making me cringe away from the phone receiver.
Even with the handset held a couple of inches away from my ear,
I can hear her perfectly.
Its a long story, I say, but could you tell Father
Fathers worried sick about you, she cuts me off.
Yes, thats why Im
Honestly, its so selfish of you to leave when everything is
already in ruins, Rose. But its just like you to drag this family
into trouble and take no responsibility for it. I dont know why I
expected anything different from you.
Clara, listen, I
Dont you care that Father has to leave tomorrow? she asks.
Thats why Im calling, Clara. Could you tell Father to stay?
What are you talking about? All of us have been asking him to
stay. The problem is he cant. God, were you even listening when
he told us, Rose?
Clara, I got in touch with the man who owns the rose bushes
that my flower came from. He told me I can take the punishment
in Fathers place.
Clara goes quiet.
Clara? Are you still there? I ask.
You mean Father doesnt have to leave?
Yes.
Oh my god, thats amazing! she exclaims. Thats great that
youve decided to take responsibility for that stupid flower of
yours. Ill tell everyone the good news.
Wait, Clara, I say before she hangs up.
What else? she asks.
Could you tell Father that Im doing okay and theyre treating
me well here? I dont want him to worry, I say as nicely as I can,
gritting my teeth. I want her to deliver the message, and that
means I have to play the good, long-suffering sister.
Sure, Clara says before the connection dies with a click.
I take a deep, frustrated breath. I dont know why talking to
Clara still drains me so much.
When I dialed the home landline phone number, I knew there
was a chance one of my sisters would pick up the phone. I also
knew they werent going to understand whats happening from
my perspective.
So when the phone call went exactly the way I thought it would, I
really shouldnt have been upset.
If Father had picked up his cell phone, I wouldnt have had to go
through that. But oh well, at least hell get the message now.
I lean back in my chair, the same chair where I sat last night
when I first got here.
This office looks so different now when Prince James isnt here.
It feels smaller. Less intimidating.
Like the rest of the palace, the interior in this office is
excessively luxurious.
Soft rugs cover a few patches of the beautifully warm parquet
floor, while the walls are covered with artwork, from floor to
ceiling. There are carvings of golden plants and animals native to
this kingdom and portraits of rulers from a different era.
Statues and candelabras have been carefully placed, with
dramatic spotlight overhead. The crystal chandelier provides
ambient lighting.
Theres a marble fireplace with golden accents. On top of it, a
mirror stretches from the mantel, all the way up to the high
ceiling.
Considering the grandness of the space, the princes desk seems
small. It has thin, delicate legs and golden metal accents.
Despite the lack of drawers, theres nothing on the surface.
Nothing except for a cup.
Yes, that cup.
The one with a chipped edge from me dropping it in the garden
this morning.
Damn it. I can just imagine the prince sitting on the big chair in
front of me, fingering the cup with a smug expression. Maybe
hed even smirk as he fantasizes about making me beg for him to
fuck me.
The thought irritates me, but I cant deny the growing pressure
at the juncture of my thighs when I think about him sexualizing
me like that. And the fact that it turns me on only irritates me
even further.
As my finger traces the carvings on my armrest, I hear noises.
Electronic noises.
They sound out of place, and not just because this palace is
hundreds of years old.
Throughout the palace, I havent seen many electronic gadgets.
Of course there are TV screens and kitchen appliances. But
considering the size of this place, I wouldve expected more.
Albert told me that communication devices like cell phones are
useless here, and even computers dont have access to the
Internet. Apparently, some kind of a high-tech thing blocks all
signals coming in and going out of the palace.
This is so nobody from the outside discovers this palace by
accident, and nobody from the inside reveals the location by
accident.
With some apps and devices automatically adding geographical
tags to pictures and videos, its too easy for one of the
housekeepers to carelessly post a status on Facebook with a geo
tag attached.
But Ive been thinking about how James manages to get online.
He has a phone in his office, so it makes sense that hed also
have a laptop with Internet access, at the very least. Otherwise,
he wouldnt have been able to email me.
So, these electronic noises I wonder if theyll lead me to his
secret computer.
I dont even know what Id do with Internet access, but there has
to be something to do here, other than gardening.
Honestly, Im going crazy with boredom, and I havent even been
here for twenty-four hours!
When Im at home, Im always either working or sleeping. I
never have time for anything else.
Ive always wished for some free time so I can just do nothing for
one day, maybe read a book or take a day trip to the city.
But now that I have all the time in the worldat least for one
monthI dont know what to do with all this time. Maybe Ive
been so ruined by hard work that Ill never be able to enjoy a life
of leisure.
You know what the problem is with having too much time? Your
mind wanders. You think too much.
I could be talking to customers who are looking for bouquets at
Mrs. Greenes flower shop, or even learning more about botany
from Mr. Taggins.
But instead, all I have is a garden thats already in perfect shape
and nothing else. There is absolutely nothing to focus on, except
for the persistent, almost painful throbbing between my legs.
So those electronic noises? They sound pretty damn interesting
right now. I need some kind of a distraction.
I wonder where theyre coming from, those low hums and high
beeps. They sound too close to come from outside, but too far
away to come from inside this office.
I get up from my chair and take a few tentative steps toward the
wall opposite the fireplace. Like all the other walls, its covered
by beautiful artwork.
There are so many intricate designs on it, so many different
things that attract the eye, that it would be easy to miss
something that looks just a little off. Something like this thin
vertical line on a large mural that stretches from the floor to the
ceiling.
I reach out my index finger and trace the line. To my surprise, it
moves.
The wall moves!
Okay, now this is getting interesting.
I rub my palms like villains in action movies do.
I dont want to damage a multi-million-dollar piece of art,
especially one thats hundreds of years old and belongs to the
royal family.
If taking a single rose gets me one month as the princes
personal prisoner, theres no telling what kind of a punishment
Id get for damaging this mural.
So, gently, I put my index finger back on the line and push.
Again, the wall movesat least a part of it does. And it moves
quite easily. This is actually as easy as pushing a regular door.
A rectangular piece of wall, a little smaller than a regular
doorway, breaks away. It swings open into a dark room.
When I look up, I realize why I didnt notice this opening before.
I was anxious and confused when I got here last night, but this
doorway is also well hidden.
The top and sides of this secret door align with the edges of the
artwork, with the frames of the paintings and the lines of the
decorative plaster panels on the wall.
I should probably get some source of light so I can see whats
inside the room.
I quickly grab a candelabra from a nearby shelf and push the door
all the way open.
With the warm, flickering candle flames and the light spilling
inside from the bright office, I can just make out the shape of the
room, and the screens on the wall.
What is this place?
It looks like one of those surveillance rooms I see in action
movies, or even control rooms at TV studios.
There are just so many screens. More than I can count. Theyre
almost covering a whole wall.
Most of the screens are turned off, but a few are glowing almost
blindingly bright in this room.
I stand frozen in the doorway, not sure if I should get any closer.
All I wanted was Internet access so I could sneak in sometimes,
play some online game, and maybe even read a few chapters of
my romance e-books.
But this is I didnt expect to stumble upon this.
I can see people moving on the screens, and I recognize some of
them. These videos are coming from cameras installed in
Malvern and Willowdale.
What is this? Some kind of a spying command center?
I know hes a prince, but is this legal? Can he really just watch
people without their knowledge like this?
There you are, says a deep, stern voice from behind me.
I jump from the shock, my hands instinctively letting go of the
secret door. I twist around just quickly enough to see the tall
figure in the office before the door swings back and hits me on
the head.
ROSEMARY

A re you okay? James asks with concern, although hes not


quite succeeding at hiding the amusement in his voice.
Yeah, I say as my cheeks heat up with embarrassment. The
door is light enough to not hurt my head when it hits me, but it
does hurt my pride.
Its time for dinner, he says, but I see youre more interested
in my personal things than food.
I was just I heard some noises. My heart beats furiously
inside my chest.
I curse myself. How could I have been so stupid, so oblivious to
my surroundings? I shouldve heard James coming in hereand
then maybe there wouldve been enough time for me to pretend I
was doing something innocent.
Of course you did, he says with a small smile that tells me he
doesnt buy my lie.
And so, defeated, I start to follow the prince out of the office.
Abruptly, he stops and turns around. Do you want to take that
candelabra to dinner, too? I mean, its skinny as hell, but I think
thats just the way its supposed to be.
Quietly, I put down the golden three-armed candelabra back on
the shelf and walk behind the prince down the long hallways.
As I watch his back, I wonder what he needs all that surveillance
equipment for, and why he lives here, so far away from the
capital. If I were him, Id spend my time traveling and doing
exciting stuff in big citiesnot waste away in a quiet castle in
the middle of nowhere.
Ive never been one to follow celebrity news, and Im cursing
myself right now for that. Ive always preferred romance novels;
they have more interesting storylines.
Also, I didnt think the information in gossip tabloids would ever
become useful or relevant in my life Ironic, huh?
And now that I dont even have Internet access, I cant do any
research about him.
All I know is Prince James is the kings firstborn son, so hes
technically the crown prince and the future king.
But after he got implicated in a scandal a few years ago, with his
ex claiming domestic abuse, he fell out of favor with his own
father, the king. Since then, hes rarely been seen or heard in
public, especially after his mothers death and the kings second
marriage.
I wonder what the princes life is like. His mother died, and his
own father doesnt care about him. It must be lonely, especially
here, in this big, empty castle surrounded only by the royal
familys employees.
Is he always alone here? Does he have guests? Does he eat alone
most nights?
I often eat alone, because my sisters have finished eating by the
time I usually get home from work, and my father is away for
work so much. But sometimes we do have meals as a family.
Today, I had my breakfast at the garden and Albert served me
lunch in my bedroom, where I was hiding from the prince. I was
planning to also have dinner in my room so I wouldnt have to
face the prince, but theres no escape now.
James seems to have a talent for trapping me in impossible
situations, making me do things outside my plans. Im not used
to it. And I dont like it.
But all my embarrassment and annoyance evaporate when we
reach the dining room.
This is another cavernous room with dark, rich paneling on the
walls, decorated with big paintings. Most of this room is
darkened, except for a long table, over which hangs a brightly
shining chandelier.
The sight of the food takes my breath away.
Plates and bowls stretch from one end to the other end of the
table, while waiters wearing white gloves wait to serve us. Two
tall, golden candelabras are placed on the table, letting me see
the white steam rising from the food.
My mouth waters as the tempting aromas reach my nostrils. I
smell meat, cheese, and some kind of a smoky scent.
Dinner is served, Albert says as he gestures toward the table.
His proud expression tells me he knows how impressive this
spread is.
Thank you, I say absentmindedly, my attention still mostly
focused on the food while I approach the table. One waiter pulls
my chair back for me and slides it back in as I take my seat.
The lunch I had was good, but it was one plate of spaghetti.
This, though?
Im almost glad I came out of my room for thisand that Prince
James found me snooping in his office.
I cast my glance at him and catch him staring at me. He seems
unfazed by the fact that I know hes watching me, but he quickly
tries to hide the smile hes wearing.
He clears his throat. Albert doesnt often have guests to serve,
so he tends to go a bit overboard, he explains awkwardly,
obviously trying to draw attention away from the strangely
tender expression he was wearing just a few seconds ago.
Under the flickering candle-light, everything looks magical. Its
hard to tell whats real and whats not. Maybe I just imagined
that smile, or that gentle gaze.
Maybe you dont appreciate my effort, Sir, Albert says to
Prince James, but Im sure Rose does.
I do, Albert. This is beautiful. Thank you for your hard work. I
give him a smile.
Youre very welcome, Rose. I assure you, the food tastes even
better than it looks, Albert says proudly. The special items
tonight are beef ragout and cheese souffl. When youre ready
for dessert, we have some puddings that well flamb in front of
you.
Dinner and a show. Albert, youre an artist, I say.
Oh, thank you, Rose. Youre too kind. The lighting is too dim
to be sure, but I can almost swear that Albert is blushing from
the simple compliment.
As both the prince and I start to eat, the presence of Albert and
the two waiters help me feel more at ease. At least Im not alone
with the prince, and he wont try to seduce me with all these
people around.
Im so relieved. Maybe its okay for me to come out at meal times
after all.
If the food is always going to be like this, I probably should.
Everything tastes perfect. All the colors, the textures, the rare
ingredients Ive never had food this decadent in my life.
When my one month here is up, I probably wont ever get
another chance to enjoy this kind of food, so I might as well
enjoy it while I can.
I glance at James at the other end of the table. The flickering
candlelight casts warm light and dramatic shadows on his
handsome features. With his tailored business suit and good
looks, he looks like he belongs in this opulent palace.
Albert and the two waiters do too, of course, but in a different
way. While the staff appears professional, the prince comes
across as powerful. It only takes one look to see that hes the
master of this palace.
On the other hand, Im still wearing the borrowed dress from
this morning, and I have no idea what to do with the many silver
forks, spoons, and knives lined up in front of me.
Im far from graceful. Im willing to bet that I look like a sore
thumb in this palatial dining room.
So why does Prince James take an interest in me?
How did he know that Im the daughter of the man who took
shelter in this palace during the storm?
How did he know that Id come here to take my fathers place?
Neither one of my sisters would come, had the prince contacted
them.
Has he been spying on me?
Was he looking for me, that night we first met at the club?
Was it even our first meeting, or did we ever come across each
other before that?
Why me?
Did the prince engineer this whole scenario?
Was it ever about the rose?
So many questions are swimming in my head right now, but I
cant bring myself to speak them out and demand some answers
from the prince.
On one hand, I feel like these are questions I should ask in
private.
I mean, Albert is going through the list of ingredients of the beef
ragout right now. This doesnt seem like the right time to bring
up something serious. Besides, I dont want the entire palace
staff to know I secretly want to be spanked and dominated.
On the other hand, the thought of being alone with the prince
scares the hell out of me.
But this is only my first day here. There are twenty-nine left to
go, and Im sure Ill get better at dealing with the prince as time
goes by.
For now, Ill just enjoy the food, the palace, and the friendly
staff.
And Ill keep as much distance as I can from the prince.
JAMES

S hes been avoiding me.


Its not that I havent seen her at all. We live under the same
roofalbeit its a big roofso were bound to cross paths.
Some mornings, I see her at the garden, but she always
disappears as soon as I get there.
I also see her every night at dinner, but she always leaves as soon
as she puts down her utensilswhich shes not using correctly,
by the wayand wipes her lips.
Just watching her at the other end of the dinner table is torture.
The way her full lips move, and the curves of her body that I
know are hidden below the table My imagination goes wild at
dinner time.
Its probably a good thing Im usually too busy working in my
office to also have lunch in the dining room.
Ive been letting her avoid me as much as she wants for the past
three days.
Shes probably still disoriented from living somewhere other
than her family home, so maybe she needs some time to adjust
to her new life. Besides, I did tell her she could do as she wants
while shes here, and Im a man of my word.
But I also told her that Id claim her virgin body for myself, and I
fully intend to make that happen.
Shes had enough respite from me. What happened in the
garden on her first morning tells me that I can break through her
defenses. Now the time has come for us to pick things up where
we left off that morning.
I raise my hand up to the door. Albert has told me that shes
been hiding out in her room all day. Well, if shes not coming out
to see me, then Im going in to find her.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Waiting at the door, I hear some rustling inside. Shes definitely
in her bedroom, which is great. This palace being as big as it is,
sometimes its difficult to keep track of where everyone is.
How long is she going to keep me waiting, though?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I hear footsteps, light and dainty, get closer. Finally, the door
cracks open and her head pops out.
Her long, honey-brown hair seems a little messy, like she has
just gotten out of bed and ran her fingers through her hair to
make it presentable. Her eyes, which are already big, widen
when she sees me.
Morning, Rosemary, I greet her.
Uh, morning, Sir, she says softly, obviously unprepared to see
me, which is good. Theres no time for her to come up with a
plan to escape my company when she hasnt been expecting me.
You seem surprised. Were you expecting someone else? I ask,
less because I actually think shes waiting for anyone in
particular, and more because I want her to know that Ive noticed
her unease.
No, Sir. Its just usually only Albert knocks on my door, she
says as she pulls the door open a little wider. Shes wearing
another dressprobably something she took from the wardrobe.
The blue fabric hugs her curves beautifully. I should compliment
whoever prepared the clothes in the guests bedrooms.
Speaking of Albert, I say, he told me youve been locking
yourself in your bedroom and refusing his offers to take you on a
tour around the palace.
Um, yeah. She pauses. I, uh, Im usually always working
when Im at home, so Ive been catching up on my rest.
I see. Well, its the weekend and I have some free time, so Ill
show you around.
Oh, no, theres no need. Im perfectly fine. Thanks for the
offer, Sir.
Who said it was an offer? I take a step forward, closing the gap
between us. Trapping her gaze, I say, Its an order, Rosemary.
Panic flashes in her eyes, but not before I spot her cheeks
growing red, and hear her breath catching in her throat. Shes
aroused. She parts her lips now, but no words come out.
I have something to show you. Something I know youre going
to like.
What is it? she asks. At first, she seems relieved to have
finally found her words again. Then, she realizes her voice
sounds more high-pitched than usual, and a look of alarm
descends on her face. She knows that Im aware of how nervous
Im making her.
Its so interesting to watch the changes in her expression when
shes flustered, and I love knowing that its me bringing her to
such a state.
Youll have to come with me to find out. The corners of my
lips tug up and I add, Unless you want to stay here in your
bedroom and just come. We can do that, too.
Her lips part and she sucks in a sharp breath. Her eyes darken as
her pupils dilate. The knuckles on her hand on the door have
turned white.
Yeah, she knows what Im talking about. And she has no idea
how to respond.
Shes realizing that its been a while since I stopped talking. Now
shes scrambling inside her own mind, trying to find the right
words to say.
But she knows its too late now. Ive already noticed the tell-tale
signs of her lust.
I already know that something deep inside her compels her to
obey me. I know because its the same beast inside me that
forces me want to control and dominate women.
I need to use a womans body for my own pleasure, and she
needs a man to submit to, so she can derive pleasure from the
knowledge that she has given him pleasure.
Were two sides of the same coin. We belong together.
But shes not ready to admit it yet.
Fine, Ill go with you, she says, putting on an unconvincing
angry tone.
Good.
Her gaze flicks away, and she steps outside into the hallway in
unnecessary haste. Pulling the door closed behind her, she asks,
Where are we going?
As we walk side by side down the wide hallways, Rosemary
maintains a distance of at least three feet from me.
It irritates me that shed stay that far away from me. But at the
same time, she obviously doesnt trust herself to get any closer,
which can only mean that Im winning.
I take her the long way, telling her all about the men who built
this palace, about the kings of the past who used to spend their
days here in times of war, and about the people who work here
despite the fact that theyd have to spend months at a time away
from their families.
Even now, the staff members of Ardglass Palace only get to go
home every few months. They also have to keep the details of
their work a secret. But weve never had any shortage of people
to fill the job vacancies here.
I show her the grand ballroom and turn on all the lights. I tell
her that my mother used to invite her friends to parties here.
My mother was really creative about keeping the location a
secret. Once, she made up a murder mystery game that started
with all the guests taking sleeping pills and waking up in a
strange, secret ballroom.
Rosemary tells me about her family. Her father worries so much
about money that he always needs a sleeping pill to rest at night.
Shes always the one to wake him up in the morning when hes
home, and he often oversleeps when he travels for work.
This is going according to plan. Shes letting her guard down.
And now, for the pice de rsistance.
As soon as I open the door, her jaw drops.
As if she has forgotten Im even here, she walks inside, her steps
echoing in this yawning space. Her head hasnt stopped turning.
Its like she doesnt even know where to look first.
ROSEMARY

T his cant be real.


A place this marvelous cant possibly exist.
Maybe Im hallucinating because Ive been bored out of my mind
and Ive just discovered how pleasant it actually can be to have a
conversation with James.
I look up at the colorful frescos painted on the dome-shaped
ceilings. There are blue skies overhead, even though were
indoors. And angels are flying above us.
Yep, this cant get any more like a dream.
I walk to my left. My feet tread on solid marble floors, my flat
ballet shoes tapping softly with each step. I walk around the big,
chunky wooden table, dragging my finger over the grainy
surface. This is such a vivid, life-like dream.
I approach the wall, one among many that are lined with rich,
dark-brown shelves. I reach out my index finger and put it on a
leather spine. As I pull the book out, dust flies into the air and
into my nostrils. Automatically, my eyes shut and I sneeze.
Wait a minute, books in dreams dont make you sneeze, do they?
Is it even possible to sneeze while Im dreaming?
I hear a low chuckle behind me. Prince James.
Nobody ever comes here, he says, so Albert has been
focusing his attention elsewhere. He wouldve been embarrassed
to know theres so much dust here it made you sneeze. He never
wouldve taken you here on his tour.
See what I mean?
Hes pleasant. Perfectly nice.
Weird, right?
Okay, so the sneeze has confirmed that Im not dreaming.
But maybe Ive crossed over into another dimension? Because
here, Prince James is actually a nice guy, and this library is so big
and full of books its not even funny. My usual library doesnt
even have one-tenth of the books here.
There have to be tons of shelves here, and they all stretch from
the floor to the ceiling. Its not like theyre empty eithereach
shelf is so jammed full of books Id have to use a little force to
take one out.
What kind of books do you have here? I ask.
All kinds. Too many for me to list everything. Youll just have to
find out for yourself.
How many of them have you read?
The prince chuckles. I dont know. I used to spend a lot of time
here, but these days Im too busy working to do that.
Can I come here on my own?
Yeah, sure, he says.
Oh my god, thank you! I exclaim. Seriously, hes being such a
great guy today.
Youre welcome.
I scan the books in front of me, and my eyes land on a blue spine
on one of the higher shelves.
Is that a first-edition copy of The Great Gatsby? I ask.
I look to my right and see a wooden ladder, the kind that slides
over bookshelves to help people reach the books at the top. The
local library at Willowdale has one, so I know exactly how to use
it.
I grab the ladder and pull, sending dust particles flying
everywhere as the ladder slides along the metal rail. I climb up
the rungs andoh my godsee an actual first copy of my
favorite novel of all time.
Gently, I pry it loose from the other books on the shelf. Its an
old copy, obviously, and it looks pleasantly ancient. It smells a
little musty and the pages have yellowed a little. It has aged well.
As more dust from the book tickles my nostrils, I realize another
sneeze is coming. I cant stop it. But I cant let go of this book,
even though I probably need my hands to hold on to the ladder,
unless I want to fall on my ass.
Before my brain comes up with a solution, my body lets out a
sneeze and I lose my balance. I can probably save myself if I
threw the book away and grab onto the ladder, but this is the
freaking first edition of The Great Gatsby.
I start to drop backward, and I close my eyes, preparing myself
for the impact. But instead of falling onto the cold, hard marble
floor, I remain in place. When I open my eyes, Im still holding
the book in both hands and in front of me are shelves lined with
books.
Somethings propping me up. Something warm around my
waist. James strong hands.
Be careful, he says calmly, as if he hasnt just rescued me from
a painful fall.
But then again, hes a prince. Maybe he goes around slaying
dragons and saving princesses. Maybe this is all in a days work
for him.
Thank you, Sir, I say.
Wait a minute. His face is about at the same level as my butt
right now.
Im fine now, I say, self-consciousness creeping into my
mind. Its safe to let go.
No, its not. There are other old, dusty books up there, and
youve already sneezed twice, he says.
My cheeks grow hot as I realize the precarious position Im in.
Here I am, with Prince James right behind me, just like he was in
the garden a few days ago. But this time its worsenot just
because his face is right behind my butt, but also because I have
nowhere to go.
Back in the garden, I couldve put down the cup at any time and
walk away. I didntwhich has been a source of embarrassment
but I couldve.
Right now, I have about one foot of space on the rung of a ladder
to stand on.
But hes right. There are still so many books I want to look at,
and I could lose my balance again.
Um, dont you want to take a look at the books yourself? I ask,
hoping hell get distracted and walk away.
Nah, I have a good view from here, he says.
I dont have to turn around to know he has that cocky, mocking
smirk on his face.
I try to turn my attention back to the books, but I cant ignore his
hands, which are still on my waist. I dont really need this much
protection from some old books, but if Im perfectly honest, I
dont want him to leave either.
Hes only touching my waist, but its like there are tendrils of
desire stretching from his hands to wrap around the rest of my
body, running over my neck, my breasts, my legs, and ending up
in my center.
I curse whoever filled the wardrobe in my bedroom full of
dresses. Im not usually a dress kind of girl, but I have no other
choice. Other than those, my only other option is to wear floor-
length ball gowns, and those are worse.
I understand the regular female guests in this palace might need
these fancy dresses and gowns, but normally I live in my jeans,
except for special occasions.
The clothes I wore when I arrived here have disappeared from
my bedroom, probably because theyre really dirty from the
mud. They havent reappeared yet, but I expect they will in a few
days, unless the palace staff deems them too old and ratty for me
to wear.
Since you seem to like it so much here, maybe itll be easier to
find you from now on, James says suddenly, his low voice
reverberating in this massive library.
Can I also bring some books into my room? I ask.
Like I said, you can do what you want, as long as you follow the
rules. But you havent always followed the rules, have you?
What do you mean, Sir? My heart starts to race as I notice the
hint of a threat in his words. What is he talking about?
I mean youre not always a good girl, are you, Rosemary?
James runs his hands down, over the curve of my hips, until he
touches my knees.
The moment the princes hand lands on my skin, my desire rises
to the surface, reminding me of how I yearn for him when Im
alone in my bedroom at night.
The prince penetrates my thoughts so completely that I cant
sleep unless I soothe the aching between my legs with my
fingers, even though it never truly goes away. Fantasizing about
the prince until my body shudders in the darkness has become
my sleeping pill.
Youre not answering me, sweetheart, the prince says. Lets
try another question then. After our little encounter in the
garden, did you have to change your panties?
I stand still like one of statues in this palace, but I know Im not
fooling anybody.
Prince James knows that I heard him, and I just dont know how
to respond. He also apparently knows about how I ran straight to
my bedroom after breakfast just to change. This is not the first
time that I feel like he knows things about me that hes not
supposed to.
Answer me, Rosemary, he says darkly. Did you, or did you
not have to change your panties?
No, I lie. I cant just admit something like that, can I?
I know youre lying. Ill ask you one more time. Did you have to
change your panties that morning?
Yyes.
Yes, Sir.
Yes, Sir, I repeat.
Good girl. You were so soaked you mustve had to wring them
out, he says as his hands travel up my thighs, pushing the hem
of my dress further and further up. But Ill have to punish you
for trying to lie to me.
Im sorry, Sir, I say, feeling my core clench.
I hate the way he can manipulate my body with only his words.
Still, I cant help but want to follow his orders when hes talking
to me like this, like he already owns me.
That reminds me, I should also punish you for making me
repeat myself in my office your first night here, he says, in a
voice dripping with lust. He sounds like a predator out for blood,
and hes got his eyes set on me.
I say nothing. My mind is blank. All my energy mustve gone to
the nerve endings on my skin, because theyre hyper-sensitive
now.
The princes hands have reached the top of my legs, and hes
touching my pussy over my panties. Without even thinking, I
move my feet further apart, giving him better access to the most
intimate part of me.
Im horrified when I realize what Ive done, but theres no time
to correct my stance, because the princes hands quickly move in
to fill the space that Ive made for him.
As a light shudder runs through my body, I remember
something.
Sir, may I please put the book back on the shelf? I ask softly,
my breathing ragged with desire.
Of course, he says, you dont want to damage it like you did
with the teacup, do you?
No, Sir, I say, half-sighing.
Put it back if you want. Ill wait. The prince stops moving his
fingers, but he rests his palm over my pussy, and I can feel the
heat from his skin.
When I reach up to put the old, precious book where it belongs,
my hips roll and my pussy brushes against James palm. Even
over the fabric of my panties, the pressure feels incredible.
I didnt expect this burst of pleasure, and I havent prepared
myself for its effects. My mouth opens and a moan slides out,
echoing in this big, cavernous space.
I quickly shut my mouth again, embarrassed by my own wanton
behavior.
Theres no need to get embarrassed, sweetheart, the prince
says. Thats a sexy noise that you just made, and Id love to hear
you make more of it.
The prince hooks his finger into the waist of my panties and
pulls down. They fall down my legs and hang around my ankles,
all twisted up.
Hold on, sweetheart, he says as he runs his hands up my
thighs and pulls my hips back so my ass is sticking out.
When he starts to trail kisses up my legs, my knees go weak and I
realize I shouldve listened to him.
Quickly, I grab an upper rung of the ladder with both hands. My
knuckles are turning white from how hard Im holding on. Im
starting to feel tingles in my pussy, even though the prince isnt
even touching me therenot yet.
Good girl, he says.
God, it drives me so crazy when he talks to me like that. Its like
Im his possession to order and control; to praise and punish.
James pushes the fabric of my dress up as his lips travel up my
thighs, bunching it up. The fabric gathers and hangs down from
my waist, highlighting the fact that Im voluntarily pushing my
ass out, presenting myself to the prince.
Just as I consider retaining whatever dignity I have left and
pulling away from him, James breath falls on my pussy lips, hot
and tantalizing.
And I forget everything. Everything except for those lips, and
how close they are to my own lower lips.
You smell delicious, sweetheart, Prince James says as he
audibly sucks in a deep breath.
Im mortified. Ive never had anyone even see my most intimate
part, and now the prince has his face about an inch away from it,
inhaling its scent like its a flower.
But as much as I want to stop this, I cant bring myself to. It feels
too damn good. I keep telling myself I should stop, but then I let
the moment linger for a little longer, and the sinful sensations
make me forget about my good intentions.
My mind has left the control center. The prince has happily
taken over, and hes now the one with dominion over my body.
Im sure youll taste just as good, he says.
Then, something hot and gentle touches my pussy the way
nothing has ever touched me before. Its wet and warm; its soft
and firm. It takes me a while to realize
Oh god, the prince is basically French-kissing my pussy lips
right now.
James gives me no time to wallow in my shock and
embarrassment, though. I dont know what the hell hes doing
with his lips and tongue right now, but it feels heavenly.
I mean, Ive seen men give women oral attention before. I do
have access to the Internet. And I have been to a BDSM club,
even though it was just that once, when I met Prince James for
the first time.
An image flashes in my mind, of James with half his face covered
by a plain black mask.
Nobody knew who he was that night. But he couldve revealed
himself if he wanted to. He couldve demanded the VIP seat, the
red carpet, and maybe even a few submissive girls to entertain
himin short, the royal treatment.
But no, he came as a regular man.
Why?
And why me?
I know Im not unattractive, but there were so many sexy,
beautiful girls in that place, and I wasnt doing anything special.
And yet he saw me and he wanted me.
He still wants me nowvery muchjudging by the way hes
devouring me right now. My breaths are more like gasps now,
and my moans are echoing in this library. I just hope the prince
is right about nobody ever coming in here.
I cant see Prince James right now, but I can just picture him
behind me, his powerful arms around my thighs, forcing me to
stay in place for him.
I grip the ladder harder as arousal builds up within me. I can feel
it. Im close. I squeeze my eyes shut, waiting for the release that
I know is just around the corner.
Then nothing.
James arms are still wrapped around my thighs, but I cant feel
his lips and tongue anymore. I can hear his heavy breaths,
though, and feel them on my skin, teasing me.
Sir? I whimper.
Yes, Rosemary. What is it that you want?
Sir, I My sentence hangs in the air. I know what I want and I
want to ask for it, but I cant bring myself to.
Tell me, what do you want? James leans just close enough to
let his lips graze lightly against my pussy as he speaks, making
me gasp.
I want you to finish what you were doing, Sir, I say softly.
And what was that? he asks, prolonging my torment. I can
almost hear the smirk in his voice.
You were You were eating me out, Sir, I say again, my pussy
throbbing, both from the princes oral attention and from the
cocky, dominating way hes talking to me right now.
Good girl, he says, in the kind of voice that makes me want to
please him even more. But before that, lets get your
punishment over and done with, shall we?
Uh, punishment, Sir? I ask, my heart pounding in my chest.
What could he possibly mean by that?
Ive seen Subs at the club get punished by their Doms, using
whips and floggers Is that what the prince is talking about?I
dont know if I can take that, but the thought sends a thrill down
my spine.
Yes, for making me repeat myself, and for trying to lie to me,
he says. Now, let go of the ladder.
I do as he says, and he picks me up into his arms, making me
shriek in surprise. He stands me up on my feet, then he sits on a
chair by the big wooden desk, on which lie a few stacks of books.
Lie across my lap, he says darkly.
As if hypnotized, I step forward and put my belly across James
lap. I know whats coming. Ive seen it before. Ive fantasized
about it, but I still cant quite believe its actually about to
happen now.
As the prince touches my ass through the fabric of my dress, I
wince.
Relax, the prince says, chuckling. Youre going to like it.
Despite the princes words, my muscles tense as he pulls the
hem of my dress up over my waist.
Naked and vulnerable, all I can do is lie here and wait, while the
heat from the princes lustful gaze sears into my flesh. I can feel
his anticipation. The thought of inflicting pain on my body
excites him.
I place my fingers on the marble floor to balance myself. The
princes shadow moves as he raises his hand in the air. I brace
myself for the impact.
Smack!
The princes palm lands on my ass cheek, making it hot with
pain. I whimper.
Why did I ever think this would feel good?
Maybe Im not cut out to be a Submissive after all. I should tell
the prince Im not what he thinks I am.
As I part my lips, the prince rubs the part of my ass thats
stinging in pain. His hand feels so gentle and warm. At his
soothing touch, the heat from the pain turns into pleasure that
seeps through my skin and spreads throughout my body.
That wasnt so bad, was it, sweetheart? James asks.
Nno, Sir.
You liked it, didnt you?
I remain quiet. Did I?
You dont have to say anything. I can tell by how wet youre
getting. I can see your pussy glistening with your juices, he
says.
I close my eyes as his hand rubs my ass, my thighs, and my
pussy. I feel naked; transparent. Even without me saying
anything, he knows how aroused I am.
That was for making me repeat myself, the prince says.
He adjusts my body so Im lying across his lap diagonally, with
my ear right by his waist and my legs straddling his powerful
thigh.
And this, he says as he raises his hand, is for trying to tell me
youre not wet when youre already soaked.
Smack!
Prince James palm make a loud noise as it makes contact with
my ass. It stings, but this time my body forgets the pain quickly
and anticipates the pleasure. I cant believe how easy it is for the
prince to train my body.
When he touches my ass again where it hurts, I realize Ive been
rubbing myself against his thigh, grinding my clit against him.
Dont stop, the prince says when he notices my body
becoming still. I love watching you like that, squirming and
wriggling, desperate to come. Do it again. Do it for me.
I follow his order, rubbing myself against his thigh, my juices
staining his pantswhat would the palace staff think when they
see these pants in the laundry basket?and my hands grabbing
onto the leg of the chair for balance.
The thought crosses my mind that Im behaving with no shame,
like a common whore, like some kind of an animal. But that
thought is gone in an instant.
Once again, as the prince rubs my pussy and my ass cheeks, I feel
my climax within grasp, but he suddenly stops me with a firm
hand over my lower back.
Looks like you were about to come, Rosemary. From the way
the prince speaks, he obviously knows I was.
Yes, Sir, I say with frustration, having had two potential
orgasms ruined already.
Did I say you could come?
II didnt know I needed your permission, Sir, I say.
And now you know.
May I come, Sir? I ask, mimicking the Submissives Ive seen at
the club.
Yes, he says. Im about to start moving my hips again when he
adds, But only if you beg me to fuck you. Ill make you come
with my cock inside you. I want to feel your pussy muscles
grabbing onto my cock. I want you to cream all over me.
My ears grow hot from the dirty words the prince has just said.
Im already dripping onto his expensive pants, but I know Im
only getting wetter.
Sir
I know the words to say. I know what I want. I know this is the
right time. It has never felt this right, and it probably wont ever
feel this right again. But I cant quite speak them out.
Yes, Rosemary? Were you just about to beg me to fuck you? All
you have to do is say the word.
Yes, Sir, I say, hoping hell take that as a complete answer.
Yes what? he asks as his fingers draw lazy circles up and down
the back of my thighs.
Yes, Sir, please fuck me. I beg you, I say in frustration.
Good girl, he says.
He wastes no time in pushing me up on my feet. He bends me
over the big desk. I can hear his zipper sliding down, and his
pants falling down around his ankles, his belt buckle clanging
against the hard marble floor.
My heart is hammering so hard against my rib cage that my
whole body is shaking. But its not fear; its excitement and
anticipation. Its desire. I can feel it just out of reach, the
satisfaction I seek. And I know the wait wont be long now.
Spread your legs, sweetheart, the prince says as he kicks my
feet apart. Itll help stretch your tight, virgin pussy so it wont
hurt as much.
I do as he says and feel something hot and hard sliding over my
pussy lips, making me moan every time it brushes over my
opening.
You want me inside you, sweetheart?
Yes, Sir. Please, I say, softly and desperately.
The prince presses himself against my opening and pushes
inside, forcing me open bit by bit. Hes so thick I feel like Im
about to tear in two, but I hold on. I push through the pain, like I
always do.
This is going to hurt, the prince says as he puts his hands on
my waist, but youre going to be okay.
He pulls himself back and slides back in, getting a little deeper
with every thrust. This hurts like a bitch. My little gasps and
moans have turned into whimpers and cries.
Hold on, sweetheart, were almost there, the prince says, his
voice hoarse with lust.
When I feel his balls press against my pussy lips, I know he has
buried himself to the hilt inside me. He has taken my virginity,
even though I told him it wasnt going to happen.
Youre so fucking tight, he says, his strong hands grabbing my
hips, hard.
He owns me completely now. Hes claiming my body as his own,
and Im letting him. Worse, I begged him to.
I should feel defeated and ashamed. But instead, the way he
bends me to his will just makes me want him more. The fact that
he has taken my virginity only makes me want to give him more
of me.
Ive never felt anything like this before, but I love this, the
feeling of being completely dominated by a strong, powerful
man.
James cock feels like a blade inside me at first, carving pain into
my flesh. But as he slides in and out of me, again, the pain turns
into pleasure, and my cries turn into breathy moans again.
I told you it was going to be okay. Youre liking this now, arent
you, sweetheart? the prince asks as he leans down, his hard
chest pressing me down against the desk, his hand pulling my
hair so he can speak right into my ear.
Yes, Sir, I answer honestly.
Yes what? You like my cock in your pussy?
Yes, Sir, I I like your cock in my pussy, Sir, I say. I close my
eyes from embarrassment, knowing the prince is watching me.
Tell me youre mine now, he growls in my ear as he grabs the
hair at the back of my skull.
Im yours, Sir, I say as I give in completely, letting the prince
do what he wants with my body.
Good girl, he says, Im going to fuck you hard now, so hard
youll find yourself craving me at night, so hard youll be ruined
for other men.
Yes, Sir, I whisper in submission, my tits and cheek squished
against the surface of the desk.
The prince pulls his body upright, yanking my hair up with him
so Im arching with my head pulled all the way back.
He puts a finger against my clit and starts to slam into me,
rubbing my clit with every thrust. As his movements get faster
and more frantic, the sensations push me to the brink and over
the edge.
I come with a violent shudder, my body shaking involuntarily as
my muscles tense. As the orgasm overtakes me, I feel the
princes cock inside me grow a little bigger and harder. When it
starts to twitch, warmth floods within me, and I know he has
spent himself inside me, truly branding me with his masculine
claim.
Youre all mine now, sweetheart, the prince says victoriously
as he pulls my hair back and grinds into me one last time.
ROSEMARY

I m glad to see you and Master get along so well, says


Albert as he helps me arrange things inside a duffel bag.
To be honest, I didnt expect to, I say.
Well, I dont blame you. Master It takes a while for people to
warm up to him, he says, his eyes taking on a faraway look. He
seems to suddenly remember something and adds, But hes not
a bad guy.
I dont know I say, letting my sentence hang in the air.
Even though the prince and I have grown close physically over
the past few days, we havent had much chance to just talk.
There are so many questions I want to ask him, but he always
turns the situation sexual as soon as things get real.
Although Well, I cant put all the blame on him, because when
he does that I always drop my question right away, often
dropping my panties as well while Im at it.
So maybe Albert can help me answer a few questions.
Do you think Master is a bad person, Rose? Albert asks with
surprise, a sign that my bait has been taken. Hes bound to talk
more if he feels like he has to defend the prince.
Well, not exactly, I say, deliberately presenting myself as
someone whose opinion can be won. Im taking a liking to the
prince, but Im concerned about what people are saying about
him.
People always say things about the royal family that are not
true, he says with conviction. I have no doubt where Alberts
loyalty lies, and the royals are lucky to have him on their side.
Is it true, what they say about what he did to his ex? I ask
carefully, phrasing my concern as a question rather than an
accusation. Luckily, thanks to my sisters, Ive had a lifetime of
practice at broaching sensitive issues without causing offense.
None of it is true, Albert says. Master always treated Cheryl
with respect. Hed never lay a hand on a woman to deliberately
cause harm.
I think about the James that I know, the one who doesnt think
twice about inflicting pain on my body. I dont know if Albert
knows about the princes dark desires.
To be fair, though, he only hurts me to ultimately give me
pleasure. Even though I serve him and please him as his
Submissive, he also has to be mindful of my needs and wants. In
the end, he satisfies me as much as I satisfy him.
Although it may not look that way to an outsider, our sexual
relationship is about mutual pleasure and not one-sided
exploitation.
Then why would she say something like that? I ask.
I dont know, he admits. Master doesnt always share his
thoughts, but hes not a domestic abuser, he says, spitting out
the last two words like theyre poison.
Ive always known how mean women can be when they dont get
what they want, and Ive wondered if Cheryl only went to the
press as revenge over some lovers spat.
I know Cheryl has also referred to Prince James as a sadistic
beast, which is how he got his nickname. Yet Albert chose not
to address that particular phrase. It makes me wonder if he
knows what the prince gets up to when he goes out on his own at
night.
Maybe the prince should say something to the press. Maybe he
should explain his side of the story instead of hiding out here.
Again, I try to put it as gently as I can.
Sometimes, silence is the best policy, Albert says. A prince
has many more considerations than a regular citizen does.
Besides, the timing of the scandal blowing up also coincided with
the queens illness. She was growing weaker and weaker by the
day at the time.
Oh, thats right. I forgot that Cheryls expos on James happened
not long after his mother also got involved in another incident
that blew up. She was already sick when the gossip about James
mean streak started making the rounds, and then her condition
got worse and she eventually died.
Again, I curse myself for not keeping up with gossip about the
royals. But then again, I was eleven when the scandal involving
Prince James happened.
Its hard to imagine that he had to go through something like
that when he was only eighteen. Its been ten years since then,
and the kingdom still hasnt forgotten.
I only know the gist of what happened, and I feel bad about
asking Albert more questions.
Sorry, Albert, for reminding you of difficult times, I say. And
thank you for helping me pack.
Its no problem, Rose, Albert says. Im just doing my job.
The old man looks burdened by the weight of his sad memories
that Ive been digging up just to satisfy my curiosity. I should
stop prying.
Its almost time to leave anyway. The prince would punish me if I
were latenot that Id mind.

HAVE YOU FOLLOWED MY INSTRUCTIONS? James asks as I hop into his


big four-wheel drive and pull the door closed. With this monster
of a vehicle, I bet its a piece of cake to slice through the woods,
even when the dirt roads are muddy.
Yes, Sir, I say, pulling the seatbelt across my chest.
Let me see. James smirks as he rests his big hand on my thigh,
trapping my gaze.
He doesnt ask for permission, and nor does he expect
forgiveness. He knows Ive surrendered. He knows he owns my
body.
I bite my lower lip as his hand travels up and down my thighs.
His fingers caress and probe me over another one of my flimsy
dresses.
It shouldnt take this long for him to confirm that Im not
wearing any panties, but I cant deny this feels good. I cant lie to
him. As soon as he sees how wet I am, hed know the truth.
Good girl, he says finally, with a satisfied smile. Ready for
Malvern?
Yes, Sir, I say softly as the car begins to roll effortlessly over
the narrow dirt path.
Call me James when were in the city. I dont want anybody to
suspect something.
Then call me Rose.
No, he says, thats your safe word, remember? The prince
cocks an eyebrow at me, a wicked glint in his eyes.
Yes, Sir, I say. Im not usually this meek, but I cant help it
with Prince James. Theres something within him that speaks
directly to my soul and demands complete obedience.
It occurs to me that Ive yet to use my safe word, even though
weve had so much sex over the past few days that Ive lost
count.
Weve done it in the library, in my bedroom, in his bedroom, in
our bathrooms but despite the quantity of sex, I feel like Prince
James is still holding back on me. Hes treating me like Im a
fragile little thing.
Good, he says. Is there anywhere you want to go in the city?
Im going to be gone a while tomorrow to take care of business,
but well have some time to waste in the afternoon and in the
night.
I can visit the city library during the day if thats okay with
you, I say.
Im still technically the princes prisoner, so Im not sure how
much freedom hes willing to give me. Despite how well hes
been treating me, theres still a chance that he could still drag
my father back into his palace to finish the punishment if I run
away or something.
Sure, you can do that, he says. Just remember to keep your
head down and dont talk to anybody. Do you know many people
in Malvern?
No, I dont go there often.
Good. I dont want word to spread about me keeping you locked
up, and I especially dont want the location of the palace
compromised, he says, keeping his eyes on the uneven road as
the car jumps around.
I understand. Ive already told my family that Im okay and they
dont have to search for me, so it should be fine.
Good. They seem to be listening to you, because my
surveillance hasnt showed any unusual activities at your
house.
Wait a minute. Hes been spying on my family?
I dont know why I expected anything different. Even if hes
been nice to me, hes still keeping me prisoner. Any trust or
good will I feel toward him is probably rooted in some kind of
Stockholms syndrome.
If I may ask I pause to gather my strength and courage. After
taking a deep breath, I ask, Whats all the spying for?
The whole world has always been spying on me, he says,
isnt it only fair that I get to do the same to them?
Well, it can be argued that they dont have the same resources
that you do, I say, remembering the dark room with the
countless monitors.
It depends on who youre talking about. The gossip tabloids
certainly do, he says.
Thats true. But my family is not the gossip tabloids, I protest.
He remains silent. Obviously, hes not convinced by my line of
reasoning.
Its not that he doesnt have a point. Hes right; he has never
enjoyed much privacy either. And at least the people he spies on
dont end up on the gossip tabloids like he does. But this isnt a
solution.
I figure Im already crossing a line, so why not keep asking
questions? He may not want to talk about the secret cameras
anymore, but there are still so many things I want to know.
So I was talking to Albert today before we left, I say, as my
heart pounds in my chest, and he told me all the tabloid stories
about you were false.
I dont know about all, but many of them were false, he says
impatiently. Perhaps hes irritated by my curiosity.
Like the ones about how you abused your ex? I ask anyway,
recalling the gruesome pictures Ive seen on the tabloids.
My sisters dont usually show me their magazines, but I guess
that particular piece of gossip was too juicy for them not to
share.
According to the tabloids, the crown prince had given that poor
girl a black eye, a few cuts on her skin, and even some
strangulation marks around her neck. The whole kingdom was
talking about it.
Yeah, like those ones, he says. Id never beat up a woman
like that. I know the limits. You know that.
Yeah.
That means they had a relationship much like ours, right? He
was her Dominant, and she was his Submissive. Even though
technically he wouldve physically hurt her, I can assume that
they had a safe word and he only did what she wanted him to do.
For some reason, the knowledge that James has dominated
another woman before I dont know. I dont like it.
My chest feels tight, like somethings suffocating me. I want to
know more about what happened to turn her against him, but at
the same time I dont want to hear about his past relationship
with another woman.
Even now, my mind is starting to wander, conjuring up images of
the prince and that woman together. They only make it harder
for me to breathe.
When we reach the inn, well take the back door, the prince
says. Its dark and late at night now, so the chance of someone
recognizing me is low. The inn keepers daughter works at the
palace and she can keep a secret, so feel free to roam inside the
inn, but be careful when youre outside.
Okay.
Ive already heard some of those rules from Albert. He was the
one who made the arrangements so we wouldnt have to bump
into anybody.
Oh, and were going to The Dungeon tomorrow night before
going home, the prince says as he glances at me, flashing me a
mischievous smile. Since the first time I saw you there, Ive
wanted to take you into one of the private rooms.
ROSEMARY

N otice anything familiar? Prince James asks.


Hes wearing the same outfit he did the first time we met here,
at The Dungeon. A simple, understated suit and a plain black
mask over his face. But thats not it.
I take a good look around me and immediately notice what hes
talking about.
Unlike the beautiful parquet floor at the palace, the ground here
is covered with ceramic tiles. And instead of plaster artwork of
animals and plants, the walls are lined with plain-looking
sound-proof material.
But the domed ceilings, the layout of the room, as well as the
chandeliers overhead definitely remind me of something.
How? I ask loudly, trying to be heard over the loud music
and the crowd. I look up at James, my mouth hanging open in
surprise.
The prince just winks at me and smiles, obviously pleased with
my reaction.
I cant believe I didnt notice it before, but the main hall in The
Dungeon mustve been modeled after the ballroom in Ardglass
Palace.
Maybe I was too distracted to pay attention to the dcor the first
time I came here. Theres always so much going on in this place.
On stage, a woman wearing only a black bra and a pair of black
lacy panties stands on her tippy toes as a pair of clamps hang
down from the ceiling and pull her up by the nipples. She looks
uncomfortable, but she just stands there obedientlynot that
she could protest if she wanted to, with that red ball gag in her
mouth.
Behind that woman, three other Submissives are pressed right
up against the back wall on stage. Theyre held in place by thick,
metal rings that have been screwed into the wall. The silver rings
restrain each woman by her neck, her wrists, and her spread
ankles.
Even though theyre not gagged, the three women at the back
are all wearing nipple clamps and holding the chains between
the clamps in their mouths. I imagine theyd be punished if they
drop those chains.
All four women are blindfolded, so they cant see the big, burly
man joining them on stage.
They can hear his taunts, though, as well as the whoosh of his
whip as it slices through the air. All the women flinch, although
when the whip cracks, it only lands on the woman at the front,
the one standing on her toes. She cries out as a thin, red mark
appears on her creamy skin.
I watch, mesmerized, as the man grabs her by the neck from
behind and puts his hand between her legs. His fingers dance
while he whispers something in her ear.
I wonder if she knows the whole club is watching her make
unintelligible sounds against her ball gag, obviously getting
more and more aroused by the second. I wonder if she enjoys the
attention.
When she finally comes, her whole body shakes and the whole
club goes wild, clapping and shouting. Theres no way she
doesnt know she has an audience now.
Lets go, the prince says.
Im wearing a black babydoll lingerie set, which James bought for
me at the store inside this club. He told me to pick whatever I
wanted, and he seemed amused that I went with a relatively
tame number, with an opaque fabric and a hem that goes all the
way down to my mid-thighs. The lingerie has pretty yellow lace
trimmings along the hemline and the shoulder straps.
I thought this outfit was going to help me blend in with the other
club-goers, but it only makes me feel more self-conscious. It
makes me feel like people can tell Im a newbie who doesnt
really belong here.
A leash hangs loosely between us as we make our way past the
crowd and into a dark hallway. The prince has bought me a
pretty silver collar with laser engravings of roses on it. Theres a
loop for a leash hook at the front, which connects my neck to the
leather handle in the princes hand.
As we pass door after door, it becomes apparent to me that these
are the private rooms. I can tell by the sounds people make
behind the doors.
Most of the doors are closed, and the open ones are usually
empty. But as we get nearer to one particular open door, I hear a
womans moans inside.
When I peek through the open door, Im surprised to see a
woman being gang-banged by three men at the same time. Shes
straddling one man, whos lying down underneath her, while
another man fucks her from behind.
The last man holds her head up by the hair and says, Thats
right, slut, take it. Then he stands upright and jams his cock
into her mouth.
Some Doms like to share, James says when he notices me
falling behind.
I scurry down the dark hallway, the sounds of my high-heel
pumps muffled by the loud music. The prince pushes a door open
and grabs my waist, directing me inside.
Do you? I ask at the doorway.
No, what's mine is mine, he says as he pulls my hair and
stares down into my eyes. A smirk plays on his lips, and he lets
me go.
I regain my balance and continue standing there as a thrill runs
down my spine. He treats me like his possession, and it only
makes me yearn for him to claim me.
Werent you about to get inside the room, Rosemary? James
asks, cocking an eyebrow.
Uh Yeah. I mean, yes, Sir. I stumble all over my words. The
prince has just ruined my composure, and he knows it. And he
likes it.
The room Ive just stepped into was built by an evil genius of an
artist. There are metal and leather contraptions all over the
place. Tools that look like instruments of torture from the
Middle Ages hang on the wallcrops, floggers, and paddles of all
sizes.
My heart hammers in my chest when the door clicks shut behind
me.
Hey, wait a minute.
Its quiet here. Quiet enough for me to hear the door shut, even
though the music was still thumping when we were in the
hallway. This private room is sound-proofed.
Suddenly, the silence scares me more than all the other things in
this room. The absence of distracting sounds means the prince
will have his attention on me. As if I dont already feel
terrifyingly vulnerable around him.
Despite our passionate sexual trysts, the prince has not given me
any commitment. He has not made me any promises.
That means that whatever we have is only sexual. And after the
thirtieth day, well be going our separate ways. I desperately
want to go home, so that should be a good thing right?
But the more I time I spend with the prince, the harder it
becomes for me to separate my body from my heart. Every time I
submit my body to him, Im overcome by the urge to surrender
my very self, mind and soul, to him. But I cant do that if we have
an expiry date.
Funny, when I first got to the palace, thirty days seemed like a
long time.
Now, Id give anything to spend more time by Prince James side.
Well almost anything. I cant leave my family behind for him,
especially not my father.
Lets get your punishment out of the way first, shall we?
James says as the sound of his ominous footfalls fill the room.
He stops by a strange metal thing on the floor and motions for
me to approach.
Yes, Sir.
Bolted down to the floor is a flat, shiny length of metal with four
loops in it, the shape of inverted Us.
What is that thing?
It doesnt look as menacing as other things in this room. Its not
big or sharp, but something tells me its dangerous.
Strip, he orders.
I take off my new lingerie and my panties, letting them fall to
the floor. Whats the point of buying me a new outfit if he wants
me to take it off right away?
I dont question his order, though. I know that would be a
mistake.
I stand before the prince, wearing only my high-heel pumps and
the collar around my neck.
Get on your hands and knees, James orders as he crouches by
the metal thing. His blue eyes roam all over my body. Its
unmistakablehe wants to take me right now, but hes holding
back. He knows its only going to be better if he takes it slow.
I get into position and he pulls me back by the ankle until my
feet touches the cold, hard metal, making me gasp in surprise.
I look behind me. The prince has lifted up one of the four parts of
the metal thing that is shaped like an inverted U. Then, he pulls
it back down over my ankle and locks it in place.
Oh my god, its a set of shackles! Its designed to keep me bolted
down to the floor, like a piece of furniture for him to use.
As the prince restrains my limbs one by one, I feel more and
more helpless.
I find myself in a version of the doggy positionwhich is already
a pretty submissive position to begin withand my ankles are
shackled down, along with my wrists between them.
My ass is pushed up into the air because of how my limbs are
positioned, and my cheek is on the carpet.
Im completely vulnerable.
And unbelievably aroused.
What is wrong with me, that being helpless and dominated turns
me on so much? Ive always believed in equality between men
and women, and it kind of bothers me that I have this deep
craving to be objectified.
But I cant deny the longing inside me, or the pulsing of the
muscles in my pussy.
I want to submit.
I need to.
You know, the ballroom was one of my mothers favorite places
in the palace, Prince James says as he gets up on his feet.
With my ear pressed against floor, I can hear his every step
through the fibers of the carpet.
She used to have dances in the ballroom, he says, and it just
seems like a waste to have it sit empty and desolate all the
time.
I strain my neck to look up at the prince as his Italian shoes stop
inches away from my face. From where I am on the floor, I cant
see his expression clearlyonly a vague blur of where his head
is.
So I built a replica and make it a place where people can party.
Only I put my own twist into it, he says.
You own The Dungeon? I ask, surprised by the revelation.
Thats right. The princes voice sounds closer as he bends his
knees and crouches beside me. Just like I own you.
Does anyone know? Anyone in the club?
The management team does, but to everyone else Im just part
of the crowd, he says.
Why?
Because people put on fake personas when theyre in the
presence of royalty, and Im only interested in whats real.
James strokes my hair and says, Now, my little rebel, remember
this morning when you wore panties under your dress?
Yes, Sir, I say, knowing the time for chit-chat is over.
You know you werent supposed to.
I thought, since were here in Malvern
You thought my rules dont apply just because were
somewhere else, Rosemary?
I pause to consider the question.
I guess thats right, but thats also not quite how Id put it. Its
just that there were so many people around us, and I
Your rules apply everywhere, Sir, I answer softly. Theres
nothing I can say to escape this punishment. I know I broke the
rule this morning.
I think Ill use something new tonight, he says as he gets up.
Prince James approaches the wall behind me, where the the
whips hang. He picks a thin black stick about the thickness of
my finger and about two feet long. At the end of it, theres a
rectangular piece of leather.
Do you know what this is? he asks, as he swings the thing in
the air, making sharp swooshing sounds.
No, Sir, I say. My voice is shaking, I realize.
Its a riding crop. Its what people use on horses when theyre
bad, just like you were this morning.
Im wearing a collar like a dog, Im shackled to the floor like a
table on a cruise ship, and Im about to be punished with a crop
like a horse.
This should feel demeaningand it does. But its also deeply
erotic.
The prince holds all the power in this room.
Ive given him free reign of my body. He can do what he wants
with me, and the way hes pushing the boundaries of what I
think I can endure is intoxicating.
The more pain and humiliation he puts me through, the more
apparent it is that he truly owns me.
James drags the flimsy leather bit at the end of the crop along
my bare back, following the curve of my spine. I cant help but
shudder. My whole body tenses up in anticipation of the pain.
Ready for your punishment, sweetheart? the prince asks as he
crouches behind me.
Yes, Sir, I say softly. My heart hammers in my chest as I
squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself.
The riding crop makes no sound as it travels through the air,
which only makes it more of a shock when it lands on my ass
with a thud. I let out a loud cry, which reminds me that nobody
else can hear me, other than James.
The crop hits me two more times before the prince puts it aside.
My skin starts to sting. I dont have to see it to know that its
turning red. At the same time, I also feel myself getting wet.
That looks beautiful, James says as his fingers trace the marks
that Im sure are left on my ass. His hand feels hot against my
skina little painful and a little pleasant.
I hear his pants being unzipped behind me, and I know hes
about to fuck me.
The same way the crop has gotten my pussy drenched, it has
probably also made the prince hard as stone.
I love the pain as much as he loves inflicting it.
When he presses his cock against my stinging ass, I gasp, both
from the pain of his warm body rubbing against my stinging,
sensitive skin, and from desire.
Prince James lays his body on top of me, pressing his chest
against my back. His hot, hard cock grazes against my pussy,
making me whimper. The prince puts his hands on the floor to
support himself, one palm landing right in front of my eyes.
I inch my head toward James hand. I want to be so close to him
that hes inside me. But since the only part of my body I can
move is my head, this is all I can do. I rub my cheek against his
fingers and kiss his hand.
You need it, dont you? James asks as he places his palm closer
and sticks a thumb into my mouth.
Yes, Sir, I say, my voice slightly muffled by his digit in my
mouth. I lick and suck the finger like its a cock.
Do you want it in your pussy or your mouth, sweetheart? he
asks.
Anywhere, Sir. My body is yours.
Good girl. Thats the only correct answer.
Prince James pulls his finger out of my mouth and gets into a
kneeling position behind me. Im so soaked that he slips inside
without any resistance. He rolls the leash around his hand so my
head is pulled back.
This is kind of uncomfortable. But just like that Submissive on
stage, I know this is not about my comfort, or even my pleasure.
As a Submissive, I derive pleasure from being desired and used
by my Dominant. I understand that now.
All that matters is his pleasure.
As James plunges in and out of me, my pussy makes obscene wet
sounds that leaves no doubt as to how desperately I want the
prince.
I pay no attention to these sounds, even though they used to
mortify me. To think I was a virgin not too long ago.
James grabs my hips and drives his rock-hard cock inside me,
again and again, fucking me fast and hard, pushing me back and
forth on the floor. The carpet rubs against my sensitive nipples,
sending another dose of pleasure straight to my pussy.
I start to shake, even as he continues to pummel into me, my
muscles contracting and relaxing rhythmically. When the prince
finally erupts inside me, it sends me over the edge.
I dont know if this is right or wrong. All I know is I cant not do
this. I cant say no to Prince James.
Maybe leaving him will break my heart. But Im already in way
too deep.
Even if we take sex out of the equation now, is that going to
improve anything? Probably not. The Pandoras Box is open now,
and I cant close it again.
Theres nothing I can do. Ill just have to make the best of my
remaining days with Prince James.
JAMES

F ucking leeches!
Gossip journalists and the paparazzi. The maggots of society.
Know whats amazing about todays technology? Anybody can
call themselves a journalist or a photographer. Anybody with a
smartphone and Internet access.
Thats great, right? Now anyone can tell the world anything.
Even the most ordinary cat can become a celebrity without ever
leaving the house.
Sometimes, though, technology fucking turns everything to shit.
I thought I was being careful, coming to The Dungeon on another
Masquerade Night.
It was already fucked up that I couldnt go to my own club
whenever I wanted. Now it seems I cant even go at all.
I glance again at the gossip tabloid that Ive just thrown across
the room, lying on the floor with some of its glossy pages bent.
On the cover are two familiar figures: me and Rosemary.
Were both wearing masks, of course, just like everyone else at
the club.
Normally, when I visit the club, nobody pays me any attention.
After all, I could be anybody. Maybe Im just someone with a
similar build to the crown prince.
But I forgot my black bowler hat last night. I thought it was going
to be fine, because the hat had always made me stand out
anyway. And we only spent a few minutes in the common areas
last night, opting to stay in the private room for most of our time
in the club.
Without the hat, as the pictures show, its easier to recognize
me. My hair, my profile, and the shape of my face are all visible.
And Im caught in the act of buying lingerie and a collar for a
woman. In a BDSM club.
In short, exactly what Im not supposed to do.
God damn it, after the previous scandal, I shouldve known
better than to indulge in public. I have no one to blame but
myself.
The editors of this particular tabloid have been nice enough to
cover our (already masked) eyes with rectangular black bars.
However, the headline, in big yellow letters, also says, CROWN
PRINCE BEHAVING BADLY: A NEW VICTIM?
Fucking judgmental pieces of shit!
These people dont even know me, and theyre sitting there, up
on their high horses, judging me.
Its highly hypocritical, because these people mustve done some
things that are not perfectly nice and conventional.
Perfect example? Whoever took our pictures mustve been in the
same club I was in.
I could tell the press it wasnt me, of course. This is easy enough
to deny.
Its even easier for Rosemary to go unnoticed. As long as her
father keeps my presence here a secret, nobody should be able to
say, with confidence, that its her in those pictures.
But my father and his advisors wouldve immediately figured out
that its me.
Theyre the ones who told me to stay in Ardglass Palace, so they
know Im close to Malvern.
And they know I used to frequent similar clubs when I was living
in the capital. Its not too big of a stretch to suggest that I also
frequent the local club while Im here.
Wait until they hear that I even own the club. Its just a matter of
time now until they find out. And then, who knows whats going
to happen after that?
I know theyre going to make me pay. I just hope they wont
make me break my promise to my mother.

