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Š 2016 by Caitlin Daire All Rights Reserved

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COPYRIGHT Please respect the work of this author. No part of this book may be reproduced or copied without permission. This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Any similarities to events or situations is also coincidental.

Chapter One Cade “I blew Denver State’s running back.” My so-called girlfriend, Jenna, stared at me with wide eyes, expecting me to be surprised by her revelation. “I know,” I replied, my face impassive. Her eyebrows shot up. “You…you know?” “Yep. I am very aware that you sucked his dick last weekend. And the weekend before.” “Then why didn’t you say anything? Why did you even agree to meet me here tonight?” she asked, crossing her arms. I yawned and gestured to my buddies from the football team, who were standing over near the Fairview Ridge Hotel bar. The bar was our usual hangout when we weren’t on campus, seeing as the team had been banned from the college tavern a while ago for various reasons; apparently we were too loud and drank too much. “I only found out a few hours ago, and I already had plans to meet up with the guys here. Figured I could get this over with and then have a few beers,” I replied. My friends grinned and waved over at us, and Jenna narrowed her eyes. “So what, you don’t even care that I cheated on you? It took me, like, a whole week to get the courage to tell you!” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice thick with sarcasm. “I forgot this was all about you.” “So you really don’t care? You aren’t even going to try to salvage this?” I shook my head. “Nope. I stopped caring the second I found out that my girlfriend was fucking other guys behind my back. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to salvage. We’re over.” “I never fucked him.” “Whatever. Blew him. Same thing; it’s still cheating. So we’re done,” I said. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go hang with my friends now.” She stood up in a huff. “You’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you don’t even care that we’re… we’re over.” She accompanied that last sentence with a sniff as crocodile tears welled in her eyes. I pointedly yawned again before waving at her, and she stormed out, the fake tears already forgotten. I gritted my teeth as I headed over to my buddies at the bar, knowing I’d done the right thing in not giving her the reaction she’d been looking for. Jenna had always been an attention seeker. I guess that’s why she’d gone after me in the first place; she’d probably only dated me because I was the quarterback for the local college team, not because she actually liked me as a person or anything, and the last thing I’d

planned on doing was giving her any kind of reaction tonight when I dumped her. Truthfully, I had been upset when I’d first heard the news that my girlfriend had been sucking some other guy’s dick; a guy from our biggest rival team, no less. But I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of knowing I gave a fuck, especially since she clearly didn’t give a fuck about me. “You okay, man?” my friend Blake asked as I reached the bar and sat down on a stool. He was my best friend from the team, and he’d been the one who initially found out about Jenna’s unfaithful behavior and told me. There were no secrets between us boys; never had been and never would be. I nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.” “I got you a beer already.” “Thanks,” I said, taking the drink from him and clinking my glass against his. “To being single.” “Fuck yeah!” One of the other guys was raising his glass as well, and I grinned and took a sip of beer. It was probably going to take me a while to trust a girl again, but that didn’t matter. I was only nineteen, anyway, and I shouldn’t have even been looking to settle down in any kind of relationship. Life for a guy my age was about playing the field and having one night stands, and that’s exactly what I was going to do from now on. Starting with that girl over near the pool table. I’d spotted her when I was heading over to my friends, and the sight of her had almost been enough to make me forget that I’d just broken up with Jenna only thirty seconds earlier. She was fucking gorgeous. Long, straight chestnut brown hair, banging curves, sultry green eyes and pouty lips. She actually looked kinda familiar, but I was pretty sure I didn’t know her, and in a small Colorado city like Fairview Ridge, there was no way I wouldn’t have met her before unless she was a skiseason tourist who was just vacationing here for a while. Besides, she was so fucking hot that it was more likely that I’d seen her on TV than actually met her in person. She made Jenna look like a hag, and a small smirk spread over my lips. Nothing like some hot pussy straight after a breakup to make me forget there’d even been a breakup in the first place. Blake spotted her and nudged me. “You checking out that girl?” “You know it.” “She’s pretty hot. Never seen her before, though.” “Neither have I. She’s probably just a tourist,” I said. “Weird. The snow hasn’t even started yet this year.” “It will soon, though. Give it a week or so. Maybe she’s more of a hiker type, anyway. They do better when there’s no snow.” “Thanks for the weather update, man. Now shut the fuck up and go talk to her,” Blake said, slapping me on the back. I grinned and headed over to the girl. Up close, she was even cuter, and at six foot three, I well and truly towered over her. She glanced up at me as I approached, then went back to chalking a pool cue.

“So, where have you been all my life?” I said in a joking tone, whipping out the most pathetic oldfashioned line I could think of. I’d always found that if you used a shitty line like that on girls, they’d laugh and think it was cute. Then again, most girls I met laughed and fawned over absolutely anything I said, because they knew who I was—Cade Blackwell, RMU quarterback and son of Keith Blackwell, one of the richest and most powerful men in the state. Most girls knew who I was before I’d even set eyes on them, and they’d say and do anything for a chance to hook up with me. Apparently that was all, though—they just wanted to hook up and not commit to anything, as evidenced by Jenna’s infidelity. The girl at the pool table didn’t laugh at my stupid line, though. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and set the cue down beside the table. “Hiding from guys like you,” she said. Her voice was so sweet—and yet so jarringly familiar—that I was caught off guard for a second. “Huh?” “You asked where I’d been all your life. So I said I’d been hiding from guys like you.” “Oh, right, duh. Very funny. Also very mean. You might have to buy me a drink to make up for it,” I said, stepping a little closer. That finally raised a small smile from her, and heat rushed to my groin at the thought of those plump lips wrapped around my cock. If I played my cards right, that might be happening sooner rather than later. “How about this? Instead of me buying you a drink, you play me in a game of pool. If you win, I’ll buy you a drink then,” she said, arching one eyebrow. “And if I lose?” “You go back over to your frat buddies and leave me alone,” she replied, nodding over at the bar. Her eyes were filled with mischief, and I could tell she was just teasing, so I grinned. “You’re on.”

Chapter Two Charlotte I saw him before he saw me. He looked like the stereotypical frat bro—tall, muscular, devilishly handsome and oozing with arrogant confidence—and when I’d first seen him from across the other side of the bar, he’d been talking to some pretty blonde girl with an agitated look on her face who’d grown increasingly upset with him before storming away. It looked like Frat Guy had just dumped her, and I rolled my eyes as he sauntered over to all his friends. He might’ve been handsome, but he already seemed like a bit of a douche, and I’d never been the sort of girl to involve myself with guys like that. Then again, I also wasn’t usually the sort of girl who hung out in bars alone. I’d come down here from my hotel room as my first small act of rebellion against my mother, who’d just uprooted my entire life and made me move here to this little place in Colorado, thousands of miles from my home city of Philadelphia. All for a guy. I’d never met her new partner or his kids myself—in fact, I didn’t even know their last name because Mom had barely spoken about the whole thing to me—but they’d met on some business trip three months ago, and when she’d last seen him, he’d popped the big question. Now they were engaged, and I was pissed. I had no problem with my Mom meeting a guy and being happy—she deserved it after spending the last several years alone and miserable after my Dad died—but it would’ve been nice if she’d at least let me meet the guy she was marrying for five seconds before uprooting our existences and moving us practically a billion miles away. I couldn’t exactly stay in our home city, because Mom wanted me here with her; I guess so she could fulfil her fantasies of having a ‘proper’ family again, all living together. Besides, I couldn’t afford it. I was in college on a scholarship—we weren’t exactly rich—and it wasn’t enough to pay for me to live out of home, only enough to pay for tuition and textbooks. So that was that. I’d been forced to pack up, leave my friends and studies behind, and move here to Fairview Ridge. Luckily I’d been able to transfer my scholarship and course over to Rocky Mountain University, where I was going to continue college, so at least I still had my studies. But tonight wasn’t about studying. It was my first night in Fairview Ridge, and Mom and I were staying at a local hotel. We were going to meet with her new fiancé tomorrow, so I could be properly introduced to him and his two sons before we started the moving-in process, and tonight…tonight I was getting drunk. Drink, drank, drunk.

Like I said earlier, it was the first time I’d ever done anything even remotely ‘bad’ or rebellious, and honestly, it felt kind of cool. I’d always been studious and serious, and up until now, I’d very rarely let myself have fun like a lot of other people my age did. It felt nice to dress up, go to a bar and relax, and even though I was alone, it was still good to let loose and have a few drinks while vaguely watching a hockey game on the corner TV. I’d already had two glasses of wine before Frat Guy approached me—they didn’t seem to card anyone at this bar, or else I’d have been forced to stick to mocktails—and I was looking for someone to play a game of pool with. I saw him heading over, and I smiled to myself and started chalking a pool cue. The guy might’ve looked like a bit of a douche, but he looked like he knew how to play pool, which was good enough for now. He drew closer, and the smile slowly slid from my face as I tried to place him. I knew him from somewhere….but where? I’d never been to Colorado before, let alone Fairview Ridge. Still, he seemed very familiar—maybe I’d met him somewhere back in Philly? I kept studying his features as he came to a halt near me, still drawing a blank as to where I knew him from. He was tall—very tall—and in the dim light of the bar, I could see an intricate black tattoo snaking its way around his left bicep. And speaking of biceps….damn. He looked muscular enough to pick up an entire truck and throw it if he wanted to, and I was willing to bet good money that he was some sort of sports player. His dark brows were heavy, his mouth was set in a smirk, and his bluegreen eyes were bright and vigorously alive. Overall, he gave off a carelessly charming vibe, and I arched an eyebrow and tried not to snicker as he delivered one of the worst pickup lines I’d ever heard. It was also the only pickup line I’d ever heard directed at me—like I said, I’d never been the type to go out much, and none of my previous relationships had started with corny lines—but I refrained from laughing and gave him what I thought was a funny response. That was my way of weeding out the unforgivable pricks from the decent guys. See, a decent guy was capable of laughing at himself, but total douchebags weren’t…and no one wanted to hang around a total douche, right? I waited for his reply, and his face turned blank. “Huh?” he said. I repeated myself, and he finally laughed. “Oh, right, duh. Very funny. Also very mean. You might have to buy me a drink to make up for it...” Thank god. He wasn’t a total idiot, although he was definitely keen on hitting on me, considering how close he was getting. It felt nice to be getting this kind of attention, and I wondered why I’d always shied away from it so much in the past. “How about this? Instead of me buying you a drink, you play me in a game of pool. If you win, I’ll buy you a drink then,” I said, arching one eyebrow. “And if I lose?” he asked, eyes glowing with good humor. “You go back over to your frat buddies and leave me alone,” I replied, nodding over at the bar. “You’re on,” he said. “And just for the record…I’m not in a frat.” “Oh?” “Yeah. Fraternities and sororities aren’t really that much of a thing at my college.” “Well, I guess that’s what I get for judging a book by its cover,” I said, handing him a cue.

“Sorry.” He grinned. “No need to apologize. I might not be in a frat, but I do play college football, which apparently makes me ten times worse than your average frat guy.” “I knew it. Totally had you pegged as a sports guy.” “What gave it away? My scrawny little body?” he said with a grin, jokingly flexing his huge biceps. I laughed, and he continued. “So what brings you to Fairview Ridge, anyway? On vacation?” “I just moved here, actually. My Mom’s getting married to a guy from here soon, and we’re staying here in the hotel for a few nights until it’s all sorted out.” “Nice. So you’ll be living here….I guess that means I’ll be able to beat you at pool again some time.” “Bit early to say that. We haven’t even broken yet,” I replied, nodding towards the pool balls. “Well, go ahead,” he replied. “You break. I’m still totally going to win, though. By the way, my name’s C…” He said his name just as I broke the triangular formation of balls, and the loud sound drowned out most of his voice. It sounded like he’d said Cole, though, so I nodded. “Nice to meet you. I’m Charlie,” I said, giving him my nickname for now. I didn’t want to tell him my real name just yet, in case he turned out to be an asshole after all. “Looks like you’re stripes, by the way,” I added, gesturing towards the striped balls on the table. He smiled and looked at the table, trying to figure out where he should shoot from first. “Well, Charlie,” he said. “You’ve just set me up really nicely to do this.” With that, he took a shot and managed to sink two balls in one go. “Good job….except I’m solids, remember? You just sank my balls,” I said, watching with glee as they disappeared into the pocket. “Shit. I thought you said I was solids. Totally missed that.” “You also just missed a chance to make a really lame joke about sinking your balls.” He grinned. “Damn. I’m really off my game tonight. Lucky a smartass like you is here to call me out on it.” “Yeah, and also here to beat you,” I said, taking a shot and sinking another one of my balls. “Oh, come on. I made one dumb mistake. I’ve still got a chance to beat you,” he said, taking his next shot after I’d taken the extra one I got for his foul. It was another good one for him, sinking two more balls—his own balls, this time. “Nice shot,” I said with an approving nod. “So who was that girl I saw you with earlier? She looked pretty pissed.” He nodded. “My girlfriend. Sorry, ex-girlfriend.” “Dumped her, huh?” He gritted his teeth. “Well, seeing as you wanted a really lame pool joke, let’s just say another guy was sinking his balls into her pockets. I just found out. So yeah, I broke up with her.” “Crap. I’m so sorry. And sorry for bringing it up,” I said, feeling like a total bitch. I’d pretty much

taken one look at the situation earlier and assumed he was dumping her for no real reason other than that he was bored and wanted to hook up with other girls—I’d been dumped for reasons like that in the past—and in the process, I’d totally misjudged him. I really needed to stop judging books by their covers, so to speak. “It’s okay. You didn’t know,” he said. “Well, I know we don’t really know each other, but I’d say you’re better off without someone like that,” I said. “Definitely. So are you going to let me win now that you feel sorry for me?” he asked, a smile returning to his perfect face. “Are you admitting that the only way you could win is if I let you?” I replied, raising my eyebrows. “Damn. You don’t let up even for a second, do you?” he said. “So cruel.” “I’m just kidding around.” “I know,” he replied with a grin. To tell the truth, I’d been like this for years; giving people sarcastic or snappy responses in all kinds of situations. It was one of the rare things about my personality that went against my generally quiet, studious nature, and I attributed it to all the bullying I’d experienced in my earlier years. I’d been a chubby, nerdy kid with frizzy hair back in junior school, and it was a pretty commonly-known fact that kids could be merciless. And don’t even get me started on the girls in high school… I’d learned that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them go away, as teachers so often tried to tell kids, and the only way I’d ever been able to get rid of them was to talk back to them and give a smart response that would confuse them until they left me alone. Maybe it wasn’t the best way to get rid of them, but it’d worked at the time. Now I couldn’t shake the habit, and whenever an opportunity to say something snappy came up, I took it. This Cole guy didn’t seem put off or offended by it, though. He just seemed to think I was funny, and my heart skipped a beat at the thought of such a hot guy liking me. At first I thought he’d just approached me because I was one of the only girls his age in the hotel bar, but as we talked and played our game of pool for the next twenty minutes or so, I started to feel like he was actually really enjoying hanging out with me. “Don’t you feel like you’ve abandoned your friends?” I asked, glancing over at the bar as our game approached its end. We’d been playing and talking for a while now, and I felt a bit bad for keeping him from whatever he’d originally come to the bar to do. Cole sank another ball and then followed my gaze. “Nah, it’s cool. I see them all the time, anyway. They’re friends of mine from the team.” “Oh, right. So what position do you play?” “Quarterback.” “I see. What’s it like having girls throw their panties at you everywhere you go?” He chuckled. “Pretty good. I’ve invested in some Victoria’s Secret stocks, and every time I have a

game, the share price goes up because all the girls have to go shopping to replace what they threw at me. I’m making bank.” I laughed again, and I noticed it was something like the fifth time tonight that he’d said something I found genuinely funny. He wasn’t trying to suck up to me or fawn over me, and he wasn’t acting like a typical sleaze. He was just cool, and I was really enjoying his company. Or maybe it was all the wine I’d had earlier… Either way, I was having fun. Cole sank another ball during his next turn, and he crowed triumphantly. “Told you I was gonna win!” “What, by sinking the eight ball?” “I didn’t sink the….oh, shit, I did,” he said. “Dammit. You win by default.” “Yep.” “So I guess I have to leave you alone now, right?” he said, leaning against the table and looking right into my eyes. My heart fluttered, and the intensity of his expression made me nervous. I couldn’t tell if he was actually interested in continuing to hang out with me, or if he was just loving the thrill of the chase. “You don’t have to. We could always change the terms of our deal,” I said shyly, giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Oh yeah?” “Loser buys the winner a drink, no matter who it is. And no one has to leave.” “Sounds good. Well, you won, so what are you drinking?” “White wine, please.” “Gotcha.” He headed over to the bar to get me a drink for winning our game, and I sipped it slowly upon his return. “Another game?” “Sure.” This time, he played better, but still not well enough to beat me, and he laughed at the end of the game and headed off to get me another drink. “You’re killing me,” he said, handing me the glass when he got back again. “Either you suck at pool, or you’re losing on purpose so you can get me drunk and try to seduce me,” I said, feeling the buzz of the last glass hitting me. “Maybe a bit of both,” he replied with a wink. I smiled. “You’ll have to try harder than that if you really want to seduce me,” I said, although to tell the truth, I was so attracted to Cole that it wouldn’t have taken him much effort at all to get me into bed at this point in time. Jeez, four glasses of wine and I turned into a raging horn-dog. Who knew? “Maybe some more terrible pickup lines would help,” I added.

Cole grinned. “All right. How about: you must be my backyard, because I really dig you.” “Not bad.” “I put the STD in ‘stud’….all I need is U.” I snorted with laughter. “Wow, that’s awful.” “Last one. You have something on your ass…my eyes.” “Also awful. Congrats, you’re officially the king of terrible lines.” He moved closer. “Did any of them work?” I took a deep breath. “Come up to my hotel room and I might show you.” His eyes widened slightly with surprise as my words registered with him. I’d surprised myself, actually. This wasn’t me at all. I wasn’t one of those girls who said things like that and invited guys up to their hotel rooms for sexy romps. Except…I was, apparently. I blamed the freezing Colorado air outside. It must’ve sparked something in my body, which in turn sent signals to my brain to tell me to find someone warm to cuddle up with. Cole grinned. “Sure. You know, the room service breakfast menu is great at this hotel.” “What makes you think I’ll let you stay till tomorrow morning?” I joked. He chuckled and gave me a light slap on the ass as we left the bar and headed for the hotel elevators, and tingles shot up and down my spine at his touch. “You’re funny, Charlie,” he said, his hand lingering on me. “I don’t meet many funny girls around here.” My cheeks turned hot. “Thanks,” I said softly. “You’re also hot as hell, and smart, too,” he continued. “I mean, come on, there’s gotta be something wrong with you. Are you secretly a serial killer or something?” “Erm…” “I’m just kidding,” he said, moving his hand up and slipping it around my waist as we waited for the elevator. “You aren’t the only one who can make jokes.” He was so close now, and my heart raced like mad as I looked up at him. Wasn’t it illegal for guys to be this hot? Seriously, Cole probably caused traffic accidents every time he walked down a street, or medical emergencies when every second person snapped their neck trying to turn and stare. I couldn’t believe I was taking such a sexy guy up to my room, but I guess he was the perfect choice for my first one-night stand—so perfectly hot that I’d never have any regrets. I hadn’t exactly planned on having a one-night stand tonight—or any night, for that matter—but something was telling me I just had to have this guy. His eyes seemed to burn a hole in me as he looked down at me, and I was worried my whole body might overheat despite the cool air in the lobby. I was only too aware of the raw, primal energy that seemed to radiate from him like a raging furnace, and he didn’t say another word before leaning down and moving his lips close to mine. Just before his mouth pressed against mine, the elevator door pinged. I pulled away, embarrassed, as the people on the elevator stepped out, giving us side-eyed stares.

Cole grabbed my hand and pulled me forward onto the elevator and winked. “Which floor?” he asked. I gulped. Was I really going to do this? Hell yeah. “Five,” I replied, breathless with anticipation. “Room 508.” The elevator ride and subsequent walk down the hall to my floor seemed to take forever, even though it was probably only a minute or so. I’d never done anything like this, but I was simply giddy with desperation. I wanted nothing more than to slide my hands down the front of Cole’s jeans and feel every inch of him, and I needed his hands on me. Now. Luckily, we’d just stepped into my room, the door slamming behind us. Cole didn’t even have to say another word or move another muscle to let me know that he wanted to kiss me as much as I wanted to kiss him, and suddenly his lips were on mine as he drew me into his powerful arms. His tongue slid past my lips and entwined with mine in a rough, passionate kiss, and I murmured into his mouth, overcome by wild need. My hands roamed over his tall, muscular frame as we embraced. Compared to him, I felt tiny and vulnerable, despite my curves, and I happily helped him take his shirt off. He pulled away a moment later and leaned down near my neck. “You’re such a tease,” he whispered in my ear, his warm breath making me shiver. “Making me take my clothes off, but leaving yours on.” I pulled back and raked my eyes over the contours of his inked chest, arms and stomach. His muscular arms, which I’d already seen, led to a perfect chest and wide, powerful shoulders, and his abs were so sculpted that I could probably grate cheese on them. Farther down from his abs was his V-cut, which led enticingly below his waistline. “So take my dress off,” I replied, curling my lips into a half-smile. His blue eyes smoldered, and anxious butterflies took flight in my chest, dipping and diving at the look of pure possession in his gaze. He cupped my face, caressed my cheek and leaned in, and I barely had time to register what was happening before his lips crushed down on mine again, devouring me with the intensity of his kiss. Every inch of my skin tingled with mad desire as his hands coasted over my shoulders before sliding the zipper to my dress down, and I closed my eyes and leaned further in, returning his kiss with equal passion. So much heat and wanton need sparked between us as our lips met that oxygen seemed to vanish from my lungs entirely, and I could feel my panties dampening with need as my insides clenched. “Fuck, you’re so hot.” Cole’s deeply masculine voice sent jolts of electricity shooting up and down my spine as he broke away from my mouth and pulled my dress down, and it fell to the floor, pooling around my ankles. My nipples tightened into hard little nubs under my bra, begging for his touch. There was an invisible pull between us, so thick and strong in the atmosphere that I could practically touch it and taste it. Cole slid an arm around me again, and within the blink of an eye, he’d thrown me down onto my bed. I skittered back towards the pillows, watching with heated anticipation as he took off his

jeans and boxers. He was totally naked now, and I bit my lower lip as he reached down and slowly stroked a hand over his rock hard shaft. Now I knew where his cocky attitude came from…he was big. “Do you have protection?” he asked. My stuff was all over the hotel room in suitcases and bags, and I sat up, glancing around. “Um…” Shit. I hadn’t planned on this, and I didn’t have any. Cole grinned. “Don’t worry, I think I might actually have one,” he said, picking up his jeans and checking the pockets. He pulled out a foil packet a second later and held it up, smiling as he dropped the jeans back on the floor. “Here we go. But before I do anything with this…I think you need something first.” “What?” Suddenly he was on me, and I let out a giggle as he yanked my legs apart and slid a hand inside my cotton panties. My breath caught in my chest, squeezing its way into my lungs, and with one quick movement, Cole was spreading my lower lips and rubbing slow circles on my clit before moving his hands up and exploring the rest of my body. His mouth found mine again, and electricity surged through me as he kissed me. My body was on fire for him, and I kissed him deeper and more fervently as each moment passed. I started to moan as he rubbed me, and soon he’d stripped me of my panties and bra. When one of his hands reached up and touched my bare breasts, I gasped. It felt so good. Almost too good. My nipples became impossibly hard, and I felt intense wetness growing between my legs. Cole moved up and lowered himself toward me, and he ran his tongue along my breasts, squeezing and massaging me as he licked. I ran my hands up and down his back and shoulders and arms as he worked his magic on me. He was kissing down my body now, approaching my upper thighs. He lingered on the area, and soon he was dangerously close to my wetness. He pulled me closer to the edge of the bed, and then his tongue was on my lower lips. I moaned loudly straight away. No buildup was necessary, as I’d wanted him to do this since the first moment I laid eyes on him. His tongue ran along my outer lips, drinking up my wetness, and I clutched the sheets and writhed, spreading my legs farther to let him in. He grabbed hold of my thighs and ass, pressing my legs closed against his head, and he ran his tongue along the outside of my clit, sending shockingly powerful waves of ecstasy straight to my system. I could feel each wave as if it were a physical thing with a physical mass; each one shook me and made me tremble, and they were hitting me faster and faster. Cole really started working my clit now. His lips were on me, and he was applying light pressure as his tongue swirled around and around. That really started to send me over the edge; the waves had become a constant high tide, and it was only getting higher and higher. I didn’t want this to end, but the urge to climax was strong, and I couldn’t fight what my body craved. Cole slid a finger between my lips and circled it around my entrance, and I let out another moan. I could hear how wet I was as his hands played with me, and when he slid a finger inside and began to curl it in a beckoning motion, I cried out and shuddered.

“Oh god….I’m going to…oh!” He held me tighter, squeezing my ass, and his tongue went into overdrive on my clit. I bucked my hips up, and he didn’t miss a beat, his mouth clinging to me like a parched man in a desert who didn’t want to miss a drop. A heady rush of pleasure crashed through me, and I cried out as I finally came, clutching onto Cole’s head as I did so. “Oh…oh….fuck!” Cole finally moved his head up, grinning as he watched me shake and shudder on the bed. One hand moved down, deftly sliding the condom from earlier onto his rock-hard shaft, and then he leaned down and placed the head of his cock at my entrance before murmuring into my ear. “You sure you’re ready?” he asked. I wanted to say yes; wanted to scream it for everyone to hear. Instead, I pushed him away, leaned down over the edge of the bed and vomited into the trash can that sat beside the bedside table. Shit. All the wine I’d had earlier was finally hitting me. I hadn’t felt drunk until this moment, just slightly merry, but now my head was spinning and my stomach was roiling. “Um….Charlie…?” Cole said, his tone a mixture of concern and shock. I couldn’t look at him. I was too embarrassed. For god’s sake, I’d almost vomited right on him! Luckily I’d been able to move just in time…but still, I was completely humiliated. My sexy one night stand had quickly turned into a horror-fest of dizziness and shame, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t help myself. I threw up again. “Charlie…” I was about to reply, to tell Cole that he could leave and that I was sorry, but my body wasn’t having any of it. Instead, a wave of sudden exhaustion swept over me, and I collapsed back on the bed, my eyelids too heavy to open. I had one last thought before completely passing out. I’m never, ever drinking again.

Chapter Three Cade Seriously? I looked down at the scene before me with abject horror. My gorgeous conquest for the night was sprawled out on the bed in a drunken mess, dribble on her chin and hair askew as she snored loudly. As for myself—I was still on my knees on the bed, cock still hard and balls aching with need. Jesus, so much for getting laid tonight. I could’ve left; could’ve just gone back downstairs and headed to another bar to pick up a different chick. After all, it was only a quarter past ten, so the night was still young. Well, young-ish. But I couldn’t leave Charlie like this. I might’ve only just met her, but I felt responsible for her. I was the one who’d bought her the glasses of wine that had gotten her so wasted, and I felt pretty fucking bad for not realizing how drunk she was earlier. Honestly, she’d seemed totally fine, and there was no way I would’ve tried to hook up with her if I’d known she was this wrecked, but now I was here, and I felt like I had to stay till the morning and make sure she was okay. The acrid scent of puke hit my nostrils, and my lips curled with revulsion as I hopped off the bed and picked up the trashcan. Charlie had missed a bit when she’d leaned over and hurled, and I sighed as I saw the splattered remnants of her dinner and all up and down the side of the can, with patches on the floor where she’d missed. Gross. Totally fucking gross. I took the trashcan into the bathroom and emptied it into the toilet as much as I could before rinsing it out in the sink with hot water and soap. When it was clean, I left it to dry on the tiles, and I gathered up a big wad of toilet paper and set about cleaning the patches of puke off the floor. Charlie kept on snoring away on the bed, and when I was done cleaning the floor, I grabbed some tissues and wiped away the dribble from around her chin and mouth. I could practically hear my friend’s voices in my head as I tidied up. Get the fuck out, man, just leave the room for the hotel staff to clean up. It’s their job. And it’s your job to get laid tonight…so get the hell out and find someone else. I pushed the thoughts aside and filled up a glass of water for Charlie, leaving it on the bedside table for her. Then I lay down next to her and watched her sleep, her perfect tits rising and falling with each breath she took. She really was hot as hell, even if she was a drunken mess, and I couldn’t help but smile softly as I looked at her amazing curves and dark hair. At least I’d been able to bring some pleasure to that perfect body before she’d started puking her guts up everywhere. The smile faded as I realized my dick was somehow still hard despite all the puke I’d just dealt with, and the condom was still on me. Charlie might’ve had an orgasm, but I certainly hadn’t, and my balls felt like they were gonna fall right off if I didn’t empty them soon. Christ. I pulled the condom off and headed for the bathroom to flush it, and then I took a quick cold shower to try and dampen my arousal.

I returned to the bed a few moments later before lying back down next to Charlie. She’d rolled over now, and I sighed and pulled the blankets over her before rolling over as well, facing the other way. I wasn’t even remotely tired, and I was still horny as hell despite the cold shower. This was going to be a long night. *** “What…what happened to my head?” I opened my eyes at the sound of Charlie’s voice, squinting as rays of early morning sunlight peeked through the curtains. I rubbed my face before turning to her. Her hair was ruffled from sleep, and the small amount of eye makeup she’d worn last night was streaked under her eyes and down her cheek. She was still a total fucking babe. “What did you say?” I asked. “My head. It feels like a truck ran over it. What happened?” “Do you really not remember last night?” I asked, balancing up on one elbow. Her expression remained blank for a moment, and then a look of pure horror crossed her face. “Oh, shit. Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I…” I cut her off with a wave of my hand. “It’s cool. Don’t worry about it. I cleaned everything up and made sure you didn’t die.” “Oh. Wow. Thanks,” she said softly, a crimson blush rising in her cheeks. “No worries.” “So why are you still here?” she asked. I grinned. “Try not to be too grateful, Charlie.” She shook her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant, why did you hang around and help out when you could’ve just left? Any other guy would’ve hightailed it out of here the second I started puking,” she said. “Like I said last night, I really like the room service breakfast menu here,” I replied. “So I stayed.” She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Very funny,” she said. “But thanks again for staying and cleaning up. You really didn’t have to.” “It’s fine,” I said gruffly, not wanting her to think I was some big hero or something. I wasn’t; in fact, most of the time I was a prick. I’d just done the right thing for once, that was all. “So you’re not a big drinker, huh?” “Guess not. I only had four drinks over a few hours last night. That’s not exactly a lot, but it was enough to make me feel like I was trampled by a herd of elephants.” I chuckled, and I was about to ask her if she felt up to eating anything for breakfast when my phone

buzzed in my jeans pocket on the floor. I reached down and grabbed it, expecting it to be a message from my father, seeing as he was the only person I could think of who might text or call this early in the morning. Lately, he’d been going on and on about some woman whom I apparently had to meet soon, and I’d been ignoring him for the most part, because I knew exactly what he was up to. He was a state senator as well as a successful businessman, and he’d been looking for a new wife for years now, ever since my mother left him for another man. He had presidential aspirations, and apparently voters liked candidates better when they presented themselves as a quintessential family person. Seeing as my mother had taken off and abandoned us when my brother and I were young, we’d been a single parent family for quite some time, and Dad had often expressed the wish to remarry and have the ‘perfect family’ again. For him, that meant kids who did everything he told them to, and a quiet wife who was happy to be subservient to his every demand. Apparently he’d recently met some woman on a business trip, and they’d decided to get married. I doubted it would actually happen, because he’d been engaged to two other women within the last three years, and neither of those relationships had worked out, because they’d realized what a controlling bastard he was and left before the weddings could even be planned. This woman he’d met—Emilia something-rather—was coming to town soon, and I was meant to meet her. I couldn’t remember exactly when, though. Next week maybe? Fuck knows. I turned my phone screen on to see that it was actually my little brother, Evan, who had texted me. Hey. You didn’t come home last night so I couldn’t remind you then, but remember we have that lunch thing today. 1 P.M. at the Fairview Ridge Hotel restaurant. Figured I’d message you in case you forgot, because Dad will be angry if we aren’t there. I frowned and replied. What lunch? He texted back immediately. We’re meeting his latest fiancée, remember? Shit. I thought that was next week. Nope. Today at 1. By the way, did you know she has a daughter? Nope. Dad sent me a pic when I asked what they looked like. Hold on a sec, I’ll forward it. A second later, a picture message came through, and I clicked on it. To my complete and utter shock, Charlie was staring out at me from the photo, her arms linked with an older woman. “What the….” I stared at the picture, and Charlie leaned over. “What the hell?” she said, echoing me as she caught a glimpse of my screen. “Why do you have a photo of me on your phone?” I looked at her before motioning back at the screen. “This is your Mom?” She nodded. “Yeah...again, why do you have a photo of us?” “Because apparently my father is marrying your mother. My brother just sent this photo to me.” Charlie’s eyebrows shot up, and her face turned pale. “What?” “My father is marrying your mother. Allegedly.”

Her eyes widened as it finally sank in, and she gathered up the bed sheets around her naked body, as if it would make any difference. I’d already seen it all the night before. “Oh god…so…Keith is your father.” “Yep.” “And you’re…you’re his son. So you’re part of the new stepfamily I moved here to meet and live with. You’re going to be my stepbrother.” “Seems like it.” “And you really didn’t know when we met last night?” I shook my head. “Nope. All Dad told me is that he was engaged again, and that her name was Emilia. I had no idea she had a daughter, or that it was you,” I said. “I’m guessing your mother didn’t tell you much either.” “Nothing, except his first name and his job. Oh, and the fact that we were suddenly moving all the way over here to live with him.” “I didn’t even know you guys were moving in. I thought his fiancée was just coming here to Fairview for a meet and greet.” “No, we’re moving into your Dad’s house.” “Well…shit.” There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Charlie’s face fell as she looked at my bare chest. “God, Cole, what the hell are we going to tell them about what happened between us last night?” “We don’t have to tell them anything,” I said before wrinkling my nose. “And wait a minute…did you just call me Cole? How drunk were you last night?” “I thought that was your name. That’s what you said.” I shook my head. “Nope, I said Cade. That’s my name.” I expected her to simply shrug it off as a simple misunderstanding, as she’d obviously totally misheard me when I introduced myself the night before, but instead, her eyes widened further, and her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my god...I knew you looked familiar.” “Huh?” “You’re Cade Blackwell.” The way she said it made it sound like an accusation. “Yeah…” I replied slowly, unsure where she was going with this. “You used to live in Philadelphia.” It was a statement, not a question. I nodded. “Yeah, ages ago. We moved out here six or seven years ago. Did your Mom tell you that?” I asked, assuming my father might’ve told his new fiancée some details about our lives. “No, apparently my Mom hasn’t told me anything,” Charlie said. She jumped off the bed and started rummaging through a suitcase for some clothes before getting

dressed as fast as possible and muttering to herself. “What’s going on?” I said. “How did you know I was from Philly?” She put her hands on her hips. “Oh, of course you wouldn’t remember me. I don’t think you ever really looked at me or knew my full name. I was just Charlotte the Harlot to you.” Oh, shit…. It was all coming back to me now. “Remember now?” she continued, glaring as my eyes widened in recognition. “Charlotte Rubio?” “Oh, so you did know my name, after all.” “Of course I did. We went to school together,” I said. “Shit, I can’t believe it! When I first saw you last night, I thought you looked familiar, but I had no idea it was you. What a coincidence, huh?” “I guess you could call it that,” she said, her voice stiff. I grinned. “Hey, do you remember old Mrs. Prince from our art class?” I asked. “We had a lot of fun in that class, huh?” Charlotte looked incredulous and didn’t respond, so I kept going, figuring she was just shocked by the crazy coincidence. “By the way, are we gonna order breakfast?” I said. “Are you frickin’ serious?” she finally replied. “Don’t pretend like we’re old buddies or something! Leave!” She picked up my clothes and threw them right at me, and I stared at her, my forehead creased with confusion. “Why?” She narrowed her eyes. “Because I’d rather have breakfast with a giant squid than you,” she said. When I still looked confused, she snorted with derision. “I guess you already forgot, because your life was always so perfect and easy, but you made my life a living hell, Cade!” I frowned. I remembered pulling some silly harmless pranks on her and teasing her a bit by calling her the stupid Charlotte the Harlot nickname, but we’d just been dumb kids playing around. I didn’t remember making her life a ‘living hell’’ like she’d said. “What? How?” I asked. “You know what you did, you fricking asshole! Or did you conveniently forget about all that?” “I really don’t remember doing—” She cut me off. “Oh, of course you don’t, because it didn’t mean anything to you. You just thought it was funny to torment me. And even though you left after the seventh grade, it didn’t stop, even once I started high school. Everyone else just picked up right where you left off, because you taught them all that I was the one they could all victimize and pick on. Better me than them, huh? God, I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you right away. And I can’t believe I almost slept with you!” Jesus, I’d obviously hit a nerve, because she was really on a verbal rampage. “Charlotte, I—” She cut me off again. “Just get out, please.” I hastily put my clothes on. “Fine, I’m going,” I said, taking a few steps towards the door before turning back around to face her. “But you know we have to have lunch together today, right? Seeing as we’re going to be family and all. So we should probably—”

She launched a pillow at me like a missile. “I said out!� she screeched. I quickly dodged a second pillow and headed out of the room, and when the door closed behind me, I leaned back against it and grinned, grateful that my father had just so happened to pick the mother of an old schoolmate to marry; a schoolmate who just so happened to have grown up to be a sexy little spitfire. This was going to be a hell of a ride.

Chapter Four Charlotte My chest heaved as I watched the door close behind Cade, and I took several deep breaths before returning to the bed so I could lie down. My head was pounding from the hangover, and I closed my eyes, wondering how the hell I was going to handle being related to Cade. I knew some people might think it was incredibly childish of me to react the way I had just then, and maybe it was, but I couldn’t help it. I really hated Cade Blackwell. What he’d done to me back in school wasn’t just silly playground teasing—he’d seriously made my life miserable, and even the thought of him and his so-called ‘pranks’ made my chest constrict with anxiety as awful memories came pouring back in. It had started out pretty innocently, all the way back in the second grade. He’d done silly, harmless things like sticking toy rats or spiders on my desk to scare me, and on the playground he’d chased me and tried to pull my pigtails whenever he saw me. I didn’t resent him for those things; lots of kids did stuff like that, and it wasn’t exactly traumatizing. In fact, the prank rats and spiders were actually pretty funny and made me giggle a lot whenever I found them. What I resented him for was how things escalated over the next few years to the point where I’d become a social outcast by the time I was thirteen. See, Cade came from a rich and powerful family, and even as a child everyone could tell he was going to grow up to be handsome as hell. As a result, he’d always been one of the confident popular kids, whereas I was always shy and quiet by nature. The other kids in school eventually noticed how he called me names and targeted me for his pranks all the time, and that was enough to get it into their heads that I was a nerdy loser—every school had one kid who was the butt of every joke, and in my school, it ended up being me. Especially after Cade’s worst prank. Really, up until that one, it hadn’t been so bad. I hadn’t been popular, but I’d still had friends, and I’d just had to deal with the occasional aforementioned silly prank or teasing, mostly from Cade. But everything changed one day in the seventh grade. Without me noticing, Cade placed a little packet of corn syrup on my chair on a day I’d worn white shorts to school, and when I stood up to see why my backside was suddenly wet, everyone started shrieking with laughter. Some idiotic friend of Cade’s had then screamed out, ‘Ew, she has her period!’ as if having periods was something girls should be ashamed of—even though in this case, it was just dark red syrup—and after that I was known as ‘Period Girl’ around the school, which was way worse than ‘Charlotte the Harlot’, which was the previous nickname Cade had bestowed upon me. By the end of that year, I was well and truly a social leper. I ate alone at lunch almost every day and spent as much time as I could hiding in the library to avoid being mocked and teased, and the other kids would avoid being seen with me in case my ‘loser’ reputation tainted their own reputations. As a result, my old friends dwindled away until I had none.

When I reached high school, my previous reputation followed me, seeing as most of the kids I went to elementary and middle school with went to the same high school as me. Cade and his family had moved away by that point, but it didn’t matter—the social damage was done, and I was still the one everyone chose to pick on. On top of that, high school kids were way nastier than younger kids, and the middle school bullying soon morphed into incredibly hurtful cyberbullying and horrible rumors being spread about me all the time. Even when I was still a virgin and had never been kissed, I was called ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ on a regular basis, and I was even accused of trying to seduce my English teacher. At one point, some of the mean girls even tried to make a video of me go viral on YouTube—a video of me having a used tampon thrown at me. That was when I’d finally snapped and stood up for myself. I was done with being a victim, and it was about damn time I grew some stones. I didn’t need to be rescued by anyone. I needed to rescue myself. The day after that video was uploaded, I went right up to the girls and confronted them about how pathetic they were for doing such disgusting things. It worked. At first, they all snickered and called me a stupid bitch, but afterwards one of them came up and apologized, promising to get the video taken down. After that, the teasing lessened, and whenever anything was said to me by anyone, I kept standing my ground and making sarcastic, snippy comments to bite back at them. That was enough to make my peers gain a little bit of respect for me. By the time my senior year came round, things had changed. I wasn’t a total loser anymore, and people actually spoke to me without saying nasty things or giving me weird looks. But all the years of previous bullying still haunted me. I had constant nightmares about my previous treatment, and every day, I woke up in a cold sweat, just waiting for it all to begin again. To this day, I still found it very hard to trust anyone, even now that I was in my second year of college. I was well aware of the fact that all the later acts of bullying were carried out by other kids, not Cade, but as far as I was concerned, he was the one who’d started it all by making me a social outcast in the first place with the awful corn syrup prank, and I could only imagine how much better my earlier life might’ve been if he hadn’t existed. So call me petty, but I couldn’t stand the mere thought of him even after all these years, and I was ashamed of myself for not immediately recognizing him last night. Those sinful eyes hadn’t changed a bit, and the way my stomach twisted into dreadful knots at the memory of him also hadn’t changed. Too bad I had to live with the prick soon… It was the unluckiest coincidence in the world. Out of all the men my Mom could’ve met and decided to marry, it had to be Cade’s father. Perhaps they’d bonded over the fact that they were both originally from Philly; who knows? But it was happening, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. “Charlotte, honey?” Speak of the devil—my mother was knocking on my door. I trudged over and opened it, and she gasped as she took in my slovenly appearance. “Charlotte! What on earth happened to you? You look terrible!” “Thanks, Mom,” I said sarcastically. “I had a rough night, that’s all.” “Was it because of the flight here yesterday?” she asked. “I always feel a little nauseated after being on a plane for a few hours.”

I nodded, not wanting to reveal the real reason I felt like crap. Imagine how that conversation would go... Mom, I went to the hotel bar and drank an outrageous amount of wine before inviting a guy back to my room—a guy who was essentially a stranger—and hooking up with him. Oh, and then it turned out that he wasn’t a stranger. He’s an old school enemy of mine, and he’s your future stepson….surprise! Yeah, it was probably best to avoid that conversation, especially as nothing was ever going to happen between me and Cade again. My cheeks flushed with shame as I recalled his hands and mouth on me last night, before I’d embarrassed myself by vomiting everywhere, and the worst part about the whole thing was how damn good it had felt. Granted, I hadn’t known who he was at the time, but even now that I did, it didn’t change the fact that the climax he’d brought me to with his tongue and fingers was the best I’d ever had. I could only imagine what it would be like to actually have sex with him, and my core tingled at the mere thought of his touch. “Well, let’s have some breakfast. Some dry toast might settle your stomach a bit,” Mom said, pushing past me and snapping me out of my reverie. She grabbed a room service menu from the small table and glanced back at me. “I need you to be in good shape for lunch later today. Keith is very excited to finally meet you. By the way, I told you he has kids, right?” “Yes, but you didn’t really give me any details,” I said. “All you said was that he has two.” And I really wish you’d told me more, I added silently. Mom nodded. “Yes, two sons. Evan just turned fourteen, and Jade is almost twenty.” “Don’t you mean Cade?” I blurted out before I could stop myself. She smiled. “Oh, yes, how silly of me. Cade,” she said. “See, I must’ve given you some details about them, because how else would you know his name? You always whine that I don’t tell you enough, but I think you’re just a bit forgetful.” She ruffled my hair even more, and I gave her a weak smile. “Erm…yeah,” I replied, not wanting to give away the real reason I knew his name. “Well, anyway, let’s order that breakfast,” she said. “How many pieces of toast do you want?” I shrugged. After everything that had happened this morning, I really wasn’t hungry. In fact, as long as I was in the same state as Cade Blackwell, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the stomach to eat again. *** After breakfast, Mom left, and I got out my laptop computer and played some games for a while, dreading the clock hitting one P.M. When it did, Mom returned to my room. “Charlotte, we have to go downstairs now. Keith just called me. He’s here.” I sighed and grabbed my purse before grudgingly following her down to the hotel restaurant. A tall man with dark hair and familiar blue-green eyes strode over upon catching sight of us, and Mom practically squealed like a teenage girl. “Keith! There you are!” He wrapped her in his arms and hugged her before breaking away and turning to me. “You must be

Charlotte. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.” “You too,” I said, smiling warmly. Just because he was Cade’s father didn’t mean he was an asshole too, so there was no need for me to be rude or stand-offish. “Well, let’s go and sit down. I reserved that table over there,” he said, pointing across the restaurant. I glanced over and breathed a quiet sigh of relief as I saw a redheaded teenage boy sitting at the table, with no sign of Cade. Maybe he was skipping out on the lunch. I certainly hoped so, anyway. We headed over to the table. “Evan, this is Charlotte,” Keith said, addressing his younger son. Evan got up and politely shook my hand, and he smiled shyly. “Hi, Charlotte.” “Hi,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” “Same. Hey, do you like things like rockets?” he asked. “Or space in general?” “Sure,” I replied, taking a seat across from him. I wasn’t lying just to suck up to him; I was actually a pretty big astronomy buff. My Dad had always loved it too, and when he’d still been alive, he’d taken me out every couple of nights to look through the telescope he’d built himself. I still loved stargazing and reading up on space-related things, because it made me feel close to Dad, even though he wasn’t around anymore. Evan gave off the impression of being a sweet, smart and ambitious young guy as he launched into a story about how he loved building miniature spaceships which could actually be launched fairly high up, and I listened happily. Mom and Keith were already engrossed in each other, trying to decide which celebratory champagne they wanted during lunch and discussing plans for later today. “It’s so cool that you like this kinda stuff,” Evan finally said with a grin. “My Dad and brother don’t really care about it. Dad’s more into hunting and politics, and Cade’s into sports. But when I finally finish school and go to college, I’m totally gonna study engineering and then work for NASA.” “That’s awesome. I’ve actually got my own telescope, you know. It’s in storage now, but when it arrives and we’re all settled in, I’ll show you how to use it. And I’d love to see the rockets you’ve made some time,” I replied. “Well, you’ll see them when you move in, I’m sure,” a masculine voice said from behind me, before Evan could respond. My heart sank, and I turned to see Cade standing there. The smile vanished from Keith’s face, and he glared at Cade. “Nice of you to show up fifteen minutes late, son,” he said in a voice that could’ve flash-frozen fish. “Sorry. I ran into my coach outside, and we got caught up talking about the next game.” “Oh, you play some type of sport?” Mom said, smiling at Cade. “By the way, I’m Emilia, and this is Charlotte.” Keith finally seemed to remember his manners, and he nodded and squeezed Mom’s shoulder. “Yes, so sorry, darling. This is my son Cade,” he said before looking back up at Cade. “Cade, this is my fiancée Emilia and her daughter Charlotte.” Cade nodded. “Right. Nice to meet you, Emilia. And yes, I play college ball. I’m QB for the RMU Bighorns.”

I noticed that Cade hadn’t even acknowledged his introduction to me, even though both Mom and Keith had mentioned my name, and I had to admit, it stung a little bit. Then again, if he was planning on totally ignoring me, that was a better alternative than having to speak to him or interact with him in any other way. Evan leaned forward and whispered to me from across the table. “Charlotte, how can you find a quarterback at a party?” he asked. I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t know, how?” “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” I snickered and high-fived Evan, happy that I wasn’t the only one who thought Cade was an arrogant so-and-so. Apparently Keith wasn’t much of a fan of the football conversation either, because his expression went dark, and he quickly changed the topic to Cade’s studies. “Football is really just a hobby for Cade,” he explained, looking at my Mom as Cade took a seat next to Evan. “He’s actually studying politics, and after that he’ll be going into law.” “Oh, wow,” Mom said, her eyes widening. “So you’re smart as well as handsome.” Cade grunted, and I could tell that his father’s comment about sport simply being a hobby had rubbed him the wrong way. “Anyway, what are you studying, Charlotte?” Keith asked, turning his attention to me. “I understand you were able to transfer your course to RMU here in Fairview Ridge. That’s where Cade goes.” Great. “I’m studying a Bachelor of Science at the moment, and I’m hoping to get into medicine.” “Ah yes, nursing is a wonderful career for a woman,” he said. I forced a genial smile. “Actually, when I said medicine, I meant I want to be a doctor one day.” There was nothing wrong with nursing at all—it was a very important job—but it really pissed me off that some people still assumed that it was the only medical field women could possibly get into. Keith’s eyebrows rose for a second. “Oh, I see. That’s a noble job. It can be time-consuming, though. What if you want to have a family one day? How would you balance it all?” Nice work, Mom, I thought. You managed to find a fiancé who’s stuck in a 1950’s time-warp. “Dad, would you say that stuff to a guy if he was studying to be a doctor?” Cade asked, rolling his eyes, and my own eyes widened slightly. He was actually sticking up for me? Maybe after I’d yelled at him this morning, he’d remembered a few of the shitty things he’d done to me back in school and felt bad about it. Maybe he was even planning on being nice to me from this moment onward. “Besides, she’s only my age. Why the hell would she want to have a bunch of kids now anyway?” he continued. Keith smiled and held his hands up in defeat. “Okay, okay, I see your point. Sorry, Charlotte,” he said. “Now, has everyone had a chance to look at the menu and figure out what they want to eat?” “Not sure what I want yet. This hotel has such good food; it’s hard to pick,” Cade replied, before

looking right at me. “In fact, I ate something really nice here just last night…” I narrowed my eyes at the pathetically lewd comment. I’d spoken too soon. He wasn’t being nice, and he definitely wasn’t ignoring me. Quickly turning away from his gaze, I grabbed a bottle of water from the center of the table and filled my glass, my hands shaking the whole time. Dammit, how did he still have such an effect on me after all this time? “Oh? What did you have?” Mom asked, completely oblivious. “Something sweet,” Cade said. I continued to ignore him and busied myself by asking Evan what he was having, and we both decided on the steak burgers and sweet potato fries. The rest of the lunch wasn’t too bad. Despite Cade’s presence, it wasn’t anywhere near as awkward as I’d thought it would be, and I’d found an ally in Evan. He was a really cool kid, and obviously very smart for his age too. I had no idea how he’d turned out so decent with a brother like Cade and a father like Keith. Although I’d initially thought Keith seemed nice, it had quickly become obvious that he was a very controlling person. The way he’d spoken to and glared at Cade when he’d arrived late, the comments to me about my future career, and the way he’d dismissed Cade’s football as a ‘hobby’ made it clear that he felt the need to control people’s lives, especially his sons, and I hoped he didn’t try to do the same to my mother. She could be flighty and a bit absent sometimes, but she was still my mother, and she was the only parent I had left. However, if she loved Keith, then I was sure he’d turn out to be just fine. Perhaps he was just nervous about us all finally meeting each other, and that had made him act on edge today. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I wasn’t going to do the same for Cade. I already knew for sure that he was a dick. “Well,” Keith said as we all finished the last of our meals. “I’d just like to say something. I realize this all happened very quickly, and you kids don’t know each other from a bar of soap.” “Dad,” Evan cut in. “We’re not kids. Cade and Charlotte are nineteen, and I’m fourteen.” We all laughed, and Keith joined in, obviously in a much better mood now. “Fine, fine. But you all seem like babies to me,” he said with a wink. “Anyway, as I was saying, I know this relationship between Emilia and I has moved very fast, so it’s all a bit awkward and new, but I can’t wait for us to all be living together soon. I think it’ll be really nice to have a full house again, when you two ladies officially move in next week. So cheers to that.” He lifted his wine glass, and so did Mom. Evan raised his glass of Coke to theirs, and Cade and I joined them with our water glasses. I was still feeling way too hungover to have any of the celebratory champagne, and after draining my glass, I went to refill it. Unfortunately, the glass water bottle was empty, and my Mom eyed it. “I can go up to the bar and ask for a new bottle, sweetie,” she said. I shook my head. “No, it’s cool. I’ll go.” Any excuse to be away from Cade for a minute, I silently added. Speaking of Cade, I could feel his eyes on my back after I excused myself and walked away, and once I’d reached the bar, I realized he’d followed me and was now standing right behind me. God, he was persistent… After I’d asked for more water, I turned to him. “Are you getting a drink?” I asked, trying my hardest to feign politeness.

“Nah, thought I’d come help you,” he replied. A nervous heat ran through my body at his proximity. The muscles in his chest rubbed against the thin fabric of my long-sleeved top as he moved to stand right next to me, and a shockwave burst from my chest to my core as I remembered last night all over again. I stopped my train of thought dead in its tracks. You don’t really want him, I told myself. Sure, he was hot, and last night felt good, but this was just adrenaline brought on by nervousness. My body’s reaction wasn’t exactly something I could control, but I didn’t have to act on it. All I had to do was tamp it down. “I don’t need help,” I said, my voice nearly quavering. “I’m just getting a new bottle of water for the table.” “Hey, you heard my Dad. It’s a woman’s job to raise a family and stay in the kitchen, not carry around heavy glass water bottles,” he said with a sarcastic gleam in his eyes. I almost laughed at the ridiculous quip, but then I remembered who I was talking to. “I’m sure your Dad didn’t mean it like that,” I replied stiffly. “He seems nice.” “You’ll see,” Cade said, nodding at the bartender who’d just placed down a new bottle for me. “I noticed you didn’t appreciate my joke earlier.” “That was supposed to be a joke? If you’re planning on pursuing a career in comedy, don’t quit your day job.” “You seemed to think I was pretty funny last night,” he said, leaning even closer to me. Violent tingles shot up and down my spine, and I took a deep breath, once more trying to forget what it had felt like to be with him last night. He was right. I’d enjoyed his company right up until I knew who he was, and he’d also shown some real decency by cleaning up after me when I’d been sick everywhere. Sure, he’d made the gross oral sex reference at the table, right in front of our families—who thankfully hadn’t gotten it—but he’d also stood up for me after Keith had made those rather sexist assumptions and comments about my future career plans. Maybe I was being petty and immature by holding onto the past so much. Maybe he’d grown up enough to at least be tolerable. I was about to voice these thoughts and tell him that we should try to be friends seeing as we were being forced to be members of the same family, if that was something he was even interested in, but then he slid his mouth close to my ear and murmured his own ‘family’ plans. “By the way, seeing as we’re going to be living together soon, if you ever have a certain itch that needs to be scratched….I’ll be just up the hall. No one needs to know.” With that, he ran a hand over my lower back, and I pulled away, resisting the urge to slap him. Nope, he hadn’t changed at all, at least not enough for me to ever want to be friends with him. I stepped away and headed back towards our table, glass water bottle in my hand, and when Cade tried to fall into step beside me, I gave him my best ‘don’t screw with me’ expression and sped up. “Aw, c’mon, don’t play hard to get now,” he said, easily catching up to me with his longer stride. “Then don’t play hard to want,” I replied in a saccharine voice. His eyebrows shot up, and I gave him a sweet smile and sat down.

He obviously thought I was still the weak little girl I’d once been all the way back in grade school, but he didn’t know who I’d become. He had no idea what he was messing with…but he was going to find out.

Chapter Five Charlotte Today was the day. Mom and I had finally left the hotel, and we were moving into the Blackwell’s house so we could all play happy families. I had to admit, it was a damn nice place. It was set on a huge property about fifteen minutes out of Fairview Ridge, and it bordered on a forest which seemed to stretch endlessly beyond the horizon. The house itself was enormous; a three story Tudor-style mansion with high ceilings, picture windows all through the lower floor, and dark wood trim. It was a far cry from the small place Mom and I had lived in back in Philly, and I marveled at the interior design as I hauled my first bag in from the car. “Cade, show Charlotte where her room is,” Keith called out from the front entrance as he headed out to grab a box. Cade wordlessly directed me upstairs and down the second floor hallway, and when we reached a dark wood door down near the end, he turned to me. “This is your room,” he said. “It has its own bathroom.” “Cool. Thanks. Where’s your room?” I blurted out the question before I could even think about it, and he flashed me an amused smirk. “Wow, you’re being a bit forward. Haven’t even been here five minutes, and you’re trying to get in my bedroom.” I flushed. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just want to know how far away you are from me. The farther the better, obviously.” His face darkened, and the playful gleam in his eyes vanished. “Sure. I’m down the other end of the hall. Hopefully that’s far enough for your satisfaction, princess.” He performed a dramatic and clearly sarcastic bow before turning and striding back down the hallway, and I sighed and entered my new room before putting my bag down. It was dim, but decorated beautifully—obviously done by a professional interior designer. The furniture was dark cherry-wood, which matched the trim and the hardwood floors, and the curtains were a dark forest green. I opened them up to let some light in, and I looked down across the spacious property before spying something out of the corner of my eye. My mother was pulling out of the garage in what appeared to be a brand new silver Volvo with an enormous red bow stuck to the front. She reversed a bit more and then stopped, and when she got out, she saw me up at my window and waved before dangling the car keys in the air and motioning for me to come down. I headed downstairs and outside, and she approached me with a wide smile. “Surprise, honey!” “Surprise? What’s going on?”

She gestured towards the car. “I’ve been doing some thinking for the last few days, and I realized how inconsiderate I’ve been in making you move here with me on such short notice. You had to leave everything and everyone you knew behind, and I know how hard it’s been for you to make friends in the past. So I’m sorry, Charlotte. I thought I’d try and make things up to you a bit by getting you a brand new car to get yourself around in, seeing as there’s not really much in the way of public transport out here. So this Volvo is all yours!” “But Mom, that must’ve cost a fortune,” I replied, trying to remember how much the average brand new car cost these days. “Well, Keith helped a bit,” she said. “Do you like it?” Her forehead was creased with anxiety, and I broke into a grin. “I love it. Thanks, Mom.” I threw my arms around her, and she squeezed me tight. “I know it’s just a car, but I am thinking about you as well as myself, sweetie. I think moving here was the right choice.” I pulled back and smiled. “Yeah, it was. It was sudden, but I’ll make new friends, and RMU is a really good school. And this house is amazing.” “It is, isn’t it?” she replied. “By the way, Cade is pretty good with cars. I actually had him come with us to Denver yesterday and help pick it out, and he made sure we got a pretty good deal. Apparently his football coach’s brother owns the car dealership we went to.” “Oh.” “So maybe say thank you to him as well,” she said, giving me a tight smile. She must’ve noticed some of the tension between us at the lunch the other day, and now she was trying to make us bond and get along. I gritted my teeth. “Sure, I’ll talk to him later. Can I take the car for a quick spin first, though?” “Of course! Have fun,” she said, handing me the keys. “Oh, and by the way, Cade left the car manual and all that jazz in the glove compartment for you.” “All right. Thanks.” “Well, you have fun. I’m going to keep unpacking things.” She headed back towards Keith’s SUV to grab more boxes, and I got into the Volvo and sat down, smiling as I inhaled the fresh ‘new car’ smell. I hadn’t expected a gift like this at all, and I felt guilty for being so snippy with Mom over this whole move. It definitely made sense for us to be here, rather than Keith moving his family back to Philly, because he was on the State Senate here, so he couldn’t exactly just pack up and leave all that easily, whereas Mom’s job as a pharmaceutical rep allowed for more flexibility. Before starting the car up, I reached into the glove compartment to check out the manual, and I shrieked as my hand touched something furry. Yanking it back, I peered at it, only to realize that it was a toy mouse. Of course. Cade was obviously still mentally eight years old and still leaving things around to scare me. Well, I wasn’t going to take it; even something as petty as this. I grabbed the mouse and strode inside, then headed upstairs and down the hallway to find his room. There were only two doors down this

end of the hall, and one had a rocket on it, so I made an educated guess that that room was Evan’s, and then pounded on the other one. There was no answer, but Evan poked his head around his door a second later. “Charlotte? Are you looking for Cade?” I turned to him and smiled. “Yep. Have you seen him?” “I think he went down to the gym on the first floor. He has a game coming up soon, so he has to work out.” “Oh.” “Is that a mouse you’re holding?” I gave him a sheepish smile and held up the toy. “Toy mouse, yes. Cade left it in my new car.” Evan rolled his eyes. “That’s totally something he’d do. He’s only teasing, though.” “Some might call it that,” I mumbled. “No, seriously. Cade and I tease each other all the time about silly stuff, but he’s not a bad brother. Maybe he’s just trying to help you settle in by bringing you into all the silly pranks we play on each other.” My face must’ve given something away, or else Evan was even more perceptive than I thought, because he stepped out of his room, a concerned expression on his face. “What’s wrong? Do you have a mouse phobia or something?” “No. It’s just…well, I don’t know if you know this, but Cade and I actually knew each other when we were kids.” A look of comprehension dawned on his face. “Oh! I forgot you and your Mom were from Philadelphia as well. I had no idea you and my brother already knew each other.” “Yeah, well, we went to school together, and he used to play all these pranks on me back then,” I said, holding up the mouse again. “I guess nothing’s changed.” He gave me a rueful smile. “He’s good when he needs to be. I used to get really badly bullied in school when I was younger. Then he came and found the guys who used to beat me up after school one day. He laid them all out and then told them if they ever touched me again, he’d be back.” “Really? I’m so sorry you were bullied. I had no idea.” He nodded. “They left me alone after that, because of Cade. He’s a really good guy when he wants to be,” he said. A look of comprehension suddenly dawned on him. “Hey, I just remembered something. Did you always wear pigtails to school when you were a kid?” “Yes.” “You must be the girl in his old school books, then!” “Huh?” Evan crept across the hall and opened Cade’s bedroom door. “Guard the door,” he said. “If you hear him coming back, distract him. He’ll probably be embarrassed if he knows I showed you this.” “Erm…okay,” I said.

I heard him rummaging around Cade’s bedroom for a minute or two, and then he let out a triumphant, “Aha!” He came out and held up a book. “He used to let me read his old school books to help me out with school when I was little, and this is one of them. I found this while I was reading through it one day.” He skipped to the midway point and then pointed to a scribbled drawing on the left-hand page. It was a childish heart with an arrow through it, and the word ‘Charlot’. Evan looked at me with glee. “See? He totally had a crush on a girl named Charlotte. Obviously couldn’t spell it, but whatever…I think this book was from when he was only eight or nine.” I shook my head. “There must’ve been some other Charlotte he knew.” “I don’t know. When I first saw this and teased him about it, he said it was a girl he used to like, who had green eyes and dark hair she always wore in pigtails. Oh, and there’s also this.” He skipped forward another few pages to show me another doodle of a heart with the letters CB +CR inside it. “That’s his initials and yours,” Evan said. “It was totally you!” I shook my head again, slower this time. “That doesn’t make any sense. Cade didn’t like me.” “How do you know?” “Well, for one, he called me Charlotte the Harlot every time he saw me for the whole of the fourth grade, not to mention all the other teasing and pranks over the years.” Evan arched an eyebrow. “I hate to sound like a cliché, but boys sometimes tease girls because they like them. I used to do it too, with this girl I liked when I was younger. Her name was Lisa, and I used to call her Lisa Pizza. It was stupid, but I was nine, and I just wanted her attention.” I chewed my lip as I thought about it. I’d always thought the old cliché of boys teasing and bullying girls because they ‘liked’ them was a load of bullshit which taught girls to take shit from boys, and taught boys that it was okay to be abusive. I said as much to Evan, and he nodded. “Well, I agree with that, but Cade never did anything abusive….did he?” he said. I sighed. “Um…sort of.” “Really?” I nodded. “Yeah. See, it was all pretty harmless, funny stuff for the first few years—from about second grade onwards—but he did something in the seventh grade which made it all way worse. It probably sounds like something really petty, but it’s the kind of thing that really affects a girl when she’s at that age.” “Oh?” I filled him in on the whole ‘Period Girl’ incident, and on how that had really been the catalyst for me becoming a permanent social outcast. Evan’s face darkened as I outlined it all for him, right up until the point of high school and how awfully I’d been treated as a result of the ‘loser’ reputation that Cade had created for me. “That’s horrible. I’m sorry. And you’re sure it was him who played that corn syrup prank on you?”

“Yeah. The girl who sat next to me told me it was him who put the stuff on my chair and bragged about how bad it would look with my white pants. And he’d played tons of other so-called pranks on me before that, although none that were anywhere near that mean.” “Crap. I had no idea….that’s really weird, though. I can imagine him playing stupid pranks and teasing you—honestly, he does it to everyone—but I can’t imagine him doing something that horrible to a girl. I think you should talk to him about it.” “I don’t know. It’s all in the past. Maybe I should just get over it,” I muttered, already feeling a bit sick at the memory. Just thinking about it made me feel like I’d swallowed a lead balloon. “We all have to live together, so you may as well hash it all out and get to the bottom of it. I really think there’s more to it, because like I said, I really can’t see him doing something like that, even when he was way younger. He’s always talked a tough game, but he’s a softie at heart. So yeah, at least talk to him.” I smiled. “Fine. You’re right. Has anyone ever told you that you’re really mature, Evan?” “Every day,” he said. “Naw, just kidding.” “Well, you are.” “Thanks. Promise me you’ll talk to Cade at some point!” I nodded. “I promise.” “Cool. Anyway, do you need help unpacking or bringing anything in?” I smiled. “Thanks, but I’ve got it covered. Most of our stuff is still in storage at the moment, so it’s just a few bags and suitcases.” “All right.” I headed back down to my room at the opposite end of the hallway, contemplating Evan’s earlier words about Cade. Was there really a chance that I’d been so wrong about him for all these years? If he hadn’t played that horrible ‘period’ prank on me, then that meant that he wasn’t responsible for my social demise after all. Sure, he’d played other pranks on me and teased me for years before that syrup prank, but that was all just harmless silly stuff. The period prank was the prank that cemented my status as a total joke and made me lose all my friends, which in turn made me get treated awfully later on in high school. All this time, I’d assumed it was him simply because I’d been told it was him by another person….but what if it hadn’t been him? I was still quite convinced that it was him, but if it wasn’t, then I owed him a serious apology for how rude I’d been to him in my hotel room the other morning, and on other occasions since then. The whole thing also made me question my deep hatred of him over the years, and the way I’d clung to it so intensely. He’d been a scapegoat for everything; blamed for all my misery, but what if I’d just used him as a target for all my hatred because I’d needed someone else to blame other than myself? Before I’d finally stood up for myself in my junior year of high school, I’d acted like a victim for a long time, and to tell the truth, I’d hated myself for letting myself get treated so awfully. I knew it wasn’t my fault that the other kids did it in the first place—that was on them for being asshole bullies —but the way I chose to view myself and react to the situation was on me. It was only when I stood up for myself and stopped allowing them to treat me like that when I’d gained a real sense of respect

for myself again. Evan was right—I needed to talk it out with Cade and learn to let go of the past. Even if it turned out that he was responsible for the period prank and all the other things that had eventually led to the other kids treating me as an outcast, then it was time I stopped holding a grudge. Maybe I’d never be friends with him, but I could at least stop lingering on the past and holding onto all my anger. Seeing as he was apparently working out in the home gym now, I figured I’d unpack my stuff first and talk to him later, because I didn’t want to disturb him. On top of that, I didn’t quite know how to bring it all up just yet; it would be awkward as hell. As I padded back into my new bedroom, I headed over to the bed and sat down before glancing around at everything again with a smile. This was my house now, and with any luck—and providing how well my chat with Cade went—it’d soon feel like my home.

Chapter Six Cade Groaning under the heavy weights attached to each end of the bar I’d just picked up, I lifted it over my head, held it for ten seconds and then lowered it back down to the rack. Wiping sweat from my brow, I sat up on the bench, knowing I’d finally done enough bench press reps. I’d done forty-five minutes of weight training now, and it was time for some HIIT—high intensity interval training. It involved doing multiple intervals of short, ultra-intense exercises, and it helped build and maintain cardiovascular fitness as well as burning off extra energy. It was important for me to utilize different workout methods to keep my body in tip-top shape, because football players didn’t only need size and strength. We also needed speed, agility, and endurance, and doing a variety of workouts helped build all those things up. It also kept it from being boring; there was nothing worse than doing the exact same routine every single time. As I did some explosive squat jumps, I thought about my earlier encounter with Charlotte in the hall. I’d been asked to show her where her new room was, and I’d tried to be nice to her, but as usual, she’d been so hostile that I couldn’t help but bite back at her with a hostile comment of my own. Honestly, I had no idea what her problem with me was. Sure, I’d teased her in elementary school, and maybe that made me a dick, but I’d been a fucking kid with a crush, that was all. I’d never done anything serious. I remembered chasing her around the playground a bit, and I also remembered doing dumb crap like leaving toy spiders on her desk or on her chair. Just stuff to get her attention. I’d also made up a rhyming nickname—Charlotte the Harlot. Yeah, that was an asshole move, but I’d been nine, and I hadn’t even understood what the word ‘harlot’ really meant, and when I’d found out, I’d stopped calling her that. I knew teasing a girl was a shitty way of letting her know I liked her, but fuck, I’d literally been a child. I didn’t know jack-shit about getting girls to like me back then, and I’d honestly thought that if I got her attention by playing stupid tricks on her, she’d suddenly return my feelings. But Charlotte acted like I’d done something far worse. I had no idea what I’d allegedly done aside from the silly harmless kiddy pranks; in fact, I distinctly remembered sticking up for her a lot whenever other kids tried to do anything. One time this bitch who was jealous of Charlotte’s good grades played a really mean fucking prank on her. She left some sort of red sauce or syrup on her chair, and then one of my friends screamed out something about Charlotte getting her period when she sat in it. I wasn’t proud of this next part, because violence wasn’t exactly the best response, but I beat up that particular friend of mine during lunch that day for saying that shit, and whenever anyone else tried to mock Charlotte over it, I told them to get fucked as well. It hadn’t worked very well, despite my popularity and influence. Kids could be cruel, especially the young girls who acted like period stuff was shameful—as if it wasn’t going to happen to them one day—and Charlotte pretty much became a loner after that. Her friends seemed to have abandoned her, and I didn’t see her around much for the rest of the semester. I’d gone to the library to try and find her a few times, to see if she wanted to talk or hang out, but I’d never been able to find her.

A few months after that, Mom left, and Dad moved us all the way to Colorado, where he’d grown up. I had no idea what Charlotte’s life had been like after that, but considering the way she’d yelled at me the other week in the hotel room, I guess it wasn’t exactly great. That was shitty, and I felt bad for her. But to actually blame me for all of it? That was bullshit. She’d literally told me that I ‘made her life hell’, but was leaving the occasional prank mouse on her desk in the fourth grade really the equivalent of ruining her life? Hell, like I said earlier, I’d even tried to stand up for her multiple times. It wasn’t my fault that other girl played that nasty prank on her in the seventh grade and spread ostracizing rumors, and I’d even done my part in trying to stop those bullshit rumors from going any further. So for her to act like I’d wrecked her whole life and treat me like shit was a bit of a slap in the face, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see her act like that. She’d always been a sweet girl back in school, which was one of the many reasons I’d had such a crush on her, but the way she treated me now was the opposite of sweet. I’d tried to be nice, I’d tried to lighten things up and break the ice by telling stupid, sleazy jokes—just like the silly, sleazy jokes she’d seemed to like so much on the night we’d hooked up—and I’d even helped her Mom pick out a new car for her. But she was having none of it. She’d become a total ice queen around me, and now I figured the only way to deal with it was to totally ignore her. Clearly, she didn’t want anything to do with me, and our house was big. I could avoid her most of the time. What really sucked was how little I actually wanted to avoid her. As much as her resentment and hostility bothered me, it was impossible to ignore the fact that she was the hottest damn girl I’d ever seen, and whenever I closed my eyes, I thought of her—those curves, those lips, that ass. Most of all, the way she’d felt in my arms that night. Just forget it, I told myself. Not gonna happen again. When I’d finished with the HIIT, I stretched out my tired muscles and then sat down, my legs almost wobbling from all the heavy exercises I’d done in today’s session. My whole body burned, but in a good way; the kind of way that let me know I’d completed a good workout. Sweat glistened on my skin, and I headed back inside for a shower. On my way in, I saw Charlotte heading in from the front door with another bag of stuff, and I almost called out with an offer of help, seeing as I was going upstairs too, before remembering that there was no point. Fuck it. She’d only verbally abuse me some more if I spoke to her, while looking at me like I was a piece of crap stuck to her shoe, so I kept my mouth shut and headed towards one of the downstairs bathrooms instead. “Cade.” I turned at the sound of my name to see my father standing in the main dining room. “Yeah?” I said. “I’ve been reading over the paper you turned in for your Poli-Sci 202 class last week,” he said. “It could’ve been better. You didn’t even bring up how the utilitarian viewpoint of—” I cut him off. “Dad, I got a B+ for that paper. That’s not a bad grade. And what the hell are you doing reading over all my college shit anyway?” “For one, it’s not ‘shit’,” he said, his lip curling with distaste for the curse word. “It’s your future.