MY MOTHER USED to do that, too.


Rosemary jerks and cries out from the sudden sound of my voice,
and the bird that has been feasting on the seeds on her palm
flies away to a nearby branch.
Its just me, I say. Maybe I shouldve tried to walk more loudly
so she could hear me. Kick the grass, or snap a twig, or
something.
I didnt hear you coming. She puts her hand over her heart as
she turns around to face me, her breathing rapid and shallow
through her open mouth. That look kind of reminds me of the
expression she wore on her face last night.
Sorry, I didnt mean to startle you, I hear myself say.
But hold on. I didnt do anything wrong. She just didnt hear me
approach, but that wasnt my fault.
The squirrels and birds that have scattered from Rosemarys cry
begin to gather at her feet again, collecting the seeds that have
fallen to the ground. Thats okay. It wasnt your fault, she
says.
Exactly. Thats my girl.
So, youre trying to train the wildlife to be dependent on you? I
ask.
Huh?
Youre not supposed to feed wild animals, because theyll be
useless when they go back to their own natural habitat. They
wont be able to hunt or gather nuts or whatever they do to get
food, I say. And yet here you are, dispensing seeds like a drug
dealer on a street corner in the bad side of town.
Rosemary laughs as she holds out her hand again.
Seeing the opportunity, a heavy bird slowly flies up to her palm,
but a trimmer bird beats him at this race. Theres not enough
space for two, so the first bird floats back down.
I almost feel bad for the little guy. If I were a bird, Rosemarys
hand would be the best place for me to eat seeds from. Why
would I want to peck seeds from the dirt when I can get them
from her dainty little hand?
I grab a small handful of seeds from a plastic bag lying on the
ground. Finding the bird from before, I crouch down and make
my way to him. I hold out my hand, letting him see the seeds,
but it flies away, out of my reach.
Thats not how you do it, Rosemary says.
I look up at her pretty face. The sun casts its light from behind
her. Shes glowing.
You have to let them come to you. Just open your hand and stay
still.
I follow her advice and stay in place, crouching with my palm up
on the ground. The animals stare at the seeds, then they take a
couple of cautious steps closer.
Then a breeze rustles the leaves, and they nervously stop in their
tracks before they realize its nothing to worry about.
It takes a while, but the big bird finally makes it to my hand. Two
squirrels crowd around it too, occasionally grabbing some seeds
into their own fists.
You said your mom used to feed the animals. She didnt teach
you how to do it? she asks.
She tried.
She lets out a gentle, melodic laugh that I could listen to all day.
Then, in a voice tinged with sadness, she says, My mom never
taught me anything. She died before I ever met her.
Sorry to hear that.
My second sorry of the day. Do I get a prize if I get to three?
Because that has never happened before.
I already know about Rosemarys mother, of course. So this
detail is not news to me.
But it does surprise me that Rosemary would open up about
something that personal. And it confuses me that Id feel my
heart squeeze at the pain in her voice. I feel like I want to punch
whoever caused her pain in the face and shield her from ever
getting hurt again.
Ironic. Because Im the one who has been making her scream
with pain and use that pain to heighten my own selfish pleasure.
She died giving birth to me, she says, again telling me
something I already know. My sisters used to tell me Id killed
her.
Thats ridiculous, I say with unexpected anger. I didnt know
that last bit of information, and it makes my blood boil that
anyone would accuse Rosemary of something like that. You
were just a baby. You didnt do anything.
I know, she says. I know that now. But it used to bother me
when I was a little girl.
Damn. That sounds like a tough childhood. Im sorry you had to
go through that.
Thats okay. My mother did leave me something. My name. She
whispered it with her dying breath. Rosemary pauses and lets
out a big, audible sigh. She laughs nervously. I dont know why
Im telling you this. Its old history.
I dont mind listening, I say.
What Im not telling her is, I dont know why I dont mind it. Ive
never cared much about peoples personal lives, much less their
childhoods.
But I want to know all there is to know about Rosemary, and I
dont know why.
ROSEMARY

I watch my own reflection in the mirror. I look like a fuck toy


waiting for my owner to come play with me. The princes
private doll to do as he wishes.
While hes away doing important prince stuff, Im waiting here
naked and vulnerable, with a metal cock jammed inside me. In
this position, nobody else can touch my pussy without his
permissionnot even me.
There are shackles around my ankles, but the chains are loose.
Whats really keeping me in place is this thing between my
legs.
Its a metal stick with a round base to balance it on the ground. It
looks a lot like one of those stainless steel posts that people
hang ropes on and use as barriers for lines at the bank or at the
movies.
The difference is, theres a dildo at the top of this particular post,
and its inside my pussy.
Theres a lever somewhere to adjust the height of the post. But I
cant bend down low enough to reach it with the dildo sitting
upright inside me, and my hands are tied behind my back
anyway.
The door clicks open, somewhere behind me. I cant see the door
in the mirror, and Im not allowed to look behind me.
You look beautiful when youre like that, James says,
emerging from the darkness and coming into my field of vision
in the mirror.
Thank you, Sir, I say.
You seem like youre enjoying yourself, he says as he steps
closer. That pole is drenched with your juices.
Yes, Sir.
Did he see me trying to slide myself up and down this pole? My
pussy was soaking wet from anticipation, and I couldnt help
myself.
Prince James walks slowly around me, his eyes roaming all over
my body from all angles. Hes acting like a predator circling its
prey. Youve been good. You were facing the mirror the whole
time, just like I told you to.
I have no doubt he had a camera or two watching my
movements.
I want you to see I what I see when I look at you. He stops right
behind me. Staring back at me in the mirror, he says, I want
you to strip away everything from outside yourself. I want you to
see yourself without all that stuff weighing you down, until
youre just a body with human instincts. Until all thats left is
how your body feels with those restraints locking you in place
and that metal cock inside your pussy.
James arms wrap around me. His hands look big and dark over
my belly. I hold my breath as he drags his fingers lightly down
my abdomen, over my mound, and onto my pussy lips.
You deserve a reward for being such a good girl, he whispers in
my ear.
As he kisses my neck, his skillful fingers find my clit. I moan at
his touch. More wetness drips out of my pussy and glides down
the shiny post between my legs.
Fuck yourself with the metal cock in your pussy, he says as he
watches me intently through the mirror. Something hot and
hard grazes against my hands, which are tied together behind
me. Hes sporting an erection, just from the sight of me.
My mouth is wide open, letting my ragged breaths and gasps
through. My face is flushed red and my eyebrows are pulled
together in concentration. I look like a woman in heat.
The prince knows Im a goner at this point. He knows Ill do
whatever he tells me to.
So I do. I lower myself onto the metal dildo and glide back up
again, grinding myself against James hand on my clit.
Come for me, he whispers as he rubs his hard-on against my
hands.
He strokes my clit more insistently and bites on the flesh of my
neck, making me explode at his hand. I shudder and shake,
leaning back against his sturdy chest, as his fingers apply gentle
pressure on the hood of my clit to prolong my climax.
Ive learned to follow Prince James commands so closely that I
dont know what has pushed me over the edge. Was it the
physical sensations, or was it his words, telling me to come?
All I know is I want to make him feel good too. I want to serve
him and bring him pleasure, to show my gratitude for the
orgasm he has just given me.
I can feel how hard he is through his pants, and I want to touch
it. I want to feel it without anything between us.
May I please suck your cock, Sir? I ask boldly.
Ive never actually done anything like that before. But the prince
has gone down on me multiple times, and its time I repay the
favor.
Besides, getting on my knees to serve the prince sexually? I have
a feeling Im going to enjoy it.
Of course, James says, a smile spreading across his gorgeous
face.
He crouches down and fiddles with something on the base of the
post, then he lowers it, pulling the dildo out of my pussy. It
suddenly feels empty and I crave being filled up again but
thats not up to me.
Get on your knees, the prince says.
The metal chains attached to the shackles around my ankle drag
over the wooden floor as I adjust my position. The floor feels
hard and cold on my knees.
The prince steps right in front of me, until his crotch is only
inches away from my face. When I look up at him, hes smirking.
His hands are deftly undoing his belt buckle and his fly.
Then, he pulls his cock out. Its thick and veiny, and I can almost
see it throbbing.
Stick out your tongue, he orders.
Theres a drop of clear liquid that has formed at the tip, and I lick
it up. His cock twitches at when my tongue touches it, and the
prince lets out a groan.
Open your mouth. He wraps his hand around his cock,
shuttling his fist up and down. And look at me.
I do as he says, and he puts his cock inside my mouth. It tastes
like salt and sex. His gaze, usually stern and piercing, clouds over
with pleasure and lust.
With my hands still tied behind my back, I can only use my
mouth. My lips slide down James shaft as I take him deeper,
inch by inch. My tongue darts up and down, feeling the texture
of his velvety skin.
I dont know what Im doing, but the prince seems to be enjoying
this.
Hes trapped my gaze, looking down at me like he owns me.
With my limbs restrained and his cock in my mouth, I cant deny
it. He completely, totally owns my body. Im literally kneeling at
his feet by my own will.
He grabs my hair and says, Stay still and let me fuck your
mouth. Open wide.
I let the prince hold me by the hair and slide his cock in and out
of my mouth. His skin rubs against my lips, wetting it with my
own saliva. He gets deeper and deeper with every thrust. Take a
breath and hold it.
The prince pushes further, and he pokes at the back of my
throat, making me gag. He pulls away just enough to let me
breathe, than he says, Lets try that again.
I take a deep breath and look up at him in submission.
I trust him. And I want to do this for him.
He slides inside my mouth smoothly. I know whats about to
happen now, so I prepare myself when he reaches my throat,
relaxing my muscles so he can slip inside.
This feels strange, and I cant breathe. But the prince groans
while his hand pulls at my hair.
I can do this. Its not a pleasant feeling in my throat, but Im
getting wetter by the second.
Being on my knees on the floor while suffering for his pleasure
It turns out this is one of those things that inexplicably cause
tingles between my legs. I literally would rather massage his
cock with my throat than use it to breathe.
Your throat is so fucking tight. James pulls out of me. I take a
few deep breaths before he thrusts back in. He repeats this a few
times, groaning every time his cock stretches my throat.
Without any warning, the prince lays me down. He spreads my
legs open wide and pulls me until the chains are taut. They pull
at the shackles around my ankles now, forcing my legs apart. My
hands behind my back make it impossible for me to lay flat on
the floor.
Prince James watches me with his blue eyes darkened by desire.
Are you ready for my cock?
Yes, Sir.
Good. Because I was going to fuck you anyway. James gets on
his knees between my legs and pushes his cock inside me. He
chuckles. Looks like I shouldnt have worried, he says,
because youre already soaking wet for me.
As soon as he gets all the way in, my body starts to shudder, still
sensitive from the orgasm he just gave me minutes ago. I gasp in
some air.
I want to wrap my legs around him, and put my hands on his
brawny shoulders. I want to pull him closer and urge him on. But
with my limbs restrained, I can only lie down and take what hes
giving me.
Looks like youre close, sweetheart, he says. He picks up his
pace, fucking me hard and fast as he leans down over me. He
wraps his hand around my neck as he continues to thrust into
me. Come. Come on my cock.
At his command, I shatter. I lose control of my body, giving it all
up to him. I shake and quiver, my tits rocking back and forth as
the prince fucks me relentlessly.
Finally, he plunges all the way in and grinds against me, flooding
my insides, branding me as his with his lust.
As James pulls himself out of me, his warm, thick come drips
down onto the floor. He removes the bindings around my wrists
so I can straighten my back, then he lies down beside me.
That was amazing, he says, still breathing heavily from the
physical exertion. Youre amazing. He strokes my hair and
gazes at me. Theres a tenderness in his eyes today that wasnt
there before.
I smile, not knowing how to respond. Weve been fucking a lot,
but this feels more intimate somehow.
Do you really have to leave? he asks. Maybe Ill just lock all
the doors and make you stay here forever.
You cant do that, I say, a little too quickly.
Prince James seems taken aback by the force of my response.
You cant do that, I repeat more calmly. My familys waiting
for me. Theyll get worried.
Your family. You mean the one that let you come here to be
imprisoned by a strange man?
Thats not fair and you know it, I snap. I cant believe that
only moments ago I wouldve given this man anything he
wanted.
Okay, okay, he concedes defeat.
For a moment that feels like forever, we both lie there on the
floor, busy with our own thoughts, watching dust particles float
through the sliver of light thats shining in through the gap
between the curtains.
Dont you like it here? Prince James asks.
I think about the question for a while. Its not that I dislike
being here, I say softly. Its just that Im not here by choice,
and I dont have the option to leave if I want to.
The prince grows quiet. Is he offended or something?
I cant believe he doesnt get it. Hasnt he ever considered it
from my perspective?
Sure, hes my Dominant and Im his Submissive. And Im
perfectly fine with that when it comes to the fucking.
But Im not so comfortable with those dynamics outside of the
bedroom.
We cant communicate with each other like regular adults. Were
not equals. We never will be, as long as Im his prisoner.
It has been so long since Ive seen anyone else, since I had
anyone to talk to, other than Prince James. Sure, theres Albert,
but he and the rest of the staff at Ardglass Palace are always
busy. Theyre here to work, after all.
That isolation makes me wonder if if maybe the butterflies in
my stomach and the tingles in my core when I see James arent
about love, or affection, or even attraction. Maybe its just
because hes the only human being I talk to on a day-to-day
basis.
Even though my heart longs to stay in this place, by the princes
side, I cant trust myself. Not until I have my freedom back. Not
until I meet other people and see if I still feel the same way about
Prince James.
I cant wait to see my family again. I wonder if theyre doing
well. Are they looking for me? Are they worried about me?
Hey, wait a minute, maybe I can find out how theyre doing
without leaving this palace.
James was very clear that I wasnt supposed to have any contact
with the outside world in the beginning. But given what he has
just said, I can safely assume that hes at least fond of me. And
maybe hed be more lenient this time.
Um, its been a long while since I saw my family, I say,
breaking the silence as my heart beats rapidly in my chest. Do
you think I could give them another phone call, or at least see
them on your surveillance system?
Sure.
ROSEMARY

W hat the hell is happening at home?


A big crowd has gathered just outside the fence, some of them
carrying big black boxes. Theyre all facing a couple of figures on
the front lawn.
I cant do this.
I mean, I know I was the one who told the prince that its bad to
spy on people. But now that Im standing in his secret
surveillance room, looking closely at his monitors, I need to tell
him to upgrade his stuff. Everythings blurry and I cant even
recognize any of the faces.
Sometimes, when cars pass, my view of the house is completely
blocked because this camera is placed across the street from it.
Here we go, another car. Its a big white van, and Is that the
Channel Two logo on it?
Hold on.
Those big black boxes that people carry are cameras.
Oh god.
What has happened?
Willowdale is a quiet little town. We dont have local TV stations.
If all those people have traveled from nearby cities just for some
video footage of my ordinary home, something mustve
happened. Something big.
Its not a robbery, is it? Or a murder?
No, Im being crazy. Its probably just my family looking for me,
right? Maybe they panicked, despite my phone call, and now
theyve involved the press.
here in Willowdale, where were joined by Mr. Graham Cox,
the local policeman. Now, Mr. Cox, when did you first suspect
something strange might be going on?
I turn around to find the source of the female voice. Its coming
from a big TV screen thats mounted on the wall opposite the
monitors. James is standing a couple of feet away from it with
his arms crossed over his chest, holding a remote control in his
hand.
Its Channel Two. Their van has just passed in front of the house.
And now Graham is on TV.
So hes one of the figures standing on my front lawn. Hes being
interviewed.
About what?
As if reading my mind, James turns up the volume.
On the screen, Graham takes the mic offered by the reporter,
flashes a big smile into the camera, and says, Thank you for this
opportunity. Im Graham Cox from Willowdale, and
I roll my eyes. Its just like Graham to pander to the camera and
try to stay on air for as long as he can.
at first it was when Rosemary Wilson came to the station and
told me her father was missing, Graham says.
So Mr. Wilson was the one who was missing at first? the
reporter asks.
Yes, thats right. I told her hed turn up. Sometimes when
theres a storm, peoples travels are delayed. And I was right; he
came home not long after that. And then Miss Wilson went
missing, and her father came to me for help.
What is this circus? I told them not to make a big deal out of it. I
told them I was fine.
But why would I, whos just another missing person to the rest of
the kingdom, get so much coverage on TV?
Somethings not right.
And I can see it too from the princes tense stance. His body is
stiff, and his jaw is clenched. Hes worried.
You were telling me earlier about the first time Prince James
was mentioned. Can you tell the audience about that? asks the
reporter.
What?
Did she just say Prince James?
Yes, of course, Graham says, clearing his throat and putting
on a serious expression to match the reporters. Mr. Wilson
indicated that someone powerful mightve been involved in the
disappearance of his daughter. He mentioned a castle at some
point.
A castle? Here in Willowdale?
From what he told me, if this castle were to exist, it would be
pretty close to Willowdale or Malvern, Graham says.
You dont think it exists, Mr. Cox?
Ive lived here my whole life, and my father before me, and his
father before him. And nobody has ever heard of a castle in this
area.
Okay. Thank you, Mr. Cox. The blonde reporter turns to look
straight at the camera and says, We also have the missing Miss
Wilsons sisters here to tell their story. Please start whenever
youre ready.
My sisters familiar faces appear on the screen. Its so strange to
see people I know on TV. It doesnt feel real.
Thank you, my sisters say, almost in unison. They glance at
each other competitively, then Clara says, Yes, everything
Graham has said is true. Our father came home and he didnt
want to say much about the identity of the man he met at first.
But he did tell us about the storm Clara continues talking, but
shes not as loud as the voices screaming in my head.
What the hell is going on?
Whats happening? I ask James.
I dont know. I didnt think they were going to find your family.
Im sorry. He used to never apologize, even when hes
obviously in the wrong. Hes better at that now, but I wish he
didnt have to say it so much.
Who are they? What are you talking about? What do you know
about this? How do the people on TV know about you? Why is my
family on TV in the first place? A barrage of questions spill out
as soon as I open my mouth.
They saw us, James says quietly, finally looking at me over his
shoulder and meeting my eyes.
Who? Maybe if I keep my questions short and simple, hell
give me an actual answer.
The paparazzi. The papers. Does it matter? Someone saw us.
He strides toward me and puts his hands one my shoulders. Im
so sorry. I didnt expect them to recognize you, much less bother
your family.
When did they see us? Im getting impatient with these
apologies and half answers.
When we were in the club at Malvern. They saw us in the store,
buying some stuff. They snapped a few pictures and those
pictures got published in some gossip tabloids.
Jesus, I curse. You already knew about this?
Yes, but
And you didnt think Id want to know about my pictures being
in tabloids?
I didnt think youd be involved at all. I didnt think theyd be
able to identify you. His bewildered eyes tell me hes being
honest.
Okay. So some people saw us the The Dungeon, and now the
news is all over the kingdom.
Oh god.
Prince James. His reputation.
My father must be worried about me being with the royal beast.
Maybe hes been worried all along, and the pictures have only
confirmed his concerns. He probably thinks Im being abused
and tortured by the prince.
And what do my sisters, Graham, and the rest of the town think?
They seem to be treating this like a missing persons case.
Graham did mention that Id gone missing, right?
Okay.
Okay, okay, okay.
So this is not super horrible. At least theyre not blaming me.
If I go there now, they might listen to me. Maybe I can come up
with some kind of a cover story.
But I need to be there to fix things.
Im going home, I say, staring straight into James eyes. Im
not asking for his permission this time. Im just informing him
of my decision that Ive already made.
He was supposed to keep an eye on the situation. But I wouldnt
have found out about this, had I not randomly asked to see how
my family was doing.
Why does he even have all this expensive surveillance stuff if he
doesnt even use it?
Im going with you, James says.
No! I exclaim.
I cant let you face those people on your own. His blue eyes fill
with worry, and I realize he doesnt want this to happen either.
You being there is only going to make things worse. I pause as
my words seem to sink in. You know your presence will only
confirm the gossip theyre spreading on TV.
We both glance at the screen, where my sister, Irina, is saying,
Our father is resting inside. He doesnt wish to talk to anyone,
but were happy to answer any questions on his behalf.
So Father doesnt want these people prying into our private lives
either, and my sisters are encouraging them.
I cant believe theyd act that selfishly, even at a moment like
this. They should be trying to help Father feel betternot feed
the media stories that hes not willing to share.
But Im not one to talk. Im all the way here, while Fathers at
home, probably worried sick about me.
Im going home, I repeat.
Okay, James says, but if youre going on your own, youre
going to need something so you wont get lost in the woods.
He approaches the wall with the monitors and pulls out a drawer
from a desk. I hear some rattling as he fumbles inside, looking
for something. He grabs a small, flat plastic thing and holds it
up.
A compact? I ask, staring incredulously at the round, pink
compact on Prince James palm. It looks just like the ones Ive
seen on the make-up floor of the department store in Malvern.
Its not just a regular compact. He opens the little round thing
to reveal what appears like a regular compact, with a mirror on
one side and compact powder on the other side.
Then, he lifts the compact powder compartment up and shows
me a secret button underneath. He says, Press it.
When my index finger pushes the little round button down, the
mirror disappears, to be replaced by a screen with a map.
Pointing at a flashing red dot on the map, James says, Thats
where you are. He drags his finger over the screen, widening
the scope of the map. He points to a black dot and says, Thats
Willowdale. Just follow this map and youll get home.
This is I let my sentence hang in the air. Ive never seen
anything like this, except in spy movies.
This was my mothers. She used to take long walks in the
woods. Shed pretend to be a tourist when she met people. She
was really bad with directions and she could never remember the
way home, James explains. It still works great. Just dont try to
use the powder, because its really old and itll probably do bad
things to your skin.
I smile at his attempt at a joke.
You can also use it to come back here. His blue eyes darken
and he adds, If you want to.
There are so many things I want to say to him.
I want to tell him of course I want to come back here. I cant not
see him again.
But at the same time, I dont know if I can trust myself right
now. What if I go home and suddenly the fog clears, only to
reveal that everything between us has just been a product of my
captivity?
Thanks. I take the compact without addressing his request.
Hurt registers in his eyes, and I almost pull him into a reassuring
hug and tell him Ill definitely come back to him.
But I stay strong. I have to think of my familyand myself.
I turn to leave, but the prince gently takes my hand. Do you
know what youre going to tell them?
Yeah. Ill say it wasnt me, and I was working in Malvern.
Thats a good idea, he says.
Something tells me he doesnt care what Ill tell them. He knows
I can handle this; he just wants to keep me here a little longer.
Yeah. Ill come up with the details on my way to Willowdale.
Tell them you were working at The Alcove. Ill call Wanda, the
owner, and give her a heads up.
That would be great.
We stare into each others eyes.
Theres so much to say, and no time to say it.
I dont know if Im ever going to see him again. He may say that
he wants me by his side now, but maybe hes been living under
the same spell Ive been.
As much as I succumb to him because hes my prison warden,
maybe he feels responsible for me because Im his captive.
Theres only one way to find out if we have something worth
fighting for.
Im not nave enough to believe that we can just be together
not when things have become this complicated. If we want to
give this a go, its going to be an uphill battle.
But first
I have to go, I say softly.
Tears sting my eyes. I try to blink them away, but they just
escape down my cheeks.
James reaches up to wipe the salty liquid off my face. Are you
sure you dont want me to go with you?
Yeah.
Nobody has to go anywhere. I can issue a decree to end this
madness.
I chuckle wryly. If you had any kind of control over the press,
you wouldnt have been known as the royal beast.
I can fight this battle for the both of us, Rosemary. Let me
handle it. Ill think of something.
Ill think of something?
Thats what Father says when hes stumped.
The prince and my father may not be so different after all.
I put my hand on James cheek, the pads of my fingers brushing
against his rough stubble. Our eyes meet.
The kiss is almost inevitable. Its like Im on a little boat on a
gentle river, letting the tide pull me closer and closer to him.
When our lips interlock, its sweet, gentle, violent, sad, angry,
loving, and real.
Id kiss this man forever, but this moment has to end.
With a heavy heart, I pull away and whisper, I have to go.
Let me take you to the door.
A ringing sound from the adjacent office startles us both.
A phone call. Right on time.
Ill go by myself, I say softly. Someones calling you. It may
be important.
I dont know if I can stick with my plan if this conversation goes
on any longer.
Probably just the Press Secretary. He can wait, James says.
No. I shake my head. We need to deal with things now.
Separately. Theres no other way.
The light in his eyes dims. He clenches his jaw with
determination and slowly nods in agreement.
We both know what has to be done.
Ill be here if you need me, he says.
ROSEMARY

T he big door is heavy. I have to put all my body weight into


it, but I finally manage to push it open. A sliver of afternoon
sunlight spills in through the small gap, illuminating the dark
entrance.
Need help? asks a male voice behind me.
When I turn around, Albert is standing on half-landing of the
grand staircase behind me. To his sides, the staircase splits into
two and leads to the second floor.
That would be great, I say.
Albert walks down the carpeted steps of the stairs. When his
shiny leather shoes reach the marble ground floor, they echo
with every footfall.
Albert takes his place by my side and we start to push.
Prince James wouldve been able to open this door, no problem.
But hes at his office right now, fielding calls that are no doubt
pouring in from all over the kingdom.
But why am I thinking about him now? I cant get dependent on
him. Ive always known that we have an expiry date. I should
learn to rely on myself again.
This door hasnt been opened much, ever since the queen
passed away ten years ago, Albert says suddenly. The staff
usually takes a different door when its time to go home, the one
closest to the secret airport. The royal family lets us fly home on
their private jets, which is really generous of them.
I nod and give Albert a smile. This is hardly the time to have a
chat about the history of this palace, although Ill admit those
tidbits are pretty interesting.
This door is the closest one to Willowdale, Albert says as we
give the door a final push and get it open enough for me to slip
through.
Thank you, Albert, I say as I step outside.
Be careful and take care of yourself, Rose. Albert watches me
with kind eyes from the doorway. A small smile plays on his wry,
wrinkled face. And maybe come visit Master again someday.
Hes not very good at saying whats on his mind, but I can tell he
has really enjoyed having you here. I havent seen him smile this
much since before the queen died.
Again, Id love to hear all about this, but there are more pressing
matters screaming for my attention. I want to listen to Alberts
stories, and see this palace again, and most of all, meet Prince
James again.
But I dont know if I can promise any of those things.
Staying here has been really hard for me, in ways that I didnt
expect it to be. I cant be near James without desiring him, and I
cant want him like that without also caring about him.
Someone like me has no business having feelings for a prince.
Thanks, Albert. Ive really enjoyed being here, too, I finally
say. Its been a pleasure.
As I turn around to leave, I hear the heavy door dragging against
the stone floor. This entrance is not as well hidden as the secret
tunnel I came through the first time. But Im about 100 feet
above the ground and Im pretty sure I wont be able to see this
door from all the way down there.
As I walk down the endless stone steps that have been carved
into the rock, I open the compact from the prince and turn on
the map.
This is closer to Willowdale than I expected. The palace is located
quite a long way from the footpath, though, and there are a few
little streams to cross through. Some areas are difficult to get
through because of the mud.
Luckily, I have my sturdy leather boots on, although Im also
wearing yet another dress because my jeans have apparently
been incinerated by the palace staff for being so old and worn.
By following the map, I manage to reach Willowdale before
sundown. Even having followed the simplest route, though, I can
honestly say that I wouldnt be able to find the palace again
without the map.
As I walk down the main street, people start pointing at me and
whispering among themselves. Some of them even call out my
name.
But I dont have time for idle chit-chat. If I couldnt spare a
minute to listen to Alberts old stories, I sure cant afford to help
Mrs. Tisdale identify what insects have been attacking her tulips.
When I reach my house, theres still a crowd just outside the
fence, although the people are a lot more spread out.
One young reporter widens his eyes when he spots me, pulls out
his phone, and his gaze flicks between me and what I assume is a
picture of me.
A couple other people start to do the same, and by the time I
reach the gate, a handful of people have gathered around me.
Oh my god! I hear Irinas shout from somewhere on the street.
Shes got one hand over her mouth and another hand pointing at
me.
Clara is beside her, talking to a woman I assume is a journalist.
Are they doing an interview right now, when Fathers waiting
alone inside?
Rose! Clara yells out when she finally follows the direction at
which Irina is pointing and sees me. She gets up and dashes
toward me, glancing around to check that the reporters are
paying attention to her. She says, loudly, Thank god youre
back. Weve been so worried.
The people around us pick up their cameras, mics, and lighting
equipment, then point them at Clara and me. When she hugs
me, clicks and flashes explode all around us. Irina joins us and
more pictures of us are taken.
Can you tell us where youve been, Rose? asks a female
reporter, who has sidled close to us. She looks like shes in her
forties.
Yes, of course. I was living and working in Malvern temporarily.
This has all been a big misunderstanding, I say, telling the lie
that James and I have come up with.
I can almost hear a collective, disappointed gasp from both the
newspeople who have come here to gather the intel on my
disappearance, and the townsfolk who have rushed over to
watch the commotion.
Are you aware of the pictures that are circulating on the
Internet right now, of you and Prince James? asks another
reporter, a young man with a beard.
Im aware of the pictures youre referring to, I say, but Im
not the person in those pictures.
Again, the crowd murmurs. Then comes a barrage of questions
from so many reporters I cant even make out whos asking
which one anymore.
You just stated that you were in Malvern, Rose. The pictures
were taken there as well. Why are you so sure that its not you in
those pictures?
I was in Malvern, yes, but Ive never been to the club in the
pictures, I say. The only person in town who knows about my
having gone to The Dungeon is Elizabeth, and she wouldnt tell
on me.
What were you doing in Malvern?
I was working at an inn. My father had an accident while
traveling for work a couple of weeks ago, so we needed some
extra income.
Whats the name of the inn?
The Alcove. Youre welcome to call the inn and ask about my
work there, I say.
I hope the prince has already spoken to Wanda, the woman who
runs the inn, to warn her about the incoming calls from the
media. We only stayed there for a short time, but I remember her
as a nice, friendly person. I hope were not causing her too much
trouble.
Why didnt you tell your family, Rose? Why did they think youd
gone missing?
When I got the call for an interview, I didnt have much time, so
I had to leave without telling my family. I regret that now, seeing
the trouble that Ive caused, but I wouldnt have gotten the job
had I not left immediately, I say. Actually, I called and spoke
with my sister on my second day there and told her not to worry.
But I shouldve made a bigger effort to communicate.
Rose! There you are! Graham says as he pushes through the
crowd, flashing his badge so people would give him way. The
police have been looking all over for you.
Thank you, I say, but as you can see, its just a
misunderstanding.
Im just glad youre back, Graham says as he pulls me into an
awkward, forceful embrace in front of the cameras, which
promptly go wild with activity.
I pat his back twice, hoping hell get the message that this hug is
unwanted.
The media was saying you were the new victim of the royal
beast, and that got me worried, Graham says as he glances at
the cameras.
Thats not true, as I was telling everyone. I give him a polite
smile and take one step away from him.
Thats a relief. He flashes the cameras a smile. I thought,
since your father mentioned Prince James
Nope, I say. Im sure that was a misunderstanding as well.
Have you ever met Prince James? asks someone from the sea
of reporters.
No. I huff a small laugh to show them what a ridiculous notion
that is, then say, Like many other people in the kingdom, Id
love to meet the royal family, though.
I continue to field questions from the reporters. Luckily, the long
walk home has given me a lot of time to think of every angle, and
I have anticipated most of their questions.
Little by little, people disperse until the last reporter-and-
cameraman team gets into a van and drives away.
Where were you? Irina asks accusingly.
Like I said, I was in Malvern.
Liar, Clara says. You were with the prince. Father told us
about the palace before you called home. We just didnt think he
was telling the truth.
Yeah, Irina quips. We thought he was just confused after
having gotten lost in the woods.
So why do you think he was telling the truth now? I challenge
them, anger simmering beneath my skin. How dare they doubt
our father like that, dismissing him as just a senile old man,
after all hes done for them?
Well, youre in those pictures with the prince, Clara says.
Yeah, and there are old rumors about a secret palace nearby,
adds Irina.
Ive never heard about those, I say, genuinely surprised.
It hasnt come up for a long time, but now the older people are
saying theyve heard about a hidden palace, Irina says.
Where have you been? Clara narrows her eyes at me and stares
me down.
I already told you. I was working in Malvern.
Oh, so thats why youre wearing the designer dress that I just
saw on the magazine last week? Irina grabs the fabric of my
dress and rolls it between her thumb and index finger.
What are you talking about? My heart races as I pull my dress
away from Irina. At least they didnt do this in front of the
camera, but its still going to be really bad if they find out about
the prince.
I shriek as the top of my dress is pulled up. From behind me,
Clara says, Yep. This is a real Armani dress.
Shes checking the tag on my dress!
Stop it! I yell out. I was working in Malvern, okay? Leave me
alone. Now, I want to see Father. All those reporters just outside
our home mustve been stressful for him.
As I stomp toward our front door, the breeze carries a bone-
chilling message from my sisters.
This is not over, I hear Clara say.
JAMES

W ell, thats it. She has betrayed me.


I shouldve known she would, but I trusted her like an idiot.
I watch the flashing red dot on the map move from Willowdale
toward the palace, and the cameras are picking up not one, not
two, but tens of people.
Who the fuck are they? And why are they so interested in
something that doesnt concern them at all?
No matter where I go, they follow. Theyre fucking everywhere.
And it turns out Rosemary is just one of them.
She put on a good performance right after she got home. She
told the press the story that wed agreed on. I thought it was just
a matter of time until the story died down.
Sure, my father and his advisors are going to grill me about
getting caught doing something so compromising, but it was
going to blow over eventually, if I could blame the whole thing
on a bad case of mistaken identities.
But now, theyve apparently found my mothers compact, and
theyre using it to find this palace.
I grip the glass of whiskey in my hand harder and harder until it
finally shatters in my hand, the broken pieces of crystal
scattered all over the floor of this surveillance room.
Damn, that felt good.
I get up to my feet and find another breakable item.
A glass vase with some flowers in it.
That will do.
I pick up the vase, grabbing it by the neck, and throw it against
the wall, where it breaks and falls onto the floor in pieces.
My mother wouldve hated knowing that its her mirror thats
going to finally lead people to this palace.
She also wouldve been disappointed in me. I wasnt supposed to
get involved in yet another scandal and tarnish her nameas if
it hasnt already been dragged through enough dirt.
Sometimes, the limits that have been placed on me feel stifling.
But it turns out Im too dangerous for my own good.
If they just let me loose, Id destroy the royal familys reputation
in no time. Maybe even discredit the entire monarchy system.
I couldnt care less what the kingdom thinks about my father,
but my poor mother must be turning in her grave right now. She
cant get a breaknot even in death.
When my father started seeing another woman on the side, he
sent my mother and me to Ardglass Palace, claiming that the
countryside air would be better for my growing body. It was
really so hed have more freedom to meet with his mistress.
Still, my mother lived here like he wanted her to, staffing the
forgotten palace with decent people and bringing it back to life.
It was hard for her. Unlike me, she was a social person.
She couldnt be friends with the staff because the fact that she
was the queen intimidated them too much.
And she couldnt be friends with the locals in Willowdale or
Malvern because she couldnt even reveal her identity.
I have no doubt that my father was trying to make her life as
unpleasant as possible so shed ask for a divorce. The fucking
coward didnt have the balls to do the job himself because he
didnt want the whole kingdom blaming him for the marriage
falling apart. Maybe he also thought it would draw too much
attention to his affair.
So my mother consoled herself with secret parties, occasionally
inviting her old friends from the capital. She put so much
thought into those parties, concocting various schemes to
prevent her guests from discovering the location of the palace.
But one night, someone turned up with the group of guests my
mother had invited. Someone she didnt expect.
It was her husbands mistress.
In contrast to her normally sweet demeanor, she went berserk.
She screamed at the woman and threw the china all over the
ballroom. Not knowing about the affair, the other guests were
gasping and clutching their pearls, shocked by the queens
behavior.
The guards and the rest of the palace staff managed to calm my
mother down and bring the guests home without compromising
the location of the palace. But it was too late.
When they got to the capital, my mothers so-called friends
blabbed to the media, talking about how the queen had gone
crazy.
The press started speculating about mental illness being the
reason why my mother was hidden away from the public.
My fathers mistress further fanned the flames by doing an
exclusive interview about how mean my mother was to her.
This was all great news to my father, apparently. Because now
the people were on his side, admiring how strong and devoted he
was to stay with a crazy wife, despite his power and position.
The rumors destroyed my mother. She was hurt by the betrayal
of the people shed considered her friends. When my father
banned parties from Ardglass Palace, it didnt even matter
anymore to her, even though she used to find those parties to be
so exciting.
Her health got progressively worse from the depression. And the
following year, when Cheryl came out with the lie about my
abuse, it was almost like shed given up all hope.
I still remember what she said the day before she finally exhaled
her last breath.
I know I dont have much time anymore, the words slid out
through her dry, cracked lips. When I die, your father is going
to take that woman as his queen, she said bitterly.
Shes going to want her own son to be the next king, but youre
the crown prince. Dont let them take away your inheritance. If
you become the king, all my suffering will have paid off.
At the time, I promised my mother Id keep my reputation
squeaky clean and become the king. Ive even been keeping
myself sequestered in Ardglass Palace to avoid scandal.
But Ive been careless. Now Ive caused another uproar and
reminded the people of my mothers wrongdoing. Its possible
my father will use this opportunity to take my crown away.
And its all because of a girl.
A girl I shouldnt have trusted.
I shouldve known shed betray me.
Maybe she stuck to our story at first, which was commendable.
But I bet everything changed when she talked to her family.
Based on Rosemarys stories about her sisters, they seem like
the kind of girls whod do anything to get their fifteen minutes
of fame. And Ive already met her thief of a father.
Theyre poor and they need money. Ive heard that so many
times I dont know why I wasnt more careful around her. I
wonder how much money the media has offered to persuade her
to talk.
I have to admit this is a smart move on her part.
This way, I wouldnt be able to punish her or her father for their
crimes, because that would amount to a public admission of guilt
on my part.
I watch people make their way to the palace on the screens.
Theyre getting closer, and theyre going to be here soon.
At the very least, I shouldnt have compromised the secrecy of
the palace by giving her the map. Now, instead of just gossip for
the tabloids, this is going to end up on the front page of the
broadsheet newspapers. The discovery of a secret palace is huge
news.
Everything wouldve been fine had I stuck to my original plan. I
shouldve kept our relationship strictly sexual. Instead, I let
myself develop feelings for her. What the fuck was that about?
I shouldve kept her in the palace and prevented her from
making any contact with the outside world. Instead, I took her
outside myself just because I wanted to have a night out and buy
her a collar.
Even earlier than that, maybe I shouldnt have rescued her
father, even though it was always my mothers policy to provide
shelter for lost hikers.
Im a fucking idiot.
I leave the surveillance room and enter my adjoining office.
Theres no use watching the screens now. Theres nothing I can
do to stop the people from finding the door.
I take a random plate from a display shelf and throw it against
the ground. I watch it shatter. This is not helping me get out of
this predicament, but it sure feels satisfying.
I grab another piece of china. Im about to smash it onto the
floor, but my hand hangs in the air as I take a closer look at it.
I recognize this thing. I remember the little chip on the edge.
This is the teacup that Rosemary dropped in the garden.
She looked so beautiful that morning, strong and delicate at the
same time. She let me explore her body that day, and she
allowed me a glimpse of the passion and sensuality she was
hiding within her.
It was all a big lie.
Maybe I shouldnt have expected anything real, considering the
way I tricked her into staying, but this still fucking hurts. I guess
theres no way to soften the blow of betrayal.
I understand how my mother used to feel now.
Sir, Albert says as he opens the door without knocking, there
are people approaching the door. The guards are already moving,
but these people, they look like civilians. What would you like to
do?
Just leave them be for now. Theyre not going to break through
the door, I say.
I cant come out to face them without a plan. And I cant come up
with a plan in this state.
Ring!
I glance at the phone on my desk.
Ring!
I let out a big sigh and look at Albert. Would you please pick up
the phone?
The phone is just about to ring for a third time when Albert grabs
the handset and holds it up to his ear.
Ardglass Palace. Albert Williams speaking, he says.
I watch as he nods and occasionally says yes into the phone,
his face growing whiter by the second.
This is not good.
Sir, he says as he holds the phone handset away from his head
and puts a hand over the mic, its the capital. Youre ordered to
see the king. He wants to speak to you in person.
ROSEMARY

S unshine streams in through the window, stabbing me in the


eyes. A light breeze caresses my arms, which are sticking out of
my blanket.
Thats strange.
Ardglass Palace is surrounded by rock. Ive never felt any wind,
except for in the garden, where there is no roof.
The garden.
It would be nice to wake up now. Maybe I can have breakfast in
the garden and share a few pieces of bread with the birds and the
squirrels.
I peel my eyes open, but its difficult. Its like my eyelids have
been glued down to my eyeballs.
When I finally look around me, I realize Im home.
Except it doesnt feel like home. It feels strange, unfamiliar. My
bedroom in the palace has become more familiar to me than this
one.
Strange.
Im still wearing the dress I came home in, the one I got from the
wardrobe in my palace bedroom.
Why didnt I change before going to bed?
Id walked through the woods. Id stepped in mud.
I sit up in bed as I try to remember the events of last night.
I remember talking to the reporters. I managed to fool them, just
as planned.
I remember Clara and Irina getting suspicious over my dress.
They didnt buy it when I told them Id bought it as a treat for
myself, with my wages from the inn.
I remember Father lighting up when he saw me, rushing up from
his big recliner and pulling me into a big, warm hug. He just held
me and cried for a long time, not saying anything.
I remember Clara telling us it was time for dinner. She herded us
to the dining table, where some chicken nuggets and fries have
been arranged on plates. The sauce tasted weird, but I was
impressed that my sisters could cook at all.
Then nothing.
I wonder if Id gorged so much chicken nuggets that I passed out
from being so full. And warm. And I was so tired too, after
rushing home and going through all that craziness with the
press.
The press!
Wow, yesterday was one crazy day.
I guess it wasnt so strange after all, that I didnt even bother to
change before going to bed.
I stumble out of my bedroom. I should get something to eat. I
always wake up hungry the day after a feast.
As I put some bread in the toaster, I hear my fathers loud
footsteps down the hallway.
Morning, Rose. Get me some of that as well, will you? he asks.
Morning, Father, I say as I grab more bread from the bag.
Wow, what a night, huh?
Yeah. To be honest, I dont remember much of last night. He
plops down on the couch, chuckling. Thats the sign of a good
night.
I laugh. The toaster dings and I put my breakfast onto a plate,
then put Fathers bread in. Should I make more for Clara and
Irina?
I dont know, Father says. I peeked in their rooms and they
werent there.
Strange. Theyre not usually up this early.
I cant dwell on my sisters, though. There are too many things on
my mind.
It feels so strange to be back home. Even though Ive only been
gone a couple of weeks, everything seems older and smaller.
Maybe thats just because Ive never been away for such a long
time before.
I also dont have time to think about Prince James, although Ill
admit I did feel a little disappointment when I realized he wasnt
sleeping beside me when I woke up this morning.
No, I have more important things to deal with. Things like like
making sure the press understands that were just an ordinary
family with zero connections with royalty.
Thats right. I almost forgot Im a temporary public relations
manager.
Hey, maybe that can go on my resum, on top of my experience
gardening at a royal palace. And technically, this unexpected PR
job is also work Im doing for the royal family.
I wonder if I can still mention these things on my job
applications, considering all the ruckus around me right now.
Maybe thatll just be used by some gossip tabloids as
confirmation that I really am the girl who was seen at a BDSM
club with the prince.
Damn gossip tabloids.
I know now why James hates them so much. If he were here,
wed probably share a laugh over my newfound contempt for the
gossip press.
Wait, Im not supposed to have any time to think about that guy.
I should I should check what theyre saying about us on TV
today.
Father, could you please turn on the TV? I ask as I grab a plate
for his toast.
Oh, I was hoping we could talk this morning, Father says
dejectedly.
I laugh softly as I bring the plates of toast and some butter to the
table. We have plenty of time for that. I just want to see if
theyve got their story straight, after my clarification last night.
Father gives me a grim look, his expression suddenly serious.
You mean your lie last night?
Father, I
He waves a hand in the air. Its okay. Im sure you have your
reasons. But you dont have to keep lying in front of me. I
havent been able to talk about my experience at he lowers
his volume the palace. And now that youre home, Im just
glad to have someone to talk to about it.
I give him a smile and take a seat. Id love to talk to you about
it.
Good.
Father grabs the remote control and turns on the TV. After
flipping through a few channels, we finally see Prince James
handsome face fill the screen. A bunch of microphones are
waiting in front of him.
Pictures have been circulating on the Internet of someone who
looks a lot like you, Your Royal Highness. Have you seen these
pictures? asks someone off the screen.
Im aware of them, yes, James says, in that deep, authoritative
voice that makes me want to fall to my knees and worship him.
Hes not looking into the cameramaybe there are too many
cameras pointing at him, or maybe hes got his eyes on the
person who asked him the question.
My chest tightens as I think about how far apart we are.
Its not just because the ribbon of text that has appeared at the
bottom of the TV screen is indicating that hes in the capital
right now.
Its the fact that I used to have him all to myself, and now hes
Well, hes a prince, and he belongs to the kingdom. Hes exactly
where he should be, at the capital, and it pains me to know that
his proper place is away from me.
Is that you in those pictures, Your Highness? another reporter
asks.
No, he says curtly, with barely hidden contempt. Obviously,
he doesnt like this line of questioning.
His steel-blue eyes sweep across what I assume is a row of
cameras pointed at his face. My heart skips a beat when he looks
straight into the camera currently broadcasting the channel
were watching.
Have you ever been to The Dungeon in Malvern, Your Highness?
Its a club for people with, uh, certain tastes.
Im surprised to hear the name of the club mentioned on TV.
When Elizabeth asked me to go there with her, Id never heard of
the club. It was supposed to be a secret to be kept among people
in the lifestyle. Elizabeth had told me it wasnt marketed in any
way other than through word of mouth.
But come to think of it, it would be nave to believe journalists
dont have a way of finding out about these things.
And obviously not everyone who has been to The Dungeon can be
trusted to keep a secret, considering what has happened.
I mean, it should be common knowledge that youre not
supposed to snap pictures of people in sex clubs.
Whats your relationship with Rosemary Wilson, Your
Highness? someone asks.
Im sorry, Im not familiar with that name, he says calmly.
My chest pangs with pain at his answer. Somebody has just
mentioned my name, and he has just dismissed it so casually. He
didnt even flinch.
Does he know how I feel every time someone says his name?
How could he be so unaffected?
I guess Ive always hoped that there could be something more to
our relationship, that its more than just about penance.
I know its stupid. I mean, hes a prince.
No, scratch that. Hes the prince. The crown prince. The future
king.
Did I really think I was going to be by his side forever? Was I
really so arrogant as to imagine myself as a queen?
Id laugh if it didnt also hurt like a bitch.
We can never be anything more than just two strangers. Were
too different. We come from such different worlds.
He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and Ive been
struggling my whole life.
Hes royalty, and Im a commoner.
He lives in a palace, and Im always broke.
I should count my lucky stars that I got the chance to spend any
time with him at all. Im just like one of his groupies, to be
forgotten and discarded after hes had his fun.
Rosemary Wilson, says a reporter, was the one who gave us
clues about the location of the mysterious door, Your Highness.
And she looks a lot like the woman in the pictures. And she lives
in a town very close to Malvern. Any of these ring a bell?
What?
I cant believe my ears.
I stare at the TV screen with wide eyes and an open mouth.
Theyve just mentioned my name, right? And they said Id
given them clues about where a secret door is?
What is going on?
Rose, youre going to run out of nails soon, Father says as he
pulls my hand away from my mouth.
Father, did they Did they find the palace? I ask as blood
rushes from my face.
I dont know, honey. I havent been keeping up with the news
at all. Didnt you tell them about the palace?
No! I say, louder than I intended. Id never do that.
Shit.
I pat at the pockets of my dress.
Nothing. Theyre empty. Both of them.
Oh, no.
I get up, letting my chair legs scratch loudly against the floor,
and rush to my bedroom. My heart is hammering so hard in my
chest that everything feels shaky.
Maybe the compact is on my bedside table.
Yeah, thats It should be there, right?
But they found the palace, and they said I
Theres only one thing that couldve led them there.
Theres nothing on my bedside table, so I open the drawer. It
only has all my usual things in there.
I go through my bedroom, yanking open drawers and cabinet
doors in a terrified frenzy.
How did I lose the compact?
Who couldve known about it?
I didnt tell anybody, did I? I mean, how could I have? The only
people Ive talked to since I got home are Father, Graham for a
brief moment, and my sisters.
My sisters.
They were suspicious of me last night. And they couldve
searched my dress last night to find the compact.
The button is well hidden, from what I can remember. But maybe
they turned it over and over again in their hands, looking for
answers about my disappearance.
Oh, shit.
Im the one responsible for leaking the location of Ardglass
Palace.
I grab my phone from the drawer in my bedside table and sit on
the edge of the bed. Firing up the phone, I look for the emails the
prince sent me on that first night, the ones with the directions to
the palace.
I type a short note to him, then I erase it.
I stare at the blank, white screen and start to type a few letters
then I delete all the words again.
What am I supposed to write? What if someone hacks into my
email account? Should I try to hide my real message in some
way? Should I use some kind of a code?
Im probably overthinking this.
I start to type again, deciding to write something short and
vague, something that wouldnt immediately be linked with
Prince James or the palace.

Im sorry.

Theres so much more I want to say, but I keep erasing


everything I write beyond those two words.
I cant be too obvious. This email could fall into the wrong
hands, just like the compact did.
I press the send button.
I stare at the screen for a few seconds, holding my breath.
What am I even waiting for?
James isnt going to reply right away. Hes busy fielding
reporters questions right now.
Oh, a new email!
My heart pounds, even before I finish reading the subject line.
Your message could not be delivered?
I tap on the email and read the lines of technical words that
dont make any sense.
I spot one sentence that was written in English.
Email address does not exist.
I slump my shoulders.
He has deleted his email account.
Theres no way for me to contact him now.
I can never apologize, not even with a shitty two-word email.
JAMES

Y ou probably know why Ive called you here, he says from


all the way up on his golden throne in this silent hall. The
king and the queen have sent all the guards out so we can have
this private family discussion.
Yes, Father.
Jesus, I cant believe hes wearing his crown and everything, on a
day when hes not even about to make a public appearance. I
dont remember him acting like this when I was a boy, living in
this palace in the capital.
I wonder if Priscilla, his ex-mistress and current wife, lays out
his crown along with the rest of his outfit for him in the
morning. She has always loved this whole being-a-queen thing.
I cant believe youve abused yet another young girl, Priscilla
says. And, as if thats not bad enough, youve even revealed the
location of Ardglass Palace, which has been kept a secret for
hundreds of years.
Priscilla shoots me a glare from where she sits, on the smaller
throne beside my fathers. She cant fully conceal her glee over
my big mistake. The corners of her lips are tugging up, hinting at
just how pleased she is.
Exactly. I think its been a secret long enough, dont you
think? I ask, deliberately challenging her. We havent had any
wars in a long time; all the neighboring countries are our allies;
and Ardglass Palace is a piece of history that people have a right
to know about.
Priscillas jaw drops and she stares at me angrily, but without
saying anything. Panic flashes in my fathers eyes as he feels the
situation getting out of his grasp.
But lets get back to your first point for now, I add. Like I said
the other time, Father, theres no abuse involved. She was just
angry because I didnt want to marry her like she wanted me to.
Everything Ive done toand withthese girls have been
consensual. They knew what they were getting into. They begged
me to do everything I did, and then they screamed my name
afterward, asking for more. Believe me, I dont need deception or
violence to get what I want.
The queens face turns red. Maybe shes embarrassed by my
crude words, or maybe shes angry at what she sees as my
insolence.
I I dont care what you do in your own personal time, she
says.
Dont you think thats kind of contradictory? You were the one
who first mentioned my abuse of those women, remember? That
was, like, two minutes ago.
I dont care what you do to those women, but you shouldve
been more careful, Priscilla says,
Oh, you mean I should put on a mask, like you do when you
visit those orphanages and hug those sick kids at the childrens
hospital? I snort and shake my head. You dont really care
about those people.
Priscilla draws her mouth back in a snarl. You Do you know
that were becoming less and less popular by the day? There are
people calling for a referendum right now. Im just doing my part
to keep the royal family relevant.
There have always been people calling for a referendum. There
have always been some people who want a different system of
government. And for once, I agree with you. Their numbers have
been growing. But Ive stayed out of the gossip section for years.
So maybe you cant pin this one on me.
Priscilla lets out a derisive snort. Well, youre not helping
either. I thought youd be under control in Ardglass Palace, but it
turns out youre just a troublemaker and it doesnt matter where
you are. You even own a dirty club. But I dont know why Im
surprised. I remember what your mother was like.
Dont you dare bring my mother into this. I clench my fists so
hard my fingernails are digging painfully into my palms. I swear
I want to bash that face in, but I wont hurt a womannot
unless I know said woman would enjoy it.
Thats enough, both of you, Father says, massaging his
temples with his fingers.
Do you even know what I do at Ardglass Palace, Father?
He gives me an infuriatingly blank look. Caught like a deer in
headlights.
Thats what I thought.
Despite the golden crown on his head, hes clueless about the
running of the kingdom.
While your queen here has been sitting on her ass, shopping
and gossiping, Ive been working hard to improve the way the
kingdom is run. I glance briefly at Priscillas angry face.
Ive been holding regular meetings with the local government
at Malvern. The city council used to be corrupt and inefficient.
Ive cleaned out the place and fired all the lazy, incompetent
workers.
Now, we have the most prosperous province in the kingdom.
Out of the eleven provinces, we have the highest literacy rate
and the lowest unemployment rate. We also dont have much
crime.
Guess what all those things do to the approval rating? I pause
while both my father and Priscilla remain quiet, then add, We
have the highest approval rating in the kingdom as well. The
people are happy. They have no complaints, no reason to change
the system. You know why? Because its working.
This uproar youre causing is still not good for the royal
familys reputation as a whole. The people will never accept
someone like you as their king, Priscilla says, shrugging.
What are you saying? I ask, my blood boiling. Priscilla seems
too smug for this to be an empty threat.
I turn to my father. He has some explaining to do.
Well, son, he says, clearing his throat, my advisors have been
discussing the possibility of passing the crown on to Philip.
And by your advisors, do you really mean her? I ask, pointing
at the evil witch.
While I was busy doing actual work, she has apparently
manipulated everyone into thinking it would be a good idea to
make her son the crown prince. Just like my wise mother has
predicted.
Now, son, no decisions have been made, Father says. But my
advisorsnot just Priscillaagree that your reputation may
have become irreparable after this last scandal.
This is bullshit.
If you can get the people to accept you, then go ahead and keep
your crown. This is not about me. Priscillas lips spread across
her cheeks as she looks down on me from her throne.
I turn around and make my way toward the double doors. My
soles tap softly against the red carpet over the stone floor.
I dont hear any more words from my father or Priscilla.
This meeting is over.
I open the door and step into the hallway.
This is fucking bullshit.
The crown is my birthright. I grew up knowing that one day Id
become the king, and Ive been planning my whole life based on
that assumption.
Ive dedicated myself to the people, working tirelessly to
improve the bureaucracy at Malvern so the whole province could
be run more smoothly.
Ive been asking for a chance to work on the other provinces, but
Ive never had the clearance from the capital to do that. Ive
already come up with so many ideas about how the whole
kingdom could be governed better.
But Priscilla wants me confined to Ardglass Palace, and my
father is too weak to go against her.
If only the people could see how hard Ive been working for
them, Im sure theyd know Id do a better job than my father.
Id be a better king. Id be a good king.
Honestly, the people need me more than I need them.
Ill be fine even if I dont become the king. As a prince, I can live
an easy life forever.
I dont really know Philip, but Ive seen how his mom coddles
him. Hes going to grow up into a selfish spoiled brat, for sure.
It doesnt matter what hes like, though, because his mother will
be the real ruler, the one who pulls the strings behind the
curtains.
But if the people dont want me, I dont know why I care.
Why should I fight so hard for them, when they reject me?
What Priscillas doing isnt right, and Im sure shell continue to
use her dirty tactics against the peoples interest for as long as
she can. Shes bad for the kingdom, but if the people are happy
with her, then what do I care?
And sure, Ive made a promise to my mother. But do dead people
really care what the living do with their lives?
That crown is rightfully mine. But Ive learned from a young age
that I cant always get the things that should belong to me.
As I walk down the hallways of my fathers palace, people move
out of my way and stare at me. I dont know if its because I look
angry, or if its because Im the beast who gets his kicks from
beating up innocent, young women.
That reminds me of something else thats rightfully mine.
Ive wanted to contact her for days, but Ive been careful to not
rock the boat. I thought it was best to lay low, considering all the
uproar around this latest thing.
But now everythings different.
If I dont have the crown anymore, then I can do whatever I want
without paying any attention to what strangers would think
about it. Thats a fucking silver lining if I ever saw one.
I pull out my phone and start to type an email.
So what if shes talking to the press? Im going to see her and
remind her that she belongs to me. Shes going to do as I say and
keep those luscious lips zipped.
And if she doesnt, who cares? Let the nosy gossipers of the
kingdom talk. Lets give them a good reason to wag their
tongues.

Rosemary,
Meet me at The Alcove.
J.
ROSEMARY

W here is he?
And what kind of an email is this?
I stare at the short message that I got three days ago, even
though Ive read it over so much that Ive already memorized it.

Rosemary,
Meet me at The Alcove.
J.