You need more than Bs to get into law school.” I gritted my teeth. “I’ve told you, I don’t want to go to law school. I’m happy to do political science for now as part of my Bachelor’s, but that’s mostly a fallback thing in case I ever get injured. You know I’m only really there for the football.” “And I’ve told you, it’s not up to you. I’ve allowed you to play that ridiculous game, even though it cuts into your study time, but you’re almost twenty, and you need to start thinking more seriously about your future. If you’re going to follow in my footsteps, then law school is the best path.” I narrowed my eyes, wondering where he’d got it into his head that I automatically had to follow in his footsteps. Not all of us wanted to be a bigwig senator one day. “You didn’t even go to law school. You got a business degree and then started your company.” He held up a hand. “Yes, and because of that, it took me years to get into the political arena, even though it was a lifelong dream. You have the opportunity to get into it all so much earlier, and I don’t want to see you squander it.” I rolled my eyes, sick of having this exact same conversation over and over again. My father just never seemed to get the fact that I was serious about playing ball—it wasn’t just a hobby for me. I wanted to pursue it as much as I could, and I had my sights set on playing for the NFL one day. I was on a solid team at RMU, and my performance over the last two years had helped us secure a lot of victories. I’d even seen scouts at the games a few times, pointing at me and talking in hushed whispers. I wasn’t stupid; I knew it took a lot to get recruited by a major league team, but still, I kept my hopes up. On top of that, I’d actually been offered a scholarship to pay for my degree if I played for RMU, seeing as it was a Division I school in the NCAA, so it wasn’t like Dad was even paying for my college studies, which he so often tried to imply by saying things like ‘I’ve allowed you to play’ and so on. ‘Allowed me’, my ass. I’d earned that scholarship money myself, through hard work and dedication to my sport. “I guess you won’t be coming to my next game, then,” I said. “Of course I’m coming. Wouldn’t look good if I didn’t, would it?” he replied. I snorted. Of course. As a state senator, every public moment for my father was an opportunity to make himself look like a community-minded family man, so I guess it made sense that he’d want to watch my games, if only for the chance to be seen by community members who might have to choose between him and other candidates one day. A presidential election was actually coming up soon, and a few candidates had already thrown their hats in the ring. I was sure Dad was going to go for it as well, although so far, nothing had been announced. “Whatever. I need to take a shower,” I said, cutting the conversation short. “All right. Oh, and by the way, Charlotte and Evan have decided to cook dinner for everyone tonight. It’d be nice if you could help them.” I grunted a response and headed for the bathroom, knowing exactly what he meant. He wanted me to bond with Charlotte, seeing as we were going to be stepsiblings soon, so forcing us to spend time together in the kitchen was one way of accomplishing that. There was no point trying to get us to be friends, though.

Given the way Charlotte treated me these days, that ship had sailed a long time ago. *** “Could you please pass me the mushrooms, Cade?” I put down the raw chicken breasts I’d been about to cut, grabbed the brown paper bag of mushrooms from next to me and passed them to Charlotte. She mumbled a ‘thanks’ before turning back to her chopping board and slicing them up. We were making chicken cacciatore for dinner, and so far, there’d barely been a word spoken between us, which I was fine with. As long as she didn’t insult me or stare daggers at me, then I could tolerate being in the kitchen with her. On the other side of the island counter, Evan was chopping some parsley, and he looked over at me. “Don’t worry about chopping the chicken too much,” he said. “The recipe book says that if we’re using breasts instead of thighs, then the pieces should be pretty large.” “So you’re saying you want some large breasts?” My little brother grinned. “God, you literally have the most immature sense of humor in the world. I can’t believe you’re the older brother.” “Says the kid who’s still obsessed with rockets at the age of fourteen.” “Hey, aerospace engineering is totally awe….ow, shit!” I looked up. “What happ—oh, fuck. Don’t move.” He must’ve slipped with his sharp herb knife somehow, because blood was spurting out of his hand and all over the island counter. I made a beeline for him with some paper towels, but Charlotte was closer, and she got there first. “Oh crap, I sliced it right open!” Evan said, wincing in pain and clutching his hand in the other. Charlotte asked to take a look, and then she nodded. “It’s pretty deep, yeah, but it’ll be okay,” she said in a soothing tone, patting his shoulder. “Cade, grab a wad of that paper towel, and hold it over the cut. Press really hard.” I did as she said, and she nodded. “Yep, just like that. Apply a lot of pressure. That’ll help stop the bleeding for now.” “He can’t hold it forever, though,” Evan said, wincing again. “I know. That’s why I’m going to do this,” she replied, reaching into a kitchen drawer. She pulled out a clean dishcloth and held it up. “Okay, keep holding the paper towel there, Cade. I’m going to tie this cloth around his hand and tightly secure it over the cut to hold the paper towel in place for now, so just keep it there until I say so.” With that, she wrapped the dishcloth around Evan’s hand and began to tighten it around it, and when she said ‘go’ I quickly pulled my hand away from where I’d been applying the pressure. As soon as my fingers were out of the way, she tightened the knot she’d made with the cloth, and it held the wadded-up paper towel in place over the cut, ensuring that no more blood would spill from it for

the time being. I looked at her closely as she tightened it further, making soothing sounds to Evan the whole time. Maybe I’d been wrong about her. She hadn’t turned into a total ice queen bitch over the years; look how she was treating my brother now. Total respect and kindness. It was only me she was nasty to, and there had to be a reason for that. Perhaps the little pranks I’d pulled on her back in school had had a worse effect than I’d intended, and she’d taken it all really seriously rather than as the jokes they were meant to be. After all, young girls could be way more sensitive than young boys. I’d probably been really harsh in assuming that she’d simply overreacted to the whole thing, and I probably owed her an apology. It might not change what I’d done in the past, but it would go a long way in helping her feel better towards me, and perhaps feel better about the past as well. Talk to her, the rational part of my mind said. Even if she still hates you, it’ll be worth it just to clear the air a bit. Emilia and my father burst into the kitchen a moment later, having heard Evan’s shout. “What happened?” Dad asked. “I cut myself,” Evan said, holding up his wrapped hand. “I think it’s going to need stitches,” Charlotte said. “We’ve put pressure on it and wrapped it for now, just to stop the bleeding for now.” “Thank you,” Dad said. “We’ll head to the hospital right now.” “Can Charlotte come?” Evan asked. “Of course, son.” “And Cade?” “I would, buddy, but someone needs to clean this up,” I said, nodding to the blood-streaked counter. It was a dirty job, and I didn’t want Charlotte or Emilia to end up doing it. “I’ll finish making dinner too.” I watched them all head out of the kitchen, and Charlotte looked at me over her shoulder. Surprisingly, she gave me a faint half-smile, and I smiled back and waved. I definitely needed to talk to her….I just had to figure out a way to say everything I needed to say.

Chapter Seven Cade “And it looks like the game is all but done, folks. The RMU Bighorns have possession and the Denver State Bears are out of timeouts. The Bighorns are up by 19 to the Bears’ 14, and I’ve gotta say, it really looks like it’s over, wouldn’t you agree, Stan?” I took a deep breath, trying to drown out the commentator’s words. He was right; we were up by five points, and the Bears had no more timeouts, so it was looking like an easy win. The crowd was expecting me to simply kneel the ball and end the play to preserve our victory, but that wasn’t going to happen. We could score more points and really destroy Denver State, and on top of that, our coach was quite old-fashioned and hated the concept of kneeling the ball; he saw it as being unsportsmanlike. He’d told me to call our standard Blue-62 play if this occurred, and our fullback, Ben Naylor shook his head as we discussed the play in our huddle. “Don’t give it to me,” he said. “Just kneel it, man.” “Coach Chandler was pissed as hell when I changed the play in the last quarter. Even threatened to take me off the field and send our second-string QB on.” “Chandler’s a fucking control freak,” Ben replied. “Screw that. Just kneel the ball, run out the clock and call it a day.” I could tell that he and at least half of my other teammates were on the same wavelength as the commentators—to them, the game was already over, and we’d won fair and square. Coach Chandler was a hard-ass, though, and I couldn’t be fucked sitting through another one of his stern lectures for not doing everything his way. I’d already changed things around a lot in this game and shirked his advice, and while that had worked out decently, I knew I was skating on thin ice with him. “We’ve got a chance to really wreck the Bears, guys…19-14 is great, but we can do better.” “Fine.” Ben grunted his acquiescence at me, but I could tell his heart wasn’t entirely in it. As long as he continued to play well, though, his attitude didn’t matter. We broke the huddle and moved to take our positions, and I briefly glanced out at the crowd in our college stadium. Charlotte was sitting with Emilia, Evan and Dad, and I could tell she’d been forced to come along in support. Even from here, I could tell she was bored as hell; sport obviously wasn’t her kinda thing. The last week and a half had been interesting. I still hadn’t decided on exactly how to broach the subject of our past, so I’d been biding my time while I thought on the best way to do it, and funnily enough, she’d been acting quite differently around me even though I had barely said a word to her. She wasn’t being cagey or hostile anymore; she was simply being quiet and polite. A few times, I’d caught her staring at me, and on another couple of occasions, she’d approached me and opened her

mouth to say something, then seemingly succumbed to stage-fright and mumbled something else instead—something generic like ‘nice day, today, huh?’ even though the weather had been shitty as hell over the last few weeks. It almost seemed like she wanted to talk to me just as much as I wanted to talk to her, but she was equally confused as to how to start things off. The play started, and I tried to hand the ball off to Ben. Unfortunately, looking over at Charlotte earlier had distracted me, and she was playing on my mind so much that I suddenly couldn’t play the fucking game properly. I fumbled the pass, and the ball grazed Ben’s side instead of flying right into his grip. “Shit!” The Bears had chosen to blitz us as part of their defensive strategy, and with horror, I saw one of their cornerbacks snatch the ball up instead. Fuck. If I’d listened to Ben and simply kneeled it, the game would’ve been over in seconds, and we’d have secured our victory. Now the Bears had possession of the ball, and their CB was charging up the field with it. Shit, shit, shit. If he scored a touchdown and a try for them, then they would win with twenty-one points to our nineteen. I started running after him, but I’d spent too many seconds recovering from my shitty fumble, and it was unlikely that I’d catch up. Faster, I told my legs as I dashed up the field in pursuit. Faster! Two of my teammates had reacted quicker than me, and that was our saving grace—they were already much closer to the CB who had possession of the ball than I was. Two of them knocked into him, and he fumbled the ball just as I finally caught up. Thank fucking god… I caught the ball, then turned around and fucking legged it to the other end of the field, running it in for a touchdown. Our supporters in the crowd went wild, whooping and cheering, and the commentators crowed out our victory as we ran into the middle and patted each other on the backs. “That was fucking lucky, man,” Ben said to me, his eyes narrowed. “I know, I know,” I replied, holding my hands up. “You were right, I should’ve just kneeled it instead of calling that play. It was a shitty play. And I shouldn’t have made such a shitty pass.” His face softened, and I could tell he was happy to hear my apology. A lot of quarterbacks were arrogant sons of bitches who didn’t like admitting when they were wrong, but one thing I’d learned in life was to admit when I’d fucked up and take responsibility for it. I’d well and truly fucked up today, and it had been a total fluke that we’d won—if the Bears’ CB hadn’t fumbled the ball after our teammates knocked into him, then I wouldn’t have been able to grab it and prevent their victory. Looking into the crowd again, I saw Charlotte smiling down at me before turning to Evan and chatting to him. I grinned back at her and waved, and suddenly I had an idea. We had a victory tradition for home games here, which entailed the player who’d scored the most points throwing the ball to the crowd. Whoever managed to catch it was allowed to come and meet all the players and hang out with us in the locker rooms for a while. Usually it was just diehard college football fans who wanted an opportunity to do so, or high school football players who wanted to hang with us and ask what it was like to play at a more serious level. However, my plan involved throwing the ball to Charlotte.

If she caught it, then she’d have to come hang out with me and my teammates. It’d be a good chance for her to have fun and meet some new people here—she’d already started at her transferred course at RMU, but I wasn’t sure if she’d made many friends yet—and it’d also be an opportunity for me to spend time with her. Seeing as I was on a euphoric high from our win, I suddenly felt like I knew all the right things to say to her to bring up all our shit from the past in a decent way, and I picked up the ball and nodded at my teammates. “I’m gonna make the victory throw now, guys.” “Sweet. Aim it at that hot blonde,” one of the guys said, pointing at a skinny blonde in the front row. “Wouldn’t mind showing her a thing or two….about the game, of course.” I laughed, then shook my head. “Mind if I throw it to my new stepsister instead?” I asked. “You have a new stepsister?” “Almost. Our parents are getting married in six weeks.” “Cool. Go ahead.” I dashed a bit closer to where Charlotte was sitting. She was looking right at me, and I grinned. “Hey, Charlotte! Catch!” I called out, before throwing the ball towards her. To my horror, she looked away from me just before I yelled out the words, and she began to say something to Evan. Evan frantically waved a hand at her to try and get her attention, but he wasn’t as quick as the ball, which flew over and smacked Charlotte right in the side of the head. Oh, fuck…

Chapter Eight Charlotte Son of a bitch. My head ached like hell, and I brought my hand up to rub where the football had just smacked against it. What the hell was Cade doing? We’d been relatively civil with each other for the past week or so—well, as civil as two people can be when they are barely communicating with each other —but now he’d gone and ditched a damn football right at my head like some kind of maniac. “Are you okay, Charlotte?” Mom asked, her eyes wide with concern. After bouncing off my head, the ball had fallen to the ground next to me, and some student fans were fighting over it next to me, as if getting the ball was some sort of achievement. “Um…yeah…god, that hurt, though,” I replied, wincing as my fingers found the sorest part. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Cade lingering on the field, staring at me, and I was struck by an urge to jump over the little barrier and smack him in the head with the ball—see how he liked it. I hadn’t exactly been excited about coming to this game in the first place, because football had never really appealed to me very much, but by the end of the fourth quarter, I’d been hooked. The way things had turned around so fast, and then turned back again, had been gripping as hell, and I’d almost jumped up and cheered when Cade scored the winning touchdown. But now….now all I wanted to do was score a touchdown on his face with my fists. Violent, perhaps, but I’d practically just been concussed with a ball, so I was allowed to be a bit mad. “I’m going to go splash some water on my face. Might make me feel a bit better,” I mumbled, standing up as I saw Cade jogging over to where we were sitting. “Charlotte!” I heard him calling out after me as I walked away, but I hastily slipped into the crowd and made my way to the nearest bathroom in the RMU stadium. The place was impressively large, and it was right next to the main campus, so I’d already taken a walk around here just two days ago to get my bearings and have a look around. I’d finally started classes again after taking a few days to sort through all my stuff at the house, and while attending a new college and getting used to new professors and students was difficult, I was glad for the distraction. Whenever I’d been at home over the last week, I’d been mentally caught up with Cade and trying to figure out how to talk to him, and I kept chickening out. Whenever I pictured the conversation in my head, it all seemed so petty and lame. Hey, Cade, I was just wondering if we could chat about something that happened when we were thirteen. Yeah, that sounded ridiculous. As a result, every time I’d gotten near him this week, I’d opened my mouth to say something and then practically run away from him. He probably thought I was bat-shit insane at this point, and I

couldn’t blame him. Then again, he’s the prick who just whacked a ball in your face, I reminded myself. I splashed my face with some cold water from a basin in the bathroom, and then my phone buzzed in my bag. I unlocked it and frowned as I saw an unfamiliar number flashing across the screen, alerting me to a new text message. Hey, it’s Cade. Got your number from your Mom. Sorry about the ball. Didn’t mean to hit you with it. I was actually hoping you’d catch it. We have this tradition thingy...I’ll explain later. Anyway, hope you’re feeling okay, and if you want, I’d like to show you around the team rooms and introduce you to everyone. I sighed and stared at the screen, not knowing what to say in response. He’d apologized, which was decent of him, but my aching skull was putting me in a foul mood, and I really couldn’t be bothered going back and talking to him or meeting any new people when I was in such a state. And what on earth was this tradition he’d mentioned? Was throwing things at unsuspecting girls really an RMU football tradition? I shut my phone off and walked out of the bathroom and towards the main parking lot, intent on heading home so I could get some Tylenol and rest for a while. I’d driven here separately in my new car, because Mom and Keith were apparently going to some political mixer later, and I suddenly remembered that I’d promised to drive Evan home with me. Turning around, I walked back the way I’d come so I could go and get him, and I heard a familiar voice coming from a vestibule as I passed what appeared to be a media conference room that wasn’t currently in use. “So the one we hired…Adams, was it? He’s been briefed on what needs to be done?” It was Keith, and I remembered that he’d left the bleachers just before the end of the game to take a phone call. I paused for a second as I registered his words, wondering who he’d been talking to for so long. “Good. Yes, I’m just at RMU Stadium for Cade’s game. Don’t worry, there’s no one around, they’re all still down at the field,” he continued. “Uh-huh. And you’re getting him the burner? Good, good. All right, Greg, talk later.” I wrinkled my brows. I knew what a burner phone was. It was a prepaid phone that people could use and then easily dispose of without having their name tied to a phone contract. They were common amongst criminals—I knew that from watching reruns of The Wire whenever I was sick—but I also knew from political dramas that journalists could benefit from having a disposable number too, especially those with ties to politics who wanted inside scoops. Mom had told me that Keith was considering a bid for presidency in the next election, so I guess it would make sense if he was lining up journalists to have in his pocket. Feeding reporters information about opponents via burner phones was an easy way to smear the opposition without making it look like the information came from their campaign, and I guess it didn’t surprise me that Keith was just like almost every other politician out there, doing anything to win even if it was a little shady and unethical. I shrugged and quietly walked on, figuring I needed to mind my own business. Right now, my only real pressing business was this damn splitting headache, and if I didn’t get home and get some

painkillers as soon as possible, I was sure my head would explode right off my shoulders. That stupid damn ball. As I recalled the pain and subsequent embarrassment of having the football hit me, I remembered the look on Cade’s face just seconds before he threw it, when I’d still been looking at him. He’d flashed a heart-melting grin right at me in those few seconds, and my heart had fluttered like mad until I remembered who he was and abruptly turned away to distract myself in conversation with Evan. No more. Cade could look at me however he wanted and say whatever he wanted from now on, and I wasn’t going to respond at all. I wouldn’t let myself be affected by him. I couldn’t. Not now, not ever again.

Chapter Nine Cade “Dude, you actually hit her right in the head?” I nodded at my friend Nicki, and she snorted with laughter. “Jesus, no wonder she hates you!” “It’s not funny,” I protested. “She hasn’t spoken to me since it happened yesterday.” “Probably because she has a concussion and forgot how to form a coherent sentence.” I rolled my eyes. “Fine, fine, laugh away, but seriously, I have to do something about this. She already can’t stand me from when we were kids, and now she probably thinks I’m trying to kill her.” Nicki arched an eyebrow. “You knew each other when you were kids?” “Yeah. We went to school together until the seventh grade.” “And she hated you?” “Apparently. Claims I made her life hell,” I replied. “Did you?” I sighed and told her everything I knew—how I’d given Charlotte a bit of crap by playing pranks on her, but nothing life-ruining as far as I knew. Nicki was one of my best female friends. She was close with all my guy friends too, and was pretty much known as ‘one of the guys’ even though she could be quite feminine in some regards. She was always around to give us girl advice whenever any of us admitted we needed it—which was rare —and after the ball debacle yesterday, I definitely needed it. I’d tried to explain things to Charlotte via text after she’d run away from the bleachers before I could say anything, but she hadn’t replied, and when I returned home last night, she’d already been locked away in her room. She’d also left the house first thing this morning, before I was even awake, so I hadn’t had a chance to speak to her and apologize properly. Nicki glanced over at Blake, who was sitting with us in the quad at RMU, and then looked back at me when I finished speaking. “So you wanna hear a female opinion on this, right?” “Always.” “Girls can be way more sensitive than guys at that age. Trust me, I remember being a kid, and boys are pretty much socially conditioned to be all tough and insensitive. It’s the opposite for girls; they’re shown and told that they should be sensitive and nurturing. So both the sexes internalize those things, and bam….a lot of boys end up being tough little shits, and girls often end up being more emotional and sensitive.” “Thanks for the sociology lecture, Professor,” Blake interjected, grinning. She whacked him with a file. “I’m serious! I’m not saying it’s a good thing. It’s crap,” she said, still looking at me. “But what I’m saying is, maybe Charlotte is just way more sensitive than you

think. Or at least she was, all those years ago. Maybe you actually really upset her by….what was it…putting spiders in her desk?” “Toy spiders. And toy rats.” “Whatever. Maybe she saw that as serious bullying back then, I don’t know.” I sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. I just don’t know how the hell to ask her about it so I can apologize properly.” She rolled her eyes. “Jeez, for guys who are meant to be tough, you football players are a bunch of pussies. Just talk to her! Don’t worry about finding the perfect words or whatever. Just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, Charlotte, sorry for being a prick in junior school. Can you please outline every single thing that upset you, so I can apologize for each individual incident and clear the air?’ See? Easy.” I shrugged. “I dunno, that seems kinda awkward.” “Of course it’s fucking awkward, you’re talking about stuff that happened in grade school. But if it helps the situation and makes her feel better about being your stepsister soon, then you’ve gotta do it.” “True.” Her face brightened. “Hey, I have an idea!” “What?” She turned to Blake. “Your Dad still owns that ski resort up in the mountains near Silverton Falls right?” He nodded. “Uh-huh.” “And it’s already snowing up there, right?” Blake grinned. “Yeah, dummy, it’s pretty much always snowing up there on the mountain. Ski season all year round up in Silverton Falls, that’s the resort’s slogan.” Nicki turned back to me. “So why don’t a bunch of us go up there this weekend? Me, you, some of my girls, and some of the guys from the team.” “Erm….what’s that got to do with Charlotte?” “Invite her along. That way she’ll get to make some new friends, go skiing, and have some drinks. I bet that’s half the reason she’s so grumpy; she doesn’t know anyone here yet. At least not properly.” “Hm, maybe. I dunno if she’d really be interested in that, though.” “One way to find out,” Blake said, jerking his thumb over to the right. “She’s right over there.” I turned to see Charlotte heading out of the main campus library, and Nicki let out a wolf-whistle and waved. “Hey! Charlotte, right?” Charlotte looked confused for a second, and then she spotted me. I expected her to turn and walk away, but instead a faint smile crossed her face, and she trudged over to us. She was wearing black boots, black jeans and a faded purple knit sweater with a camel-colored coat over the top to shield her from the freezing air. Despite all the layers, I could still make out the curves of her hips, ass and tits underneath. Christ, I wanted to tear all those clothes right off… “Hey,” she said. Her sweet voice sent a sugary trickle of desire down my spine.

“Hey, I’m Nicki. I’m a friend of Cade’s,” Nicki said, standing up and taking her hand before I could say anything. “And this is Blake. We kinda just found him on the side of the road.” “Hey!” Blake said with a grin, elbowing Nicki. “I’m actually on the football team with Cade,” he added, holding his hand out to Charlotte as well. “Nice to meet you guys,” she replied as she shook hands, giving me a vaguely suspicious glance. “I’m really sorry about your head,” I said. “Again, it was an accident.” “Yeah, I know. Evan explained your whole end-of-game tradition to me when we drove home last night,” she said. “It’s okay. I should’ve paid more attention, then maybe I would’ve noticed the ball flying at my head.” “Oh. Glad he explained it. But sorry anyway.” “Well, now that that’s all settled, why don’t you ask her?” Nicki said, waving her hand at me. “Ask me what?” Charlotte asked. Nicki continued before I could even get another word in. “We’re thinking of going up to Blake’s Dad’s ski resort this weekend for some partying; a whole bunch of us. We thought you might wanna come too.” Charlotte’s eyes widened, and she looked down at the ground. “Um…I don’t want to get in anyone’s way…” she said softly, fidgeting with the buttons on her coat. Nicki grinned. “Don’t be silly! I want you to come. You won’t be getting in anyone’s way. Cade’s kinda like a brother to me, and you’re going to be his stepsister soon, so I totally need to get to know my new sis, right?” Charlotte gave me a nervous glance, as if she were expecting this invitation to be some sort of joke that would blow up in her face if she agreed to it. “Come,” I said with a nod. “I promise there’ll be no balls being thrown at you.” “At least not by Cade,” Blake said. “But keep an eye out for Ben…you’re just his type, and he’d probably love to throw his balls in your—” “Blake!” Nicki said, elbowing him. “Sorry, Charlotte, Blake’s sense of humor is even more immature than your stepbrother’s. But seriously, please come. It’ll be so much fun. I’ll even make mulled wine!” Finally, Charlotte smiled and nodded shyly. “Okay. That’d be nice. I haven’t really met many new people here yet, aside from some in my classes.” “Great! This’ll be the perfect chance to get to know more people,” Nicki said, smiling brightly. “Give me your number, and I’ll text you all the details. I would get Cade to tell you, but you can’t really trust guys to do anything properly, right?” Nicki stuck her tongue out at me, and Charlotte’s smile grew wider. “Right.” She pulled her phone out as Nicki gabbed away at her about the ski resort and how much fun our weekend trip was going to be, and I grinned at Blake as he nudged me. “You know, I just realized, Charlotte looks a lot like that chick you hooked up with at the hotel that night.”

My smile faded, and I grunted out a noncommittal answer. Shit. I’d forgotten that a few of my buddies were there that night and had seen me with her, drinking and playing pool before disappearing upstairs together. Luckily, Blake didn’t seem to have realized that ‘hotel girl’ and Charlotte were one and the same, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief as he changed the subject to something else. My little secret was safe….for now.

Chapter Ten Charlotte A small branch banged against my window from the wind, waking me up, and I sat up in bed, trying to get my bearings. I wiped the grogginess from my eyes and yawned, looking around the room, and upon glancing at my clock, I saw that it was midnight—I’d only been asleep for two hours. Goose bumps peppered my skin, so I peeled off my blankets and stepped out of bed before padding over to the window, which I’d forgotten to close earlier. Before I shut it all the way, I felt just how cold it was outside; a biting chill, and I realized that it had just begun to snow. I watched the small white flakes falling down, transfixed. It’d never snowed this early in the year back in Philly, and I smiled and put my hand out, waiting for a snowflake to flutter down and settle on my hand. As I did so, I saw Cade’s car pull up the driveway and into the garage. I had no idea where he’d been so late, but I assumed he’d been out drinking with the friends I’d met earlier at college. They’d seemed really nice, and they’d invited me on a trip to a ski resort this weekend, which I was simultaneously excited and nervous about. I’d never been on any sort of getaway like that, and while I knew it might be awkward spending so much time in such close proximity with Cade, given our recent history, I also knew it was a great opportunity to put myself out there and make some new friends. So far in my classes, I’d met a few people, but I hadn’t made any close connections with anyone yet. Nicki seemed very interested in getting to know me, though, so I was looking forward to hanging out with her—even if I only ended up making one new friend in her, then that was good enough for me. I watched Cade get out of his car and trudge up to the front door, and I quickly slipped away from my window and closed it, not wanting him to see me in my silly pink and white sheep-patterned pajamas. I flicked the heater on and climbed back into bed, but as I settled under the blankets, I didn’t even need any external objects to keep me warm. The mere thought of Cade was doing the job for me; just the memory of the way he’d looked at me today was making all kinds of nervous tingles shoot up my spine, and a distinct wet heat was spreading between my legs. Damn….I couldn’t sleep now. I reached under the blankets and slid my pajama pants down, and then I tentatively stroked the area between my legs, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to relax again until my urges were satisfied. My thighs were cold, but the rest of me was on fire, and I bit my lower lip and moved my hand directly to my core. Heat spilled from every pore as I began to rub the pad of my index finger over and around my clit, and dizziness fogged my head as I pictured Cade between my legs instead, licking and sucking like he had on that night at the hotel. I imagined that we didn’t stop this time, and I pictured him thrusting inside me, burying himself deep in the place I’d secretly wanted him for weeks. In my fantasy, he grunted as his hips slapped into mine, and my legs quivered as I whispered his name.

“Oh, yes….Cade…keep going…” My fingers sped up on my clit, and another rush of wet heat between my legs made me feel distinctly empty. I slid one finger just past my entrance, feeling my warm walls close around it, and then I sighed with bliss as I began to curl it inside myself in a rhythm with the finger that was still deftly working my clit. Pure pleasure exploded inside of me just seconds later, and my body clenched as the orgasm rushed over me, making me want to scream out loud. My bedroom door suddenly burst open, and my eyes snapped open as the light switched on. Cade was no longer in my imagination…he was right here in my room. Shit. “Are you okay?” he asked as I scrambled to pull the blankets all the way over myself. “Um, yes, I’m fine. Why?” I asked. He gave me a funny look. “Because you were calling out for me.” “Huh?” “I was just on my way upstairs and I heard you shouting my name.” Double shit. Had I really been shouting? Sure, I’d been screaming his name in my mind, deep within my fantasy….had it really spilled out of me without me noticing? I sat up, my mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Think, I told myself. I had to come up with some reason as to why I’d been calling his name, or else he’d totally realize what I’d secretly been up to. “I…uhh….yeah, I wanted to ask you something,” I finally said. “Oh. What’s up?” “Erm….do you know where the science library on campus is?” He arched an eyebrow, and my stomach plummeted. Seriously? I mentally chastised myself. That’s the excuse you managed to come up with? “You called me up here at midnight to ask where the science library is?” “Um. Yes,” I said with a nod. “I have an early class tomorrow, and I’m meant to borrow a certain book from that library before I go to it. So…” “It’s near the chem department. Do you know where that is?” I nodded. “Uh-huh.” “You go left after you pass that, assuming you’re heading away from the main library. Then the science library is on the right.” “Cool. Thanks.” “No worries,” he said. “Night.” As he turned away, he still looked a little confused as to why I’d apparently shouted for him to come in here so late to answer such a silly question, and I sighed. “Wait, Cade, can you sit down for a sec?” He turned back to me, a question in his eyes, and I patted the bed. “The library wasn’t the real

reason I called you in here,” I said. Obviously I hadn’t meant to call him in here at all, but now that he was here, I figured now was as good a time as any to chat to him and finally clear the air properly. “I think we need to talk.” He nodded. “Yeah. We do. I’ve actually been wanting to for a while now. I just…” “Didn’t know what to say?” “Something like that.” He sat down on the side of my bed, and I took a deep breath. “I feel like I should explain myself to you,” I began. “The way I acted in the hotel that morning, and the way I’ve been ever since then.” He nodded. “Okay. I want to talk about that too,” he said. “But you go first. I want to hear your side.” I was silent for a few seconds, and then I opened up and began to tell him my story. I told him how I hadn’t been bothered by the earlier incidents of teasing when we were little kids, and that I’d known it was all in good fun. I told him how he’d finally taken things too far in the seventh grade with that awful prank—provided it was actually him who’d done it—and how that incident had haunted me for years afterwards, making everyone else view me as an outcast loser who deserved to be mocked and bullied. I told him how difficult high school had been as a result, how miserable things had been for me, and how I hadn’t had any friends for years until I’d finally started to stand up for myself and confront the bullies. I told him everything. Cade listened to every word, nodding as I spoke, and my voice began to falter as I drew to a close. “So I know I overreacted, and I know this is something I should just get over, because I’m not in school anymore, and I should be acting like an adult. But…but I was so hurt by all the stuff that happened to me, and seeing you again just reminded me of it all. So I flipped out.” Cade was silent for a long moment, and then he reached over and grabbed my hand. “Charlotte… firstly, I’m so sorry that happened to you. I had no idea what school was like for you after the seventh grade, because I wasn’t there, but shit….I wish it had been better.” I nodded and looked down as tears threatened to spill from my eyes, and he continued. “And secondly, I know you have no reason to believe me, because you’ve spent so long thinking it was me, and I know I did pull a bunch of pranks on you and tease you, which doesn’t work very well in my favor….but that seventh grade shit wasn’t me.” My head jerked up. “It…it wasn’t?” He shook his head. “Fuck no. I’d never do that. I can’t believe that bitch actually told you it was me and let you think that for so long.” My whole body suddenly felt numb, and I let him keep talking. “It was that girl who sat next to you in that class. Lanie, remember her? She was always jealous of the grades you got; always went around bitching and calling you a teacher’s pet. A few times she tried to start bullshit rumors about you, but I shut them down.” My eyes widened, and I wiped away a stray tear. “You did?” “Yep. Then she did that nasty shit with your chair—I found out afterwards because I heard her

bragging about it. And I guess she blamed me for it. I never knew that part. But I did try to help make it right. Remember that friend of mine who called out that period crap when you stood up?” “Yeah. How could I forget?” I said through gritted teeth. “Well, this might not have been the most mature response, but I beat the crap out of him at lunch that day and told him I’d do it again if he ever said any more shit to you. And I tried to stop the other kids from saying stuff about you too. But kids are kids….they were all pricks. There was only so much I could do.” I shook my head. “I don’t get it. You were trying to help me?” “Of course I was. I liked you. Had a huge crush on you, actually. I even went looking for you a bunch of times in the library after I saw how shitty your friends were being by ditching you after that nasty prank. I wanted to see if you wanted to talk about it or hang out.” “I used to hide whenever I saw you coming. That’s why you couldn’t find me,” I said softly. “I assumed you were just coming to give me more crap.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Jesus….all these years and you thought I wanted to hurt you so much. I’m so sorry, Charlotte.” “No, I’m sorry. I believed Lanie when she told me it was you, instead of—” Cade lifted his hand and cut me off. “Of course you did. You had every reason to, considering all the other pranks I used to play on you, and that awful nickname I made up for you in the fourth grade.” “Charlotte the Harlot,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Yeah. I’m so sorry if I hurt you with all that teasing, Charlotte. I never meant to. I thought it was all harmless, and I just wanted your attention, but I was too immature and stupid to realize you might be taking it all to heart.” “You were just a kid,” I said. “And it was mostly harmless until that seventh grade thing, which wasn’t even you anyway, apparently.” He nodded and sighed. “I’m sorry anyway. For everything. And I just want to say something else, if you don’t mind.” “Shoot.” “I don’t think it was immature of you to react the way you did to me. Stuff that happens when you’re a kid can seriously fuck you up and affect you for years, even once you’re an adult. And I can tell that all the shit that happened to you in high school really did leave some scars. Like earlier today, when Nicki invited you to our skiing weekend….you looked scared. You looked like you were afraid it was all a lie.” I nodded. “I was scared. I have this lingering suspicion with people, that they’re all just going to treat me how I used to be treated. So I always have it in the back of my mind that I’m the butt of everyone’s joke, and when your friends talked to me and invited me on that trip, I couldn’t help but think for a few seconds….is this a joke? If I say yes, are they just going to laugh in my face and say I was never really invited?” “That’s exactly what I mean. I can see how badly it hurt you; how everyone treated you back then. I wish I’d been there to help. But I promise, you aren’t a joke, and I won’t let anyone treat you like

you are one ever again,” he said. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not a victim anymore. I won’t let anyone treat me like that again.” He sighed. “I know you’ve built up this tough shell over the last few years, and you act like you don’t need any help from anyone, but there’s no shame in accepting some help sometimes. And I’m gonna be your brother soon, so if anyone should stick up for you, it should be me.” More tears welled up in my eyes at that, and Cade gently patted me on the shoulder as I let all the emotions out, sobbing into my hands. It had taken me years to get to this moment, and while I felt like shit now, I was glad it was over, and I knew that when I woke up tomorrow, I’d feel a hell of a lot better. Finally, I wiped my face and looked up at Cade. “I’m really glad we talked this out,” I said. “And I’m sorry we didn’t sooner.” “Me too. And I meant what I said. I’m never gonna let anyone give you shit ever again.” “In that case, there’s someone I’d like you to beat up for me. There’s this guy I know, and he threw a football at my head at the game last night,” I said with a teasing grin. Cade chuckled. “Sounds like a real prick. Is he as ugly as I’m picturing him?” “Yes, absolutely hideous.” We both laughed at that, and then I spoke up again. “Do you…um…do you think we should also talk about what happened between us that night?” “At the hotel?” I nodded meekly. “Yeah.” He was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. Finally he looked back at me. “I won’t lie, Charlotte, it was fucking good. But…” “But our parents are getting married in six weeks.” “Yeah. And even though we’ve sorted out our issues now, as much as I’d like to pick up where we left off—” “Where we left off when I puked my guts up all over the place.” He chuckled at the memory. “Yeah. As much as I’d like to, I don’t want to hurt my Dad. He can be a fucking asshole sometimes, but he was really hurt when my Mom left us. So I’d hate to screw up his relationship with your mother and let him be hurt again.” I nodded slowly. “Same,” I replied. “So just friends?” “Sure.” We jokingly shook on it, and I couldn’t ignore the tingles that shot up and down my spine as our hands clasped together. I knew it was better this way; knew we couldn’t be anything more than friends…but lord, I wanted more than friendship from him now that I knew the truth about him. He was a truly decent guy, albeit one with a cruddy sense of humor, and I was lucky that he’d been so understanding of my situation. Others might not have been. “I should let you get some sleep,” he said, finally standing up. “You’ve got that early class and

all.” “Oh. Yeah.” “Stay warm. It’s started snowing out.” “Yeah, I saw.” He walked halfway to the door before stopping and turning to me, and he looked like he was about to say something else. Instead, he hesitated for a few seconds too long, then nodded at me. “Night, Charlotte.” Then he was gone, and I was all alone in my bed again.

Chapter Eleven Charlotte “I’ve never done this before…what if it hurts me? Or what if I suck at it really badly?” I said, anxiously chewing my lower lip. Cade chuckled softly from behind me, and his grip on my shoulders loosened slightly as he leaned forward. “Look, I’ll be honest. It might hurt the first few times, and you probably will suck at it. But then you’ll get the hang of it after a few tries, and it’ll feel amazing.” I nodded and glanced down at the long, hard pole in my right hand again. “Okay. I trust you.” An icy cold gust of wind blew past us on the mountain slope, and Cade trudged up to stand by my side instead of behind me. “Just remember to move your feet how I told you,” he said, motioning to the skis on his feet. “If you feel like you’re going too fast, move your feet like this….pizza. If you wanna speed up, move them like this….French fries.” “Pizza for slow, French fries for faster. Got it,” I replied. “And if I crash into a tree and seriously hurt myself, I can sue you, right?” “Good luck suing me when you’re wedged halfway inside a tree.” I snorted. “Meanie. Okay, you go first.” “All right. Just do exactly what we discussed and follow me. This is the bunny slope, so you’ll be fine.” Cade winked, pulled his snow goggles down and then took off down the slope, and I nervously followed, hoping to dear god that I didn’t go ass over teakettle. I’d been ice-skating before, but never skiing, and it was worlds apart. Cade had done it loads of times, though, and he’d been running me through all the techniques and giving me demonstrations on the slopes all morning. It was Saturday, and we’d been at the Silverton Falls ski resort with a group of Cade’s friends since yesterday afternoon. Keith and my mother had been totally fine with us taking off on a trip together; in fact, I think they were glad to see us finally getting along and wanting to spend time together. We’d driven up together in Cade’s car, and met up with the rest of the group up at the cabins we’d been generously given by Blake’s Dad for the weekend. I was staying in a cabin with Nicki and a couple of her friends, Amy and Talia, and so far, I’d had a great time getting to know them along with the rest of Cade’s friends from the football team, who were staying in other cabins. Peak vacation season hadn’t hit yet, so the resort wasn’t very busy, and we had several entire ski slopes to ourselves. Yesterday afternoon had been spent racing each other down the slopes on sleds, and last night had been spent lounging around in the cabins, sipping on hot chocolate and mulled wine. At first I’d still been a little nervous about hanging around a group of people who I didn’t know— especially when half the group was made up of rowdy athletes—but it had gone really well. Everyone had been kind and welcoming, and Nicki was especially nice. We were planning on having a wilder night tonight, with a party in one of the main cabins, but I

didn’t plan on drinking very much. After all, last time I’d had too much alcohol, I’d ended up….well, you know what happened. It was gross, to say the least, and I didn’t want a repeat of that incident. “Woo!” I screamed as I reached the halfway point of the slope, closely trailing Cade. So far I hadn’t slipped up, and I was still on two feet. “This is so much fun!” “Told you so!” Cade called back from up ahead. “Next, we’ll go up to the…” His voice trailed off in the wind as a chilly gust blew past me, and I called out. “What?” But he couldn’t hear me now; he’d sped up a bit, and I’d accidentally pushed my skis into the ‘pizza’ position and slowed down. I corrected myself by pushing them into a more outward position, but then I began to race really fast, and I realized I’d overcorrected. “Crap….” I tried my best to slow down again, but I’d already gained too much momentum, and I was gaining on Cade pretty fast. “Cade…watch out!” I cried, as every bit of skiing knowledge that I’d recently learned went flying out of my head. “I think I might crash!” I tried digging in both of my ski poles in a last ditch attempt to stop before I crashed right into him, but all that did was make me stop abruptly and then fly right into him from the inertia. “Sorry!” I shouted as we collided. The speed I hit him with knocked him off course, and he fell over, taking me right down to the ground with him. We tumbled a few times until I was on my back in the snow, breathless and giggling. Cade had somehow ended up right on top of me, and he pulled his snow goggles up and grinned at me. “You trying to kill me out here?” “That was the plan,” I said. “Seriously, though, I’m sorry. I was going too fast.” “No worries. It was your first time. You’ll get better.” The laughter died from my lips and my smile faded as I suddenly became all too aware of the fact that Cade was on top of me, his body wedged between my legs. Even though I was lying in the freezing snow, warmth was quickly blossoming in my body, and my breath was taken away as I looked at his chest. Even under the thick winter gear he was wearing, I could see how powerfullybuilt he was, and his bulky shoulders looked like mountains. Hot wetness filled the space between my thighs, and I noticed a distinct hunger in Cade’s eyes as well. “I need to get up,” I said, pushing on his hard chest. “Er…yeah, of course. It’s freezing down here in the snow,” he said, getting to his feet and helping me up, which was no mean feat considering we were both wearing skis. As I brushed snowflakes off my jacket and pants, I glanced around and realized that we’d made it all the way to the bottom of the hill. There was a small café near us, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nicki looking over at me and Cade. Her eyes were narrowed slightly, giving her a suspicious air, and I trudged over to her, hoping she hadn’t gotten the wrong impression. “Hey!” I said, trying to sound breezy and innocent. “Hey,” she replied. I didn’t know if it was just my imagination, but I thought I detected a hint of frostiness in her voice. “You two are looking very close this morning.” She nodded towards Cade, who was speaking to Blake over by the ski lift now, and I forced a smile. “Oh, yeah, I accidentally crashed right into him and we tumbled all the way down. Our skis

almost got locked together from the crash,” I said, maintaining my lighthearted tone. “So stupid.” She stared at me for another few seconds without a reply, and then she smiled. “Yeah, I’ve done that before,” she said. “Except last time I did it, I broke my damn leg!” “Oh, that sucks. When was that?” I asked, relieved that the conversation had taken a turn away from the awkward. At first I’d thought she’d somehow seen the chemistry between me and Cade as we lay entwined in the snow, but she seemed to have dropped the subject pretty quickly, so I was sure she didn’t actually suspect anything. Unless Cade told her about the hotel incident… With horror, I realized that for all I knew, Cade could’ve told all—or at least some— of his friends what had happened between us before we realized our parents were engaged. I excused myself from Nicki and headed over to the ski lift, nervous energy coiling in my stomach. Blake was flirting with Talia now, so I quickly jabbed Cade in the side to get his attention. “Hey. Want another go?” he asked, motioning towards the top of the slope. “Maybe,” I replied. “But I was just wondering something…you didn’t tell anyone about us, right?” “Us?” “The hotel,” I hissed, so that Blake and Talia didn’t overhear. “Of course not,” Cade replied. “Don’t worry, no one knows. Why?” My shoulders slumped with relief. “No reason. It just occurred to me all of a sudden,” I said. “Hey, let’s get on the lift and do another run.” While I was sure none of Cade’s friends would really judge us all that much if they knew what had happened between us that night, I was worried about my mother finding out, and Fairview Ridge wasn’t exactly a massive city. It wasn’t tiny either, but there was surely still some sort of rumor mill, and any one of Cade’s friends could be overheard talking about it if they weren’t careful. But luckily, none of them knew anyway, so there was no need for concern. By the end of the day, my legs and arms were heavy with exhaustion from playing around on the slopes, and I decided to wind down by taking a nice, relaxing hot bath in my cabin. I could hear Nicki, Amy and Talia in the main room next to me, chatting away, and Amy knocked a while later. “Hey, Charlotte, don’t forget, we’re heading over to Blake’s cabin for a party at seven,” she said. Oops, I’d almost forgotten. “Okay, I’ll be out soon!” I called out. “Sorry, did you need the bathroom to get ready?” “No, I was just wondering what you wanted to drink. Talia and I are about to head to the store and pick some stuff up.” “Um, anything is fine, thanks,” I replied, stepping out of the bath and wrapping a towel around myself. I opened the door and smiled at Amy. “I won’t be drinking much anyway,” I added. “Cool. I’ll just pick up some more bottles of red wine for us to share, then,” she said. “Great. There’s some cash in my purse over there,” I replied, pointing to my bedside table. “Take that to help pay for it.”

“Cool. Thanks!” With that, she and Talia headed out of the cabin, and Nicki smiled sweetly at me as I rummaged through my suitcase, looking for something to wear. “Why aren’t you going to drink much?” she said. “You were the same last night; hardly had a drop. We’re meant to be partying this weekend!” “I just can’t handle much alcohol without getting sick,” I said. “I probably have a slower metabolism than most people, or something like that.” “Mm…maybe. So that’s the only reason why?” My smile faltered, and I found myself wondering once again if she actually knew about what had happened between me and Cade that night at the hotel, vomit-fest included. Why else would she be questioning me so much about why I wasn’t drinking? Before I could reply, she shook her head. “Sorry! I totally sound like I’m interrogating you,” she said, waving a hand. “I was just worried you felt a bit left out because you’re new to the group, that’s all.” Crap, of course. I kept forgetting that Cade’s friends were actually nice people, because I was so naturally suspicious of everyone after all the crap I’d gone through when I was younger. I really needed to move on from it and realize that not everyone was out to trash me or hurt me. “I’m fine,” I said, smiling warmly back at Nicki. “Don’t worry, everyone’s been great, and I’ve had heaps of fun so far. Just not a big drinker, that’s all.” “Glad to hear it. Anyway, what are you gonna wear to the party?” “God knows…you might have to help me pick something.” She grinned, and we set about picking our outfits for the night. By the time Amy and Talia had returned from the store, we were all dressed up, and Nicki had even done my hair in a stacked ponytail, which made it look luxuriant and thicker than usual. We waited for Talia to find her favorite lip gloss, and then we headed out into the night, trudging towards Blake’s cabin. Everyone else was already there by the time we arrived, and it looked like the boys had invited a whole bunch of other people as well. “Who’s all this?” I asked as we stepped inside. Nicki shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. We quickly spotted Cade, and she waved at him. “Cade, come here!” He grinned and headed over to us, a beer in his hand. “Nice of you to join us.” “Who are all these people?” “Blake and Ben invited all the people from the main resort down the hill,” he said. “There weren’t that many, but enough to fill up the cabin and have a real party.” “Awesome. Let’s do some shots,” Nicki said, strutting confidently over to a booze table which had been set up on the far right side of the lounge room. Talia and Amy followed her, and I lingered behind to talk to Cade. “Drink?” he asked, holding his beer up. “Not yet.”

“Ah, I forgot, you can’t handle too much booze,” he said with a wink. “Anyway, let’s mingle.” Blake had started a fire in the big stone fireplace at the front of the room, and we hung out near that for a while, soaking up the warmth as the party went on around us. I got caught up in a conversation about college with some of the girls from the downhill resort, and Cade headed over to the other side of the room to talk to some guys. Before I knew it, an hour had sped by. The party was in full swing now, and I waved across the room at Nicki and Blake as they stood by the booze table. Blake smiled brightly back at me, but Nicki’s face remained blank, and she turned away. Assuming she hadn’t seen me, I shrugged and returned to my conversation with the new girls I’d met, and Cade caught up with me a few minutes later. “There you are,” he said. “You haven’t moved from this spot all night.” “It’s so warm and toasty,” I said, before motioning towards the girls I was talking to. “By the way, this is Kate, Meera and Hayley. They go to RMU as well." They smiled and said hi, and Cade introduced himself before leaning over and murmuring in my ear. “See? You never had anything to worry about. People do want to be friends with you. Everyone loves you.” “Some more than others,” a familiar feminine voice said from directly behind us. We turned to see Nicki staring at us. “Um…what’s up?” I asked. Her eyes looked a little glassy, and I could tell she was very drunk. “What’s up?” she repeated. “Cade’s cock, apparently….for you. His stepsister.” The girls I’d been talking to exchanged glances, and Cade glared. “What the fuck are you talking about, Nicki?” “I knew I saw something weird going on between you two this morning,” she said, slurring some of her words. “And just before, I was talking to Blake, and he remarked on what a strange coincidence it is that Charlotte looks just like some girl you apparently banged at the Fairview Hotel last month. But I’m not stupid. That’s no coincidence. You two totally fucked.” “Nicki, I didn’t…” “Shut up, Cade,” she said, jabbing him in the chest. “You’re so gross. I can’t believe I ever wanted a guy who’d pick some chubby little relative over me.” My stomach plummeted, and I reflexively sucked my stomach in and crossed my arms, suddenly feeling less than confident in the fitted sweater I’d chosen to wear. The rest of Nicki’s words slowly registered in my head, and I realized that she liked Cade, and not in a ‘just friends’ kind of way. She wanted him. No wonder she’d been so nice to me…she probably thought that if she sucked up to me —Cade’s soon-to-be stepsister—and helped me settle in, it would make her look more appealing to him. Aside from the horrible things she’d said, the part that really stung was that I’d genuinely wanted to be friends with her. I’d come on this trip for that exact purpose—so I could make new friends—and it was all blowing up on me. “Walk away, Nicki,” Cade snarled. “You’re drunk, and you’re acting like a total bitch. You have no right to talk shit about Charlotte like that.”

“Hear that, everyone?” she called out, attracting the attention of nearly everyone at the party. “What a surprise. He’s defending her…his sister, who he fucked.” There were a few gasps around the room, and I saw Amy and Talia’s eyes widen before the two of them began talking to each other in hushed whispers. It reminded me of my old high school hallway back in the day, where I’d always seen girls whispering to each other and giving me dirty looks whenever I so much as checked my locker. “Fuck off,” Cade said. “We didn’t, not that it’s any of your business, and she’s not my sister anyway.” Nicki rolled her eyes, then leaned in close to me. “We didn’t really want you here, you know. You’re pathetic,” she said. “No wonder you have no friends, and no wonder everyone in your old city hated you.” Her words seemed to slice into me like razors, and I couldn’t stop the tears from springing to my eyes. Soon they were threatening to spill out over my cheeks, and I turned and ran, pushing my way through the crowd of people at the party. When I reached the door, I yanked it open and then dashed outside, barely even feeling the biting chill in the air. My face was red-hot with shame from what Nicki had said, and also blazing with anger at myself for once again taking it all without standing up for myself. I’d so desperately wanted to, but looking around the room and seeing the shock on everyone’s faces had made my mouth dry up in an instant. I’d been mentally dragged all the way back to my shitty high school days, and I’d totally frozen. But I wasn’t frozen now. I was running, running as fast as I could, away from the humiliation and pain. A moment later, I could hear Cade’s voice in the wind behind me, calling out, but I didn’t stop. I wouldn’t let him see me cry; wouldn’t let him feel more pity for me. I knew there was nothing wrong with me, nothing at all. Nicki was horrible and stupid for thinking I was worth less than her or her friends, and it spoke volumes about her that she’d pretended to befriend me just so she could try to amp up her relationship with Cade. Even though I knew all that, it was still too hard to stop crying. I needed to be alone right now. “Charlotte!” Cade was still calling, but I didn’t stop, and if I had it my way, I’d never stop.

Chapter Twelve Cade “Charlotte!” No answer. Shit. I was racing blindly into the darkness, searching for Charlotte, and I couldn’t see her anywhere. She’d run off after my so-called friend Nicki had practically shamed her out of the cabin, and I had no idea where to even begin looking. There was no way she would’ve gone back to the cabin she’d been sleeping in—it was Nicki’s cabin too, so there wasn’t a chance she’d want to risk seeing her again. The moon slipped out from behind a cloud, making it a lot easier for me to see, and up ahead of me, I could make out a silhouette of something vaguely Charlotte-shaped. Thank fuck, I’d found her. “Charlotte!” I called again. A burst of adrenaline made me run even faster, and although I almost slipped on a small snowdrift, I managed to catch up with her. “Christ, you can run fast,” I said, panting as I tried to grab her left shoulder. She stopped and shrugged me off. “Please just leave me alone,” she said, her voice choked with tears. She turned to run again, and I shouted after her. “Hey! What happened to that girl who told me she wasn’t a victim anymore, huh?” Charlotte stopped in her tracks, then trudged back over to me. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “You’re right. I’m being stupid.” “Nah, you’re just reacting. It’s fine.” “I didn’t mean to take it out on you or make you feel responsible for me,” she said. “I just really don’t want to go back in there right now. I’ll be fine; you can go back inside.” “What, and let you get frostbite out here? Hell no!” “I’m not going to get frostbite. I was going to go to the other resort further downhill and ask for a room there.” “Without any of your stuff?” She mumbled out an answer that I couldn’t even hear, and she rubbed her hands together, her teeth chattering with cold. I pulled off my coat and wrapped it around her. “Come on…just come back to the party.” She didn’t answer, and I reached down and wiped a tear from her face. “Don’t worry about a thing that bitch said, you hear?” “Kinda hard not to. She said it in front of everyone.”

“Yeah, and she completely humiliated herself,” I said, remembering what everyone had been muttering as I’d dashed past them all when I headed out to pursue Charlotte. “They’re all on your side.” She sniffed and looked up at me. “What do you mean?” “I mean exactly what I said. They’re all on your side. You know those girls you introduced me to? They were all glaring at Nicki just as you ran out, and one of them—the dark-haired one—even gave her a real mouthful. I’m guessing quite a few other people have by this stage too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve all kicked her out.” Charlotte wiped the corners of her eyes. “Really?” “Yep.” It was true. Nicki had been trying to shame me and Charlotte during her rant, but it had backfired on her, and instead she’d well and truly humiliated herself in front of everyone with all the nasty shit she’d said. I still couldn’t believe she’d done it; we’d been friends for two years now, and I’d never had any clue that she could be such an evil, vindictive bitch. I’d also never had any idea that she wanted me, but that was beside the point. I’d never been interested in her in that way, and even if I had been at one point, there was no way I’d ever go near her now that I’d seen her true colors. In fact, I could quite happily live the rest of my life without seeing her again. “I wasn’t lying earlier, Charlotte. Everyone really likes you. So come back.” “I…I believe you, Cade. I just feel a bit antisocial now. Even if everyone else made Nicki leave, I still don’t really feel up to partying.” I sighed. “Guess I can’t blame you. But you need to get out of the cold. Why don’t you come and hang out in my cabin? You can stay the night, and I’ll grab your stuff from the other cabin. You can have my bed.” “I thought you were sharing your cabin with Ben.” “I am, but he’s been getting cozy with some chick from the other resort. I talked to him earlier and he said he was gonna stay with her tonight. So I’ll take his bed.” Charlotte chewed on her lower lip in that cute way she always did when she was considering something. “Okay. That’d be nice,” she said quietly. “Thanks. And sorry for ruining the night.” “Nicki ruined it, not you.” We trudged through the snow, heading for the cabin I’d been sleeping in, and just as we reached the wooden steps that led up to the front door, Charlotte spoke up. “Cade…how did Nicki know about what my life was like back in Philly when I was younger?” “You mean the whole ‘no friends’ comment?” She nodded, her eyes shiny with tears again. “Yeah.” I sighed. “I asked for some girly advice from her last week, on how to talk to you and sort out all our crap from the past. So I told her that you thought I’d bullied you, and how you thought that had led to everyone else treating you like crap as well. You mentioned it the first time you ever yelled at me about it, back in the hotel room.” “I guess I can’t say you never listened, then,” she said with a watery smile.

“You’re not mad at me?” “Of course not. You told her for the right reasons, not just to be a dick,” she said. “And by the way…thank you.” “For what?” “For sticking up for me back there.” I ruffled her hair. “I told you I’d always stick up for you,” I said. Charlotte finally cracked a smile, and I nodded to my cabin door. “Now go inside, I have an idea.” “An idea for what?” I grinned. “It’s a surprise.”

Chapter Thirteen Charlotte I stepped into Cade’s cabin and glanced around to see that it was a smaller version of the one I’d been sharing with Amy, Talia and Nicki. A piercing pain seemed to rip through my guts at the thought of Nicki’s name, and I tried to push it aside as best I could. I knew she was just a bitch who’d tried to ruin my night out of sheer jealousy, and Cade had made it pretty clear that no one had—or ever would —take her side on that issue. I was still mad at myself for running out the way I had. I should’ve stayed behind and defended myself, but I was grateful that Cade had been there to stick up for me when I felt I couldn’t. It made me feel warm inside, knowing that I had people on my side no matter what. Just the mere idea of that already made me feel stronger. “So what’s the surprise?” I asked. “Let me guess….you’ve got some sort of secret dungeon in here?” “Not quite,” he said, leaning down and rummaging around the cupboard in the small kitchenette. He pulled out a big pink and white plastic bag and held it up. “Marshmallows.” I raised my eyebrows. “For what?” Cade rose to his full height and walked back over to me. “Do you remember our school camp back in the sixth grade?” I smiled at the memory. “Yep.” Sixth grade camp was one of my few good memories from school. It was before I’d become a major social pariah, and it’d been fun as hell. Our grade had taken a bus to a camping ground in Bald Eagle state forest, and we’d walked short hiking trails, set up tents and completed various fun activities. One of the best things we did was on the second night there—our teachers had let us sit around the campfire and toast marshmallows while telling ghost stories. I distinctly remembered that Cade had sat near me during my story, and he’d hung on every word I said. Seeing as he was one of the cool kids, it had made me feel pretty good at the time. “There’s a little fire pit out the back. Let’s get a fire going and toast some of these bad boys,” he said, pointing to the marshmallows again. “And we can even tell creepy stories. It’ll be fun, right?” “Yeah. But will we be able to start a fire when it’s this cold?” I asked. “Well, cavemen managed to do it back in the day, so I’m sure we’ll manage,” he replied with a wink. I followed him out the back door of the cabin and spotted the fire pit. It was just beyond the small enclosed backyard area, and Cade walked over to a box that sat near a window. “Firewood,” he explained, loading some small logs and sticks into his arms. “Sorry, I forgot….can you go back inside and grab the lighter fluid and lighter from the kitchen? Fourth cupboard from the stove.” “Okay, be right back.”

Fifteen minutes later, we had a roaring fire going, and we sat down on a massive log that had been placed near the fire pit. “One marshmallow kebab coming up,” Cade said a moment later, removing a stick from the fire. It had five marshmallows pushed onto it, and it smelled divine. He handed it to me, and I smiled and accepted it, raising it to my mouth. “Mmm…” I said in between mouthfuls of melted sugary goodness. “This is so good.” I didn’t feel guilty for eating it. Once upon a time, if someone had called me ‘chubby’, then I would’ve deprived myself of any treat foods for two weeks and exercised like mad in an attempt to lose weight. I wasn’t going to do that now. Nicki’s words may have stung, but I wasn’t going to let those words control my life, and I’d realized a long time ago that I was naturally curvy, so no amount of starving myself and being miserable was going to make me rail-thin anyway. And why would I want to be, anyway? My body worked just fine, whether it was voluptuous or skinny, so I didn’t see why it was even an issue. I smiled to myself at my train of thought. While I might not have been strong enough to defend myself back there at the party, I was taking steps, and accepting my body for what it was and refusing to let bully’s words affect my perception of that was one of those steps. “What’s so funny?” Cade asked, seeing me smile. The flames of the fire cast shadows and light in varying areas of his handsome face, and his bluegreen eyes seemed brighter than ever. “Oh, nothing,” I said. “Just being out here like this….it’s so nice.” “Yeah, it is. Are you ready for your surprise yet?” “I thought the fire and the marshmallows was the surprise,” I said, my eyebrows furrowing with confusion. “It was only part of it,” he said, standing up. I went to follow suit, and he shook his head. “No, you stay sitting down, I just have to show you something.” He moved behind me, grabbed my right arm, and then pointed it towards the night sky. Out here in the wilds, the stars were much brighter than they were back in the city, and I smiled as I watched them twinkle. Cade’s hand guided my arm, tracing an area of the sky, and when he was done, I looked over my shoulder at him. “That’s the Aquarius constellation.” “Yep. Your birthday makes you an Aquarius, right?” “Yeah. How did you know?” He tapped his fingers on the side of his head. “Not just a pretty face.” I laughed. “Who ever said you were pretty?” “Hey! Who’s the big bully now, huh?” he said with a grin. He sat down next to me and pointed at another part of the sky. “Oh, there’s Ursa Major.” I smiled and looked at him. “How do you know all these constellations?” “I know you love astronomy, and seeing as the stars are so visible out here, I thought you’d

probably wanna do some stargazing at some point this weekend. So I read up on some stuff. Thought it might be cool for you to have a stargazing partner.” “How did you know I love astronomy?” “Two reasons. One, I remember back in the third grade, you’d always draw stars and galaxies on your papers. And two…I heard you talking to my brother about it. You’re both big old space nerds.” “At least we’re not big beefy sports nerds.” We spent the next few minutes laughing and teasing each other about silly things, along with looking up at the night sky and finding different constellations, and Cade finally pointed to another one and turned to me. “What’s that one, smart-ass?” “Taurus,” I said. “You should know that…you’re a Bighorn, after all.” “Bighorns are sheep, you idiot,” he said, playfully poking me. I clapped a hand to my mouth at my silliness. “Oh my god. Of course they are. For some reason I had it in my head that they were bulls.” “You might make a good doctor one day, but for god’s sake, don’t ever try to be a vet,” he said, earning him a playful elbow to the ribs. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask. Why are you so into astronomy, anyway?” “Because of my father,” I said softly, glancing down at my snow-covered shoes. “He used to love it.” “Where is he now?” he asked. “He died when I was eight.” “Oh, shit. Sorry, Charlotte. I thought your parents were just divorced and he lived somewhere else.” I shook my head. “Nope. But it’s okay, you didn’t know.” “Tell me about him.” I looked up at the stars again as I spoke. “He was a really good man. He had this spark in his eyes, always curious about something and always wanting to learn more. After I was born, he became pretty interested in astronomy for some reason. He bought a lot of different instruments like telescopes, refractors, and so on. He even built some contraptions of his own. And every couple of nights, he’d take me out with him and share his hobby with me. We’d sit out there for hours, looking at all the different star formations.” “That sounds really nice.” I smiled. “It was. Nowadays, whenever I look at the stars, I remember all that, and I feel like part of him is still here,” I said. “Is that totally lame?” “Not at all. Makes perfect sense,” Cade replied. “Sounds like your Dad was a great guy.” “Yeah, he was. When he died, I was so young, and it really hit me hard. But then one day I made a promise to myself to try and live the rest of my life in his honor. So every day when I wake up, one of my first thoughts is that I’m living for him. That kinda helped me get through a lot of stuff earlier in life—like the bullying in high school—because no matter how bad it got, I wanted to work hard to

keep my promise.” “That’s a really good way of looking at things,” Cade said. “You were always a smart kid.” “Thanks. So what about your father?” I asked. “You guys seem a bit…” My sentence trailed off, and Cade nodded. “I know what you mean. We have a weird relationship. My Mom left when I was about thirteen, and Evan was only eight. So it was hard for him; he had to raise us on his own.” “Your Mom just left?” “Yeah. Took off one day, never contacted us again except to tell us she’d met someone else and was starting a new family with him.” “Shit. That’s horrible.” Cade shrugged. “It is what it is. Anyway, Dad changed a bit when that happened. He moved us out here—he was actually born and raised here, so it’s his home state—and ran for the Senate. He’d always been interested in politics, and I guess Mom leaving him changed his life enough for him to want to change his career too. He was already a really successful businessman, so it wasn’t hard for him to get elected. People around here respect him a lot.” “Do you?” “Sometimes. I know he wants what’s best for me and Evan, but he goes the wrong way about it. Total and utter control freak. When we were younger and school was out, we had a nanny to take care of us when he was at work, and he had five separate nanny cams in the house to spy on all of us.” “Wow, that’s a bit of overkill.” “Yeah. And anything we like, he shuts down—he thinks he knows best.” “Like your football.” “Exactly. He calls it my ‘hobby’ when it’s actually one of the only things I’m really passionate about. I even got a scholarship for it, so he didn’t even have to pay for my college tuition, but he still acts like a controlling prick about it. Always going on about how I have to go to law school after my Bachelor’s, and so on.” “And really you just want to play football.” “Yeah.” “Well, you’re really good at it.” “Could be better, though.” “That’s why you keep practicing,” I said. “And working out all the time. Seriously, you practically live in the gym.” He grinned. “Yeah. And hey, if I ever get injured at a game, at least I’ll have a doctor for a stepsister to help me, right?” I grinned and nodded, but as his words fully registered with me, the smile slowly faded from my face. Stepsister. That’s all I was going to be to him in just six weeks, when our parents officially got married, and while I knew that staying platonic friends was the right thing to do, it wasn’t what I wanted.

At all. Cade grabbed a long stick and stoked our little fire with it, and then he turned to me. “Hey, I forgot. We’re meant to be telling ghost stories, like we did back at camp.” “Okay, I’ve got a scary story for you,” I said. “Shoot.” “Once upon a time, a guy named Cade Blackwell looked in the mirror. The end.” He snorted. “Hilarious,” he said. “Am I really that ugly?” “Nah, you know I’m kidding,” I replied, licking melted marshmallow residue off my upper lip. “So what’s your scary story? I bet you a million bucks you can’t freak me out.” “Game on.” He leaned back and stretched his arms before speaking again. “All right, this is actually a true one. I came up here to Silverton Falls with Blake and Ben about a year ago, and we stayed in this very same cabin,” he said, gesturing behind us. “Uh-huh.” “And we decided to build a fire, right where you and I are sitting now. After an hour or so, we started hearing a rustling sound, but we ignored it. All kinds of small animals out here, you know, so we figured it was nothing to worry about. But it kept getting louder and louder….closer and closer.” “Let me guess….a Sasquatch?” “Nah, like I said, this is a real story,” Cade said. “So anyway, it kept getting louder, and we started to freak out a bit. But we’d all had a few beers, and I guess our sound perception was off. So we thought the sound was coming from over there.” He pointed to the left, where there was a forested area, and then he continued. “But it was actually coming from the right, near where the cabin is. So we got up from the fire, backed away towards the cabin, and at the last second we turned around…..and right on the back porch was a huge grizzly bear, rearing up at us, getting ready to attack.” As he spoke the word ‘attack’, he pounced, trying to scare me, but I just laughed and pushed him away. “Cade, there are no grizzlies in Colorado. Only black bears live here, and they’re actually pretty frightened of humans and tend to stay away. You’re going to have to try harder than that to scare me.” His shoulders slumped. “Dammit,” he said. “So you can’t tell the difference between a sheep and a bull, but you can identify the different bear species in each state?” “I’m selectively dumb,” I said with a smile. “Well, I don’t know how to scare you, but I’ll keep trying until I manage to freak you out,” he replied. “I’m trying to remember that creepy story you told us that night at camp, but…” I shushed him and held up a hand, my ears pricking up at the sound of crunching twigs. I peered over at the forested area, and Cade whispered at me. “What is it?” “Didn’t you hear that?” “Nope. Maybe my story really did freak you out.”

“No, I heard something,” I insisted. “Probably just the wind blowing through the trees,” Cade replied. “Don’t worry, this whole area is pretty safe.” Just as he said that, I heard more twigs snapping, and Cade’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay, you definitely heard that, right?” I said. “Yeah,” he replied, putting a finger to his lips. “Stay quiet.” More twigs snapped, closer this time. Every hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and Cade slowly stood up. “I’m going to go take a look,” he said. “Let’s just go inside,” I said, yanking on his jacket. “Nah, I just want to make sure,” he said. “It’s probably just a small animal making the sounds, but I wanna make sure there’s no one from the party drunkenly poking around in the forest. I’d hate for them to get lost and freeze to death.” He had a good point, and I nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll come with you and help.” “No, you stay back just in case,” he said. He trudged towards the nearby tree line, disappearing into the forest for a few seconds, and he called back at me from within the trees a moment later. “Yep, look at this little critter go! He’s heading your way!” There were more twig-snapping sounds, and then a large squirrel dashed out before making its way up a nearby tree. “I thought squirrels were only awake during the day,” I said. “Yeah, they usually are. I guess this little guy got confused,” Cade called back. “Anyway, there we go. The sound was just a—” He was suddenly cut off mid-sentence, and I leapt to my feet as I heard a scuffling sound, and then Cade’s voice again. “Shit! Charlotte, help! It’s a fucking…” He was cut off again, and I dashed over to the forest, heart pounding. “Cade! What is it?” I had mental images of a huge Bigfoot attacking him, or some other awful kind of creature, and I spotted him only seconds later….alive and unhurt. He was totally fine. The bastard was grinning right at me, and I narrowed my eyes. “Cade! I thought you were being attacked!” “Told you I’d freak you out, one way or another. You owe me a million dollars.” I stomped over and shoved him. “Prick. That was really scary!” “But it was funny, huh?” I pushed on his chest again, hard. “No! Not funny!” He grabbed my wrists before I could shove him again, holding them tight in his strong grip, and suddenly I became all too aware of how close we were. I stopped struggling, and Cade lowered my wrists before moving his mouth down to mine. His lips devoured me, hard and fast, and his tongue dived into my mouth, searching out mine. I let him do it, needing to feel all of him. The pulsing sensation in my core quickened, and I closed my eyes, savoring the moment.

I tried to think, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to, because if I did, I’d know that this was totally wrong. He finally released my arms, threading one hand roughly through my hair while the other gripped my ass. Pulling my hips harder against his, he assaulted my mouth like he was a starved man. He sucked on my bottom lip and then turned his attention to my jaw and throat in hot, frenzied kisses, and a legion of butterflies took flight inside me. And then I kissed him back.