Thats it.
No date. No time. Just the location.
Not exactly the hardest thing to memorize.
I know someone might be keeping an eye on my emails, now that
my face has appeared on various newspapers and TV stations.
But cant he give me some indication of when Im supposed to
meet him?
Sure, Ive been spending most days at The Alcove anyway.
Since the whole kingdom thinks I work here, Wanda, the owner,
has kindly allowed me to hang out here. Ive even asked her for a
few tasks to do to fill my time, and she has been giving me daily
wages.
It turns out shes so old that there are a few maintenance issues
that have gone unfixed for years. Ive grown up with little money
and a father who is always away for work, so Ive become quite
handy.
I guess Im actually working here now. I have a room at the attic
and everything.
But that still doesnt excuse how rude that email is. Its as if he
thinks I dont have anything better to do, than to wait around for
him.
Despite my irritation, I have to admit that every time a tall guy
walks through the old, creaky door into the inn, my heart jumps
and I forget what Im doing for a minute.
But its never him.
Its been three days. For someone who has grown up with the
Internet like me, three days is a really long time.
Just as I reach for the switch of the table lamp on my nightstand,
my bedroom door clicks open. No knocking. No warning.
You have a few things to explain, sweetheart, says a familiar
voice from the doorway. Its the same voice that Ive been
hearing in my head lately when Im alone with my thoughts.
But this This is real, right?
I stare at the tall, dark figure pushing the door shut behind him.
That broad chest, those strong arms, and most of all, those
intense blue eyes, with the magnetic gaze that pulls me in and
doesnt let go.
Well? James asks, one eyebrow cocked.
Youre really here, I say, my voice coming out squeaky for
some reason. I realize Ive been holding my breath.
I told you Id be here, didnt I?
Yes, but I
But you thought Id say one thing and do another, just like you
did, he says.
I did no such thing! I get up from my bed and stand up to him.
You told them where the palace is! he exclaims loudly.
My breath hitches at my throat. Hes scaring me.
Why did you do that? the prince asks, a little more softly this
time.
I did everything the way wed planned it. I told them the story
that wed agreed on.
Yes, at first, he says.
Would you listen to me? I ask in frustration, throwing my
hands in the air. I cant finish my story if you dont even let me
talk.
Okay. He folds his arms across his chest and leans back
against the wall. Go ahead.
I gave the press a statement, just like I said I would. And I
thought that was it. I thought it was just a matter of time until
the whole thing blew over.
When I woke up the next morning, I saw you on TV, and they
were talking about this secret door that they found, using clues
given by me. Thats when I realized the compact had gone
missing.
Then I spent the next few days biting my nails as they camped
out there by the secret door. I hold up my hands for him to see
the damage for himself.
Things have quieted down over the past couple of days, but I
think some people are still trying to open that door.
Wait, you mean you lost the compact? In the woods? James
asks with a frown.
No, I had it in my hand the whole way until I reached
Willowdale, and I know I still had it when I got home.
So you lost it at home?
I think I drag air into my constricted lungs. I know my
family sucks, but its still a difficult thing to admit to someone
else. But I have to tell him the truth. I think my sisters took it.
I stop myself from telling him I suspect they also gave my father
and me some crushed-up sleeping pills in our food that night. I
dont have any proof, though.
It would also be a serious accusationthe kind that would ruin
their precious chances of attracting wealthy, eligible bachelors
as their husbands. Even if my suspicion were true, I dont have
the heart to do that to them.
Your sisters, the ones who have been showing up on talk shows
and gossip news? he asks.
Yeah. Theyre not bad people. They just like attention, I say
lamely.
I think that makes them pretty bad people, Rosemary, he says,
his gaze softening.
Yeah, I admit. I dont know. I guess.
Jesus. James runs his fingers through his hair. Ive always
tried to stay as anonymous as I can because I dont want to drag
people into the spotlight if I dont have to. I know first-hand
how cruel the media can be. I try not to subject people to that.
But some people actually like all that crazy stuff, huh?
Yeah.
Theyve been telling people that you gave them the compact
and you told them there was a palace behind that door, he says.
I know, I say, wincing. Theyre careless with their words.
I think youre giving them too much credit. I think they know
exactly what theyre doing to you, but they just dont care. They
knew you didnt want to reveal the location of the palace, didnt
they?
Yeah. I guess youre right.
Of course I know that I dont have a normal relationship with my
sisters. They dont treat me like they treat each other. Its
almost like they hate me.
But we still live under the same roof at least some of the time, so
its not like I can just steer clear of them.
I dont even feel right telling my father about what my sisters
get up to while hes away. He has such little time to spend at
home, and Id rather not fill it with negativity.
I guess its easier to tell myself my sisters are oblivious rather
than accept the fact that they just hate me.
What is it? I ask when I notice the prince smiling to himself as
he stares at me.
Youre kind, he says. You see the good in people.
Theyre my sisters. I change the subject. I tried to email you,
but it bounced.
You did? James smile widens. He walks across the room and
sits on my bed. Patting the empty space on the bed beside him,
he says, I always burn my email addresses after use. Its a
security measure.
I sit down beside the prince. Looking into his impossibly blue
eyes, I cant help but admit, I thought I was never going to see
you again. I thought you were angry with me, and for good
reason. Im so sorry I didnt take better care of your mothers
compact.
It wasnt your fault, he says as he raises his hand to caress my
cheek. I lean into his palm.
I was so relieved when I got your email, I say as my eyes start
to fill with water. And then I didnt hear anything from you for
three whole days, and I was getting worried. I thought maybe
that email wasnt from you, or maybe it was you but you were
standing me up because you hated me so much.
Hey, Im here now, arent I? he asks as his fingers wipe away
the tears streaming down my face. Everythings okay. Im not
angry at you. I thought youd betrayed me and you didnt care if
you ever saw me again. I thought you werent going to show up.
Id always show up for you. I was always planning to see you
again, to go back to the palace someday. I grab the tissue on my
bedside table and wipe my face.
You wanted to go back to the palace?
Of course.
To stay? he asks, a little too quickly.
No. I smile at his enthusiasm. Im relieved that he believes my
story and forgives me. I know how he feels about me now, but I
cant move into the palace just like that. I just wanted to see
you again.
Youve already seen me again. Come stay with me at the palace.
We can go this very night.
No, I cant be your prisoner. If were going to see each other
again, I need you to see me as an equal.
I do see you as an equal, he says.
No, you cant. Not if Im a prisoner. And thats all Ive been, the
whole time weve known each other.
Youre not going to be a prisoner this time. Youre never going
to be a prisoner again, he insists.
I dont know if Im ready for us to live together.
But its something youd consider?
If it turns out that we can have a healthy relationship, despite
our sexual dynamics, then yes, Id consider it, I say.
What if I tell you its an order? he asks in a low, seductive tone
that speaks right to my feminine core.
I swallow down my arousal. I cant let my pussy do the thinking
here. See, thats one of the things we need to talk about. You
need to understand which things to confine to the bedroom. Like
that voice. Thats just not fair. You know I cant say no to that.
Seems like you just did. Leaning closer and giving me a panty-
melting smirk, he adds, Maybe I wasnt clear enough, he says,
grabbing the hair at the base of my skull into his fist, I said it
was an order.
My breath catches, but I fight against my instinct to submit.
Can we save this until later?
Later tonight? he asks, whispering in my ear.
Yeah, I say, ending the word with a long sigh when his breath
falls on my sensitive skin.
Okay, he says, letting go of my hair. He drags his lips down my
neck, kissing and nibbling on my flesh occasionally. Lets talk.
You know what, I say as I put my hand on his hair, my voice
hoarse with lust, I think weve covered everything for now.
Who am I kidding? There are no terms to negotiate. Im his, and
he knows it. Like the birds and squirrels in the palace garden, I
cant go back into the wild, after knowing what its like to belong
to someone.
I agree, he says as he lays me down on the bed. Lying on his
side, he frowns when his fingers touch the top button of my
blouse. What do you need so many buttons for?
Its just something old I wear for cleaning.
I really need to get you back into those dresses, he says as he
climbs up on top of me.
I was about to say something about not actually being into
dresses, but this is not the time for talking anymore. The sight
and the feel of him on top of me dominates my mind, and I
forget everything else.
Prince James grabs the collar of my blouse and pulls it apart,
sending buttons flying all over the room.
Maybe I should protest, but Im overwhelmed by the need to be
taken. I want that same passion that has ruined my top to ruin
me, too. I want it to consume me, to destroy me like it has done
to my blouse.
The prince takes off what remains of my blouse and my bra.
When he undoes my fly, I lift my butt off the bed to let him pull
my jeans and panties all the way down.
I reach up to pull his suit jacket off, but he grabs my wrists with
one hand.
Did I tell you to touch me? he asks darkly.
No, Sir. Im sorry, Sir, I answer automatically, suddenly his
sweet little Submissive again.
We need to do something about these hands, he says.
He fumbles with his belt and yanks it out of the loops in his
pants. He pins my wrists over my head, then he wraps the belt
around the posts in the headboard and my wrists. When hes
done, I pull on my hands and find them restrained by the cool,
smooth leather.
Now, what am I going to do with you? he asks with danger
glinting in his blue eyes. The one table lamp on my bedside table
illuminates one side of his face, while casting the other side in
sinister shadows.
I know this man, and I want him to claim my body, but my heart
starts to race like Im terrified.
Its not that I want him to stop, though. I remember my safe
word, and I dont want to say it.
Theres just something about the prince that sucks me in. His
eyes, darkened by lust, are like deep pools that pull me
downward, threatening to drown me. Yet I cant help but keep
swimming down.
Have you been missing me, sweetheart? James asks as his
knee forces my legs apart.
Yes, Sir.
Do you dream of me when you fall asleep? He lies down on top
of me, pressing his hard-on against me. I can feel the heat and
hardness through the fabric of his pants.
YYes, Sir, I admit, my face growing hot with
embarrassment.
What do you dream about? James caresses my cheek and
studies my face, making me feel even more self-conscious.
I dream about you doing what youre doing.
And what am I doing?
Youre on top of me.
So I was on top of you in this dream. Were you naked, too?
YYes.
What did I do with your naked body? James asks with a smirk
as he runs his big, masculine hand up my side.
You Uh, you kiss my breasts.
James trails kisses down my neck and into the valley between my
breasts. Like this? he asks.
Yeah.
This dream version of me sounds boring in bed, he says as he
sucks the flesh of my breast into his mouth, hard. Just when it
starts to feel painful, he lets go.
I look down to find a deep purple mark on my otherwise creamy
skin.
Did I do that in your dream? he asks.
No, Sir.
How about this? he asks before he takes a nipple into his wet,
warm mouth. His hand grabs my other breast and kneads it.
Without even realizing it, I arch my back, offering more of
myself to him. My breath grows heavier, and my fingers are
grabbing at the leather around my wrists. I cry out when the
prince takes my nipple between his teeth and bites down.
Did the me in your dream do that? James asks, cocking an
eyebrow.
No, Sir.
Im going to fuck you better than you can imagine in your
wildest dreams, he promises, locking my gaze as he drags his
lips down my belly and over my mound.
I sigh when I feel his lips, hot and firm, on my pussy. Actually,
he did that in my dream, too, but this real version feels better
already.
Look at me, he says as he sucks my lower lips into his mouth.
Obeying his order, I fight against the compulsion to close my
eyes or throw my head back.
I glance down to see him staring at me. Ive known him in
person for a while now, but its still a trip to see his facethe
same face Ive seen on TV and newspapers my whole life
between my legs.
He traps my gaze as he eats me out. While his lips and tongue
tease my clit, he grabs my thighs with both hands, immobilizing
all my limbs. He sees every little twitch of my eyebrow, every
little jerk of my arm against his belt around my wrists.
My lips are parted, sighing and moaning my desire, telling him
just how much I want him. As if my soaking wet pussy isnt
already doing a good job at that.
When I come, my fingers grab the headboard, while my legs
splay open to give the prince better access. And there, on my bed
in the inn, I shudder and shake against the princes mouth, his
rough stubble grazing on my thighs.
I try to pull away when the sensations start to feel too much, but
the strong hands around my thighs wont let me. I look
pleadingly into the princes eyes.
Id beg him to stop, but I cant say anything. Im biting my lower
lip so I dont make any noise thats too loud. If I open my mouth,
Id scream for sure.
My head rolls back. I arch my back as I lose control of my body,
my muscles spasming from an overload of pleasure.
Finally, when my whole skin has been covered by a thin film of
sweat, the prince takes his lips off my pussy. I can still feel it
throbbing, the muscles contracting and expanding from the
prolonged orgasm.
Before I have a chance to recover, the prince lies down behind
me and pulls me back against his hard chest. Something hot and
hard pushes at my opening. In my surprise, a moan escapes my
lips as the prince slides into me smoothly, aided by my abundant
wetness.
Come for me, he whispers in my ear as his arms wrap around
me. His hands grab my tits and play with my clit.
Maybe its because Im still sensitive from having come so much
already. Maybe Ive been trained well to obey the princes
commands. Or maybe its the knowledge that the prince harbors
some inconvenient feelings for me, too.
I dont know what it is, but I come harder than I ever have
before.
You may tell me with your words that you dont want to stay
with me, but your body is more honest than that. The prince
wraps his hand around my neck as he continues to pump into
me. He fucks me mercilessly. Punctuating every word with a
hard slam into me, he growls, You. Are. Mine.
The primal, animalistic way he claims my body turns me into a
heap of orgasms. My muscles tighten around his thick, hard
cock, massaging him until finally, he comes with a groan and a
bite on the back of my neck.
He really is a beast in bed. He has pumped my womb full of his
seed, and he has marked my body as his own.
Maybe hes right. Maybe I already belong to him. Im just not
ready to admit it to myself.
But ready or not, James is here, and hes not letting me go.
Ill see you again here tomorrow night, he says with his arms
wrapped possessively around my body as I come down from my
climax. And thats an order.
ROSEMARY

O h my god, its so beautiful. I drag air into my lungs and let


out a big sigh. The view is literally breathtaking from up
here.
James arms wrap around me. The warmth of his body feel
comforting as the air gets thinner and cooler. Not as beautiful
as you.
Thats really cheesy, I laugh, but my heart swells at his words.
Ive heard similar comments from other guys, like Graham, but
somehow its different when I hear it in James voice. Im happy
thats how he sees me.
As the sun peeks over the mountain ranges in the horizon, the
prince draws a deep breath and simply says, Look at that.
Yeah. Im glad we caught the sunrise.
So you agree now that I had a good, valid reason for you to stay
over? James asks as he tightens his hold around me and kisses
me on the cheek.
Maybe, I admit.
Prince James asks me to stay over at Ardglass Palace every time I
go there for dinner. To be perfectly honest, even though I act like
hes a pest for bugging me about it, I enjoy sleeping by his side
all night. And I often accept the invitationor obey the order
even if theres no hot air balloon ride to get up for in the early
morning.
The problem is, staying over messes with my work schedule at
The Alcove too much, although Wanda doesnt mind it. She
doesnt ask too many questions, even though she must know
theres something between the prince and me.
It has been six months since the pictures of us at The Dungeon
were published.
Since then, weve been keeping a low profile.
Weve mostly met up at The Alcove. Sometimes Prince James
stays over in my room, but usually hes gone before morning. We
cant risk him getting spotted by someone and us ending up on
the gossip tabloids again.
In the past couple of months, the news about us have started to
die down, so Ive been able to start visiting the palace again.
Theres a bigger risk of getting caught at the door that has been
discovered, though, so Ive had to use the secret tunnel every
time.
For a while, people were really curious about that door. It took an
order from the capital to stop people from blowing it open with
dynamite or something.
That royal order has saved the secrecy of the palace, but it has
also confirmed that the government has something to hide.
Peoples speculations have only been getting wilder and wilder.
The craziest theory Ive heard thus far is the one about a secret
labor camp. The mysterious door apparently leads to prison
where the governments dissidents are forced to do dangerous
work in some sort of a modern Gulag.
Theres another theory thats almost equally wild. They say that
the door hides a secret facility where the government stores
classified information about extraterrestrials and even
communicates with actual aliens.
As if James can read my mind, he says, See? There are no
emaciated political prisoners or aliens down there.
Im enchanted by my first look at Ardglass Palace from above,
but I have to laugh. Im not one of the people who believes
those stories. Maybe you should show this to the rest of the
kingdom as proof.
What, take a whole kingdom on a hot air balloon ride? You
think theres enough room for all those people in this wicker
basket? Youre cute, but youre not very smart, are you? he
teases me.
Yeah, thats why Im spending so much time alone with an
infamous abuser.
Well played. The prince chuckles.
Below us are natural rock structures. Through holes in the rock, I
can see certain rooms in the palace.
The prince had already told me that Ardglass Palace is built into
natural caves in the rock, but I didnt expect it to look this
beautiful. (To be fair, I didnt know what to expect as this is the
first and only secret palace Ive seen.)
See that green patch over there? the prince asks, pointing
ahead with his index finger.
Yeah.
Thats the garden.
Oh, so thats how it gets so much sun, I say as I look at the big
hole in the rock below us. How is it that nobody has ever
spotted the palace from above?
The airspace in this area is restricted. Thats why people
havent taken to the skies as soon as the rumors about the palace
got out. Without the no-flying ban, those TV stations wouldve
definitely filmed everything from their helicopters.
And that restriction is also one of the reasons why conspiracy
theorists feel justified, right?
Yeah.
See? Im not just a pretty face, I say, twisting around to flash
James a big grin.
Of course youre not, he says.
Do you think maybe its time to let people know about the
palace? Quickly, I add, I mean, Im not telling you what to do.
But Im fascinated by the history and the architecture of
Ardglass Palace. I think its a shame that people can never know
about it.
Actually, Ive been thinking about that as well, he says.
I mean, obviously it would be better for people to appreciate the
palace for its historical significance than for them to suspect it
as part of the governments evil scheme.
Yeah, he chuckles, but thats not the main reason why I want
to reveal it to the public.
Its not?
My reasons are more selfish than that.
Like what?
Like Prince James lets his sentence hang in the air. He grabs
my shoulders and turns me around. His blue eyes appear
brilliant under the first rays of the morning sun.
He runs his fingers through his hair and says, Rosemary, Im
happier than Ive ever been. Its been a long while since I was
happy. I think the last time was when my mother was still alive,
ten years ago but I digress.
James takes a deep breath. He seems nervous. His fingers on my
shoulder are squeezing me a little too hard, and hes speaking a
little too fast.
What has gotten him this worked up?
What I really want to say is I love you, he says finally.
A smile blooms on my face.
Thats it? Thats why hes so anxious?
Thats kind of adorable.
I love you, too, I say.
You do? he asks as a hopeful smile appears on his handsome
face.
I nod. Did he really think Id respond with anything other than a
declaration of my love for him?
The prince grabs my face with both hands and kisses me
passionately.
Ive known how James feels about me for a while. He always
wants to spend time with me, he goes to great lengths to meet
me despite the risks, and hes always so sweet and passionate
when were together.
Let me put it this way. Hes always either working or spending
time with me.
So yes, this is not a surprise.
I just thought that maybe hes not used to expressing his
feelings openly, with his father being so distant and his mother
having been gone for so long.
Many times, Ive wanted to tell him how I feel about him, but I
didnt want to make things awkward for him. And I guess, even
if I believe in equality, I still want the man to be the one to
profess his love. Is that hypocritical?
Ah, who cares?
The man I love, loves me back. And he has arranged a hot air
balloon ride just to say it right.
Nothing in the world can bother me right now.
When James pulls away, I put my hand on his face and get on my
tippy toes to get him to kiss me again, but he only gives me a
light peck.
I love you, and kissing you has got to be one of my favorite
things to do, but I need to tell you a few things about what it
means if were going to make this relationship official.
Okay
The uncertainty of not knowing what he wants to discuss makes
my heart race, but I know I dont have anything to worry about.
Despite all the opportunities hes had to exploit my trust, the
prince has always shown himself to be capable and willing to
look after me. I know hes got my back.
This is the reason why Ive been rethinking the secrecy of the
palace, James says as the breeze flirts with his hair. I told you
Ive been really happy, and the only thing that can make me
happier is if I dont have to sneak around to see you. I want to
take you places, but we cant even be seen together in The
Dungeon again, regardless of whether we wear masks.
Its also been getting harder and harder for me to field the
questions from my family, I say. My sisters have been going
through my stuff at home and even visiting The Alcove just to
check on me. And my father sometimes asks questions I cant
answer. Hes never too pushy about it, but I feel bad about hiding
something from him, something thats really important to me.
So we agree that things can be better. James levels his gaze at
me and asks, But do you know what it means if were going to
tell the public about our relationship?
Yeah, I say. Were going to confirm all the stories that have
leaked. Well have to admit that its us in those pictures from
The Dungeon.
Yeah. And well have to explain the secret door. Ive been
thinking about just telling the truth about Ardglass Palace. Ive
spoken with a few of my fathers advisors, and they agree that
theres no big reason to keep it a secret anymore, especially now
when the people have found the secret door and theyve come up
with all these crazy theories to explain it. The advisors agree that
it might be better for us to be transparent about our
relationship.
I didnt know youve told people about us. I havent told
anyone.
Well, there are rules about what a crown prince need to do to
prepare for something like this, he says.
There are specific procedures for revealing a secret palace? How
often does this happen?
James laughs. His hand dips into the pocket of his suit jacket and
he drops down to one knee.
What is he? Did he drop something?
Or is this?
It cant be
The prince pulls out a small box lined with blue velvet, making it
apparent why hes invited me on this hot air balloon ride.
When he opens the box, I see a ring lodged inside, with a big
stone the deep blue color of Prince James eyes. The oval
sapphire in the center is surrounded by a few smaller diamonds.
The light hits the ring just right, making it glitter as it basks in
the warm rays of the sun.
Rosemary Wilson, will you marry me? the prince asks, gazing
at me with tenderness and anxiety in his eyes.
My mouth hangs open.
Of course I know that if things were to go smoothly with the
prince, wed eventually get married. But I didnt think it was
going to happen this quickly. I thought there was still a lot of
time before I had to start worrying about things like becoming
the queen someday.
I have so many questions Like, will the royal family accept me?
What will the people say? What do I tell my father and my
sisters? Will we have to admit our kinks to the whole kingdom?
But despite all those thoughts swirling in my mind, all that
comes out of my mouth is Yes.
Yes? Prince James asks as his worried frown is replaced by a
joyful smile.
Yes! Of course! I exclaim, pulling him up into a big hug.
I love you. The prince glances down as he slides the ring onto
my finger, then he fixes his intense gaze on me. Youve made
me the happiest man in the world, and I promise Ill make you
happy.
I love you. I smile as I look up into his dazzling blue eyes, the
eyes that Ill gaze into every day for the rest of my life.
ROSEMARY

T he lights from the cameras are almost blinding.


I expected this, of course. But judging by how fast my heart is
beating, I cant say that Im 100% prepared for it.
Since I accepted Prince James proposal on the hot air balloon
ride, everything has been moving at lightning speed. It has only
been a week, but the news has already begun to spread and now
were sitting in front of rows of journalists, giving an official
statement.
I know now why he took his time telling me about his feelings
because once we decide to make things official, everyone and
their grandmother is interested in us.
I cant even begin to express how happy I am that Rosemary
has accepted my proposal, and how excited I am for our future,
James says into about twenty microphones propped up on the
table.
Thats the last sentence of the written statement that has been
prepared by the palaces press secretary, and now its time for
the press to ask questions.
My fianc, the crown prince, looks as handsome and powerful as
he always has. Theres not a crease in his designer suit today,
and Ive also dressed up for this announcement.
A stylist and the press secretary came to us with a few dresses to
choose from this morning. James picked the yellow one for me,
because he said it reminded him of the first time hed seen me at
The Dungeon. It was really sweet of him to remember.
Despite his outer calm, the prince holds my hand a little tighter
than usual. Its the only indication that hes nervous about the
questions theyll soon ask him.
Weve gone through all the important ones, but we need to make
sure that we send the right message if we ever expect to get
accepted by the people. We have a big scandal and a few bald-
faced lies working against us.
Your Royal Highness, a hand shoots up as soon as the Q-and-
A session begins, A few months ago, you appeared on national
TV and you denied knowing Rosemary Wilson. Did you know her
at the time?
Like I said in my statement, there are some things that will
need to be clarified, and thats one of them, the prince says as
his thumb rubs my hand under the table. I remember that
interview. I did know Rosemary at the time, and it broke my
heart to have to deny knowing her, but I had to do it. It was a
matter of national security.
He glances at me and adds, Besides, all the media attention was
very stressful to Rosemary, and I thought I could shelter her
from public scrutiny.
I apologize to the kingdom for making a false statement. My
intention was to protect the woman I love.
Most of the room goes wild with activity as cameras click and
reporters shout out questions, their voices overlapping to form
an indistinguishable din. A handful of female reporters seem to
be stunned into silence, their lips parting and their eyes flashing
with desiresorry ladies, this mans taken.
The press secretary holds up his hands to get everyone to quiet
down. He points to a random reporter and allows him to ask a
question.
Were you the couple in those pictures from the club?
Yes, the prince says, sending the whole room into another
frenzy.
What do you say to the allegations that you abuse women?
asks the next reporter.
I say everything Ive ever done with women has been safe and
consensual, the prince says.
I knew something like this was going to come up, but it still
pains me to see James getting hounded like this, over some
fictional abuse that has never even happened.
I wasnt planning on speaking up, but I look straight into the
cameras in front of me and say, I can confirm that. Prince
James is the sweetest, kindest man I know, and I trust him
completely. I know he wont let any harm come to me. I wince
from the flashes going off all around me as the sound of camera
shutters fill the room.
Whats behind the mysterious door in the woods near
Willowdale?
Its the entrance to a secret royal residence, Prince James says
to the audience of enthralled reporters. Weve realized now
that theres no need for secrecy anymore. And with all the
speculations going around, its probably best that we open it to
the public.
Rosemary and I will get married there, and well allow cameras
during the ceremony and reception so the whole kingdom can
see that there are no aliens there, James says with a grin,
making the reporters laugh. He adds, Of course thats also
exactly what Id say if I were actually hiding some aliens from
the public.
The tension has broken, now that most of the big questions have
been answered. The journalists seem to be relaxing, even as the
questions continue coming.
Im so glad we decided to tell everyone the truth.
One of the royal advisors suggested that we tell the press the
prince and I had met after the pictures from The Dungeon were
published.
Ill admit that wouldve made some things easier: we wouldve
been able to deny that we were ever at a sex club; James wouldnt
have had to admit his lie; and it wouldve been possible to keep
Ardglass Palace a secret.
But if we feed them the lies and they discover the truth later on,
thered be no way for us to regain the peoples trust.
The peoples trust.
Jesus, those are such serious words.
A few months ago, I was just happy to be making enough money
to pay the bills. I wanted to travel, but I didnt have the money
and it wasnt like I could simply remove one source of income
from the family pot.
In short, I had regular peoples problems.
Now, Im worried about losing the peoples trust?
Its so ridiculous Id laugh if I wasnt also terrified. I dont know
if I can handle that kind of responsibility.
Im just a young girl from a village in the middle of nowhere. Im
not used to living a luxurious life. I dont know how to behave
myself in the social functions of the nobility.
But Prince James has chosen me, and he has assured me that Id
make a good queen. I dont know if thats true; maybe hes just
being kind.
As a side note, being the crown princes fiance is not all fun and
games. I hate losing my privacytheyve given me a 24/7
bodyguard, now that Im almost a princessbut Id do anything
to be by his side.
James squeezes my hand, interrupting my thoughts. The
reporters are looking at me.
Did I miss something? I whisper to James.
Someone just asked if you have anything to add. You dont have
to say anything if you dont want to.
If Im going to be the princes wife, Ill have to learn to speak to
the public, sooner or later.
I face the cameras and say, I never imagined that something
like this could happen to me. I never thought that my wedding
would be a kingdom-wide holiday, but here we are. Some of the
reporters laugh, which helps ease my nervousness. Thank you
so much for being here to share in our joy. We ask for your
blessing over our marriage.
Prince James wraps his arm around my shoulders, pulls me close,
and kiss me on the forehead. The cameras go wild and I have to
shut my eyes because the lights are so bright.
I smile, knowing how much Im loved. I hope the kingdom can
see how happy hes making me, and realize hes not the beast
they think he is.
EPILOGUE
PRINCE JAMES

I ve never seen the chapel in Ardglass Palace this full before.


I stand at the end of the aisle, on a length of red carpet
stretching all the way to the door.
The Royal Navy uniform Im wearing feels stiff and
uncomfortable, but maybe it just feels that way because Im
nervous. My crown, which I rarely wear, feels heavy and foreign
on my head.
My father and Priscilla are already seated in the front row.
Priscilla refused to go to the announcement of our engagement,
even though she was in the same palace when it was happening.
But she cant just skip my wedding without social consequences,
especially given how much the people have grown to love
Rosemary.
Rosemary is beautiful, graceful, and down to earth. The people
seem to find her relatable because shes not rich and she doesnt
come from nobility.
For all Priscillas attempts at staying relevant, Rosemary has
accomplished much more at boosting the popularity of the royal
family than the evil queen could ever dream to.
Of course they love my girl, I think to myself as my chest swells
with pride. Just look at her, walking down the aisle on her
fathers arm. She looks radiant in her white lace dress.
I heard she caused some panic among the wedding organizers
when she told them she was going to do her own make-up.
Id have to ask her about that later tonight, when well finally be
alone. Ironically, it seems like theres so much wedding stuff to
do that I cant spend much time with my bride todaythe day
that we vow to be together for the rest of our lives.
As she slowly makes the slow procession through the crowd,
Rosemarys not looking to her left or her right, even though all
eyes are on her. Those big brown eyes are fixed only on me.
Thats my girl. She doesnt care about the decorations or the
number of the guests. Too much press attention annoys her and
shed rather spend her time in the garden than at the shops.
Shes so different from the snobby, privileged princesses and
socialites whod kill for a chance to be the queen. And thats why
I love her. Shes here for me; not for the benefits of being with
me.
Even though shes a princess now, shes still humble and real,
and I think thats why people relate to her. And they like me by
extension because I cant be a horrible person if someone like
her could fall for me.
Rosemarys father nods at me.
Quentin didnt like us being engaged at first, which is
understandable, considering the way things were at the very
beginning. But Rosemary and I chipped away at him, until finally
he saw how much we love each other and relented.
Now, he seems to be happy for us.
I have to hand it to Rosemary. I get the feeling that she could
settle some bitter, old disputes with her powers of persuasion
alone.
It probably also helps that Quentin happens to have fallen in
love recently.
When he was visiting Rosemary at The Alcove, he met Wanda
and they hit it off. Judging by how well their relationship is
going, its possible he wont have to travel for work so much in
the future.
Maybe hell move into Wandas inn and theyll run the business
together. At least thats what Rosemary is hoping will happen.
She really wants her father to get away from her sisters. Maybe
that way the fearsome twosomewhich is what Ive been calling
Rosemarys two sisters in my headwill learn to depend on
themselves, and there will be less burden on her father as he
grows older.
I think its a great time for the sisters to try to stand on their
own two feet. Thanks to being related to Rosemary, theyve been
getting invitations to interviews at TV stations and photoshoots
for magazines.
Maybe theyll be able to use those as stepping stones to get
modeling or PR jobs. Or maybe theyll fall on their asses trying
Im already hearing dissatisfaction among media insiders who
have worked with them. Apparently, the fearsome twosome are
always late and they act like divas.
Im lucky to have fallen for the right sister.
Rosemary beams when she finally reaches the end of the aisle.
She pecks her father on the cheek, then she lets go of his arm to
take mine.
The cameras all around us go wild. Even though flash has been
banned by the wedding organizers, the shutter sounds almost
drown out the orchestral music.
The people love Rosemary. I can tell.
If I were to marry some other girl, I dont think the public would
be so quick to forgive my lie, or to accept me ,despite the
domestic abuse allegations that have been flung at me.
Speaking of some other girl Right after my engagement to
Rosemary, Cheryl got some air time. She stuck to her original
story, which was fine in the beginning, because people are likely
to feel sympathetic to a victim of possible domestic abuse.
But then she started vehemently accusing Rosemary of being a
liar and a deviant. That backfired, of course. She didnt realize
just how popular Rosemary had become. Now, even the gossip
tabloids have denounced Cheryl as a fraud.
Rosemary and I hold hands and face each other as the priest tells
the guests to take their seats. Rosemary gives me a happy grin,
which immediately infects me with her enthusiasm. When shes
around, she fills my thoughts so completely that Im lucky I even
hear the priest prompt me for an answer.
Will you have this woman to be your wife, and will you pledge
your faith to her? Will you love her, comfort her, and keep her in
sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you
both shall live? the priest asks.
I will.
The priest repeats the same question to Rosemary, and I think
my heart almost bursts when she answers, I will.
Even though Ive had some time to get used to the idea of us
getting married, this moment still feels surreal.
The priest asks me to repeat the traditional vows after him.
I, James Louis Edward Arthur, take you, Rosemary Wilson, to be
my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better,
for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to
love and to cherish until death do us part.
Rosemary repeats the same words.
We debated writing our own vows, but it seems more respectful
to tradition to stick with the classic vows.
Im happy with our decision, because even though Ive heard
variations of those vows hundreds of times before, it feels
different when I hear them in Rosemarys voice, when the words
slide out from between her luscious lips.
Luckily, I dont have to wait long to kiss her. The priest
announces us husband and wife, we exchange rings, I lift
Rosemarys veil, and stop myself from going overboard.
Were being broadcast all over the kingdom and there are little
kids watching this, so its probably best to save the passion for
later.
Theres no rush; we have the rest of our lives to do all kinds of
dirty things to each other, but this is not the time.
We give each other a quick peck on the lips and take our seats
while the ceremony continues with a sermon by the priest,
readings from the holy book, and songs by the choir.
Even in her modest wedding gown, Rosemary looks tantalizing. I
can just make out her curves underneath the delicate lace. Hell, I
can close my eyes and imagine all the little details of her naked
body.
But I hold myself back. Were lucky to have survived the scandal.
Its best for us both to behave right nowat least when were in
public.
Somehow, Ive managed to get the kings advisors to admit that
the public has accepted our union and my status as the crown
prince. They agree theres no need to cause an upheaval by
following Priscillas demand to make her son the first in line to
be king.
Of course I had to bypass my father and Priscilla to get the
advisors on my side, and I still cant believe I managed to pull
that off, but apparently Ive won some people with my hard work
in improving bureaucracy.
At the end of the religious portion of the ceremony, Rosemary
and I return to the front of the chapel. We kneel on the stone
steps leading up to the altar as my father places a crown on
Rosemarys head.
She looks good with a crown. Maybe we should do like my father
and wear these crowns more often after all. But then again,
Rosemary looks good wearing anything.
After the ceremony, were herded by the palace staff outside the
chapel so people can take photographs of us, then we go down
the hallway into the ballroom.
The palace staff has worked tirelessly to prepare my mothers
favorite ballroom for the occasion.
The chandeliers have been taken down and polished before
getting reinstalled. The thick curtains have been laundered
before theyre put back up, their every pleat carefully arranged.
Celebratory banners have been hung all over the walls.
The ballroom has never looked more regal than it does now. If
only my mother were alive to see this. If only she were alive to
attend the wedding and meet Rosemary
The crowd forms a circle around a big, empty space in the middle
of the ballroom, and the music starts to play. I hold my gloved
hand out for Rosemary and we start to dance to one of the oldest
songs in the kingdom. We embrace and glide over the parquet
floor, rolling and spinning to the tune of a flute and a harp.
Ive never been good at dancing. But Ive never been good at
people either, and Ive calmed down an entire kingdom of
outraged people with Rosemary by my side. Ive even managed
to keep my crown safe from Priscillas grubby hands.
I feel like I can do anything with my new wife beside me. Her
total trust and acceptance of me makes me feel like its okay to
stop hiding, like maybe Im not such a scandal magnet after all.
Having been different her whole life, Rosemary doesnt care if
people think shes odd, and she has taught me that its okay to
live authentically.
We finish our dance and finally take our seats at a long table on a
raised stage. Sitting there with us are the king, the queen, my
step-siblings, Rosemarys father, and her sisters. Were not
exactly alone, but finally we have time to rest and speak in
relative privacy as the guests begin to spill onto the dance floor.
Thirsty? I ask Rosemary.
She wears her long, honey-brown hair curled today, and it
tumbles all over her shoulders when she turns to look at me.
Very, she says.
Given the somber, proper mood of the celebration, Ive decided
to inject a little secret fun into the day. I flash her a grin, and I
can tell shes suspicious.
I got you covered, I say softly.
I raise my hand to catch Alberts attention. Hes waiting for me
at the end of the table. He approaches now, carrying a tray.
Albert still doesnt know why I want him to do this, but he
knows I need his help to pull it off. The banquet manager
wouldve thrown away the things on that tray because theyre
not new enough, or expensive enough. But my girl doesnt care
about how much things cost, or how long it has been since those
things were produced.
While everyone else in the ballroom is busy dancing, Rosemarys
gaze follows Alberts every step.
Oh my god, she giggles as Albert sets down the tray on the
table. I didnt know you still had it.
Albert pours some tea from the pot into a familiar cup, which
has a small chip on the edge. Here you are, Rose.
Thank you, Albert, Rosemary says as she picks up the
steaming cup and blows on the surface of the tea. Funny how
something broken like that little cup can become something so
precious. Its kind of poetic.
Dont drop it now, I say as Albert walks away with the empty
tray.
I wont. Rosemary narrows her eyes at me, even as her lips
bloom into a smile. Pointing at a small bowl of sunflower seeds
that Albert has left on the table, she asks, What are those for?
For you to bring with you to the garden when you need a break
from this, I say, gesturing at all the stiff festivities going on
around us. Take a little detour when you go to the restroom,
share the good news with your little friends.
I can survive without seeing the birds and the squirrels for one
day, thank you very much, Rosemary says, laughing. But I love
that you remember the little things.
When she rewards me with such a beautiful smile, how can I not
do everything in my power to make her happy?
I love you, she says.
I love you, too.
I pull her into my arms. And there, in the corner of the ballroom,
I share a little private wedding kiss with my princess. My future
queen.
THANK YOU FOR READING! Hope you enjoyed Rosemary and Prince
James story.
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PREVIEW: THE BILLIONAIRES
BRIDE

A FAKE MARRIAGE ROMANCE


PROLOGUE
ALI

A n icy chill runs through my whole body. I cant tell if its


because of the cold marble tiles under my bare feet, or because
Im terrified of whats waiting for me behind this doorwhos
waiting for me.
I pull the door open and find the room already dark and quiet. A
figure on the bed stirsI can hear the sheets rustling.
Hey, Mrs. Harris, Zeke greets me. He has been calling me that
all day.
Back when I was younger, years and years ago, I wouldve been
happy to hear it. But now Now Im conflicted.
Back then, there was only love for him.
But now, there are so many different emotions I cant even hope
to name them all. Anger, disappointment, sadnesstheyre all
there.
And yes, that love is still there, too, despite my best efforts to
kill it.
Stop calling me that, I say curtly.
Okay wifey. Zeke grins as he flips the blanket open and pats
the space on the bed next to him. In that low, seductive tone that
I havent heard in a long time, he says, Its our wedding night.
Come join me.
Electric currents rip through my body, sending goosebumps all
over my skin and waking up all my senses. My body longs for
him.
Even after all this time, being alone with him in the dark evokes
so many memories. So many different emotions.
Lust. Trepidation. Yearning. Fear.
I lie down on the bed and pull the blanket over my body, all the
way up to my shoulders. Im fully aware that Zeke is staring at
me, watching my every reaction.
Im also fully aware of the fact that hes nakedor almost
naked, at least.
The blanket only covers the bottom half of him, and I can see the
solid lines of his muscular abs, as well as the tattoos all over his
arms.
I wonder if hes naked underneath the blanket, too.
I can feel my heart jumping in my rib cage. Jesus, its so damn
loud. Can Zeke hear it too?
Its been such a long day, Zeke. Can we just go to sleep? I ask.
But Zeke puts his hand on the back of my head and shuts me up
with a kiss.
God, it feels even better than the one we had this afternoonthe
wedding kiss. Now its just the two of us in the dark, just like it
was when we were young and in love.
My heart cant help but go back to that place, and soon I stop
avoiding him, avoiding this kiss. I forget why I even try.
So I give in. I let myself drown in this kiss. I let myself forget all
the ugly things that have happened between us, and focus on the
now.
Ive agreed to have a baby with Zeke, and weve even gotten
married. Im halfway there already.
Theres no going back now, so why not go all in?
Be his wife, even if its only for one year.
ALI

M y new boss is also the man who took my virginity.


Wait, no. That came out wrong, although its technically true.
He wasnt my boss at the time. He was just a boy, and I was just a
girl. We talked, we laughed, and we loved. Then things got too
complicated and we parted ways.
Looking back, it shouldve been simple. We couldve tried
harder; we couldve made good on our promises. And then
maybe I wouldve avoided all the heartache and pain Ive gone
through over the past few years.
Couldve.
Shouldve.
Wouldve.
But we were young.
I was just starting college. It was a time for fun and adventure.
Life was about meeting new people. Having a serious boyfriend
wouldve held me back from new experiences.
And I didnt want to put Zeke in danger either. I knew my dad
his boss at the timewouldve pummelled him into pulp had he
known that Zeke had taken my V-card, when he was supposed to
be guarding me.
Yes, thats right. He used to work for my dad, and now Im going
to work for him.
Its a big role reversal, for sure. But Ive known Zeke for ten
years now, and thats not even the biggest change between us
over the years.
But now is not the time to be thinking about old times. I need to
finish my shower and get ready for work.
But I find myself stalling, and Im blaming this dream that I had
this morning.
The dream was just getting good when my alarm started blaring,
shoving me into the real world. I woke up with throbbing at the
juncture of my thighs.
Even now, as hot water hits my skin, I cant stop thinking about
it
In the dream, Im eighteen again. Im living in my parents
grand mansion, surrounded by luxury and opulence.
Zeke and I are sitting on a couch with our arms touching. The
part of my skin that makes contact with him is burning up.
It feels strange Funny. Ive ever been this close to a guy before.
My heart is beating fast. Im eager to learn more about these new
sensations.
Theres no one else in the house except for us. Oh, there are the
guards, of course, but theyre all outside, patrolling the
premises.
Zeke should be outside as well, but he has never been one to
follow the rules.
At twenty-one, he has already collected almost a sleeve of
tattoos. And just before we put on the Godfather DVD, he offered
to go to the liquor store and buy us some beer.
I said no to the alcohol, but Im regretting it. Some liquid courage
wouldve helped with my nerves, which are going wild right now.
On the screen, the credits are rolling.
What are we going to do next?
Hey, Ali. Zeke turns toward me, smiling with a mischievous
glint in his brown eyesthey seem almost black in this
darkness.
Hey, Zeke. I return his smile and turn to face him. Im
rewarded by a heavy, masculine hand on my waist.
And just like that, things start to change. Hes transitioned from
being one of my dads employees, to something more.
Do you really have to leave in four days? Zeke asks. He shifts
forward and leans his forehead against mine. Youre going to be
so far away from me.
My heart, which has already been racing for a while, starts
pounding.
He doesnt usually talk like that to me. We dont usually get this
close with each other.
This is different. This feels strange. But this I want this.
The ticket is bought and paid for, I say, my chest tight as I
think about leaving him.
Too bad, he whispers. He leans closer and then, his lips land
on mine.
Oh my god.
Zeke Harris has just kissed me.
I can't believe this is happening, but it feels too real for it to just
be a dream.
His lips are hot and firm. They heat up my whole body, starting
from my chest and spreading all the way to my scalp and the tips
of my toes.
He moves closer, and the couch between us dips deeper, as if
conspiring to pull us closer.
There's no need for some divine intervention, though. This is
happening.
It has taken us three years, but were here now, finally.
With my lack of experience, I dont know the details of whats
about to happen next. But I have an idea. The girls at school have
been talking about it enough for me to get the gist.
And Ive been playing with myself enough to know its going to
feel goodand I bet its going to feel a lot better with Zeke than
it does when Im on my own.
Unlike me, Zeke seems to know exactly what to do.
His tongue tastes my lips and explores my mouth, while his
hands touch my breasts and my butt. They run up my thighs
until they reach the top.
My lips part and a strange sound escapes. A moan. Is that really
me? Its kind of sexy.
Slowly, Zeke takes off my shirt and my pink sweatpants, as well
as my bra and panties. Hes shedding his black shirt and jeans,
too. Our clothes lay on top of one another on the floor.
Soon enough, hes on top of me, as well.
Without a word, he puts his hard cock at my opening as he
hovers over me. The ghostly glow from the TV screen falls on one
side of his face, making him appear more threatening than
usual. But whatever he wants from me, I want it too.
Staring into my soul with his dark eyes, Zeke pushes inside. It
hurts at first, but his soothing hand, stroking my hair, makes it
bearable.
So many new sensations. And theyre all so wonderful, so
intense, so overwhelming
I cry out as my whole body shudders, releasing my pent-up
arousal. My voice echoes in the bathroom, but the sound of the
water drowns it out.
I take the shower head away from between my legs and place it
back in the holder mounted on the wall.
Im trying to save money, so I really shouldnt be wasting water.
And Im rushing to get ready for work, so I really shouldnt be
wasting time either.
But after my sexy dream ended abruptly, can you blame a girl for
indulging?
That night was magical, but we had so little time to spend
together.
Regret fills my chest as I think about how different things
wouldve been, had we made different choices back then.
Because even after all these years, no man has ever made me feel
the way Zeke did.
If I had dared to tell my parents, if Zeke had made good on his
promises, if we had put more effort into it
There are too many ifs.
Still, I cant help but wonder Would we have a little family by
now? Maybe wed already have a child togetheror two.
We couldve been perfect.
I cant believe Ill finally see Zeke again, seven years after he
took my virginity.
Im nervous and excited at the same time. And scared.
ALI

H i,coldImstone
here to see Zeke Harris. I put my hands on the
surface of the tall counter. I give the
receptionist a polite smile. If were going to start seeing each
other every day, maybe its a good idea to be friendly.
Do you have an appointment? asks the pretty twenty-
something blonde with a stern expression. Briefly, I wonder if
she has decided that she doesnt like me, or if she just has a bad
case of the Resting Bitch Face.
Yes, at nine, I answer, just as curtly. Ive come early, so
theres nobody else in the lobby of this office building.
Can I have your name, please? Her hands hover over the
keyboard, frozen in the air as she looks at me expectantly.
Alejandra Martin. Already, I can feel a tired sigh coming from
deep inside me.
How do you spell that?
Damn it. I knew shed ask me to spell it out. I hate when that
happens, because it happens too damn much.
Sometimes I wish there was a famous person with the same
name as me, just so people would learn to spell it. Man, if they
can spell Kardashian, they can spell my name.
A-L-E-J-A-N-D-R-A, I say, knowing she probably wont need
me to do the same with my last name.
Her fingers start to dance, filling the big, quiet space with the
tapping of her keyboard. She adjusts her glasses and says,
Okay, I found you. Youre early.
Yes.
Well, Mr. Harris is in a meeting right now, she says, her eyes
glued to the computer screen. But you can go up to the
eightieth floor and wait for Mr. Harris there. Hell be with you
right after hes done with his meeting.
Okay, thanks. I walk across the lobby toward the rows of
elevators, my shoes making loud click-clacking noises against
the marble floor tiles as I do.
Zeke mustve spent a fortune on this building. Considering his
background, he has done impossibly well.
Compared to him, my life has been going downhill. Its hard to
admit, but I think Im one of those people who peaked in high
school.
Sure, Im not unattractive or impoverished, but Ive been better
way better. I guess that kind of gives me a skewed perspective
on life.
I enter an empty elevator and check my reflection in the mirror.
I look professional enough. Im wearing a loose navy-blue
blouse, a gray pencil skirt, and a black blazer. Its a pretty basic
outfit. Millions of American workers are probably wearing
something similar right now.
But to me, this is a poor imitation of what I used to have.
In my parents mansion, I used to have a personal stylist who
updated my clothes for me.
At the beginning of every season, Id open my wardrobe and find
all-new items that had been tailored to fit my measurements
perfectly.
A new set of clothes was usually the first sign of a new season for
me. Id enter my walk-in wardrobe and go, Oh, the heavy
jackets are gone. Theyre replaced by floral dresses and light
sweaters. I guess its spring time now.
Of course I could shop on my own as well. But my stylist would
regularly go through all my purchases.
Shed come up with outfits for me, taking polaroid pictures and
sticking them on my inspiration board.
Shed also throw out or return items that she didnt think would
work with the rest of my wardrobe. For the rest, shed get them
altered to fit me. As a petite girl, I often needed hemlines and
shoulder straps shortened.
Having a personal stylist is as awesome as it sounds.
Ive learned a lot about dressing for my body from my stylist,
which is why I look okay now, even though these clothes will
probably get destroyed after a few cycles in the wash.
I run my fingers through my dark brown hair, removing any
tangles and strays. I bare my teeth to check for any remnants of
my breakfast. I blow onto my hand and find that my breath is
still perfectly minty.
This is the first time Im seeing Zeke again, after seven years. I
shouldnt have any feelings left for himits been way too long.
But my heart is beating so quickly, and its not just because this
is my first day at work.
Im nervous to see what hes like, now that hes all grown up.
And Im anxious about him seeing me. Im excited and worried,
all at the same time.
The elevator door opens and my heart goes wild, sending a rush
of blood throughout my body. I look around, expecting to spot
him.
Stop being an idiot, I chide myself. The receptionist already said
hes still in a meeting. Its going to take a while until I finally get
to see him.
I walk through the glass doors with the Harris Holdings logo on
them.
Hello, greets another pretty blonde in her twenties. This one
is friendly. Shes smiling, at least.
Hi, I say as I approach her desk. Im here to see Zeke Harris. I
was told to wait here.
Miss Martin, right? she asks cheerfully.
Yes.
My names Dana, by the way. Im Mr. Martins personal
assistant, she says. Your appointment has been moved back
by half an hour. I sent you a text message to let you know. Didnt
you get that?
I fish my phone out of my bag and light up the screen. Sure
enough, theres a text from an unknown number about the
appointment.
I did, I admit. I dont know why I didnt read it. But its okay,
I can wait.
If you go down this hall, youll find the waiting room, she
says. Ill let you know when Mr. Harris is ready to see you.
Thank you.
My heart pounds so hard in my chest that my legs feel weak as I
make my way down the hallway.
I try to distract myself from my anxiety by studying the black-
and-white photographs hanging on the wall. They all depict
strange, foreign lands. I used to love to travel, but that was a
long time ago.
When I finally reach the sitting area, I plunk myself down on the
couch. I grab a magazine from the coffee table and put it on my
lap.
But my legs start to shake, making it hard for me to read . If this
keeps up, Ill fall down on my face before I even get to see Zeke.
Ive gotten through about half of the magazine when the
personal assistant finds me and asks me to follow her.
More blown-up black-and-white photographs line the walls of
the hallways we pass through. Zeke must really like this set of
picturesor maybe his interior decorator does.
Luckily, Dana walks me all the way to the door of Zekes office.
She smiles at me as she knocks. The wood sounds thick and
solid, but my ears are straining to hear something else: Zekes
voice.
Yes, he says from behind the door. His voice is deeper now.
Manlier. Theres confidence and authority behind it.
Chills run down my arms. I glance down and realize Im getting
goosebumps just from hearing him. That voice, it burrows under
my skin and refuses to leave.
Dana pushes the door open. How is she so calm? How does she
stand to work every day with Zeke?
I take a few deep breaths, realizing how crazy Im being. Zeke
probably doesnt affect this girl the way that he affects me.
I dont know what it is about him, but from the first time we
met, it has always felt like there were magnets pulling us
together.
Miss Martin is here to see you, sir, she says.
Jealousy grips my heart when I hear her call him sir. I know
the term is not always sexual. But I also know that Zeke used to
like some power play in bed. This Dana may be a perfectly nice
girl, but I dont like how close she is to Zeke.
Send her in, he says, in that same deep voice.
Yes, sir, Dana says. Her voice suddenly sounds grating to my
ears.
But I dont have time to worry about Dana.
Im about to see Zeke Harris. The one man who has been
haunting my thoughts and my dreams, pretty consistently, for
ten years.
ZEKE

S o it can be done? I ask, for the ninth time during this


meeting.
I need to be sure. Theres no room for mistakes, and theres no
room for delays.
Sure, it can be done Aiden lets his voice trail off. I know
what he wants to say, because he has been repeating the same
warning, more than nine times during this same meeting.
But you dont think I should do it, I say, completing his
sentence.
No, I dont. Not at all. Aiden raises his thick eyebrows and
shakes his head. I think it would be a huge mistake.
I know, but I dont think I have a choice here.
I dont usually tell people shit, but Aiden actually needs to know
this shit, seeing as hes charging me a fortune for his legal
advice.
This is not just about me, after all. Theres a woman and a child
involved. I need to do whats best for them.
I wouldnt do it if I were you, but Im not you. Like I always say,
Im only here to help you make an informed decision. Despite
his words, Aiden still wears the expression of someone who truly
disapproves of my actions.
As a lawyer, hes not supposed to judge my decisions. But having
worked together for years now, were also friends. And as a
friend, Aiden gets worried about me.
He must be feeling all kinds of confused right now. I chuckle.
Anything funny? Aiden asks.
No, man. Im just touched that you care about me so much, I
say.
Fuck you, he says, laughing. At least hes not all doom and
gloom anymore.
You know Im still going to have time for you, even if Im
married.
Youre crazy. Aiden shakes his head again.
Yeah, but you already know that, and yet youre still my friend.
Could it be that you like that Im crazy? I ask in mock surprise.
Yeah, youre my source of free entertainment. Dumb-ass.
Aidens expression turns serious and he asks, Why does it have
to be her?
Thats just the way it is. I shrug. Ive never thought about
marrying anyone other than this girl.
She almost got you killed.
Oh, it wasnt so bad. Yeah, we were seeing each other when I
was working for her dad, but he wasnt going to actually kill me
had he found out. Dads just say that to be scary, although I have
to admit her dad was particularly intimidating.
Okay, I find it disturbing that you use the plural of dads, as if
multiple dads have given you actual death threats, which
suggests that maybe somethings wrong with you. But thats not
new, and thats not the important thing here. Aiden pauses and
stares right at me. What about Trevor?
What about Trevor? I parrot him.
You know what people are saying. The leak came from a few
possible sources. Its possible she was one of them.
Shes not like that, I say with confidence. And even if she
was the source of the leak, Im sure she didnt have any other
choice.
You dont know that. You havent seen her in seven years. So
many things couldve happened. A lot of things have happened,
actually. In all likelihood, shes a very different person than the
one you remember.
Thats why you have to make the pre-nup airtight. Thats why
Im paying you so much money.
There is no such thing as an airtight pre-nup, Zeke. Thats only
in the movies. I cant fucking believe youre actually going to do
this. Aiden breathes in deeply and sighs. Fine, Ill do my best.
But promise me youll rethink this. At least, after you see her
this morning, sleep on it and decide tomorrow.
No can do. You know as well as I do that theres no time. I lean
forward in my chair.
Cant you convince Joanne some other way? Aiden asks.
You dont think Ive tried?
I know shes like a sister to you, but damn, I cant believe
youre willing to go this far for her.
Its not completely altruistic. This girl, shes special.
Whats her name again? Aiden asks.
Alejandra.
It feels strange to say her name out loud. I realize that even
though I repeat that name like a mantra in my head all the time,
I dont often actually say it. Thats because she hasnt been
aroundbut things are going to change now.
Right. She thinks shes coming here for a job? Aiden asks.
Its technically a job. I shrug.
I guess. But I bet she doesnt know the exact nature of the job.
I havent had a chance to talk to her.
How did she find you anyway? Aiden asks.
She didnt find me. Someone found her, and referred her here
to work for me.
That someone doesnt know about the history between you
two?
Its not a big deal. We dated for, like, one week, seven years
ago.
Still, it doesnt seem very ethical or professional, to hire your
ex, Aiden says.
I dont care.
Wait, whos this person who found her? Aiden asks.
Just one of the people who are still loyal to her family. They
helped her get set up in the city. They even gave her a bag of her
moms jewelry that theyd been keeping for her for years.
Wow.
Yeah, her family used to command respect, I say.
Ill bet. With the kind of things they used to do? Fuck, Id
respect the hell out of them, too.
I laugh. This is why we wouldnt have met when we were
younger.
What did you do for them, again?
I was part of the security team. And the clean-up crew, at the
very beginning.
Aiden scrunches up his nose in disgust. Does that mean what I
think it means?
If you think it means getting rid of dead bodies, youd be right.
Jesus. Youre a sick motherfucker, Harris.
Hey, I never killed anybody, I protest. All I did was scoop up
some pink goop and throw it away.
Okay, no need to give me all the details.
But dont you want to hear more? Its so interesting. Did you
know that when someone dies drunk, hed smell like booze
inside, too?
No, and I didnt need that information. I couldve gone through
my whole life without knowing that, and I wouldve been fine.
Wouldnt have missed a thing.
Too bad, I say with a wide grin.
I wouldve continued telling Aiden some disgusting stories from
my past, if it werent for the ringing of the landline phone on my
desk.
Excuse me, I say to Aiden as I pick up the receiver. I dont like
to take a call in the middle of a meeting, but I have a VIP guest
today. Yes, Dana?
Sir, Im sorry to interrupt your meeting, but you told me to call
you immediately once Miss Martin gets here.
Yes, Dana, I remember. Shes here? I ask, adrenaline pumping
into my blood. It has been years since the last time meeting a girl
got me nervous.
But Alis different. My heart will always beat faster for her. Ive
always known that.
Yes, sir. Shes in the waiting room right now, Dana says.
Danas words immediately conjure up images of Alejandras
shapely ass on my couch while she thumbs through one of my
glossy magazines. Her body on my thingsId like to see more
of that.
Bring her here, I say, glancing at Aiden to let him know whats
happening. From his nod, I can tell he knows its time for him to
leave.
Yes, sir, Dana says before she hangs up.
Aiden said she could be a completely different person than the
one I remember in my head.
He makes sense, of course. But I doubt hes right. Im sure that
beautiful girl from my memory is still around in the world
somewhere.
Either way, Ill find out for myself soon. Im excitedI cant
deny it.
Ive been telling Aiden Im doing this for Joanne, but really, its
for me as well.
After finding out shes still alive, I became obsessed with the
idea of owning her, keeping her safe from the world, and from
the men who want to hurt her.
I cant stand to just watch from the sidelines while she suffers.
Ive ignored her plight enough. Its time for me to do something.
But the reason Im inviting her to my office today is not
completely altruistic.
I know youre still going to do it, you stubborn dumb-ass,
Aiden says as he gets up. But do me a favor and make sure this
is really what you want. Theres no going back.
I know.
I know the risks, and Im still going to do it.
ALI

B efore I can enter Zekes office, a tall figure walks out


through the door. My heart skips a beat as I wonder if he has
come out to meet me. But when I finally see the mans face, I
realize it's not him.
This man wears a grim expression. He nods at me, but I feel
some hostility coming from him.
Strange. As far as I can tell, this is the first time were seeing
each other. There should be no reason for him to dislike me. I
wonder if the meeting didnt go well.
I nod back at him. Under different circumstances, Id totally
check him out. He has a buff body, a handsome face, and a
strong presencejust the kind of guy I often go for.
But right now, Im way too distracted to bother. Im already
overwhelmed by the anticipation of seeing Zeke again.
I dont have time or energy to devote to figuring out why this guy
is glaring at me like Im the anti-Christ.
My legs feel like limp noodles, but somehow, they manage to
carry me through the doorway.
Zekes big, dark desk faces the door, so the moment I step
inside, our eyes lock.
My breath hitches in my throat.
Id recognize that face anywhere.
Those dark, dangerous eyes that give him an irresistible bad-boy
charm.
That high-bridged nose.
Those lips that burned my whole body with desire.
And dont even get me started on what those lips do when they
get anywhere close to my.
I take a deep breath and push my filthy thoughts away. Theyre
only going to make me more nervous.
As it is, my heart is hammering so hard against my rib cage Im
afraid he can see me shaking.
I take a good look at him, noting the similarities and the
differences between the real thing and the memories. This goes
on for a few seconds, but it feels like forever.
The door clicks as it shuts behind me, jolting me back into
reality. Zekes personal assistant mustve pulled it closed while
Im frozen by the door like a statue.
Its been a long time, Ali, Zeke says with a warm smile.
That smile. Oh god that smile. Ive lain in bed in the dark so
many nights, trying to conjure up that smile in my mind. Seven
years, and he still smiles the same way.
I dont know why I thought hed change his perfect smile, but it
feels funny to see such a familiar smile on a stranger.
Its weird; I feel like I know him, but at the same time I have no
idea what hes like.
Long time indeed, I respond, trying to keep my cool as I finally
manage to force my feet to step forward.
Take a seat, he says, gesturing at the two guest chairs across
the desk from him.
He still speaks the same way, toothe things he could make me
do with that voice.
Hes taller and more muscular. He probably still has his tattoos,
but theyre hidden underneath his designer suit now.
Thanks. I drag the chair out, the leather soft and cool on my
hand.
His piercing gaze follows me as I sit down. He has always been
good at reading me. He probably knows Im thinking about all
those other times I did his bidding in bed, which is not too
different from the way Im following his order now.
How have you been? Zeke asks, leaning forward in his chair
and clasping his hands on the chunky wooden desk.
Well, Im sure youve heard. I thought hed know enough
rather than to ask me a question like that. Maybe the ideal Zeke
only exists in my brain, after all.
He winces, as if he can read my mind. Im sorry, Ali. I wasnt
thinking. Another smile spreads across his handsome face, his
eyes soft and warm. I just cant believe youre here.
I cant believe Im here either. I return his smile.
Maybe I was too quick to judge. Maybe I should give us a chance
to get over the awkwardness. It has been seven years. Many
things have changed.
I cast my glance around this office. The wall behind Zeke gives
me a birds eye view of the city. Another wall is taken up by a
huge floor-to-ceiling, built-in bookshelves. A few framed black-
and-white photographs hang on the other walls.
Youve done well for yourself. I give him a smile.
Ive been lucky, he says.
Wow. Youve changed.
How do you mean? Zeke asks.
The old you was a cocky son of a bitch. He wouldve taken all
the credit for his success.
Zeke laughsJesus, I miss that sound. He says, You know me
so well, Ali. Its been so long, I forget how much you know me.
So, have you been itching to flaunt this success? I ask as the
corners of my lips tug upward.
I said Ive been lucky, and thats true. Ive caught a few lucky
breaks to get here. But I wouldnt have been able to do that if I
werent also good at what I do.
Interesting. So technically you werent lying, I comment
teasingly.
Not at all. Zeke has twinkles in his eyes.
Sneaky, I say, and suddenly it feels like old times.
Over the years, my feelings for Zeke have vacillated wildly. Ive
hated Zeke, loved Zeke, and everything in between. But Ive
never been indifferent to him.
Im glad to have you here, Ali. Ive missed you, he says,
startling me with his honesty.
I dont know why Im surprised. Zeke has always been honest to
a fault, sometimes bordering on tactless. It can be a good thing
or a bad thing, depending on the circumstances.
Ive missed you, too, Zeke, I respond, knowing he can tell how
I feel from my expression, even if I dont put it into words. It
feels good to get it out there.
Zeke takes a deep breath while he continues to gaze at me with
tenderness in his eyes.
Yes, this morning I fantasized about having him between my
legs. But right now, I want to pull him into my arms and shower
him with affection. He used to like it when I stroked his thick,
dark hair, and Im dying to do that right now.
But that would be inappropriate. Hes my boss, I remind myself.
So I hear youre looking for work. Once again, Zeke makes me
feel like he has invaded my mind.
And I hear you have a vacant position to fill.
You hear right, he says with a smile.
So what kind of work is it? I ask. Nobody has given me details
about the job, and Im getting curious.
Well, its not so much work as it is a proposal, Zeke says.
What kind of a proposal? I narrow my eyes at him.
Im not in any position to enter a business deal. I dont have any
money.
And because I havent been a member of civilized society for
years, I have no marketable skills. I was hoping to get an entry-
level positionadmin, assistant, or something like that. It
would be a good start.
You could say that, Zeke says cryptically. Its unusual for him
not to say whats on his mind. Whatever hes about to say, he
doesnt look forward to saying it.
Or maybe Im wrong. I dont know. I havent seen him in years,
so I shouldnt pretend I know him. Its hard, though, when he
feels so familiar.
Youre going to have to give me the details, I insist.
I want you to marry me, Zeke says with a serious expression.
I burst out laughing. That was the last thing I expected him to
say! And that deadpan deliveryit was perfect.
Nice prank, Zeke, I say as my laughter dies down. I hope you
actually have a job for me and this isnt just an elaborate set-up
for the prank.
Im serious, Ali.
I stare at him, frowning in confusion as I study his face.
His eyes are too sincere for him to be lying, and hes not even
smiling. If this was a prank, hed be rolling on the floor while
clutching his stomach right now.
Youre serious, arent you? I ask slowly, unsure of what to
expect.
I hope Im wrong and he doesnt mean the proposal.
On the other hand, a part of me is hoping Im right so we can
pick up where we left off.
Of course thats not possible, considering how much damage
weve caused, but maybe we can at least try.
Dead serious, he says.
I pause as I grapple with this new information. Zeke wants me to
marry himthats absurd. I ask, Why?
Its not going to be a real marriage, Zeke says. I need your
help. I need you to pretend to be my wife.
You havent answered my question. Why?
Because Ill give you more money than you need to support
yourself for the rest of your life.
For the rest of my life? That cant be real, can it?
Thats your reward for me. I want to know why youre doing
this. It cant be for an inheritance, because I know you grew up in
the foster system.
Youre right. You still remember. Youve always been sharp,
Zeke says. The compliment gets my heart beating faster.
Men have been quick to flatter my appearance, but that only
turns me off. That tells me they dont know me, or theyre not
interested in getting to know me as a person.
Zeke, on the other hand, he He likes my appearanceor he
used to. But more importantly, he knows my mind.
So tell me why, I ask again. Flattery wont get you out of this
one.
Lets just say that I need a wife to keep some people happy, he
says.
What, you need me to come with you to business dinners and
such?
I know my parents used to go out with other power couples.
Together, theyd steer the conversation toward business and seal
the deal before the meal was over. They were a good team, and I
can see why that would be something Zeke might need.
Yeah, he says. What do you say?
What are the terms? I ask.
It sounds like a crazy plan to me, but I need to know what its
about before I make a decision. Its worth a listen. It sounds like
a lot of money is involved.
But even as these thoughts buzz through my head, I know that
Id already be walking out the door if someone else had extended
this offersomeone other than Zeke Harris.
Ah, youre really your fathers daughter. Always ready to
negotiate. Zeke gives me a smile. Youre going to be my wife
for one year. For doing that, Ill give you one million dollars.
One million dollars? Are you serious? I ask with disbelief.
I thought your father taught you to always negotiate a better
deal, Ali. He shakes his head, more out of amusement than
disapproval. Hed be turning in his grave if he knew youre
eager to take the first deal thats offered.
Dont bring my father into this, I say sternly.
Im sorry, Ali. I was just trying to make a joke. I shouldve
known better, Zeke says.
He has his flaws, but he has always been quick to apologize if he
knows he has done anything to offend me.
Its okay. You didnt know, I say. So. One million dollars,
huh?
Yeah.
For one year?
Yeah.
Whats the catch?
Youll have to spend a lot of time with me, he says teasingly.
Anything else?
Yeah, but its not a catch, Zeke answers.
Then what is it?
Lets call it an add-on item.
Which means?
If youll have my baby, Ill give you another million.
ZEKE

A baby? Ali frowns, making horizontal lines appear in her


forehead. Looks like thats the last thing she expected to
hear from my mouth.
Yeah, a baby, I answer confidently.
Ill admit Im not a baby person. Most people wouldnt look at
me and go, You know what that dude needs? He needs a baby.
No. Im Zeke Harris. I dont do relationships, much less babies.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Besides, this is Ali. Ive always thought that if I were to ever get
married or have kids, it would have to be with her.
I was young when we briefly got togetherwe both wereand I
let her go. I havent stopped regretting that, all this time.
Ive gone through woman after woman, and things would
inevitably fall apart, as soon as I compared them to Ali. Thats
why Ive given up on actual relationships. I only have one-night
stands now.
But as I put my offer of a one-year marriage on the table, it
doesnt seem like long enough.
Were talking about Ali her. Ive never been able to forget her,
even though so much time has passed. What makes me think
one year would be enough?
Ive spent many years yearning for her, regretting my decision to
let her go. Now that shes here, I want to make her stay.
But after the way things ended, I dont know if shell ever agree
to having a real relationship with me.
Ive been worried that shed still hate me, so I was relieved when
she walked into my office with a smile.
But right now, shes not smiling.
Considering I just gave her such a crazy offer, after seven years
of nothing, Im lucky shes even still sitting there. I fully
expected her to bolt so fast thered be an Ali-shaped hole in the
wall.
Youre not just pulling my leg, are you? Ali asks, her
perceptive hazel eyes studying me. Even though she has lived
here since she was a teenager, theres still a hint of a Spanish
accent in her voice.
No, Ali. Joking is the last thing on my mind right now. This is
serious. Its a matter of life and death. Literally
I wish my first meeting with Ali couldve happened under better,
more normal circumstances, but Im glad shes here at all.
Otherwise, Id have to find some other woman to be my fake
wife, and that sounds about as appealing as a kick in the nuts.
Two million dollars? Ali asks.
Yes, if you have the baby.
So, uhh Will we have to Uhh Will it be an artificial
insemination? Ali asks, choosing her words carefully.
Thats adorable. After everything weve been through, shes
obviously still uncomfortable about mentioning sex.
Sure, if thats what you want. The corners of my lips pull up. It
seems I cant help smiling when Alis around.
And if we cant have a baby? Ali asks, ignoring my implication
that we could have the baby some other way if she wantsthe
natural way.
Then youll still get the one million dollars.
What happens after the one year is up?
Well get divorced, and youll get the money, I say, my heart
clenching at the thought of separating from Ali. But I push that
worry to the back of my mind. There are more urgent things to
take care of right now.
Why one year? Ali asks.
Because if I cant close this deal in one year, then I wouldve
lost the opportunity. Technically, Im not lying. But guilt creeps
into my chest regardless, just like it used to, when I was hiding
Joanne from Ali, all those years ago.
And if I cant help you close the deal?
Youll still get the one million dollars, I assure her.
In reality, this is less about the result, than just knowing that
Im making every attempt I can. Theres no guarantee this is
going to work, but its my best shot.
Why do you need a baby?
The baby is not necessary, I admit. But it will give me a better
chance of closing this deal.
And if you dont close this deal, youll have paid me one million
dollars for nothing. Ali smiles. At least its not an outright no.
Not for nothing, Ali. Ill have spent a whole year with you, I
say in a voice that sounds more sincere that I expected.
Zeke, Ali says in a serious tone. Are we Does getting
married also mean that well actually be seeing each other
again?
Not necessarily. Not unless you want to, I say, again hinting at
the ball being completely in her court. Ive wronged her in the
past, so its only right that I let her make the decisions now.
Where will I live?
At my apartment, I say.
And if it turns out we dont make good roommates? Ali asks.
Her tone sounds more casual. Now that she knows exactly what
Im offering, she has relaxed a little.
I dont know. Well cross that bridge when we get to it, I say,
deliberately keeping my answer vague.
I used to get into a lot of trouble with my big mouth, saying
everything on my mind right away. But thanks to Aiden, Ive
now learned the art of dodging unwanted questions.
Yeah, youre right, Ali says, to my surprise. Theres no use
worrying about something that may or may not happen.
Exactly, I say. I draw breath into my lungs as my heart keeps
thumping in my chest. So what do you say?
Ill have to think about it, Zeke, she says.
I understand. Let me know in twenty-four hours.
Thats all the time youre giving me? This is a big decision,
Zeke.
It doesnt have to be. Like I said, its only on paper. Besides, Im
running on a deadline, so its not because I dont want to give
you more time to think.
Okay, she says quietly, obviously already coming up with a list
of pros and cons in her head.
Ill call you when its time, I say.
Okay. Ali draws a deep breath and squares her shoulders. She
asks, Do you have any other work for me to do today? Like, at
the office?
No.
Then Ill speak to you tomorrow, Ali says as she gets up from
her chair.
Talk soon, I say to her full, perky ass while she walks away.
I hope she says yes. Thatll make it so much easier for me to
claim her for myself. For real.