Chapter Fourteen Charlotte Oh god…I’m kissing him back… I pulled away and gasped out a few words. “Cade…we have to stop.” “Why?” he growled. I knew we needed to, but the logical part of my mind quickly vanished again, and I forgot why I’d said that. I was totally lost. I grasped his hair, holding him to me and pulling his face back down to mine, and his left hand ran up and down my back, rubbing me through my jacket to keep me warm. His lips crushed down on mine again, and I moaned into his mouth, needing more. Pressure was quickly building in my core, and Cade groaned, a deep masculine sound that made me tingle like crazy. I didn’t want this to stop. Ever. His mouth was still on mine when he picked me up, and I gasped as he began to carry me out of the forest and back towards the cabin. “It’s too cold out here,” he explained, pulling away for just a few seconds before bringing his lips back to mine. Kicking the back door open a moment later, Cade brought me inside. We didn’t make it to the bedroom. He set me down on the cool surface of the kitchenette counter and stood between my legs, and with a fevered frenzy of hands, my clothes disappeared until I was left in nothing but underwear. I looked at Cade, my eyes smoldering as I removed my bra and threw it on the tiled floor, and he returned my gaze, putting his hands on either side of my hips. Then he moved down and yanked outwards, the quick motion startling me. I heard a tearing sound, and then I was finally naked, feeling a tickle of fabric as my ripped panties dropped to the floor. I moaned, feeling the strength of his hands as they moved over my body, gentle and caressing, my breasts the main object of their focus. His fingers spread, running over my nipples, which quickly stood to attention, and he leaned forward and kissed me again. My core flooded with wet heat the second his lips touched mine again, and another groan slipped from my mouth before I had a chance to stop it. Cade’s hands moved through my hair, gripping and pulling, and his mouth tasted me, tongue dipping inside as I eagerly responded. My body had well and truly taken over my mind now, forcefully shoving aside any misgivings about our family as another wave of arousal hit me. Cade’s touch turned harder, his kiss more demanding, and he reached down and pulled me forward slightly, so that my ass was half hanging off the counter. His hands gripped my ass, squeezing it roughly and holding me until I was balanced, and as he did so, I gazed up at his perfect face with wonder. Those blue-green eyes were burning with lust, his steely jaw was set, and his mess of dark hair begged me to run my hands through it.

He had my full attention, but my thoughts abandoned me as he began to slowly unzip his jacket and unbutton the shirt he wore underneath it, his perfect build revealed as the clothes fell to the floor. I pulled my eyes from his hard chest and looked up, seeing the intensity in his eyes, and he smirked at me before moving his hands down to his jeans. Then there was the telltale yank of a zip, and my eyes dropped again. His cock was just like I remembered from that night at the hotel; smooth, stiff and mouthwateringly thick. I swallowed hard, and his eyes studied me carefully, gauging if I was ready or not. Then his hands reached for my legs again, lifting them and tugging them outward until I was spread wide before him. I’d never felt so vulnerable in the presence of a guy before, but something about this felt oh-so-right, and I bit my lower lip as he looked at me. One finger trailed over my slit, gentle strokes sliding up and down to tease the sensitive skin there. I moaned as Cade finally pressed the pad of his finger against my throbbing clit. “You like that?” he said softly. “Mm…yes,” I breathed. His fingers continued to play with me, and I could feel them gathering up the hot moisture that was collecting between my lips. “I can tell,” he said with a smirk, grazing over my clit again, which made me shiver with bliss. His free hand gripped his shaft, moving up and down, and I watched him play with himself as he dipped one finger in me, easily sliding past my soaked entrance. I let out a low moan, the building pressure almost too great to contain, and I arched my back slightly, lifting off the counter as Cade’s hands danced over me in their torturous tease. I could feel my inner walls beginning to contract, and each circle that Cade’s fingers made over my clit dragged me just a little closer to the edge of release. “Please…” I begged. “No more teasing.” Cade smiled, and his movements sped up between my legs. He leaned down, his lips closing over my right breast, and his teeth ever-so-gently scraped against my stiff nipple as he sucked it into the heat of his mouth. His tongue danced over it, and I reached down and grabbed his head, gripping his hair and pulling him harder against my chest. “I’m close,” I gasped. My body was screaming for release, my clit one swipe away from climax. “Come,” Cade commanded, pulling his mouth away from my breasts and looking at me, his eyes glowing with intensity as they captured mine. “Come for me.” Then he moved those incredible lips down between my legs, his tongue slid over my clit, giving it the last push over the edge that it needed. My eyes rolled back as my orgasm crashed over me, my world temporarily flashing with white-hot light, and my legs shook and shuddered. Cade held me in place, making sure I didn’t fall right off the counter, and I opened my eyes as the waves of pleasure finally began to fade, still gasping. I felt drained, my body seemingly losing all muscle function as the last threads of bliss vanished, and aftershocks continued to make me twitch. “Time for bed,” Cade said, scooping me up. I was drained, but I definitely wasn’t that tired. “Please, no,” I begged as he carried towards the bedroom. “I can’t sleep, not yet.”

“Who said anything about sleeping?” he said, a seductive promise dripping from each word. His voice was husky with need, and he threw me down on the bed seconds later. Then he pounced, his mouth finding mine and his hands gripping my waist as his hard length pressed up against my thighs. I parted my legs, his body settling between them, and his lips and tongue tormented my earlobes and the hollows of my neck. He began to grind himself against me, and every thrust of his groin created delicious friction against me. Then his lips were on mine again, kissing me deeply as his bare cock slid up and down my folds, and another ache began to grow between my legs. I gasped against his mouth as his shaft teased me. “Please...fuck me!” I said, desperate for him to finally move his cock an inch lower and plunge it inside me. Electricity sizzled between our bodies, and my skin itched for more of Cade’s touches. He pulled off me for a brief moment, and he returned with a condom, his hands rolling it over his length as his eyes raked over me. He climbed back onto the bed, positioning himself back between my legs, and once again he brushed the swollen head of his cock over my slick lips. I took a deep breath, the teasing almost too much for me to handle, and I watched his eyes, even more turned on by the expression within them. It was a look of pure possession and domination, with a fire behind them that told me he knew exactly what I wanted and how. And then he was in me, and I gasped, my body stretching around the invasion. Holy hell. His thrusts made me cry out with joy as I finally got to experience all of him, and I grabbed his shoulders, digging my nails into them as I gripped him, needing him close as he withdrew. He thrust into me again, then pulled out, and he continued this cycle of sweet torture as my body melded to him, memorizing his shape and contracting around his girth. During these moments, he owned me, regardless of the fact that our parents were getting married, and we were soon to be stepsiblings. Right now, I was fully and completely his, and the rest of the world was nowhere to be seen. I wrapped my legs around his back, my heels digging into his ass as he increased his pace, and the slick, slapping sounds of our bodies mixed with my moans as Cade roughly kissed me. He kissed like he could never get enough of me, feasting on my lips as he fucked me harder and harder. I couldn’t take much more, the furious pace building up a primal need deep within me; a need that would only be fulfilled when I came again. I was already close, my muscles clenching around his cock, and I whimpered as he broke away from my lips. “Don’t stop. Don’t…stop…oh, god!” The pressure within me reached an overflow point, my climax on the edge of explosion. Cade groaned and unleashed his full force on me; quick, hard thrusts that were perfect in rhythm, perfect in depth, and just as hard as I needed it. His pelvis bumped against my clit with each wonderful movement, and my orgasm ripped through me, making me scream with bliss as my body shook. Cade wasn’t done yet. As soon as my eyes could focus again, he rolled with me until I was on top, and I stared down at him, dizzy with lust. “Ride me,” he demanded.

I grinded my hips against him, teasing him just like he’d teased me earlier, and he groaned, eyes lighting with pure desire. Moving my feet underneath me, I positioned myself over him properly, and then I impaled myself on his shaft, letting out a gasp as I felt the delicious sensation of complete fullness again. Cade’s cock twitched within me, and his hands reached out, gripping my waist and holding me as I began to bounce up and down, my breaths coming in short, sharp bursts. My clit throbbed, and I could feel another climax building. Cade held me, thrusting from below, and a cocky smile crossed his face as my mouth dropped open in an ‘o’. He began to slide his body so that he was sitting up, propped against the headboard of the bed, and the slight change in position affected the angle, an effect that that had me shaking with pleasure as his cock perfectly hit the sweet spot inside me. I moved up and down on him in harder strokes, sliding up and down, which elicited a long groan from Cade. “Keep going,” he groaned. I obediently continued until I began to slip over the edge again, and as I was gasping and coming on him, he held me tightly, his strong hands digging into my sides. “You are so fucking perfect,” he groaned, one hand moving to my ass. He pulled back, then slid home again. In, out, in, out…harder and harder. All I could feel was pure pleasure; a deep, warm, throbbing pressure in my core which spread like flames, licking through every inch of my body. “Your turn,” I whispered. A light sparked in Cade’s eyes, and soon he was grunting, his body tensing beneath me. I clenched my muscles around his cock as hard as I could, and he groaned loudly as pleasure ripped through the both of us. “Oh, fuck…” He threw his head back, almost slamming right into the headboard, and I saw veins popping out along the sides of his neck as he growled his orgasm. I kept slowly riding him, thrillingly satisfied as I watched him completely lose control. There was really no better feeling in the world than making a guy like him happy, and as we breathlessly collapsed next to each other a moment later, I knew he felt the exact same way about me. My pulse was still going a mile a minute as I tried to catch my breath, and I’d never felt so alive before. This was the most exciting thing I’d ever done, and every nerve in my body felt like it was on a sugar high. I let out a big exhale and looked over at Cade. “Hey,” I said, my voice still a little breathless. “I guess this means Nicki wasn’t exactly wrong about us.” He chuckled. “I’m glad you’re already starting to have a sense of humor about that,” he said. So was I. Then again, it was kinda hard not to have a sense of humor about stuff when I had so many endorphins streaming through me. He slid an arm around me, and we snuggled close to each other, neither of us daring to bring up the fact that our parents were getting married soon. We both knew it, and we both knew that what we’d just done was very wrong because of that fact….and yet, the forbidden nature of it had somehow made the whole experience ten times hotter. Cade got up after a few minutes, disposed of the condom, and pulled on a pair of shorts. “I’m just

going to go put out the fire and lock up,” he said before turning to me with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “By the way, don’t go to sleep. I’ll be ready to go again in three minutes...”

Chapter Fifteen Cade “Wakey wakey…” I stirred and groaned at the sound of Charlotte’s voice, and I managed to squeeze one eye open. “Tired,” I managed to get out before closing my eye again. It’d been four weeks since we’d gotten together at Silverton Falls, and we’d been sneaking around ever since then, stealing every moment we could to be together. It wasn’t exactly hard, seeing as the house was huge, and everyone else in the family was always too busy to notice anything. Evan had school and extracurricular activities, Emilia had work and was also buried in last minute wedding planning, and Dad was even busier with his job than usual. He’d been taking a lot of meetings with Greg Sanders recently, which all but confirmed his upcoming presidential bid, because Greg was known to be one of the most cutthroat—and effective—political consultants in the political world. None of my friends knew what was going on between Charlotte and me either; they’d all dismissed Nicki’s rant at the cabin party as being petty, jealous bullshit, and I wasn’t about to fill them in on the truth. The last thing we needed was for everyone to find out and for it to somehow get back to our families, because then shit would really hit the fan. We both knew what we were doing was wrong, but it felt right, and while we knew it all had to come to an end at some point, neither of us wanted to admit that out loud, let alone let it end. We were happy to remain blissfully ignorant to our future problems for now, as long as we could be with each other. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to do that, but shit, I couldn’t let go of Charlotte now that I had her, and I dreaded the day it all came to a head. This was all a massive change for me, too, considering the circumstances of just a couple of months ago. At that time, I’d just broken up with a cheating girlfriend and vowed to only have meaningless one night stands without even thinking about settling down for a long time, but what had I done instead? I’d settled into a relationship with literally the first girl I’d spotted after my ex stormed off that night. It sounded wrong, but damn, it felt right. Charlotte gently prodded me in the chest, eliciting another tired grumble from me. “Come on… I’ve got something for you.” I opened both eyes this time. “What is it?” She put her head on my shoulder and snuggled into me, and I wrapped an arm around her as she tilted her head up and touched her lips to mine, tentatively at first and then more insistently as I woke up properly. I tangled a hand in her hair, and she reached down into my boxer briefs, still kissing me fervently. She pulled my cock out, and I groaned as she stroked up and down my shaft with a firm grip. “Mm…okay, you were right to wake me up,” I said, breaking away from the kiss.

She smiled, a glint of desire in her eyes. “I thought you might say that.” She suggestively ran her tongue across her lips and then moved her head down, and I bit my lip to stop myself from groaning again. As much as I enjoyed her touches, it was early in the morning, so any loud sounds we made might wake Evan up in the room across the hall from mine. Charlotte moved lower, still stroking up and down my shaft with her hand, and then she took me in her mouth. She licked around the head of my cock, deftly flicking her tongue over and around the sensitive tip before sliding more of me down her throat. I gripped her hair with my hands, and her head bobbed back and forth as she gradually increased her speed. I moved my hips, thrusting deeper into her mouth, and with the hand that was still gripping the base of my cock, Charlotte reached down further and gently cupped my balls. I was breathing heavily now. “Shit…Charlotte…you’re so amazing at this.” She sped up her movements even more, taking as much of me as she could in her hot mouth, and I felt a rush of heat in my groin a moment later. “Fuck….I’m gonna cum,” I groaned, looking down at her. She swallowed every last drop before looking up at me with a naughty grin. “I think it’s my turn now.” “Damn right it is.” She squealed as I sat up and flipped her onto her back, and just as I was tearing her pajama bottoms off with my teeth, I heard a knock on the door. “Shit,” Charlotte whispered, practically flying off the bed. She ran into my bathroom and shut the door, and I fixed the bedsheets and lay down, pretending I’d been asleep this whole time. “Uh…come in,” I said before loudly yawning. The door opened, and I feigned another yawn and stretched as Evan came in. “Hey, man, what’s up?” I asked. “I thought I heard something,” he said, giving me a funny look. “Is Charlotte in here?” I raised an eyebrow, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. “What? Why would she be in here?” He shrugged. “I dunno, I just thought I heard her voice.” I thought fast and motioned towards my clock radio. “It was probably just that. I have it set to turn onto the news channel first thing in the morning.” “Right. Anyway, have you seen her at all today?” he asked. “No, I only just woke up, and I haven’t left my room yet. It’s only seven o’clock, bro.” “I know, but she usually gets up really early. I went to look in her room and it doesn’t even look like she slept in her bed. It’s kinda weird.” “She’s been going out with friends a lot. Maybe she stayed with them last night?” I said. It wasn’t entirely a lie. Ever since the cabin party incident, Charlotte had been spending a lot of time with her new friends—when she wasn’t with me, of course. The girls she’d met that night went to RMU as well, so they’d all quickly become good friends, and they’d fully supported her after the crap that happened with Nicki. Hell, even Amy and Talia were disgusted by Nicki’s behavior that

night and sided with Charlotte afterwards, and they’d once been Nicki’s best friends. “Maybe,” Evan said, but he didn’t look convinced. “But her car is in the garage.” I ran a hand through my hair. Jesus, my little brother was too smart for his own good. “I guess her friends picked her up in their car, then. Why are you looking for her anyway?” I asked. “She mentioned that her telescope was finally getting delivered this week. I was just wondering if it had arrived yet, and if it has, I was going to ask her if we could take it out tonight.” “I’m sure she’d be happy to, buddy,” I said. “I’ve gotta go to college for a couple of classes and then some training, so if I run into her there, I’ll pass on your message.” He smiled. “Okay, thanks,” he said. He walked out, and then he turned around again. “Are you sure she’s not in here?” “Dude…I already said no. Why would she be?” “No reason,” he said hurriedly. “I’m going to go get ready for school.” “All right. Catch you later, bro,” I said. He smiled and shut the door behind him. I felt bad for lying to my little brother, but I couldn’t exactly say ‘Sure, Charlotte’s in here, she’s hiding in the bathroom because you almost caught us hooking up.’ Charlotte emerged from the bathroom a minute later, a horrified expression on her face. “What happened? Did he hear us?” “Yeah, but I managed to convince him it was the radio.” Her face fell, and she sat down on the end of the bed. “I hate this…I hate lying to everyone,” she said. I sat up and scooted over to her, gently rubbing her back. “I know. But what else can we do?” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Nothing, I guess. Unless we find a way to come clean….or just end it.” “I don’t want to end it.” “Neither do I.” I tilted her chin up and moved my head so that I could kiss her, and while my heart was in it, my mind was elsewhere, thinking about what had just happened. Charlotte was right—we only really had three options. The first was that we could keep hiding it….but what kind of life would that be? Besides, we’d get caught eventually, especially if my father announced his candidacy for the presidential race soon, because campaign researchers and opposition researchers were capable of digging into the lives of candidates and their families like you wouldn’t believe. Secondly, we could come clean and face the wrath of everyone, but we had no idea what ramifications might stem from that, especially with the aforementioned presidential race. Thirdly, we could end it, but I didn’t want that. I never wanted to end things with her…but I knew we had to do something. I had no idea what that something was, and right now, I only knew one thing for certain. I was really falling for Charlotte.

Chapter Sixteen Charlotte “How do I look?” My mother stared at me in the reflection of the mirror she was standing in front of, and I took in her simple ivory-colored dress, her tasteful makeup, and her stunning hairdo. The wedding day had finally arrived, and we were in a room in the back of the upscale Denver hotel where the wedding was being held. “You look perfect,” I said with a smile. “Are you sure?” I nodded. “Yes! Mom, you look amazing.” “I’m just so nervous. My wedding to your father was so small,” she said. “And this wedding is insanely big. All those people!” “I know, right?” Mom and Keith had managed to throw together a wedding in a time frame which was practically light speed in terms of major event planning, and it was made even more impressive by the fact that it was a politician’s wedding, which meant that lots of high-profile guests had to be invited along with loads of security personnel to keep everyone safe. Apparently there had been a scare at a state senator’s sixtieth birthday party last year in Texas, where some scorned ex-mistress had managed to get in and attempted to kill the senator. She hadn’t succeeded, but since then, a lot of people in the political world had doubled down on security at any events, even private ones like weddings and birthdays. “Do you think they’ll all judge me?” Mom asked, her voice still anxious. “There’s so many of Keith’s wealthy friends here, and I haven’t even met half of them before.” “Mom, don’t be silly. The wedding will be perfect, and no one will have anything negative to say about it. You’ve planned everything perfectly.” “I suppose I have, haven’t I?” she said with a smile, her tense shoulders sagging with relief. “Thanks, sweetheart. You look lovely too, by the way. Maybe you’ll meet a handsome senator’s son at the reception?” “Mm…maybe,” I said in a noncommittal tone. Obviously, I didn’t want to meet any other guys. I only had eyes for Cade, and twenty minutes later, they stayed glued on him the whole way up the aisle as I walked with my purple hyacinth bouquet. He was standing up at the front with Keith and Evan, and I thought it was kinda cute how Keith had chosen his two sons to be his groomsmen. The man was a staunch conservative, a bit of a control freak, and an avid hunter—all things I wasn’t really a fan of—but he had his good side, and it was nice to see him sharing his day with his kids like this. Cade’s gaze stayed on me as I reached the altar and took my place with the rest of the wedding

party, and I smiled at him as well as Evan, Keith and the officiant, not wanting to make anyone suspicious. I glanced out at all the guests as Mom slowly made her way up the aisle a moment later, and I noted the two security guards at every entrance. God, it felt weird to be at such a high-profile event, but I guess now that Keith was officially going to be my stepfather, I’d have to get used to it. The officiant cleared his throat and began the ceremony. “Beloved friends and family of Emilia Rubio and Keith Blackwell, welcome and thank you for joining us on this joyous occasion. We are gathered together to celebrate the very special love between Emilia and Keith by joining them in marriage.” With each word he spoke, I remembered some of the special, intimate moments I’d shared with Cade over the last several weeks. Cade’s hair was a total mess as he looked up at me from between my legs, and he licked his lips and told me how much he liked how I tasted. I loved that. “All of us need to be desired and loved, and the highest form of love between two people is within a committed relationship,” the officiant continued. Cade’s eyes glowed with confidence and mischief as he gripped my waist, holding me as I bounced up and down on his perfect cock. I loved that. “Emilia and Keith, your marriage here today is the public and legal joining of your souls that have already been united as one in your hearts.” Cade’s toned arms and chest flexed with every movement as he pumped into me from above, and I reached out and touched his face, wiping away a droplet of sweat from his brow. ‘You’re perfect,’ he whispered. I loved that too. Hell…maybe I loved him. I’d never been in love before; not really. In my first year of college back in Philly, I’d dated a couple of guys, and they were nice, but it had only ever felt comfortable with them—definitely not what it should be. With them, I hadn’t experienced any of the thrills I felt when I was around Cade, and definitely not the kind of pulsing heat I felt when we were in bed together…or my car…or the gym. Or anywhere else we’d sneaked off to do the deed. But it wasn’t just a sexual thing. I felt a deep connection with him, and I loved every aspect of him. Cade was funny, unpredictable, and ambitious, and he was also tender and kind when he wanted to be. I even loved the slightly flawed parts of him, like when he went too far with his silly jokes, or when he spent way too much time worrying about his next football game when we all knew he’d play amazingly like he always did. Cade was everything I thought I’d never like in a guy, considering how I’d once thought he ruined my life as a teenager, but I’d been so wrong in thinking that about him, and being with him had turned my life upside down in the best kind of way. I just wished I had some idea of where it was all going. I could feel this deeply about him all I

wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that what we were doing was dead wrong. Our parents were literally getting married at this exact moment, so it was becoming even more wrong by the second, but I felt powerless to stop it. I didn’t want to hurt our family, but I didn’t want to end things with Cade either. I snapped out of my reverie as the ceremony continued, and the officiant paused and looked out at all the guests. “If any man or woman can show just cause as to why Emilia and Keith may not be lawfully joined together, let him or her speak now, or else hereafter forever hold their peace.” “I object to this marriage.” My eyes widened, and I looked out at the guests to see who had just spoken. The part of the ceremony where the officiant asked for any objections was mostly a formality, and no one had been expecting anyone to actually stand up and say otherwise. Shit. What if someone had found out about me and Cade, and they were going to tell everyone right here at the ceremony, using our relationship as a reason why our parents couldn’t be married? I couldn’t think of anything worse. Unfortunately, it was something worse. Far worse. “Who said that?” the officiant called out. Already, the guests were whispering and tittering amongst themselves, and I looked at my Mom. She looked horrified, and Keith grabbed her hand and squeezed it, looking just as confused as everyone else. “I said it.” A tall man with short blond hair stood up and began to make his way to the altar. “This supposed lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to get married here today, not when everyone else in the country is having their civil liberties eroded by bastards like him.” Great. I wasn’t exactly a fan of some of the policies that Keith and his Congress colleagues were responsible for, but there was a time and a place for protesting, and a wedding wasn’t one of them. “Who the hell is this crank, and how the hell did he get in?” Keith muttered to the officiant as the man drew closer. The security guards from the entrances were quickly yet cautiously approaching. The officiant held up his hand to the blond man, trying to keep the situation under control. “Sir, stop right there. This is a wedding, not a political debate. If you actually have a valid reason as to why Emilia and Keith can’t be married today, then you may state it. Otherwise, please leave.” “I have a reason,” the man declared, his voice preternaturally calm as he stood right before us. “We’re losing all our freedoms because of men like you, and I don’t want to do this, but I have to. Someone has to die for everyone to start listening, and it should be you.” With that, the man drew a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and aimed it at Keith, and everyone in the room lost it. My heart seemed to drop into my shoes as I heard the screams, and my blood froze in my veins. I knew that sounded like a cliché, but anyone who has ever been truly terrified would tell you the same—your blood really does run cold. “No!” Cade shouted and pushed Evan and my mother to the ground before jumping right in front of me and Keith, and I fell to the ground with my hands over my ears as a loud crack sounded right near me. I’d never heard a gun being fired in real life before, but I knew what it was. The blond man had fired

his pistol, and I screamed and screamed as my eyes squeezed shut, wishing I could wake up from this nightmare, even though deep down I knew it was no dream. This was really happening. Through the haze of screams and cries, I heard Keith’s voice clearly, shouting from somewhere near me. “You fucking bastard….you shot my son!”

Chapter Seventeen Charlotte My eyes snapped open, and I frantically looked around. Cade’s been shot by this lunatic, my mind repeated over and over. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though. Cade was unhurt, and he was clutching Evan’s bleeding left arm, his face pale. Evan was even paler, and he was muttering something as Cade wrapped his suit jacket around his arm and tied it tightly, stemming the flow of blood with pressure. I whirled around to see Keith tackling the blond man to the ground, knocking the gun out of his hands before twisting him into a submissive position. “You think you can come to my wedding and hurt my son!” he snarled. “You’ll rot in prison forever for this, you bastard!” The security guards finally did the damn job they’d been hired for and rushed to Keith’s aid, with two of them handcuffing the blond man and hauling him to his feet while another spoke into a black handheld radio. The rest of the room was still in pandemonium, with guests running around shrieking and trying to get out of the room, while some hid under the chairs, their faces twisted in fear. Some others who were still standing were on their phones to 911, and another few of them were even filming with their phone cameras, which disgusted me. This wasn’t some sort of action thriller movie, this was real life, and they were filming it like some kind of sick voyeurs, presumably so they could sell the footage to the media for a pretty penny later on. My mother was on the ground, curled up in a ball, and I crawled over to her. “Mom! It’s going to be okay. Keith got him, and the security guys are taking care of everything now.” She nodded and kept staring into space with her brown eyes wide. “Evan…what happened to him?” “He’s been hurt, Mom, but people have called 911. There’ll be an ambulance here any minute, and he’ll be fine, I promise.” I knew I had no right to promise that; I had no way of knowing whether it was true or not, but I had to say something to get her off the ground. She finally nodded and got to her feet, her legs shaky, and I led her over to one of the security guards before racing back over to Keith, Evan and Cade. Evan appeared to have passed out from shock at this point, but he was still breathing. “How bad is it?” I asked, my voice choked with emotion. My legs were starting to feel unsteady, and I knew I wouldn’t last much longer before completely succumbing to the shock of the incident. I needed to try and be strong for a few more minutes, though. Evan had been hurt, and he needed everyone to rally together and be strong for him. “It looks like his arm was just grazed,” Cade said. “But I wrapped it up anyway, just like you showed me when he cut himself a while back, because it was bleeding a fair amount.” Keith’s face was pale, and he knelt down and grabbed Evan, hoisting him into his arms. Then he

stood back up and carried him down the aisle, towards the entrance, where police and paramedics were beginning to pour in. Cade and I followed, and he slipped an arm around my shoulder as we walked. No one said a thing or even looked at us funnily, because they were all too caught up with what had just happened, and as I felt his warm fingertips gently stroking the side of my arm, I had a sudden mental flashback of what had happened only a few minutes ago. Cade had jumped in front of all of us while a gunman was within close range, and he’d risked himself to save us. If he hadn’t done so, I had no idea what might’ve happened….maybe the gunman might’ve had a clearer shot. Maybe someone would be dead right now. It was too horrible to even imagine. I looked up at Cade, and as he watched the EMTs tend to his little brother, I could see the raw emotion in his eyes. “Cade…thank you,” I said. “You might have saved us all.” He shook his head. “I should’ve done more,” he said. “I thought Evan would be safe down on the ground with your Mom, where I pushed them, because the guy looked like he was aiming at Dad. But…” I stopped, moved to his front and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Cade, it’s not your fault. He was aiming more towards your Dad. You couldn’t have known he’d move at the last second. He was crazy.” He was silent for a long moment. “My brother got shot,” he finally said, his voice flat. It was like he needed to say the words out loud for it to really register with him as reality. “I know,” I said, hot tears springing to my eyes now. “But you tried, Cade. You did what you could, and you did way more than most other people would in the same scenario. You’re a good man.” “What if he dies?” I wrapped my arms around him, not even caring if anyone saw us. “Cade,” I said, my mouth comfortingly close to his left ear. “Evan isn’t going to die. It was just a graze on his arm, and he’s going to be fine.” “You don’t know that.” I sighed. “No, I don’t, but I have hope,” I said. “And you need to have hope too, for Evan’s sake. He’ll wake up, and he’ll be okay. I just know it.” I took a few deep breaths before squeezing him even tighter. “And until then, I’ll be here for you. A few weeks ago, you told me you’d always be around to stick up for me and be here for me…and now I’m saying the same thing to you. I’m here for you, always.” I pulled back and looked at him, and Cade looked down at me. “Thank you,” he replied, his voice gruff with emotion. “Charlotte, this isn’t the right time to say it, but I…” His voice trailed off, and I pressed a finger to his lips. “I know. But you’re right. This isn’t the right time. Let’s wait for a better time to say it.” He nodded and didn’t say another word as he stared down at me, but a whole world of communication passed between us in our gazes. I knew exactly what he’d been about to say.

I love you. My response was conveyed to him in my eyes. I love you too.

Chapter Eighteen Cade The hours after the wedding shooting crawled by like some sort of slow-motion horror film, but the days soon began to fly by, and before I knew it, two weeks had passed, and the worst of it was over. Evan was fine; the bullet had only grazed his arm a bit. It was enough to make him bleed a fair amount and also necessitate a small skin graft, but other than that, he was A-Okay. He was still in the hospital now, because the doctors were keeping an eye on the skin graft to make sure it didn’t become infected, but he was due out pretty soon, and Charlotte and I were currently on our way into his room to visit him. “Hey, little bro,” I said, stepping inside. He waved. “Hey guys,” he replied. “How’s things in the outside world?” “I tell you what, you’re lucky you’re still shut up in here,” I said, ruffling his hair. “It’s fucking crazy out there.” That was no exaggeration. Seeing as Dad and Emilia’s wedding had been so high-profile with many attendees from the political world, the shooting incident had made the news within minutes of it happening, and within hours it had gone viral. Some of the guests with zero morals had filmed parts of the incident—some had filmed the beginning with the shooter’s objection rant, and others had managed to capture the shooting and aftermath—and those parts had been pieced together by the money-hungry media vultures in order to sell more newspapers and increase online subscriptions. It was disgusting that people were profiting off my brother’s injury, but I was still at least grateful that he had survived the incident. I was also damn proud of my father. The way he’d jumped right at the shooter and tackled him was nothing short of heroic, and I’d never seen such genuine emotion in his face as he carried Evan out of the hotel that morning. I wasn’t the only one who was proud of him, either. The media had gone crazy over him, writing up several pieces about the ‘Hero Senator’ and what an amazing guy he was. The video of him tackling the shooter was also all over the internet, along with footage of him carrying an unconscious, bleeding Evan in his arms. He more than deserved his hero status, and the whole thing had brought us closer together as a family, as awful as it had been. The attacker had been identified as Felix Adamson, and his story had quickly been unveiled by the media. While I felt zero sympathy for the man after what he’d done, I now somewhat understood his actions. He was very mentally unstable—apparently he had been for years, according to his psychiatric medical records—and he was an avid believer in conspiracy theories, especially those concerning the government. He was genuinely convinced that all members of the government, including my father, were out to harm the general public, and some of his ramblings on online forums suggested that he even believed all the members of Congress were lizards disguised as humans, hellbent on controlling humanity.

Apparently, he’d thought that shooting up an event where several politicians were in attendance would be a good way to draw attention to all the supposed ‘truths’ he believed in. He was an avid hunter and had even completed marksmanship courses, so it was a wonder he hadn’t critically injured or killed anyone at the wedding. One psychiatrist who’d been interviewed on TV claimed that she thought he was in the midst of a psychotic break, and that was possibly why his usual shooting skills had been compromised—basically, he was so wired that day that he couldn’t even shoot straight. Thank god for that. Mental illness was an awful thing, but I guess it had saved us all in this particular case. I couldn’t even bear to think what would’ve happened if the man was completely lucid and had shot exactly where he aimed. My father could be dead, Evan could be dead, Emilia could be dead….Charlotte could be gone. It was too fucking horrible to even think about. “Lucky, huh?” Evan said with a teasing grin. “I got shot in the arm, and you call me lucky?” “It’s been two weeks, and it barely scraped you. How long are you gonna play the ‘I got shot’ card?” I asked. “Cade!” Charlotte said, horrified. Evan laughed and waved his hand. “I thought you’d be used to our sense of humor by now, sis.” She smiled. “You guys are terrible,” she said. “And I see I’m ‘sis’ now, huh?” “Yep. Our parents are officially married now, right?” Right. They were. While the ceremony had been disrupted, the legal paperwork had already been filed a week beforehand, so they were legally married. Charlotte nodded. “Yeah. Mom and I are officially Blackwells now.” “Or maybe we’re officially Rubios,” Evan said, sticking his tongue out. “You’re not cute enough to be a Rubio,” I said. “You’ll have to stick to being related to me and my big ugly mug.” “At least I look good when I stand next to you,” Evan said, snickering. Then his face took on a more serious note. “Hey, has Dad said anything to you guys?” “About what?” “About what’s going on with this upcoming election business. I know he was thinking about running for POTUS, but with all the crap that’s been going on, I don’t know if he will. I heard him cancel a meeting with that Greg guy earlier when he came to visit. He was on the phone right outside my room, and I think he thought I couldn’t hear, but I did.” “What Greg guy? You mean Greg Sanders?” Evan nodded. “Yeah, the political consultant.” I shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he’s decided not to run. Maybe all the media attention after the wedding made him realize the presidency isn’t for him.” “Yeah,” Evan said. “That could be it. But I dunno. What do you think? Should he do it?” I shrugged again. “Don’t know. I guess I’d have to think about it.”

“I want him to do it. It’s what he wants,” Evan said. A nurse came in a while later to tell us that visiting hours were over for the day, and I reached over and patted Evan on the back. “All right, buddy. We’ll be back to visit you tomorrow, after my game.” “Oh yeah, I forgot you had a game on soon. Who are you playing?” “West Texas College.” “Cool. Win it for me,” he said. “I’ll just be here, trying not to get injured again.” He flashed me a wicked grin, and then he hugged Charlotte before saying goodbye. Charlotte smiled and waved as we left, and as he left the hospital and headed into the underground parking lot, she turned to me. “You know, as different as you two are in some ways, Evan still has a lot in common with you. If I was the one who got shot in the arm, I doubt I’d be sitting around talking all lightheartedly about it like he was.” “We had to develop a thick skin and a warped sense of humor to deal with our father’s control freakery,” I said with a wink. “I guess a bit of gallows humor is a good way of working past what happened at the wedding,” she said. “I still have nightmares about it every night. So does my Mom.” An involuntary shudder seemed to wrack her body, and I rubbed her lower back, looking around to make sure no one was around to see us. It’d been one thing for us to embrace at the wedding directly after what happened—they all assumed we were hugging purely as distraught stepsiblings, and while we had been distraught, we definitely weren’t just platonic siblings—but now that two weeks had passed, there was no way we’d get away with cuddling each other in public under any circumstances. “It’ll get better soon,” I said. “I know.” We were silent for a moment as we arrived at my car, and after we’d gotten in, I turned to her. “Hey….what Evan said about our father. I think I should go talk to him about it. Dad, that is.” “Oh?” I nodded as I started up the car. “Yeah. I mean, you know very well that I can’t stand him on some occasions, but he is pretty damn good at his job. If he runs for president in this next election, I think he’s got a really decent shot at beating out Ron Hopkins, and Hopkins is the only other candidate so far who has any real prospects at all.” “So you think your Dad should run?” she asked. I nodded. “Yeah. It’s what he’s always wanted, and I know this whole thing really devastated him —it fucked us all up—but maybe it would take his mind off all the shit that’s happened if he had something positive like that to focus on. Maybe it would take all our minds off it.” Charlotte nodded slowly. “Yeah. You’re right,” she said. “You should go and talk to him when we get back. I need to study anyway.” We both knew that our relationship would essentially be over, or would at least have to be hidden unbelievably well, if Dad ran for POTUS, but right now I knew that wasn’t on either of our minds.