END OF PREVIEW.
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BONUS: GUILTY

A BAD BOY BILLIONAIRE ROMANCE


PROLOGUE

W hat just happened?


Everythings dark. Black.
There is some red too, running down my face, turning my vision
into a pink, hazy blur.
Out of nowhere, a completely irrelevant thought slips into my
mind: This is probably not what people have in mind when they
say rose-tinted glasses.
Theres more red splattered on the ground, countless little
droplets of it covering tiny shards of glass.
I can even taste that red in my mouth. Its a lot like rust.
Water.
I need water. I need to wash down that metallic taste.
But where?
I need to get up and fix this. Whatevers happening, its not
good.
I focus on the tips of my fingers and will them to move.
Why is it so hard? It shouldnt be this hard.
With horror, I watch my fingers twitch weakly through my foggy
vision.
Thats the best I can do? When Im exerting all my strength?
Help. Somebody.
I need help.
Is there even anybody around?
Everything within my eyesight is covered by a pink cloud.
Its like one of those pictures that people take with expensive
cameras where everything in the background is unclear.
Except my sense of sight is not supposed to show still pictures.
My eyes are supposed to be able to refocus.
But all I can see are my hands, just inches from my face. And I
cant even move them.
God. Whatever this is, I hope its temporary.
Sometimes, in my more morbid moments, Ive thought about
which of my five senses would be the worst to lose. The answer is
always eyesight.
I wouldnt mind losing my hearing as much. At least as a deaf
person Id still be able to walk places.
It all feels like a joke right now, because none of my five senses
is working.
I feel like Im underwater. I cant see or hear anything. Not
clearly, anyway.
I can still breathe, although my lungs feel like theyve been
crushed. I once watched this show on Discovery Channel with
old cars being flattened into cubes by huge metal plates. Thats
kinda like how my lungs feel right now.
But Im still breathing, so Im probably above ground. Thats one
good thing, at least.
My ears are ringing. Instead of the cacophony of noises Im used
to hearing in the city, theres just a single high-pitched tone.
Wait.
Is someone touching my arm?
I cant see any moving shadows in front of me. Whoevers
touching me must be behind me.
I close my eyes and strain my ears to listen.
okay. A womans voice. It sounds close and far away at the
same time.
I force my mouth to open and manage to let out a small groan.
The hand on my bare arm strokes my skin soothingly.
Youve beengoing to be okayhospital
I can only make out a few words. Sounds like theyre the
important words, though.
My heart is still racing, but cold anxiety slowly drains out of my
body when someone throws a soft blanket over me. I let the
warmth seep into my skin as my thoughts drift away to a happier
place.
COLE

H i,hand
Cole. A girl appears from the darkness and hooks her
around my arm. Long time no see.
Three minutes. A personal time record from just walking
through the door of a bar to having some girl attach herself to
my person.
Ive been busy, I say. I dont remember her, but then I dont
remember most girls. I sit down at the bar and she follows,
planting her ass on the high stool next to mine.
Ive missed you, she says, pouting her glossy pink lips and
fluttering her fake eyelashes. Studying her face, I wonder if
shed be more attractive without all those layers of make-up.
Where have you been?
Well, Im here now, I say. I raise one hand to catch the
bartenders attention. Maybe if I ignore her she'll leave me
alone. Does it matter where Ive been?
Not really, she says, pulling my upper arm closer and pressing
them between her tits, which are almost spilling over her black
corset. Its just been so boring without you.
I give her a polite smile, and she blushes and looks away. What is
it with girls who hit on you and then act all coy when youre only
trying to be friendly? Its fake as fuck.
But then again, what isnt fake these days? Fake girls with fake
lashes, fake tits, fake lips, and fake personalities. I havent
admitted this to anybody, but I may be getting too old for this
shit.
I should be worried. Im only twenty-seven, after all. And I
happen to have a reputation. Some people would be seriously
concerned about my well-being if they heard about me losing
interest in women.
I usually take pride in the quality of my work with the ladies. I
get drunk on hearing my name on the lips of naked, sweat-
covered, writhing women as they scream out prayers and
profanities all at once.
Theyd rave to their friends about their toe-curling orgasms.
Thats how I get a stellar track record and repeat customers.
Business and women theyre not so different after all.
I just find myself preoccupied with the former rather than the
latter lately, especially now that I have my own project thats
separate from the family business, and its beginning to take off.
Hey, Mr. Big Shot, Shelley says as she approaches me from
behind the bar. She glances at the girl hanging possessively on
my arm and shoots me a sympathetic look. The usual tonight?
You know it. And whatever this lady wants. Ive been taught to
always offer a round to company when I drink. If my mother
were still alive, she wouldve found it unbearably rude of me if I
didnt offer the girl a drink.
A Macallan coming right up, Shelley says. She turns her
attention to the girl. And for you?
Cosmopolitan, she says as she tightens her possessive hold
around my arm. I was hoping to have a quiet, relaxing drink
tonight, but I guess thats not going to happen now.
Good choice, Shelley says.
Tall and statuesque with a supermodel strut, Shelley must make
women jealous all the time. We had some fun as friends with
benefits years ago. Those were good times. The benefits
disappeared when she met her boyfriend, but the friendship
remains.
Thats the perfect relationship in my books. No fuss, no drama,
and no messy loose ends.
Too many girls think just sex really means its only a matter
of time before we fall madly in love with each other. And then
when I dont catch feelings on their schedule, somehow Im the
bad guy. Dont blame me for sticking to the initial agreement.
And thats why the girl sitting next to me now is a no go, even if I
were in the mood tonight. Everything about her screams
trouble.
She has the crazy eyes. I have no doubt in my mind that shed be
one of those girls whod end up trying to stab me with the
kitchen knife or dousing herself in gasoline just to get some
attention. Ive had too many close calls with her kind to ever give
it another try.
Seeing my pained expression, Shelley suppresses a smile. She
slides the drinks onto the counter and takes the bills in my hand.
Her eyes glint with cheer when she checks out how much Im
tipping. Maybe Shelley only likes me for my generous tips, but it
doesnt matter. Everybody uses everybody else in some way.
Just so you know, Ricks here. She winks. Thats one perk of
having Shelley on my side excellent service from someone
who knows exactly what I want.
I mouth her a silent thank you before she turns around and
walks away to serve the fat middle-aged guy who has been
leering at her ass and shouting obnoxiously to get her attention.
Thats a special kind of workplace hazard that attractive
bartenders all over the world suffer. Shelley once admitted that
its annoying, but she gets more tips when she dresses up in
revealing clothes, and the money makes it worthwhile.
A few seats further from the dirty old man, I spot Rick, partially
hidden in the shadows.
Hey, Rick! I wave at him and motion for him to come over. He
grins and picks up his drink. A few people turn to look at him
when he stands up to his full height.
Hey, man, he says as he takes a seat beside the girl whos still
hanging on my arm, his shoulders hunched over his drink.
Hows life?
Oh, you know. No rest for the wicked.
Your father keeping you busy, huh?
As usual, I say.
I dont have many friends, and Rick is not exactly a friend, but
we do sometimes bump into each other here at The Amber Room
and chat about stuff.
Have you met this lady? I gesture toward the girl, hoping she
doesnt catch on to the fact that I dont remember her name. But
even if she does, Im not going to lose any sleep over it.
No, I cant say that I have. Rick extends a hand toward her.
Hi, Im Rick.
Angela, she says, shaking his hand.
Ive seen you around here before, Rick says, giving her his
signature smile.
Yeah, Angela says. I do come here quite a lot.
How do you know Cole? Rick maintains eye contact with
Angela. Despite his height-related awkwardness, Rick has never
had a problem getting laid, thanks to his disarming charm and
natural interest in people.
Oh. She looks down, seemingly studying the knots in the solid
wood bar counter in front of us. We, uh, met here.
I see, Rick says, giving me a quick wink before turning his
attention back to her. Just like we just have.
I guess so, Angela giggles. She slowly loosens her grip on my
arm and I inch away from her, letting Ricks charm do its magic.
I knew Rick was going to distract her. The guy gets along with
everybody. And hes always up for a chat or more with any
decent-looking girl.
I wait for a few minutes before making a big show out of
checking the watch on my wrist.
Hey, you guys have fun. I need to be somewhere else now. I
exhale loudly to make it seem like I hate having to leave.
Im not crazy about talking business with my father, but it has to
be better than this boring small talk.
Oh, already? Rick says the words hes supposed to say, but he
knows I planned to ditch them from the beginning. Hes
obviously glad to have some alone time with Angela.
Yeah. I pull out my phone and see there are already three text
messages from my father. Theyre probably already waiting for
me.
Alright man, Rick says. See you around.
See you, I say. Good to see you again, Angela.
I turn around without waiting for her reply. Its hard to read her
expression in the dark, and I dont care about anything she has
to say anyway. I breathe a sigh of relief as I make my way toward
the exit.
And thats when I see her.
Shes all legs, with a tight little ass and perky tits. Her slender
body is wrapped in a skin-tight, knee-length red dress with a
black ribbon around her waist that forms a bow at the front. Just
the right balance between sexy and classy.
Damn. She looks like a present ready for me to unwrap.
She has voluminous blonde waves so glossy Im sure theyd feel
like heaven wrapped around my fist. Full lips that would look so
fucking sexy gasping in the night air when I expose her long
neck and bite down.
An overwhelming urge comes over me. I want to grab both her
arms, pin her to the wall, and take her right there, in front of
everyone. Its been a long time since a woman elicited that kind
of reaction from me. I can feel myself growing hard in my pants.
I stop my legs from automatically following her. Dont be crazy, I
tell myself.
I glance at my watch again. The little metal hands glow in the
dim light, telling me Im already fifteen minutes late.
Fuck, I curse under my breath. I can already hear Pops voice
telling me to think with my big head, not my small one. And I
havent even done anything to warrant his lecture tonight.
When I look up, shes gone. As I scan the room, I can only see the
usual faces in the dim light of The Amber Room.
I have no choice but to leave now. Walking out into the balmy
spring air, I swear Ill find her again. Shes awakened my hunting
instinct.
EMILY

EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER

I look up at the stars winking in the velvet sky. I study the


colors. Its beautiful, the way the stars bleach the space
around them almost white, and the way the sky gradually
changes from light blue, to dark navy, and then to almost inky
black.
We lie awake in the darkness, letting silence take over.
Weve been here for a while now, only occasionally moving to
adjust the blanket underneath us. There was a bee trapped
between the grass and our blanket before, and we laughed while
we staged a mini search-and-rescue mission.
But now its just the two of us, hands clasped together while the
light summer wind swirls around us, caressing our skin.
This is nice, I think to myself. I think Im actually happy.
Happier than Ive ever been in my life.
Slowly, everything blurs as water fills my eyes, the droplets
streaming down past my temples and falling onto our picnic
blanket. I turn to look at him and smile. I cant help it. Looking
at him makes me smile.
His eyes are closed. His thick, sandy brown hair is usually long
enough to touch his shoulders, but now it fans out on the
blanket. A few strands float in the warm breeze.
I turn onto my side and face him. I stroke his hair I know he
likes that. My index finger traces the curve of his forehead, the
angle of his nose, the softness of his cheeks.
God, I love this man. I love him so much just looking at him
pains me sometimes. Not because he hurts me hed never do
anything like that. But, as cheesy as it sounds, my feelings for
him are so intense sometimes it feels like my heart could burst
from the fullness.
He turns his head to look at me and notices the wet streaks
across my face. But he doesnt have to ask to know theyre not
sad tears. He smiles at me tenderly, then reaches out and wipes
my tears with his warm fingers.
We gaze into each others eyes and luxuriate in our oneness. I
can read his thoughts and reach into his soul, and he can do the
same with me. He knows me, all of me, and hes still here,
looking at me like Im the best thing hes ever laid eyes on.
On a night like this, we dont need words.
And yet the words are bubbling up inside me, begging to be
spoken into the world.
I love you, I want to say, but my voice wont come out.
I search for my voice inside my chest and my throat. But its not
there. I cant get it out.
I take a deep breath and force my vocal cords to vibrate, and I
hear a soft moan in my own voice.
I can do this.
Ahhh
I hear myself speak, and my eyes slowly open.
The stars have disappeared, and so has the man.
Im in my bedroom, all alone in the desolate darkness of the city.
Fuck. Not again.
Tears flow, unbidden. From my eyes, through my hair, and into
my pillow. Tears of sadness, of loss.
Its been more than a year. These pangs of agony dont torture
me every minute of every day anymore, but they appear out of
the blue sometimes and destroy all the emotional progress Ive
made.
Sometimes I feel like hes still around, like hes watching over
me, trying to make sure Im okay. I used to look out the window
a lot, hoping to catch him in the act.
But thats just crazy talk.
I pull out some Kleenex from the box on the nightstand and blow
my blocked nose. I have to be able to breathe if I want to go back
to sleep.
I steer my thoughts toward other things.
Like work. Thats a good thing to obsess over. I finally have a
good starting point a beginning to a potentially wonderful
career instead of another shitty, dead-end job.
I turn my phone on and find the article I was reading before I fell
asleep. Seven Interview Tips That Will Get You the Job. I let the
words fill my head and make my eyelids grow heavy

EMILY!
I sigh. Do we really need to do this every day?
Yeah, I mumble as loudly as I can, fighting my morning
lethargy.
Em! Footsteps get closer to the bedroom door. I know whats
coming before the knocking starts.
Yeah, Im awake, I say, hopefully loud enough for my sister to
hear from the other side of the door.
Yay! Alice cheers and stops the loud knocking. Its not
something I like to admit after everything shes done for me, but
the cheerfulness in her voice grates on me sometimes, just a
little bit. Especially in the mornings. I made you waffles for
breakfast.
Okay, I say, yawning and rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
I sit up and check my phone. Two more minutes until my alarm.
Damn it, Alice. I turn the alarm off and walk toward the
bathroom.
I know two minutes is barely enough time to do anything, but all
that time I waste waking up a few minutes too early must add up.
Two minutes today, five minutes yesterday, three minutes the
day before thatI must lose, like, one whole hour of sleep every
month.
Another day, another interview to fail, I think to myself cynically
as the shower sprays hot water onto my body.
Life as a millennial sucks. It used to be that a regular college
degree could get your foot in the door.
But now, they want a college degree with exceptionally good
grades and heavy involvement with multiple student
organizations. And lets not forget the multiple years of work
experience required for entry-level jobs these days.
For someone like me, who didnt even go to college, all those
things combined together basically mean Im screwed.
Every now and again, I come across some news article about how
millennials are lazy and how people used to start in the mail
room and slowly climb their way up the corporate ladder.
Nothing makes me angrier. Those old, irrelevant people have no
idea how much more difficult it is to even get a job any job
these days.
If I cant even get a shitty job to tide me over while I improve
myself and find a better job, how am I supposed to move forward
in life?
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, letting the water wash
over me.
I once went to a yoga class where the instructor recommended
meditation during the morning shower by letting all thoughts
flow away down the drain with the water. It was a good trick and
it worked, for a while at least, until Well, lets just say it
worked until it didnt.
But this is not the time to feel sorry for myself, or even to fill my
brain with anything unrelated to todays interview. I need to
clear my mind.
I got a tip about this interview from Alice. Its an entry-level
junior marketing position at Foster Hotels, a local chain of chic
boutique hotels here in San Fransisco.
Ive always wanted to work in the travel industry, so this is a big
opportunity for me. I dont usually get interviews for something
that matches my interests so well. Alice told me that Marco, our
childhood friend in Seattle who works in hospitality, has put in a
good word for me. Which reminds me, I should probably thank
him.
I turn off the shower and dry myself while practicing my answers
for common job interview questions. Ive done nothing but read
up on interview skills and attend actual interviews these last few
months. Im practically a professional interviewee at this point.
My biggest weakness is I dont have a degree, I recite as I walk
back into my bedroom and close the door.
I scan the items in my wardrobe and quickly settle on a gray
button-down shirt. Its a safe choice that shouldnt turn any
potential employer off. And its in better shape than my other
office-appropriate shirt.
But that also means that Im a blank slate, ready to absorb
knowledge and skills from your excellent training program. I
dont have any preconceived ideas about how things should be
done.
I quickly blow-dry my long honey-blonde hair and put it up in a
neat French twist. Its my go-to hairstyle when I dont have
much time to look put together.
I mastered it after watching and re-watching like ten tutorials on
YouTube all day that was back when I had the luxury of time
to waste and back when I actually cared about my appearance.
Now its just a practical up-do.
Ive also been reading up on industry trends and learning a lot
about hospitality from books in the library, as well as online
sources. I believe my efforts show my commitment to this line of
work. My inner motivation and thirst for learning will benefit
Foster Hotels as I continue to improve my skill set.
The books and articles Ive read say to stick with natural makeup
that wont distract the interviewer from my qualifications not
that I have much to show in that department.
Once I settle into my new position, I fully plan to further my
education so I can contribute more value to Foster Hotels.
I spread some tinted moisturizer all over my freshly washed face,
dust a bit of rosy blush on my cheeks, fill in my eyebrows with a
dark brown pencil, apply some waterproof eyeliner to my upper
waterline, and put on some waterproof mascara.
I also plan to update my shitty wardrobe, so you dont have to
worry about having someone who looks like a bag lady
representing your luxury brand, I say while checking my own
reflection in the $5 full-length mirror hanging over the door.
Ive paired the gray shirt with a black pencil skirt. Theyre both a
little baggy. Ive lost a lot of weight over the past year and a half.
I may look out of place in a fashion magazine, but I think this
outfit is professional enough. At least my clothes dont look like
they came from the clearance section of the thrift store.
I take a deep breath.
You can do this, Emily, I tell myself. If you just get this job, you
can start to build a life again. A life you love.
I feel the familiar pricking in my eyes as sadness comes over me,
but I fight it back. Im not going to let it overwhelm me. Not
today.
Stop it. Youve cried enough. Focus on the here and now.
I grab a tissue and dab at the corners of my eyes, briefly thanking
Maybelline for their line of affordable waterproof makeup
products.
I grab my bag and check that I have all the documents I need
inside. A copy of my resume, a copy of my reference list, and a
cheat sheet with details about Foster Hotels that I plan to review
on the bus. Perfect.
Youve got this.
I walk out of my room and follow the aroma of waffles and coffee
into the kitchen. Hey.
Hey sleepyhead, Alice says, looking up from the cup of coffee
in her hands.
She has the same blonde hair and blue eyes that I do, but shes
always been the taller one, the prettier one, as well as the
smarter one.
Hey, dont judge. Im just not a morning person. I shrug. I
grab a mug from the cabinet, fill it with tap water, and gulp it
down.
The waffles are on the counter, Alice says.
Awesome. I like waffles, I say, grinning. I pick up the plate of
waffles and pour hot coffee into the mug.
I know you do, idiot. Thats why I made them. Alice kicks a
chair out for me.
Youre too good to me, Alice. I take my seat. I know she means
well, but sometimes I feel like she pities me and I hate that. But
I dont need waffles, you know. A lot of things that you do for
me, I dont need you to.
I know. I want to do those things for you. Youre my sister.
Im your sister and I never make you waffles.
Thats true, she says, acting like shes in deep thought. So
pancakes tomorrow?
You know thats not what I mean. The corners of my mouth
tug upward, dragging my lips into a smile.
Youve been through a lot, Emily. Alice places a hand on my
upper arm. It takes time to heal. So take as much time as you
need.
Ah, damn it. Now youre going to make me cry. I sigh.
Thats okay, Alice says. Youre okay. Everythings going to be
okay.
Im going to pay you back someday, Alice. Somehow I let my
voice trail off while I fight to suppress my tears. God. I havent
been awake for even one hour and Im already a weepy mess.
I look forward to my luxury, all-expenses-paid vacation in
Bali, she says, shooting me a cheeky grin.
God, that would be nice. Sunny weather, sandy beach, warm
water, andmysterious foreign men? I raise an eyebrow at
Alice, and we both laugh.
Weve never had money to travel, and the thought of us lounging
by a swimming pool in the tropics sounds ridiculous at this point
in our lives.
Im dead broke and would be homeless without Alice.
And Alice, well, she does okay, but she also has to provide for her
freeloading, dead broke, almost homeless sister.
She always has been my entire support system and I truly feel
horrible about holding her back in life.
You get that job, Alice says, winking. And well be flirting
with international men of mystery in Bali in no time, Em.
COLE

P op. You mustve read that report at least five times. I


look across the desk at him, anxious to get him out of my
office.
It pays to be meticulous. The devil is in the details, he says
calmly.
I know. Thats all you ever say. Thats why I have a bunch of
professionals to check and re-check everything.
He waves his hand dismissively and adjusts his reading glasses.
He looks almost like an old, harmless librarian when he does
that.
I take a deep breath and try to ignore him, distracting myself by
reading the news on my phone.
I cant afford to give him any clues about just how restless I am.
Of course he has to choose today to visit the office, of all days. I
shouldve expected this.
Youd think Im a slacker, the way the old mans acting. But Im
far from it.
My employees think Im a micro-manager, but they only say
that because they have never worked directly with Robert Foster.
Even in supposed retirement, he sticks a finger in every damn
pie.
This is the shitty thing about a family business, no matter the
size. Normal people worry about their work bleeding into
personal or family life. I have family digging into my work all the
time, scrutinizing and criticizing every little thing.
I take a deep breath.
Patience. Remember, there wouldnt be a Foster Hotels in the
first place without Robert Foster.
Hospitality isnt a cheap business to get into, and my father gave
me the resources I needed to start. I have access to the best
brains on his team and of course some of his money as well.
I do remember and appreciate his support now that Foster Hotels
is thriving. But I also wish hed give me less of that same
support.
Ill admit that things have improved compared to three years ago
when I first founded Foster Hotels. Back then, he probably spent
as much time in my office as I did. And I had to suffer through an
interrogation session every time I went home for family dinner.
Compared to those days, hes practically letting me run the
company on my own now, but the old man doesnt seem to be
able to completely let go just yet.
Now he only comes into the office for a weekly update. Thats as
close to a vote of confidence as Ive gotten.
I suppose I should take that as a compliment from a man like
Robert Foster, who requires everyone, even his sons, to earn his
trust.
I only have high expectations of you because I believe in you,
hed say often.
But Ive been bending over backward to meet his demands and
still he maintains a tight grip over my business. Im starting to
think I wouldve fared better if I had just taken out a business
loan or sought investor funding to start the company myself
instead of leaning on him.
Honestly, I was already looking into it when I decided to just
accept my fathers help. Caine works with him and is pretty
much free to do what he wants, I thought back then. But I failed
to take into account the fact that Im not my brother.
I hold my phone up with one hand and ball my other hand into a
fist, afraid Im going to start fidgeting in front of my father. If he
gets a sniff of my anxiety and finds out its because Im about to
have a meeting, hed insist on staying. And that wouldnt do.
Not today.
Okay. My father takes off his reading glasses. Everything
seems fine. Hows the plan for expansion to Seattle?
The initial report is being prepared, and Im planning to go
there again in a few months. Well have a better idea of what to
do after that. I try to keep my voice calm and steady, pacing my
words so they dont tumble out all at once in my haste.
Theres still time. Theres still enough time.
Good, he says, putting on his suit jacket and standing up. Ill
see you next week. Probably on Thursday or Friday.
Okay, Pop. See you then.
He nods, then unceremoniously walks out the office door.
Chatty, as usual.
The door slams shut and I let out a big sigh a relief, slumping
into my leather chair.
I check the time again.
Everything should be fine.
EMILY WEBB.
That name, which sounds so familiar in my head, now looks out
of place on the computer screen. The work computer screen.
After making a few mistakes in the beginning, I now keep my
personal life strictly separate from my work, which is why Im
not completely comfortable with what Im about to do. But I
dont see a better option.
Cole. My personal assistants voice filters through the phone
speaker, breaking the silence.
As I pick up the receiver, I notice my hands are shaking. Ill have
to get my act together.
Yes, Lily.
Emily Webb is here to see you, she says.
Send her in, I say, taking a deep breath.
Im as ready as I can be.
Okay, Lily says. I can hear the first syllable of what she says to
Emily before she hangs up and the line dies with a click.
Im sure Lily is confused about why Im doing the interview for
the junior marketing position myself. When I told her to put this
in my schedule, she furrowed her eyebrows in confusion for a
second. Luckily, one perk of being the boss is not having to
explain my actions.
The truth is, I already know all about Emily Webb, and I already
know Im going to hire her. Its just not something I can tell HR.
It would seem too strange.
Stranger than the CEO interviewing a nobody for an entry level
position?
Okay, it still doesnt look one-hundred percent normal. But at
least this way, no asshole from HR can reject her job application
and I can see for myself that she gets hired today.
Steffi, the marketing director, is extremely picky when it comes
to hiring people for her department. I cant risk her meddling in
this. This is too important.
I take a deep breath, and then another, deeper breath.
I hear soft knocking on the door and my heart jumps out of my
chest. I clear my throat.
Come in, I say. I hope I sound normal.
The door swings open, and there she is.
Emily Webb.
In my office.
As beautiful as ever.
Well, these days shes thinner and she doesnt get dolled up as
much as she used to, but shes still beautiful. She has put her
hair up today, which makes her look more serious.
But she has the same sparkling blue eyes, shiny blonde hair, and
full lips. The same long legs are hidden underneath the
unflattering black skirt shes wearing, which shows just the
slightest hint of the feminine flare of her hips.
Good morning, Mr. Foster, she says as she approaches my
desk, her hips swaying, hypnotizing. Her voice is loud and clear.
Confident. Practiced.
Good morning. Ive done hundreds of interviews and I know
what to say by heart. I can do this if I just switch to autopilot
mode. I smile, stand up, and extend a steady hand. Please, call
me Cole.
Emily, she says. Her hand feels small and delicate. Theyre a
little cold too, now that its fall. I fight the urge to hold it a little
longer, maybe grasp it between both my hands to warm her up.
Nice to meet you, Emily, I say, as if I havent memorized every
single detail about her, as if she hasnt tortured my thoughts
every night. I gesture at the chair across the desk from me.
Have a seat.
Thank you, Cole, she says, my name sliding smoothly out of
her mouth. I think about how, for a moment, she holds
something of me on her tongue, between her lips. I ache for
more. More of anything from her.
Get ahold of yourself, damn it. Its just a name.
So, Emily, I say, leaning back in my leather swivel chair. Tell
me about yourself.
Well, I worked in customer service for eight years. I started
working as soon as I turned sixteen. Im highly motivated and
driven. I enjoy connecting with people and building
relationships with them. I find thats the key to customer
retention and sales, she says without hesitation.
Clearly, she has prepared and memorized her script before this
interview. Hell, she probably has said the exact same thing to
dozens of other interviewers before.
Customer service, I say, pretending this is just another
interview to me, too. Would you say that is your strength?
Yes. And I know marketing is different, but really its about
customers too, only at a more macro level.
She continues her perfect delivery of her rehearsed lines, so I
take her cue and play my part as well.
She looks determined. Theres a flame burning in her eyes. With
that kind of obvious hunger for success, Id probably hire her
even if she wasnt Emily Webb.
Her bare lips look a little dry. I watch them as she talks. More
than anything, I want to grab her and run my tongue along the
surface, feel the texture and memorize it with my own lips.
I hate myself for thinking these thoughts, but I cant help it
when she looks so fucking edible.
Irrationally, my heart clenches at the thought of her other
interviews. Those men (and women but lets face it, there
were probably more men than women) spent time alone with
her, sitting in positions of power relative to her.
Are you really getting jealous, asshole? You have no right.
I take a deep breath. This charade has gone on long enough. Its
time to just end this interview.
Okay, I say as soon as she finishes saying her answer to my
previous interview question. I think weve covered everything.
She gives me a polite smile. She looks nervous with her fidgeting
fingers, but shes meeting my gaze. Hope smolders in her
sapphire blue eyes.
Can you start on Monday? I say.
I can almost pinpoint the exact moment she realizes shes
getting the job. Anxiety seems to evaporate from her body and
relief takes its place.
Of course! A wide grin spreads across her face, but theres
more joy simmering just under the surface. If she werent stuck
in an office with her future boss, shed probably clap or jump or
both.
Good, I say, returning her grin. Its contagious. Just looking at
her right now makes me want to grab her hand, put on some
music, and dance.
But that would be completely inappropriate. Instead, I say,
Monday, 9 a.m., report to Steffi from marketing. Shell know
what to do.
Thank you, Cole, she says, and my heart jumps again at the
mention of my name. You wont regret this.
Youre welcome, Emily. I look forward to happy little
interactions with her, even if she just sees me as a boss and
keeps me at arms length. See you on Monday, then.
See you on Monday, she says, nodding with the wide grin still
plastered on her face as she gets up from her chair. Thanks
again. Thank you so much.
I watch as she turns around and makes her way toward the door.
Fuck, what I wouldnt give to grab those hips and pull her
luscious ass back against the bulge in my pants so she can feel
for herself exactly what shes doing to me.
Have a good day, Cole. She looks back and smiles at the door.
You too, Emily.
The door closes with a thud as it hits the jamb. I hear a soft click
when the latch springs into place. Suddenly, the office feels
empty. Silent.
I turn my chair around and look out through the glass wall at the
city thats sprawling out in all directions. Shes walking out of
this building soon, and then she can be anywhere in this big city,
and I wont know where she is.
But I know where shell be on Monday morning, and the
morning after that, and the one after that. Shell be spending a
lot of time right outside my office door.
I havent decided yet if that will be a good thing or a bad thing.
Before this interview, I tried to convince myself that I was only
doing this to help her.
But I realize now that maybe it has all been for my own benefit.
Maybe I insisted on doing this interview myself just so I could
talk to her, have her to myself for a few fleeting moments.
EMILY

E m? Alice opens the door and steps into the darkness of the
apartment. Em, are you home?
I pull down the chain to turn on the floor lamp. Alice flinches
and blinks a few times as her eyes adjust to the brightness. She
squints at me.
Looking for me? I dramatically ask with my best mafia voice.
What Alices voice trails off as she scans the apartment.
Right by the door where shes standing is the open-plan kitchen,
and beyond that is the sparse living space, with a small TV in one
corner, the old sofa that Im sitting on, and an Ikea dining set
that includes a pine table and four chairs.
When she spots the sushi on the dining table, Alice gasps.
You got the job? She raises her hands up to cover her mouth.
Slowly, I pull out the champagne Ive been hiding behind my
back. Her eyes grow big and she quietly stares at me.
I got the job! I raise both my arms in the air, the champagne
bottle still in my hand. Ive been suppressing the urge to scream
it at the top of my lungs the whole day. And now that Alice is
here, I can finally celebrate.
Oh my God! You got the job! Alice rushes toward me and pulls
me up into a big bear hug. That is so awesome!
Congratulations!
I know! I cant believe it! I wrap my arms around her and we
do a little weird dance of bouncing and skipping in place while
we hug.
Im so proud of you. Alice puts her hands on my shoulders and
pushes me just far enough for her to take a good look at me. She
has a big smile on her face. Really. Youre going to do so well.
I know, I say, raising one eyebrow and grinning at her with
mock arrogance. I hold the champagne bottle up to show her.
Since I havent quite maxed out my credit card yet, I thought we
should celebrate. I also thought sake would go better with the
sushi, but I couldnt find any at the liquor store. And I know
nothing about sake anyway.
Sushi! Yes! Oh my God! She turns around to look at the spread
on the dining table. Youre starting a dangerous precedent
here, Em. I may just start expecting a sushi dinner after work
every night now.
Well, I mean, obviously Im loaded now that I have a job, so that
wont be a problem.
I grab the bottle opener on the dining table and pop the
champagne open. I pour the fizzy liquid into two mugs and offer
one to Alice.
We should get wine glasses next, I say, raising my mug.
Cheers. Alice clinks her mug against mine. She takes a sip,
then says, You know, champagne is supposed to go into a
different kind of glass than wine.
Seriously? I raise my eyebrows and take a sip of the
champagne.
It tastes good. I bet it tastes just as good from a coffee mug as it
would from a champagne glass. Rich people waste money on the
most ridiculous things.
I didnt know that. I guess its going to take some time for me
to get used to my newfound wealth, I say.
You can take pointers from your rich hotel guests. Alice laughs
and takes a seat. She works as a waitress at an upscale
restaurant, and she knows all the complex rules that people call
fine dining etiquette.
I pull out the chair across from her and sit down.
So tell me all about it. Alice grabs the disposable chopsticks
and pulls them apart until they snap. How was the interview?
It went well, obviously. I pour some soy sauce into a small
dish.
Well, obviously. She rolls her eyes. Come on. Tell me how it
all went down.
Oh, I almost forgot to thank Marco for getting me this
interview. I begin to stand up so I can look for my phone.
Oh my God, sit your butt back down. Lets just eat first, Alice
says as she picks up a salmon nigiri. Ill text Marco later. Dont
worry about it.
Okay.
Now spill. Alice takes a bite of the sushi and widens her eyes
at me.
Okay. Wow. Bossy much? I pick up my chopsticks and start
telling her about the interview, starting from my apprehension
when I stepped into Cole Fosters lavish office.
Later that night, with a happy belly full of sushi, I fling my
wardrobe doors wide open and sit on the bed, staring at my
clothes and thinking about what to wear on Monday.
I wonder if I should shop over the weekend with my credit card,
or if I should at least wait for my first paycheck. Either way, I
need nicer blouses and shirts. And I should be able to afford it
with my salary.
I should watch out for sales at Banana Republic. Or maybe J.
Crew. Sometimes I see signs promoting fifty-percent discounts.
Maybe those fancy clothes wont be too expensive if I buy them
on sale.
Later that night, I fall asleep to thoughts of elegant blouses in
jewel colors and work-appropriate-yet-sexy pencil skirts.
EMILY

SIX MONTHS LATER

"I s Lily dumping her work on you, Emily?


Even with his thick eyebrows furrowed and frown lines
appearing on his forehead, Cole looks sinfully gorgeous. I drink
in the sight of his rich brown eyes, his prominent cheekbones,
and his thick, messy dark hair.
But aside from his obvious hotness, hes also known for being
strict and demanding. And now that hes frowning at the stack of
papers on Lilys desk in front of me, it seems like Im his next
target.
Hes been kind to me so far, and I think its because Im the new
girl. But after six months of working in this office, maybe thats
no longer a good excuse.
"Oh, no. No, it's not like that at all. I say, trying and failing to
keep my nerves under wraps. "She has to pick up her daughter
from the daycare early, so she couldn't stay behind to finish
scheduling all your appointments for next week.
"Still," he says, lines still etched in his forehead and the bridge
of his nose. "Shes not supposed to make you do her work for
her. Ill have to talk to her about this. She should really manage
her time better.
"Really, there's no need. I don't mind at all. If anything, I was
the one who insisted on doing this for her. I nervously clasp my
hands together under the desk. Considering Coles ruthless
reputation, a talk could very possibly mean Lily losing her job.
I have to work on the presentation anyway. For the
conference.
Isnt that Steffis work? He sighs, the lines in his face
becoming deeper. You need to stop worrying about other
people. You're too nice and theyre taking advantage of you.
"No, it's really not like that. Im learning a lot from preparing
this presentation. I want to do this, I say.
Cole isnt wrong. Steffi has been piling more and more work on
me, work that she should be doing herself. But I also am really
glad for the learning opportunity.
And since Im here anyway, its easy enough for me to tie up a
few loose ends in your schedule. I place both palms on the desk
and push to get on my feet. "Please, Cole, I don't want to get Lily
in trouble. It was my idea.
As a single mother, she already has too many problems, I think
to myself.
I dont bother telling Cole that detail. I dont think it would make
any difference to him, since hes generally unsympathetic to
people letting personal life get in the way of work.
Alright, if you say so, he says. He lets out another big sigh, like
it physically pains him to let me win this. He picks up a folder
from the desk and flips through its pages.
I breathe a sigh of relief and sit back down in Lilys chair. Shes a
friend and I wouldnt want to make her life harder just because
of my carelessness.
Soyoure going home soon? Its getting awkward with him
standing there not saying anything while Im trying to work.
Why do you ask? Cole raises his gaze, peering at me over the
top of the wide-open folder.
I Just making conversation, I say lamely. Something about
the way hes looking at me gets me so flustered I find myself
unable come up with something better.
Oh. Too bad, he says. Most of his face is covered by the manila
folder as he reviews the documents inside, his fingers skimming
the edges of the stiff paper. I cant help but wonder how those
same fingers would feel roaming all over my body.
What do you mean? I take the bait.
I thought maybe you wanted to join me, he says, raising one
thick eyebrow at me. He shuts the folder, trapping it between his
masculine hands. He grins, his lips upturned, revealing the
dimples in his cheeks. Keeping his teasing gaze firmly on my
reddening face, he continues, Well, if theres nothing else and
youre not actually coming home with me, I am going home.
Uh Okay. I rack my brain for something normal to say in this
situation, but how am I supposed to respond to Cole Foster
asking me to go home with him? I mean, not that he could
possibly mean it
Good night, Emily, he says, taking the folder with him as he
turns around and heads to the elevator.
Good night, Cole, I say to his back.
I watch his tall figure grow smaller as he walks away. Damn, my
boss has a nice ass.
The Armani suit hugs his frame perfectly, showing off his broad
shoulders, lean body, and impossibly long legs. Im told women
just throw themselves at him, and I cant say I blame them. I
watch as he disappears into the elevator, leaving me alone in the
big, quiet, open-space office.
When I first saw him at the interview, I thought he was a mid-
level manager because of how young he seemed. The designer
suit shouldve given it away. But it didnt occur to me that the
guy interviewing me for an entry-level position was a CEO
albeit a micro-managing one.
If I had bothered to read some business magazines beforehand, I
wouldve recognized him from the get-go. It seemed strange to
me that he was only in his twenties and yet already so
successful.
Then I learned about his family and it all made sense. Lets just
say that multiple members of his extended family have appeared
in articles like Top 100 Wealthiest Americans or Owners of San
Fransiscos Most Expensive Homes.
So he comes from money. Old money. How nice.
I sigh and look up at the computer screen. Im almost done with
the research portion of this presentation. I just need to gather all
the information in one file, organize it into separate sections
based on which PowerPoint slides they correspond to, and email
the file to Steffi.
While I save my work to a flash drive, I grab my new iPhone and
press the button to turn on the display. Besides some new
clothes, this phone is one of the first things I bought with my
salary.
Yes, I am saving up to move out of Alices apartment. But after
everything Ive been through, I feel like I deserve to splurge on
something. Plus, my old phone was so slow the screen was
frozen half the time.
Now, according to my new awesome phone, its already eight.
I havent eaten anything since lunch. I should probably head
home now and finish up tomorrow.
As usual, there are a few notifications from the chat app. I bet
theyre all worried messages from Alice. I tap the app icon and
what do you know Im right.
Alice Webb: Em, where are you?
Alice Webb: Still at work?
Alice Webb: Overtime again?
Alice Webb: They better be paying you REALLY well
I smile to myself. I get these messages every work night, but my
sisters excessive worry still hasnt failed to amuse me.
Emily Webb: Coming home soon
Placing my phone on Lilys desk, I grab my bag and stuff my
things inside. Wallet, keys, flash drive.
Maybe if I have some time after dinner I can continue working on
the presentation on Alices computer.
I glance at the phone, watching as Alices messages come
through.
Alice Webb: Its late
Alice Webb: Damn that boss of yours
Alice Webb: One of these days you should lick his ass
I frown for a second, confused. I re-read the last message and
burst out in laughter, my voice echoing in the big, empty space
that is the office at night.
That is the best autocorrect typo ever!
Alice doesnt seem to have noticed. She wouldve corrected it if
she had.
Emily Webb: LMAO
Emily Webb: I had no idea you were so kinky
Alice Webb: OMG
Alice Webb: KICK!!!
Alice Webb: KICK his ass
Emily Webb: Come on Alice
Emily Webb: We both know why your phone went with lick
instead
Emily Webb: You type that phrase lick his ass all the time,
huh?
Emily Webb: Freudian slip
Still grinning, I pick my bag up and walk past the rows of desks
toward the elevator.
Alice Webb: Very funny
Alice Webb: Just come home
Emily Webb: Hey, I dont judge
Emily Webb: You do you
I drop the phone in my bag with a smirk on my face. Alice is
probably not going to reply anymore, now that Ive successfully
annoyed her.
This is nice, I think to myself as I step inside the elevator.
Ive gotten a lot of things done today. Finished presentation
research, helped Lily keep her job, and even laughed with Alice,
just like old times.
My life is finally starting to look normal again.
As the elevator takes me from the 30th floor down to the lobby, I
watch the red LED numbers in the display count down. The
smaller the floor number, the more blurry it gets. I realize my
eyes have filled with water and a knot has formed in my throat.
Thinking about how far Ive come always gets me all sappy.
I carefully dab at the corners of my eyes so I dont ruin my make-
up. I blink a few times and take a deep breath just as the elevator
door opens. Stepping out into the lobby of the building, I hear
the familiar chat app notification alerts and fish my phone out of
the bag.
Good night, Andy, I say, holding the phone in my hand.
Andy is one of the two young security guards who are always
stuck with the night shift. Working late as often as I do, Im on a
first-name basis with both guards now.
Night, Emily, he says with a friendly smile. You take care
now.
You too!
I walk past the automatic sliding glass doors and breathe in the
San Fransisco air, nice and warm even in the fall. Its actually
almost warmer now than it was in the summer.
While making my way to the bus stop, I check Alices last
messages.
Alice Webb: Actually it wouldnt be such a bad idea for you to
lick someones ass if thats what youre into
Alice Webb: lol
Alice Webb: Its been too long
I sigh. Here we go again.
She makes bad jokes all the time. As much as I hate them, I cant
bring myself to tell her because she tries so hard. And thats not
even the worst problem with her message.
I know Alice means well, but theres only so much nagging I can
take. I drop the phone back in my bag.
Shes gone so far as to arrange blind dates for me, as soon as I
got this job. Its like she has some sort of a to-do list.
Find Em a job. Tick.
Next on the list: Find Em a man.
I went the first three times because she had gone through so
much trouble arranging those meetings for me, but I just lost
interest after the third dull stranger.
Seriously, she acts more like an overbearing mom or a nosey
aunt than a sister sometimes. She needs to get a life of her own.
Its not that shes completely wrong. It has been a while.
But what can I say? I just dont feel like getting on Tinder and
trying to force a connection with strangers. I may be only
twenty-five, but I already feel too old for that nonsense.
I believe itll happen when it happens. And if it doesnt happen,
well, unlike Alice, Im okay with that too.
COLE

I sit in my BMW X5 M and let the darkness envelop me. The


car park seems deserted and sinister now that most people
have left the office. I only see two other cars in this sea of gray
concrete.
I turn the air conditioner on. Maybe itll help cool my head.
Im the last person who should hang around her.
That quickly became apparent earlier tonight, when it was just
the two of us at the office and I almost couldnt hold myself
back.
I didnt know it was her at first. After ending a phone call with a
supplier in China, I took off my earphones and heard someone
typing and clicking, so I peeked out my office door to check.
And there she was, sitting in the dark, with only the cool blue
light from the computer monitor illuminating her. She had her
back to me. I could just make out her silhouette, the outline of
her long blonde hair shimmering like a halo.
She wore her hair loose and straight tonight. It looked so soft
and shiny. Before I could stop myself, a mental image of her
appeared in my mind her kneeling in front of me, panting
with her full lips around my cock and her ponytail in my fist.
I quickly shooed that thought away.
She looked so absorbed in whatever she was doing, I didnt have
the heart to break the silence and surprise her.
So, like some creep, I stood in the darkness and watched her. I
almost forgot how oblivious she can be to her surroundings.
When the phone rang and she walked over to Lilys desk, I could
see she was wearing a tight navy pencil skirt and a black button-
down shirt that fit just as snugly, outlining her feminine curves.
She moved fluidly, with poise. Straight posture, head held high,
shoulders back.
On impulse, my gaze fixated on the way her hips swayed as she
walked. It was hypnotizing. I started imagining those hips
rocking on top of me, her head tilted back and her breath coming
out in short, erratic gasps.
Its crazy the way she turns my brain cells into filthy muck.
She reached the desk and bent down to use the corded landline
phone, completely unaware and vulnerable. It was so fucking
hard to stop myself from just walking over there, pushing her
down until she was fully bent over the desk, and having my way
with her right then and there in the middle of the office.
When she moved her stuff to Lilys desk, I groaned inwardly.
There was an important folder there that I needed for
tomorrows meeting, and now I couldnt just grab it and slip
away into the darkness. I had to literally take the file from under
Emilys nose. Which meant I had to talk to her.
Why was she staying so late in the office anyway?
I wondered if she was having problems fitting in, if there were
people making her do their work for them.
I know Steffi isnt too happy about me hiring Emily without
consulting her, even though she does need a junior marketing
person and, by all accounts, Emily is doing well.
I dont know why shes complaining, although it might have
something to do with the fact that I did Emilys interview
myself.
Its ancient history now, but Steffi and I once went out for drinks
with a bunch of other marketing people. And she ended up
spread-eagled on my bed screaming my name by the end of the
night.
It was just that one time. But since then, she started dropping a
few obvious hints about having drinks together. It became
such a big pain in the ass that I decided to never have any
personal dealings with my employees outside of the office.
I know, I know. Work and personal should be separate. Thats
something any idiot should know, but what can I say? Im just
the kind of idiot who has to find out for myself and learn from
experience.
Evidently, now that Emilys working here, Ive thrown that
notion out the window.
I wonder if Steffi could be so unprofessional as to dump all her
work on Emily out of spite.
Ive been so busy with meetings I dont spend as much time at
the office anymore. I just got back from New York last night, and
I already had a conference in Seattle scheduled for next week.
To be completely honest, with Emily at the office, Id rather stay
put here. I still dont trust myself to get too close to her, but I
can at least watch over her, make sure shes doing okay, find out
if anybodys hurting her.
The longer I watched her in the dark office, the angrier I got. She
wasnt supposed to have so much work that she had to stay back
so late at the office. And why the fuck was she working alone
anyway? Where was the rest of her team?
Fueled by rage, I approached her, making sure to make some
noise as I walked so shed know I was coming.
When she looked up to see me, her eyes got big and worried, like
she got caught doing something wrong. It made me want to
scoop her up, stroke her shiny hair, and tell her everything was
going to be okay. I was going to get back at the bastards who took
advantage of her.
Hi, Cole, she said.
I cant remember what I said to her, but I know it didnt go very
well. I probably came across as angry which I was, but not at
her.
When she started defending her colleagues, I had to stop myself.
I dont want to be the angry boss that everyone secretly hates, at
least not in her eyes. I couldnt care less what the rest of them
think of me.
So instead of spewing more stupid angry shit, I went and asked
her to come home with me.
That was the stupidest shit Ive ever said in my life. But to be
fair, I couldnt help myself, with her sitting there all doe-eyed
and irresistible.
Fuck. Im in trouble, arent I?
I havent even taken another woman to my bed since that night I
saw her at the bar.
I cant stop thinking about how close Emily was, how I couldve
just swept everything off the desk, claimed her sinfully delicious
body, and made her mine.
Because Ive seen the way she looks at me.
People think my success with the ladies comes from my looks,
my money, or my charm. Sure, those things help. But the real
key is knowing exactly which woman to pick up at any given bar,
which one would be open to my persuasion.
And Emily? Well, lets just say I can tell she wants me too.
But Emily Webb is off limits. So off limits its not even funny.
Let me paint you a picture.
There are seven billion people on this planet. And out of those
seven billion people, shes the one person I shouldnt mess
around with. Literally anybody else including the people who
are married, or gay, or both would be a better choice.
I knew I was playing with fire when I hired her. If I get any
closer, I could lose everything. And yet Im acting like a
bedazzled moth, circling toward certain death and not caring.
Oh well, at least next week Ill be out of town again. I could use
the time apart to cool the fuck down. Because no amount of air
conditioning could help as long as Emily is within my reach.
EMILY

O h my God, I exclaim to the almost-empty office.


It's lunchtime now and most people have gone out to eat. It's
just Lily and me now, two paupers digging our way out of abject
poverty, one bagged lunch at a time.
She looks up at me from underneath her straight bangs, a few
strands of spaghetti hanging out of her mouth, red tomato sauce
smeared on her lips. Her wide eyes are fixed on me as she waits
for me to continue.
How do these ads know what's in my shopping cart at Banana
Republic? I turn my monitor toward Lily so she can see the
rectangular banners on the screen for herself.
Lily narrows her eyes at me.
Really? Her voice comes out muffled, the noodles bouncing on
her lip as she speaks. She noisily sucks the spaghetti into her
mouth, chews, and swallows. She repeats, Really?
Hey, this is serious, okay? It's creepy, I say, taking a big bite of
my ham sandwich.
It's the twenty-first century. Live with it, she says. Why
were you shopping in the first place?
Thats in the past. I shrug. What's important is right now.
And right now Im working. Im looking for the tickets and hotel
for the Seattle conference.
Oh, for Cole and Steffi?
Yup.
Oh. They're not taking the private jet? Lily sounds surprised.
Trouble in paradise.
I raise my eyebrows at Lily, widening my eyes.
Are you saying Are they The question is right at the tip of
my tongue, but for some reason, I can't quite spit the words out.
That's what I heard, Lily says, lowering her voice and looking
around the empty office. As she leans closer, her dark hair
tumbles forward to partially cover her face. You know how
private Cole is. I'm his personal assistant and I don't know much
about the guy.
Uh-huh, I say, urging her to continue. I put down my brown
paper bag on the desk and pay attention.
Well, Brian from accounting told me that a bunch of people
from the office went out for a drink one time, Lily says in a low,
conspiratorial tone. And they saw Cole and Steffi going home
together.
I gasp.
Right? Shocking. She smiles, her eyes dancing with
excitement. They say those two are actually living together, but
theyre just really secretive about it. They always arrive and leave
separately.
My chest tightens at the thought of Cole and Steffi secretly
ducking in and out of his car together, going home together. I
think about how to respond to this news, but my own emotions
surprise me. Why should I care who goes home with him?
Oh, speaking of the devil, Lily says, glancing toward the
elevator doors. I hear the familiar clicking and clacking of
Steffis stilettos getting closer.
Who wears stilettos to the office anyway?
Steffi, I say.
She keeps walking, her eyes looking straight ahead, her wavy
brown hair swishing against her back.
Steffi, I say louder.
Huh? Steffi stops and scans the office with a confused
expression on her face, like she can't comprehend why there
would be people in the office during lunch. Well, sorry I don't
have a rich boyfriend to take me out for expensive meals every
day.
Oh, Emily, Steffi says finally. She looks annoyed already.
What do you need?
Wow. Sorry for trying to help you.
I need your frequent flier number and some other details, I
say.
Steffi continues to stare at me like Ive barged into her living
room in the middle of the night and she can't understand why.
You know, to book the flight? Seattle? If that doesn't jog her
memory, I don't know what will.
Right. She continues her march and says, Just email me,
before she disappears into her office.
I look at Lily and roll my eyes. I open my notes on the computer,
copy the list of personal details I need from Steffi, and paste it
into my email composer.
Wow, Lily says.
Yeah, I say while I hit the Send button. Welcome to my life.
I'm doing her work and whatever work her nonexistent personal
assistant is supposed to do.
Wow, she repeats.
Youve already said that.
Well. Lily puts her fork down and leans back in her chair, her
arms crossed over her chest. Now you know why.
Why what?
Why she's so mean to you, dummy. She's Coles girlfriend,
you're...you, and she's jealous.
Whoa, back up a little. I raise both my hands, palms facing
Lily. What do you mean Im me?
You obviously have something going on with Cole, Lily says,
raising one eyebrow at me.
What are you talking about?
He interviewed you personally. At first, I thought you were
management, but you're not. So there must be something
between the two of you. I know Cole doesn't do interviews for
junior positions, she says, drawing confident conclusions like
she's Sherlock Holmes.
But you obviously didn't know he has a girlfriend before I told
you, she continues, rubbing her chin like shes in deep thought.
Suddenly, she gasps. Did he lie to you and tell you he was
single?
It's my turn now to narrow my eyes at her.
Seriously? Would Cole Fosters mistress eat bagged lunch to
save five bucks a day?
You have a point there. Lily purses her lips and nods.
I sigh in exasperation.
So this whole time youve been thinking Im Coles mistress
and never thought to ask me?
Well Now that you put it that way, it sounds kinda bad, she
smiles sheepishly. But, in my defense, if you were Coles
mistress and you got offended when I asked, I couldve ended up
in deep doo-doo.
I laugh. Lily has to censor her language at home so sometimes
she uses some ridiculous words.
Lily may be the office gossip, but she's also kind, funny, and
helpful. Maybe she's just bored out of her mind. With a young
kid in the house, real life is probably the only kind of adult
drama she gets to watch anymore.
Or maybe Im just fooled by those damn bangs and saucepan
eyes that make her look all cute and innocent even though we're
about the same age.
Im not the only one who thinks there's something between
you and Cole, Lily says. There are benefits, you know. Like, for
example, Parker pesters all the single girls but you.
Ugh. I cringe as I think about the five different girls in the
office Parker has awkwardly asked out over the past month
alone.
I know. Trust me. He only leaves me alone because I made him
believe Aidens Dad is still in the picture, Lily says.
Last week, he asked Fiona out for drinks after work and she said
no. Then he walked to the next table and asked Deandra!
Unbelievable.
Yup, that's Parker, Lily says. Your ring threw me off,
though.
My ring?
The first few days you were working here, you were wearing
something that looked like an engagement ring.
Oh, that.
Yeah. I thought Cole was leaving Steffi to marry you, Lily says
with a straight face.
Are you serious? I laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
I am, Lily says. Slowly she realizes how impossible her
scenarios are and starts to laugh. Gasping between peals of
laughter, she says, I probably need a life.
You probably do.
As people start streaming back into the office, Lily packs up her
stuff.
He is nicer to you, though, for some reason. That's why I asked
you to stay behind for me the other day and not someone else.
Lily winks and walks away toward her desk, not giving me a
chance to protest.
I have to say Im relieved. I was getting worried she might ask
questions about rings and engagements.
I mean, I have plenty of questions myself. Like, does it count as
being engaged if the paramedics found a diamond ring in the
pocket of my boyfriend-slash-fianc, but he didn't get a chance
to actually pop the question?
Either way, it's not something I want to share with the office
gossip, no matter how nice she is or how much she makes me
laugh.
I crumple up my brown lunch bag and throw it into the trash. On
the computer screen, Google Flights is still showing me the
airfare options for Cole and Steffis trip to Seattle.
One First Class ticket for Cole and one economy ticket for Steffi.
Two deluxe suites at the hotel.
If these two really turn out to be an item, they must have the
strangest relationship dynamics ever. Or there may really be
trouble in paradise, as Lily puts it.
I wonder if there could be any truth to what Lily says. Could Cole
possibly be treating me special? There was some flirting last
night, but he probably does that with many girls.
And for all the fuss people make over the interview, it can
probably be explained by my having Marco on my side. Marco
has always been persuasive. He probably put in a really good
word for me, so good the CEO himself wanted to meet me.
I softly shake my head as I click around to see the details of the
flights available. Its crazy to suggest Im involved with Cole in
that way. Sure, hes hot as hell, but I'd be nuts to even think
about us being together in that way.
Firstly, if I want to get ahead in my career, I need my boss to take
me seriously.
Secondly, yeah he's filthy rich, but so what? I make enough to
support myself, and I take pride in that. Im not going to sell my
soul and my body just to be some guys arm candy and be
dependent on his wealth for the rest of my life
Thirdly, Cole Foster is like the most eligible bachelor in the
whole city. Hes hot, successful, and charming when he wants to
be Ive seen him work his magic on the most difficult
business clients. Im not ready to take on half the single girls in
San Fransisco as my competition.
Lastly, he probably has slept with half the single girls in San
Fransisco. He keeps a lower profile these days, but the tabloids
used to print pictures of him with a new girl hanging on his arm
every week.
Im not interested in just getting laid. I want a real, deep,
enduring connection with someone who really gets me. And Im
not going to find that in Cole Foster.
I mean, what would we even have in common?
He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and I've had to
struggle my whole life.
Sure, they say Cole has worked his ass off to make Foster Hotels
the success that it is today.
But with his wealthy family and powerful network behind him,
how can it possibly fail? I've come across Foster Senior at the
office a few times, probably providing priceless business advice
to his son.
And how much of a workaholic can he be if he goes home before I
do most nights?
Wait. Where was I?
Right. Cole Foster. Rich spoiled brat. Not going to happen.
I open my email window and sigh when I still don't see Steffi's
reply to my message.
Is it really so hard to quickly type out her information in an
email? This is not part of my job description, so its bad enough
shes making me do this. Now she's deliberately turning it into a
difficult task.
It's probably going to be faster if I just try asking her in person
again.
I scribble the flight times available on a piece of paper and take it
to Steffi's office.
I knock on her door. There's no response.
"Steffi," I say, knocking harder.
When I only hear silence from inside, I grab the door handle and
slowly open it.
She's not here. Strange. I didn't see her leave the office, but
then I was busy daydreaming about her hot alleged boyfriend.
There's a plain envelope on the desk. There's no writing on it,
but the bulk suggests that it contains something.
I wonder if Steffi's personal details are in that envelope. Maybe
shes already written down all the information I need and left it
on her desk for me to find. Perhaps Steffi is not the monster I've
built her up to be in my head.
I pick up the envelope and find a folded piece of paper inside. As
I read it, my hands grow shaky. It becomes harder and harder for
me to read the letters.
This doesn't make any sense. I was wrong. Steffi is worse than
the monster I've built her up to be in my head.
EMILY

L ily, Coles in his office, right?


Yes, but
Before she can finish, my knuckles are already rapping on the
big solid wooden door. My whole body is shaking.
What are you doing? Lily stands up and leaves her desk to
approach me. Hes busy.
I dont care how busy he is. Hes going to want to hear this, I
say without even turning my head to look at her. I raise my hand
up and knock again, a little louder this time.
Are you crazy? Lowering her volume to a loud whisper, she
says, Foster Senior is in there!
As if my heart werent already beating hard enough. Sometimes
Coles father comes into the office and they spend some time
alone. Nobody ever dares to interrupt them because if people are
scared of Cole, theyre terrified of his father.
Well, its probably too late to back down now anyway.
Just when Im about to knock again, the door cracks open a few
inches. The part of Coles annoyed face that I can see through
the gap tells me this is indeed a bad time. And with my hand still
frozen in the air obviously about to knock again, Im pretty much
caught in the act.
Cant this wait? His thick eyebrows furrow, telling me Im not
wanted.
Youll want to see this, I say, offering him the piece of paper I
found inside the unmarked envelope on Steffis desk.
He grabs the letter impatiently, glancing behind his back before
he unfolds it. All I can see of his father is his back and his full
head of silver hair.
Fuck, Cole curses. Then he looks behind him again. Is heis
he worried about cursing in front of his father? Because that
would be adorable.
Alright, the older man says as he gets up from his chair.
Whats happening here?
The closer he gets, the faster my heart beats. Despite his age,
hes an intimidating man. He looks like the kind of person who
has seen and done a lot of things in his life, and not all of them
are good things.
I know now why Lily panicked over me interfering with their
precious father-son bonding time. Even the tough guys in the
ghetto would think twice before messing with Foster Senior.
Its nothing, Cole says.
Let me see. Mr. Foster takes the letter from Coles hands.
Our marketing manager just quit, Cole says while the three of
us stand around by the door, which Mr. Foster has swung wide
open.
So hire another one, Mr. Foster says.
Its not that simple, Cole says. She was supposed to deliver
the presentation at the conference in Seattle next week.
Cole suddenly glares at me. He places a hand on the door and
pushes it like hes about to shut me out.
Lets talk inside, Mr. Foster says, walking back toward the
desk. And have the girl come in as well. I want to hear what she
has to say.
Cole seems irritated, but he lets me in anyway. Is he angry at
me? Could he actually be blaming me for Steffis resignation?
Maybe the rumors are true. Perhaps theyre dating and theyre
having problems because of me.
Really? Cole Foster sabotages his own relationship for me?
One can dream, of course. But there are limits to how seriously
one takes that dream if one doesnt want to be labeled
completely batshit crazy.
Thank you, Mr. Foster, I say.
Sit down, he says, gesturing at the empty chair beside him.
And tell me what happened.
Uh, theres not much to tell, really, I say a little too quickly.
Have I mentioned I may be nervous? I found the resignation
letter on her desk when I went into her office for something
else.
Something else?
I was about to book the flight tickets for the trip to Seattle and I
needed her details.
Book the flight tickets? Mr. Foster raises his eyebrows.
Theyre just as thick as Coles are, except theyre white. He looks
across the desk at Cole, who is now sitting down in his leather
chair. Youre not taking the private jet?
Just trying to improve the bottom line, Cole says. He seems
calm on the surface, but the way his fingers lightly tap on the
desk betrays his restlessness.
Theres no need for this to be a big problem, Mr. Foster says.
Cant you do the presentation yourself?
I havent prepared anything. I dont even know what she was
planning to speak about, Cole says.
Um, I do. As soon as the words come out of my mouth, both
men fix their dark eyes at me, urging me to continue. I look at
Cole and say, Remember when I was staying behind to work on
something?
Yes, Cole says. He purses his lips, looking unhappy.
Well, I was working on the presentation.
How much of it did you work on? Mr. Foster looks at me
intensely.
I did the research and I put together the slides, I say. The
only thing left to do is the actual presentation script.
Thats solved, then, Mr. Foster clasps his hands together, as if
concluding the conversation. You can go to Seattle with Cole
and Im sure the two of you can come up with something.
Me? I ask incredulously. Im just a junior marketer, Mr.
Foster.
Who cares? You were the one who prepared the presentation,
werent you?
Yes, I say.
Then you probably even know it better than the manager who
resigned. He has a way of talking that makes it feel more like
hes issuing orders rather than having a conversation, even
though hes perfectly polite about it.
I turn toward Cole. Hes still silently tapping his desk. What is he
thinking about?
I didnt expect this turn of events at all. I personally would love
to go to Seattle and play a part in this presentation. Its a big
opportunity that can lead to bigger and better things for my
career.
But in the end, its Coles decision, him being my boss and all. I
have a feeling Mr. Foster is the one who actually calls the shots
here, though.
Thats settled, then, Mr. Foster says. Why dont you go and
book the tickets for the two of you, Miss?
Webb. Emily Webb.
Right. Miss Webb. Mr. Fosters eyes dart toward Cole and I
think I see a hint of anger or at least irritation in his eyes, but he
quickly regains his composure. Perhaps you can make
arrangements for the trip now.
Something has changed. Mr. Foster is not a friendly man, not by
any stretch of the imagination. But he has impeccable manners
that can make him seem almost warm. Now, though, it feels like
the temperature has dropped by twenty degrees.
Yes, I say. Ill go and do that now.
I hurriedly get up, almost toppling my chair in the process, but
Mr. Foster manages to catch it in time before it falls loudly on
the floor. His lips form a small smile as he puts the chair back in
its place, but his eyes remain cold.
Its a pleasure to meet you, Miss Webb, Mr. Foster says.
The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Foster, I say, giving him an
awkward smile.
While leaving the office, I look over my shoulder and see Cole
with a strange expression on his face. Hes staring into space
with his teeth gritted. His fingers are still tapping on the desk. I
cant see Mr. Fosters face with his back to me. Theyre both
silent.
The tense atmosphere makes me want to leave this office and
get back to the normal world out there, where I dont have to
deal with my boss family affairs.
The door creaks when I open it. I didnt notice the noise when I
first entered Coles office for the interview, but now its so loud I
feel like its drawing all the attention to me. Without looking
back, I slip out and close the door behind me.
COLE

H ave you gone soft in the head, boy?


I hate it when my father calls me boy. Sometimes I think he
uses it only to irritate me, but then I quickly tell myself thats
ridiculous. I know he probably just doesnt care.
I wasnt the one who asked her to go to Seattle, I say, trying to
sound unaffected.
That is not the fucking point, he says.
You have to hand it to the old man. Hes obviously furious, but
you wouldnt know it from the way hes still speaking calmly.
The only difference is his choice of words. He doesnt usually
curse.
What were you thinking? He stares directly into my eyes,
challenging me.
I shrug. Im not taking his bait.
Most people would cower and give him what he wants, but over
the years Ive learned thats not the right way to deal with him,
not if you want to get back at him in some little, petty way.
I know staying quiet and unconcerned gets him all riled up and
he doesnt like that. It makes him realize hes not in full control
of everybody at all times.
"What, did you think you were saving her or something?"
It's working. He's starting to get agitated. I can tell from the way
he talks. He's going to continue asking questions now. Robert
Foster's patented interrogation technique.
"You think you're doing her a favor to make up for what
happened?"
He's trying to goad me into a big reaction, the kind that makes
most people spill their secrets. But I'm not most people. I've
dealt with him my whole life.
You think she's going to forgive and forget just because you
gave her a job? 'Oh, it's such a privilege to work with you I don't
even care about the past. Is that what you think she'll say?"
Under different circumstances, I would've laughed at Robert
Foster speaking in a feminine high-pitched voice to imitate
Emily poorly. But despite my outer nonchalance, I know this
is not the time for fun and games.
"Please. Spare me the pop psychology," I say.
"Pop psyc" He stops talking mid-sentence to take a deep,
angry breath. He tries a different tack. "Then tell me. Help me
understand."
"There's nothing to understand," I insist. "I needed a junior
marketer and she needed a job. Voil. Capitalism at its finest."
Do you take me as a fool, boy? He takes another deep breath.
I wonder if that's something his new shrink taught him. Count
to ten to make all your problems go away. The thought of him
lying down on the sofa and talking with some therapist about his
feelings For fucks sake. He probably thinks hes Tony
Soprano.
Why can't you stick with the rules, at least sometimes?
Sorry I'm not Caine, I say.
My brother has always been his favorite. I made my peace with
that a long time ago, but in moments like these I enjoy the flash
of pain in my fathers eyes, the subtle wincing that deepens the
lines around them.
People say we look alike. I can see where theyre coming from. I
have to look at this mug in the mirror every morning after all.
Sometimes it feels so much like having my father look at me I
can almost feel the disapproval and disappointment. Its a daily
reminder of all the things Ive failed to do.
But all things considered, its not the worst thing in the world to
look like Robert Foster. After Mom died, ladies started throwing
themselves at him. If nothing else, I guess I can count on having
a full head of hair in my old age.
This is not about Caine, he says, as if anything with him is
ever not about Caine. This is about you. You and your chronic
hero complex.
Come on, I cant be expected to hear that and maintain a straight
face.
Is that something your shrink mentioned? I snort at the
mental image of the powerful, ultra-masculine man in front of
me whining about how his son is being mean to him. Do you
talk about me with your shrink, Pop? Do you tell him how I keep
hurting your feelings?
Would you stop trying to change the subject? He throws his
hands up in the air in exasperation. Ah, thats a rare reaction.
Its truly beautiful to watch.
He lets out an angry sigh, and then another one. In the middle of
the next sigh, he starts talking again, as if hes realizing the
take-ten-deep-breaths trick isnt working.
We did the right thing for now, he says. It wouldve looked
more suspicious if we didnt ask her to go to Seattle.
Oh, so its we now, huh?
Yes, because youve just dragged me into it. This is a family
matter now. Its not just about you anymore. It was never just
about you in the first place.
Right. Everything is about the family with you. Because youre
such a family man, I say.
Thats all he talks about. The family. As if the things he does are
all for our benefit. But in reality, he just wants to be in control of
everything because he thinks he knows whats best for
everybody. Such arrogance.
For the good of the family. I dont know how many times he has
justified his actions with this little phrase. I fucking hate it.
Dont mock me, boy, he says, a hint of threat in his voice.
Come on, Pop, I say. Its my turn to take a deep breath now.
You think thats going to work on me? Im sure it works on
most people, but Im not scared of you.
He shoots me a sharp glare. I have to admit it is a little scary. Just
a little. Its like theres some kind of razor steel in his eyes that
can cut my skin and slash into my flesh.
You should be, he says.
What are you going to do? Youre going to send me one of your
thugs? Which one? Uncle Tim? Uncle Harry? I laugh. I know Im
mocking and agitating him, which is not going to do me any
good, but hes already so worked up I figure Id just go for broke.
If this gets out, its not going to be just them you need to be
afraid of. Youre going to have to deal with the cops. Were going
to have to deal with the cops. He pauses for dramatic effect.
All of us. Youre putting all of us at risk.
I shrug. What does he want me to say? I cant see myself
changing anything even if it were possible to turn back time and
do it all over again. I cant just let Emily wallow in her jobless
misery, not after everything that has happened.
You be careful now, boy, he says. I still own this company
and I know you dont want to lose it.
I stare at him, daring him with my eyes.
See you when you get back into town, he says. He gets up and
leaves the office.
Good. Ive had enough of you too, Pop.
Id be lying if I said I wasnt worried. I dont have to worry about
physical violence, obviously. But he does still have me by the
balls and we both know it.
Forget all that. I have more immediate problems to worry about.
For example, how am I supposed to survive three whole days
and two nights alone with Emily?
EMILY

I take my ringing phone out of my bag. It's Alice.


Hey. Did I leave something at home?
No, she says, laughing nervously. Thats weird. What has she
got to be nervous about?
Good. I exhale with relief. I thought I was going to have to
ask the taxi driver to turn around.
I'm already running late so I have no time to get anything from
home anyway. I was planning to take the BART train, but it took
me longer than expected to get ready this morning. I didn't
think gathering the last few items and putting them in the bag
would take so much time.
So you're in the taxi now?
What kind of a question is that?
I told you when I walked out the door ten minutes ago that the
taxi was waiting for me downstairs. So yes. Yes, I am in the taxi
now.
All the...luggage in the trunk?
Sorry, maybe I wasn't clear enough. Im in a moving taxi now.
So yes, you're right again. The luggage is in the trunk, I say. I
sigh audibly and ask, Why are you really calling?
Uh, you mentioned you were going with your boss? What's his
name again?
Cole Foster. Yeah, I know. He's kinda famous. Why? You want
an autograph? I laugh.
I hope she doesn't really want an autograph because that would
be a weird thing to ask from my boss.
I guess if she really wants one, I can make a copy of a corporate
letter that has his signature on it and blow it up. Huh. There's an
idea. I wonder if I can sell that on eBay for money.
No, Im just worried about you, she says.
Aww I'm going to be fine, I say. I know I haven't left home
since, well, you know. But Im in a good place now. Don't worry
about me.
That's good, Em. That really puts my mind at ease. She pauses
for a few pregnant seconds before she says, Listen. What I
texted you the other day You know, the autocorrect Uh, what
I said about your boss
Oh, you mean when you told me to lick his ass? I lower my
voice to a whisper at the end of the sentence, but I can't tell if
the driver heard it. I giggle, remembering our little online chat.
Yeah. Uh, I'm just calling to say Don't do that.
Alice. Do you seriously think Im going to lick my boss ass?
My whisper gets a little louder. I can't believe what Alice is
implying.
No, I don't mean literally. I can almost hear her blush over the
phone. I mean, I know Ive been pushing you to start dating
again, and I don't want you to do anything rash.
You're calling me because you're worried about me going on a
trip with a boy? I'm twenty-five. And it's an industry
conference. I'm traveling for work, I say, a little offended by
the lack of trust Alice is displaying toward me right now. I'm a
full-grown adult, for Gods sake.
I know. It's just, you know how Mom used to lose her jobs
because she had a habit of sleeping with her bosses?
Yes, Alice. I remember us having to go to sleep hungry
whenever Mom lost her job and ran out of money, all because
she inevitably got fired when her latest boss-slash-boyfriend
grew tired of her craziness. But Im not Mom, okay?
Guilt rises within me. I have had some seriously dirty thoughts
about Cole, and Id be lying if I said I hadn't fantasized about
things happening with him during this trip.
But those are just fantasies, stories I tell myself to fill my mind
when Im trying to fall asleep. We're talking about Cole Foster
here. Surely a girl is allowed a fantasy or two when her boss
looks like that.
I know, Em. I'm just worried, okay? She sighs into the phone.
I have a confession. She goes quiet, then she continues, I had
a thing with someone at work once. It was awkward when it
ended. I kept my job because he's not a vindictive man. But Em,
he could've easily fired me, waited for me to make a mistake and
then used that as an excuse. I was freaking out for a while. I
didn't think I was going to be stupid enough to follow in Moms
footsteps, but I did.
Oh, Alice. My voice softens. Alice may be annoying
sometimes, but her concern comes from a place of love. You're
not stupid. There was no way for you to have known that it
wasn't going to work out with him. You're a smart, capable,
independent woman. And you're a pretty good sister, too.
She laughs softly. Just Just be careful out there, okay?
Okay. I promise you, I say. Now stop worrying about me and
go get ready for work or you're going to lose your job anyway.
Have a safe trip, Em. I love you, she says.
Love you too, I say.
I put the phone back in my bag and look out the car window. The
taxi driver has been quiet the whole ride, and he doesnt even
play any music. Just the silence I need. Soon, I get lost in my
thoughts.
I had no idea Alice ever went through something like that. She
never told me about it. When did this happen? A chill runs down
my spine when I realize I must've been too absorbed with my
own problems to notice her pain.
Damn it, Emily. You need to do better for your sisters sake.
I spend most of my commuting time either on the bus or on the
train, so it feels strange to see the city whizz by from inside a car.
I can relax more with the cushy seat and the knowledge that Ill
be dropped off right at the terminal entrance, instead of having
to drag my wheeled suitcase from the BART station all the way to
the check-in desk.
I wonder if Ill be able to get the taxi fare reimbursed. Just as I
send a text to ask Lily about it, the taxi pulls up at the airport.
I pay the taxi driver, leaving him a twenty-percent tip. No
matter how much Im struggling with money, I can never bring
myself to tip any less. Ive spent too many years working as a
waitress to stiff service workers out of their tips.
I drag my suitcase into the cool, air-conditioned airport terminal
and stop in front of the monitor that shows a list of the
departures.
Hmm SEA Flight Omega 4989
Just as I spot our flight on the list, someone grabs my arm and I
let out a loud shriek.
I turn to find Cole with his eyes wide in shock, and I immediately
cover my mouth with both hands.
But it's too late. People are already looking at us curiously,
whispering to each other.
Cole quickly drops my arm and puts on a strained smile, nodding
at the people who are still staring. Most of them quickly realize
there's nothing extraordinary going on here.
What are you doing? He whispers without moving his lips,
which are still frozen in a weird smile aimed at the few
remaining nosy travelers.
Sorry, Cole, I say, heat spreading across my cheeks. Im so
sorry. You just surprised me.
Even with that suspicious, axe-murderer expression on his face,
Cole still draws the attention of the women around us. The wow-
hes-cute kind of attention; not the look-at-that-creepy-axe-
murderer kind.
He looks different today. That's definitely a big part of why I was
so taken aback. I didn't recognize the sizzling hot bad boy
standing before me.
He's wearing a pair of jeans that hangs a little loosely on him. A
plain white T-shirt shows off his broad shoulders, hard chest,
and built abs. I have to suppress the urge to reach out my fingers
and trace the ropes of muscles along his bare arms.
Let's just get to the check-in desk. Ive been waiting for you,
he says, his teeth gritted.
Oh! Am I late? I pull my suitcase as I walk behind Cole, openly
checking out his back now that he's not looking my way. His
shoulder blades are outlined beautifully underneath the thin
cotton.
Yes, he says. I got here first and you have the tickets. You're
going to have to give me your phone number so I can reach you
in the future.
Okay, I say.
My heart beats a little faster at the thought of Cole calling me on
the phone. Then I remind myself hell just be calling to
coordinate work stuff, and I feel stupid.
Oh boy, this is going to be a long trip if I have to keep fanning
myself around Cole.
What took you so long anyway? I thought we agreed to meet
here fifteen minutes ago, he says.
It took longer than I expected to finish packing, and then when
I called the taxi, there was a long wait.
You shouldve told me. I wouldve picked you up, Cole says,
approaching the First Class check-in counter.
Really, there's no need, I say.
God. What would Alice say if Cole showed up at home with his
fancy car? Shed probably freak out and curl up in the fetal
position while rocking back and forth to soothe herself.
Obviously there is a need because you were late today, Cole
says with finality.
He stops at the counter and shoots a charming smile to the
female agent, who greets him a little too eagerly.
Can I see your tickets, please? She flashes Cole a big, wide
smile, not paying me the slightest bit of attention. Im surprised
she can blink under the weight of her mega-thick fake
eyelashes.
Emily, the tickets? Cole looks at me expectantly.
I dig the pieces of paper out of my bag and hand them over to the
woman across the counter from us.
She takes our IDs and types away on her keyboard. After she
checks our bags, she continues typing. She slides something
onto the counter.
Your gate is C40. Mr. Foster, your seat is 3A. And Miss Webb,
your seat is 22B, she says, placing the boarding passes on the
counter with a smug smile directed at me.
Hang on, Cole says. Why aren't we sitting together?
Your seat is in First Class, Mr. Foster. Miss Webbs seat is in
coach, she says, a sickeningly sweet smile plastered on her
face.
Is the seat beside me empty? Cole asks.
The agent glances at her computer screen and nods. Yes, Mr.
Foster, she says.
Move her there. Ill pay for the upgrade, Cole says, pulling his
wallet out of the pocket in the back of his jeans and handing the
agent his credit card.
I stand beside him with my mouth hanging open. What am I
supposed to do here?
That's really generous of him, and a part of me wants to protest
-- at first.
But then, I don't know if Ill ever have the chance to fly First
Class ever again in my entire life. What if, in my old age, a young
person comes to see me in my nursing home and asks me about
my biggest regret, and I have to say, Well, there was that one
time I said no to a free First Class ticket fifty years ago
As if he senses my apprehension, Cole turns toward me and
smiles. Is that tenderness I see in his eyes?
Don't worry. We're already saving a lot of money by not taking
the private jet anyway, Cole says. Besides, I have a couple of
questions for you about the presentation.
Uh, okay I lamely reply. Thank you so much.
Dont worry about it, he says, waving a hand dismissively. He
reminds me of his father when he does that. It all comes out of
the company expenses anyway.
Here's your new boarding pass, Miss Webb, the agent says,
interrupting our little awkward conversation.
As I take the boarding pass and turn to walk away, I catch her
mouthing something to Cole.
Uh, did she just ask you to call her? I quietly ask Cole as we
step away from the check-in counter.
I guess so. He shrugs.
When did she give you her number?
When I was waiting for you. He cocks a crooked grin my way as
we walk side by side toward the security checkpoint. A wicked
glint sparkles in his dark brown eyes when he says, Why do you
ask? Are you jealous?
COLE

A re you jealous?
Fucking idiot.
I regret the words as soon as I blurt them out. Me and my big
mouth. I seriously need to learn to watch what I say, whether Im
with Emily or with my father.
It's too late to take the words back now that she has obviously
heard them, judging by the way she's furiously blushing. The
damage is done. Might as well keep going.
You just ask a lot of questions is all. Kinda makes a man
wonder, I say, walking a little slower to match her pace so I can
watch every little change in her expression.
I Wha No, I'm not jealous. I was just trying to make some
conversation. She quickly comes up with a rebuttal, but the
initial stammering tells me I got under her skin. We both know
why she asked.
Okay. If you say so. I shrug. A smile involuntarily creeps
across my face as the three of us me, Emily, and the big pink
elephant of her jealousy traverse the airport following the
signs to the security checkpoint.
I just cant help myself. She looks great today, so different from
the way she looks at the office. Ive seen her wear that same
green blouse at the office, but today she wears it with a pair of
light blue skinny jeans that hugs her curves.
I dont have any complaints about her tight little pencil skirts,
but its a nice change. I have seen her in jeans before, but she
didnt know me back then.
Now, away from the tension of the office, I feel like I can let my
guard down. Theres nobody to recognize her and get all bent out
of shape about it, although now that my father has found out
about her I dont actually have to worry about it anymore.
Everything just feels so nice and casual this morning. I feel like
were going on a vacation together.
She mightve screamed when I surprised her by grabbing her
arm, but shes been staying close to me since then. If I stretch
my arm now I can reach her shoulder and pull her close against
my chest, and its taking all my willpower to not do that. And
lets not forget the way she got all annoyed when the check-in
desk agent flirted with me.
I cant imagine her acting this way in the office. It seems Im not
the only one thrown off my balance this morning. I cant deny
Im happy about this, but Emily looks so awkward Im starting to
feel bad now as those familiar pangs of guilt start to plague my
conscience yet again.
So are you excited about the conference? I ask as we join the
long, snaking line of impatient travelers waiting to pass the
airport security checkpoint. Maybe shed feel more comfortable
it I steer the conversation toward more neutral ground.
Yes, this is a huge opportunity for me. She pauses, as if
realizing she has said the wrong thing, and says, I mean, not
that Im happy about the circumstances because I know its a
huge hassle for you, with Steffi quitting and everything. But if it
didnt work out this way I probably wouldve had to wait for
years to get an opportunity like this.
Its actually not a big deal for me. The tickets werent even
booked yet. Sure, Ill have to help with the presentation so I
wont be able to just focus on networking, but thats not a big
deal.
Thats a relief, she says.
To be honest, Id been dreading taking yet another
uncomfortable trip with Steffi. Last year, she drank a little too
much at the hotel bar and started telling people other
hospitality professionals Id been trying to impress about how
Id never called her after taking advantage of her.
Luckily she was slurring her speech so badly that they didnt
understand what she was saying. I had to carry her up to her
room before she could smear my reputation.
She was almost passed out, but she still had the presence of
mind to run her hands all over my chest and shoulders in the
hallway. She clung to me when I tried to deposit her onto her
hotel bed, and I had to physically remove her hands from around
my neck before I left the room. She didnt remember anything
the next morning, or at least she acted like she didnt remember
anything.
I know what you mean, Emily, I say. It was unexpected, but it
has worked out pretty well for you.
Yes, exactly, she says. At first I was shocked, though, when I
found the resignation letter.
It must be annoying for you as well, that she just left like that
after all the work that youve put in.
I remember the look on Emilys face when she came to my office
to show me the letter, and my own horror as I realized my father
was going to find out about Emily.
Steffi has really put us both in a difficult situation, and as much
as I like the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a trip with
Emily, I cant help my blood boiling when I think about it.
Well, after the initial shock wore off, I realized I was going to
Seattle so I was pretty happy about that. She laughs, a musical
sound that helps soothe my anger.
You werent at least annoyed at her? I ask incredulously as we
give our IDs and boarding passes to a grumpy middle-aged TSA
agent. The female officer glances at our photo IDs, stares at our
faces, and hands the documents back.
Of course I was. She did make me do most of the work after all.
When you saw me working late at night at the office, that was
me wrapping up the research for this presentation. I was also the
one who had to prepare the PowerPoint slides and the
corresponding key points, she says.
But? I prompt her to continue her line of thought as we
reach the X-ray machine. I pull my laptop out of the bag, remove
my shoes and watch, and place everything on two trays.
But Ive learned that its better to look forward than it is to look
back. Anger only holds you back, she says while she puts her
own stuff on another tray and lines it up to be screened.
I think about her words as I walk through the metal detector. In
my world, people hold grudges, make revenge their sole purpose
in life, and call it honor.
Ive heard the tired clich about how grudges only hurt yourself
and how much healthier it is to let go, but Ive always dismissed
it as hippie drivel. Thats the kind of thing a sucker would say,
as Uncle Harry would say. But Emilys far from a sucker. Shes a
survivor.
Have you had breakfast? I ask when she emerges from the
metal detector. There are a few restaurants along the way from
here to the gate and I can already see a few of them.
No, I was in a rush this morning, she says, putting her dainty
little feet back into her black flats and pulling her bag straps
onto her shoulder. She flicks her blonde hair back to remove the
strands caught underneath the straps, exposing the graceful
column of her neck.
Want to grab something to eat? I look away and run my fingers
through my hair, coaxing my brain to get rid of the image that
just flashed through my mind, of her skin on my lips, soft and
warm and flushed red with desire.
What do you feel like having? She looks around as we walk
side by side in the general direction of our boarding gate.
Well, you. But barring that
Anything. We still have about one hour until boarding, so thats
plenty of time for anything you want. Winking at her, I say,
We can put it on the company credit card.
Wow. First the seat upgrade, and now free breakfast? I can get
used to this, she says, grinning from ear to ear.
I bite my tongue, stopping myself from saying something about
how much I can get used to traveling with her myself. Instead, I
just smile at her.
I know I shouldnt have seated her next to me if I really want to
keep my distance from her, but fuck is it hard. Its one thing to
recognize that I should stay away, and its a completely different
thing to do it. Its like theres a gravitational force pulling me
toward her and, as much as I try, I cant resist it.
How about that cafe over there? She points in the direction of
a little coffee shop. It has a brightly lit display stand, lined with
pastries and sandwiches. The smell of coffee fills the air, wafting
up from the paper cups people hold between their palms.
Looks good, I say.
Look, there are even tables over there. We can use your laptop
to go through some of the presentation material. I have the flash
drive in my bag, she says.
Okay. Do you know what you want to order?
A plain glazed donut and a Diet Coke, she says.
Okay. Take a seat and Ill bring everything to the table. When
she opens her mouth to protest, I say, This place might fill up
soon and one of us should reserve a table. Im the one with the
credit card. I pull the card out of my wallet and hold it up
between two fingers for her to see, giving her a big smile. So
just sit back and relax.
When I get to the table, she has covered three-quarters of the
table with pieces of paper, her notes and references. She
hurriedly pushes them out of the way when she sees me
approach with a tray of food and beverages. I fire up my laptop
and listen to her methodically explain the material to me in
between little bites of her glazed donut.
The presentation is about trends in luxury hospitality,
specifically how travelers increasingly focus more on services
and experiences rather than physical products. Emily has done a
great job in finding solid, relevant data to back up her
arguments. The slides are accompanied by the appropriate
graphs and charts, all of which illustrate her key talking points
well.
I ask a few questions in the beginning, but it soon becomes
apparent that she knows her stuff, as I watch her speak so
passionately about the work shes been doing for the past few
weeks. We havent discussed whos going to do the actual
presentation or if were going to share the responsibility, but I
feel like she can handle the material well enough to present it in
front of an audience.
I have to admit, I didnt expect Emily to do this well at her job.
This is strange for me to admit because, lets be honest, I
wouldnt have enjoyed the opportunities that I have without my
father. I often get criticized over that, as if I have any control
over it or as if it invalidates my hard work.
But I realize now that Ive been doing the same thing to Emily.
Because I gave her the job for reasons other than her actual
qualifications, I never expected her to excel. But she has, and its
all because she has worked her cute little ass off.
Is that our flight? Emily says, pausing her speech about the
latest research on global marketing initiatives. She points her
index finger up and stares into the distance, frozen in place as
she perks her ears up to listen to the announcement.
I use the time to check her out while shes not looking, trying to
absorb and remember as much detail as I can about the way she
looks this morning.
Ill let her be in charge of making sure we dont miss our flight.
She has proven to be reliable enough so far in handling whatever
life shoots her way, and I feel like I can relax for once, knowing
shes capable of making sure things go smoothly.
It kills me that I cant just tell her: I can really get used to this,
too.
EMILY

I open my eyes to see my boss bare abs. I blink a few times.


Am I dreaming?
The golden tan of his skin, the lines of his muscles, the soft fuzz
that starts from around his belly button and travels south to
disappear into his jeans God, I want to pull that waistband
down and see where it leads.
Okay, the details are way too vivid for this to be a dream.
I look up to see him pulling a wheeled carry-on bag from the
overhead compartment above our row of seats, his arm muscles
bulging from the strain. Standing behind him is a little old lady
who has her white hair up in a neat bun. Shes thanking him a
little too profusely, which means the bag Cole is handling now
probably belongs to her. Shes wearing a floral white dress and a
pair of black slip-on loafers.
As if in a trance, my eyes are drawn toward the veins trailing
beautifully up and down Coles arms. Im so out of it I dont even
see him putting the bag down on the floor and turning my way. I
can neither confirm nor deny reports saying that my mouth may
be hanging open with a bit of drool on my lips as this is
happening.
Hey, you. Cole flashes me his pearly white teeth and looks
right at me, which wakes me right up.
Uh. I blink and close my mouth. I wrap the big, soft blanket
provided by the flight attendant around me in a way that hides
my mouth. In a covert operation worthy of a feature in a James
Bond movie, I discreetly wipe my lips clean before anything
starts creeping down my chin. I look up at him and, as casually
as I can, say, Hey.
Had a good nap? He rests his powerful forearm on top of the
seat beside mine, the aisle seat where he sat throughout the
entire flight. The entire fabulous flight.
The best nap.
As soon as we got on board and I plopped down in my plush
window seat, I was floating on cloud nine, literally.
I looked out the window as the rising sun changed the colors of
the sky. The entire time, a friendly, chatty flight attendant called
Becky kept me well supplied with crackers and cheeses. I almost
regretted filling my belly with the donut and Diet Coke I had at
the airport. Almost.
And then, before I knew it, I was out cold. I wanted to be awake
for every minute of my First Class experience, but I guess I was
exhausted. Id worked my ass off last night, knowing I was going
to be almost entirely responsible for the presentation.
Its just such a big responsibility and I want to make sure I do it
right. It took the big, comfy chair and pampering from Becky to
finally make me sleep.
I dont want to sound snooty, but people who complain about
flying got it wrong. Flying doesnt suck; flying coach does. I
mean, Ive only ever flown two other times in my life to visit
my grandmother and to return home after that but thats
what I can conclude based on personal experience.
As we leave the plane in single file and enter the airport, the
little old lady engages Cole in conversation. I cant make out
what theyre saying, but I can tell she speaks with an accent,
perhaps Eastern European.
Cole holds his phone up in one hand, trying to entertain the lady
while surreptitiously glancing at his phone. I smile at his little
predicament and wonder why I was ever afraid of him.
I turn on my own phone and see a message notification.
Lily Saunders: OMG FIRST CLASS?!?!?!
Lily Saunders: SRSLY WHAT IS IT BETWEEN YOU TWO???
I roll my eyes. Its just like Lily to overreact. Maybe I shouldnt
have told her about my last-minute seat switch before the flight.
Okay, I admit I have noticed Cole treating me really nicely today.
And of course I like him. Who wouldnt? The problem is, I cant
help but feel like we come from two completely different worlds
and he wouldnt ever take me seriously, even if he is interested
in me to some degree.
And thats just not what Im looking for right now. Having
experienced the real thing, I dont have any patience for
superficial relationships anymore.
Here are the things I do look for in a guy: resilience,
resourcefulness, and reliability. I call them the three Rs.
Having gone through a couple of tough times in my life, I know
money is a necessity. But at this point in my life, I feel like I can
take care of myself just fine without a man. Its important to me
that I dont depend on anyone else for my survival, because I
may find myself in a situation where Im all I have.
So I dont care how much money Cole Foster has. As far as Im
concerned, the guy has had everything in his life handed to him
on a silver platter. The most difficult day in his life probably
involves something like his favorite suit being stuck at the dry
cleaners, forcing him to wear his second favorite suit instead.
Oh, the tragedy. I could weep.
Dont get me wrong. I like his personality. Hes smart, funny,
sweet, and confident. Im just looking for someone with a little
bit more grit than the average spoiled trust fund kid.
Its important to me that my man bounces back when life gets
him down. Because life is going to suck sometimes and in that
moment Ill need no, Ill want someone strong beside me.
Someone with actual inner strength, not someone whos used to
paying other people money to solve all his problems.
But theres no need for Lily to know all those things. I stand by
the baggage claim carousel, pausing to think of a way to get her
to tell me what I want to know without showing my cards.
Emily Webb: Theres nothing between Cole and me
Emily Webb: I swear
Emily Webb: Have you heard anything about Steffi?
Lily Saunders: They say she found a foreign boyfriend and shes
moving abroad
Emily Webb: So are they saying that she was cheating on Cole
then?
Emily Webb: Lol
The rumors circulating in the office are crazy. I doubt there was
ever really anything between Cole and Steffi. Nobody can hide a
long-term, ongoing relationship so well that the only time they
were ever seen together was one drunken night many years ago.
I glance at the conveyor belt, which is already moving. Our bags
should come out any time now. Beside me, Cole stands by a
trolley, still deep in conversation with his new friend, the little
old lady. I turn my attention back to my phone.
Lily Saunders: Thats exactly what theyre saying!
Lily Saunders: Is it true?
Lily Saunders: Is that why you know?
Lily Saunders: OMG
Lily Saunders: OMG WAS STEFFI CHEATING ON COLE WHILE HE
WAS CHEATING ON HER WITH YOU???
Emily Webb: What
Emily Webb: NO. NONE OF THAT IS TRUE.
Lily Saunders: Awww
Lily Saunders: Are you sure?
Emily Webb: YES
Emily Webb: Is it really that weird for me to fly First Class?
Lily Saunders: Its pretty weird
Lily Saunders: He usually takes the private jet if hes traveling
with Mr. Foster
Lily Saunders: If he flies commercial he likes to sit alone in First
Class
Lily Saunders: You know Steffis seat was supposed to be in
coach
Emily Webb: Hey my bag is here
Emily Webb: Gtg :D
I slip my phone back into my shoulder bag. Just as I start to grab
my suitcase off the conveyor belt, Cole appears beside me and
picks it up effortlessly.
I thought you were busy, I say, grinning at him.
Youve got to be kidding me, he says, loading my suitcase onto
the trolley, right on top of his own suitcase. Youre not jealous
of Linda as well, are you? To my surprise, he wraps his arm
around the little old lady and pulls her close.
You have yourself a nice young man here, Linda says, smiling
at me. You look adorable together.
Oh, were not actually together, I say, looking at Cole for help
in clarifying the situation.
I was just joking, Linda, Cole says, laughing. Emily here is my
colleague and were here for a conference. He gestures at the
two of us and says, Emily, this is Linda. Linda, this is Emily.
Nice to meet you, I say to the friendly old lady.
Nice to meet you too, she says. But that is bullshit. The two
of you look like you belong together. Listen to me, youll make a
great couple and youll make beautiful kids together. Trust me.
Ive seen a lot of things in my life. When you get to my age, there
are some things that you just know.
I laugh, not expecting the frail-looking lady to curse and tell our
love fortunes.
See? I tried to tell her, Cole says, shrugging in defeat.
Its very nice to meet the two of you, Linda says. My
grandson is waiting for me so I should go. Thank you, Cole, for
helping me with my bags.
Youre very welcome, Cole says, rubbing her arm and smiling
at her.
Enjoy your trip. Winking, Linda says, Youre both young and
healthy. Do something naughty.
Cole gasps in mock horror, covering his mouth with his hands.
He makes a big display out of looking around suspiciously and
exclaims, Linda! Watch what youre saying in public!
I laugh. I didnt expect to see Cole act like such a goof. I have to
say I kind of like this side of him.
She thinks youre funny, Linda says to Cole, which means
you have a chance. And I see the way she looks at you. She likes
you. But dont lose my number. If she says no, you can always
come to me.
I wont lose your number, Linda. Promise, Cole says with a
wide grin on his face.
Linda cackles as she walks away, the pink and purple flowers on
her white dress swaying as she slowly and carefully navigates the
busy terminal.
Wow. Two numbers in one morning, I say while dodging other
travelers as we follow the signs to the taxi loading area.
Its a slow day, Cole says, laughing. I cant tell if hes serious.
After all, a guy like him must get female attention all the time.
Shes a nice lady, I say.
Yeah. She reminds me of my grandmother, who died two years
ago.
Im sorry to hear that. I hope I didnt just say the wrong thing
and make things awkward.
Thanks, he says quietly.
Youre different, I blurt out. I mean, Id never imagine the
usual you that I see in the office flirting with a foul-mouthed
geriatric.
Hey, dont you dare call her names. Linda is a wonderful,
beautiful lady of a mature age, Cole says, laughing. He shrugs.
The office is for working. Outside of the office isfor
everything else.
COLE

B y the time we roll our suitcases into Trident Hotel, where


the conference is held, all notion of me staying away from Emily
has disappeared.
Im having too much fun getting to know her and telling her
some of my own stories nothing too hardcore, though, as she
probably doesnt even realize a whole other dangerous world
exists alongside hers in San Francisco.
The point is, its impossible to walk away when I feel so much
connection with her and I can tell shes having a good time too.
I know this is going to hurt like a bitch when we fly home and I
go back to just seeing her at the office. But its only three days.
Today, tomorrow, and the day after that. We fly home that same
night on Wednesday. Whats the worst that can happen?
Besides, I dont know when Im ever going to get another
opportunity like this, to spend time with her without worrying
about people watching us.
Here in Seattle, nobody knows me. That feels liberating, in a
way.
Unfortunately, that also means the guy manning the hotel front
desk also doesnt know me, which means we have to wait in line
to check in.
Seems really busy today, Emily says. She pulls on her cardigan
for warmth, obviously not used to the weather, which is a little
more humid and chilly here.
The front desk is always busy on conference days. Most
attendees probably checked in yesterday, so its likely quieter
now compared to yesterday, I say.
Were not going to miss the start, are we? Emily looks worried.
Cute, considering nothing interesting ever happens in the
beginning anyway. Shell learn that on her own soon enough.
Dont worry, we still have a lot of time. I watch Emily as she
scans the place, her gaze lingering on the crystal chandeliers and
the intricate artwork hanging on the walls. Hey, why dont you
take a look around? Theres no point in both of us waiting in
line.
Really? Her eyes widen. Do you want to take turns?
No, Ive been here lots of times. I have to smile at the offer.
Just leave your suitcase and let me take care of everything.
Thank you so much! You're the best boss ever. Ill just be
around here, she says before she walks away to admire the
interiors.
While I wait for the line to slowly move forward, I pull out my
phone and check my emails. Between meeting Linda and talking
with Emily, I haven't had much time left to work. By the time I
get to the end of the line, Ive finished replying to all the urgent
emails. With those taken care of, I should be able to enjoy just
being here with Emily for the rest of the day.
It turns out the line moves more quickly than I expect, thanks to
their integrated check-in system. I should have a quick chat
about the reservation software with Craig, the CEO of Trident
Hotel, at the conference. Maybe there are some things I can
learn from him.
As I walk away from the front desk, I wish I could just do the
same thing I did at the San Francisco airport this morning: have
Emily moved to a spot beside me for the night, on my bed in my
room.
We can even keep our clothes on and just talk all night, and that
would be more than enough to make me happy. But I know
that's the worst thing I can do, considering the circumstances.
I look around, but I can't find Emily anywhere in the big sitting
area by the lobby. With her room key card in my hand, I check
the hotel common areas. I'm sure she's nearby because she told
me she would be.
And that's when I see them, hugging each other by the
swimming pool. Who the hell is that guy?
The thought of some oily fucker's dirty paws on Emily's skin
burns a hole in my chest.
I need to put a stop to this, I think to myself as I step onto the
wooden planks of the pool deck and walk past neat rows of
wicker lounge chairs.
Ugh, they're showing each other their phones now, probably
exchanging numbers. Son of a bitch.
Emily, I say, tapping her on the shoulder. Ive been trying to
find you.
Hey, Cole, Emily says as she turns toward me. Sorry. I was
just checking out the lobby and then I saw Marco by the
swimming pool and I had to come and say hi. Where are the
suitcases?
Someones already taking them up to our rooms, I say.
Awesome, she says. Thank you for taking care of that. I was
just going to tell Marco that youre here too.
Hi, Im Marco, the guy smiles and extends his right hand to
me.
I quickly appraise him. About five-eleven, athletic build,
Hispanic. Hes wearing black dress pants and a black fitted shirt.
Judging by the excited flash of recognition in his brown eyes, he
obviously knows who I am, which means hes probably here for
the conference.
Hi. I grab his hand and give him a firm handshake. Cole
Foster.
I know who you are, Marco says. Ive read a lot about how you
built Foster Hotels from nothing to a successful boutique chain
in only three years. Im really glad to meet you in person.
Thank you, I say. Maybe the guy is not so bad, although I still
dont like the overly familiar atmosphere between him and
Emily. Its making me feel like Im the third wheel.
Wait a minute, Emily says. You guys dont know each other?
I take another look at Marco. Im so bad with names I always
have Lily remind me who Im about to speak with before every
appointment. But Im quite good with faces, and I dont
remember Marcos olive skin and angular features.
Im pretty sure Id remember meeting Cole Foster, Em, Marco
says as he chuckles.
Thats weird, Emily says.
Why is it weird? Marco frowns, but his lips and eyes are still
smiling in amusement. Im probably not the big shot you seem
to think I am.
Um, its not about that. Emily laughs a little, but she still
looks confused. I swear Alice told me youre the one who
recommended me for my job.
Really? Marco pauses to think. Maybe shes mistaken. Maybe
its one of her restaurant friends.
As both Emily and Marco turn to look at me, I feel like
everythings happening in slow motion.
I think I know whats happening here.
I need to shut this down or it can end up unraveling everything.
For now, its probably best to play the fool. Ill think about my
next step when we reach that bridge.
Dont look at me. I shrug. I have no idea what youre talking
about.
But Emily starts to protest, yet she lets her voice trail off,
unsure of how to continue her line of questioning now that shes
hit a dead end.
I take the opportunity to very noticeably check my watch and
look toward the lobby, where more people in business suits have
filed in.
Looks like the conference is about to start soon, I say,
prompting them both to turn toward the main building of the
hotel. We should probably get ready.
I have a booth to babysit, so I should get going before everybody
gets pissed at me, Marco says. He looks at Emily and smiles.
It's really good to see you, Em. You look really good.
Thanks. It's really good to see you too. It's been a while, Emily
says, a faint blush creeping across her cheeks. Ugh.
Yeah. Come visit me at my booth, okay? Its called
InstaRoomies. Don't be a stranger. Marco waves as he rushes
inside, leaving me alone with Emily.
Finally. If he had stayed any longer or made Emily blush any
more Id have to shove him right into the swimming pool.
Something tells me Emily wouldnt look too kindly on that.
Should we go too? I look at Emily and gesture toward the hotel
lobby. After you.
Thanks, she says. She gives me a polite smile, then silently
walks in front of me.
Women think men let them go first for their benefit, when in
reality we just love watching them from behind. Its a great view,
and they rarely look back to catch us checking them out.
So, it looks like were on different floors, I say as we stop at
the elevator waiting area. I press the button to go up.
Emily turns the little cardboard pouch that holds her room key
card in her hand. One-one-zero-three. Looks like Im on the
eleventh floor.
Im on the twentieth. We walk into the elevator and I push the
two buttons for our respective floors.
I wish I can tell her to just stay with me. We have so little time
here and I want to spend every minute with her. Instead, as she
steps out of the elevator, I simply say, Meet me at the entrance
to the conference room when youre ready.
Business-like. Professional. Because were just two people who
happen to work together.
The elevator takes me to my floor. I walk through the dimly lit
hallway with the plush carpeting underfoot. This hotel is nice
enough, but after staying in hundreds of upscale places theyre
all starting to look the same.
I feed my key card into the slot and wait for the beep before I
open the door.
Just as I expect. Another soulless-yet-impeccable room with
white linens on the bed.
I sit on the bed and lean back until Im looking up at the ceiling,
my legs hanging down over the edge of the mattress.
There are too many thoughts swirling inside my head for me to
come up with any elaborate plan. Everything looks fine and
normal from the outside, but the way I feel about the events that
have transpired today is anything but fine or normal.
All I know is I only have three days to spend with Emily so I need
to make the most of it.
I need to keep dodging her questions about the interview. That
shouldnt be too difficult.
And I have to keep her away from Marco and any other man who
dares to touch her. My blood boils with possession. I know Im
no good for her, but all I want is to stake my claim on her and
make it clear to everyone that shes mine. Its a primal urge that
comes from a place deep within me. I cant explain or defend it.
Fuck. My thoughts are all fucked up.
I wish she were here on this bed with me.
EMILY

S itting on the edge of Coles bed, I take a sip of champagne


and repeat my lines.
Weve seen the data, weve seen the research. Luxury travelers
are voting with their dollars and, as industry professionals, we
should listen.
I look up from my notes at Cole, whos sitting at the desk by the
bed with his laptop, which is displaying the PowerPoint slides for
tomorrows presentation.
Thats pretty good, he says, raising his eyebrows. I think
youve nailed it.
Awesome, I say. I do feel like Ive nailed it, but then I think
Im also drunk so that may not be my best judgment. I raise my
champagne glass and laugh. I still dont see how its different
from a regular wine glass.
Yes, you may have had too much to drink, Cole says. He looks
so good. Such a gorgeous specimen of a man, alone in a hotel
room with me. I wonder if its just the lighting from the desk
lamp that makes him look so good. So damn good.
Maybe. I shrug, completely forgetting about the champagne
glass in my hand. I shriek as I almost spill the bubbly drink onto
the plush beige carpet.
Its alright, Cole says. You already know your stuff. If you
didnt I wouldnt have let you drink.
Cool, I say, raising my glass. Youre a cool boss, Cole. But, I
mean, youre hot too. Cool and hot. Have I told you that?
No, you havent. And I appreciate you telling me that. He
chuckles, causing dimples to appear in his cheeks and lines to
show up around his eyes.
Well, you are. Youre awesome. Appreciation is so important, I
say. Appreciation is the key. You have to appreciate what you
have now, or youll regret it when its gone.
The smile disappears from Coles face. Okay, fun time is over.
He sighs.
He gets up from his chair and I look up to see him rise to his full
height. He looks so tall. I mean, he is tall. I know that from
seeing him at the office every day.
But he looks different today, with those khaki slacks that show
off his long legs and that blue fitted shirt with the sleeves rolled
up. He looks taller, more masculine.
I feel the mattress sink as Cole sits beside me.
Hell, everythings different today.
Of course Ive always noticed how hot Cole is, but Ive never
seriously entertained the thought of being romantically involved
with him. And then today happens.
I was excited to travel because I dont get many opportunities to
do it, and I was excited to attend the conference because its
good for my career. I never expected my boss to become the
reason I enjoy the trip, but he has. Im actually having more fun
than Ive had in a long time.
First, there was the First Class seat and the funny little
encounter with Linda. And then, there were the many big names
Cole introduced me to as he kept me by his side the whole time
we were at the conference. After that, we had a nice quiet dinner
at the hotel restaurant, and now Im even having fun as we
revise the presentation material in his hotel room.
It has been a strange day. In a way, I feel like weve had a very
long first date.
Maybe thats not an appropriate way of thinking about my boss,
but Im starting to believe he feels the same way.
He doesnt have to spend the entire day with me, but he chooses
to. He hasnt left my side at all since we met at the airport in San
Francisco this morning, except for when we went into our
separate rooms to change our clothes before the conference.
And theres also the way that hes looking at me right now. He
gazes deep into my eyes, concern reflected in his dark irises. He
places one big, masculine hand on my cheek. He feels warm,
safe. I feel like I can just melt into his touch.
Your skin is hot, he says. Your cheeks are all flushed.
I nuzzle my head into his palm and look up into his eyes, and
thats when I see it. Its been a long time since Ive seen it in a
mans eyes, but I can still recognize it. I feel concern and
tenderness in his touch, but theres also hunger within him.
And right there and then, I forget about everything, all my
reasons not to date Cole Foster. All I see is that flame in his eyes.
At this moment, I just want it to consume me.
I smile, my gaze softening. He leans a little closer and I close my
eyes.
This is it, I think to myself.
Emily. Cole breaks the tense silence. I blink my eyes open to
see him looking at the floor. He pulls his hand away and says,
Its late. And youve been drinking. Maybe you should go back
to your room.
What? You have got to be kidding me.
I frown at him, confusion and anger churning in my head.
Ill see you just before the presentation tomorrow, okay? Right
by the conference room entrance, he says without looking up
from the floor. He sighs and turns toward me, his lips upturned
but his eyes empty. Just like we discussed, youll do the
presentation and Ill handle the questions. Dont worry. You can
do this.
Okay. I place the champagne glass on the desk and walk
toward the door. He doesnt have to tell me twice. And if he
doesnt want to talk about it, thats fine too. We havent done
anything and he doesnt owe me anything. Im a big girl.
Emily, he says. Do you need help getting to your room?
No. I said Im okay. I walk back to grab my bag from the desk.
Damn drunk brain. I look straight at Cole and give him the
politest, most formal, most business-like smile I can muster.
See you tomorrow.
I march toward the door, eager to get out of Coles hotel room,
which suddenly feels so constricting.
See you, Emily, he says softly as I close the door behind me.
What was that? What on earth was that?
He was definitely about to kiss me, right? It has been a while for
me, but it hasnt been that long. And yes, Im tipsy, but not to
the point where I cant recognize a man who obviously wants to
kiss me.
The beautifully decorated hallway, with its mood lighting and its
textured wallpaper, passes in a blur. When I reach the elevator
waiting area, I mash both the buttons to go up and down. I just
need to get out of here before Cole sees me, not that Id expect
him to come chasing after me after that display of indifference
in his room. But just in case. I dont want him to catch me in
distress, or worse crying.
I dont actually feel like crying right now, but Im definitely in
danger of doing just that. It was just so embarrassing, what just
happened. And it happened with my boss, who I still have to
work with. Its not like I can just quit and find another job either,
considering how long it took me to find this one.
I hurry inside when the elevator arrives. I feel suffocated, like
the walls are closing in on me. I dont think its a good idea to go
to my room. I need some fresh air.
I press the button for the ground floor and head straight to the
swimming pool.
Its quiet, now that its late and all the conference attendees
have gone home. Theres just one couple relaxing on the lounge
chairs on the deck, three empty cocktail glasses resting on the
small table between them. The swimming pool looks so inviting,
the water glowing bright blue in the dark.
I drop my bag onto the wooden pool deck and sit down. I take my
ballet flats off, then dip my feet into the pool. The cool water
soothes my skin. It feels a little chilly out here, even though Im
wearing a cardigan. But a part of me is grateful for the cold. It
wakes me up a little.
Maybe that was nothing? Could it have all been in my head? I
have been drinking.
But then why would Cole suddenly act so aloof and distant? And
why would he ask to meet just before our presentation? Thats
right after lunch. Based on how things have been today, I was
hoping to spend all day with him again.
But maybe hes legitimately busy tomorrow morning? He is the
CEO of a hotel chain, after all. Maybe theres a secret CEO
meeting that underlings like me arent invited to.
God. I cant believe I almost kissed my boss. Its just what Alice
told me not to do. Well, shes right. Again. I shouldve listened
to her.
I take my phone out of my bag. Maybe chatting with Alice will
make me feel better. I definitely dont plan on telling her about
almost kissing Cole, but it would be nice to just talk. Ill decide
how much to tell her when Im sober. Im not really in the mood
for listening to one of her lectures.
When I open the messaging app, theres already one message
from Alice.
Alice Webb: Hows Seattle?
Emily Webb: Dunno
Emily Webb: Spent the whole day indoors at the conference
Alice Webb: Oh good youre ok
Alice Webb: I havent heard from you since you landed
Alice Webb: Got a bit worried
Alice Webb: But theres no plane accidents on the news
Alice Webb: So I know you should be fine
Alice Webb: :D
I smile to myself. Oh, Alice. She annoys me sometimes and Ill
never admit this to her, but there are times when its nice to
know someone cares that much about me.
Emily Webb: Dont worry
Emily Webb: Im still alive
Alice Webb: How was the presentation?
Emily Webb: Thats tomorrow
Alice Webb: Good luck!
Emily Webb: Pffttt
Emily Webb: Dont need luck when youre this good
Emily Webb: XD
Emily Webb: What are you up to?
Alice Webb: Just relaxing with a book
Alice Webb: In my pajamas
Alice Webb: Drinking camel toe tea
I read the last message twice, then throw my head back in
laughter. Alice really needs to do something about the
autocorrect on her phone. I know she means chamomile tea
because thats what she often drinks at night to help her sleep.
Camel toe tea. Ew.
Just as Im about to type a reply to Alice, the pool lights shut off.
It takes me by surprise, and my drunk brain forgets about the
phone in my hand. Before I know it, it slips out of my grasp and
plunges into the swimming pool with the faintest, least dramatic
splash.
Damn.
I sit there by the dark pool for a few dazed seconds, knowing I
cant rescue that phone but at the same time feeling like I cant
just leave it there at the bottom of the pool.
Sighing in defeat, I finally decide to let it go and just go back to
my hotel room.
It has been the strangest day ever. I flew First Class for the first
time, I attended an industry conference for the first time, I
almost kissed my boss for the first time It almost makes
perfect sense that Id drop my phone into a swimming pool for
the first time at the end of the day.
Maybe tomorrow will be more normal.
EMILY

I hold the door open with one hand and use my free hand to
rub my temple. I sigh. This is starting to look like the
beginning of another freaky day.
Cole is standing right in front of me, holding a brown paper bag
and a can of Diet Coke in his hands. Theres a wide grin on his
face and hes already wearing a sharp business suit. He looks so
perky and bright its annoying. Its only seven in the morning.
What is he doing here in front of my hotel room when he said to
only meet him after lunch?
Im still not sure how I feel about what didnt-actually-happen-
but-totally-almost-happened last night. I was hoping
everything would seem clearer after I sleep on it, but thats not
working, not even with the five-hundred-count Egyptian cotton
sheets on my bed.
Breakfast? He raises one eyebrow at me. I bet many girls have
fallen for that look, but I dont have any patience for it. Not this
morning.
Thanks, I say curtly. I take the brown paper bag and the soda
can off his hands. If youll excuse me, Ill have to get ready
now.
I give him a sweet smile and, without waiting for a reply, I close
the door in his face.
I dont have time for drama this morning. I only have a few
hours before the big presentation so I cant afford to get
distracted. I need to focus for the sake of my career.
On second thought, avoiding my own boss is probably not the
best career move either. But Ill worry about that later. For now,
theres the presentation to deal with. Everything else can wait.
When I get to the desk, I push away the note pad and the pen
with the Trident Hotel logo on them, making space for what I
assume is Coles peace offering.
I peer into the paper bag and find a glazed donut inside. Donut
and Diet Coke. These are the same things I ordered at the airport
yesterday. He remembers.
I take a bite of the glazed donut. This is good stuff. I have to
admit it's a nice gesture. So nice, in fact, that Im starting to feel
bad about shutting the door in his face.
But then again, what happened last night was bullshit.
It did cross my mind that maybe he just didn't want to take
advantage of me when I had obviously been drinking. But even if
that were true, he didn't have to shoo me out like he did. And if
he was really concerned about how drunk I really was, he
could've at least taken me to my room.
But I really don't have time to worry about this right now. I need
to focus on the presentation. Assuming what happened last
night has damaged my professional relationship with Cole, I
need to make a good impression. Who knows, there may be a job
offer coming my way as a result.
Initially, I planned to spend the entire day at the conference, but
that was before and this is now. I already visited most of the
booths yesterday and I'm not interested in any of the morning
speakers, so I should probably stay in my hotel room and work
on my presentation instead.
That way Ill also stay out of Coles way. I can't afford to have
him ruffle my feathers today.
I take out my notes and printouts of the PowerPoint slides from
my bag. I haven't had a chance to look at them again after
leaving Cole's room last night. Im going to miss having his
laptop, but I don't miss having him around.
Just because he keeps popping up in my mind doesn't mean I
miss him. We're traveling for work just the two of us, so he
features in much of my itinerary my professional itinerary
that I use for professional purposes. It's only natural that he
comes up a lot.
I plop down on the chair and arrange my stuff on the desk. I'm
going to sit here for the next four hours at least, so I better get
comfortable.
I take another big bite of the donut and pick up a pen with my
free hand, ready to go through my notes with a fine-toothed
comb.

I HOLD my presentation notes to the side and check my reflection


in the mirror. I smooth out my emerald green sleeveless blouse
and tuck it into my black pencil skirt. A French twist, red lips,
and sensible heels make me look a little older Im about two
decades younger than the average conference attendee and I feel
like that's a disadvantage when it comes to my credibility.
I check my watch lunch time is almost over then take a
deep, steadying breath.
Here we go.
The hotel hallways pass in a blur as the words from my
presentation notes fill my mind. I don't even notice a black
figure approaching me at an angle from behind. A hand grabs my
wrist and I instinctively cry out in surprise.
Cole levels his gaze at me. His eyebrows raised, he says,You
really need to get the screaming under control.
I don't have to do anything. I look around me and give a polite
smile to our little audience, hospitality professionals in their
business suits streaming into the conference hall. He may be my
boss, but he doesn't get to dictate my reflexes.
Ive been waiting for you, Cole says as he follows me.
You said to meet you just before the presentation. I flash the
conference pass hanging by a lanyard around my neck to the guy
standing at the door wearing a black T-shirt that says Seattle
Hospitality Summit, then step through the doorway.
Wow, this hall looks even bigger than it did yesterday. Have the
ceilings always been that high? And is it just me or are there
more people as well?
Ive been texting and calling you. I figured you wanted to stay in
your room this morning and work on the presentation again, but
you couldn't even text me back?
Oh, right. I keep looking straight ahead, afraid the sight of
Cole would just make me feel even more anxious. I lost my
phone.
You lost your Cole rakes his hair with his fingers, not
bothering to finish his sentence. When? Didn't you go straight
back to your room last night? Could it still be in my room?
No, I lost it somewhere else, okay? I look around nervously,
worried someone in the crowd may hear about me being in his
room at night and make the wrong conclusions about us. I
wouldn't blame them, though. Hell, I almost made the wrong
conclusions about us last night.
Where?
I reach the stairs leading up to the stage and turn around.
Obviously not expecting that, Cole jerks to a stop just inches
away from me. For a second, I can detect the scent of musky
fragrance from his body.
Look, can we just focus on the presentation? I can't tell him
that I was so drunk I dropped the phone in the swimming pool,
or that I was so distressed by the way he acted last night that I
had to go outside in the first place.
Of course. He finally seems to realize how big of a deal this
presentation is for me. Still nervous?
Definitely. I scan the room, watching with horror as more and
more people fill the seats before us.
There are a few concurrent talks and this isn't even the main
one, so my audience is limited to...maybe two hundred people?
It's not like all eyes in the conference hall are going to be on me,
but it sure feels that way.
Listen. Cole puts his hands on my shoulders and levels his
gaze at me, demanding my full attention. You're going to do
great. I watched you last night and you were killing it. You had
more practice this morning too so you're probably even better
now. You know your stuff and you know how to make your
points. Youve got this.
I nod as I listen to Cole, but my breaths keep coming in shallow
hitches.
I To my surprise, my voice comes out as a squeak. I clear my
throat. Im just a junior marketer. What do I know? I didn't
even go to college.
I feel like I'm watching myself from outside my body, trying and
failing to stop myself from blurting out more stupidity. Ive been
dealing with a lot of pressure and now I feel like there's a hole in
the dam and I can't plug it up once it's open.
What if they can tell that I didn't go to college? Nobody's going
to listen to what I have to say, which is probably stupid anyway
because I didn't even go to college.
Emily, hey, look at me. Cole traps my gaze with his brown
eyes. I promise you nobody is going to even think about your
level of education. Nobodys going to care about that. And Ive
seen a lot of presentations so believe me when I say youll do
great if you can just do the exact same thing you did last night
and all morning today.
I nod and take a deep breath.
You just have to fake it til you make it. Cole smiles at me.
Everybody does it. I do it too. I don't always feel like the CEO of
a hotel chain.
I look up at him, raising my eyebrows in disbelief. It's hard to
imagine Cole Foster being out of his element.
He was born into the inner circles of wealthy business people.
He's in his natural habitat here, more than at any other place.
He has received the best education and training money can buy.
Why would he feel any need to fake anything when he's the real
thing?
He's nice to say all those things to make me feel better, but he
doesn't understand the deep-seated feeling of inferiority in
someone who has grown up poor.
Thanks, Cole. Even if he can't fully comprehend my
trepidation, I guess I can believe what he says about me knowing
my stuff.
Any time. Cole smiles and rubs my shoulders before
awkwardly letting his arms hang straight down. Strangely, I find
myself missing the weight and warmth of his hands.
Are you ready? A pretty brunette touches Coles arm with her
delicate hand, her fingernails perfectly manicured. I force myself
to look away.
The next thing I know, the brunette announces my presentation
and my legs carry me up the stage. As I look down at the
audience, I feel blood rushing to my head. And then I spot Marco
in the front row, grinning at me and holding both thumbs up. I
suppress a smile at the sight.
Good afternoon, I say into the mic. Thank you for being here.
Im Emily Webb from Foster Hotels. I'm here with the CEO of
Foster Hotels, Cole Foster. I gesture toward Cole, who nods and
smiles at the audience. Im going to discuss trends in luxury
accommodation and how to meet the changing needs of the
luxury traveler. After that, Cole will be available to answer
questions about how we at Foster Hotels remain relevant to our
target market.
Once I get started, it turns out to be quite easy. Ive practically
memorized my lines thanks to much repetition, so Im just
running on autopilot. Before I know it, Ive finished going
through the presentation material. When its Cole's turn to take
the stage, he shoots me a big, charming smile.
You did great, he whispers as he leans in, making the hairs on
my sensitive neck stand on end. Told you.
Cole grabs the mic, brushing my fingers in the process. I stop
myself from gasping from the contact and quickly leave the
stage instead.
I sit in the audience and watch as Cole patiently and eloquently
answers random questions, some of which aren't even related to
the topic at hand. My chest swells with pride at how confident he
is, how charismatic. And it suddenly dawns on me.
I need to get out of here.
COLE

A s my hand hangs in the air, I draw some oxygen into my


constricted lungs and let out a big exhale. I knock on the door of
Emilys hotel room for the second time today.
I didnt want to bother her if she didnt want to speak with me,
so I waited at the conference hall for her to come back until the
exhibitors started shutting down their booths. I got a couple new
business contacts from it, but I wouldve preferred having her
company instead.
I went back to my room at the end of the night, fully intending to
wait until tomorrow to see her, but I cant stand it anymore. So
here I am.
The door swings open and, to my relief, there she is. She doesnt
look very friendly, and I dont blame her after the way I acted last
night. I shoot her an apologetic grin.
It was my fault. I got carried away, and then I caught myself but
it was already too late. I fucked up, and shes pissed off. That
much I understand.
What I dont understand, though, is just how much that bothers
me. Ive pissed off a lot of women. A lot. Ive always been able to
dust myself off in a matter of minutes. Last night, though, I
tossed and turned, my mind tortured by the thoughts of me
having hurt Emily again in some way. I cant stand it.
Miserable and sleep-deprived, I decided this morning to get her
forgiveness, no matter what.
Ive only just started sleeping again. I cant let myself slide back
to the way I was. No way. If theres even a tiny crack, guilt would
pour in like water and fuck everything up. It would destroy
everything Ive worked so hard for.
Can I help you? Emily plasters the sweetest fake smile on her
face. Still, her lips look inviting enough to devour, reminding me
of how close I had gotten last night to tasting those luscious lips.
She has let her hair down, probably to lay on the bed, judging
from the many stray strands sticking out of her head in all
directions, glowing as they catch the warm light from the
ceiling.
Ive been looking for you all over. Can you let me in?
I can. But why should I? She raises one eyebrow, challenging
me.
Ouch. I guess I deserve that. Luckily, I have the perfect excuse.
I got you a replacement phone. I need to be able to reach you. I
step closer and place my hand on the door, gently pushing it.
Ill show you how to set it up. Its an old phone. Takes a few
tricks to make it work.
Okay. She lets go of the door, turns around, and walks inside. I
follow her and close the door behind me.
As I enter the hotel room, I notice she hasnt changed her
clothes, but she has untucked her blouse and her shoes are lying
on the floor.
Shes barefoot with her clothes disheveled.
Suddenly, I become hyper aware of my having entered her
private space. This room, it smells like her, like wildflowers and
citrus.
She plops down on the chair by the desk, and I take a seat on the
bed, mirroring the positions where we sat last night. This room
and mine are pretty much identical. I can tell shes also thinking
about last night by the way shes glaring at me.
When you told me you lost your phone, I realized I had a spare
one in my room. Its an old phone, but it should work fine to tide
you over. I hold up the phone in my hand.
So this is what they mean when they call you a micro-manager,
huh? She asks, taking the phone and inspecting it. You like to
do everything yourself, and you like people to do exactly as you
tell them.
Is that what they say about me? What else do they say? I dont
really care about my reputation among my employees as long as
they do good work, but Emilys talking and I want to keep it that
way.
That you have a temper and you fire people when youre
angry, she says. So how do you actually turn this thing on?
You have to charge the battery first. I give her the charging
cable in my hand and gesture at the socket in the base of the
lamp on the desk. Why do they say that?
They say you fired a guy last year. Someone from accounting.
His wife was pregnant with their third kid and she didnt work
and it was right before Christmas. They heard you yelling and
then they saw the guy walking out of the office with all his stuff
in a box. The people at the office had to chip in to help with the
hospital bills for the delivery of the baby, she says. Having
connected the phone to a power source, she places it on the
desk, waiting for it to gather enough electricity to turn on.
Oh, for fucks sake. They made me out to be the grinch over
that? I throw my hands in the air. Ted had been embezzling
money. I dont know why he didnt have enough money for the
delivery. He stole more than enough to cover it.
They say you never do interviews for junior positions yourself,
she says, tilting her head and raising one eyebrow quizzically.
She looks calm, but I can tell shes been waiting to ask this
question for a while from the way her hands aimlessly press the
buttons on the still-off phone.
Evidently I do. I shoot her a smile, but I can immediately tell
from her scowl thats not a satisfactory answer. Its easier to
stick with something simple. I shrug and say the simplest
answer I can think of, I probably had some free time on that
day. I dont remember.
You dont remember? She repeats, with the scowl still firmly
glued on her face. Shes obviously still unhappy with my new,
revised answer. Do you know how much trouble it has caused
for me?
Im sorry, I say. I do feel guilty over some things Ive put Emily
through, but she cant expect me to take responsibility for how
other people treat her, too. Especially when Ive only been trying
to help her. I cant keep up with the office gossip and decide
which stories are true. I dont control information. I dont run a
dictatorship.
They say you never invite anyone else to travel with you in First
Class.
Im sorry for trying to be nice to you. You said you dont travel
much. I just thought it would be a nice experience for you. I
hear my voice get louder. I know Im getting worked up and I
should probably shut up, considering I came here to get Emily to
forgive me for last night, not to make her even angrier at me.
They say you live with Steffi and Im your mistress. She puts
the phone down on the desk and folds her arms across her chest.
She glares at me.
Fuck. Why does everything I do for her backfire?
I run my fingers through my hair, as if I can massage my
problems away. I sigh and look deep into her eyes. Maybe its
time to change my tack. Maybe Im handling this all wrong.
Maybe its time to drop the act. Maybe then Ill stop hurting her.
Im sorry. I rest my elbows on my knees as I lean closer to her.
I didnt know. Im so sorry.
So you do live with Steffi?
What? I mean Im sorry for causing a misunderstanding, I say.
So do you or do you not live with her? She raises her voice and
squeezes her hands so hard her knuckles are turning white. Why
does it matter to her? Could she really be jealous this time?
No, Emily. I dont live with Steffi or with anyone else. I live on
my own. I reach for her hands, trying to soothe her, but she
pulls them away.
Dont, she says sternly.
I look up into her face. The hurt written all over her face
surprises me.
Dont drag me into your little games, Cole, she says, her tone
flat but her voice shaky. I dont know what youre trying to do. I
mean, you drove me away last night, and then this morning you
showed up with gifts, and then you just showed up again with
another gift? You think you can just pay your way out of trouble
just because that has always worked your whole life? What is it
that you want?
Im not I let my voice trail off and sigh. Im not playing any
games with you, Emily.
Right. I bet you say that to all the other girls too.
Im not going to deny that I have a reputation, but thats not
something I say to any other girl, I tell her honestly, meeting
her glare. The way I feel about you Its definitely not a game.
Then what is it?
I dont know, Emily. Ill be honest with you. I dont know. This
is all so new to me. I grab her hands in mine, begging her to
believe me. She doesnt pull away this time. All I know is Ive
never felt this way before about anyone else, and that scared me
last night. I had no idea how to deal with all these feelings. I
dont usually...feel.
I watch as the anger in her eyes gradually diminishes. Just like I
did last night, I reach for her face. Only this time, I drop all
pretense and touch her with my full intention. I want her to
know how much this really means. She obviously has no idea
how special she is to me. I'm making it my job now to show her.
I pull her closer and lean my forehead against hers. She does the
same and closes her eyes. And then we kiss, her lips hot and
delicate. Ive been wondering about these lips for the longest
time, since the first time I saw her when she belonged to
someone else, and now I can have them.
I pull back a little just to see her face so I can remember this
moment for the rest of my life. Her lips are red and wet, and her
face looks flushed. She looks good like this, and knowing Im the
one who did that to her makes me want to find out what other
secrets shes hiding in that sexy body.
A little voice in my head tells me this is wrong, but I can't deny
the feelings I have for her anymore. I have to make her mine.
EMILY

E ven as I lean in closer, I wonder if this is the right thing to do.