The main thing on our minds now was picking our family back up after it had been tossed around and shaken to its core. “What do you need to study for?” I asked. “Chem exam?” “Human biology.” “Ah. I’m happy to help,” I said. “Swing by my bedroom at ten tonight and I’ll help you gain a far better understanding of the male reproductive system.” Charlotte gave me a devious smile. “Oh, I already know all there is to know about that.” I feigned surprise to tease her. “Wow, and I thought I was the cocky one.” She smiled and leaned over to me. “Luckily I’ve got the goods to back that claim up…” *** “Hey, Dad.” I’d just arrived home and headed to Dad’s study, and he looked up at me from his desk as I greeted him. He looked tired, which I suppose I couldn’t blame him for, given the events of the last two weeks. “Hi, son,” he said. “What can I do for you? If you want my advice on your economics exam, then you’ll have to wait for me to fin—” I lifted a hand and interrupted. “Dad, I’m not here for coursework help. We’re always talking about my college stuff and my future plans….this time I want to talk to you about your future plans.” He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” “I mean the caucus is coming up soon, and you’ve been dodging Greg Sanders. Are you not going to try and run for president anymore?” He put down the pen he’d been holding and fixed his eyes on me. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last couple of weeks, and I don’t think now is the right time for me to think about running,” he replied. “Why not?” I asked. “It takes a lot of time and energy, and after what happened at the wedding, I think it would be best if I devoted more time to my family. Seeing Evan like that…” His voice trailed off, and I nodded. “I get that. But Evan wants you to do it.” “He does?” “Yeah. I just spoke to him at the hospital. I agree with him, honestly. I know you’ve always worried that you entered the game too late and that you might not get a chance to do something like this, but this is your chance, right here and now.” Dad sighed. “My family was put in danger because of my career, Cade. Evan was hurt.” “Yeah, he was, and it fucking sucked. But I think it’s made us stronger as a family,” I said. “And you always said the whole point of being in politics was to change things for the better. People love

you right now, and you have the chance to take advantage of that popularity and get elected, or at least try, and then you can help change things for the better. Maybe you can make some changes in the healthcare system that allow more mentally ill people to get help without costing them a fortune….you could prevent another Felix Adamson situation.” He was silent, and his face remained impassive, so I continued. “You don’t know what things will be like by the time the next election rolls around. This is an opportunity, Dad. Think about taking it.” I never thought I’d hear these words coming out of my mouth, but it was happening. After thinking about it earlier, I’d come to realize that I might’ve been wrong about my Dad all these years. I’d always thought he was a control freak who only loved politics for the power and influence it got him, and I thought that was why he wanted the same for me and Evan, but if he was willing to give up an opportunity like a possible presidency for the sake of his family, then that showed his true colors—he wasn’t a bad, power-hungry person overall. He was someone who cared about his family above everything else and wanted the best for them, which was probably also why he’d always pushed me so hard and ragged on me for choosing football as a future career path over something more stable. It was a noble reason for choosing not to run in this election, but I knew he’d regret it if he let this opportunity pass him by. I needed to get him to take it, so hopefully my little speech had been more convincing than he’d been to me all these years that he’d tried to get me to follow in his career footsteps. He looked at me for a long moment before speaking again. “I never thought I’d hear you telling me to run for president,” he said. “Yeah, me neither. But I think it’d be a good idea. It’s what you want, and you could do good things. And hey—Evan and I will get to brag that our father’s the POTUS.” He smiled; a rare expression for him where I was concerned. “I’ll think about it,” he said. “Good. I’ll talk to you later, Dad.” I stepped out of the study, proud of myself for managing to get through to him—at least it looked like I somewhat had. This was confirmed for me a few seconds later when I heard my father picking up his phone and dialing a number. He cleared his throat, and I grinned as I heard him speak to the person on the other end of the line. “Greg? It’s Keith Blackwell. Let’s talk about announcing that bid.”

Chapter Nineteen Charlotte Click click. “Hey, I think he’s coming out!” an unfamiliar male voice called out. Click click click. Groaning, I slid out of bed and stomped over to the window before cautiously peering out of the forest-green curtains. Just beyond the main driveway, I could see at least seven photographers snapping pictures of the house, and I rolled my eyes and let the curtains drop back in place before opening my door and hollering down the hall. “They’re back!” After the wedding incident, the press had been hounding us like mad, showing up at the house at all hours and trying to get photos and interviews. They’d even showed up outside one of my college lectures two days ago, and they’d also tried to hijack the media spots reserved for sports journalists after Cade’s game last week. They were like vultures, and the issue had only gotten worse now that Keith had announced his bid to run for president. He’d made the official announcement three days ago, and ever since then, the press had gone wild. Everyone loved him right now, given his heroic actions at the wedding, and he was poised to do very well if things continued the way they were. Maybe he’d even win. I was a bit blindsided by it all, as I’d never been the subject of so much attention before, but I supposed I just had to buck up and get used to it, because if he was elected, then this would be my life for the next few years. I was due for an interview with Keith’s campaign advisors sometime this week, and I’d been told they would go through every aspect of my life with a fine-toothed comb to see if there was any dirt that future opponents might dig up, which could affect Keith’s run. There was a silver lining to this— if letting a bunch of strangers dig into my life wasn’t the best crash course in learning how to live with this level of attention, then I didn’t know what was. Evan was out of the hospital now, and he arrived at my bedroom door a few seconds after I called out. “Did you say something?” “Yeah, the press are back.” He rolled his eyes. “The one downside of having a famous father who’s running for president. Zero privacy. I woke up and saw them mobbing Cade earlier when he left for training.” I gave him a rueful smile. “They don’t give up, do they? Anyway, let’s get some breakfast,” I said. “By the way, my telescope is set up. Provided the journalists aren’t still hanging around later tonight, we can take it out.”

“Awesome!” We padded downstairs, chatting about stars and planets, and as we headed towards the kitchen to grab some coffee and toaster waffles, I was so caught up talking to Evan that I didn’t even notice the fact that we weren’t alone. “Just let us know when we’re good to start, Charlotte.” I jumped despite myself, cursing under my breath, and I spun around to see an unfamiliar man sitting over at the dining table. “Sorry, who are you?” I asked, annoyed that I had allowed myself to be so easily spooked. I’d been quite jumpy ever since what happened at the wedding, and even though that had been a month ago now, that hadn’t changed. The only time I felt truly safe was when I was with Cade, and the time I got with him nowadays was short and infrequent thanks to all the public scrutiny of our family. “Greg Sanders. Your stepfather’s chief campaign advisor.” He stood up, holding the palms of his hands outward in surrender. “We were meant to have an interview this morning, remember?” I studied his face. A mop of blonde curls sat atop a head that was too narrow, small razor nicks peppered his cheeks, and a poorly-grown mustache had taken root underneath his hooked nose. A silver necklace hung from his neck, swaying softly, nearly perfectly in sync with the tick tock from the clock on the nearby wall. I didn’t like him. Something about him made him seem untrustworthy, but I nodded anyway. “Oh, sorry. I completely forgot it was today. Mind if I just grab a coffee before we start?” He nodded. “Go ahead.” “Would you like one too?” I asked, remembering my manners. “Sure. Cream, no sugar.” Evan had already gone on ahead, and I stepped into the kitchen to see him heating up some milk with the coffee machine. “I totally forgot we had the interviews today,” he said. “Same. Any idea what it’s like?” “They’ll start by asking you general questions, and then they’ll ask if you have any deep dark secrets, and so on. They might even get all your passwords for email, social media and your phone.” “I assumed as much,” I said with a sigh, not exactly keen on letting a bunch of random political aides go through all my text messages. When I’d finished making the coffees, I took them back out to the dining room and sat down, sliding Greg’s cup across the table towards him. “Thank you,” he said. “I trust your stepfather has given you a rundown on what sort of things we’ll be asking of you today?” “Um…not really. Did you say ‘we’?” He nodded and gestured down the hall. “Some of the other staff will be helping. They’re just in the study at the moment, getting some things ready. Basically, they’ll need access to your phone, email accounts, and any social media accounts. They’ll be looking through them while I ask you questions.” My heart began to race as he spoke. Cade and I had already discussed what would happen in this event, and we’d stopped using our main phones and social media accounts to communicate with each other. All our old messages had been scrubbed, and we’d bought two prepaid phones to safely text

each other from. “Okay,” I said with a nod. “My phone and laptop are upstairs. I’ll go and get them.” Greg nodded and waited for me, and when I returned, there was a young auburn-haired woman standing beside him. “Hi, Charlotte,” she said. “I’m Tina. If you’d like to hand over your phone and laptop and write down any passwords we might need, we’ll get started on this right away and have them back to you within a few hours.” I gave her the passwords, my heart thudding. Cade and I had been careful, but what if we hadn’t been careful enough? What if there was some way for Keith’s campaign team to dig through my phone and laptop to retrieve deleted messages? I wasn’t sure if there was, but I wished I’d thought about it sooner. The last thing I wanted to do was cause trouble for the campaign and for our parents. And yet, despite that, trouble was exactly what Cade and I were up to every time we hooked up… “Okay, Charlotte, let’s get started,” Greg said, once Tina had headed back down the hall with my phone and computer. “Easy questions first. Birth date, list of any schools you’ve attended, and current occupation.” I answered the initial questions easily, and the interview went quite well for the next hour or so. I’d never been asked so many personal questions before, but none of them were too invasive, and I’d finally started to relax when Tina came back into the room and whispered something to Greg. He narrowed his eyes, scribbled down some notes, and then waited for her to leave before speaking to me again. “Any relationships we should know about?” he asked. “You mean like a boyfriend?” “Or girlfriend. Or multiple partners. Doesn’t matter; we just need to know for now.” “I…uh….no boyfriend. Or girlfriend,” I said, forcing a smile. “I’m not dating anyone at all.” Greg was quiet for a second, and then he smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile; he looked like a shark circling its prey. “Tina has been checking your social media profiles. There were some messages on Facebook from a few weeks ago…some college friends of yours talking about an accusation that a girl made at a party. About you and your stepbrother Cade.” I could hear my heart thumping in my ribcage, but I managed to keep a blank face. “What accusations?” I asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible. “Sorry, I don’t remember those conversations with my friends.” “Apparently a girl called Nicki Damon accused you and your stepbrother of having a sexual relationship.” “Oh, that,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I totally forgot about that.” Liar. Greg arched an eyebrow. “You forgot?” “Yeah. It was so stupid, I barely even thought about it afterwards. Nicki was trying to stir up drama because she had a crush on Cade, and she got jealous because Cade and I get along well, so she made up that rumor. That’s all it was.” “So it’s just that. A rumor.”

“Of course,” I said. “There’s nothing going on between me and Cade.” I swallowed hard, hoping he bought my story. He was silent for a moment, and then he nodded and made a note on his papers. “Good. That’s a relief. Some things are easy to spin for presidential candidates. Having a child and a stepchild in a romantic or sexual relationship is not one of them.” “I can imagine,” I said, nodding as red-hot guilt lanced through me. I felt awful for lying—and equally bad for acting like Cade meant nothing to me other than a brother—but I knew it needed to be done. Like Greg had just said, if the public found out about our relationship, then it would be very difficult to spin it in any positive way, and that could seriously dampen Keith’s chances at securing a win. The whole thing had made me begin to confront the reality that Cade and I might have to end things, but I’d tried to push those thoughts as far back in my mind as possible. I didn’t even want to think about ending it. As long as we could hide it well enough, there was a chance that it would all be okay. I dreaded thinking about what would happen if Keith was actually elected, though. There was no way we could hide a relationship for four years, or eight if he ran for two terms. I suppose we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. Right now, I just wanted to bury my head in the sand….and also bury certain parts of Cade between my legs. The rest of the interview went smoothly, and I was finally allowed to leave the house so I could go to class. As I headed out to the garage, I wore a black knit cap and dark sunglasses to hide my face as best as possible from all the media vultures outside the fence, but it was no use, and my presence soon caused an excited flurry amongst them. It was a wonder they were even still here; it was freezing, and the house was so far out that there was really nothing for them to do here other than sit around and wait. “Charlotte!” one of the journalists called out from the other side of the fence. “Can we get a statement from you? How did it feel when your stepfather announced that he was running for president?” I ignored the question like I’d been told to, and I walked into the garage before getting in my car and starting it up. Parts of the driveway hadn’t been shoveled properly over the last couple of days, and the patches of snow coupled with the flashing cameras almost made me swerve right into the gate as I pulled out. “Crap!” I cursed to myself as I quickly regained control, my heart beating wildly. I’d never been a bad driver, but having these journalists stalking me and my family around was really throwing me off my game. One of these days, they could cause a serious accident. Trying not to think about that, I put some music on and hummed along as I made the drive to campus. I only had one class today—a chem lab—and when I arrived, I was grateful to see that there weren’t any media people hanging around. It was a different story after the lab finished, though. I’d originally planned on heading straight home afterwards, but as I walked towards the parking lot, I saw a bunch of people standing around my car. Dammit. They must’ve written down my plate details after seeing me leave home earlier, and they’d managed to find my car here as a result.

“I’ll cover for you,” my friend Kate said. She’d been in the chem class with me, and she was walking with me. “You go hide in the library for a while, and I’ll tell them you let me borrow your car and got a ride home with someone else. Hopefully then they’ll leave.” “Good idea. Thanks.” I ducked behind a sign and watched her try to distract the journalists for a minute, and when she seemed to have their attention, I pulled my knit cap as far down as possible and made the twenty-foot dash across the quad to get to the library. None of them saw me—Kate’s plan had worked. As I slowed down and walked towards the main library entrance, I could still hear her indignantly telling them off, and I breathed a sigh of relief and stepped into the warmth of the building. My phone buzzed in my jeans pocket a moment later. It was Kate. I managed to convince some of them, but a few are still suspicious and hanging around your car. Wait in the library for half an hour or so. That should be enough time for them to finally give up and go. I quickly texted back. Thanks so much, Kate. You’re a legend. I’ll see you at the bio lecture tomorrow. I booked out one of the private study rooms on the third floor and trudged up there, and just as I locked the door and took a seat, I heard another buzzing. Assuming it was Kate again, I checked my phone, but there were no new message notifications. It had to be Cade, texting me on the other prepaid phone we’d bought to secretly communicate. I pulled the spare phone out of my bag and looked at the message. Hey, babe. Where are you? Everyone’s left the house, so we’ll have a couple of hours to ourselves if you get home quick ;) Sorry, I replied. Stuck in the library. Media pricks hanging around my car. Hiding here until they leave. That sucks. Hope you can get home soon. How did the interview with Dad’s staff go? It was mostly fine. Part of it scared the crap out of me, though. Greg asked in a roundabout way if I was sleeping with you. His reply came quickly. I wish you were sleeping with me right now ;) That was two wink emojis he’d sent me now….I guess he was seriously horny. That wasn’t exactly surprising considering how little time we’d had to hook up in the last couple of weeks, and he wasn’t the only horny one. I’d been finding myself snappy and irritable for the last few days, especially earlier when I’d had the run-in with the media and almost crashed my car into the gate at home. Part of my frustrated mood could definitely be blamed on the fact that I was missing out on getting more of the best sex I’d ever had, and I smiled to myself and sent back a coy reply as a naughty idea struck me. What would you do if I was there right now? He replied immediately. I think you know exactly what I’d do. Tell me. I want to hear every single detail… Aren’t you in the library? Private study room. The door is locked….and I’m sliding my hand down my pants…

As I hit send, I unbuttoned the top of my jeans and unzipped the fly, slipping one hand inside and stroking it over my lacy panties. This time Cade’s reply took slightly longer—I must’ve surprised him with my overt sexting invitation. You dirty, dirty girl. This kind of naughty texting is unacceptable. I think you’re in dire need of a spanking. The thought of him pulling my panties down, throwing me across his lap and slapping my tender ass-cheeks made a frisson of pleasure jolt through my body, and I slid my hand inside my panties and ran it over my mound, drawing in a deep breath as I felt the wet warmth gathering there. My body shuddered, and I tapped out a response to Cade. Tell me what you’d do to me if I was there….please? His reply came a moment later. I’d slowly pull your panties down your legs and sink down, kissing your stomach and thighs as I move lower and lower. Then I’d press my lips against your pussy and taste you while your fingers pull on my hair, pulling me tighter and tighter against you… I read the message and pressed the pad of my index finger against my sensitive bud, circling it around and around as I pictured Cade’s lips feasting on me. Soon my hips were rocking gently on the chair, my knees already week and my body shaking with need. Another message lit up my phone screen. Then I’d put you on the bed and lift your legs over my shoulder, gripping your ass, and I’d tell you to ride my mouth until you came…but that would only be the first orgasm ;) I let out a whimper as I saw myself clamping my legs around his head, pleasuring myself with his tongue until my inner thighs pulsed, and I trembled through my climax. I couldn’t wait to return the favor to Cade when we got our next chance to be together in private, and I gasped and opened my eyes to see another message from him. As soon as you come on my face, I’d move up your body, and I’d hold my hard cock right up to your clit and gently rub it, teasing out every last bit of pleasure from your first orgasm….then I’d slide my cock up and down your lips, bumping it right up against your pussy until you’re begging me to stop teasing you. Beg, Charlotte…. Frustrated already at the mere thought of being teased so mercilessly, I tapped out another reply. Please, Cade! Please what? Please fuck me… I’m still not convinced…my cock is still right at your pussy, about to push in, and I’m squeezing your nipples in my hands. Beg me some more if you really want it… Please! Cade, I need you to fuck me hard. That’s good….as you moan and cry out, begging me to fuck you hard, I thrust right in, so deep inside you that you don’t even realize you’re calling my name. I kept rubbing my throbbing clit as I read his messages, and they kept pouring in, one after the other.

I’m slowly moving inside you and back out, then in again, feeling every ridge and contour of your tight pussy walls as they grab me. You’re so warm and snug, and fuck….you make me want to cum right away. But I don’t. I keep going, harder and harder. Faster and faster. “Mmm….oh god,” I moaned, my head falling back as I pictured his words coming to life. You start to moan, telling me we should hurry, because our parents might be back soon. But that’s too bad…I won’t be quick with you, no matter how badly you make me want to cum. I need to fuck you for longer, give you everything you deserve. I was so wet now that my panties were soaked, and I desperately wanted Cade’s cock in me right at this second, but my fingers would have to do. I slid one inside myself, finding no resistance due to how slick my pussy was with all my desire, and I began to pump it in and out of myself as my phone lit up on the desk again. I pull off you and get us both off the bed, holding you in my arms, and I move you so that your legs are wrapped around my waist. Then I’m back inside you, thrusting hard as I hold you in the air, and your hands press against my chest, using me for leverage as you push yourself back and forth onto my cock. You keep begging me to fuck you harder, so I give you what you want, slamming so deep and hard into you that you let out a hiss every time I hit that sweet spot inside you. My knees were beginning to buckle as I kept touching myself, and my core tightened around my finger as my body tensed. I was aware of my phone buzzing with yet another message on the desk, but I was too far gone at this stage, pushed perilously close to the edge of the abyss again, and finally the pleasure of my second climax was exploding out of me, making me cry out again and again. “Oh god….oh god…” “Are you okay in there?” My eyes snapped open as I heard a knock on the door, and the vaguely familiar voice sounded again. “Hello? Everything okay?” “Um….yes!” I called back out, my mind racing for an excuse. “I was just watching a funny video on my laptop and laughing. I’m fine.” “Okay, but I’ve booked this study room for the next hour. Can you clear it out and let me in?” I frowned as I pulled my jeans back up and composed myself. I’d booked this private study room for the next hour, so there was no way this person at the door could have it, unless the library staff had accidentally double-booked it. “You might be at the wrong room,” I replied. “I definitely booked this one. 3C.” “I also booked 3C,” the voice came again. I rolled my eyes, assuming my suspicion had been correct—the library staff had indeed screwed up and double-booked the room. “Gimme a sec,” I said, standing up and heading to the door. I swung it open, and it was then that I realized why the voice had sounded so familiar. Nicki was standing there.

Chapter Twenty Charlotte My own shock was mirrored in Nicki’s features, and her cheeks flushed a deep crimson. “Oh… I….um…I didn’t realize it was you.” “Neither did I,” I said, my voice stiff. I hadn’t seen Nicki since what she’d done at the cabin party, and I hadn’t exactly wanted to, either. “I’ll find another place to study,” she said softly. She made to leave, then turned back to me. “Charlotte….I know you have no reason to believe a word that comes out of my mouth right now, but for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry for what I did back in Silverton Falls.” I considered her words, my teeth set on edge. “Sorry because everyone took my side? Or are you genuinely sorry?” She sighed. “Genuinely sorry. I’ve lost more than half my friends, even Amy and Talia, but I know that it’s all my fault and I deserve it. I was really awful to you.” “Why did you do it?” I asked, folding my arms. I already knew why, I just wanted to hear her say it out loud. Her gaze wavered, and then she looked into my eyes. “I liked Cade. I’d liked him for ages. I kept waiting for him to notice me, but he never did. Not as anything more than a friend, anyway. He was always off with some other girl. Then his last girlfriend Jenna cheated on him, and I thought that when they broke up, maybe it would finally be my chance. I thought if I started spending more time with him, then he’d finally notice me and realize he’d been wasting his time with all those other girls when I’d been right in front of him all along. But then you showed up, and after that, he was always talking about you, being a new family member and all.” “Uh-huh.” “I thought if I became friends with you, he’d see how much effort I was putting into helping you settle into town, and then he’d suddenly see me in a whole different light. I know it was pathetic.” “Yeah, it was.” She nodded, tears brimming in her eyes. “Then I saw how close you two were when we went to Silverton Falls, and something in me just snapped when I spoke to Blake and heard about that girl at the hotel. I know it’s just a coincidence that you look similar to whoever she was, but I was drunk, and I was so mad.” I felt a pang of guilt. Even though what she’d done to humiliate me was awful, she hadn’t exactly been entirely wrong about me and Cade. I was the girl at the hotel that night, and while we hadn’t had sex at the point when Nicki said all those things about us at the cabin party, we’d gone and slept with each other only a few hours later. “Anyway, I just wanted to say sorry. I’ve been meaning to call you and say it for weeks now, but I haven’t had the guts,” Nicki finished. “You don’t have to forgive me, it’s okay.”

With that, she turned on her heel, and I called out to her. “Nicki…wait.” She spun around, and I asked her something that had been bothering me for a while now. “When you were acting like my friend….did you like me at all? Or was it all a show?” “I liked you,” she said. “You’re funny and cool, and I really liked you as a person, even though I only tried to be your friend in the first place to suck up to Cade. But you’re not pathetic. I didn’t mean that when I said it. I was drunk and stupid.” I opened my mouth to reply and she held up a hand. “And yes, I know being drunk is no excuse. That’s why I don’t expect you to forgive me.” I sighed, her words flashing through my mind. I wanted to keep disliking her for what she’d done, but she seemed genuinely remorseful for her actions, and I wasn’t sure I could hate her even if I tried. I mean, look how long I’d held onto my bitterness and hatred towards Cade in the past. Where had that ever gotten me? Nowhere, unless you counted an emotional place of unresolved issues and simmering anger. Nicki might’ve wronged me, but that didn’t mean I had to drag myself down to her level and become just as miserable as her by holding onto all my anger towards her. “Nicki…I forgive you,” I said softly. Her eyebrows shot up. “What? Really?” “Yes.” “Why? I was so awful to you, Charlotte. I wasn’t expecting you to forgive me.” “I guess I’ve learned that nothing good can come from holding onto bad stuff from the past. I’m still upset about what you said and did, but I’m willing to move on, provided you can do the same without behaving like that towards me ever again. Or anyone else.” She nodded vehemently, tears brimming in her eyes. “I promise I won’t.” “And I think you should talk to Cade and apologize in person to him too.” “Do you think he’ll even speak to me?” she asked, her voice tinged with anxiety. “Yeah. You know him. He acts all tough and douchey sometimes, but he’s a really good guy. I think he’ll be open to talking.” She nodded. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said softly, before throwing her arms around me unexpectedly. “Oh, Charlotte, thank you so much. I honestly never thought you’d ever forgive me, and I know I don’t even deserve it. You’re a better person than me. Way better.” I awkwardly patted her on the back, and she pulled away and wiped a stray tear from her cheek. “Sorry, it’s probably a bit too early for us to be hugging,” she said with an embarrassed smile. “Just a bit,” I said. “But hey, seeing as the library staff double-booked the study room, why don’t we share it? The desk is huge, so there’s enough room for the two of us.” She gave me another watery smile. “Sure. Thanks. The other rooms are all taken, and I really didn’t want to study in the main areas…all those freshmen are so loud.” “I know, right?” I said, stepping aside so she could come into the room. We made some more small talk for a moment while Nicki pulled some books and pens out of her

bag, and then she looked at the mostly empty desk with her eyebrows furrowed. “Where’s your laptop?” she asked. “Hm?” “When I first knocked, you said you were watching a funny video or something?” “Yeah, I…er…I put it away before I got up to open the door,” I said, bending down and unzipping my bag. Another pang of guilt over lying hit me, but I pushed it aside and pulled my computer out before putting it on the desk. “So what are you studying for?” Nicki asked. “Finals?” “I should be, but I was mostly just hiding out in here,” I admitted, taking a seat across from her. She arched a brow. “From who?” “Media people.” Her eyebrows furrowed, and then a look of comprehension dawned on her. “Oh, of course. I forgot your stepdad announced his bid to run for president the other day. The media must be stalking you everywhere!” “Yep,” I said with a rueful smile. “They were hanging around my car earlier, and I’m not meant to speak to them at all, so my friend tried to get rid of them while I came to hide in here.” Nicki held her hands up. “I know it will take a long time for you to ever trust me again, but I promise I’m not stalking you for them. It was honestly a mistake that we double-booked the same study room, and I won’t reveal your hiding spot.” I laughed, and she smiled and opened one of her books. “Anyway, I really need to get started on studying for my programming unit. I have three back-to-back exams on it soon. Computer science can be a real bitch sometimes.” “Yeah, I can imagine,” I said, opening my laptop and typing in my password. “I should start on my stuff as well.” Our final exams for the semester were coming up quite soon, and if I was going to be stuck in the library for a while longer, I guessed I may as well make that time count by getting in some cramming. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to concentrate on any of my coursework, and I found myself browsing the internet instead, aimlessly clicking on various links on social media. I came across a link on a friend’s Twitter feed after a few minutes, and it was about Keith’s presidential candidacy bid. Clicking on it out of interest, I scanned it to see that it was just a general fluff piece probably paid for by his campaign, and my interest quickly waned. However, my curiosity was piqued once more by a link to another article on the side of the page. It was something about Felix Adamson, the wedding shooter, and even though I hated the man for what he did, I was drawn to the article like a moth to the flame. It was a write-up of his life up until the point where he’d decided to attack the wedding, exploring his obsession with conspiracy theories and descent into mental illness. In his younger years, he’d applied for and gone through some of the Navy SEAL training program, and while he’d apparently proven to be physically fit and an excellent marksman, he’d ultimately failed the psychological testing component of the selection process. This rejection had supposedly

made him bitter, and not long after that, he’d delved into the world of anti-government conspiracies. While that was going on, he’d also entered a life of crime, and before he attacked the wedding, he already had a few outstanding arrest warrants that he’d been trying to run from. By the time the wedding came around, he’d apparently had a full psychotic break, and his usual mental faculties weren’t functioning properly. According to the article, this was why he’d shot so badly that day—luckily for us—and failed to seriously injure or kill anyone at the wedding, despite shooting from near point blank range. This article went on to quote another one which actually refuted this claim, and I clicked on the link for that as well, frowning as I read it. It contained a written interview with a Dr. Chris Xiao, a well-renowned psychologist who’d been following the whole case and doing his own digging into Felix’s life and background. He stated in the interview that he believed that Felix hadn’t had any sort of psychotic break and was actually entirely lucid before, during and after the wedding, given all the evidence he’d seen. My mind whirled as I read the article. It hadn’t gained much traction—there were zero comments on it—but what if this psychologist was right? If Felix Adamson had been entirely lucid while carrying out the wedding attack, then that meant there had to be some other reason why he’d shot his weapon so clumsily. Almost as if he’d done it badly on purpose. But why would he do that? He’d been trying to make a statement with his heinous actions, so surely he wanted to hurt or kill people that day to get more attention? After all, the worse a tragedy was, the more attention it usually got. I thanked god every day that he hadn’t been successful in killing anyone that day, but now that I thought about it, it did seem rather odd that the whole thing had been so clumsily carried out. Perhaps he’d changed his mind at the last minute and been unable to go through with killing anyone, and he’d simply fired the gun to try and scare us and accidentally grazed Evan’s arm. Or perhaps Dr. Xiao was just looking to boost his own profile in the public eye by making the claim that Felix was lucid when he wasn’t; maybe he really did have a psychotic break, and that was what caused the clumsiness. Nicki must have noticed my expression from across the desk, because she stopped making notes for a moment and spoke up. “Hey, Charlotte….you okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “I just can’t stop reading about Felix Adamson. I know I shouldn’t, because it makes me have nightmares, but I can’t seem to look away whenever I see articles about him.” She nodded sympathetically. “I get it. What happened to your family at that wedding was awful, so it’s not surprising that you’d be drawn to reading about it over and over again. It’s like your mind’s way of trying to understand why it all happened, I think.” “I guess that makes sense.” “The guy will probably be in prison for a while, though, right?” she asked. “Yeah.” She shuddered. “Good,” she said. “So what exactly are you reading about?”

I turned my laptop screen to show her the article. “This psychologist thinks Felix Adamson faked having a psychotic break, and that he was actually entirely lucid and knew exactly what he was doing that day.” Nicki scanned the article with her eyes narrowed, and then she patted my hand sympathetically. “These guys always come out of the woodwork whenever anything like this happens. They try to claim that everything is a big conspiracy, and really it’s to get media attention on them instead of the actual facts. I bet this Dr. Xiao guy is just looking to score a bunch of new clients for his therapy practice by trying to make waves.” “Yeah. I wondered if that was the case.” We sank back into silence, but it was a comfortable one. I felt really good about having chosen to forgive Nicki, and I hoped Cade would be able to find it in his heart to forgive her too. She’d done a bad thing, but that didn’t mean she didn’t deserve a second chance, and while their friendship might never be the same, it would mean a lot if we could all at least be civil with each other. I just hoped I’d made the right choice in choosing forgiveness on this occasion. I finally clicked out of all the online articles and began to focus on re-reading the biology notes I’d made this semester, and before I knew it, an hour had flown by. I checked my phone to see a message from my Mom asking if I could pick up some French bread to go with dinner, and I stashed it away in my bag before packing up the rest of my stuff. “Gotta go,” I said, looking over at Nicki. “Family dinner calls.” “Okay, well, thanks for sharing the room. I’ll see you around,” she said. Her eyes were flashing with uncertainty, and I could tell that she still felt bad for what she’d done and wasn’t sure that I’d really forgiven her. “Want to grab a coffee sometime before finals?” I asked. Her face relaxed, and she smiled. “Sure. My treat, though.” “Cool. I’ll text you later.” After saying goodbye, I headed out of the library and into the parking lot, glad to see that the space around my car was now completely empty of journalists. After leaving campus, I stopped by a grocery store to pick up the bread my Mom wanted, and as I made the fifteen minute journey out of town to get home, my mind flashed back to the Felix Adamson articles I’d read in the library. That last one had really embedded itself in my mind, and even though I was sure that Nicki was right and it was all just an attention grab, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications if it were actually true. As I pulled into my spot in the garage upon arriving at home, I tried to clear the thoughts from my head. Even if it was true that Felix had faked the breakdown, then the most likely explanation was that he was attempting to plead insanity to get out of prison for what he’d done. That had to be it—there was no big conspiracy, and why would there be? No one stood to gain anything from that horrible incident. I was still mulling it over as I trudged out of the garage, and I decided to go and check the mailbox now that all the journalists and photographers had cleared out for the night. I found a few bits of junk mail, but nothing important, and I turned around to head back up the driveway towards the house,

almost having a heart attack when I saw Keith standing directly behind me. I squealed. “Oh! Sorry, you frightened me,” I said, my heart racing a million miles an hour. “Sorry, sweetheart. I was just on my way to make sure those damn media vultures had finally gone.” “Looks like it, yeah,” I replied, nodding back down the driveway. “I was just checking the mail.” He looked down at the sheaf of junk mail in my right hand, then nodded and smiled, and I suddenly noticed how cold the expression in his eyes was despite that smile. I assumed it was just the dim moonlight playing tricks on me, but I couldn’t shake a sudden anxious feeling about being too close to my new stepfather. But why? What on earth was my subconscious trying to tell me? “I guess we better get inside,” I said, trying to keep the quaver out of my voice. He nodded again before patting me on the shoulder. “Yes. You should be careful about hanging around outside at night,” he said. “After all, there’s all kinds of crazy people in the world. You never know what could happen....” He turned to walk away, and as I followed him back towards the house, his words echoed in my head. All kinds of crazy people in the world….you never know what could happen. And suddenly I knew exactly why he made me so nervous.

Chapter Twenty-One Charlotte Bzz. Bzz. My alarm clock told me that it was eight o’clock, but I already knew that from checking my phone a few minutes ago. I’d barely slept a wink all night. I couldn’t, not with all the thoughts clouding my mind after what I’d come to realize last night. I’d been desperate to tell someone what I was worried about, but I knew I would sound crazy. Maybe I was crazy. But I was sure of myself right now; I was onto something. With a heavy sigh, I got out of bed, my legs shaky from a combination of nervousness and exhaustion. If anyone would listen to me, it would be Cade, so I quietly padded down the hallway and let myself into his bedroom, being careful not to make any noise that might alert anyone else in the house to what I was doing. Cade was still asleep, but he woke up when he heard me enter the room, and he sat up in bed, a lazy grin spreading across his face. “Hey, didn’t see you last night. Was kinda hoping you’d sneak in here so we could continue our little texting session in person.” I arched an eyebrow in confusion before remembering what he was talking about. It felt like our sexting session had happened a hundred years ago, even though it was only yesterday afternoon. Cade saw the expression on my face, and before I could say anything, he sat up straighter. “What’s up? Everything okay?” I nodded and sat down on his bed. “Yes. I mean no. I mean, I don’t know.” A puzzled expression crossed his face. “You’re not really making any sense.” “I know. Just….promise me you won’t think I’m insane. Or horrible. Or both.” “What’s going on, Charlotte? You’re worrying me.” I took a deep breath. “I want to talk about your Dad.” “My Dad?” he repeated. “Erm….okay.” “You’re going to think this sounds completely insane, and I’m aware that it probably is, but something’s been bothering me for a while now.” I recounted the article I’d read yesterday to him, and he shook his head. “I don’t get it. A psychologist thinks Adamson faked the breakdown….but so what? If he is, he’s probably just trying to avoid a long prison sentence by claiming insanity.” “Yes, I thought that too, but it doesn’t explain why he was so clumsy in his aim at the wedding. I mean, we all heard him say he was there to kill your father. If it’s true that he was faking the breakdown and was totally lucid, then he should have aimed better. I mean, thank god he didn’t manage to kill anyone, but the guy was practically a trained sniper. If he wasn’t in the throes of some sort of mental breakdown, why did he fail so badly in achieving what he went to the wedding to do?”

Cade shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t really want to kill anyone? Just wanted attention, or something, so he purposely aimed shoddily, knowing he’d only graze someone.” I nodded impatiently. “I thought the same thing. But as morbid as it is, people who kill get way more attention, for years and years. So if he was really looking for attention for his own cause, why fail so badly?” Cade was silent for a moment as he stared down at his duvet, and then he looked up at me. “Charlotte, what are you getting at?” I was silent for a long moment, daring myself to speak the words. Finally, I opened my mouth and managed to get them out. “I just think a lot of the events surrounding the whole wedding shooting are really suspicious. And convenient.” “Convenient for who?” “Your father,” I mumbled, scarcely able to get the words out. Cade’s expression darkened. “What the hell are you talking about?” “Think about it. Despite all of the security guards at the wedding who were checking to make sure only people on the list got in, Felix Adamson managed to slip through and sit with the guests at the ceremony. That in itself could just be a coincidental screw-up. But then after that, Felix—an expert marksman—threatened to kill your Dad during his rant, yet at point blank range he somehow managed to miss so badly that he grazed Evan’s arm, leaving your Dad unhurt and capable of saving the day. Another mere coincidental screw-up on Felix’s behalf, maybe. But put both those weird coincidences together, along with the fact that your father’s presidential campaign has benefited enormously from all this attention, and it stops seeming like those events are all just a set of big coincidences. It really starts to smell a bit fishy...right?” Cade’s gaze was steely now, his jaw set in a hard line. “So let me get this straight. You’re accusing my father of setting the whole thing up and having my little brother shot by a criminal just to make himself look like a hero, all for attention? Just so he can look good to the public so they’ll be more likely to vote for him in the election?” “I’m not accusing him,” I said. “I just think it’s all too strange to be a set of coincidences. Don’t you?” “No. I don’t. And you are accusing him. You’re not a fucking detective, Charlotte, and I think you’re way out of line here,” he said, anger flashing in his eyes. “After it happened, he told us he wasn’t even going to run for president!” “Not at first. All he did was hint at it by conveniently making calls to cancel meetings with Greg Sanders when he was right outside Evan’s hospital room. Maybe he knew Evan would hear and tell you about it. That way he could sort of guilt-trip the two of you and manipulate you into going to him to convince him to run….which is exactly what you did. That way it looks like it wasn’t really his idea, and that he had initially intended on not running. That would take a lot of suspicion off him, wouldn’t it? Because then if anyone suspects anything, all he has to say is ‘well, I wasn’t even planning on running until my sons convinced me to do it,’ and you’d be there to back him up on that.” Cade’s temper flared, and he stood up, his eyes narrowed. “Charlotte, you sound totally fucking crazy. If this is all you have to say to me, then I want you to get out of my room. Now.”