But after that little speech, I cant just say no to him. I cant
tell him to just leave. Theres something vulnerable in his eyes
that tells me hes not being insincere with me, that he means
everything he says.
I still have so many questions, but I dont think he has any
answers. He looks so lost and confused, and something within
me responds with an unbearable urge to comfort him.
So we kiss. And it feels good. Really good.
The man-whore is a good kisser. Wow. How surprising.
I push my cynical thoughts aside for the moment. I rely on my
wit and sarcasm to keep people from getting too close, but Cole
has been nothing but kind to me. Maybe hes not so bad. Maybe I
was too quick to judge him.
I guess its okay to let myself go for once. Not everything has to
go perfectly as planned. If the last two years have taught me
anything, its that life doesnt care about my plans.
I mean, Im single. Hes single. Were not hurting anybody. Even
if nothing ever comes of this, it can be as simple as one of the
meaningless hook-ups that college kids apparently have all the
time, right?
He puts his hand on the back of my head and teases my lips,
gently coaxing me to respond. I move closer and kiss him back,
inviting him. My heartbeat speeds up when he traces my lips
with his tongue and nibbles on my bottom lip. God, I miss this.
His lips feel so good.
I open my mouth for him and I almost fall apart as he sweeps
inside and claims my mouth with his kiss. His hard, forceful,
insistent kiss.
I haven't been kissed like this in a long time. A really long time.
The more I allow myself to be carried away by these delicious
sensations, the more I realize how long it has been and how
much I miss this.
I kiss him back with all the passion that has been quietly
growing inside me for months. He groans into my mouth and
kisses me harder, more insistently. His hand on the back of my
head grips my hair.
When he pulls away, Im fighting to catch my breath and my
hands are gripping his chiseled arms through his blue shirt. It
feels great to run my hands up and down his upper arms through
the fabric.
Cole pulls me by the hand until I collapse on top of him on the
bed, our limbs tangled together. The air around us is electric.
Every cell in my body is pulsating. Our breaths grow frantic.
When he pushes me onto my back and gets on top of me, I
remember the lonely nights I spent missing the weight of a
mans body on top of me. I savor the warmth of his skin, the
scent of his neck.
He pauses to look at me, his eyes full of concern. Theres no way
he can fake that. Cole really does have genuine feelings about
me. Hes been honest and truthful. I suppose its okay to give
this a go. Who knows? Maybe this will really turn into something
meaningful.
I smile, giving him permission to continue. I want his skin all
over mine. I want to be enveloped by his masculine body. I want
this, I tell him with my eyes. I want you.
Cole undoes the top three buttons of my green sleeveless blouse.
He maintains eye contact as he travels down my throat, trailing
light kisses to my breasts. I arch my body with pleasure, offering
more of me up to his mouth. He slips his hand underneath my
body, unhooking my bra and caressing my bare back.
Taking both my blouse and my bra off, Cole tosses them aside,
letting them fall onto the carpeted floor. He stares at my
exposed upper body, his gaze traveling from my navel up to the
hardened tips of my breasts and landing on my face. Without
blinking, he takes it all in. I blush under his intense scrutiny.
The hunger in his eyes makes me ache between my legs.
I remember Coles sexy, fuzzy trail that I saw when the plane
landed in Seattle yesterday. I need to see where it leads.
My turn, I say as I reach up and unbutton his business shirt.
My fingers trace the lines of the muscles on his chest and abs.
His body is hard, sculpted, masculine.
He takes off his shirt. I can feel his cock pressed against my
thigh, growing thick and hard in his pants. I reach my hand
down and follow the little happy trail of hair on his abs down
until I reach the waist of his pants. I look up into his eyes.
Cole looks back teasingly right at me. His hand slides up my
thigh, pushing the hem of my pencil skirt up. As he strokes my
inner thighs and gently kisses my face, wetness drips at the
juncture of my legs. I let out a small, breathy moan.
Tell me what you want me to do, Cole groans into my ear, his
voice low and urgent, his heavy breath hot on my neck.
My body tightens with need. This is crazy. Before yesterday I
never even spent much time with Cole. But now I feel so close to
him, and not just physically. Theres some sort of magical
connection between us, some kind of special chemistry pulling
us together.
As he slips his hand inside my panties, I shiver all over on the
soft white sheets of the hotel bed. Its clear Cole knows what
hes doing. His fingers dance over my wet folds, making me
tremble with need. In this moment, theres only one thing I
want.
Fuck me, I say, spreading my thighs a little wider, giving him
free admission to my body.
With a low growl, Cole pushes my pencil skirt until it bunches up
around my waist. He yanks my panties off and pushes inside me
with one finger, and then another one. I moan as he fills me up.
I grab the waist of his dress pants and pull on his belt. Im
fumbling so much it takes a while for me to unbuckle his soft
Italian leather belt and unzip his pants.
Soak my fingers, Cole says. Soak my fingers and then Ill fuck
you. Ill fuck you so hard youll forget everything but my name.
He kicks his pants off and continues to manipulate my body with
his skillful fingers. The pressure builds up and up until finally I
come with a sudden gasp and a shudder. I gush all over Coles
fingers like he wanted me to.
I shut my eyes. I always feel so vulnerable the first time Im with
someone new. And its been a while, which makes me feel a little
out of my depths.
The tip of Coles cock rubbing against me brings me back to
reality. I snap my eyes open and see my boss kneeling between
my legs, his fist wrapped around his thick shaft.
Good girl, he says.
He pushes inside me, stretching me around him. I wrap my arms
and legs around him, pulling him closer. My fingernails drag
across his back. I want to feel more of him. I rock my hips off the
hotel bed to meet Coles thrusts. At this new angle, he enters
deeper inside me, so deep I feel like Im about to burst.
He fucks me slowly, pulling almost all the way out and driving all
the way back in. Hes driving me crazy, the way hes balancing
me right on the edge of my climax.
Please. My voice comes out as a moan. I need more now. I
need him to release me from this sweet torture.
I squeeze my eyes shut and throw my head back, trying to focus
on Coles cock sliding in and out of me, willing myself to feel
more, to make myself come. Failing, I look pleadingly into Coles
eyes.
Please, I repeat.
Please what? He asks as if theres anything else I could mean.
He patiently waits for an answer while he maintains his
teasingly slow pace.
Please fuck me harder. I lose this battle. He knows exactly
how to play my body until I do what he says. But it doesnt feel
like losing.
Cole grunts and pulls my hair. His movements take on an
animalistic quality. He slams into me, making me shudder in
ecstasy while Im trapped underneath his hard body. My muscles
clench around him, massaging him until he explodes inside me.
He keeps grinding into me, stretching my orgasm until he
finishes releasing every last drop.
I drag as much air as I can into my lungs while Cole lies on top of
me, spent. He strokes my hair, sighing in satisfaction and
murmuring unintelligible words into my ears. I loosely hold on
to him, enjoying the tactile feeling of his hot, sweaty skin on
mine.
Youre mine now, he says.

MORNING, Cole says. The smell of coffee from the little machine
in front of him fills my hotel room.
Its not fair. Hes wearing the same black dress pants and the
same blue button-down shirt that he wore yesterday, and yet he
looks totally put together.
Nobody pays much attention to what men wear and whether
they change their looks day after day. He can definitely get away
with wearing the same thing two days in a row.
What time is it? I can tell from the thin blades of sunlight that
stab between the blackout curtains that its probably morning,
but thats it. Why am I always surrounded by annoyingly
cheerful morning people?
Seven. Theres one hour until the conference starts, he says.
He places two mugs of coffee on the desk and sits on the chair.
He slides one piping hot mug toward me. Coffee? Itll wake you
up.
I sit up and pull the white bed sheets over my naked body.
Stretching my arms wide, I yawn and stare into the distance for a
few seconds. Still not saying anything, I pick up the coffee and
take a sip. I dont want to encourage him to start a long chat so
early in the morning.
Can I open the curtains?
Sure, I say. Im already awake anyway.
Cole pulls the curtains open and lets the morning sunlight pour
in through the big window. He stands there, watching
whatevers happening outside at this ungodly hour.
What do you want for breakfast today? The buffet downstairs?
Room service? Or the same as yesterday? I figure youd be bored
of glazed donuts by now, but I can ask the concierge to get some
donuts from the store again if you want.
The coffee is enough, I say to his back as I take another sip of
the coffee. Most mornings I skip breakfast anyway. Id rather
sleep a few more minutes.
Ill order two sandwiches from room service, he decides.
Why did you even bother asking me if youre just going to do
whatever you want?
Okay, baby. As you wish, I wont ask you things anymore. Ill
just do whatever. Cole turns around and gives me a boyish grin.
I feel a flutter in my stomach. This was supposed to be casual,
right? I think I may be catching feelings.
I mean, I know he said all the right stuff last night, but it all
seems so absurd in the light of day. Im not sure how I feel about
the way he just called me baby, or about his very presence
here in my hotel room. Hes my boss who happens to be my
friend with benefits, not my boyfriend.
I didnt expect you to still be here when I woke up. Still sitting
up on the bed, I stare at the black coffee in my mug, feigning
indifference. I realize I must make a strange sight, inspecting a
normal mug of coffee like Ive just spotted a fairy enjoying a soak
in it.
What are you talking about? He turns around, places his
empty mug on the desk, and takes a seat on the bed. I told you
how I feel about you.
You didnt have to say all those things, I say, sighing. And
you dont have to keep saying them now.
Now that youve gotten into my pants, I add inwardly.
I say it because its true. Cole takes my mug and puts it on the
desk. Taking both my hands in his, he says, Look at me.
I sigh and show him a face with no expression, something I
practiced a lot growing up. Im pretty good at it, despite the lump
forming in my throat.
I really, really like you, Emily, he says. I can see everything on
his face, every little micro-expression. I know hes letting me
see his naked, unfiltered self. Ive liked you for a while. I just
didnt think it wasappropriate for me to go for it. But now I
dont care anymore about that. Youre all I want. I havent been
interested in anyone else for a long time.
But what about your other girls?
What other girls? He frowns.
Um The ones on the tabloids?
Those are old pictures. The headlines are lies. None of it is
true. He holds my hands tighter. I understand if this freaks
you out. Im so sorry about everything. Im ready to take things
slow if thats what you need.
I let his words sink in. This is all happening so fast.
Truth be told, Im still getting to grips with the fact that I just
slept with my boss last night. And now hes telling me Im the
only one he wants? I rack my brain, trying to come up with a
good response.
You know what? Its too early for this. Lets just get ready for
the conference, I say.
If you say so. Cole kisses my hands and lets go of them. Ill
order the sandwiches while you get ready.
COLE

J ames, I say into the phone. Remember the plan we


discussed?
Of course. How can I forget? You ask me about it every time I
see you." Even through the receiver, I detect a hint of sarcasm in
his voice.
"Okay. Well, obviously that's a good strategy because it works.
You remember." I take a deep breath. "I need you to do it right
now.
"Wow. I never thought I'd see the day," he says.
"I'm serious. It's time."
"You're the boss," he says.
"How long is it going to take?" My heart is pounding in my
chest. My palms are sweaty. This feels surreal, but it has to
happen.
"We've gone over this too many times for you to not know."
"I just need to hear you say it again. I need to know for sure." I
hold my breath.
"Like I've told you a thousand times before, I need three
business days."
"Today's Thursday. So it'll be done by Tuesday, right?"
"Right." James pauses for a couple of hesitant seconds before he
says, "Are you sure?"
"Never been more sure."
"You know he's going to find out, right?" He voices my main
concern. To be honest, that does make me nervous, but there's
no other way now. Not if I want to keep Emily safe and stay with
her...assuming she'll still want me after I tell her the truth.
"Yes," I say with finality into the phone.
Looking out the glass wall of my office at the city, I realize I'm
going to miss this crazy place. But again, there's no other way.
"Why now? Why so sudden?"
We've worked together long enough for James to feel
comfortable asking me difficult questions. He's almost like a
friend, but this is not something I want to share with him.
"I have my reasons."
"Oh, boy." He half-sighs, half-chuckles into the phone. "If I
didn't know you any better, I'd say this is about a girl."
"Just get it done," I say flatly.
"It is about a girl, isn't it?" James laughs. "Another thing I never
thought I'd see in my lifetime.
"Let me know when it's all done."
"Not in the mood for a chat, are we? You know, girls like it when
you chat with them. Are you chattier when you're with her,
Cole?"
"I don't remember hiring you as my shrink. Ill wait to hear your
news on Tuesday. Bye, James."
"Alright, alright," he says. "Bye now."
I like James. He's a good accountant and I usually wouldn't mind
having a chat with him, but this is not the time.
Everything important in my life now hangs on the line. I wish I
could fast forward to next week when everything would've been
done.
But for now, I have a date with Emily. I have no idea if shell still
hang around when I come out the other side, so I have every
intention of making the most of this time.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?


You want to know what I really think? Emily covers her full
mouth with one hand. I think its delicious. Better than I
expected, for sure. But I also think you didnt really cook this
yourself.
You got me. I laugh. Am I really that transparent?
Not really. Youve done some pretty unpredictable things. But I
just dont peg you as a cook. She cuts off a small bit of the veal
and takes a bite. Also, the fact that each portion was separated
individually into nice little microwavable packages That was a
big clue.
Damn it. Ill have to talk to the guy about this, I say in mock
frustration. I dont care if she knows all my tricks. She looks like
shes enjoying herself and thats all that matters.
Whos this guy anyway? He just goes into peoples homes and
prepares their date night meals, like some sort of culinary ninja
wingman?
Exactly. I have to laugh at that.
Shes funny. I love how she comes up with witty, zany things to
say, even if theyre often jabs at me. The supermodels that I used
to go out with treated me with kid gloves, always so afraid I was
going to dump them if they said the wrong thing and offended
me. Nothing was real about those relationships.
I have to admit, it was an ego boost at first, scoring those very
desirable women. It meant I had beaten a lot of competition.
Somehow I found it helped with my work at the office. It gave me
the confidence that I needed as a young man in my twenties to
run an office full of people much older and much more
experienced than me.
His job title is personal chef, but from now on Im going to call
him my culinary ninja wingman. I raise the fork to my mouth
and take a bite. Emilys right this veal is too good for me to
have cooked it myself. I just wanted to make sure my offer was
good enough to lure you here into my lair.
No kidding, she says. Home-cooked meal and a massage? I
wouldve said yes if you offered just one of them.
Damn. Really? I shouldnt have tried so hard. But what can I
say? I really wanted you to come. I missed you.
We just saw each other on Wednesday when we flew home
together. She protests with her words, but her eyes are
twinkling.
Shes right. But not only did I not see her yesterday, today I also
had to wait until after office hours to take her home so nobody
would see us together. I cant wait until we get everything out in
the open. I smile at her and say, I didnt see you in the office
yesterday, though.
You were the one who told me to stay home and rest because
the flight on Wednesday was so late, you weirdo. She laughs,
then narrows her eyes at me. You need to give your employees
some down time, Mr. Foster. Otherwise, Im going to have to
report you to the authorities for working me to death.
Dont call me Mr. Foster. Im not my father. I surprise myself
by how cold I sound.
Emily seems taken aback, but she quickly recovers and changes
the subject. So now I see the home-cooked meal is a big fat lie.
Should I prepare myself to be disappointed by the massage as
well?
I promise you, that one is a legit offer. I smile at her, grateful
shes overlooking my sudden change in demeanor.
Really? Youre not outsourcing that to a professional masseuse
as well? She sighs. To be honest, Im already disappointed.
Ha-ha. You say that now, but wait until you try it. Youll be
singing a different tune.
Well, Im done with the meal. When can we get started on that
massage?
Soon. I stack her empty plate on top of mine and put them in
the sink. Nora, my housekeeper, can deal with those tomorrow.
I take Emilys hand and pull her toward the bedroom. We watch
an old episode of Friends on the TV while we cuddle under the
blanket. This is nice.
Ive had many girls in my bed before, but I never let them stay
long enough for us to have a nice, quiet moment like this. I never
liked them enough for something like this to be enjoyable
anyway.
Emily. I wait for her to look at me before I continue. I can
really get used to this.
Me too, Cole. She smiles.
I detect a hint of sadness in her eyes, but I decide to not spoil the
moment by asking questions that will only make her sad. I cant
bring that up with her, not if I want to keep things under wraps
until next week.
Ready for your massage? I ask.
Are you kidding? Im always ready for a massage. Her smile
grows wider. Im glad my little distraction trick works.
I get Emily to lie down on her belly and remove her top while I
light a couple of candles on the nightstands. I unhook her bra
and she slips it off, throwing it off the bed along with her work
blouse. I pour some massage oil onto my hands and rub them
together to warm it up.
Looking at Emilys bare back, I cant help but feel my lust roaring
to the surface. The natural curve of her spine, the glow of her
skin in the flickering candlelight, the sexy little smile on her face
I want to climb on top of her and have my way with her.
But thatll have to wait. Emily expects a massage, so thats what
shes getting.
I place my oiled palms on her back and start to knead her flesh.
Her skin is so soft, so perfect. I can do this for hours, except her
soft moans make me want to touch her in a different way, a way
that makes her moan louder and scream my name. As difficult as
it is, I try to focus on the task even as my cock grows hard as a
rock in my pants.
I bet it feels extra good here. I press my thumb on a muscle
knot and hear her moan happily.
Youre really good with your hands. She sighs with a big smile
on her face.
Youve only just figured that out now? I tease her, reminding
her of the many ways my hands pleasured her body while we
were in the hotel in Seattle.
Not really, she says. She has her eyes closed as she enjoys the
massage.
Feel better now? The knot is gone.
Mm-hmm. I feel much better, she says softly.
Im glad at least the massage isnt disappointing.
I continue working her back quietly, letting her relax while I
admire her soft feminine curves. I move down to her feet, then I
take off her skirt while my hands travel up her legs and thighs.
Her moans grow louder when I touch her inner thighs. Fuck. Its
taking all my willpower to not go further up. Before I start to slip
up, I end the massage by making another run across her back
and lying down beside her.
How was that? I ask.
Amazing. Thanks. Her eyes remain closed while she smiles.
Why did you stop?
I could continue, but it wouldnt be a massage anymore. I
move closer so she can feel the hard cock in my pants on her
bare thigh.
I wouldnt mind that. She opens her eyes to look at me.
Turning onto her side to face me, she places her hand on my
cheek and kisses me with so much heat and passion I feel like
were melting together into one. The sexual chemistry in the air
is so potent it could wake the dead. I guess I wasnt the only one
who was turned on by the massage.
I push her onto her back and climb on top of her. She closes her
eyes as I suckle on the flesh of her throat. She moans, telling me
wordlessly that she wants me. Her hand slides down my body
until she finds the bulge straining my pants and strokes it with
her delicate fingers. I grunt and suck in a deep breath. As if I
need any more encouragement to take her hot, irresistible body.

I dont think Ive ever taken my clothes off any faster. The way
shes looking at me, with her lips parted and her eyes wide I
cant keep her waiting. I dont want to keep her waiting.
Her nipples have turned into hard little pebbles. I lean down and
kiss her perky breasts, moving up to the peaks. I take one nipple
into my mouth and watch her head roll back. Her breaths come
in small pants as my fingers tease her through the thin fabric of
her black lacy panties, her eyes looking into mine pleadingly.
Thats it. I cant hold myself back any longer. I pull her panties
off.
Your panties are soaked through. I hold up the panties for her
to see and watch her blush. Fuck, shes adorable. I want to claim
her body again and again until shes spent.
Her fingernails drag up my back. Her hips fly off the bed, as if
begging me to plunge into her. Eager to oblige, I press the tip of
my cock against her slit.
I look at her face as I slowly push inside, watching every little
nuance of her facial expression. When Im all the way in, she
grinds herself against me, pushing me just a little deeper inside.
She moans. Im so deep inside her theres no way I can possibly
fill her slender body any further.
I plunge my cock in and out of her, her muscles clenching around
me, massaging my cock, fitting so snugly she feels like a silken,
skin-tight glove. She wraps her legs around me and pumps up to
meet my thrusts. I start to fuck her harder and deeper.
I grab her hair to keep her in place and slam into her, over and
over again. Her body shakes and her lips part as she cries out my
name, as if shes urging me on.
Say my name again, I groan in her ear.
Cole, she moans. God, you feel so good inside me.
With that, I unleash all the arousal thats been building up inside
me and watch her tits rock back and forth. I pound her hard, the
way I know she needs to be fucked. I can feel the cum boiling
inside my balls. I reach down and roll her clit in circles, making
her gasp in frantic pleasure. She squeezes her eyes shut, her
beautiful face scrunched up in ecstasy.
Its not long until she explodes beneath me, her muscles milking
me for all Im worth. Shes moaning and breathing erratically,
her entire body shaking like shes a woman possessed. I growl as
I let go. She grabs onto the pillow, her mouth wide open in a
silent scream as I shoot every last drop of my cum deep inside
her.
We lie still like that for a while, neither one of us wanting to let
go, basking in the afterglow of our lovemaking. I stroke her hair.
Our breaths slowly grow deeper, more regular. I pull out when
she excuses herself to go clean up.

YOU LOOK GREAT IN THAT. I lean back against the headboard with
my hands interlaced behind my head.
Emily smiles as she closes the door of the walk-in wardrobe
behind her, showing me the tantalizing curve of her ass, covered
only by a pair of black lacy panties. Shes wearing my old
Harvard T-shirt. Its strange how something as insignificant as
an old shirt can make me feel like shes all mine. This sexy girl
with her smooth, bare legs in my room is mine.
She climbs into bed and I slide closer. Suddenly my queen-sized
bed feels too big. I pull her waist closer. I stroke her stomach,
her hips, her thighs. I want to learn the tiniest details about her
body and store them in my memory.
Theres a good chance shes not going to let me ever get close to
her ever again when she finds out what Ive done. I feel like such
a fuck-up for hiding this from her, but I cant tell her now.
I cant have her panicking. Ill keep her close where shes safe
and Ill tell her when my plan is ready.
I shouldve been more careful in Seattle. We didnt flaunt our
closeness in the conference hall, but anybody couldve seen us
come in and out of the same hotel room. Its very possible they
already know about us.
I need to put all the pieces in place so well have options at least,
before I tell her. Otherwise, Ill just scare her and make her feel
trapped.
Emily turns onto her side and reaches toward the nightstand to
grab the phone, the one I gave her in Seattle.
Good job covering all the bases, man, I scold myself.
Ive totally forgotten about the location tracker on that phone.
Ive been too careless. There are too many moving parts for me
to manage. And unfortunately, Im not exactly in my best
condition, being so distracted by Emily and nervous from having
to suddenly carry out my emergency plan.
Shit. I need to seriously step up my game.
We should get you a new phone, I say.
What do you mean we?
Technically you lost it due to a business trip, so the company
should reimburse you for the loss. I place my palms against her
flat belly and pull her close. I nuzzle her hair, breathing in the
scent of her shampoo.
Are you just saying that so you can buy me stuff? She reaches
one hand behind her, resting her fingers on the back of my neck.
Maybe. I sigh when she starts stroking my skin.
I dont need a sugar daddy, Cole, she says. Ill buy it myself,
but you can come with me.
Okay.
Maybe we can also meet with my sister at the mall? Shes
always worried about me and Im sure itll make her feel better if
she gets to know you.
Damn it, its just one problem after another.
A part of me wishes I could just tell Emily already so I can get
this over and done with and I dont have to constantly feel like
theres a sword hanging over my neck.
Another part of me wishes I never have to tell her so shell
always look at me the same way. It kills me to think shell
probably never look at me that way ever again after Tuesday.
Maybe we can survive this, if I deliver the news at the right time,
in the right way. But Im not naive enough to believe that one-
hundred percent.
After all, is there ever a good time or a good way to tell the girl
you love that you killed her boyfriend?
EMILY

C ole? I ask after a few silent seconds.


Do you really think we're ready for that? His voice is soft, like
he doesnt want to let me down. But that's not the answer I was
hoping for.
Cole has been telling me he has genuine feelings about me and
he wants to make this relationship work. But if he doesn't want
to meet Alice, then Ill know everything I need to know about his
intentions.
The message from Alice that I just got on my phone simply says:
We need to talk.
Yes, Cole. I say. My sister is my only family and she's always
worried about me. I think itll really make her feel better if she
meets you and gets to know you.
I haven't told Alice about Cole. I know, I know. I shouldve told
her. But I haven't had a chance to just sit down and chat with
her.
Even though we live together, she works all the time and she's
only around either very early in the morning or very late at
night.
I stayed home all day yesterday, but I spent the whole time
sleeping like a log. I was exhausted after all the work Id done
preparing and actually doing the presentation. Also, I spent a lot
of time in Seattle not sleeping and doing other things with Cole
instead.
I guess the fact that Im not home this late at night, combined
with my using a strange phone number, makes Alice panic a
little bit. I mean, she usually freaks out even when nothing has
happened.
Ive been worried about how she's going to react, especially
considering her frantic phone call on my way to the airport when
she told me to not sleep with my boss.
And then I went and did just that.
Coles grip around my body tightens. It feels good. It brings me
back to the present, reminding me Im in the bed of a gorgeous
man whom Im really starting to fall for.
If it's really that important to you... He doesn't sound too
enthusiastic, but I guess meeting the family is just one of those
things that most people see as a chore.
It is important to me. When she's worried she spams my phone
and Id rather not deal with that every time I stay the night
here.
Every time you stay the night here? Sounds like you're planning
to do it quite a lot. I like the sound of that.
I won't stay here much if it freaks Alice out every time, I say,
trying to keep the conversation on track.
You two must be really close, he says softly.
We are. She's helped me through so much. I sigh. This is
going to be a pretty long story, but if Cole's really going to stick
around then he deserves to know the truth. My dad left not long
after I was born and my mom, well, she didn't do a good job of
raising us. So Alice had to raise herself, and take care of me as
well. As soon as she turned eighteen, she moved out and took me
with her. My mom never so much as tried to look for me.
Cole remains silent, but his hand is gently stroking my head. It
feels comforting.
That was ten years ago. My voice starts to crack, but I keep
going. I moved out to my own place but after a...personal
tragedy, I had to move back in with Alice. She's my rock.
I can't bring myself to tell Cole about Scott.
Ive always hated bringing up exes to new partners, but this is on
a whole other level of awkward. Scott is definitely not an ex. I
would've happily spent the rest of my life with him if he didn't
pass away so suddenly in a tragic accident. I could never bring
myself to leave him.
How do you bring up a dead guy you still love to a new guy? And
while you're still in his bed after having mind-blowing sex, no
less?
Tell her well see her at the mall tomorrow, baby, Cole says
soothingly, his hands caressing my skin and my hair. I want to
know everything and everyone that's important to you.
Okay. I let my tears fall freely onto Coles luxuriously fluffy
pillow, the little salty droplets seeping into the soft fabric of the
pillowcase.
I love you. Cole kisses the back of my head and wraps his arms
around me.
I keep quiet, but I place my hands on his strong forearms and
gently caress his skin in response.
Im not ready yet to tell him I feel the same way, but I have to
admit I like the way things are going. Its safe and comfortable
with Cole spooning me, his hard body warm on my back.
YAY. I pull a chair back and take a seat while Cole does the
same beside me. I knew you'd be off today. It's the third
Saturday of the month.
And you assume I don't have any plans. Alice smiles while I
take in the sight of all the delicious food on the table.
This particular restaurant is usually super busy, especially during
the weekend. It's almost impossible to get a reservation at the
last minute, but Cole made it happen. I asked Alice to order for
all three of us while Cole and I were at the Apple store buying my
new phone.
Yes. I love you. But seriously, you need to get a life. I glance at
Cole. This is my sister Alice. And Alice, this is Cole.
Your boss, Alice says pointedly. Her lips form a big wide smile,
but her eyes don't look very friendly. She extends a hand and
says, Hi, Im Alice. Pleased to meet you.
Pleasure is all mine. He shakes Alices hand and smiles. Im
Cole. Emilys boyfriend.
Uh-oh. This is not going to be easy. We haven't exactly had the
boyfriend-girlfriend discussion. I dont mind Cole seeing our
relationship that way, but Alice doesn't seem too impressed.
Oh, Im sorry, she says, sarcasm dripping with every syllable
she utters. I thought it was too early for bringing up something
like that.
So. I clap my hands together to break the tension and draw
their attention to me. It's probably best if Im the one who steers
the conversation. The conference went great. My presentation
was a big success. Right, Cole?
You did really well, baby, he says, smiling at me with that
tender look in his eyes that Im really growing to love. Maybe
seeing how much Cole cares about me would soften Alices heart.
And guess who I saw? I look at Alice, whos still eyeing Cole
with suspicion. I stab some lettuce in the salad and bring it to my
mouth.
Who? She asks as she takes a bite of her burger. It's so unfair
the way Alice can eat anything and stay skinny while I have to
watch what I eat and only occasionally treat myself.
Marco, I say.
Oh. I totally forgot that he lives in Seattle now, Alice says,
looking genuinely surprised.
I thought you texted him a few months ago after the
interview. I shovel more salad into my mouth. By the way, this
Caesar salad. It's really good.
Well Alice looks up like she's trying to remember.
You know what's weird? I take a sip of the Diet Coke Alice
ordered for me. He told me he didn't recommend me for the
job. He said he didn't even know Cole. Well, not personally,
anyway. I wanted to ask you about this when I was in Seattle, but
I dropped my phone in the pool and couldn't reach you. You
know, I don't remember anybody's phone number these days.
Whoa, hold up. Cole raises his hands. His eyebrows are taut
and there are lines in his forehead, but his lips are upturned.
You dropped your phone in the pool? As in the swimming pool
at The Trident? He bursts into laughter when I nod. You didn't
tell me that!
Well, I was mad at you at that time. As much as I like seeing
Cole laugh, I don't want our fight to be the subject of the first
story Alice hears about us. Wait. So, Alice, you told me Marco
was the one who recommended the job, right?
I did.
See? I know Im not crazy. So Marco just...forgot? He told me it
was probably one of your friends instead.
He's right, Alice says. It's Randy from the restaurant. I just
thought you'd be more motivated if you thought you knew the
person who recommended you.
That's silly. You know I always value your input.
Well, I can't explain it to you. It seemed to make sense at the
time. Alice takes another big bite of her burger.
I look at Cole, who's been silent for a while. I raise my eyebrows
at him.
"Right. Randy." He finishes chewing his steak and swallows. "I
remember now. He's my fathers old friend. He asked me to
personally see you."
Alice and Cole continue to not say much to each other as they
eat, forcing me to be the one to keep the conversation going. Im
not going to lie, I was hoping it would be a little easier than this.
But they seem determined to not get along for some reason.
When Cole excuses himself from the table to make a phone call, I
use the time to have a frank conversation with Alice.
"Alice, you're not even trying." I put my fork down. It clangs as
it hits the plate. "Can you please give him a chance? For me?"
"I really don't think this is a good idea, Em," she says.
"You're the one who's been telling me it's time for me to start
dating again." I look at her with disbelief.
"Yeah, but I didn't think you were going to date your boss." She
sighs. "I thought you were smarter than this."
Youre saying that because I'm dating Cole? You used to date
your boss too!" My voice grows louder as my frustration mounts.
Such hypocrisy!
"Hello? Used to. I'm not dating him anymore. With good
reason." Alice's eyes widen and her eyebrows are raised. "It's
just not a good idea to date your boss."
"Look, just because it didn't work out for you or for Mom doesn't
mean that I'm doomed to fail, too. I'm not you, and I'm
definitely not Mom. And Cole's not your boss, or any of Mom's
bosses." Some heads have turned toward us now, and I look
around to make sure Cole is still outside. Lowering my volume, I
say, "I like him, Alice. Like, really like him. And this is the first
time since...you know."
"I just don't want you to get hurt." Alice takes my hand and
looks straight into my eyes. "Maybe you should let this one go.
There will be other men that you'll like. Em, I have a bad feeling
about this."
"It's not that easy, Alice. It's... I don't..." I rack my brain, trying
to find the right words to say. "I was starting to think I was never
going to fall in love again. And then I started to fall for him."
"Oh, God. It's even worse than I thought." She sighs.
"Alice. I understand if you're worried. But I'm a big girl. I can
take care of myself," I say.
"You don't get it, Em. I have a really bad feeling about this."
"You keep saying that, but you still haven't told me why," I say.
"You're right. I can't tell you what to do or how to live your life."
"So you're going to try to get along with Cole?"
"That's not what I said." Alice frowns when she notices Cole
approaching our table. "I can't stop you from seeing him, but I
don't have to be happy about it."
My mouth hangs open. I can't believe she's acting like such an
immature brat. She doesn't even know Cole!
As Cole takes a seat beside me, a waiter comes along. He stops at
our table and asks, "May I clear the table? Can I interest you in
some desserts?"
"We'll just have the check, please," I say curtly, glaring at Alice.
"Very well," he says as he gets the empty plates on the table,
somehow balances them on his hands, and walks away.
I planned to spend the rest of the night with both Cole and Alice,
but it's obvious now that's not going to be a pleasant experience.
And while Cole hasn't tried very hard, it's Alice who's being
overly hostile toward Cole. She has unfairly judged him without
even trying to get to know him.
"Excuse me." I stand up, causing my chair to drag across the
floor behind me, making a loud noise.
I don't care anymore who's watching. I make my way past tables
of dressed-up diners as best as I can, navigating through my
blurry vision. This night couldn't have gone any worse. And now
I have to go hide in the ladies' room to cry.
COLE

W hat do you think youre doing? My fathers voice booms


through the phone.
Fuck. This sounds like the kind of conversation thats going to
take a while. Meanwhile, Emily and Alice are waiting for me at
the table, and I really dont want to leave them alone if I can help
it.
What is this about, Pop?
You know full well what this is about. Nora told me you had a
guest last night. A woman who left long blonde hair in the drain.
Its right after you came back from the conference so Im sure
you can understand my suspicion. So please. Tell me its not her.
Tell me youre not that stupid.
What the fuck? In what world is it normal for an elderly
housekeeper to check the hair left in the drain? Does she think
shes Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond?
Its just some girl. Stop spying on me, Pop. Im an adult. You
should be ashamed of yourself. I look around at the shoppers in
the mall, checking to see if any one of them looks like one of my
fathers spies.
You may be an adult, but youre acting like a child. So thats
how Im going to treat you. You better not be with that girl, boy.
You know damn well youd be putting the whole family at risk.
Pop. I have to go, okay? I have things to do. I hang up.
I bet he hates that. Its the kind of thing that shatters the
illusion that hes pulling my strings, making me do as he orders.
Fuck that. I cant wait until Tuesday when I can finally tell him to
fuck off.
Its just three more days until Tuesday, I tell myself as I pass
rows of dining tables to get to our table.
Even from a distance, I can tell something is wrong. Emily seems
distraught. I knew this meeting wasn't going to go well, but
Emily sounded so heartbroken last night I couldn't have possibly
said no.
As soon as I silently take my seat, before I have a chance to get
an idea of what's happening, Emily asks for the check and
excuses herself to go to the restroom, leaving me alone with
Alice, who proceeds to glare at me.
I only have one question in my mind: did Alice tell Emily
anything?
Are you out of your mind? Alice tears into me as soon as Emily
is out of earshot.
Listen, Im sorry it's
Damn right you're sorry, she says, cutting me off before I
finish my sentence. You should be ashamed of yourself, taking
advantage of a vulnerable girl like that.
I think you have the wrong idea. I don't have any intention of
taking advantage of Emily. On the contrary, I really care about
her. I love her.
Yeah? Is that why she has no idea you were involved in the
accident? Alice's eyes grow as big as the oversized plates they
use at this pretentious restaurant. She's challenging me.
I'm honestly taken aback by Alices protectiveness over Emily.
For Emilys sake, I'm glad she has someone who cares about her
to this extent. But at the moment, shes not making my life any
easier.
Did you tell her? I ask after a long pause.
This is what Ive been afraid of. Considering the way Emily
avoided eye contact with me and immediately ran to the
restroom as soon as I came back, I conclude that Alice has
probably told Emily. Which means there's a good chance she
won't even talk to me again.
No, Alice says while she fidgets with the glass of soda and ice
cubes before her.
Why not? I ask with surprise.
I want you to be the one to tell her. She looks straight into my
eyes as she says this, her hands playing with the cold
condensation on her glass.
Why?
It's not for your benefit, if that's what you're thinking. In fact,
Ill tell you right now that if you don't tell her, I will. The flame
burning in Alice's blue eyes tells me its not an empty threat.
Believe me, I was already planning on telling her.
Good. Alice seems relieved. Her jaw and facial expression
relax.
Look, I dont think youre a bad person, Cole. I know as well as
you do that it was an accident. I wouldnt have said yes to your
crazy proposal if I didnt think you were innocent, Alice says.
But I definitely wouldnt have said yes if I had known that you
were going tototo seduce Emily.
The way she hesitates before uncomfortably saying the word
seduce like it's the most cringe-worthy word in the dictionary
makes me want to laugh. It's funny how much she reminds me
of her sister. I stop myself from actually laughing out loud, of
course. Im not a complete asshole.
Im glad you don't hold me responsible, Alice. I wouldn't go so
far as to say Im innocent, I say. But the most important thing
is, I didn't plan on any of this happening. I'm not the evil
mastermind you seem to think I am. It all just happened. I love
her, Alice. The last thing I want to do is to hurt her.
Please dont hurt her. Shes a good girl. She acts like shes
strong and she is but shes been through so much. You of
all people should know. If you love her, youre going to make it
right, Alice says.
I promise you, I will.
To be honest, I wanted to tell her myself when you went
outside, but then II couldnt do it. Alice lets out a burdensome
sigh. Her gaze softens. She needs to hear it from you, Cole. She
deserves that. You know she deserves that.
I know, Alice. I promise you Ill make it right. I was already
planning to tell her.
We stop talking when Emily comes back. Her eyes are red and
the skin underneath those eyes are dark and puffy. The table is
silent as we wait for the check, which I pay in full despite
protests from both sisters.
You can be the one to treat us next time, I say to Alice as I
place my credit card on the little tray with the check and hand it
over to the waiter.
Alice replies with a terse okay, thanks. Then the table
continues to remain awkwardly quiet. The atmosphere here is
more somber than a fucking cemetery.
I wonder what happened here between Emily and Alice while I
was away for a two-minute phone call. I have no idea whats
going on, but if theres one thing I know, its that Im not going
to be the first one to break the silence. Im not suicidal.
The waiter comes back with the credit card reader and some
mints. From the way he keeps his voice low and quiet, Id say he
seems to sense the tension as well. Once thats taken care of, we
make our way across the mall and go straight to the parking lot.
Take care, Em, Alice says as she presses a button on her car
key fob. An old Honda sedan parked nearby chirps twice in
response.
I will. You too. Emilys face remains expressionless. Theres
no mistaking the signs of her having just cried, though. Its
obvious the conflict between the two of them is tearing her apart
inside. It fucking kills me to know Im probably responsible for
this, too.
Once were in my car, I start the ignition and turn on the heater.
Its getting chilly and Ive noticed Emily pulling on her cardigan
a few times tonight. Shes looking straight ahead now, just
staring into the distance with a blank expression on her face and
water collecting in her eyes.
Is everything okay? I rub her upper arm.
Yes.
Did something happen?
Its nothing.
Can I help in any way?
I said its nothing.
Okay. Is there anywhere you want to go to now?
No. Lets just go to your place.
Okay, baby. I love you. I stroke her hair before I put my hands
on the steering wheel and back up out of the parking space.
Fuck. She sounded like a robot just mechanically answering my
questions. Alice told me she didnt tell Emily and I believe her,
which means that Emilys probably not angry at me yet. But
this reaction to whatever Alice said doesnt bode well for when I
tell her the bad news.
Did you...have a chat with Alice while I was gone? Emily
breaks the silence with a hesitant question.
Just some small talk, I say, lying to her yet again.
COLE

A re you sure we cant see your father tonight? Emily asks as


we pull up into the parking lot of The Amber Room.
One-hundred percent sure. I turn off the engine and step out
of the car as Emily does the same on the other side.
I cant think of a worse idea than having my father and Emily
share a meal together. The absurdity of the question almost
makes me burst out in laughter.
After how badly everything went last night with Alice, I didnt
think Emily would want to repeat the experience, but shes a
stubborn one. She has no idea how much worse a dinner with my
father would go. Shed be putting herself in real danger.
Thats my own fault for not telling her. I know. But I just need to
buy some time.
Well, can we see him some other time? Emily insists as she
takes my hand and we walk across the parking lot.
Sure. I let out a discreet little sigh.
Oh, well see him alright. But it wont be a fun little family get-
together.
Its just familys really important to me. She looks at the
ground and continues, I know you probably wouldnt think that
after what happened last night.
Hey, if anything, what happened last night showed me how
close you two are. I barely see my family outside of business
dealings.
Im sorry. Emily tightens her grip on my hand, as if lending
me support.
Youre sweet, I say. But it doesnt bother me. My familys not
super close. Ive made my peace with that a long time ago. Its
not like I once had a tight-knit family and now Ive lost it. This is
normal to me.
I glance at Emily. She looks beautiful in a black dress that we just
bought earlier today at the Westfield Center. She only had work
clothes at my place and didnt want to go home where shed risk
seeing Alice.
I love seeing her all dressed up like this. It reminds me of the
way she looked when I first saw her in this very bar, wrapped like
a present with a bow around her waist. That was the night when
everything changed.
Hey, Cole, Shelley says when she spots me sitting at the bar.
Weve been waiting for a while as its a pretty busy, which is par
for the course for a Saturday night. Whats it going to be
tonight?
A Macallan for me, and I turn toward Emily, prompting her
to order.
A Diet Coke for me, thanks.
Diet Coke, huh? I dont get many orders for those here,
Shelley says as she pours our drinks into glasses. She winks at
Emily and says, I also dont often see Cole show up with a
date.
Emily smiles and thanks Shelley when she serves up my whiskey
and Emilys soda on the counter.
My names Shelley. She points at the name tag on her black
polo shirt. Feel free to call me if you need anything.
Thanks, Shelley. Im Emily, she says politely.
Nice to meet you, Emily. Lowering her voice, Shelley says,
Keep an eye on your man here, or else one of the girls will steal
him away. Hes Mr. Popular around here.
With that, Shelley sashays away to deal with the growing crowd.
A handful of guys have become pretty loud and aggressive as
they fight to get her attention.
So Mr. Popular, huh? Emilys eyes twinkle as she teases me.
You really do come here a lot, dont you?
I sometimes come here after work just to unwind. I shrug.
I didnt peg you as a bar regular.
I only started coming for business. There was a guy from out of
town. He stayed in a hotel nearby. I wanted to close a deal with
him, so I started hanging out here to purposely bump into
him. I raise my fingers up to form air quotes, which makes
Emily smile. And then I just kept coming even after the
contract was signed and the guy had left the city.
Your phones ringing again. Emily looks at the phone in my
jeans pocket. You said you didnt want to pick it up while
driving in the car. Shouldnt you check at least? It might be
important.
Youre right. I pull the phone out. I already know who it is. My
father has been trying to get a reaction out of me, but Ive
decided not to give him the satisfaction. Besides, its probably
safer if I make zero contact with him, at least until Tuesday.
Hey, player. Rick slaps my shoulder from behind and chortles.
A different girl again?
Hi, Rick. I look back and give the tall, lanky guy a dirty look.
Luckily, Emily seems to find it funny. Dont mind him, Emily.
He thinks hes funny.
Hi Emily, he says. I dont believe weve met. Im Rick, and I
am funny. Too bad funny doesnt pull as many girls as
handsome and successful, eh, Cole?
Hi, Rick. I keep hearing about these girls. Emily grins.
Oh, you want me to fill you in on that? I can tell you all the
dirty, nasty, disgusting details.
Emily laughs while Rick keeps shooting stupid jokes at her.
Okay, so Emily doesnt seem like the jealous type. This is good.
Ive made a good decision taking her to this bar. It scratches her
itch of wanting to see a different side of me, keeps her away
from my family, and helps her forget about the fight with Alice.
I look down at my phone as the two of them chat. Seventeen
missed calls from my father. One text message. It simply says:
Check your email and call me right away. I sigh.
Jesus. What is it this time? Its Sunday night. Cant he let me
enjoy a weekend for once?
I feel like Ive seen you before, Emily, Rick says.
Dont mind him. He says that to all the girls, I say to Emily,
raising my head up to join the conversation.
I dont know, Emily says. This place does look a little
familiar. The layout, at least. I dont remember the black
chandeliers and the red velvet chairs, though.
I tap the envelope icon on my phone to find an email from my
father. No subject, no text, just attachments. What could this be?
It wouldnt be too weird if youve been here before. This place
went through a big renovation last year. And it was all the rage
one, two years ago. Its still great now, but its not as hot as it
used to be, Rick says.
I tap the email open. As I scan the little previews of the attached
pictures, tendrils of fear wrap around me. It suddenly feels cold
and suffocating in here.
What do you think, Cole? Emily touches my arm, making me
jump in surprise. She looks at me with concern. Rick and I were
just talking about whether Ive been here before.
Oh, right. Ive seen you here before, I say distractedly, my eyes
transfixed on the pictures on my phone. Theyre obviously
pictures of Emily and me, taken stealthily with long-focus
lenses. I cant believe this. He sent one of his fucking spies to
check on me.
Are you okay, Cole? Emily knits her eyebrows together with
worry.
Yeah, Im fine. I just need to go outside for a while. Get some
fresh air. Make a phone call. My words stumble all over one
another. I take a deep breath. Dont worry. Ill be back before
you know it.
Fuck. This is the worst thing that can happen now. I didnt
expect him to move this quickly. I thought I had enough time.
When Im outside, I lean against the wall and look up at the stars
in the night sky. I gulp in as much air as I can into my
compressed lungs. But as hard as I try, I cant get any relief. I
still feel like there are walls all around me, closing in on me.
I press the button on my phone again to turn on the screen.
There they are. Fucking high-resolution pictures of Emily and
me: us driving into the Westfield Center parking lot, us stepping
out of Banana Republic with Emilys new dress, us walking hand
in hand into my apartment building.
There are even pictures of us getting into The Amber Room
barely half an hour ago. Is this guy still here? Is he taking
pictures of me now? Is my father looking at pictures of me
hyperventilating right now?
I look around, trying to spot some guy with dark clothing and
expensive camera equipment skulking around in the bushes, or
sitting idly inside a dark car. Im going to beat him to a pulp if I
find him. Cowardly fucker, hiding in the shadows.
I clench my hands into hard fists and realize theyre shaking. Im
all wound up and Im probably not thinking straight. Its not a
good idea to call my father right now. Thats only going to show
him how much hes gotten to me although if the spys still
hanging around he probably already knows anyway.
Emily.
Emily should be my priority. I have to keep her safe. I have to get
back inside and take her somewhere safe. Explaining everything
to her would be tricky, but the airport should probably be our
next stop.
EMILY

I wonder if Coles okay. He looks a little pale. I guess the


fresh air outside will do him good.
Ill just stay here and chat with Rick while hes gone. Thats the
whole reason Im here anyway, to get to know his life outside the
office.
Im still a little disappointed that we cant have dinner with Mr.
Foster tonight, but there will be other nights. Its not like I
havent met the guy, although back then I was just another
employee who wasnt dating his son.
I look around me. This place really does look familiar, and not
just because Ive seen it in some magazine either. Im definitely
getting some strange dj vu vibes. I wonder if Cole has really
seen me here before.
Ricks looking at me with a mysterious little smile on his face.
"You know, he really likes you," he says. "I can tell."
"Yeah? Well, tell me more." I drop my elbow on the bar counter
and prop my head up, leaning closer to Rick. "What exactly has
he told you? Give me exact quotes."
"Oh, you know Cole. He doesn't tell anybody anything. He
chuckles. "But I can tell he likes you. He looks a lot happier
today than Ive seen him for a long time."
"He makes me happy too. I beam. Something something
about Rick, or something about this being Coles space, or maybe
something about falling in love makes me want to tell Rick
things, things I don't usually tell people I've just met. Or maybe
its just because I cant tell this stuff to Alice. "I haven't been
this happy in a long time either."
"Aw, you two are just too adorable."
I take another sip of my Diet Coke and playfully shrug. "I know,
right?"
"Cole has been a grumpy son of a bitch since, oh, about two
years ago."
"Oh, what happened?" I put my glass down on the bar.
Rick sighs. There was this accident.
"Oh. Like, a car accident?" My chest tightens. Any talk of an
accident reminds me of my most painful memories, but I don't
want to miss a word of this.
"Yeah. It wasn't his fault, but Cole has always been his own
worst critic. He was pretty depressed for a while. But at least he
stopped working so much and burying his face in his phone all
the time after the accident," he says.
He was too depressed to work? I ask, my heart hammering so
hard in my chest my legs are shaking.
I had no idea Cole and I had this in common. But I guess I dont
know Cole that much at all. Before the conference, we just said
hello as we passed each other in the office hallways. Oh, and of
course we spoke during the interview. But thats all.
"Uh, yeah, sort of. I think he was trying to stop his phone from
ringing when it happened. Probably another call from his father
about work stuff," he says with some hesitation.
"So he was reaching for his phone and caused an accident?" I
feel like someone has reached an icy hand into my chest,
grabbed my pounding heart, and squeezed so violently it's about
to burst. My legs are shaking pretty violently. If there wasnt any
music Rick would be able to hear the sound of my heels banging
against the leg of the bar stool.
"You know, maybe you should talk to him about this. Rick takes
a deep breath and sighs. It's really not my story to tell."
Rick is a good friend, but hes told me everything I need to know.
He doesn't have to say anything more. From the expression on
Rick's face, I know I must've guessed correctly.
Here are the facts. Cole was reaching for his phone. He caused a
car accident. He felt so guilty he scaled back on his workaholic
ways. It happened two years ago.
It sounds familiar. Too familiar.
The whole room starts to spin. The veins on the sides of my
forehead throb painfully. Blood roars in my ears, blocking me
from my surroundings.
I remember these feelings from when I was here. Cole was right!
I have been here before. I was drinking too much, which is why I
dont like to drink outside anymore. And I wanted to go home
quickly. And Scott was rushing to get me home so I could lie
down in our bed
Oh my God.
I jump when Rick's hand lands on my shoulder.
"Emily?" He's looking at me with concern in his eyes. "Are you
okay?"
"I, um, yeah," I stammer.
Not really, but its not like I can tell you I think my new
boyfriend killed my old boyfriend in a horrible accident and has
been lying to me about it the whole time. Just when Im starting
to let someone into my heart again.
I realize I must've completely zoned out and ignored Rick.
"Actually, I have a really bad headache right now. Please tell Cole
I have to leave."
I hop off the bar stool. Grabbing my bag, I focus my blurry eyes
on the club entrance. All I know is I have to get outside. It feels
heavy inside the bar and I'm suffocating. No matter how deeply I
breathe, my lungs just wouldn't expand to take in enough air.
"Emily!" I hear Rick shout behind me. Are you sure you dont
want to wait for Cole to come back? He can drive you home.
A part of me wants to turn my head and at least apologize for
being rude, for just walking away like this. But I can barely
maintain my balance as it is.
I can only do one thing at a time. And right now what I want to
do is get out of this place and curl up under my blanket.
Just like two years ago on the night of the accident, when Coles
and Scotts cars probably collided, killing Scott on the spot,
sending Cole into a spiral of depression, and changing my life
forever.
COLE

I dash into The Amber Room with the kind of urgency Ive
never felt before in my life. Blood is rushing through my
veins as worry and anxiety swirl in my gut.
Fuck. How did I let it get this bad?
I need to get Emily out of here before they get to her. My father
isnt as violent as he used to be, but we havent faced a problem
of this scale for a while. Who knows what hes going to do to
her?
Inside, Rick is sitting at the bar by himself. Maybe Emilys in the
restroom?
Rick! Wheres Emily? I grab him by the shoulder and pull him
back until hes looking right back at me.
She, uh, she said she wasnt feeling well so she went home.
What? Why didnt she wait for me?
She didnt say. She looked like she was in a big rush, he says
nervously.
Why didnt you stop her?
Rick is silent. I run my fingers through my hair, hoping itll help
stimulate my creative juices. Its not fair to blame Rick for this.
But its strange that Emily just decided to up and leave.
Where is she even going? Definitely not to my apartment
because she doesnt have a key. She just decided to go home to
Alices place, when just hours ago she wouldnt even talk to her
sister?
None of this makes any sense.
What happened, Rick? I ask in the same menacing tone I often
hear my father use when hes interrogating someone. I guess my
upbringing has taught me some important life skills after all.
I dont know. One minute we were having a nice chat, and then
she suddenly bolted.
Rick deflates when I continue glowering at him in silence.
He hesitates before saying, I may have told her about the
accident. Im sorry. I didnt think it was
Fuck!
I storm out of The Amber Room without waiting for Rick to finish
his explanation. He couldnt have chosen a worse time to act like
a blabbering moron.
Emily mustve gone out the front door because I didnt see her
while I was panicking like an idiot in the parking lot behind the
building.
I scan the busy sidewalk outside. Talk about the worst timing
ever. This being downtown on a Saturday night, the sidewalk is
packed with people.
I check the area near the main entrance to The Amber Room. It
takes me a while to realize that Emily is definitely not around
here anymore. She mustve taken a cab to God knows where.
I rush back through The Amber Room and go straight to the
parking lot. I vaguely notice Rick standing up and calling my
name from the bar, but I ignore him. I dont have any time for
his idiocy right now. I have to find the only person that matters
right now.
Emily. Where the fuck are you, baby?
I jump into my car and take the familiar route Ive used so many
times before to reach Alices apartment.
As I speed through the streets, I remember how I used to drive
by, hoping to catch a glimpse of Emily, even for just a fraction of
a second. Id even park right outside sometimes and wait for her
to show up.
She never did show up for the longest time. I guess she was too
sad and depressed. But after a month or so, I started seeing her a
lot more. Every single time, it was like a hit of cocaine straight in
my veins. Seeing her made me feel like I was alive again. She still
has that same effect on me now.
Fuck. Ive gone and ruined everything now.
All of a sudden, I hear the wail of a police siren behind me, along
with the blindingly bright flashing blue lights.
Oh, for fucks sake. I just cant get a break tonight.
I have a decent car, a BMW X5 M, which Im sure is capable of
going a whole lot faster than I usually do. But Ive never seen
cops lose a car chase in real life before. Theres no other choice. I
have to pull over.
I roll down the car window and wait for the cop to approach. I
grab my license and registration. I know the drill, and I want to
get this over and done with as soon as possible.
Good evening, Mr. Foster, the cop says as soon as he stops by
my car door.
I groan. Which cop doesnt need to see my license to know my
name? A cop that my father keeps in his pocket, of course.
Your father has been looking for you, he says.
Oh, is that what the police do now? Is that how were spending
tax dollars? On finding the missing adult children of rich
men?
Im going to need you to follow my car, Mr. Foster. Or, if you
prefer, me and my partner can take you in our patrol car, the
cop says.
My partner and I. I correct his grammar.
Excuse me? He obviously doesnt get it. His face is an
infuriating mixture of indifference and sanctimony.
Im not getting in the back of your car like some fucking low-
life criminal. Where are we going?
Were going to your fathers house, Sir. His calm and polite
tone only makes me angrier. Fucking hypocrite.
I can go there by myself. I know hes not going to let me go,
but I have to at least try.
Im sorry, Sir. But your father requested that we escort you and
your lady friend.
Escort, huh? I burst out in laughter. This is just too absurd.
As you can see, Officer, Im all by myself.
Thats unfortunate, Sir. But we still have to insist that you
follow us. His voice may sound cordial, but this is definitely a
threat. I know a threat when I hear one.
The cop turns around and gets back into his patrol car. I roll the
window back up and follow them. I take a few deep breaths to
calm myself down.
This isnt so bad. At least they definitely dont have Emily if
these corrupt cops think shes still with me. Shes safe for
now.
As incompetent as these cops are, the car siren does a good job of
clearing the roads and letting us speed through traffic lights. A
million things rush through my overworked brain just as quickly.
The drive to fathers mansion seems to end in just a blink.
Im flanked by the two cops as I walk into the house.
By the time they leave me in my fathers home office, I still have
no idea what to do. Everything tonight has happened so quickly
Ive had absolutely no time to process it.
Alone in the home office, I sit in the guest chair by my fathers
desk. Ive been here so many times before, having grown up in
this big, empty house. I remember coming here looking for him
as a boy and never being allowed to come inside because Id
bother him.
The office has the same dark wood flooring, the same big Persian
rug, the same chunky desk, and the same hefty leather chair. It
feels different, though. Just like everything does when you
havent seen it in a long time.
I was expecting to meet her, too, my father says as he enters
the room and approaches me from behind, startling me. Its
surprising how little noise he makes when hes walking. He can
sneak up on you like a cat. Too bad shes not here.
Funny, she said the exact same thing today, I say without
turning around to face him. We should have dinner together,
you, me, and Emily. Wed make a cute little family.
I didnt think youd be this stupid, boy. He lets out a big,
disappointed sigh, which does absolutely nothing for me. Ive
disappointed him far too many times to care about his approval.
He sidles around the desk and sits in his big chair, which Im
sure has been carefully selected for its intimidating size.
Stupid is relative, Pop. I personally dont think Ive done
anything stupid at all.
Thats because youre stupid. If I didnt take care of things after
the accident, you wouldve destroyed your reputation and
dragged the rest of the family down with you, he says.
For the millionth time, Pop, it was an accident. People probably
wouldnt have reacted as strongly as you think they would.
Theyd see it as an accident if you were someone else, someone
like them. But youre not. Youre my son, and they were going to
judge you differently. Even if the cops had released you which
wasnt guaranteed without my involvement they still
wouldve thought youd gotten away with murder.
So, really, the problem stems from me being your son, right?
You can see how that means youre the root of the problem,
right?
Im not going to argue with you anymore. Youve failed to
consider how your actions were going to affect the family, so I
obviously cant trust you anymore. Im going to put you under
surveillance.
Youre going to have your thugs babysit me?
Think of it as your last chance. If I ever see her around you
again, Im going to seize control over Foster Hotels.
And there it is. I knew, when my father insisted on using his
lawyers to draft the legal documents for the company, that he
wasnt doing it out of the goodness of his heart. For fucks sake,
even the name of the company is Foster Hotels.
All he wants is to maintain some sort of control over my life. And
now hes using that leverage to blackmail me into doing as he
says. Again.
EMILY

U gh. Whats the deal with all the happy, smiling couples
making out all over the place? Im getting a strong urge to walk
up to every single couple on the sidewalk and scream the truth in
their faces: Its all going to end in tears!
But Ive got enough on my platter. Im miserable enough already
as a free woman. I dont want to add getting arrested or
institutionalized to the list of my problems.
I know Im being petty, but after the shit show that is my love
life, I think Ive earned my right to be petty. Hell, if I ever feel
like it, Ive even gone through enough shit to earn the right to
print out anti-love tracts and leave them instead of tips at
restaurants. And this is coming from a former server.
Havent they heard the news? Its all a lie. Love doesnt exist. Or
even if it does, its only for a short while. Just when you think
youre standing on solid ground, a crater tears the soil beneath
your feet and swallows you whole, burying you alive.
And then you curse yourself for ever believing in the stories. You
feel like youve just discovered the truth about Santa Claus all
over again. Everyone has been lying to you the whole time.
Youve been played for a fool.
We tell ourselves a lot of lies. Like forever. Forever is a lie we tell
ourselves so we can function.
There is no forever, not even in the best of relationships. Trust
me. I would know. I had the perfect relationship, and then it was
snatched away from me.
I swallow the lump forming in my throat. In a twisted way, the
discomfort makes me feel more human, or as human as I can be
when Im dead inside. Perhaps this is why some people cut
themselves.
Tears collect in my eyes, blurring my vision. Not wanting to draw
attention to my zombie self, I blink them away, but still they
grow into heavy drops and fall down my cheeks.
I wish I had a pair of sunglasses stashed in my bag. But I was so
out of it this morning Im lucky to be even wearing a clean gray
shirt and a pair of dark jeans.
Hang on, I tell myself. Youre almost there.
It gets harder and harder to breathe the closer I get to the
cemetery. Some invisible force is drawing me closer, telling me
theres comfort at my destination. As much as I want to believe
that, I know its just another lie I tell myself. Theres nothing
there but more sorrow.
But I keep on going. I need to see Scott. Its been too long. I was
starting to feel like Id been abandoning him anyway when last
night happened.
Fuck. Jesus, Emily. Listen to yourself. What are you even talking
about? Its not like Scott can get lonely anymore, can he?
With no warning, tears pour out of my eyes and stream down my
face. Luckily Im already walking past the big, black, cast iron
gates of Blackwood Cemetery. Theres nobody here to gawk at
me. Besides, whats more normal than crying at a cemetery?
I miss him so much.
The day Scott died, it was like someone stabbed me in the heart
and never bothered to pull out the knife. And so the invisible
murder weapon stays stuck in my chest as I walk around with a
dead soul.
The wound never has any chance to heal as the knife becomes a
permanent fixture. Some days I may feel strong enough to
function, at least outwardly. But then the knife shifts and a fresh
cut appears.
Is it wrong to wish that somewhere out there, Scott feels the
same way too?
Of course it would be better for him if he were having a picnic
with his dead friends and relatives in a sunny meadow in the
afterlife. But I cant actually bring myself to believe this
particular lie.
Although, as long as were talking about lies and believability, I
guess him feeling anything is just as unlikely as him having a
ghostly picnic.
But it just feels so lonely to miss the love of your life so much
and not have that feeling be returned.
As my feet leave the paved footpaths and step onto the grass, I
wonder whos sadder: widows or unrequited lovers? Its strange
how the most random thoughts just appear out of nowhere.
It doesnt take long for me to spot the headstone, a heavy slab of
polished black granite with a rounded top and his name on it. I
weave around strangers graves, tracing the familiar route to
Scotts final resting place.
I used to come here every day after the funeral, for about one
month. Then I realized there was nothing here.
He was not here. He was nowhere.
And I was never even going to feel his presence anymore. Maybe
Im too logical to be a good widow, although we never got around
to marrying each other so I probably cant even call myself that.
You know another reason you wouldnt make a good widow?
Because you fucked the guy who killed him.
I feel like someone is pushing and twisting the knife deeper into
my chest. With that gaping hole in my center, it hurts to
breathe, like every little movement just rips my flesh open even
further.
I reach Scotts lot and touch the headstone, warm from being in
the sun all morning. I plant my butt on the grass and lean
against the headstone.
Scott, I say. Honey, if you can hear me You need to get a
better body. Seriously. This one is too hard and its such an
awkward shape too. I giggle to myself, then clamp my lips
together until they hurt, in a futile effort to fight the tears back.
Scott wouldve laughed at that joke.
I wouldve gotten you something. But you were never into
flowers, and those seem to be the most popular things to bring
to cemeteries.
I look around at the bouquets people have left behind by their
loved ones graves. Orange and blue and red. Having spent a lot
of time here, I know the groundskeeper picks them up and
throws them away when they dry out.
Im sorry, I blurt out, gazing at the patch of grass over Scotts
grave. Im so sorry, honey.
I still cant believe hes down there, just six feet away from me.
And yet I saw the body in the coffin before they nailed it shut and
lowered it into the ground two years ago.
It still seems so surreal. I cant believe that buried down there is
the same body that shared my bed and slept beside me every
night for five years. The same body that held me and comforted
me when I was upset. The same hands that stroked my hair until
I fell asleep. The same chest I fell asleep on, listening to the
heart beating within.
And now its justan empty husk. Unmoving, inanimate,
lifeless, rotting six feet underground.
I start to feel silly about speaking aloud to no one. But what the
hell, Im already here. I came here to talk to Scott, so here I am
talking to Scott.
You know, its kind of your fault that Im in this situation, I
say. If you were still around, I wouldnt have even known that
Cole existed.
I try to imagine his answer. Hed probably laugh, and then say
something about About what?
My heart clenches. Ive felt my memories of Scott slipping away,
but Ive never wanted to admit it. I used to be able to finish his
sentences, and even predict what hed say before the words
came out of his mouth. Its undeniable; the details are getting
fuzzy. I know this is inevitable, but it still kills me inside.
I grab some Kleenex from my bag and blow my nose. Tears are
streaming down my cheeks and flooding my nostrils, blocking
my breathing.
Im sorry, honey, I say through ugly sobs. God. I miss you so
much. Youd know what to do if you were here. You were always
so good in a crisis. Please tell me what to do.
Now that Ive opened the floodgates, tears flow freely down my
face. My shoulders shake with every sob, and I struggle to suck
enough air to fill my lungs. I stop talking and start weeping.
I love you, Scott, I say. You know that, right? I always will.
I realize nobody can ever take Scotts place. He was perfect. Kind
and funny and generous and understanding. He always gave me
the benefit of the doubt; he always trusted me.
Although maybe he shouldnt have, considering I have slept with
the guy whos responsible for his death.
I still cant believe it. How could Cole do this to me? I actually
thought Id finally found something that could make me happy
again.
Its not about the accident. I know that wasnt Coles fault. Well,
not entirely. Yes, he was behind the wheel, but he didnt want it
to happen either.
From what the police told me, the driver just lost his focus for a
few seconds, and Scott was in a hurry as well. We all just
happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time for those
few seconds. It was a tragedy for everyone involved. Including
Cole.
Ive forgiven the driver a long time ago. Thats why I didnt ask
the police for any details about him or her. I didnt even know
if the driver was male or female. I didnt care.
All I knew was, going after the driver wasnt going to bring Scott
back. He was never coming back. Ever.
Scotts death sapped all the energy out of me. I barely had the
strength to get up in the morning. Even if I wanted to, there was
no fight left in me, no innate drive to seek punishment for the
careless driver out of some misplaced sense of justice.
I just wanted to sleep. Sometimes, I dreamed about Scott. And
sometimes, I woke up thinking Scott was sleeping soundly
beside me, and I automatically reached my hand to his side of
the bed.
The exact moment when I couldnt find his warm body beside me
and realized he was gone That always felt like finding out
about his death all over again, with fresh, physical pain tearing
through my frail body, forcing the overworked ducts in my eyes
to produce even more tears just when I thought theyd run dry.
In those first weeks, I lived for those moments when I could fool
myself into thinking Scott was still around. They seemed worth
the pain.
When the fog of grief had lifted up enough for me to look around
me, I realized I had been living in la-la-land and ignoring all my
responsibilities. I had become a burden to Alice.
So I decided to stop spinning fairy tales and live in the real world.
And then Cole happened. By deliberately keeping me in the dark
about his role in the accident, he had single-handedly created
the biggest lie of all in what I thought was my new life.
None of the career goals Ive achieved since the accident are real.
Not even my new boyfriend is real.
I havent built a new life for myself after the accident. Who am I
kidding? It was Cole. Cole was the one who built a new life for
me. On a foundation of lies and deception.
As my chest starts to burn, I narrow my eyes and fix my gaze at
something familiar in the distance. Is that?
Jet black business suit. A mess of dark brown hair. Hes walking
with a slight slouch, but Id recognize that tall figure anywhere.
What the fuck is Cole doing here?
I push myself up off the ground. Im not running away today.
Looking straight at him, I march across the cemetery, anger
burning hot as coal in my rib cage.
COLE

E mily. Thank God youre here.


What are you doing here? She's shaking as she approaches
me, I realize with surprise. I've never seen her like this before,
her face red with anger, her eyes ablaze, and her hands clenched
into tight little fists. How do you even know Im here?
The phone I gave you. Theres a tracker on it. It must still be in
your bag. I stop on the grass a couple of feet before her and
stumble all over my words.
There are so many things I need to tell her, but we dont have
much time. I managed to slip away from the office while two of
my fathers new men went out to buy some food, but it wont
take them long to realize Im missing.
You put a tracker on me? She looks like shes about to erupt,
like theres red, hot anger boiling just beneath her skin, right on
the cusp of spilling out into the world.
Its not like that, I say in the calmest voice I can muster.
Maybe if I keep my cool shell simmer down as well. Its an old
phone that my family bought and they put trackers in all their
phones. I never planned on putting a tracker specifically on your
phone.
Why should I believe you?
I never meant to hurt you, Emily. Everything Ive done, Ive
done it to help you. Please. At least believe me on that. When
she stays quiet, I decide I should probably find out exactly what
Rick has told her. Why do you feel like you shouldnt believe
me, baby?
Dont call me baby. Not after everything youve done. How long
did you think you were going to hide the fact that you were the
driver of the car that hit us that night? You killed Scott and
destroyed my whole life!
Please, hear me out. I never meant to do any of those things to
you, believe me. Im an asshole, yes, but Im not a murderer. It
was an accident.
Oh, was it an accident too that you hired me and then made me
trust you, when you were hiding such a big lie from me? Her
voice is breaking. Thats even worse than the shouting. It makes
me want to run to her and scoop her up in my arms. I wish I can
stroke her hair and tell her everythings going to be fine, tell her
Ill keep her safe and take care of everything.
But I have a feeling, if I take even one step closer, shes going to
bolt like a scared wild squirrel and Im never going to see her
again.
It wasnt an accident that I hired you. I saw that you were
struggling to find work, so I gave you work. And I never planned
to fall for you, but I did. I wanted to tell you everything, but I was
waiting for the right time. And I see now that I was wrong to not
tell you everything from the start. Im so, so, so sorry.
How did you even know I was struggling to find work? Were you
always spying on me? What else are you hiding from me? Shes
shouting at the top of her lungs now, and the handful of people
in the cemetery are turning their heads to watch us.
Can we please sit down somewhere and have a talk? Ill tell you
everything, I promise.
Its too late for that now, Cole. We worked at the same office for
months. Youve had millions of opportunities to tell me!
Youre right. Youre absolutely right, Emily. Ill tell you
everything right here, right now. At least if Im the one talking,
there will be no shouting to attract peoples attention. The way
people are looking at us with worry on their faces, its only a
matter of time until one nosy person comes along and rescues
Emily from me.
Fine. Tell me. She crosses her arms in front of her chest.
Under normal circumstances, Id be staring at the way her stance
pushes out her perky breasts, but this is no time to be distracted,
although its incredible how good she looks with no make-up
and an outfit she has clearly just thrown together.
Okay. Firstly, Im so sorry I didnt talk to you as soon as you left
the bar last night. My family...disapproves. And theyve got
people watching me so I dont call you or come looking for you.
You know about the tracker now. Thats the kind of thing that
they do. Theyre paranoid criminals.
Maybe they just know that its a bad idea for you to have
anything to do with me. Maybe they have a point. Emilys tone
is still angry, but at least shes not shouting anymore now that
shes curious enough to listen.
I was hoping to see you at the office this morning. I admit she
has a point. Emily probably wouldve been better off had I stayed
away from her. But theres no point talking about that right now.
Thats all done and in the past. I need to focus on what to do
from this point on. I need to get my whole story out or Ill run
out of time. And then Ill never get another chance to beg for her
forgiveness again.
Im not working there anymore. Youre crazy if you think Im
going back, she says.
Fair enough. It wouldve been easier for me to sneak out and
find you if you were at the office. Ive also been to Alices
apartment, but you werent there. And then I remembered that
you still had the phone I gave you. On the off chance that you
still had it, I checked the tracker and found you here. I promise
you, I never planned to put a tracker on you. I look at Emily
expectantly, hoping to see if that softens her heart a little bit.
Go on, she says, raising her eyebrows.
On the night of the accident, if you remember, it was dark and
raining. There was a storm. The winds were really strong. My
phone was ringing, and I reached for it on the passenger seat to
reject the call. I took my eyes off the road for a split second,
and My voice trails off.
...and you hit us. Emily finishes my sentence. She presses her
lips together and forces her eyes wide to stop the tears in her
eyes from falling, but I can see how much sadness shes holding
back.
Yes. Thats when the accident happened. Ive practiced telling
this story to Emily thousands of times before when Ive been
awake in the dark, tortured with guilt. But now that the time has
come, I still cant find the right words to say.
Why did you remember seeing me in that bar? Id only been
there once before, she says in a small, shaky voice.
I, uh, I just thought you looked beautiful. I wanted to talk to
you, but you disappeared before I had a chance to. We mustve
left the bar at about the same time.
My phone starts ringing. Fuck. This is the worst time. I dig into
my pocket and glance down just long enough to tap the red
Decline button on my phone.
Do you have somewhere else youd rather be? She asks with a
hint of annoyance in her voice.
Absolutely not. I softly shake my head. Theres nowhere in
the world Id rather be than wherever you are.
I have to ask. Did you do it on purpose? She stares intensely at
my face like shes looking for answers.
Fuck, Emily. That hurts. Of course not. I can see why youd
think that, because I saw you at the bar, but I didnt chase your
car if thats what youre thinking.
But you did follow me after the accident?
Yes, I did. When I see sadness clouding her features, I quickly
add, But it was just to make sure you were doing fine.
Id be doing fine already by now if it wasnt for you. Emilys
expression hardens.
The phone rings again, and I shut it off without even looking at
it. That must be my father or one of his men. And Im sure
whoever it is wont hesitate to put me in a world of pain if they
find out where I am and what Im doing.
But right now it seems more important that I dont cause Emily
more pain than shes already in. I can handle whatever my father
dishes out, but Emily I have to do everything I can to make
Emily safe and happy.
Look, Emily. Can I please see you tomorrow? Theres something
I need to show you. I have a plan.
I dont need your plans, Cole. I dont need you to take care of
me.
I promise you, I can fix everything. Please, I beg her.
I told you, Ive had enough of you trying to run my life. Why do
you even do it? Do you get some sort of sick pleasure from
destroying and then rebuilding my life?
No, Emily, Im not trying to
"Stop it!" She shouts. "Everything! Just stop! Stop trying to
control my life. I'm not your puppet for you to manipulate and
toy with as you wish."
"Emily," I say, trying to calm her down. "I'm not try"
"Shush!" She cuts me off. "Don't tell me what to think! Don't
tell me what to do! Just... Just stop!"
"Will you please let me at least explain what Im planning to
do?" I ask, exasperated.
"No. She looks straight at me, her eyes cold and indifferent. I
dont care anymore about anything you have to say. I don't want
to hear it. I don't want to hear any of it. You've had a lot of
chances to explain. You've had years!" She takes in a deep
breath, then exhales audibly. In a calmer voice, she continues,
"Years, Cole."
"I know. I know Ive done you wrong and I dont deserve your
forgiveness. But please, Emily. Let me make it up to you. I never
meant to hide anything from you. I just wanted
"I said stop it, Cole. You want to explain. You never meant to do
it. You just wanted something else I don't even care anymore
what it was. It's all about you, isn't it?"
I was almost ready to go on with my explanation, but my mouth
falls open and remains that way for a few long seconds that feel
like forever. Emily makes a good point. A point that many other
people in my life have made before. Maybe there's a truth to it.
"I thought so," she says. "I'm not here to assuage your guilt,
Cole. Stop treating me like I'm some hurt little bird you pick up
to put back together. Maybe it hasn't occurred to you, but I'm a
human being with my own wants, my own needs, my own
aspirations. Its not all about you. She pauses to catch her
breath. "It's too late for explanations now, Cole. Stop thinking
about yourself for once and let me live my life."
"Emily, please don't do this." I'm begging now and I know I
sound desperate and pathetic, but I'm grasping at straws. I have
to tell her something. Something real. Something that actually
means something to her. Something that will make her listen to
me and stay with me. "Emily. I love you."
"Then leave me alone," she says with finality.
She walks away, and I just stand there. I let her leave. It feels like
a thousand arrows have just stabbed into my chest.
Ive failed.
EMILY

E m?
Uh-huh, I answer weakly from my bed. A thick blanket and a
door separate the two of us and I have no idea if she can hear me.
Em, are you in there? Alice repeats.
Yeah, I say louder.
Can I come in?
Okay. I flip the blanket open and take a deep breath. It was
getting pretty hot and stuffy in there anyway.
Is everything okay? Alice opens the door, letting the light
from the living room spill into my bedroom. She leaves it open
as she walks in and sits on my bed.
No. And just like that, the tears start falling again. Soon
enough Im sobbing in Alices arms. We used to do this a lot after
Scotts death. I didnt think wed have to do this again so soon,
especially after I started putting the pieces of my life back
together again. Heh. So much for my recovery.
Did something happen with Cole?
Yeah.
Want to talk about it?
Alice. Whos Randy? How does he know Cole? I thought Id
had enough of Coles excuses. I thought I already had all the
answers. But as soon as I got home and had a chance to think,
more questions cropped up in my brain.
I cant possibly pick up the phone and ask Cole after the way we
left things at the cemetery. But maybe Alice can help with the
few remaining questions that I have.
Em, I need to tell you something. Please keep in mind that I
love you and I never thought things would turn out this way.
I pull away to take a good look at her face. Why did she say that?
Shes starting to sound like Cole.
Alice takes a deep breath, then says, There is no Randy.
What are you talking about? You told me about Randy yourself,
remember? When we had that dinner with Cole?
This doesnt make any sense. Alice would never lie to me. It
mustve slipped her mind.
I remember, Em. Listen. As soon as you told me about going to
the conference alone with Cole, I knew Id made a mistake, but it
was too late. You were so excited about it and it was a good
opportunity for your career. I couldnt just tell you not to go. But
the thought that I couldve stopped what happened between you
and Cole has been keeping me awake every night.
I dont understand. I frown in confusion and sniffle. All the
crying Ive done all day has blocked my nose.
Im sorry, Em. Ill start from the beginning. Alice hands me
the box of tissues from the nightstand and smiles apologetically.
With my room in complete darkness, Alices face is cast in the
shadows of the light coming in through the slit in the door.
Marco didnt tell me about a vacancy at Foster Hotels, and
neither did Randy. Randy doesnt even exist. Cole was the one
who approached me about the job.
Cole? I prop myself up with my elbows and get up to a
sitting position.
Yes. She takes another deep breath, as if steeling herself to
tell the tale. About a year after the accident, Cole came up to me
and introduced himself. He said he was the driver in the other
car. He said he knew you were looking for work and he wanted to
help. I did wonder how he knew about it, but when I found out he
was Robert Fosters son it all became clear.
Who is Robert Foster? I blow my nose into the tissue and set it
aside to join all the other tear-saturated, snot-soaked tissues on
my bed.
Ah, right. You dont know who he is. She looks up at the
ceiling and pauses to think. I first heard about him from one of
the regulars at my restaurant. Hes a big deal. A really big deal,
Em. We dont hear much about him because hes a private guy
who prefers to stay in the shadows.
Ive met him at the office a few times, I say.
Hes not literally always in the shadows. For the first time
since she entered my bedroom, Alice smiles. Some say hes into
drugs and illegal gambling, but nobody really knows. He
definitely has some shady stuff going on, although people say
hes cleaning up his business now that he has enough money to
go legit.
I nod along as Alice tells her story. Its all starting to make sense
now. The tracker, the men Cole said were guarding him, the
strange animosity between the two of them.
So you see how I didnt think it was strange that Cole knew
about your job search. His family is the kind of people who make
it their business to know about stuff.
So you lied about Marco? And about Randy? Why? I know Alice
would never do anything to hurt me. I feel like Im in an
alternate reality where everythings upside down.
Well, you really needed a job, Em. And the job market sucked.
And you had no qualifications for the kind of job that would lead
to a decent career, Alice says. You have to admit it was an
excellent opportunity for you. Youd already had everything
taken from you. I didnt see any point in you handicapping
yourself career-wise for no good reason.
What do you mean for no good reason? My chest starts to burn
again with anger and confusion. Why does everybody in my life
feel the need to make life-changing decisions for me?
Im sorry, Em. But you know as well as I do that it really was an
accident. You told me yourself that Scott was speeding to get you
home. In the storm. At night.
I remember how I was begging Scott to get me home quickly. My
head was spinning and I needed to lie down. I had no idea it was
going to cause the biggest tragedy in my life. Ive spent countless
nights crying myself to sleep just thinking about how I was
pressuring Scott to drive faster. If Cole is a murderer whos
responsible for Scotts death, then I am too.
At the time you couldnt even see yourself going back to
college, so your career chances werent going to get better any
time soon, Alice continues. I knew you and Scott planned for
you to go back to college while he continued working. And with
Scott gone, that wasnt possible anymore. I thought there was no
sense in throwing away the only good career opportunity youd
ever come across in your life.
I thought you would work at Foster Hotels for a couple of years
and then move on to another company. Youre a smart girl, Em.
Always have been. I thought if someone would just give you a
chance youd go far. Then Cole showed up, ready to give you that
chance. I never expected anything to develop between the two of
you.
I know its hard for you to see too far into the future right now.
But years from now youll have forgotten all about Cole. Youll
have an awesome new job and maybe even an awesome new
boyfriend.
I cant see any of that happening, I say, blowing my nose into
a bunch of crumpled up tissues.
I know what happened with Cole wasnt exactly normal dating
experience. But believe me, sooner or later you were going to run
into some assholes. Its all just a part of being a single girl in the
city. Think of this as a learning experience. Hell, as far as
assholes go, Cole isnt even the worst.
God, Alice. I asked him if he did it on purpose.
What, the accident?
I dont know. Everything. I cant even remember much of
what I said this morning at the cemetery. It all happened so fast.
Im sure that was a real accident, Em. There was no reason for
him to purposely get into a car accident, not unless he had a
death wish. He almost died himself.
He did? I look at Alice incredulously. Why dont I know about
this?
The Foster family kept the details out of the papers. Thats why
its not in the news. Thats why there was no media interest at
all in the story even though it involved someone like Cole Foster.
I asked Cole about it when he approached me about your job. I
asked him why. He told me he was unconscious for days. When
he woke up, the family had taken care of everything. The police,
the media. There was nothing left for him to do and the guilt was
killing him. He felt that helping you would help him heal. And
Em, you needed that help.
Honestly, I dont know why he decided it was a good idea for
the two of you to get together. But Ive given it some thought,
and I dont think he meant for that to happen either. He stayed
away from you for months, right? Until Robert Foster told the
two of you to go to the conference.
Why didnt you ever tell me any of these things? I ask.
Would you have taken the job if you had known?
No.
Exactly, she says. I know youre not ready for it right now,
but youll see that this was a good career move for you, Em. Now
that you have some work experience at one of the most
prestigious hotel chains in the country, finding work wont be as
hard as it used to be.
Alice has a point. Having worked for Foster Hotels has made my
resume a lot more attractive to future employers. And that
presentation I did in Seattle made it look even better. I also made
a lot of industry contacts at that conference.
So what do I do now?
You do whatever you want, Em. Youve been through a lot and
youve accomplished a lot in your short career. You can rest for a
while and then figure out what to do yourself. Im done being a
busybody. Alice smiles.
Are you sure? I tease her. Alice has been my parent and my
guardian angel my whole life. She can be nosy, but maybe thats
a side effect of having always been the one whos responsible for
my well-being. Even if things havent turned out well, I know
she has done her best for me. And I cant imagine her behaving
any differently in the future.
Youre a grown-up and you can make your own decisions.
Obviously, I dont always make the best decisions. Im not going
to run your life anymore. She looks at my unconvinced
expression and admits, Well, at least Ill try my best.
Alice softly laughs, and I join her even as my tears continue to
streak down my cheeks. It feels weird to cry and laugh at the
same time. But I feel like I can face life again maybe not now,
but definitely in another month or two.
COLE

I didnt think youd really come, my father says as he


enters the home office.
Its mid-day now and the room looks completely different. The
curtains that covered the big window behind the desk are now
pulled back, letting warm sunshine stream in. I can see trees and
flowers outside the window.
My father has always loved gardens. He has an army of gardeners
to maintain the grounds around his mansion. Its just like him to
never want to get soil on his own hands even if hes the one who
gets to actually enjoy the results of the dirty work.
You know me. I always come when you call. Besides, I dont
miss Officer Dumb and Officer Dumber, I say.
Very funny. Youre a joker, thats what you are.
Thanks. Im glad you enjoy my jokes. I watch him take a seat
in his big leather chair across the desk.
Where did you go yesterday?
Oh, you know. Around. I shrug nonchalantly and lean back in
my own comfortable, fabric, normal-size chair.
George and Julian told me you went missing and they couldnt
find you.
Sounds to me like you need to improve your HR department.
I do have to either fire them or train them. I havent decided.
He looks to the side and purses his lips like he always does when
hes thinking. Looking back at me, he says, I thought of
sending more experienced men, but you know them and youd
just talk them into letting you go.
Youre getting rusty, Pop.
Maybe I am. And maybe Im getting soft, too, because Ive been
letting you run around and do as you like. You havent even been
answering my calls. But thats not how things are going to work
from now on.
Oh, no. Should I be scared? I use the wimpiest voice I can come
up with.
Dont whine. You sound like a little girl, he says.
Maybe I want to act like a little girl. Maybe thats what Im
going to do next, since youre probably going to fire me now.
So youre admitting that you saw her yesterday? He rests his
elbows on top of the desk and interlaces his fingers, holding
them against his clean-shaven chin.
Of course I saw her. Why else would I sneak out? If I just wanted
to go shopping I couldve taken them with me. Maybe then
theyd dress better, I say. You know what you should do? You
should design a uniform for your thugs. Maybe your new and
improved HR department can do that for you.
I know Im deliberately derailing the conversation. Maybe Im
being immature, but I dont know when Im going to have
another chance to aggravate him, and get this I think Im
going to miss this.
He sighs. There it is. The father I know wouldnt just go along
with my jokes endlessly, not even when hes in a good mood like
today. The mans patience has a limit, as he so often reminds
me.
Boy, this girl is going to be your downfall, he says. Mark my
words.
I shrug. What can I say? The mans probably right. Look at what
Ive already given up for Emily. For all that Ive done, shes not
even mine anymore. And yet I feel completely at peace with how
things have gone.
Im heartbroken and miserable, but Ive done my best to make
things work with her. I actually love her. I didnt even know I
was capable of that before Emily. So Id call that a win.
I dont like having to do what Im going to do. He looks
straight into my eyes like he used to do when he was about to
take my toys away. Hes expecting me to break down and
apologize. I may have done that when I was a boy, but Im a full-
grown man now. He doesnt scare me like he used to.
Bullshit.
You know what? He glances out the window in an exaggerated
show of pensiveness. Youre right. Maybe I do enjoy this a little
bit.
You wouldnt be so jolly if you werent about to bring down your
wrath and punishment upon me.
You know I have to be consistent once Ive said something. Im
a man of my word. I know that doesnt mean anything to you.
Maybe thats my own fault for not bringing you up more strictly.
Youre my youngest kid and Im too lenient with you. Ive failed
to instill proper discipline in you.
Oh, lets not get all nostalgic now. Youre going to make me
cry.
Yes, but Im going to make you cry tears of pain, not nostalgia.
He smirks cruelly.
Hes always more jovial when hes about to execute one of his
threats. He knows its going to hurt like hell for me regardless of
his demeanor. Whether he yells at me or jokes around with me,
Im still going to end up in a world of pain. Hes calm and
cheerful because he knows hes about to get his way yet again.
You know, Im actually overdue for a good cry. Its been a while
since I last watched a re-run of Bridget Jones Diary.
I dont even want to know what that is. He looks intently into
my eyes. Ill admit I do enjoy this, but only because it means
Ive planned things the right way. I built in some kind of
insurance to make sure you dont hurt the family. And now that
youve gone and done that, I cant just let you get away with it.
How? How have I hurt the family? Cant you just admit that you
just dont like it when I dont follow your orders like a good lap
dog? I know Im raising my voice and hes probably enjoying
this, but my anger has been simmering beneath the surface for
too long now. Hes treated me this way my whole life,
controlling my every move while pretending like hes only trying
to be a good patriarch.
Its very possible that your relationship with Emily Webb will
be exposed, he says, shrugging with infuriating calm. And
then people will find out about how I protected you from the
potential legal ramifications and media blow-up. How do you
think thats going to hurt the familys reputation? How do you
think thats going to affect the relationship weve built over
many years no, decades with the media and the police?
People dont care about you as much as you think they do.
Thats where youre wrong, boy. Reputation is everything. If
you ever manage to get into a position again where you run a
business, youll quickly learn that lesson. I see now that Ive
been making you weak by trying to protect you, he says.
I clench my fist. My muscles are tense as adrenaline surges
through my veins. My limbs are shaking in a fight-or-flight
response. I stay quiet, afraid of what Id say if I open my mouth.
You knew this was going to happen, boy, he says. I never
make empty threats. You know that. Ive always taught you since
you were a baby, if I let something slide once, soon everybodys
going to start thinking they can get away with anything. It gives
me no joy to do this.
Then wipe that fucking smirk off your mug, asshole.
I grit my teeth, stopping the flurry of curses from escaping my
mouth. Seeing me get even more riled up is only going to make
him happier.
The wooden drawer scrapes noisily when he pulls it open. A sick
feeling builds up in my stomach when I hear the rattle of random
items inside as my father reaches inside. He takes out a thick
stack of papers and drops it on top of the desk between us.
Sign now and walk away, he says as he places his favorite
fountain pen on top of the stack and slides everything across the
desk to me.
The chair creaks as I lean forward to take the pen in my hand and
review the document. Weve both read it before, back when I was
just starting out. I never thought Id actually sign away my claim
over the business Ive built from scratch.
Foster Hotels is my baby. As much as I dont want my father to
know just how much this hurts, I cant help the way my
breathing becomes labored as my heartbeat picks up and my
lungs deflate.
Come on, boy. Lets not drag this out any longer than we have
to. You already know what the document says. Believe me, you
want to sign it, he says with the kindest old-man smile on his
wrinkly face. Otherwise I cant guarantee the safety of your
little girlfriend.
Leaning back in his big chair, he continues, Or dont. Its up to
you. Dont say I never give you any options. We can always do
this another way. My lawyer will find a way to get this done even
if you dont sign.
Im signing, I say curtly.
Not so chatty now, are you? He chuckles with satisfaction. I
swear it makes me want to bash his bleached-white teeth in.
I quietly pick up the pen. It takes everything Ive got to keep my
hand steady as I sign and initial on the appropriate lines. I hope
the company fucking burns down into ashes without me. God
knows Ive worked harder than anyone else on the board of
directors. Nobody else knows the ins and outs of the business
better than I do.
I stand up when Im done and walk across the room toward the
door, ignoring my fathers taunts as I put one foot in front of the
other, the sound of my shoes muffled by the elaborate Persian
rug.
If I hear him call my boy just one more time, I dont know
what Id do with him. My fists are more than ready to meet his
face. Im going to make it look so bad none of his whores will
want to fuck him anymore.
Just as I get into my car and turn on the ignition, I hear knocking
on the passenger side window. Great. Its fucking Caine. I didnt
even know hes in town. What is this, family reunion day?
Hey, he says when I press the button to lower the window. He
rests his forearm on the top of my car and leans down to peer
inside the car. Im sorry about what happened.
I just shrug in response and blankly stare at him. Its great that
youre sorry, bro. Really warms my heart. What do you want?
I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldnt budge. You know
how he is. If anybody can persuade my father, its Caine. Hes
the golden son who can do no wrong in his eyes.
Thanks, man. I take a deep breath and try to relax. Its not
Caines fault this happened. Im the one whos been too
reckless. I appreciate it.
No problem. A pair of sunglasses perches on top of his head,
keeping his windblown blond hair out of his face. He may be
more similar to my father in terms of personality, but they look
nothing like each other. Look, dont take it too personally. You
know thats just how he treats everybody.
Yep, thats him. No fucking special treatment even if youre his
spawn. My jaws clench and I grip the steering wheel harder,
turning my knuckles white.
Hes just doing what he thinks is best for the family, Caine
says, spouting off the propaganda weve both been fed with
since we were born. I wonder what went wrong with my
upbringing that I no longer buy that bullshit. Caine seems
perfectly at ease having my fathers hands controlling the
strings, manipulating him like a puppet.
How do you do it? I blurt out. How do you stand his bullshit
day in and day out?
Guess I have more patience than you do. He shrugs, smiling.
You know, hes not so bad. Not if you know how to deal with
him.
Fuck, Caine. I want to just pummel him sometimes, wipe that
smug look off his face. I make a fist with my right hand and pull
it back like Im about to punch something.
Sure you do. Hell, sometimes I want to kick his saggy ass. He
pauses and looks straight into my eyes. What are you going to
do now?
I have a plan. Clearly, its not going as well as Id hoped
because Emilys not by my side, but I can still stick with my plan
on my own.
I flip open my suit jacket to show the fountain pen I just stole
from my fathers home office and watch Caine grin. I know its
petty, but whatever. If my father gets upset about me stealing
his favorite pen, hes going to combust when he finds out what
else Ive done today.
EMILY

TWO MONTHS LATER

I m a lucky girl.
It sure didnt seem that way two months ago when I found out
Cole had been lying to me the entire time, ever since before we
had even officially met each other.
But now, as I take my second flight in as many months, it strikes
me how lucky I am. Sure, Im just flying coach this time, but the
view from my window seat is just as beautiful.
Its not like I need extra leg room anyway. See theres a bright
side to everything, even to being average height. Alice would
probably have to contort her body in various unnatural ways just
to fit her tall frame into one of these seats.
Alice cried when we hugged each other at the airport, before I
joined the line for the security checkpoint. I told her Im going to
visit as often as I can, but we both know it wont be the same.
Shes happy for me, though. Shes always so supportive. God,
Im going to miss her stupid messages asking me what time I
was coming home from work or what I wanted to eat for dinner.
But we both know this is just something I need to do to move
forward.
Besides, its not like Im going to be alone in Seattle. Marco has
generously offered to let me stay with him and his girlfriend at
their downtown apartment for as long as I need while I get
myself settled.
When Marco sent me that first email a couple of days after I quit
from Foster Hotels, it was just a nice distraction. He told me
InstaRoomies, the company he works for that helps owners and
renters of private vacation rentals meet one another, is
expanding into the luxury market.
Since I made a very convincing case for a new strategy in
targeting the luxury traveler during my presentation at the
conference, he wanted to ask me a few quick questions.
I didnt mind answering his questions. In fact, they made me
start to feel useful again. Honestly, the way everything went
down with Cole and my job at Foster Hotels made me feel like a
failure.
Well, a few quick questions turned into more and more
questions. Marcos boss, Harry, eventually got wind of where
Marcos ideas came from. When Marco told him about me and
how I was between jobs at the time, Harry called me on the
phone and offered me a job at the new luxury branch of
InstaRoomies to help with the expansion.
I was apprehensive about leaving the city Id lived in my whole
life, but Harry made me a really good offer. Im going to earn
more than I did at Foster Hotels, Im going to have a more senior
position, and Harrys even giving me some extra cash upfront to
cover my moving costs.
He sounds like a great boss. Marco has been telling me how
much Im going to love working there.
I look out the window at the fluffy clouds hanging in the blue
sky. Theres no denying it. My life is pretty awesome right now.
Im so lucky I didnt need to apply for jobs to get one. I never
even used the recommendation letter that Lily sent me.
Later in the same week after my heated argument with Cole at
the cemetery, Lily emailed me to ask for my address. She said
she wanted to send me something. I thought she meant the stuff
that Id left at the office. It turned out the thing she wanted to
send was a recommendation letter that had been personally
signed by Cole.
When I called Lily to ask about the letter, she said, I dont know
what to tell you, Emily. Its all super weird and I have no idea
whats happening either. Its like Twilight Zone over here.
What do you mean? I asked. She wasnt making any sense to
me.
Cole left and nobody knows where he is. One day, out of the
blue, he called to ask me to meet him in front of the office
building and he gave me this letter. He asked me to mail it to you
and then left without an explanation, she said.
What do you mean he left? Hes not working there anymore?
But he still owns the company, doesnt he?
Exactly. Those are the exact same questions that I have, Lily
said. But he hasnt come into the office all week and nobody
knows why. Mary from accounting told me he moved a large sum
of money out of the company bank account and into his personal
account. It really seems like hes left. But theres no official word
yet from any of the higher-ups.
Yeah. Youd be the first to know if theres any reasonable
explanation, I said. You didnt ask Cole?
No, it just seems too personal, you know? She paused before
she hesitantly continued, To be honest, I was hoping youd
have the answers. People have been speculating because you and
Cole disappeared at about the same time. Neither one of you
gave notice and neither one of you even cleared your desk. I
really thought youd know whats happening.
Its just a coincidence, I said. I really didnt want the entire
office finding out about the whole sordid affair between me and
Cole. After some obligatory small talk, I hung up the phone.
Ive been wondering about Cole, especially after that phone call.
But I havent talked to him. Havent even tried. I dont know
how Im going to face him.
It took me a while, but Ive forgiven him now. Like Alice said, it
wasnt his fault the accident happened. Cole meant well,
although it did feel like a huge betrayal when I found out what
hed been hiding from me.
And Alice was right. The job he gave me did lead to new
opportunities, even if he kept me in the dark with regards to his
motives. With my lack of formal education, I never wouldve
gotten this new job in Seattle if it werent for my stint at Foster
Hotels.
What would you like to drink, Miss? The pretty flight
attendant says as she stops the drinks cart by my row.
Diet Coke, please.
She asks the same question to the middle-aged woman sitting
beside me, then pours our drinks into little plastic cups. She
hands me the cup with the black fizzy drink and smiles, moving
on to the next row.
Im going to be on my own in Seattle. That makes me nervous,
but Im also excited.
For the longest time, Ive relied on people around me. Alice, in
particular, has been my biggest supporter. When Scott was still
around, I depended on him, too.
One of the things that tortured me after his death was how
helpless Id been, how dependent on the people around me. It
became painfully clear when I almost got evicted and had to
move to Alices apartment. I felt like a parasite, like I had to use
other people to survive.
When I started working at Foster Hotels, I thought I was finally
standing on my own two feet. I was making money and I was well
on my way to be independent. And then I found out it was all an
illusion created by Cole. He turned out to be just another person I
had to depend on.
So Ive made a decision. Im going to build a life for myself in
Seattle and Im going to stop depending on other people so
much. After I move out of Marcos place, Ill be a completely
independent woman. Ill work hard and Ill build up my savings.
Ill even stop shopping so much now that I already have a solid
wardrobe for work.
That way, if anything should turn my life upside down again, I
wont have to rely on Alice to get me back on my feet. She has
done enough for me, my poor sister. She deserves to have her
apartment back, not to mention the use of all the money shes
worked so hard for.
Maybe someday Ill be able to provide the same kind of support
for Alice, although I hope she wont ever need it. But just like
shes all I have, Im also all she has. I need to be stronger if I
want to take care of Alice the way she has always taken such
good care of me.
And everythings going to fall into place when this plane lands in
Seattle. I cant wait.
COLE

I check the invitation card again.


Dress code: smart casual.
Fucking tech companies, lowering standards for everybody in the
industry.
I dont mind the more relaxed attire, but I liked it better back
when going to an industry function at night always meant
wearing a tuxedo. It was predictable.
Now I have to read every invitation or risk being the guy who
shows up to a black-tie function in a chicken suit.
I put on a clean black button-down shirt and a pair of jeans, then
add a tailored blazer on top.
Im not wearing enough layers to be taking a walk downtown in
the middle of winter, but its an indoor event so I should be safe,
even if Im still getting used to the weather here.
During the short walk from the entrance of my apartment
building to my car, which is parked right by the sidewalk, I notice
the heavy clouds hanging low in the gray sky. I dont think Ive
seen the sun come out for a whole day the entire time Ive been
here.
As soon as I get inside the car and start the ignition, I turn on the
heater and the GPS. Holding the invitation card in my hand, I
enter the address into the GPS. I hate having to rely on this thing
to get around.
At least I dont have to deal with my father here, or the rest of
the family. I havent even told them where I am. I smile to
myself and inhale the sweet, cool scent of freedom.
Luckily, James came through for me with the money transfer on
the same day I signed away my claim over Foster Hotels. Along
with the money Ive saved over the years from not taking the
private jet and forgoing other little luxuries, Im in a pretty good
place, financially.
Im not proud of this, but wait, what the hell, I am proud of
this. I pulled a big one over on my father for the first time in my
life and Im fucking proud of it. Thats a real fucking
achievement.
Thats also why I havent told anyone where I am. Hes probably
still seething.
My father thinks hes the smart guy who controls every single
thing and has a plan for every single scenario that can go wrong.
It turns out I have learned a thing or two from him because the
trick that I pulled was taken straight out of his book.
My fathers lawyer may have prepared all documents the way he
ordered, but that guy also outsourced a lot of his work. And one
of his underlings happened to be a college buddy of mine. So,
along with James, whom I also met in college, we put in one
little, barely noticeable clause that allowed me a little freedom in
withdrawing company money.
Luckily, as thorough as he is with my reports, my father doesnt
pay as much attention to the work of his trusted advisors. Why
would he? Theyre not inexperienced kids like I am.
Maybe its bad to steal money from your parent, but who cares?
Its my money, too. Do I feel bad about it? I fucking dont. I built
Foster Hotels with my own blood, sweat, and tears.
My father may have provided the initial funding, but hes now
left with more money than he invested originally. Everything
considered, he still won the overall battle. But I bet hes huffing
and puffing over my latest act of betrayal against the family,
as the man himself would put it.
Id been complacent. I depended on my father for far too long. I
used to think striking out on my own would be too hard, but I see
now that its way riskier to put my trust in someone like him.
Im still putting my feelers out, trying to get to know this new
city before I do anything. But I fully intend on building another
hotel brand from the ground up here. One thing Im sure of,
there wont be any trace of the Foster family name in my new
venture.
The work I put into Foster Hotels didnt go to waste either. Ive
made a name for myself as a smart, capable hotelier who can
build a strong brand in a short time.
Just based on that alone, Ive had many job offers, some of them
from really big brands that are doing some really exciting stuff.
It would be a great experience to work in a big corporation with
hundreds and thousands of properties all over the world. Id be
paid more money than Id know what to do with the
headhunters have shown me some really tantalizing figures.
And Id be able to oversee multi-billion-dollar projects, like
exclusive resorts on private islands meant for high-value, jet-
setting guests like CEOs of multi-national corporations and
movie stars.
Were talking marinas full of the most extravagant yachts,
staffers who address every single guest by name, chefs who have
earned countless Michelin stars, and it goes without saying that
all these properties are located in breathtaking settings.
But as much as I want to trade this gloomy city for a tropical
paradise, I cant bring myself to accept any of those offers.
If theres a lesson I take away from my first business, its that I
need to build something from the ground up myself and proudly
call it my own. That way nobody can ever take it away from me.
Who knows, maybe Ill attract the A-listers to my own brand in a
few years.
I may not have as much money as I did when I started working
on Foster Hotels, but Im smarter now. Im patient and
hardworking. I can make it happen. Even if I reject their job
offers, lots of important people in the industry are eager to work
with me.
Thats one of the things I realized during the conference here. I
made some powerful contacts in those three days, which made
me believe that this is the right city for me to start from the
beginning. And that was despite me spending much of my time
there on Emily instead of on work.
Fuck. Emily. Cant I go one day without thinking about her?
You are at your destination, a robotic voice declares through
the GPS speaker.
Shut up, I say to no one in particular.
I round the corner and drive into the parking lot. Even after
moving to a whole different city, my mind just wont let go of
Emily.
I keep seeing her everywhere shes walking down the streets,
sitting at the dining tables of my favorite take-out restaurants,
wandering the hallways of my own apartment building, working
at the head offices of the big hotels where I hold meetings with
the bigwigs. Of course its never really her; just random women
with long blonde hair.
I miss her. I fucking miss her.
I probably wont ever see her again. Even if I visit San Francisco
someday, I cant justify myself ever reaching out to her.
My brain has made its peace with that; shes better off without
me anyway. Ive done nothing but wreak havoc on her life from
the very first night that I saw her. Not only did I kill her
boyfriend, but I also deceived her.
After a lot of thinking, I see now that what I did to her was
unforgivable. I was stupid to even consider that shed forgive me
and even run away with me. Her whole life is there. It makes no
fucking sense whatsoever that shed leave everything and
choose me, knowing that Im responsible for ruining her life.
Yes, theres definitely no doubt in my mind that Emily is better
off without me.
Convincing my heart to forget her is a completely different
matter, though. Every time she crosses my mind, it feels like
theres a boa constrictor wrapped around my chest, squeezing
out all the air in my lungs to slowly kill me. Im worried itll soon
fool my mind into abandoning my resolve to forget about her.
That doesnt sound too far-fetched, considering its already
fooling my mind into seeing Emily everywhere. I even see
another Emily while circling the parking area looking for an
empty spot, but it must be just another girl who happens to be
wearing a red dress and has her long blonde hair curled.
For the sake of my own mental health, I have to fucking get a
grip on reality.
After parking the car, I pull the invitation card out of my jacket
pocket and check the details again as I reach the rows of elevator
doors.

InstaLux Just Like Home, Only Better.


Launching Party
NGX Building, 7th floor, Suite 706

I find the place easily enough. As soon as I step out of the


elevator I can hear the din of conversations and the clinking of
dinnerware, so I just follow the noise.
The event is held in their new office space, which is a little too
hipster for my taste, but I guess it works for a tech company.
Their client base is probably a bunch of hipsters anyway. Who
else would think its a good idea to stay the night in a strangers
house?
Sir? A smiling man in a white shirt and a bow tie offers me a
tray of champagne glasses. I take one, thank him, and continue
looking around. I was hoping to get some inspiration for my new
brand, but it soon becomes clear that Ill be going for something
completely different with my new hotel.
The whole place looks like they hired a hipster interior designer
straight out of college and told him to go crazy. Its all just one
big open space, with gray polished concrete flooring and gallery-
white walls covered with framed pictures of their best properties
and graffiti which theyd no doubt call murals instead.
There are clusters of seating areas scattered all over, some of
them with coffee tables and mismatched sofas, and others with
huge desks made of distressed wood. Of course they also have
bean bags and standing desks. Why wouldnt they?
Hi, Cole, says a man with dark olive skin and rows of
blindingly white teeth.
Hi. Great party, huh? Good turnout. I smile back and wonder
where Ive seen him before. He definitely looks familiar. Ive met
so many new people since moving to Seattle that Im losing
track.
Yeah. We worked really hard on the new interface and I think
we deserve a little celebration.
Congratulations on the successful launch. I raise my glass and
take a sip of champagne when I realize he must work for
InstaLux.
He studies my face and smiles. You dont remember me, do
you?
Sorry. I smile politely and shake my head. Theres no point in
pretending now that hes caught me.
Marco. He points at his own chest with his thumb. The
conference two months ago? The swimming pool at Trident
Hotel? Emilys childhood friend?
My heart skips a beat when he mentions Emilys name. I havent
heard her name said out loud other than in the darkness of my
own bedroom when I wake up in cold sweat from another
nightmare. I quickly regain my composure. Right. Marco. Sorry
I didnt recognize you. Ive met too many new people since I
moved here.
I thought that might be the case, he says. It seems all of San
Francisco is moving here, huh? First you, and now Emily.
Emilys here? I blurt out before I can stop myself.
She hasnt told you? We hired her and she just flew in last
week. Marco grins and says, Wait here. Ill get her. Shell flip
out when she sees you here.
Before I can say anything in reply, Marco disappears into the
crowd. Damn. That guy is fast.
My heart is hammering in my chest. Suddenly the whole place
seems quiet. The loud chatter of the party-goers fades away until
all I can hear is my own loud, erratic heartbeats. I spin around
and scan the room, trying to find Emily the real one, this
time.
Is she really here? Or was that whole conversation also just a
figment of my imagination? The last time I spoke with her, she
seemed to hate me.
She probably will flip out when she sees me, but I suspect it
wont be the good kind of flipping out.
EMILY

I ve been fidgeting all day. Its a good thing I didnt join the
other girls for a manicure before the event because my
fingernails wouldve been destroyed anyway from all the nail-
biting.
Even though well-dressed servers have been offering me tiny
morsels of expensive food, I cant bring myself to eat even a little
bite. I did drink a glass of champagne, though. They dont call
alcohol liquid courage for nothing.
Most people think Im just feeling nervous about having a new
job, living in a new city, or working with new people. The truth
is, in the week that Ive been here, Ive settled quite nicely into a
rhythm.
I spent the weekdays working and having lunch with the girls
from the office. During the nights and weekends, I hung out with
Marco and Sally, his girlfriend. I dont feel like a third wheel at
all around them. And their friends have also given me a warm
welcome.
They even took me to the tourist attractions that they mustve
visited hundreds of times before. I saw a birds eye view of the
city from atop the Space Needle and checked out delicate,
colorful artwork at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Exhibition. Ive
gotten addicted to the food at the Pike Place Market, especially
the famous clam chowder and Beechers cheese I dont even
mind waiting in the long lines.
Im so glad Marcos downtown apartment is within walking
distance from the market. After enjoying all the conveniences
living downtown, Im definitely going to live in the area myself.
Ive checked out a few cozy studios and one-bedroom
apartments, and theyre definitely affordable with my new
salary.
Marco and Sally told me to hold out for a good one, though. They
say I can stay with them for as long as I need.
I feel like Im already a Seattleite now. I have local friends, I love
the local food, and Im even going to have my own place soon.
Everything is finally falling into place for real.
But truth be told, I keep thinking about Cole. Not long after I
arrived, I heard about Cole being here as well. Its pretty big
news among the people I work with and they were all surprised I
didnt know before they told me.
Apparently, Cole has been setting up meeting after meeting with
big names in the industry, but nobody knows what hes planning
to do yet.
Since I found out hes here, I havent been able to relax. I feel
like I might run into him somewhere.
Like, Id be checking out a new part of the city and Id think
about how much of a waste it was that I didnt get to explore the
city during the business trip. Then Id think about the
conference and how I was so focused on working and, to be
honest, on Cole. And then hed completely dominate my
thoughts and Id continuously look around to see if hes around.
Im not angry at him anymore. In fact, Im a little embarrassed
when I think about my outburst the last time we spoke. But I
cant decide how to react when I inevitably see him again.
As if he can hear my thoughts, Marco taps me on the shoulder
with a big, excited grin on his face. Youll never guess who I just
saw!
Oh, I bet I can, actually.
Who? I feign ignorance. I havent told Marco or anyone else in
Seattle about the history between Cole and me. It just doesnt
seem like the kind of thing to share with new friends or even an
old childhood friend Im only starting to reconnect with.
Come here. Marco grabs my wrist. As we zigzag our way
through the crowd, he looks back over his shoulder and yells,
He didnt even know you were here! Hes going to be so
surprised to see you.
I have no doubt he will.
My heart beats faster and faster until finally, just a few feet
away, I see him. Hes looking around like hes searching for
something or someone.
He looks as gorgeous as I remember. The dark messy hair that
feels so soft when I run my fingers through it. The brown eyes
that used to gaze deep into my soul. The blazer that shows off his
broad shoulders. I get the inappropriate urge to slip my hand
inside and feel his hard chest and abs through his shirt.
My legs get shakier the closer I get to him, and I curse myself for
choosing to wear my new pumps with the four-inch heels. Its
not easy to balance myself when my legs go weak and Im trying
to match Marcos excited pace.
Here she is, Marco declares to Cole when were close enough
for him to hear it. I cant believe neither one of you knew youre
both here.
Cole immediately turns around and looks right at me. His body
language mirrors mine. His eyes are fixed on my face, like hes
studying me. But he stands still like a statue, afraid to step
forward but unwilling to move away.
Obviously, were both nervous and unsure of what to do. This is
probably going to be awkward.
Hi, Cole, I say.
Hi, Emily. His lips form a thin smile on his face, but his eyes
look dull and sad, although I also detect a hint of tenderness in
them. Marcos right. I literally just found out you work here.
Yeah. I kept emailing and calling her for ideas on how to run
InstaLux. When my boss noticed how often I brought up Emilys
name, he asked if shed be interested in working here. Marco
seems oblivious to the tense atmosphere between the two of us.
He says, Then I found out she wasnt working for you anymore,
and Harry just had to hire her. He immediately called her and
made her an offer she couldnt refuse.
I smile at Marcos bad Godfather joke. Yeah. Thats exactly how
it happened.
As you can see, Cole, your loss is our gain. Marco grins with
pride. Hes been telling the whole office about how hes the one
who discovered me every time I come up with a good idea. Its
flattering, really, that he thinks Im such a good find. Im almost
used to it now, but him telling Cole all about it makes me blush
again like its my first day here.
Im sure shes going to do really well here. Cole hasnt taken
his eyes off me. Hes looking at me like Im one of the pieces of
art hanging on the walls around us, taking in every detail with an
admiring gaze.
Believe me, she already is. Everybody loves her, Marco says.
Hes exaggerating. I give Cole a small smile.
Not at all, Marco insists. He gets distracted by someone calling
his name and says, Hey, I have to go say hi to someone. You
guys have fun catching up!
My eyes widen as I watch Marco walk away. Hes leaving me
alone with Cole? Damn, hes so oblivious.
So you moved here last week? Cole asks.
Yeah. And you? I grab a tiny little tomato bruschetta from the
hors doeuvre tray when a pretty server walks past. Im too
nervous to eat, but I need to do something with my hands.
Ive been here for almost two months. I had no idea you were
moving. He looks almost hurt that I never told him.
It wasnt exactly planned. I just felt like I needed a fresh start.
As soon as the words escape my lips, I realize my mistake. Cole
winces. I quickly add, And Marco was right. It was a really good
offer and I needed a job.
You like it here?
I actually do. I had no idea you were here either until I got here.
Youre creating quite a buzz. There are all kinds of speculations
about why youre here. I have to calm down. Keep the
conversation casual. I tend to talk too much when Im nervous
and I really dont want to say the wrong thing. How about you?
You like it here?
Its nice enough, he says. Hes being careful. Could he be
worried about revealing too much to the employee of a potential
competitor company? Or is he just as skittish as I am?
Yeah. Its a nice city. Im still not used to the weather, though. I
cant believe how much it rains here. Its always so gloomy and
cold. And I always forget to bring an umbrella. Id walk out to go
somewhere and only realize it when its too late to turn back. It
feels super cold outside when my clothes are wet. I take a bit of
the tomato bruschetta to shut myself up. Im being such a great
conversationalist. Weather talk? How interesting!
Where do you live?
Downtown. I cover my mouth to hide any remaining bits of
bruschetta and swallow quickly. I was expecting Cole to say more
so I could have more time to eat, but hes not giving me anything
to go on. Im staying with Marco for now, but Im looking for
my own place.
Youre staying with Marco? He clenches his jaw as something
flashes in his eyes. Hurt? Anger? It goes away too quickly for me
to identify.
Yeah. Hes being really nice to me, even though Im basically
always in his space. His girlfriend doesnt mind either. They tell
me I can stay for as long as I want, but I feel like I need to move
out as soon as possible.
So its the three of you? Cole visibly relaxes. Could he be
jealous?
Yeah. How about you? Where do you live now?
Same. Downtown. I figure it would be more convenient for me
to get to meetings.
Em! Marco yells. I turn toward him and see him pointing at
someone beside him. Come over here! You have to meet this
guy!
I nod and smile at Marco. A part of me is relieved I can escape
from this awkward encounter but, at the same time, I still want
to spend more time with Cole. I smile at him and say, Looks like
Im needed elsewhere.
Yeah. He pauses before he says, Do you want to go
somewhere after youre done? For drinks? I know a good place.
COLE

D o you I pause and search her eyes for answers while I


think of the best way to pose the question Ive been
meaning to ask ever since I walked out through the tall,
wrought-iron gates of the Blackwood Cemetery.
Do you hate me?
She tilts her head, waiting for me to finish. But I cant ask her
that, not with those exact words. Im too afraid shed say yes.
I drag air into my lungs and steel myself. I can do this.
Are you still angry at me? I finally ask. My heart hammers in
my chest while I wait for her answer.
No, Cole. She takes a deep breath. Im not angry at you
anymore. I was, though. But you probably already know that.
She laughs softly.
She looks beautiful with the candlelight illuminating her face.
Her red dress glows orange and I wonder if I really saw her in the
parking lot, but it doesnt matter. We have more important
things to discuss now that I know for sure Ive found her again.
Yes, you were quite clear about that. I return her smile. A little
bit of my anxiety leaves along with a big exhalation. You were
right to be angry, though. I did a horrible thing.
I think She pauses and looks into the distance like shes
trying to find the right words. I think I was as angry at myself
as I was at you.
Angry at yourself?
Yeah. For the longest time, I was angry at myself. Alice told me
it wasnt my fault, but I always felt responsible for the accident
myself. She pulls the corners of her lips upward and looks
across the table at me. Her blue eyes are glassy and glowing,
reflecting the dance of the little candle flame. I told Scott to
drive faster. I had a bad headache. And then it happened. I
blamed myself.
It wasnt your fault, I quickly say. If you want to blame
anyone, blame me.
No, Cole. She slowly shakes her head. She blinks away the
tears that have gathered in her eyes. When she continues
talking, her voice breaks. If it was your fault, then it was my
fault as well. But Ive been thinking a lot about this. Alice was
right. It wasnt anybodys fault. Nobody wanted it to happen.
Not me, not you, and not Scott.
You dont think it was my fault? I frown and realize shes
serious.
No. She shakes her head again. No, Cole. It wasnt your fault.
Stop blaming yourself for the accident. If you need my
permission, Im giving it to you right now. You can stop blaming
yourself. Im sure Scott would forgive you as well if he could.
A lump in my throat stops me from saying anything. I swallow,
but it wont go away. I wouldnt even know what to say anyway.
Ever since I woke up in the hospital after the accident, I havent
stopped blaming myself. Not for one minute.
And now the victim of my crime is telling me I dont have to
carry this burden that has been weighing heavily on my
shoulders?
I was also angry at myself for letting myself fall for you. I felt
like I was betraying Scott in a way. It doesnt make sense, I
know. But thats how I felt. Even though I know hed want me to
continue living my life and not just get stuck in the past.
Wait a minute. You just said you fell for me. I somehow
manage to find my voice. This is too important to brush off.
I did. She smiles a little mysterious smile, like shes amused at
my bewilderment.
Even though I lied to you?
Well, I fell for you before I realized you were lying to me. But
yeah, I still felt the same way even after I found out the truth.
Emilys index finger traces the lip of her glass of Diet Coke. I
stare at it with intense jealousy. I want her finger on my skin
again. Can I hope for that to happen again?
And now? I look deep into her blue eyes. Please, dont let this
be a lie. I deserve to be lied to after all the lies that Ive told her.
And I wouldnt blame her if she wanted me to get a taste of my
own medicine. But I hope to God that shes telling the truth.
Now? She sighs and looks up at me. Her blonde locks shift
over her shoulders and back. I dont know, Cole. Its hard to
say. Ive been Ive gone through a few really intense months.
Ive learned a lot of things about myself, but I also realize there
are many things I still dont know.
Like the way you feel about me, I say.
Yes. Like the way I feel about you.
I love you, I blurt out. Thats not a lie. Thats the truth. And I
still do. I still love you.
I know. I know you have real feelings for me, even if youve lied
about other things. The way youre looking at me right now, you
cant fake that. Not even if you were a really good actor. She
returns my gaze and smiles.
Im so sorry, Emily. Im sorry for everything I put you
through.
I know that, too. Youre deeply remorseful. I can tell.
Can you I gather my courage and ask, Can you forgive me?
Can we start over? Please, Emily?
I dont know if I can trust you. She says the words softly, but it
feels like she has just smashed her glass against the bar table
between us and stabbed me in the chest with the shard. I cant
stop wondering if you only feel that way because of your guilt, if
you feel responsible for me because of the accident.
Im not going to lie anymore, Emily. You know that, right? Im
only going to tell you the truth from now on. I promise you. And
the truth is I started to fall for you before the accident, when I
saw you at The Amber Room that night. Then I really got to know
you. Youre smart, beautiful, and you have the kindest heart. I
cant help but fall in love with you. Its not because of guilt. Guilt
is there a lot of the time. But there is love, too. And its real.
Emily cocks her head and stares straight at me without saying
anything. After a long pause, she says, Can I ask you
something?
Anything.
Why are you here? In Seattle, I mean. What are you doing
here?
Its a long story, but I guess we have time. The short version is
to get away from my father. I know I wont ever be rid of him as
long as I stay in San Francisco.
And the long version?
I take a deep breath. My father didnt approve of me seeing you.
He was furious when he found out Id hired you. He was worried
that somehow it would lead to everyone finding out about how
hed kept the police investigation quiet and stopped the news
from reaching the media.
I know that, she says.
You do?
Yeah. Alice told me. And you didnt know he did all those
things until it was too late.
Yes. It was all a done deal when I woke up in the hospital, I
say. So he threatened me. He said hed take away Foster Hotels
if I didnt stay away from you.
Emily draws a sharp breath. She stares at me with her big doe
eyes.
Well, my father found out about us. And hes not the kind of
man who makes empty threats.
So you lost Foster Hotels because of me?
No, Emily. I lost it because I didnt do what he wanted me to do.
It was going to happen sooner or later. Hes always tried to
control me and Ive always tried to defy his orders. It was bound
to happen.
Ive always wanted to get out from under his thumb, but there
was a certain comfort in letting him be in charge of some parts of
my life. To be honest, I knew it was going to be a lot harder for
me to make it on my own. So Ive always had this dilemma.
And then you came along and made it unbearable for me to
keep letting him run my life. Because I couldnt let things stay
the way they were and still have you in my life.
I didnt know. Emily puts her hands over her mouth. So
thats why you left San Francisco?
Partly. Theres another reason. There was this girl there. She
told me to leave her alone, so I decided to move here. I just didnt
think she was going to follow me all the way to Seattle, I say,
trying to break the tension.
It works. She smiles. If this place wasnt so dark Im sure Id see
color spread across her cheeks.
But you worked so hard to build that company, she says. Even
after everything Ive done to her, she still thinks about how
things affect me. I swear if I ever manage to get her back, Ill
never let her go again. Not even if she tells me to.
It doesnt matter. Like I said, it was bound to happen. I can
always do it all over again. I managed to take some money with
me when I moved here, so I can start again. I can rebuild. I can
redo everything Ive done with Foster Hotels. I can earn back my
success.
But thats not the way things are with you. It kills me that I lost
you through my own foolishness.
Im sorry for being so selfish, Emily. I didnt think about what
you want. It didnt occur to me to ask you. I didnt even cross my
mind that I should tell you the truth. I tried to fix your problems
my way.
I realize now that I was treating you like my father has always
treated me. He thinks he knows exactly what I need and how to
get it. He doesnt consult me even when hes supposedly doing
things for my benefit.
When you told me to leave you alone, I realized Id been trying
to fulfill your needs without consulting you. And that wasnt
going to make you happy. Its just like how my father would
never make me happy by doing whatever he thinks is right
without ever asking me what I want.
Im sorry, Emily. Ive learned my whole life to follow in my
fathers footsteps. Be strong, be in control, be the one to make
the decisions. Dont be weak, or show any weakness. Ive always
kept secrets. Ive always done things in the dark. And guilt is a
weakness, so I couldnt show that side of me to you.
But youre not my father. And you accepted me not because of
how well I follow these stupid rules my father came up with.
I cant tell what the strange expression on Emilys face means.
Shes definitely thinking, but theres no telling whats going on
in that beautiful mind of hers.
I feel lighter after unleashing that deluge of information on her.
More vulnerable, but strangely liberated. Ive laid all my cards on
the table, and its up to her now to decide what to do.
Theyre closing up the bar. She looks past my shoulder at the
staff clearing the tables and turning off the lights. She smiles as
she shifts her gaze back to me. Take me to your place, Cole. I
want to see your new home.
EMILY

A re we really doing this?