“I thought you’d listen to me. I thought…” “What? That I’d turn on my Dad just because I’ve never really gotten along with him until now?” “No, I—” “I know your father was an amazing guy, and mine could never match up to all that, but that doesn’t mean he’s a scummy piece of shit,” he continued, eyes glittering with anger. “Cade, that’s not what I’m saying.” “I’m done talking about this.” My hands began to shake, and I realized I’d taken the conversation too far. “Cade, I’m sorry, I just —” He held up a hand, silencing me yet again. “You know, when we first met up after all those years apart, I could handle you hating me. But for you to actively hate my family like this…I can’t deal with it.” “I don’t hate your family. I love Evan. I’m just not sure about…” My voice trailed off. I had no idea what to say anymore, and Cade sighed and looked towards the window. “Maybe it’s a good thing you dreamed all of this bullshit up. Makes it easier.” “Makes what easier?” I asked. Then I realized what he was saying, and my eyes filled with hot tears. “You want to break up with me?” He still didn’t look at me. “We knew this had to end one day, didn’t we?” he said softly. “I didn’t want it to, but now…I guess this is for the best.” “So we have one disagreement and you’re going to ditch me?” I said. He rounded on me, his eyes flashing with fury. “This is hardly a disagreement, Charlotte. You basically accused my father of being a total fucking psychopath for no reason. I don’t see how we can move on from that.” I nodded, tears still brimming in my eyes. “Okay. You’re right. I…I’m sorry.” I turned and ran from his room, stopping in my own room to grab my car keys before dashing outside. I couldn’t stay in this house for another second. I needed to get out for some fresh air, and I needed to do it far away from Cade, because I didn’t want him to see or hear me cry. I knew it was my own fault that he’d ended it with me. I’d pushed him too far by voicing my horrifying suspicions, and now I was paying the price. I’d lost him. And seriously, what the hell had I even expected? As I pulled out of the garage and headed out onto the main road, I gripped the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles turned white, and I replayed what had just happened in Cade’s room over and over in my mind. All I could hear in my head was the man I loved telling me we were over, and I winced as the emotional pain seemed to claw at my stomach, turning into tangible physical pain. I might’ve lost him, but that didn’t mean I’d changed my mind about his father. Keith and his campaign team were up to something shady, and every time I thought about it, I became more and more convinced that I was right.

If Cade couldn’t see that, then I’d just have to make him see it. As soon as that thought occurred to me, reality hit me like a cold slap in the face. It had been a totally crazy thought, and I was acting like a crazy person. Holy shit. I’d totally lost it. Cade was right; my suspicions were probably baseless, and I’d simply watched one too many political dramas on TV, causing my mind to cook up all sorts of insane conspiracy theories. I was no better than all of the other nuts out there now, dredging up memories of a horrible event just to try and spin it into a defamatory story. Jesus, what the hell had I been thinking? But it was too late to say sorry now. I’d taken it too far when I should’ve just kept my big, stupid mouth shut. A fresh set of tears brimmed in my eyes, and I kept my gaze on the road as they splashed down my cheeks. I had no idea where I was going, but I was too ashamed to go back and face Cade or anyone else right now, so I kept on driving. A moment later, a bright flash lit up my rear-view mirror, and I glanced at it to see who the hell was flashing their lights during the daytime. A silver van with a logo on the hood was trailing me. A flash of recognition hit me, and I realized it was one of the local news station’s vans. They must’ve been waiting around outside the property again, and they’d seen me leave the house and had decided to follow me in the hopes of harassing an interview out of me. “Ugh, leave me alone!” I said out loud, glancing in the mirror to see that they were right on my ass now. They flashed their headlights again, and I decided to pull over to the side of the road and let them pass, so I could then possibly turn in an attempt to lose them. I pressed my foot down on the brake, slowing down and veering further to the right as I watched the van in my mirrors, and when I saw them speed past me, I started to make a turn so that I could drive off in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, I was so caught up with trying to lose the van that I failed to notice the tiny squirrel dashing across the road until the last second. “Shit!” I said, slamming on the brakes again and swerving to the left to try and avoid hitting the little animal. The edge of the road was packed with dense snow, some of which had melted onto this part of the road in the morning sun, and terror shot through me like an icy bullet as my front tires slipped. The squirrel had gotten away safely, but I was quickly losing control of my car, and pressing down on the brakes did nothing but make me skid even more, right around in a half-circle before the car went flying backwards down the embankment on the edge of the road. I screamed as I realized where I was heading; I was careening down a small hill into a valley, where I knew a dense forest lay, and in seconds, my car could be smashed right into an enormous pine trunk. I braced myself for the impact as my car suddenly tipped to the side and began to roll, and only one thought echoed in my head as my eyes snapped shut with terror. Cade….I’m an idiot. Please forgive me.

Chapter Twenty-Two Cade My hands clenched into fists as I paced my room, furiously replaying the conversation with Charlotte in my head. What the fuck had gotten into her? She’d come in here looking like she hadn’t slept in a week and then launched into some insane theory about my Dad being a diabolical psycho who’d pay a gunman to shoot his son at his own goddamned wedding, and I couldn’t believe it. She’d lost her fucking mind. It wasn’t like Charlotte to be so irrational, though. She was a smart girl, and I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t the sort of person who would buy into conspiracy theories that had zero merit. I absolutely hated to admit it, but that made me wonder if maybe she was right, or at least partially right, about the wedding disaster. While I didn’t think my father would ever do such a thing, I honestly wouldn’t put it past Greg Sanders. He was the most cutthroat political consultant in the country, and I’d heard lots of rumors over the years of the wild shit he’d done to get his candidates elected. He was like Karl Rove on steroids. But would he stoop this low? Maybe, maybe not. It was still worth thinking about, though, and I realized how quickly and cruelly I’d dismissed Charlotte over the subject. I guess I couldn’t be blamed for reacting so badly, though; after all, she’d leveled some pretty terrible accusations against my father. On the other hand, the more I thought about what she’d said, the more I realized she was simply stating things I’d actually wondered about myself. Why had the security at the wedding been so shoddy? There’d been plenty of security personnel, and I’d seen them checking everyone who came in, so how the hell had they managed to let Felix Adamson slip in undetected? With a fucking gun, no less. It didn’t make sense, unless they were actually just that bad at their jobs….or if someone on the inside had helped Adamson get in. If it was true that someone like Greg Sanders had orchestrated this whole thing in order to get my father elected, then it would be the political scandal of the century. But surely it wasn’t true. It was too crazy to be true. Even so, I needed to apologize to Charlotte. I’d been so pissed at her for bringing all this crap up that I’d made the decision to end things with her, but fuck…it wasn’t what I really wanted at all. I’d acted in the heat of the moment, like an idiot, and now I was regretting every word. Especially the way I’d brought up her father; I should have never done that. I hadn’t said anything negative about him, but still, he’d passed away a long time ago, and it wasn’t right for me to bring him into any arguments we had. I was an asshole. I threw on some clothes, then headed down the hall and knocked on her door. As I did so, the door swung open, and I saw that she wasn’t in her room. Her phone was sitting on the bedside table where she always left it, but her keys were gone, and I frowned. Where would she have gone? She didn’t

have any classes today, and I was pretty sure she didn’t have any plans with friends for the day. Then again, I’d really upset her—she’d probably taken a drive somewhere to blow off some steam. I left the house and headed towards town, figuring that was the most likely direction she’d have gone in, and about five minutes into the drive, I saw a set of skid marks on the road up ahead. They looked fresh, and my stomach lurched with worry for Charlotte. I knew it was likely that someone had simply swerved and then regained control of their car rather than anything drastic, but as I approached, the direction of the skid marks became clearer, and it was obvious that whichever car had created them had gone right off the road. I stopped, my heart pounding. Even if it wasn’t Charlotte, some other person had still likely crashed, and it didn’t look like anyone else had noticed and stopped to help yet. I got out and dashed across the road and looked down, and a chill ran down my spine as I saw Charlotte’s car on its side, with the back end smashed into a tree. It must have gotten turned around as it skidded off the road, and it looked like it had been mid-roll as it crashed into the pine trunk. I ran down the snowy embankment, my heart in my throat. Don’t be dead. Don’t be dead. Please… I reached the car to see that Charlotte was on the side which was up in the air, and it was clear that she wasn’t conscious. I quickly set about kicking the surrounding snow into a small snow bank near it, and with a grunt, I then reached up and tried to lower the car back down to the ground. It felt like an impossible task, but it was a small car, and with each attempt, I managed to lower it an inch or so, rocking it back and forth, and soon gravity took over, and the car came crashing down into the snow bank I’d built, which would hopefully cushion the blow for Charlotte a little bit. When the car was safely on the ground, I opened her door and unclasped her seatbelt before dragging her out and laying her on the ground. She had a pulse, and her chest was slowly rising and falling. I let out a sigh of relief. Thank fuck. Ripping my jacket off, I placed it on the ground near her and rolled her onto it to keep her body from getting too cold, and I stroked her hair out of her face as I checked her head for any serious injuries. There was a bump about two inches above her left ear, but it didn’t feel very large, and I hoped to god it was nothing more than shock which was keeping her unconscious. “Charlotte…wake up,” I whispered. “Please wake up.” A strange crackling sound a few feet away made me look up, and I saw that part of the front of her car had caught fire, with flames licking up and down the metal shell. I knew it was rare for cars to catch on fire after crashes, but it could happen if the fuel tank or fuel lines ruptured after a crash and came into contact with the hot engine. Thank fucking god I’d pulled her out in time. I yanked my phone out of my pocket and called 911, pissed at myself for not having done it sooner. After I told them what had happened out here and told them to send an ambulance, a delirious moan brought my attention back to Charlotte. I leaned closer. “Charlotte? Can you hear me?” I asked. “Mm…Cade…” “Help’s coming, and you’re gonna be okay. I promise,” I said. “Sorry…so sorry….”

“Charlotte, don’t apologize,” I said as she slowly opened her eyes. “Not now. I was way more of a jerk than you. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should’ve listened.” I squeezed her hand, and she rolled her head to the side and looked over at the car, which was still partially on fire. “Volvo…” she murmured. “It looks like our last conversation.” My forehead creased with concern. “Charlotte, you’re not making any sense. You might be concussed. Just stay still.” She let out a weak, choked-up laugh. “I’m not brain damaged,” she said. “I meant the car’s gone up in flames, kinda like our—” “Like our last conversation.” I finished her sentence, nodding as it finally sank in. “Shit, Charlotte, you had me worried there for a second. Instead you’re just making god-awful jokes. What are you…me?” She smiled at my lame quip, and I grinned down at her. “I’m glad you’re okay,” I said. “I am because of you. You saved me,” she whispered, squeezing my hand back. “Thank you.” And then she did something totally unexpected. She sat up on her elbows and tilted her face toward me, and her lips pressed softly against mine. As we kissed in that moment, with her Volvo in flames before us, I knew that no matter what we argued about, and no matter what came between us, we’d always work through it, because we loved each other above all else. Unlike her unfortunate car, we were going to be okay.

Chapter Twenty-Three Charlotte “Just take two of these after meals for the next three days, and you’ll be fine. They’ll dull most of the pain in your head.” I looked at the doctor as she explained my new painkiller medication to me, and then nodded. “Okay. Thanks, Dr. Prior.” “No problem. We’re still waiting on your parents to arrive, but they should be here any minute now.” With that, she briskly swept off, and I yawned and rubbed my eyes. My head was still pounding, but the doctors at the hospital the ambulance had brought me to hadn’t found any serious injuries other than the bump on my head, which could barely be classified as serious. As long as I was careful to take it easy for the next few days, I was going to be fine. I shuddered to think what might have happened if Cade hadn’t shown up and pulled me out of my wrecked car, though. He was sitting with me now, and he’d also stayed by my side throughout the examination. I turned to him. “Cade,” I said softly. “I really am sorry for all the things I said earlier. I was being crazy.” He shook his head. “You’re not crazy. Maybe you didn’t bring it up in the most tactful way, but I think you actually had a good point.” “Really?” “Yeah. I don’t think my father would do anything like that, but that political consultant of his has a bit of a reputation, and like you said, there’s a few seemingly weird coincidences surrounding the wedding incident. I wouldn’t put it past him to pull an awful stunt like that just to draw attention to Dad’s campaign.” I nodded slowly. “True. I always got a bad feeling about Greg. He just seems so….” “So much like a rat?” “A big blond rat, yeah,” I said. “So what do you think we should do? Do you think we should tell someone?” Cade shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I mean, surely other people have noticed the same stuff that we have.” “Maybe, but it sounds totally and utterly insane. No one would think it could’ve actually happened, even if they think it’s all a bit weird and suspicious. It’s like, TV drama level stuff.” “Yeah, I guess. Let’s sleep on it before we tell anyone. If that Greg prick actually had anything to do with hurting my brother, I want to figure out a way to fuck him over in the best way possible.” I wanted so badly to reach over and touch Cade as he spoke, but there were nurses around, and the last thing we needed was to get caught out now. Besides, I wasn’t even sure if there was anything left to be caught out in. I loved Cade, and he’d kissed me back an hour ago after I’d been pulled from

my car wreckage, but we hadn’t spoken about our relationship at all, and I still wasn’t sure where I stood with him after the blowout this morning. As if he could read my mind, Cade’s face softened. “Charlotte, I’m so sorry about what I said this morning…when I ended it. I don’t want that; not at all. But I understand if you need some time to think about us after I reacted like that.” It was cute that he actually looked a little anxious, and I smiled. “Cade, I accused your father of having your brother shot for political points and media attention. You didn’t overreact. I probably would’ve done the same thing.” He smiled back at me. “So…what do you want to do?” he asked. “You,” I replied with a cheesy grin. He chuckled. “Better not say that too loudly. But I’m glad we’re okay,” he said with a wink. “Shit, here comes your Mom…act normal.” I looked to the left to see my mother frantically racing towards us down the main ER hallway. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry,” she said as she arrived next to the bed I was sitting on. “I only just got the message. I came here as fast as I could.” “It’s okay. The car isn’t, though,” I said with a rueful expression on my face. “I’m sorry, Mom.” I felt terrible for having crashed the Volvo. It’d been such a nice gift from her, and I’d completely totaled it. She squeezed my hand. “The car doesn’t matter. We have insurance for that. You being okay is what matters,” she said. She turned to Cade. “And Cade, thank you so much for helping her and being with her.” She didn’t know that he was with me in more than one way, and right now I suppose she didn’t need to….but she would one day soon, because I was tired of having to hide our love, and I could tell that Cade was as well by the expression on his face. We weren’t even related, and we’d first hooked up before we even knew our parents were getting married, so it wasn’t fair that our relationship would be stuck firmly in the territory of ‘forbidden, wrong, and disgusting’ by anyone who discovered it. There was nothing wrong or disgusting about what we were doing. It was love, and that could never be wrong. Having said that, I still had no idea how we were going to go about revealing it to the world, but now wasn’t the time to worry about that; another day when my head didn’t feel like it’d been hit with a baseball bat would make a better time. As my Mom launched into a spiel about how I was going to have to file a police report about the accident to help her with the insurance claim, I looked at Cade again, and he smiled and gave me a half nod. I knew he was thinking exactly what I was thinking. As soon as I felt better, we needed to come clean about us. *** By the next day, I already felt a lot better; the medication had worked wonders. I still allowed myself to have a nice sleep-in, though, and by the time I finally dragged myself out of bed, it was past

twelve, and Mom was knocking at my door. “Charlotte? You feeling okay?” “Much better already,” I called out. “Sorry, give me a sec…” I padded over to the door to let her in, and she reached over to brush a stray strand of hair behind my ear as she studied my appearance. “Oh my, you really do look much better. All that sleep was good for you.” “Yeah, it was really nice. Plus the medication was like nirvana for my nerve endings.” She laughed. “That’s good. But you can’t take any more without food, remember? Keith, Evan and Cade are downstairs at the dining table—I’ve made us all a nice big lunch. We were just wondering if you were going to join us.” I nodded, suddenly ravenous. “Just let me put some clothes on, and I’ll be right down.” Mom had made a roast chicken with lemon and herb marinade, and there was gravy, roast vegetables and bread rolls to go with it. She’d even made my favorite side dish; green beans with a sauce made from fresh chopped basil, tomato paste and butter. “Dig in, everyone!” she said brightly as I sat down, my mouth watering at the sight of the food. Cade was sitting to her right, looking even more mouthwateringly appealing than the food, and I bit back an ‘I love you’ as I looked at him. God, how I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but right now I couldn’t do that; not when we hadn’t admitted our relationship to anyone yet. We both knew it was going to cause trouble, and our family lunches would never be the same again once everyone knew. We had shame sitting on our shoulders and counting down till the moment we revealed the true nature of our closeness, but the meal was still wonderful anyway. We laughed and joked and talked with everyone about what our upcoming weeks were going to be like, and we happily pretended like everything was right in the world, even though we knew it could all crash down at any moment. And then it did, but not in the way I’d expected. As lunch drew to a close, Evan excused himself from the table to use the bathroom, and Keith wiped some gravy from the edge of his lips and looked at Cade. “While he’s gone, there’s something I wanted to ask you. Are you able to help me unload the cabinet later?” “What cabinet?” Cade asked, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. Keith nodded towards the door that led down to the basement. “My gun collection. I love my hunting, but after what happened to your brother, I know he doesn’t feel comfortable having them in the house, and it would reflect poorly on us to have them anyway, given the events of the wedding. So I’m giving them to an old friend of mine. You remember Bob Hill?” “Yep,” Cade said quietly. I knew if it were up to him, the guns would simply be destroyed; he’d never been a fan of them, or of hunting in general. “So he’s taking all of them?” Keith waved his hand. “Only the proper hunting rifles. I’m not sure what to do with the two little burners I’ve got in there. Hmm…perhaps Mason Prescott will take them off my hands,” he mused. My head shot up at that, and I stared at Keith. “Sorry to interrupt,” I said, my heart racing. “But what’s a burner?”

I’d heard him say that word before in what he thought was a private phone conversation to Greg, and I’d assumed he was referring to prepaid burner phones, much like what Cade and I had been using to secretly text each other with over the last few weeks. But from the context of the conversation Keith had just used the word in, I very much doubted he was referring to any sort of phone. Keith smiled. “Sorry, Charlotte, I keep forgetting you don’t know all this terminology. A burner is just a slang term some folks use around these parts for ‘handgun’.” What? I could practically feel the blood draining from my face as he finished speaking, and I was grateful that I was sitting down, because otherwise I knew my legs would’ve given out from under me. “Honey, are you all right?” Mom asked. “You’ve gone awfully pale.” “My head suddenly started hurting again,” I lied. Then I forced a genial smile. Thank you for lunch, it was delicious. I think I better go take some more painkillers.” Mom waved her hand at me. “Oh, yes, off you go. Poor baby,” she said before turning to Keith. “Darling, would you like another drink?” I managed to drag myself to my feet, willing my body to stay upright, and as I did so, I saw Cade staring at me with his eyes slightly narrowed. He knew me well enough to know something was up, and as I turned and headed for the stairs, I heard him excuse himself as well. He caught up to me in the second floor hallway. “Charlotte, what happened?” he asked, touching his hand to my arm. Before I could speak, he sighed. “It’s my Dad, isn’t it? He said something. I saw your face when he was talking.” “I…um…” I wanted so desperately to tell him, but I didn’t want to upset him again, like I had yesterday. “Tell me,” Cade pressed. “You know I’ll listen to you. I’ve learned my lesson from yesterday, and I’m not going to act like an asshole again when you have something to say, even if it’s about my family.” I took a deep breath, then pulled him into my room, where we could speak without being overheard by anyone else. “Remember how I went to one of your games early in the semester, and you threw the football at my head?” I asked. “How could I forget?” Cade said, rubbing his chin. “I’ve never felt like more of a dumbass.” “Well, after it happened, I went to the bathroom. On my way back, I ran into your Dad. Well, not so much ‘ran into’ as ‘overheard’. He was on the phone, in this little vestibule outside a room. He didn’t actually see me, and no one else was around, so I guess he thought he had total privacy.” “What was he saying?” “It sounded like general work stuff, something about hiring someone. Someone called ‘Adams’ although he sounded unsure of the name…so it could’ve been Adamson. And he was definitely talking to Greg, because I heard him say his name too. And then I heard him saying something about Greg needing to get a ‘burner’ for this new hire. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I thought they were just talking about burner phones, which I thought was a bit shady, but hey, that’s politics, right?”

Cade’s body stiffened, and his face blanched. He didn’t say anything, and I continued. “So I guess maybe there’s a chance they were talking about burner phones that day, but just then at lunch, when I heard him act like the more common use of that word around here is for a gun, I just…” My voice trailed off, and then I took another deep breath and began again. “Cade, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to start accusing your father of anything again after how our last conversation went, and I swear I’m not lying to cause trouble. I just think it’s all too much of a—” Cade pressed a finger to my lips, hushing me for a moment. “Charlotte, don’t say any more,” he said, looking me right in the eyes. “I believe you.”

Chapter Twenty-Four Cade That fucking snake. He’d done it. He’d actually fucking done it. Charlotte had been right all along. Her last few sentences had left me with no doubt; there was just too much going on for it all to be a big coincidence. My father and his political consultant had set up the wedding shooting together, all for attention, and I felt sick to my stomach at the thought. They’d obviously paid off Adamson to shoot my little brother and take the fall for the whole thing, and my stomach roiled with revulsion as I pictured Evan lying in the hospital. He was the sweetest kid in the world, and he’d been left physically and emotionally scarred by what had happened to him. Who the fuck could actually do that to their own child just to further their own agenda? A total psychopath, that’s who. That’s exactly what my father was. He’d engineered this whole situation to make himself look like a hero in order to boost his profile in the eyes of the general public, and he’d even manipulated me and my brother into respecting him more after it happened. I’d fallen for all his bullshit about wanting to spend more time with the family, and I’d even started to think that I’d been too harsh on him all these years that I’d thought he was a control freak asshole. Hell, I’d even been the one to finally go to him and tell him he needed to run for president…when of course, he was already planning to do it all along, and only pretending he wasn’t going to so as to not draw any suspicion to himself. It was all a set-up, and I’d played right into his hands like a fool, giving him exactly what he needed to look innocent in all of this. The thing that bothered me the most was that he’d chosen to hurt Evan. Why not me? I was bigger and stronger. I could’ve handled it better. But I guess having a younger, smaller child being injured seemed more sympathetic to certain members of the public, and that was why he’d chosen Evan to be the target. I stared out the window in Charlotte’s room, still mulling it all over in shock. Now we knew why Adamson had aimed so badly. He’d been told to. No doubt my father and Greg had told him exactly where to aim—close enough to graze Evan so that he was hurt enough to get media attention, but not enough to maim or kill him. And of course Adamson could do exactly that —he was an expert marksman, as we all knew. He was already heading for jail anyway, as he’d had several arrest warrants out for him before it all happened, and he had a history of mental illness which would vilify him in the eyes of the media, making him look guilty before the dust had even settled. He was basically the perfect man to hire for the job; no doubt he’d wanted the money for someone else in his life, seeing as he couldn’t exactly use it himself in prison. A sick relative or pregnant girlfriend, perhaps. I also didn’t doubt that Greg and my father—and whoever else was in on this whole disgusting scheme—had coached him on how to present himself during and after the attack in order to convince people that he’d truly had a psychotic break, when he was actually stable and

coherent. It was sick. Too sick to even imagine. And yet they’d all dreamed this plan up together, like the fucking pieces of shit they were. “What are we going to do?” Charlotte asked, her eyes wide. I squeezed my hands into such tight fists that my knuckles cracked, and I stared at the floor. “I don’t know. But I want to fucking kill my father.” “I know. But you’d only be dragging yourself down to his level if you did that. And besides, we need to know for sure that it’s true.” I jerked my head up to look at her. “What do you mean? Of course it’s true. You’re the one who realized in the first place and brought all of it up…please don’t tell me you’re going to play devil’s advocate now.” She held her hands up in a ‘calm down’ gesture. “No, of course not. All I’m saying is that we need solid proof. Otherwise how can we expect to do anything about it? We can’t just go to the police and say, ‘Hey, we have this theory about a presidential candidate, but we can’t prove any of it, oh and by the way it sounds like something straight out of a B-grade political thriller movie.’ They’d laugh us out of the building.” I sighed and nodded. “Shit. You’re right. And knowing Dad, he has plenty of connections in the police force anyway. If we tried to go to them and say anything, I bet one of them would alert him, and then he’d know that we know.” “Same with a few members of the media, I assume.” “Yeah. Fuck.” Charlotte chewed on her lower lip for a moment, deep in thought, and then her eyes widened. “I know what we can do. Remember how you told me that your Dad used to have nanny cams all over the place to spy on your nannies when he wasn’t here?” “Yep. If you’re thinking we should confront him and use something like that to record him admitting it, it won’t work.” “Why not?” “Because the minute we confront him, he’ll know that we know, whether he admits to it or not, and that’ll give him time to do damage control. He could twist or suppress the story somehow, and he could probably do it a lot faster than our attempts at getting it out there.” Charlotte nodded, her shoulders slumping, and then she perked up again. “I have another idea. It’s similar, but it’ll get the story out immediately—with proof—before he can do any damage control. We just need three things.” “What?” “One of the old nanny cams, or something similar. Some sort of camera, anyway,” she said, holding up one finger. Then she held up a second. “We’ll also need a decent Wi-Fi connection, which we have already. And thirdly,” she continued, holding up another finger. “We need Nicki.” “What?” I replied, my eyebrows practically shooting to the roof at the mention of our ex-friend. “Why the hell would we want or need her around?”

“Well, so much crap has happened within the last two days that I haven’t had a chance to speak to you about this yet, but I ran into Nicki the other day, and we made up.” I frowned. “Why?” “She apologized, and she seemed genuinely sorry, Cade.” “I don’t care. She was fucking awful to you.” “I know, and she’s well aware of that. But I was so sick of holding onto crap from the past. All I could think about when she apologized was you. Remember how long I hated you and held onto all that anger when I thought you’d been the one to ruin my life back in school?” “Yeah.” “It didn’t get me anywhere, Cade. It just made me into a bitter, angry person. I don’t want to be like that anymore, and I don’t want you to end up like that either. Trust me, it isn’t worth it,” she said. “Nicki knows that I’m still upset about what she did, but I told her I’d be willing to forgive her and move on if she promised to never hurt someone like that again. And she promised.” “So you believed her?” “Yes. Some people don’t deserve a second chance, but some other people do. I think Nicki is one of them. The things she said to me when she apologized….she wasn’t just trying to save her ass and worm her way back into the friendship group. She was genuinely remorseful and understood why she’d lost a lot of friends.” “I see.” “After we made up, I asked her to speak to you too, because she betrayed you as well as me. She said she would, but she was worried you’d never forgive her like I did.” I sighed and sat down again. “I guess that explains the text I got this morning, then. She messaged me asking if we could meet up to talk. I just ignored it.” “Well, now’s the time to stop ignoring her. You don’t have to forgive her if you don’t want to; obviously that’s your prerogative. But please at least think about it.” Charlotte then went on to outline her plan to catch my Dad out in all his bullshit, and by the time she’d finished, I knew she was right—we’d definitely need Nicki’s help to pull it off. She was a computer science student, so she’d be able to ensure everything went off without a hitch. As well as that, Charlotte was also right about holding grudges. Nicki had done a shitty thing, but she’d mostly done it to Charlotte—and if she could forgive her for it, then who the hell was I to not even consider it for a second? I picked my phone up. “All right. I’m calling her.” Nicki answered on the third ring, and I could hear the surprise in her tone. “Cade?” “Hey, Nicki,” I said gruffly. “I got your text, and I spoke to Charlotte.” “Oh. Cool. I just want a chance to talk to you so I can tell you how sorry—” I cut her off. “I know. But that can wait. Right now we really need your help with something.” There was a pause on the other end of the line. “You…you want my help?” “Yes. You’re the only person we know who’s smart enough in this particular field, and we don’t

want to try to do it ourselves in case we screw up somehow. If you help us with it, then it’ll go a long way towards us repairing our friendship. And for the record, that’s platonic friendship only.” “Of course. Whatever it is you need, I’ll help.” I gave her the general gist of what we needed her to do, but I didn’t tell her exactly why, just in case. As far as she knew, we were simply trying to record my father admitting to some other lesser scandal; something like an affair. When I’d finally thanked Nicki and hung up, I turned to Charlotte. “She’s on her way here now, and she’s stopping by the mall to buy the right kind of camera and cable for the job. When she arrives, I’ll keep Dad distracted by helping him unload the gun cabinet in the basement while you guys set it all up.” “And then we’ll be ready to go. God, I hope it works.” Instead of replying to Charlotte right away, I pulled her onto my lap, and before she could react, I leaned in and kissed her, tasting the sweetness of her lips and the heat of her mouth. She kissed me back, hard and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought for a moment. I let the taste and scent and her warmth wash over me, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, I breathed deeply and nodded at her. “It’ll work,” I said, my voice firm. “It just has to.”

Chapter Twenty-Five Charlotte It was almost go time. Nicki and I were up in my room, making sure the last-minute details of our plan were ironed out while Cade distracted Keith down in the basement. We’d figured it would take about forty-five minutes for them to be done, so Nicki and I had hurriedly placed the small webcam she’d bought for us in Keith’s study while they were busy—one which was small and innocuous enough to not be noticed for quite some time—and now Nicki was sitting on my bed with my laptop, frowning as she hurriedly typed away on the keyboard. “Everything okay?” I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. I was a wreck, but I couldn’t let her see that. She didn’t know the real reason we were doing this; didn’t know what Keith had done, and now wasn’t the right time to tell her all about it. Now was simply the time for action. Nicki looked up at me. “Yep, it’s all good. The camera feed is all hooked up via the Wi-Fi,” she said. “Sorry, I just have my ‘concentration’ face on. I always look mad when I’m focusing on something.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “Okay, cool. So it’s all…” I waved my hand towards the website she had up on the screen, and she nodded, knowing exactly what I meant. ”It should work perfectly. But…” She chewed on her lip before continuing. “You guys made it sound like Keith is having an affair or something, and you just want video evidence to show your Mom. But the way you’ve asked me to set this up, in this exact way….it’s not an affair, is it? It’s something else.” Nicki wasn’t stupid, and considering everything we’d asked her to do with my laptop, it was obvious that there was a deeper issue here, rather than us simply trying to catch Keith lying about a mistress or something similar. “He’s done something bad. Really bad,” I said. Nicki nodded. “I figured. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back. I won’t say a thing to anyone till it’s over.” I smiled at her. “Thanks.” I knew now that I’d definitely made the right choice in forgiving Nicki and moving on from our past issues. She was doing her best to make things right and earn back my trust, and that was a big step. She couldn’t change the past, and neither could I, but we could control our future. “I think I hear them moving around downstairs,” she said, sitting up straighter. “You go deal with it, and I’ll keep things running smoothly in here.” “Okay. Thanks again.”

I dashed downstairs and met up with Cade and Keith in the living area, where they were chatting about Keith’s friend Bob and dusting themselves off after being in the basement. I knew how hard it was for Cade to act normally around his father right now, and I gave him a tight smile and a nod, which I knew he’d correctly interpret to mean ‘you’re doing great, keep going’. “Hey,” I said as I stepped towards them. “All done?” “Yep, Bob will be here soon to pick up his new collection,” Keith said, patting Cade on the back. Cade visibly flinched. “I was wondering if we could talk privately in your study for a moment, Keith,” I said, keeping my tone and expression congenial. “Of course. Cade, can you go outside and make sure the—” “He’s part of this,” I said. “It’s about all the media stuff around your campaign.” Keith nodded slowly. “I see.” We wordlessly trudged towards the study, and when we arrived in it, I made sure to stand in a position that ensured Keith would have to be visible to the camera when he faced me. “So what’s up, kids?” he said. “The journalists harassing you too much?” “Not exactly,” Cade said. “We’ve been hearing rumors, and they’ve made us wonder about some things.” “Go on.” “Some people are wondering why the security at the wedding was so lax. The security detail let an armed man in, after all. An armed man with no invite.” Keith sighed and rubbed his chin in exasperation, and I had to commend him for his acting skills. “I know. Incompetent fools. That security company is shutting down after what happened, thank god, and honestly, I’ve considered suing them for what they did.” “And yet you haven’t,” Cade said, his gaze unwavering. “Because that’d draw too much attention to things, right?” Keith looked confused for a second, and then he smiled. “Right. The last thing this family needs is more attention and drama. That’s what you mean, I assume.” Cade nodded and gave him a thin, tight smile. “Sure,” he said. “The other rumors are about Felix Adamson. Something about him not actually being crazy. Something about hm being paid off by you or someone on your campaign team.” “Paid off? For what purpose?” Keith looked horrified, and for a second, I thought we’d gotten it all horribly wrong, and that he was actually innocent in all this. He was that good at playing pretend. Cade continued. “Charlotte also overheard an interesting phone call of yours a while back. Sounded like you were talking to Greg Sanders about hiring someone called Adams….but that could’ve been Adamson. You also used a slang term for a pistol somewhere in that conversation.” Keith turned his gaze to me, and I saw all the confirmation I needed in his eyes—a flickering look of resentment mixed with anger. It quickly disappeared, replaced with his usual charming, happy expression, but I knew it had been there.

I knew Cade had seen it too. Keith finally let out a laugh, one that was slightly too forced to be real. “What are you talking about? Is this some college prank of yours?” “I heard you talking about getting someone a ‘burner’,” I said, finally speaking up. “I thought you meant something else at the time. A burner phone, perhaps. But then today you informed me that to you, that word is a slang term for handgun.” “So you were eavesdropping on my private phone conversations, misheard something, and now you’re accusing me of….what, exactly?” Keith’s voice had gone cold, and his eyes dangerously dark, but I didn’t shrivel away. Cade and I knew he was guilty, and we needed to make him slip up; needed to make him admit his culpability in some manner so that the camera could capture it. I took a deep breath. “You know what we’re accusing you of. Because you know what you did,” I said. “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about,” Keith said with a shrug. Christ, he was a good actor. “Now, I don’t have time for whatever this silly little game is. Please leave now. I have work to do.” Cade took a step forwards. “Let me spell it out for you. We know these aren’t rumors. We have proof that you and your campaign team hired Felix Adamson to shoot your own son in order to boost your image, and we have no issue with taking that proof to the media.” It wasn’t true; we didn’t have any solid proof. But Keith didn’t know that. “What are you talking about?” he said sharply, his eyes narrowing. “One of the security guards you paid off to let Adamson into the ceremony that day…he’s saying he might come forward. Says the amount he was paid wasn’t enough. He couldn’t get hold of you, so he approached us to give our family a chance to pay him more for his continued silence,” Cade lied. “He told us everything, Dad. And like I said, we have no issue with taking this to the media….unless you make it worth our while to stay quiet.” Keith was silent for a long moment, studying both of us in turn. If he was truly innocent, then there was no way he’d offer us anything—because he’d know for certain that we didn’t really have any proof, and that we were making everything up. Unfortunately for him, he took the bait hook, line and sinker. “How much?” he finally said, his voice stiff. “How much to make this all go away?” “The security guard wants an extra fifty thousand to keep his mouth shut. And Charlotte and I want two hundred and fifty thousand. Each. I also want the house in Aspen.” “Fine,” Keith replied, his eyes gleaming. He obviously thought he’d just dodged a huge bullet. “You can have the money and the house. And Evan and Emilia are never to be told of this indiscretion, obviously.” Gotcha, you bastard, I thought. It broke my heart to imagine how Evan and my mother would feel when they saw all of this, but they needed to know—they needed to see that he was the type of man who would refer to having his own son injured as an ‘indiscretion’.