My mind is racing. Theres a lot for me to process. After holding
so much back from me, now Cole has just dropped everything on
the table all at once.
But while my brain is still working things out, theres no denying
that my heart and my body have already made a decision. I can
feel it from the way my stomach flutters and churns. I wont be
able to go back home and just forget about this.
When the bar closed down, all I knew was I wanted to spend
more time with Cole, and I didnt want to lose this magical
momentum. Im afraid if I just walk away and see him again
tomorrow, everything will feel different in the cold, harsh light
of the day.
This feels like a fragile, fleeting, precious moment and I want to
do everything I can to keep it in my grasp, even if its just for a
few hours longer.
I know, perhaps better than anyone else, how quickly love can
slip away and get lost in the maze of time, never to be seen
again.
Is anything wrong? You havent said anything since we left the
bar. Cole looks at me with concern in his beautiful brown eyes.
No, Im fine. Really. I smile and shake my head.
The streets around us are empty, except for a few other cars that
have stopped in front of the traffic light. Drops of rain cover the
car windows, making it feel like were in a world of our own.
Smooth jazz plays in the background, making the atmosphere
feel even more melancholic.
If youve changed your mind, I can take you home, he says.
I havent. Trust me. This is nice, just sitting here with you.
Cole takes my hand and gently strokes my skin. Just like that,
my heartbeat speeds up and my body craves his touch elsewhere.
I want his big, warm hand on my neck, on my bare waist, on my
thighs
I look into his eyes and recognize the same hunger in him. He
wants me just as much.
The light turns green and Cole puts his hands back on the
steering wheel. The car glides among the tall buildings of the
city. Bright, colorful lights decorate the empty retail stores,
while yellow street lights illuminate the few pedestrians caught
in the rain as they rush home. I catch glimpses of the Space
Needle sometimes, stabbing the sky like it anchors the skyline in
place.
We enter the parking area of a tall, modern apartment building
with a glass facade. Truth be told, Ive been trying to come up
with any unanswered questions that remain. I know that once
were alone in Coles apartment, Ill forget everything.
If theres any doubt left in my mind, if theres any good reason
why I shouldnt spend the night, I should clear it up now. As Cole
parks the car, one last question pops into my mind. He turns off
the engine and we step out of the car.
Cole. I take his hand and interlace our fingers as we walk
toward the entrance to the apartment lobby. Why did you want
me to wait until Tuesday? When I saw you at the cemetery, you
told me you wanted to tell me everything, but you were waiting
for the right time. What were you waiting for?
The electronic scanner by the door beeps as Cole waves his key
fob. He holds the door open for me and we step inside, him
taking my hand back in his. My heels click-clack noisily against
the marble floor, the sound magnified by the echo of the high
ceilings and the lack of an answer from Cole. When I glance at
him, he looks like hes thinking.
I wanted to line everything up before telling you, he finally
says. Its late and the lobby is empty. The door of the elevator
nearest to us opens with a ding from the speaker. The carpeted
floor muffles the sound of my heels as we enter. Cole presses the
button for his floor and continues, When we founded Foster
Hotels, my father insisted on retaining the power to take full
control of the company at any time. So I made an emergency
plan in case that happened and I needed some money to start
over without him. I was waiting for the transfer to be finalized.
Why?
I wanted to show up with plane tickets and ask you to move to
Seattle with me. I was afraid that if I told you about the problem
without providing a solution, it would scare you away. My father
is a powerful man and I didnt want to freak you out without also
giving you an escape plan. I wanted you to feel safe.
He looks so sad and sincere I cant help but give in to my instinct
to comfort him.
I step closer and put my hand on his face. His skin feels warm on
my cold hand, and his stubble rough against my skin.
He puts his hand on top of mine and kisses my palm. His lips are
soft, but hungry. He looks deep into my eyes. Its clear as day
that I want him too. He puts his free hand on the back of my
head and pulls me close. This is it. Were really doing this.
As soon as his lips land on mine, I get sucked into a vortex of
passion so strong its dizzying. It scares me. Cole scares me. I
want him so much I feel like he can completely crush me if he
ever decides to let go. But I dont care anymore. Ill never find
out where this leads if I dont let go.
So I do. I let go.
I let our desires take over and let him take possession of my
mouth. His hand on the back of my head slides down my back
and he pulls me tight until my breasts are squished against his
hard chest. Just as I curl my fingers around the back of his neck,
the elevator stops and the door opens.
Cole grabs my waist and pulls me down the carpeted, dimly lit
hallway, both of us rushing and panting with lust. He jams his
key into the keyhole and turns with one hand, while his other
hand grabs my hair. He kisses me like hes running out of air and
I have the oxygen that he needs, like hed die if we stopped.
As soon as the door opens, we both stumble inside into the
darkness, still locked in breathless embrace. I pull his blazer off
his shoulders and he yanks the zipper of my dress down my
back. Coles apartment feels warm and toasty and we shed our
clothes like were both burning with heat.
By the time he pushes me down onto his leather couch, Im
down to my panties and hes only wearing his jeans. The dim
light of the city at night that enters the living room through the
floor-to-ceiling glass wall highlights the cords of muscles just
underneath Coles skin, showing off the contours of his chest
and abs with its highlights and shadows.
You look beautiful, he whispers, as if speaking any louder
would interrupt the moment. Tenderness and wickedness swirl
together in his dark eyes, making my heart flutter and my core
tingle.
I smile, and he groans as he pushes his knee between my thighs,
forcing me to part my legs. I let him climb on top of me and wrap
my legs around his waist. He plants his elbows by my shoulders
and leans down, trapping me under his hard body. I grab onto his
muscular upper arms and hold on tight.
I surrender to his kiss, letting him explore my lips, my earlobes,
my neck. I sigh, enjoying the feeling of his weight on my body,
the tactile dragging of his skin against mine. He feels warm and
safe and comfortable. I feel like Ive come home.
When Cole catches my nipple with his lips, I gasp. The tingles
shoot straight down, and I feel myself throb with desire. Slick
wetness leaks out of me, pooling in my soaked panties.
He looks up straight into my eyes as he presses the hard bulge in
his pants against my bare inner thigh, letting me know just how
much he wants me. My lips part and a moan escapes when I
think about taking his hot, hard cock inside me.
He runs his fingers over my black lace panties. Im glad I have
the habit of wearing nice underthings when I dress up. I knew I
was probably going to bump into Cole tonight, but I definitely
didnt think Id end up in Coles apartment with him ravenously
peeling off my clothes.
I can feel how wet you are through your panties, he says. If my
whole body wasnt already on fire, Id blush in embarrassment
not that hed be able to see me turn red in the dim light.
He pulls my panties down my legs, shifting his body to take
them all the way off. He throws them down onto the white
marble floor to join my dress and bra. Im now completely naked
and exposed to his hungry gaze.
He runs his fingers over my wetness and rubs my clit. I shudder
with pleasure as he pushes two fingers inside me. Im so wet he
goes in smoothly, with no resistance at all.
For the first time in a long time, I feel alive. Unlike all the other
times when wed come together before, I feel like were both
honest with each other now. The internal, emotional nakedness
that we show each other makes me feel safe and comfortable
letting go in front of him.
Cole, I say breathlessly in between lusty gasps. Oh, Cole.
Please.
Please what? Tell me what you want, Emily.
Please. I want you inside me. I reach down and fumble with
his belt. Once thats undone, I unbutton and unzip his jeans. He
leans closer to let me undress him, while his skillful fingers
continue to make me gasp and moan and writhe underneath
him.
Cole slides his jeans off and presses the tip of his cock against
my opening. He feels so hot against my skin I could burn. I
thrust my hips up to take him in, but he pulls back and smirks at
me, teasing me.
Fuck. You look so sexy when youre like this, he says.
I reach up to put my hands on his shoulders. I feel the ropes of
his muscles rippling as he moves. I pull him close and he obliges.
He leans down to kiss me, devouring me with his mouth. I feel
wanton, but every cell in my body yearns for him, this man who
has unwittingly turned my life into both hell and heaven.
Please, Cole. I need you.
He pulls back from the kiss and watches my face intensely. He
rocks his hips to push his cock inside me, inch by torturous inch.
I bite my lips and lift my hips up again, inviting him in. In
response, he pulls back out again, making me crave the fullness
from his cock even more.
Stay, he says. Ill give it to you if youre good and if you stay
still. Okay?
I nod in reply. If I had my way hed already be inside me, but Ill
do as he says if it means Ill get what I need.
Good. Good girl, he says with a crooked smirk on his face.
He slowly starts to push back in again, and I fight the urge to
swallow him whole this time, even though my body aches for
more of him. I close my eyes and bite my bottom lip until it
starts to hurt, trying to distract myself from my craving for him.
Open your eyes. Cole grabs my hair until it almost hurts.
Look at me.
I do as he says and find him staring at me like hes demanding
my surrender. So I let him dominate my body and my mind. I let
him have his way with me. He slides deeper and deeper into me,
filling me up, making me stretch to accommodate his length. I
drag my fingernails down his back when he hits bottom and
grinds into me.
Oh, Cole. You feel so good.
I can make it feel even better, he whispers in my ear, his
breath hot and heavy on my skin.
Cole thrusts up into me, hitting my sweet spot. I gasp, which
only makes his cocky smirk grow even wider. He knows exactly
what to do to my body. I wrap my legs around him and pull him
down. I want him deeper and harder and faster inside me.
This time, he gives into my plea and starts to pick up his pace. I
feel my arousal build up and my muscles clench around him.
Are you going to come, baby? He watches my face as I furrow
my eyebrows and nod.
He starts to fuck me like his life depends on it. Through the fog
of my arousal, I hear the creak of the couch dragging across the
marble floor.
Come for me, baby, he growls.
He pulls my hair and bites down on my exposed neck. That little
bit of pain sends my right over the edge and I tumble down the
cliff of my climax, holding on to his big, solid arms as I lose
control of my own body, shaking and shuddering and moaning
his name over and over again.
He slams into me and grinds against me. I feel his cock pulse and
twitch inside me, and I realize hes shooting ropes of his hot
seed deep inside me.
As we both lay on the couch with messy hair and sweaty bodies
entangled into one, I close my eyes and run my hands over his
hot skin, trying to memorize the lines and contours of his body.
I love you, Emily.
I open my eyes to look up at him.
I love you too, I say before I have the chance to overthink it.
Its the first time I say these words to anyone else after the
accident.
Cole looks down into my eyes with the biggest smile on his face.
Please marry me, Emily. I cant be without you again.
Youre being crazy. I smile.
I know. But who cares? Weve gone through so many crazy
things together already, so whats another one? Theres
sincerity in his eyes, and I realize he means it.
You raise a good point. But heres another good point to
consider: maybe we should discuss this later. Like, when youre
not literally still inside me.
He laughs, his eyes twinkling in the darkness. God, I love you. I
want to grow old with you, Emily. Please. Say youll marry me.
I dont know whats coming over me, but before I can
overanalyze it, I hear myself say, I will. Ill marry you.
The truth is, now that Im in his arms again, I cant imagine us
ever being apart again.
EPILOGUE
ONE YEAR LATER

O h my God. Alice clasps her hands over her mouth and her
eyes begin to well up.
Dont cry. Youre going to ruin your make-up. I smile as I look
at her reflection in the mirror in front of me. My own make-up
artist is brushing my face with some kind of powder. Shes put so
much product on my face Ive stopped keeping track.
You look beautiful. She approaches the table where Im
sitting, grabs a tissue and carefully dabs her eyes. You dont
have cold feet, do you?
Of course not.
Good. I was going to tell you if you do we can just spend the rest
of our time here visiting temples and beaches together.
We can still do that. I laugh. But Im sorry I cant check out
the men with you like I said we would.
Are you crazy? Im happy enough I get to fly to freaking Bali in
business class and stay at a five-star resort for free. She takes a
seat on the bed and continues staring at me in my white A-line
dress, her eyes shining with happiness for me.
I smile. Cole and I have flown the closest people in our lives to
the tropical island for the wedding. I ask, Is everyone getting
along okay?
Coles Dad is being kind of an asshole, but your wedding
planner is handling him pretty well.
Well, I expected that and I already warned her.
Hes not happy about the wedding at all, is he?
Nope, I say. Cole didnt want to invite him at all, but I told
him Im no longer in contact with either of my parents so we
should keep all the family we do have.
Youre a better person than I am, Alice says.
Only sometimes.
All done! You look beautiful, says the make-up artist, a
Balinese woman who speaks impeccable, if heavily accented,
English.
Thank you, I say.
I get up and walk across the hotel room toward the full-length
mirror thats propped against the wall. I nod my approval and
the make-up artist leaves the room through the traditional,
intricately carved double doors. Its just Alice and me now in this
swanky hotel room.
You know, when Cole called me to ask for my opinion about the
ring, I thought he was moving way too fast. You just started
seeing each other again, for Gods sake. I told him what I
thought, but he insisted. I told him, Okay, just dont blame me
when she says no. And then he told me you already said yes. I
feel like you undermined my credibility a little bit, she says
without taking her eyes off my reflection.
Hey, I called you that same day and you pretended like you just
found out. You liar.
Yeah, well, he only called an hour or two before you did. Its
your own fault for always waking up so late, Alice says. Im
surprised you guys managed to sort everything out so quickly.
That was quite a bit of mess you were in.
Yeah. But in the end, the only thing I was worried about was his
tendency to want to be in control and solve every problem
himself. Thats how he got us into the mess in the first place. I
made him promise that he wouldnt meddle in my career and
that wed solve all our problems together. I also insisted that he
let me get my own apartment, although I ended up spending
most nights at his place anyway. I giggle.
Oh, Em. Alice sighs. If I were in your position, I dont know if
Id even want to continue working. Seriously. How do you even
get the motivation to work when Cole is perfectly willing to give
you the life of a Kardashian?
Well, its different for you, Alice. Youve worked really hard
your whole life, I say. I have to laugh at the Kardashian
comment. Id only just started my career and I wanted to know
if I could make it on my own without his involvement. I may find
myself having to stand on my own two feet again someday.
Alice grows quiet. We both know what Im talking about. Ive
lost one love and, eager as I am to jump into a new life with Cole,
Im aware that I can lose him at any time.
Are you ready? My Australian wedding planner pops her head
into the room. Having lived on the island for decades, she has a
year-round natural tan and speaks the local language fluently.
You look like youre ready. Beautiful, blushing bride. No cold
feet, I hope?
Nope. Im ready.
Great. All the guests are seated. Theres a buggy just outside
waiting for you, Denise says.
As I make my way outside, Alice helps me with my dress. Ive
deliberately chosen a simple, no-fuss dress to match the beachy
setting. Keeping a floor-length white dress from getting dirty is
no simple task.
Hot, humid air hits me as soon as I step outside. The afternoon
wind makes it bearable, although I still wish I could jump into
the private swimming pool to cool down.
Alice and I sit on the back of the little buggy that takes us to the
wedding venue, a beautiful green clearing at the bottom of a set
of stone steps that overlooks the ocean.
Its late in the afternoon and the sky is just beginning to turn
pink and orange. A warm breeze flirts with my loosely curled
hair. The sound of waves crashing into the rocks helps calm my
nerves.
Im not used to this, any of this. Getting all dolled up in a
designer dress, taking a vacation to a tropical island, or being the
center of attention. Im completely out of my element. At the
same time, everything feels magical.
As Alice and I approach the top of the stone steps, men wearing
checkered sarongs and Balinese cloth hats start playing a tune
on their traditional musical instruments. The guests stand up
and turn around to look at us.
Alice and I giggle as we walk down the stone steps hand in hand,
trying not to fall while we balance ourselves on our high heels. I
feel like its only appropriate for her to walk me down the aisle,
seeing as shes the only parent Ive ever had.
On both sides of the aisle, I see the smiling faces of Marco, Sally,
Caine, and even Coles father. I guess he has finally resigned
himself to the fact that were definitely getting married after all.
Several of our colleagues and friends from Seattle whom weve
grown close to over the past few months are also in attendance.
Weve even invited Linda, the old woman we met on the plane
when we first landed in Seattle, the first person to ever predict
our nuptials. But its still a small ceremony with only twenty
people in attendance.
At the end of the aisle, Cole stands by the wedding officiant with
a big grin on his face.
He looks dapper in his navy three-piece Armani suit. Hes
wearing a crisp white shirt underneath and a light gray necktie.
A single white rose is pinned onto his left lapel.
As I cast my eyes on Cole, our gaze lock. I almost cant believe
Im about to marry this magnificent man. Looking into his
piercing brown eyes, I know he has no doubt in his mind either
that he wants to do this. Despite our stormy beginnings, there
are no cold feet for either one of us on this warm, sunny day.
Alice lets go of me with a smile when we reach the altar and
takes her seat on one of the gold Tiffany chairs in the front row.
Cole takes my hands in his. I look up into his eyes and smile as I
think about how Ill be holding these same hands for the rest of
my life. And if were lucky, Ill get to watch them age until they
become wrinkled, old-man hands.
Im ready for the rest of our lives to begin.

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PREVIEW: SINGLE DADS FAKE
BRIDE

A VIRGIN & BILLIONAIRE ROMANCE


MEGAN

M y boss, Ethan Hunter, is a ruthless, heartless monster.


Its okay, though. Justice will be served.
Im going to put him in his place. He just doesnt know it yet.
Megan, my office, please, his deep voice suddenly filters
through the speaker of the phone on my desk.
I roll my eyes. Its like he can smell it when I so much as think
about him. Hes like a shark that can sense blood in the water.
As usual, his tone is authoritative. His word is law.
I, a lowly servant, must now obey.
Yes, Mr. Hunter, I reply through the phone.
I hate that speakerphone thing. It just goes to show how
conceited and self-important he is.
We couldve gone with a normal phone. You know, the kind that
rings and lets you decide whether to pick up before the other
party gets to say anything.
Instead, we have this thing that leaves me no choice as to
whether I answer or not. I have to listen, and I have to listen
right away. It doesnt matter if Im in the middle of something
else.
It has interrupted me many times. Id be typing, and then a
message would come in, and my fingers would just hover over
the keyboard of the computer, forgetting where I was before
hearing his latest decree.
Mr. Hunter wants me to be at his beck and call, to instantly
answer whenever he chooses. Hes always the only one who gets
to make all the decisions.
I let out a sigh. Id better get my ass into his office before I incite
his wrath.
I knock on the door.
Even if hes the one who has summoned me, even though he
knows full well that Im coming, knocking is still mandatory.
I know hes my boss and Im being paid to do his bidding. Still, it
annoys me that he can demand my time and attention whenever
he wants, and I have to get his permission for every little thing.
Come in, he says from behind the door.
I grab the handle and push the door open. I never get used to
what I see in his office, because its so picture perfect, its almost
unnatural.
This scene belongs on a business magazine. Theres no need for
styling of the office or the man; no need for wardrobe tweaks or
make-up; no need to even clear any clutter. Even the lighting
from the big glass wall behind Mr. Hunter is perfect.
This space is always flooded with light, although somehow that
doesnt help make the space feel any warmer. Mr. Hunters
office is steel and glass, cold and unyielding, black and gray.
It looks good, but its sterile. Soulless. It suits him, I guess.
How can I help you, Mr. Hunter? I ask with a smile, standing
at the doorway. I cant step further inside this office without him
explicitly ordering me to do so.
Mr. Hunters previous assistant, who quit to be a stay-at-home
mom, taught me to always address him in this formal,
excessively polite way.
It suffocates me, but a girls gotta do what a girls gotta do. I just
keep reminding myself that Im not going to be here forever. Im
not really his assistant. This is just a covera temporary one.
Please pick up my daughter, Penny. Her school let out early
today, and I have an interview to do, he says as he flips through
the folder in his hands, not even bothering to look up at me.
Normally, Id ask my driver to get her, but hes on sick leave
today.
Yes, Mr. Hunter. Should I take the cab? I ask, suppressing the
urge to yell at him about how rude hes being.
Yes. She goes to The Lawrence School and she needs to be
picked up half an hour from now. Just bring her here, and please
hurry.
Of course she goes to the most expensive private school in the
whole state. Why wouldnt she? Only the best for little Miss
Hunter. I bet shes an insufferable brat.
Mr. Hunter finally glances at me when he slides a scrap of paper
across the glass surface of his big desk. Heres her phone
number so you can find her.
My heart races when those steel-blue eyes land on me. Theyre
so piercing, so perceptive. They scare me. They make me worry
hell look at me a second too long and figure me out.
I guess its a good thing hes not a big fan of eye contact, or much
contact at all.
My heels click-clack on the reflective marble floor as I approach
the desk, my heart pounding harder and harder the closer I get.
I avert my gaze, not daring to look directly at him. Maybe that
makes me the rude one right now, but it feels too dangerous. I
cant blow my cover.
Ill take care of it, Mr. Hunter. I give him a quick smile as I
take the scrap of paper.
As I turn around, I become hyper-aware that Mr. Hunter can see
my ass wiggle in my tight pencil skirt as I walk away. The
thought makes me quicken my pace, even though I wore it to get
his attention in the first place.
But of course hes not even looking. When I reach the door, I
turn around and catch a glimpse of Mr. Hunter, his nose already
buried in his folder.
A pang of disappointment ripples in my chest, and I feel stupid.
Of course he wouldnt be checking me out. The man is a robot.
Those angular facial features and sculpted body are wasted on
someone like him.
Why would I want him to check my out anyway? Hes my enemy.
MEGAN

P lease wait here, I say to the taxi driver as I step out onto
the pavement, remembering to swing both my legs over to
the side.
After seeing Britney Spears flash the paparazzi her hoo-ha, I
could never forget the correct way to enter and exit a vehicle
when wearing a skirt.
I wouldnt be caught dead with such a vulgar picture of me being
circulated for men to jerk off to. Not to mention, that particular
guy who took the original snap mustve made a ton of money off
it.
Men are going to sexualize women. Thats just a fact. Theres no
escaping it.
All I can do is make sure I stay classy. I wear conservative, office-
appropriate dresses and blouse-and-skirt combos. Most of my
skin is always covered, but that doesnt mean Im frumpy.
After all, I need to attract some male attention, just enough for
me to get what I want from them.
Which is why I exercise and watch what I eat, so I look good in
skin-tight clothes. Thats as much as Ill ever reveal to people. If
men are going to jerk off to me, theyll have to use their
imagination.
Im not going to put out for any man. Im not going to let anyone
use me and discard me like men do.
Thats why Im still a virgin, even though most girls my age are
changing partners as often as they change their clothes. Their
loss, I guess, if they want to trade in their dignity for some male
attention.
As I make my way up the stairs into the school, it gets harder to
maintain my balance, with how tight my pencil skirt is. I dont
usually have to deal with any stairs at the office. This is
unfamiliar terrain.
I have to wonder why I bother at all, if Ethan Hunterthe one
man Im actually targetingdoesnt even give me a second
glance.
Hi. I wave and put on a friendly smile as I spot Penny Hunter
on the bench where she said shed be waiting.
She looks exactly like the pictures I Googled on the way here.
Despite her youth, she has been featured on some business and
gossip magazines. There are pictures of her being out and about
with her dad.
She stares at me blankly. She has the same icy blue eyes as his
father.
Penny, right? Im Megan. Your Dad told me to pick you up. I
keep the same smile plastered on my face. I may hate her dad,
but she hasnt done anything wrong to me.
Hey, she says flatly. Seriously, this whole family is horrible at
greeting people. Is the lack of emotions a genetic thing or a rich-
people thing?
The cabs waiting just outside. I point toward the open double
doors that lead outside, through which the yellow car is clearly
visible.
Okay. Penny slings her bag over her shoulder and gets up.
We make our way into the cab wordlessly, which is fine. But once
were inside, it gets too awkward to just sit in complete silence.
Even the car stereo is turned off.
How do people talk to kids? I dont get it.
Kids know nothing about anything Im interested in, and that
goes both ways. I have no idea what kids are into. I dont know
much about Pokmon or whatever.
Still, I have to say something.
Have you been to the office before? I ask the kid. She must be
about ten, or maybe eleven. I dont know. Its probably obvious
by now that Im not really an expert on kids.
Once or twice, Penny says.
How do you like it?
Its an office. She shrugs.
Sorry your dad cant pick you up today. That must suck.
No, its cool. He tries. Sometimes he just has other things to
do. For some reason, her answer surprises me. I was expecting
her to be bratty and entitled, but shes being pretty mature and
understanding.
Maybe having a father like Ethan Hunter forces you to
accommodate his schedule. Maybe shes used to being pushed
around. I wonder what hes like at home.
Yeah, I say. Theres a big meeting he has to attend this
afternoon.
Yeah, he texted me. I dont know why he acts like its the end of
the world. He picks me up most days, and he misses one day. Its
okay. Im not five.
Ethan Hunter? Getting flustered over not being able to pick up
his daughter? I wouldnt have guessed.
I mean, of course he wouldnt treat his daughter like he treats
other people. Still, I never expected him to be such an involved
parent.
How old are you, Penny? I ask.
Almost eleven. My birthday is in two months.
I see. My wild guess was correct after all.
Andthats it. Ive run out of topics to talk about. I could never
find a common ground with kids. Im just not a kid person.
How old are you? Penny asks, keeping the conversation going,
to my relief.
Twenty-one.
Youre almost twice older than me.
Im almost twice your age, I correct her without thinking
about it.
Yeah. Youre twice my age, she replies without complaining,
admitting her mistake and correcting herself.
Do you like it when your dad picks you up?
Yeah.
It must be better riding that fancy car than this cab, huh? I
know Mr. Hunter is really fond of his black convertible Porsche. I
stare at it with envy sometimes when I see it at the office.
Its okay, she says in a casual tone that reminds me its a
mundane, everyday thing for her to ride in a luxury car.
If it wasnt for her father, maybe Id have a car of my own. But
instead Im just barely scraping by, even though I take public
transport everywhere.
Sometimes he buys me ice cream after school and thats nice,
she continues.
When I was your age, I had to walk to the school and back
myself every day. Damn, I sound like an old grandma, talking
about how good kids these days have it, compared to how it was
back in my day.
I used to do that, too, Penny says.
Nobody picked you up? I frown. Surely, even if hes busy,
Ethan Hunter could hire someone to drive his daughter
anywhere she wants.
No.
How old were you at that time?
Six, Penny says.
Were here, the taxi driver announces.
I look out and realize hes right. Ive been so focused on Penny I
havent even been paying attention to where we are.
The steel-and-glass skyscraper that belongs to Pennys dad
looms just outside the cab, so high I cant see the top from this
angle.
I give the driver a couple of bills and tell him to keep the change.
Ethan Hunter is many things, but hes not cheap.
As his assistant, I get to use a company credit card and a monthly
cash allowance. These things are for work expenses, of course.
But theres not much oversight and I can get away with using
some of the money on myself.
Ive never tried to do that, though. Ive come too far to
jeopardize things for just a few extra dollars. If I pull this mission
off, Im going to get a much better rewardand Im not just
talking about money.
How far did you have to walk to get to school? I ask as Penny
and I wait for the elevator at the lobby.
Like, a mile or two, I guess.
As the elevator arrives to take us up to the eighty-seventh level,
I wonder why Ethan Hunter would let a small kid traverse that
distance on foot. Thats almost torture, considering how young
Penny was, and how short her legs mustve been.
I walk through the empty office and reach my desk, which is just
outside Mr. Hunters office door. He likes his privacy, so he has
set aside this whole floor for himself. Which is why I work alone
and eat alone most days. I dont really mind it, though. I enjoy
solitude.
I take my usual seat at my desk and say, to Penny, Sit wherever
you like.
I assumed shed sit down on one of the designer couches in the
waiting room. Like other things in this office, they look good but
theyre pretty low on the comfort factor.
But instead, Penny tiptoes toward her dads office door and
presses her ear against the wood.
Penny! I whisper loudly. Youre not supposed to do that.
If Mr. Hunter finds out Im letting his daughter eavesdrop on his
interview, Ill get in trouble. And then all my hard work will
amount to nothing.
Penny doesnt budge, even though shes staring right at me. I
watch as her eyes widen and her skin grows pale. She looks
alarmed.
Oh, no, she says softly, her voice shaking.
Whats wrong? I ask with concern.
Maybe shes just being a brat and doing whatever she wants.
Maybe I should just yank her off the door and tell her to behave.
But something tells me theres more going on. She seems like a
kid who has grown up before her time, like someone whos more
mature than her peers.
Maybe Im just projecting, because thats the way I used to feel
myself, when I was a kid.
Whatever the reason, my heartbeat picks up as I wait for her
response. I have a feeling this might be serious.
Pennys eyes grow dark with conviction. When she opens her
mouth, she says, You have to do something.
ETHAN

I cant help but stare at my assistants ass, her perky globes


swaying from side to side, her movements exaggerated by
her high heels. The staccato beats of her shoes on the floor echo
as she walks away.
Shes a fucking distraction. And I cant afford to have any
distractions.
But she does decent work. Shes good at following instructions.
And to be honest, maybe I enjoy that a little too much.
I love her nervous fidgeting when I look at her, the little bite of
her bottom lip, the tucking of her blonde hair behind her ear.
Not to mention the way she glances away as she loses her
composure, or the way her chest rises and falls rapidly.
I love that Im the one who makes her nervous, that Im the one
whose orders she follows. I wish I could pin her to the wall and
have my way with her.
But I cant do that. That would be irresponsible. And above all, I
need to be responsible.
Besides, my reputation is already shot to shit. The last thing I
need is a sexual harassment lawsuit from my personal assistant.
And trying to find a replacement would be hell. I cant deal with
the idiots in HR sending me one stupid airhead after another.
No, Megan makes for the perfect personal assistant, and thats
exactly why I need to keep my dirty paws off her, even if my cock
is already stirring in my pants.
I tear my gaze off her sexy curves and focus on the document in
front of me, a list of talking points prepared by my PR
department to help me get ready for the interview.
I fucking hate doing all this publicity stuff. I told Eliza, the head
of the PR department, that I wanted her to deal with the media,
but she said it would seem insincere and impersonal.
Well, Im a fucking businessman. Why the fuck do they want to
get up close and personal? Im not a celebrity, and I dont want
to be.
Its not even just the business media anymore that talks about
me, but also the gossip tabloids. My pictures next to the fucking
Kardashiansimagine that.
My phone rings. I take a quick glance to check whos calling.
Ashley.
Of course its her. The fucking root and source of all my
problems. Of course shed call me on a bad day, just to make it
worse.
I silence the ringtone and let the call go to voicemail.
I try to concentrate on the talking points, but its the same old
fucking lines.
Create jobs and spread wealth.
Share savings with the local communities.
Overall positive economic impact.
Conversations with elected officials and community leaders.
Co-exist with small and medium businesses.
Review our portfolio.
Constantly looking for new ways to be more helpful to the
surrounding areas.
Its the same corporate speak that has been rehashed to death.
No journalist who actually cares about doing a good job would
ever buy these answers. But do we even have any real journalists
anymore?
Money can buy opinions in this day and age. I dont even know
whether thats a good thing. I used to think it was, until my
enemies started using the same PR tactics against me.
I throw the folder on my desk. It hasnt helped at all. I just know
that whoevers coming to interview me wont be interested in
these sanitized, sterilized talking points.
I might as well listen to my voicemail. The one from Ashley, the
fucking mother of my child.
Hey, Ethan, she greets in a sickeningly sweet voice. Hows
Penny doing? I miss her, and Im sure she wants to see me, too.
You cant just keep us apart forever. Sooner or later theyre
going to grant me custody. You know that, right? You cant keep
a mother away from her daughter.
Anyway, Lucas says hes working on something. So if I were
you, Id be fucking scared right now. She cackles like the witch
she is, then adds, I was hoping to hear your reaction.
But, oh well, we dont always get what we want, right, honey?
Youve been the exception to that rule for too long. Soon, youll
get whats coming to you.
Anyway, I gotta go. Talk soon!
Fucking Ashley.
I put the phone down on my desk.
Hasnt that woman done enough? I dont know what else she
wants from me.
When Ashley left me and took Penny with her, she shouldve
known there was a possibility that Id get custody, and taken
that into consideration. Its not my fault she wasnt prepared for
it.
Mr. Hunter, says Eliza as she knocks of my office door.
Great. Perfect timing.
Ive just been terrorized by a nightmare from my past, and now
Im about to face yet another user who wants to take advantage
of me.
Sure, this journalist doesnt personally know me and its nothing
personal. But shes still looking to use me to further her career,
selling me to her audience like Im some kind of a product.
I dont know why I expect anything different from anybody.
I run my fingers through my hair and take a deep breath.
Come in, I say.
The door opens, and Eliza walks in, followed by a woman I dont
recognize.
Mr. Hunter, this is Melanie Graham. Shes here for the
interview, Eliza says.
Mr. Hunter, its an honor to finally meet you. Im Melanie
Graham from The Times.
Please, call me Ethan. I smile and gesture for her to follow me
to the sitting area.
I dont like being too familiar with strangers, but Eliza tells me
this is a trick to make myself seem more personable. I wouldnt
care if people thought I was the devil himself, but apparently
that could hurt the bottom line, so I listen to her.
And please call me Melanie, she says as she meets me by the
coffee table.
We shake hands and give each other a polite smile before we
take our seats on the couches. A little showmanship to make her
like me so shell write good things about me.
None of it means anything, of course. Just a ritualistic dance
before any main event in this office.
Hows your day going so far, Mr. Hunter? Im sorry, I mean
Ethan. Melanie does a fake laugh intended to bring my defense
down. Unfortunately for her, Im not that nave.
Its business as usual, Melanie. Thanks for asking. Hows your
day so far?
Its looking up, now that Im interviewing someone who made
the 40 Under 40 List. Melanie smiles as she mentions the
stupid, arbitrary article that some business magazine writes
every year, about the top forty businessmen under the age of
forty. She pulls out a little black gadget from her bag. Mind if I
record this interview?
Not at all, I say.
Eliza sits on the sidelines, watching the interview, ready to
interrupt or take over when the questions get too intrusive. She
must be proud. Here I am, addressing the interviewer with her
first name and being politefriendly, even. Im doing
everything she told me to.
As we expected, Melanie starts with the easy questions. Where
our newest shopping centers will be located, how many of our
projects are going to be finished this year, and what our plans
are for the next five years.
We all know this is just warm-up. None of this is going to make
it into whatever article shell write. Still, we pretend it actually
matters.
Then, Melanie bares her teethmetaphorically, of course. Were
civilized people. We dont actually assume aggressive stances to
threaten one another with physical violence. We just smile while
we secretly stab one another in the back.
Have you heard any feedback from the local community about
your property in Northdeer?
Before we start any project, we always have extensive
conversations with the local elected officials and community
leaders, I answer, recalling the words from Elizas talking
points.
I see. There are allegations that local businesses and property
owners have faced intimidation from Hunter Corporation. Are
you aware of these allegations?
Yes. I try to keep abreast of any new developments related to
my business. With the size of our portfolio, you understand that
I cant possibly keep track of every single thing that happens,
but Eliza here is great at bringing the more important issues to
my attention. I glance at Eliza, who gives me an approving look
that tells me Im doing great at sticking to the script.
I dont like having someone tell me what to do, but dealing with
the press is not my area of expertise.
A couple of years ago, Hunter Corporation got hit by a ton of bad
publicity, and my honest responses werent helping. It got so
bad that our profits were hurt. At that point, I had to swallow my
pride and hire a PR expert.
I cant jeopardize everything Ive worked so hard for, just
because I cant control what I say. Control is key. And if it takes a
PR expert to take back that control, then so be it.
How have you responded to these particular allegations in
Northdeer? Melanie asks.
As Ive already stated in many other interviews, Hunter
Corporation used to subcontract the acquisition of land and
construction of structures to another company. We have severed
all business relationships with this company. I dont need any
notes to answer this question. Ive answered it eighty-three
times. It seems to be a favorite among journalists.
Are you talking about Primaland?
Im not at liberty to say, I answer.
Youre the CEO, Ethan. Surely, you can say anything you want?
Im sorry, Melanie. This is not something I can discuss with
you. I smile at her. Im being friendly, but also making it clear
that Im not going to let her push me into a corner.
Okay, lets move on to something lighter, then. Her lips curl
up, but the way she stares at me leaves no doubt in my mind:
shes going for blood now. Youre often photographed with
your daughter, Penny. Youre shown picking her up, taking her
for ice cream Its adorable.
Thank you. My daughter is the most important person in the
world to me, and I enjoy spending time with her. This is the
most genuine statement Ive said so far in this interview.
Thats really sweet, Ethan.
Im sure Im not the only dad who feels that way about his
daughter. I smile and brace myself for what I know is about to
come.
Not every CEO has the time to pick up his daughter from school
every day.
I cant comment on how other people parent. This is the only
way I know how to be a dad. I shrug. I wish shed just get to the
point, rather than act like she cares.
I have some questions related to the way you parent, actually.
Im sure you know people are talking. They say youre only
pretending for the cameras, Melanie says, finally getting to the
heart of the matter.
People say all kinds of things.
Are you picking up your daughter today?
Well, no. But today is an exception. Pennys school let out early
today, and I wouldnt have been able to make this interview if I
picked her up.
I see. So sometimes business comes first after all, huh?
Well, no. Its just a minor scheduling issue, I say with a
practiced smile.
Bitch, I curse in my head. You dont think Id rather be eating ice
cream with my daughter than sitting here getting grilled by you,
a stranger and a nobody?
Im sure youre also aware of how your ex-wife, Ashley Hunter,
has gone public with her story, saying that youve been keeping
her away from Penny, her own daughter, Melanie says.
Yes. Its what the court decided. The presiding judge gave me
full custody of Penny.
Your ex-wife is contesting that decision. In fact, she has
teamed up with Primaland to call you a liar and a bully in the
media, she continues.
And a monster, too. Lets not forget that. I chuckle.
You seem to find it amusing. Arent you afraid of losing your
daughter?
The media may be able to influence public opinion, Melanie.
But ultimately the courts make the final decision.
Your ex-wife accuses you of using your money and influence to
gain the upper hand in court. What do you say to that?
I say I havent done anything illegal.
Not illegal, I agree. But judges are members of the public, too,
Ethan. The shift in public opinion may affect your custody
arrangement.
Ill let the courts decide, I reply calmly with a smile as I lean
back in my couch, even though my blood is boiling inside.
Your ex-wife also alleges that youre keeping Penny away from
her out of spite. She claims youre putting on a show when
youre seen with her in public.
Thats just not true, Melanie. I stick to short answers as she
comes up with one infuriating statement after another. I cant
risk saying something out of anger. It will only become fodder
for the press.
I want to believe you, Ethan. But you just told me yourself that
youre not picking up your daughter because of this interview. Is
it more important to you to present a certain image to the public,
than it is to provide good care for your daughter?
Not at all. I dont think its fair to judge my parenting from the
little slice of my life that you see.
I inwardly curse at Eliza. She has been telling me what an
important interview this is, and how I cant miss it. Well, maybe
it is. But I really can do without this womans attacks and
negativity. I shouldve skipped it altogether.
Unfortunately, Ethan, a slice of your life is all I get to see, and
its all the material I have for my article, Melanie says.
Before I can open my mouth to answer, the door opens. No
knocking, no warning.
Im sitting with my back toward the door, so I twist to take a
look. This is highly unusual, and I dont like it. I dont like not
knowing whats happening.
Everything feels like its happening in slow motion. All
conversation grinds to a halt. The only sounds are the soft
tapping of sneakers on the tiles, and the sharp clicking of high
heels not far behind.
Hi, Dad, Penny says casually, waving as she enters the room.
Megan follows behind her, looking distraught as she shuts the
door behind her. Her gaze flicks wildly between Eliza, Melanie,
and me.
I frown at the two of them.
What the fuck do they think theyre doing?
MEGAN

Y ou have to do something, Megan, Penny repeats. The


blood has drained from her face, and her dilated pupils
darken her blue eyes.
Whats wrong, Penny? Calm down. I dont even know what the
problem is, so how am I supposed to do anything?
Theyre going to take me away. I cant Her sentence hangs
in the air as she hyperventilates, pumping air into her small
lungs.
What could be going on inside Mr. Hunters office? All I know is
theres an interview right now, but I have no idea what its
about, or how it affects Penny.
All I know is its important enough for Eliza Dahl from PR to join
him today.
Shes this talented, hard-working young woman who always
seems to know what to say. She always looks professional in her
fashionable blazers, and she can smooth out any difficult
situationits like a superpower.
Sometimes, Mr. Hunter does smaller interviews that he doesnt
even prepare for. But for this particular one, hes been emailing
back and forth with Eliza for days.
Penny, just sit down for a minute. Come on. I get up and put
my hands on her shoulders, intending to gently guide her toward
the waiting area, where the couches are.
Theres nothing she or I could do. As much as it sucks, were
powerless, so we might as well just sit back and relax.
Theres no time! Penny insists.
Penny. I bend down to level my gaze at her. What is it that
Im supposed to do? What is going on? I need to know if you want
me to help you.
Theyre going to take me away, she repeats. She looks so
desperate it breaks my heart. You need to do something.
I dont know how to help you if you dont tell me whats going
on. Tell me, how am I supposed to help you? I ask, getting
worried and frustrated.
Damn it, I think I might like this kid after all. Why do I even care
about her? Shes the daughter of my enemy.
I dont know, Penny snaps. Youre the adult here. Youre
supposed to know what to do. Youre almost twice my age.
She even remembers what I said in the cab, even in her panicked
state. She may be a kid, but shes smart and perceptive. Maybe
something really bad is really going on in there.
But what can I do? I may be an adult, but Im also just a personal
assistant.
Penny stares at the floor. Her eyebrows are taut, her gaze
focused. Shes thinking. Concentrating.
Okay. I know what to do. Just follow my lead, Penny says.
Before I can react, Penny pushes her dads office door open.
Shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
Im supposed to babysit her. Now shes entering Mr. Hunters
officewhich is already off-limits, even under normal
circumstancesduring an important interview.
What do I do?
Penny glances back at me, imploring me to back her up with her
eyes.
Damn it, I cant say no to those eyes.
Besides, Im already in trouble anyway for letting Penny enter
Mr. Hunters office. I might as well commit to whatever this is.
Hi, Dad, Penny says casually as she enters the office, all traces
of panic or uncertainty gone from her demeanor.
Jesus. I have to say Im impressed. Shes good.
I trail behind her, not sure whats happening or what I should
do. Im completely out of my depth here.
For the few months that Ive been working here, Ive been
playing it safe. Im not supposed to be pulling this kind of
stunts.
Mr. Hunter glares at Penny, then at me. I avert my gaze and act
like Im busy with the door, like it takes all my concentration just
to push it closed.
Penny! Mr. Hunter exclaims. To my surprise, he doesnt sound
angry at all. If anything, he sounds happy to see her, even if his
eyes are still shooting darts at her.
I wonder if this father-daughter ruse has to do with the woman
sitting on the couch right now.
She looks professional in her beige business suit. Her blonde
hair is pulled up into a neat bun. Shes smiling, but her
expression remains somewhat stern. Shes probably the
interviewer.
I smile at her and Eliza, who is staring at me with her eyebrows
raised, as if to ask me, what the fuck is going on?
Even if I could speak freely, Id still have no answers for Eliza.
How was your day? Its nice that they let you off early, huh?
Mr. Hunter asks as he welcomes Penny into his arms.
I slowly, awkwardly approach the sitting area, where everyone is,
and stand politely off to the side, right by the couch where Mr.
Hunter is sitting. I figure its probably best to stay close to
Penny.
Yeah, but I missed you, Dad. To my surprise, Penny slides onto
her dads lap. For some reason, I never expected Mr. Hunter to
get this affectionate with another human being, even if the
human in question was small, adorable, and shared his DNA.
Aww, I missed you, too, honey. Mr Hunter kisses Pennys
forehead as she leans back in his chest.
Hi, Penny. My name is Melanie, the interviewer says as she
shoots Penny a smile.
Hi, Melanie, Penny says with the sweetest smile on her face.
To me, though, she looks like she has a plan and is feeling smug
about it. I may have only spent a little time with her, but I
recognize that look from my own reflection in the mirror.
How was school today? Melanie asks.
Good.
Thats good. Im sorry for keeping your dad busy so he couldnt
pick you up.
Thats okay. He picks me up most days.
And if he cant make it, I suppose his assistant is happy to do
it? Melanie briefly glances at me before returning her attention
to Penny.
Huh? Who are you talking about? Penny asks, putting on a
clueless face. What is she planning?
This nice lady, of course. Melanie turns to me and smiles.
I return her smile, feeling self-conscious about having her
attention on me, knowing Im not even supposed to be here.
Oh, Megan is not my dads assistant.
Shes not? Melanie asks.
Thank you, Melanie. I was just about to ask Penny the same
question myself.
No, Megan is my new mom, Penny says casually.
My jaw drops, and I can only stare at Penny in shock.
What the hell is happening?
Im not the only one whos surprised.
Melanie twists toward me so fast I thought her neck was going to
snap. She eyes me up and down, sizing me up. Then, she picks
up her pen and scribbles furiously on the notepad in her lap.
Meanwhile, both Mr. Hunter and Eliza cant seem to decide
where to look. They stare at me, then at Penny, then at each
other, then at Melanie, whos still busy taking notes.
Ethan, I had no idea youd gotten married. This is huge news,
Melanie says as her hand finally stops moving and she raises her
head back up to observe Mr. Hunter. You seem surprised.
Oh, no, Penny says, feigning innocence. Im sorry, Dad. I
forgot Im not supposed to tell anyone.
Eliza is the first one to jump in to save the interview. Im sorry,
Melanie, she says with a calm smile. Mr. Hunter is just
surprised because hewell, the whole familythey intended to
keep it a secret. Only temporarily, of course.
Oh, any reason why the public is to be kept in the dark about
this happy news? Melanie asks. Now that she thinks Im part of
the family, she looks at me, too, when she asks a question.
I finally regain enough composure to return Melanies smile, but
I still cant find the right words to say. Ive never been the focus
of a media interview before. Ive only ever been on the other
side.
From what I can tell, even Mr. Hunter gets briefed before an
interview. Right now, Im supposed to come up with answers to a
fictional situation that Im not even aware of. This is like some
kind of a weird improv skit.
Please excuse Miss Jones, Eliza says. Shes not used to being
in the limelight, as you can probably tell. With the media storm
surrounding Hunter Corporation and Mr. Hunters family right
now, you understand why were careful about this.
Oh, I understand, Melanie says. But, Miss Jones, if I may say
something, sooner or later youre going to be the focus of some
huge news articles. Id try to get used to it if I were you. Theres
really no escaping it.
Tha My voice sounds weird and squeaky, so I pause to clear
my throat before I continue. I make a second attempt and say,
Thank you.
I notice you just called her Miss Jones, Eliza, Melanie says. Is
there a reason why? Id think Mrs. Hunter would be a more
appropriate way to address her. Dont you agree, Ethan?
Quickly, Eliza answers, Until we decide how to approach this,
wed like to keep everything exactly the same. We dont want
anybody finding out by accident because of a slip of the tongue,
like we just witnessed together, she says with a small laugh.
That makes sense. But you understand that, now that Im aware
of this, I cant just sit on the news, Melanie says.
Wed appreciate it if you could omit this part of the
conversation for now, Eliza says. No other news source is
aware of this yet, so youll still be the first to break the news.
Well even give you an exclusive interview if you agree to keep it
quiet for as long as you can.
An exclusive interview and a photography session with the
whole family, Melanie negotiates.
Deal. Eliza smiles. Glancing at her watch, she adds, Now, I
believe weve hit the one-hour limit for this interview. Mr.
Hunter has another meeting scheduled in a few minutes, so I
think we should end this session. Well continue on another day,
when were ready for that exclusive interview and photography
session.
Oh, Id like to get a few more details before I go. Like, Miss
Jones, Melanie says as she turns toward me, What is your first
name?
Meg
Miss Jones, please, let me. Eliza cuts me off, her expression
friendly but firm. To Melanie, she says, Miss Jones would like to
maintain her anonymity for as long as possible, so I hope you
understand if we withhold her full name. Mr. Hunter, Penny, and
Miss Jonestheyre just a family like any other family. Privacy is
very important to them.
Of course. I understand. Melanies face falls, but she forces a
smile.
Obviously, the journalist still wants to dig more information. She
stares at me, like shes memorizing the way I look so she can
describe my appearance to her readers.
For a second, I consider crouching under Mr. Hunters couch,
just in case Melanie pulls out her cell phone and starts taking
pictures of me. But that would be downright crazy.
In a smooth social maneuver, Eliza gets Melanie to stand up and
follow her to the door. She glances back at Mr. Hunter before
walking out, seemingly to let him know shes coming back soon.
I inhale deeply. I realize Id been holding my breath while
Melanie was in here. I still have no idea whats going on, but at
least I dont have to pretend anymore.
I take a peek at Mr. Hunter and his daughter, who have their
backs to me. They have been silent for the past few minutes,
letting Eliza handle the interviewer.
I cant see their expressions from where Im standing, but the
muscles along Mr. Hunters neck are tense. Is he angry?
Is he angryat me?
Shit.
Technically, it was Penny who has put us in this strange and
awkward position. But shes a child and Im an adult who was
supposed to look after her. I was supposed make sure she didnt
pull something like this.
Damn it. I hope I havent just ruined my chances of taking
revenge on Ethan Hunter.
ETHAN

M egan, please take a seat, I say calmly, despite the storm


brewing inside me. I gesture at the couch where Melanie
was sitting, only minutes ago.
I want to have a private discussion with Penny about boundaries,
but that will have to wait. I will have to get to the bottom of this
first.
I have to make sure Megan isnt trying to take advantage of me.
She obediently takes her seat. With panic in her pretty blue eyes,
she says, Im sorry, Mr. Hunter. I swear I had no idea she was
going to barge in like that. I shouldve kept a closer eye on her.
I nod at her, but remain quiet.
Im sure that look alone is enough to make many men take her at
her word, but Im not that easily fooled. Ive dealt with enough
parasites to know that they come in all shapes and sizes.
Although she looks innocent, Megan could very well be just
another one of them.
Penny, take a seat next to Megan, please.
Without saying a word, Penny obliges. She knows Im dead
serious now, which means she knows that what she did was
wrong.
Im disappointed, Penny. I thought you were smarter than
that, I say.
Penny looks down. She fidgets, running her own fingers all over
her nails, which are painted blue.
Penny has only recently started to pay more attention to her
appearance. To be honest, Im worried I wont be enough for her
when she needs to navigate puberty. I do okay with ice creams
and car rides, but Im lost when it comes to shit like periods,
fashion, popularity, and boys.
I just didnt want them to take me away again, she says
quietly, in a voice that breaks my heart.
She sounds so small and scared, and it reminds me just how
much Ive failed her. Im not doing a good job of making her feel
safe.
I told you, I wont let anyone take you away from me. I promise
you, I say.
But thats not what the lady said, Penny protests.
The interviewer lady?
Yeah.
Do you believe her, or do you believe me? I ask.
You, Penny answers in a flat tone, a sign that shes just saying
whatever I want her to say.
Penny, look at me. I level my gaze at her. Did Megan put you
up to this?
No, Penny answers quickly. Megan doesnt have anything to
do with it. I came up with it all on my own.
And you must think youre so smart for having come up with
it. I rub my temple. A vein is popping up and throbbing. Casting
a glance at Megan, I say, Im sorry. I didnt mean to accuse you.
I had to at least ask the question.
I understand, Mr. Hunter. Again, I apologize for not handling
the situation better. I didnt expect something like that to
happen.
I nod.
For what its worth, Megan genuinely looks shaken. Its probably
unfair to accuse her for being the mastermind of whatever
fucking PR disaster just happened.
She wouldnt have been able to come up with that kind of a plan
spontaneously. A stranger like Megan would never be able to
coax Penny into doing her bidding. Hell, I have trouble telling
her to do the things shes supposed to do anyway.
My girl is way too stubborn to just follow someones crazy plan.
Coming up with her own crazy plan, though? Pennys perfectly
capable of that.
Its not your fault, Megan. Dont worry about it, I say.
Megan seems to relax a little. Her breathing grows slower and
more regular as her muscles loosen up.
Considering what has just happened, shes handling it relatively
calmly. At least she didnt freak out and deny Pennys story in
front of the interviewerthat wouldve been worse.
Im glad Eliza was here to help me get through that shit show. I
was ready to tell Melanie to leave my office as soon as Penny
mentioned the words new mom.
But Eliza gave me a look that told me she had it covered, and she
managed to send the journalist away without giving her any
more information.
To these vultures, it doesnt matter what the truth is. All that
matters is what would sell more copies of their dumb magazines.
In the past, I used to handle media inquiries myself. That didnt
go so well. So now, Ive learned to stay quiet. Whenever I get too
worked up, I step back and let Eliza deal with it.
Theres a reason why I pay her top dollar, and thats because
shes better at her job than I am. The only reason why Ive
managed to climb to the top is because I hire experts like Eliza
and let them work as I continue to focus on the big picture.
I get up and go to my desk to pick up the phone. I press the
shortcut button to call the legal department. Lana, my office,
please, I say.
Yes, Ethan, she answers from the other end of the line.
I like having this system in place, where I can immediately reach
my employees at a moments notice. Its only a few key people,
like the heads of departments and my personal assistant. They
know they should come as soon as I need them. Their main
concern should be to keep me, their employer, happy.
I take deep breaths and consider the circumstances as I get back
to the couch. The news that Penny has a new mom would
probably be a good thing if it were true, considering the media
likes to attack the fact that Im a single dad and Im keeping
Penny away from her mother.
Even the courts prefer to give custody to the partnered ex-
spouse. Its only thanks to my team of lawyers that Ive managed
to take Penny back, even though her mom had a husband at the
time of the custody battle.
But as soon as its revealed that Im still a single dad and its all
just a lie, were screwed.
Id be hit with accusations of putting ideas in Pennys head,
introducing a strange woman as her new mom, and generally
failing to provide stability for her. All these things would apply,
even if we managed to convince them that Megan and I were
actually dating at some point.
What just happened? Eliza asks as she marches back into the
office. We didnt plan to do that. Im pretty sure I wouldve
remembered your marriage if you had mentioned it, Ethan.
Please stop shouting, Eliza. My head already hurts. massage
my temple. I didnt plan to do that either. Theres no
marriage.
Well, as your spokesperson, I shouldve been notified as well if
you get into a serious relationship, especially when you know it
could affect
Eliza, I cut her off. Theres no relationship, engagement, or
marriage. Theres nothing between Megan and me. Were just
employer and assistant. Thats all.
Oh, Eliza goes quiet. Then Then why did you do that?
I didnt do anything. It was all Penny. Ridiculously, I feel like a
snitch, even though Im the parent and shes the child who
needs to be disciplined. I feel like Im betraying her, in a way.
Penny, honey, why did you do that? Eliza asks as she
approaches Penny, her brown hair tumbling forward as she
crouches on the floor.
Penny keeps staring at the floor, fidgeting with her blue nails.
Im sorry for not introducing myself. Im Eliza. I work with your
dad. I handle interviews like the one we just had. I was surprised
that you did what you did. I think we all were.
Im not going to say sorry, Penny says stubbornly. I just
dont want them to take me away.
Eliza shoots me a questioning look.
Pennys worried that her mom might succeed in getting
custody, I explain.
Honey. Aww Eliza scoots closer to Penny on the couch and
rubs her arm. Were going to make sure that doesnt happen,
okay? Why did you think they were going to take you away?
Thats what the lady said. That people might be convinced that
dad isnt taking good care of me.
Did anything happen? Lana asks as soon as she walks through
the door and sees a big group, including a child, in the sitting
area.
Oh, boy. Youre in for a treat, Eliza says with a grin as she
starts to give Lana an account of what has just taken place right
here. Her calm, professional demeanor helps make me feel
better about this whole thing.
Maybe its not that bad after all.
Oh, no. This is bad, Lana says. How much time do we have
until this shows up on the news?
I asked the interviewer to keep it under wraps and she agreed,
so One week, tops.
Jesus, the media. You can never trust them, Lana says.
Funny thing, many people say the same thing about lawyers,
Eliza quips.
This is going to undermine your credibility when word gets out
that its all a lie, Ethan, Lana says, ignoring Elizas gibe at her.
Theyre going to attack your parenting, as well. You didnt pick
Penny up like you claim you always do; you missed it because of
work; and you made her believe that she has a new mom.
Lana notices me opening my mouth and quickly adds, I know
Penny came up with it on her own, but people are not going to
believe that. Not even if she admitted it herself.
Just look at her, Lana says as she gestures at Penny. The
picture of honesty and innocence. People will think you
corrupted her into becoming a liar.
Sorry, Penny says softly.
I thought you said you werent going to say sorry, I say.
I didnt know it was going to get this bad.
Well, I know you didnt mean any harm, Penny, Lana says,
but it only worsened the
Its okay, honey, Eliza says to Penny as she glares at Lana. It
wasnt the best thing you couldve done, but were going to
figure this out.
The room goes silent for a few seconds as the reality of the
situation sinks in.
There is a way to fix everything, Lana says. Okay, Eliza, hear
me out and let me know how the media will take the news. But
legally, theres no problem in handling it according to this plan I
have in my head. Its crazy, but hear me out.
Lana looks around at everyone, making sure she has our
attention, before she makes the craziest preposition Ive ever
heard.
Okay, how about Lana pauses dramatically. How about you
get married for real?
Despite the intensity of the situation, I burst out laughing.
Of course it fucking sucks that everything is spiraling out of
control. But sometimes theres nothing you can do but realize
how ridiculous life is and roll with it.
Ive gone through plenty of real suffering in my life and gained
enough perspective to know this is not a big deal.
Even if they hurt my reputation, theyll never take Penny away
from me. And as long as Im secure in this knowledge, nothing
can shake me.
I have a ton of money I can use to hire the best lawyers to
represent my case, and Im willing spend every last cent to keep
my daughter if I have to. Id lose everything before I lose Penny.
And if it takes me marrying my personal assistant to make sure
Penny stays with me? Ill do it, too. Theres literally nothing I
wouldnt do.
Im not joking, Ethan, Lana says. We can draw everything up
so all the terms are clear. Theres going to be a pre-nup, of
course. But, Megan, you will be handsomely rewarded.
You know, that doesnt sound like a bad idea at all, Eliza says
as she stares into the distance. I can already see the headlines.
New Mom for Ethan Hunters Daughter would make a good
one.
I shake my head and sigh. Fucking life, man. You never know
where it might take you.
What do you think, Megan? Will you marry me? I ask.
To my surprise, her face grows red from my playful proposal. She
bites her bottom lip nervously. Her reaction makes me want to
taste those pink, full lips.
Dont mess with her, Ethan, Eliza says, ever the diplomatic
communicator. Megan, right? Is it okay if I call you Megan?
Yeah.
Okay, Megan, this is a big opportunity for you. Youre going to
get rewarded, of course. Youll get a lot of moneyand fame, if
thats what you want. And well take care of every little detail, so
you wont have to worry about anything. There will be an end to
this arrangement, of course, and youll be able to go back to your
old life once its over, only youll be a lot richer.
Damn, Eliza knows how to spin it.
How much money are we talking about? Megan asks, going
directly to the heart of the matter.
Eliza glances at me, asking me to jump in for the negotiating bit,
now that the convincing bit has been taken care of.
How long will we need to stay married? I ask.
A year or two, until this whole thing dies down, Eliza says.
Two hundred thousand dollars a year, I bid.
Megan eyes widen, which is exactly the effect I was hoping for.
I know she only makes about a quarter that amount as my
personal assistant. I couldve started lower and Megan would
probably still take it, but Im not in the mood to bargain. I just
want to wrap this up and give her enough incentive to commit to
the plan.
I want her to live with me, come out with me to public events,
spend time in public with me and Penny, and forgo all other
employment opportunities during the term of the contract. Oh,
and shes not allowed to talk to anyone about this arrangement.
Itll be a full-time job, and nobody else can do it but her. I dont
think Id be overpaying her.
Ill have to think about it, she says.
Okay. Its a big decision to make and I understand if she needs
time, but it makes me want her even more, knowing shes not
just going to take it right away.
If Im being honest, Megan is one big incentive for me to agree to
this insane plan.
Ive always wanted her, ever since she came into my office to
introduce herself in her tight pencil skirt that accentuated her
curves.
Ive just been staying away because it wouldnt be professional. I
was also worried about whether having a romantic partner would
hurt my relationship with Penny or indirectly affect my custody
arrangement.
But now that everythings turned upside down, getting closer to
Megan suddenly becomes the key to both saving my reputation
and keeping custody of my daughter.
One or two years is a long time for a woman to live under my roof
to not end up in my bed a few times, especially if shes not
allowed to see any other man.
I like the idea of keeping her for myself.

END OF PREVIEW.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nikki Chase is a contemporary romance author. After having her own real-life insta-
love experience, Nikki now lives happily ever after with her husband in the Pacific
Northwest.

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