“I’ll need all of this in writing,” Cade replied, still keeping a straight face for the time being. Keith nodded. “Of course,” he said, as if this were a simple business transaction. “You know….you’re a lot more like me than you’ve ever wanted to admit, Cade.” “No, I’m not,” Cade replied, his hands curling into fists by his side. “Because unlike you, I didn’t just essentially admit—on camera—to hiring someone to shoot my own fucking son so I could have a better chance of becoming president.” Keith’s face blanched at the realization that we’d been recording this conversation, but he managed to stay relatively calm. “Cameras and recordings can be destroyed. You’ve both gotten what you wanted, so I trust you’ll be happy to do so as part of a good faith agreement.” He actually had the audacity to smile right then, and I suppressed an urge to slap him right across the face. Instead, I simply looked back at him, my lips breaking into a triumphant smile of my own. “I guess it’s too bad this isn’t being recorded in the traditional sense,” I said. “The little webcam we have over there is actually live-streaming this conversation to YouTube and sharing the video on Facebook. Our friend is making sure of that right now. And once something is on the internet like that, it’s never coming off. It can’t be edited or destroyed like a regular recording.” Keith’s mouth dropped open, and Cade picked up where I’d left off. “And in case you didn’t figure it out yet, Dad, we don’t really want any money. We just wanted to hear you admit what you did, and by offering us the money, you did exactly that. An innocent man doesn’t offer to pay bribes. This video will be enough for the police to launch a formal inquest,” he said. Keith froze where he stood. He’d clearly never been caught out by anyone before, and he definitely hadn’t been expecting to be screwed over by two nineteen year olds, let alone family members. “This is all a misunderstanding. A mistake,” he said, trying to backtrack. “Where’s that camera? Turn the fucking thing off now!” Cade took another step toward his father. “You always acted like I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t want to follow in your footsteps. But I am good enough. In fact, I’m a hundred times better than you, you scum-sucking piece of shit.” Keith shrank back at the look in Cade’s eyes. “Stop. I…” “You had your own son shot,” Cade said, his voice deadly soft. “You hurt my brother.” Suddenly he shot forward, and my eyes went wide as he attacked. The guttural punch he aimed at his father’s abdomen bent his figure, and Keith’s winded puffing as he tried to catch his breath sounded like a cross between a smoker and a dying zombie. As he tried to rise back up to his full height, Cade struck again, using his left hand to grab him around the neck as he backed him up against a shelf. With his right fist he delivered blow after blow to Keith’s face, and my knees almost caved with fear as I watched him squeeze his father until his knuckles were white. “Cade, stop!” This wasn’t part of the plan. Our only plan had been to make Keith admit to what he’d done and live-stream it to a video site so that thousands would see it before it was taken down, making it impossible for him to do any damage control or twist the story in any way that might make him look innocent. But beating the shit out of him? That was all Cade’s on-the-fly idea.

To be fair, I couldn’t exactly blame him. Blood dripped from Keith’s nose as Cade drew his fist back, and I shouted again. “Cade! Not like this!” I didn’t actually have any sympathy for Keith; I just wanted him to spend a long time rotting in prison, which meant he needed to be well and truly alive. Cade finally pulled back and let his father slump to the floor in defeat, and his chest heaved as he tried to regain his composure. “You’re lucky she’s here,” he hissed towards Keith, who said nothing. He knew he was done. His career and life as he knew it were over from this moment onwards. I heard a sound at the study door, and I turned to see Nicki entering the room, holding my laptop. “It’s done,” she said, shooting a dark look towards Keith. Until a moment ago, she’d been watching the scene unfold from the laptop upstairs, so she knew exactly what he’d done. “An hour from now, at least two million people will have viewed that video.” “What video? What’s going on?” We all looked back at the door at the sound of the new voice in the room, and my heart sank. It was Evan. “What’s going on?” he repeated when no one responded for a full thirty seconds. “What happened to Dad?” What happened, indeed? Cade walked over and put a firm yet comforting hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “Evan, you should sit down. There’s something you need to know.”

Chapter Twenty-Six Charlotte The next two weeks seemed to flash by in an instant. Everything happened so quickly that it almost felt like nothing was going on at all, and yet, everything had changed. The video we made had gone viral within hours of Nicki streaming it, and within two days, Keith’s offices in Denver and DC were being swarmed by the media as well as put under investigation by the respective District Attorneys. Keith, Greg, and two other political consultants had been remanded without bail for the time being, and two of the security guards who’d been paid off had come forward and admitted their guilt. Soon, a case would be built against the whole lot of them. They’d be going away for a long time. For the time being, we could hardly leave the house—there were journalists camped outside it twenty-four hours a day, hoping to secure interviews with either myself or Cade, seeing as we’d been the ones to expose Keith to the world. We weren’t giving interviews, though, at least not anytime soon, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we didn’t think we were particularly genius-level smart for catching him out, which was how the media was currently painting us. We simply had access to more information as family members, which had allowed us to figure out what Keith was up to. After all, a non-family member would’ve been far less likely to overhear Keith’s calls, or sit down at lunch and chat about guns with him. Secondly, we didn’t want the attention right now. All we wanted to do was spend time with my Mom and Evan, to offer them the comfort they needed in a time like this. The worst part about all of this had been seeing their faces when we told them. Mom had been inconsolable for three straight days when she’d found out what her new husband had done, and Evan was devastated to learn that his own father had done something so awful to him, all in the name of building his already-successful political career even further. We’d spent hours talking it over with the two of them, and we’d finally agreed on one simple fact—we were all much better off without him. The marriage couldn’t be annulled, but Mom was actually grateful for that, because legally being Keith’s wife made it much easier for her to begin the process of getting sole custody of Evan while they began the divorce process. Evan didn’t have any other parents, seeing as his father would soon be rotting in jail, and his mother hadn’t been around since he was very young, so it made sense for my mother to take care of him. I was over the moon when she told me what she was planning, because in the few months that I’d known Evan, I’d really come to see him as a little brother to me as well as Cade. Right now I was on the third floor with him, playing around with my telescope. It was a Tuesday evening, and while we couldn’t go outside and use it, we could easily open a window—one which faced well away from all the journalists and their vans—and observe the sky through the window. I knew this was one of Evan’s favorite things to do, and he did seem much cheerier than usual as he

pointed out different constellations through it. “I think I can see Taurus,” he said, squinting. “Hey, you can take photos with this thing, right?” “Yep, there’s a camera add-on. Just click the blue button on the right side… yep, that’s the one.” “That’s so cool. Where did you buy it?” he said as he took a couple of photos of the constellation he’d spotted. “I didn’t buy it,” I said. “My father did, and he added the camera fixture himself. He was really interested in stargazing too.” “Oh. I wish my father had been interested in the same stuff as me,” Evan replied softly. “Maybe things would’ve been different.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I simply placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He pulled away from the telescope and looked at me. “Do you think I might end up like him one day? I really don’t want to. But you obviously took after your father in some ways, like having the same hobbies and so on. I’m afraid I’ll do the same.” I shook my head. “You’re nothing like him, Evan, and you never will be. Wanna know how I know that?” “How?” I ruffled his hair. “Because you said you don’t want to be like him. That’s all anyone needs to hear to know for sure that you’ll turn out just fine.” He smiled. “Thanks, Charlotte. You’re a really good sister-in-law, you know.” My forehead creased with confusion. “Don’t you mean stepsister?” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Once our parents are divorced, you won’t legally be my stepsister anymore, and I figured you and Cade will probably get married one day, seeing as you two have been —” “Wait, what? You know about us?” I said, my eyes widening with horror as I cut him off. His smile grew wider. “Oh, please. You two think you’re so good at hiding it, but you’re not. I’ve known for ages,” he said. “One of the only things that’s helped me get through these last couple of weeks is laughing to myself while you two sneak around, thinking no one knows.” “Well, I’m glad you find us so amusing,” I said. “But you don’t mind?” “No. You aren’t related, and I can’t think of anyone else I’d want my brother to be with. You’re awesome.” My cheeks turned slightly hot with embarrassment. “Thanks. Do you think anyone else knows?” “No. I’m just more observant than others. Dad was always too busy with his campaign stuff to notice anything, and your Mom was the same with all her stuff. I didn’t tell anyone, though, because I figured other people might get upset.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “Thank god. We didn’t want anyone to find out yet.” “Find out what?” We both turned to see Cade entering the room. He was wearing a white T-shirt and black exercise

shorts despite the freezing temperature outside, and sweat was beading on his hairline. “Been working out?” I asked, my mouth practically watering at the sight of him. “Yeah. I’ve got a game on Friday. Anyway, what were you two talking about when I came in?” “I was just telling Charlotte how I know about you two,” Evan said. Cade’s eyebrows shot up. “Shit. Evan, I can explain—” Evan snickered. “You don’t need to explain. I think it’s a good thing.” “You do?” “Yeah. And I really don’t think anyone else will even care, guys. I mean, you could both strip naked and streak around outside, and the media still wouldn’t care about that anywhere near as much as they care about the whole story with Dad. It’s basically the scandal of the century.” “That’s true,” I admitted. “Maybe it’s finally time to officially come clean. Although…” “What?” I took a few steps closer to Cade, and Evan returned his attention to the telescope. “I feel kinda bad about Nicki. We’ve only just started being friends with her again, and she did have a crush on you for ages. I feel like we’d be rubbing it in her face if we announced that we’re together now, especially after all the help she gave us with the online video streaming.” Cade grinned. “Yeah. If only she’d just started dating Blake….oh, wait…” I arched an eyebrow. “Are you saying she and Blake are together now?” He nodded. “Yep. They’ve started dating; he just texted me about it,” he said. “And I spoke to Nicki about the whole thing last week, by the way. She definitely only sees me as a friend now.” “So the only person we really need to worry about upsetting is my Mom.” “Yeah, but you know what?” Cade replied. “What?” “Us being together would piss my Dad off so much, especially seeing as there’s nothing he can say or do about it from prison. And after what he did, I have a feeling your Mom wouldn’t exactly be unhappy about us pissing him off.” “Ah, so that’s the real reason you’re with me. Just to annoy your father,” I said, giving him a teasing prod. “Of course. It’s not like I like you as a person or anything…hey! You know I’m kidding!” he said, laughing as I started to pinch him. “You deserved that for teasing me,” I said, giggling alongside him. He winked. “I’m always gonna tease you, babe.” “Get used to being pinched and prodded then.” Evan gave us an exasperated glance. “Gosh, can you two get a room or something? You’re acting like hormonal kids, and I’m trying to look at the stars!” Cade and I both laughed at being told off by him, and we linked arms and headed out of the room. “Ready to tell your Mom?” he asked, giving me a side-eyed glance.

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah. I’m ready.” And I was.

Chapter Twenty-Seven Cade Two years later “How am I still so bad at this?” I glanced over at Charlotte as she picked herself up from the freezing ground and dusted snow off her ski gear, and I chuckled. “I don’t know. I guess you’re the brainy one in this relationship, and I’m the more physical one.” She sidled up next to me and pinched my butt. “I can be physical too, if you know what I mean.” “I do know. You’re a Charlotte in the streets and a harlot in the sheets.” “Cade!” she said, feigning horror before giggling. “I would’ve never thought that one day I’d actually be amused by hearing that stupid ‘Charlotte the Harlot’ thing again.” “Well, you have to admit, the nickname was invented by a very handsome man who you’re very lucky to be skiing with right now.” She shook her head and laughed, and we began the trudge over to our cabin at the Silverton Falls ski resort. It was the same one we’d been to the first time I’d ever taken Charlotte skiing, and while she’d associated some bad memories with the place for a while after that, it was all in the past now. Nicki had proven herself to be truly sorry for her actions on that trip, and she and Charlotte were actually very close friends now. In fact, she and Blake—who was now her boyfriend—were actually here on this vacation with us. Blake’s father still owned the resort, so we got a pretty sweet discount on our cabin. We’d come up here to celebrate the end of final year exams. We all officially had Bachelor degrees now, and now was a good time for Charlotte and I to spend some quality time together before our lives got even more hectic and serious. Charlotte had passed her degree with honors, and she was starting med school next year back in our home city of Philly at the Perelman School of Medicine, which was one of the best, and I’d been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the most recent NFL Draft. I was just the fourth string quarterback for now, but I knew if I worked hard enough, I’d be the starter within a few years. While Philly and Pittsburgh were in the same state, they were still a fair distance apart—a five hour drive—which meant Charlotte and I weren’t going to be seeing each other every day. Maybe not even every week. But we knew we’d be fine. We loved each other, and even if we were five hundred hours apart, we’d still make the effort to keep up with each other and stay true. I trusted Charlotte more than anyone, and putting my trust in people wasn’t exactly easy after some of the life experiences I’d had —my asshole parents, for starters. I might’ve once been a bit of a sleazy douchebag who had no intentions of settling down, but that had all changed the night I met Charlotte. She’d made me realize

that I didn’t have to hide behind some bullshit arrogant mask of macho bravado; I could just be myself and people would still care for me. Especially her. As far as I was concerned, no other women even existed, at least not in a romantic or sexual sense. Charlotte was the one, and I knew she felt the same way about me. I was so proud of her for getting into such a good med school after the difficult time we’d had over the last couple of years with all the media attention. Surviving one of the biggest political scandals in history wasn’t exactly easy, but we’d weathered it together—along with Evan and Emilia. We might not have been a conventional family, but how many families were conventional these days anyway? We loved and supported each other, and that was all that mattered in the end. Evan had also been right about the relationship between Charlotte and I. Emilia was totally fine with it, and no one in the media (or in our friends group) had even cared all that much about the supposed ‘forbidden’ or ‘weird’ nature of our relationship when it came out that we were together. They’d made a minor fuss about how ‘cute’ it was, and that was it. Aside from that, they were still focused on my father, who was currently serving out a lengthy sentence in a federal prison, along with Greg Sanders and various other people who’d been part of the shooting scandal. As the case had progressed, more and more details had come out, and we now had a full picture of what had occurred. The scheme had been dreamed up by Greg and my father, and they’d used various contacts to enact it. Felix Adamson was known to Greg through an old friend, and Greg had approached him with a substantial financial offer, knowing that Felix’s girlfriend at the time was pregnant. Felix was already on the run from several arrest warrants—as we already knew—so he’d been the perfect candidate for the ‘task’. Greg had basically said, ‘you’re already going to prison as soon as they catch you anyway, so why not make some cash to support your girlfriend before you go away? Felix accepted the offer, obviously, and Greg and my father had coached him on how to act, who to shoot, and where. Dad had wanted attention to boost his profile, but didn’t want anyone to die, which was why he’d insisted on the grazing arm-shot only. I guess it didn’t fucking occur to him that there was a chance—no matter how small—that Felix might’ve missed and actually killed Evan. I thanked god every day he didn’t miss, although I would’ve preferred my little brother had been left alone entirely, obviously. Apparently Evan had been the target because he was younger and more vulnerable, which made my father more sympathetic to the general public and media—after all, the image of him carrying Evan’s small, bleeding body out of the ceremony that day had gone viral immediately, and it had really hammered in what a hero and ‘great father’ our Dad was. Ha. Great father…sure. His campaign team had also used various contacts and extortion methods to ensure several prominent psychologists went on the record stating that Felix was in the throes of psychosis during the attack, even though he wasn’t, and the security company who worked the wedding received a healthy sum to make sure Felix got into the ceremony that day. All in all, over twenty people had been involved in the scandal to varying degrees, and they were paying the price now by rotting in prison. It was also quite safe to say my father would never become President. Overall, I tried not to think about it too much anymore. It had been a horrible time back then, and now I wanted to concentrate on moving forward with my life. I knew Emilia felt the same, because

now that Charlotte and I had finished college and were moving back to Pennsylvania, she was doing the same; moving back there with her new partner, a nice, quietly-spoken man she’d met last year. Evan was going with them, of course, and he’d be finishing his high school education in Philly. He still had every intention of being an aeronautical engineer one day, and we were all supportive of that. None of us ever wanted to be anything like my father, so none of us would ever demand that Evan—or anyone else—put their passions and ambitions aside to do something which some might consider a ‘safer’ option. Whatever his dreams were, we wanted him to follow them. And speaking of dreams…Charlotte looked like one right now, even in her drenched ski outfit. I couldn’t wait to get her out of it. “So are we still meeting up with Nicki and Blake for drinks at the restaurant?” she asked as we entered our cabin. She slipped her gloves off and looked at me expectantly. “Yep,” I said. “But there’s something we need to do first.” “What’s that?” I gestured around the main room before giving her a light slap on the ass. “Think about it….this is where it all started. Us. We need to relive that memory some more, don’t you think? If you know what I’m saying….” “Technically, we first hooked up in the Fairview Ridge Hotel,” she said with a smile, watching me with a lusty gaze as I removed my pants, jacket and shirt. “Well, if you’re going to get all technical, then technically we actually first met at the age of seven or something, and I’m not going to get naked on a school playground just for the sake of having you where it all began,” I replied, standing before her in only my boxers now. She laughed, and I grinned at the melodic sound. Making Charlotte happy was the best way to make myself happy, and it always would be. Before she could formulate a proper response to what I’d just said, I swept her off her feet and into my arms, drawing a gasp from her lips. “Take me to the bedroom, just like you did that first night,” she said breathlessly, throwing her arms around my neck and holding on tight. “With pleasure.” I strode into the master bedroom and threw her down on the bed before pouncing on her, and she gasped and moaned softly as I embraced her. I didn’t kiss her; not yet. My mouth only glided against her body, leaving a delicious trail of desire and need, and down her cheek as my lips caressed her skin before moving across her jaw bone and then descending to her neck. I closed my eyes as I went, savoring her taste as I eventually worked my way back up to her mouth. Charlotte’s tongue flicked under my top lip as I finally kissed her, sending shivers down my arms. She snaked her arms around my neck and pressed into me, and my hands rubbed down her sides and then moved under her to grab her ass. She molded into me like a piece of clay. Where I caressed, she melted. Where I pulled, she followed. My mouth scorched her skin from her rib cage to her hip bones, and I kept kissing her while unzipping her pants and tugging them down. Charlotte gasped at the touch of my mouth right above her panties, and my tongue skimmed over her soft skin as I yanked the underwear down as well. I could feel the heat coming off her, and my cock was rock hard, aching almost unbearably to be inside her.

But not yet. She was still half-dressed, and I wanted to tease her first, just like she loved. I moved back up and cupped her head before lowering my mouth to hers again. My kiss was hard and fast, stealing her breath, and she reached around and gripped my ass, reaching under my boxers. The touch of her fingertips on my skin fired through my body, mixing with a lust I could never deny when it came to her. I kept kissing her, cupping her face to take her tongue deeper into my mouth. As her hands ran up and down my back, I tore her jacket and shirt away, leaving her in only her bra, and then I pressed my face between her heaving breasts. She moaned for me, and every swipe of her hands across my back and ass brought even more desire flooding through me. My cock throbbed harder and harder the closer I got, and I took great pleasure in teasing Charlotte, dragging my teeth along her stiff nipples and bringing them to life against my tongue. She gasped and reached down, touching my cock under my boxers and wrapping her short fingers around my shaft. A breathy exhale escaped my lips as I felt her warmth on me, and she pushed on my chest with her free hand, silently asking me to move back. I knew exactly what she wanted to do right now. Was I going to say no to that? Hell no. I sat up on my knees, waiting with eager anticipation, counting the seconds until her hot, willing mouth was on my cock. She sat up as well, giving me a sultry smile before pulling my boxers all the way down, and my manhood fell free, standing on end between us with a glistening tip. I reached for her, my fingers raking through her hair as she leaned her head down, and I groaned as the tip of my cock finally slid between her velvety lips. She licked the tip clean, only to entice more pre-cum out of me, and I groaned again, my whole body going stiff as heady need coursed through me. I watched her move, relishing every second as she worked me in and out of her lips, sucking so hard that her cheeks caved against my thick shaft. Sweat was breaking on my brow, and my jaw hung open as she worked me, clamping her lips around me and sucking even harder. Christ, she was amazing at this. I flexed my jaw and closed my eyes, deep pleasure radiating up my spine, and moments later, I couldn’t take any more. I didn’t want to cum just yet; I wanted to cum in her tight pussy, not her mouth. I patted her on the head and slowly pulled out, and then I grabbed her shoulders and pressed her back down to the sheets, one knee forcing her legs apart. My fingers slid down her belly, inching closer and closer to her slit, and I saw Charlotte bite her tongue, trembling with each touch as she reached for the bedspread and curled her fingers into fists, latching on to keep her body steady. My hot breath teased over her thighs as I moved further down, and I groaned as my eyes finally raked over her perfect pink folds. My tongue parted my lips above her swollen bud. “Do it…” Her voice almost caught in her throat. “Do what?” “Beg for it.” I saw her grit her teeth, overwhelmed with lust. “No…stop teasing me!” I grinned and slid a fingertip along her slick folds. “Charlotte…” She bit her lip, fighting against her back as it attempted to arch off the bed. “Please, Cade…I want

you so bad,” she finally gasped out. “How bad?” “I already had you in my mouth, and now I want you everywhere else. Your cock, your mouth, your hands…all of you, in all of me. Now!” I grinned. “Good girl.” I leaned back down, sliding my tongue up and down her little nub, and she moaned and threw her head back as I licked over and around it in delicate little circles. Just as she was getting into it, I moved without hesitation, forcing her legs up onto my shoulders and pressing my cock against her aching pussy. I took it in my hand and rubbed the tip against her clit, and I could practically feel shock waves firing through Charlotte’s body with each quick rub. I reached down with my other hand, sliding a finger inside her sopping entrance, and sparks seemed to ignite all over her as I touched her. She writhed beneath me, her muscles swallowing me up and begging for more. Every purposeful flick of my cock against her clit brought her closer to letting go. I pushed down, sliding slowly between her wet folds, and I set another finger against her dripping entrance. “Yes,” she moaned. “Another one…please…” Her back arched off the bed as she begged for more. I kept my eyes trained on her, testing her reaction as I slid the second finger into her slick tightness. She sighed with bliss, longing for even more of my thick digits, but I refused to give it to her just yet. After all, she’d offered me every part of her….every single one. I massaged her inner walls as she stared down at me, gasping at the pleasure overwhelming my body, and then I slid my pinkie finger just past the tight ring of her ass. The whole area was already soaking wet from all her juices dripping down, and she let out another moan as the finger slid inside her most forbidden hole. “Oh god, yes!” I kept fingering her pussy and ass, sliding the fingers in and out as my cock continued to rub her clit, and then I rose again, slowly withdrawing my fingers. She’d had enough teasing. Now it was time for the real thing. I slid my cock downward to meet her slit. Charlotte gripped the headboard behind her, preparing for my thrust, and I moved slowly, pushing my tip inside her. Pleasure rocked me instantly, and Charlotte moaned for more of me. I pulled her in closer, burrowing my shaft even deeper inside her, and she moaned again, louder this time, feeling every inch of my cock stretching her. Her hips jolted, begging for another thrust, and I dug my fingers into her to hold her down. She whimpered. “Oh, god…more…” My lips crashed into hers, drawing another hard kiss from her, and I jutted my hips forward, rocking us both with a hard thrust. Charlotte sighed between my lips, holding my body even closer to hers as sweat broke out over our skin, and her fingers dragged across my back and arms, feeling every muscle that lay there. I pumped into her again, finally giving into my desire to fuck her hard, and I didn’t stop. I began to piston in and out of her, breathing fast as my lips remained planted on Charlotte’s, and warmth bled from every muscle. I let it overwhelm me, riding the wave higher and higher until I was about to explode, and I slid one hand down between us, gently stroking Charlotte’s clit as I thrust in and out, continuing the hard grind.

Suddenly her entire body quaked, and I knew she was coming. A rush of pleasure radiated throughout my own limbs, but I didn’t climax yet—I wanted to give her more. When her breathing began to steady, she pushed up to kiss me, and I took her face in my hands, holding her tight as if she could float away at any second. Her knees hugged my waist and she wrapped her arms around me while guiding me onto my back. My thickness slid out of her as we moved, but she quickly maneuvered me back where I belonged. I lay back and watched as she took control, eyes growing wider as she rode me, bouncing and dancing on my cock like a well-practiced routine. I moved my hands up her body to cup her breasts, and her nipples swelled even more against my palms. I grunted from the back of my throat as Charlotte’s nails dug into my chest as hard as they could. She leaned her head back and moaned softly at the ceiling while my hips bucked to meet her bounce, pushing against her inner walls until they began to contract around my cock. “Oh, fuck—Cade!” She moaned for me, and I held her together while she started to unravel on me. I drew my bottom lip between my teeth, biting down as I pressed my thumb against her clit again. “Come for me,” I growled. I flicked my thumb quickly against her throbbing bud, drawing another scream from the back of her throat, and then she was coming on me again. The hot wetness inside became like a deluge, raining down on my cock while I took her with another round of upward thrusts as my own climax approached. Then everything exploded, from my head all the way down to my toes, and I groaned loudly as I finally came. Charlotte slid off me and fell to the bed, finally submitting to exhaustion, and sweat bled off my brow as I lay next to her, chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. My whole body was burning, and I’d never felt so alive. It was always like this with Charlotte. Each time always seemed better than the last, and I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life knowing that she was mine and I was hers. She didn’t know it, but I had something planned in that regard, and hopefully, it was going to happen sooner rather than later. I was going to officially lock her down as mine. Forever.

Chapter Twenty-Eight Charlotte Fourteen months later “I still think football is boring.” I turned to look at Evan, who was glancing around the crowds at Heinz Field stadium with disinterest. I grinned. “Well, why did you come to the game with us, then?” I asked, giving him a playful elbow. “Because Cade said I have to be here for—” My Mom nudged Evan, and he stopped talking. “Cade said you have to what?” I said, arching an eyebrow. “Cade just wanted to see his whole family here supporting him,” Mom said hurriedly. Evan enthusiastically nodded to back her up, and I narrowed my eyes slightly in suspicion. The two of them were behaving quite weirdly. Neither of them were football fans at all, yet they’d both insisted on accompanying me to Cade’s game against the Patriots tonight. Even when I’d told them I didn’t mind coming alone, knowing that Evan had just scored himself a girlfriend and might want to spend time with her, they’d maintained their desire to come and watch the game with me instead. Oh well, it was nice having company. In the last few years, I’d become somewhat of a football fan out of support for Cade’s career, although I was still a bit stunted in my knowledge of all the positions and other such things. I knew enough to know when Cade’s team was playing well, though, and every time I had a chance to go to one of his games, I jumped at the chance. He was doing so well, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. For the first few months of his professional career, he’d barely been on the field at all, seeing as he was fourth string QB. But then one of the backups had befallen a season-ending knee injury during practice one day, and the other backup had retired for various reasons. Cade had become second on the depth chart by the end of that season, behind the starter, who was a man named Andrew Harlick. Harlick had then suffered internal bleeding after a hit by a linebacker during a game, and Cade had been able to play a few games. The next season had then almost started with Harlick still playing as starting QB and Cade as a backup, but due to poor performance on Harlick’s behalf during the pre-season games, the decision had been made for him to be replaced by Cade as the starter. The game I was at right now was Cade’s second game as starting QB, and from the reception he’d been getting so far, I could tell that he was already getting to be quite popular with the female fans as well as male. “Cade! Cade Blackwell! We love you!” I glanced to my left to see several blonde girls screaming and waving as the Steeler’s team took to

the field after halftime, and I grinned. I wasn’t jealous. I was nothing but proud of my man for getting to where he was today so quickly, all through determination, effort and hard work, and I knew he’d never look at another woman the same way he looked at me. They could mob him and throw themselves at him—and one woman actually did throw herself at him one day, hurling herself into his arms after the team had returned from their last away game—but no matter what they did, it wasn’t going to make him love me less. I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I couldn’t blame other women for wanting him, though. He was sexy as hell, great at what he did, and on top of that, he was already pretty famous in general for being the son of Keith Blackwell, who was likely to go down as the biggest asshole in recent history. Cade and I still got recognized on the street quite often, seeing as we’d been the ones to discover and relay his father’s offences to the world via the internet, and we’d learned to take it in our stride. It was all history now, and in the time that we’d known each other, we’d both learned that dwelling on the past never worked out well for anyone. The second half of the game started, and Evan, Mom and I cheered and watched with bated breath. With the higher vantage of the free seats we’d been given (Cade got four great tickets per game to give to friends or family), we could see all the action perfectly, and it felt amazing to be up here cheering him on. Cade’s team’s performance was as good as ever in the third quarter. Unfortunately, the opposing team was equally good, because the quarter ended with a tied score. I was on the edge of my seat as the game paused for a break during the changeover between the quarters, and Evan turned to me. “So who’s winning?” I laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Look at the scoreboard. It’s a tie at the moment.” “Where’s the scoreboard?” I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not, but I pointed at the huge screen down at the end of the field. “Right there.” “Oh, right,” he replied with a shrug. “Anyway, I was just making sure you definitely knew where it was.” “Why wouldn’t I?” I asked with raised eyebrows. “Um…I don’t know,” he replied. Mom nudged him again and whispered something I couldn’t hear. They were being weird again, but I didn’t have time to dwell on the issue because the last quarter was about to begin. Down on the field, the huddle broke and the offensive line took their positions. I saw Cade calling out something to his teammates that I couldn’t quite hear, and then the game began. Cade went to his left and faked a throw to get the defensive line heading that way before throwing it in the opposite direction to one of the wide receivers, and then the game was really on. Even Evan was getting into it at this point, watching his big brother make plays with fascination, and soon the Steelers were up by five points. Nothing changed in the last few minutes, making it an easy win for them, and I stood and cheered at the victory as the rest of the crowd went wild as well. It might’ve been quite early in the season, but they were already doing really well, and nothing made me happier than seeing Cade’s triumphant grin at the end of a successful game.

Evan nudged me a few minutes later. “Look at the final score again.” “What? Oh…” On the scoreboard, there was a message saying ‘CHARLOTTE EMMA RUBIO, PLEASE GO DOWN TO THE FIELD’. Confused, I stood up and made my way down, and as I did so, I could see Cade’s teammates forming a tunnel with their bodies; one line on each side with Cade standing at the end. I tentatively stepped through the tunnel, and as I reached the end where Cade was standing, he smiled and gestured to something behind me. “Look, it’s your favorite mascot,” he said. Confused, I stopped and turned to see the Steeler’s team mascot standing at the end of the tunnel that I’d just walked through. I giggled and shook my head; Cade knew how silly I thought Steely McBeam looked. The mascot did a silly little dance, distracting me for a moment, and then he motioned for me to turn around again, which I did. Cade was on his knees. Actually, he was only on one knee. And he was holding something up to me. I gasped, a hand flying to my mouth as I realized what was happening. I was glued to the spot, frozen in my state of shock, my eyes watering as I gazed down at him. “Charlotte,” he said. “You’re amazing. You’re beautiful, smart, ambitious, and funny as hell. And I’ve told you how I had a huge crush on you when we went to school together…” I nodded vehemently, tears of joy filling my eyes as he continued. “Well, I still have a huge crush on you. In fact, I love you more than anything. I want to spend the rest of my life with you…if you’ll have me.” My hand flew to my mouth as my eyes settled on a black box in his hand, which he was now opening. Inside it sat the most beautiful ring I’d ever seen—gold with a big princess-cut diamond in the middle and several smaller stones set around it. It was perfect for me, for our love. He was perfect. “Yes,” I blurted out. “Yes, yes, yes!” “Just to be clear, I’m asking you to marry me.” “I know, and I’m saying yes!” I said again. I almost knocked Cade over as I jumped at him, giving him a tight hug. We were a mess of laughter and smiles as he slipped the ring onto my finger. It was perfect; beautiful and sparkling. Just like our future together. Cade’s teammates erupted into whoops and cheers around us, and I looked into his eyes. “I love you so much,” I said. “I love you too,” he murmured. “By the way…. look.” He looked up at the Jumbotron, and I followed his gaze, bursting into laughter as I saw what was up there. The camera was focused on Evan and Mom, and they were waving and holding Cade’s old school book; the one Evan had showed me years ago, proving how Cade had once had a schoolboy crush on me. It was opened to the page that said CB + CR, and then the Jumbotron screen changed to a slideshow of photos of the two of us that we’d taken over the last three years.

I turned back to Cade, shaking my head. “I can’t believe you organized all this for me. It’s so amazing. And it must’ve been hard getting them to let you do it.” “You’re worth the effort,” he replied with a wink. “You’re the one for me, Charlotte.” “And you’re the one for me.” I’d grown so much during my time with Cade, and I knew that I’d keep becoming a better person with every day that I spent with him. He’d helped me learn how to forgive, and he’d helped me learn how to trust people again. I no longer felt the paranoia and distrust I used to feel when faced with new people, and I recognized that no one was out to hurt me. Well, almost no one—bad people like Keith did exist in the world, but I knew that Cade wasn’t one of them, and he never would be. He’d helped me see the good in people, and I was forever grateful for that. He leaned down and kissed me, one hand tucking a strand of hair behind my ear as everyone else cheered and whooped around us. “I know I already said this,” he murmured. “But I love you. And I can’t wait to marry you.” “I love you too,” I replied, before pulling back and staring up at him, my eyes glowing with mischievous intent. “Now, I know you scored quite a few points during the game, but how would you feel about getting out of here and scoring again? Off the field, this time.” Cade grinned. “You wouldn’t just be teasing me, would you?” he asked. I winked and entwined my right hand in his before tugging on it. “No. But once we get home, I might just tease you until you’re begging for it….” THE END Thank you so much for reading my book! I hope you enjoyed Tease, and I hope it made your day a little brighter :) If it did, I’d love it if you could leave me a review on Amazon—it helps my books reach more readers. Keep reading onwards for your bonus book! Thanks again <3 Love, Caitlin

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MASK Chapter 1 Rayna “Wanna drink?” My friend Liana held up a beer as she returned to her bedroom, and I grinned at her. “We haven’t even gone to the party yet!” I said. “Don’t they have pre-drinking over in the States?” she asked. “Oh wait, I forgot…back home, you aren’t even legally allowed to drink yet, are you?” I nodded. “Yeah. Feels so weird knowing that I can just walk into a bar here.” “Pub,” she replied, sticking her tongue out. “That’s what we call it here most of the time. Now that you’re gonna be living here, I’ll have to teach you all the lingo.” I smiled again and smoothed my dress down as I considered her words. I’d been in London for a week now, and it had still barely hit me that this was my home now; this unfamiliar city, with its comparatively ancient architecture, quaint little shops and far narrower streets than my hometown all the way across the Atlantic in good old California. But this was it—England was where I lived now, after I’d moved over here with my Mom. After spending my entire life up to this point in the States, it was safe to say that this recent move had been a bit of a shock to the system. One of the first things I’d noticed as I stepped off the plane was how cold it was. Compared to the balmy Californian summers I was accustomed to, London was friggin’ freezing! I wasn’t entirely convinced that this new lifestyle was going to suit me at all, because I’d always been such a beach bum, and my usual wardrobe of shorts and casual tank tops was going to have to change dramatically. Luckily, I’d been shopping just before I came, and I’d purchased a myriad of oversized sweaters, coats and jeans. I wouldn’t have come here permanently if I’d been given the choice, but I wasn’t an idiot—I knew I wasn’t ready to face the world without my Mom around just yet. Yes, I was nineteen years old; at an age where I could’ve remained behind, living by myself, and I wouldn’t have minded doing so if she’d simply been moving down the street…but she’d moved to a different continent entirely. I knew I wasn’t ready to be that far away from her just yet—especially seeing as she was the only biological parent I had in my life—so here I was. She was about to marry Gerald Wilde; a wealthy English businessman who she was certain was the love of her life after a whirlwind romance. They’d met online, and after I’d finally met the guy in person, I half-wondered how certain she really was, but that wasn’t something I would ever say out loud. I didn’t really know a lot about Gerald, apart from the fact that he had a huge manor on an estate on the outskirts of London, a very profitable corporate finance business, an enormous luxury car

collection, and a son who was about the same age as me. Mom had shown me a photo of the pair of them together when she first met Gerald, but I hadn’t taken much notice at the time, because I hadn’t expected it to go this far. I’d honestly thought it would fizzle out long before it got to this stage. I wasn’t aware that people actually moved across to the other side of the world to be with someone they met online; it sounded more like something from a rom-com movie than real life. I could see what she saw in Gerald, though. He was successful and good-looking—and speaking of good-looking, so was his son, from what I vaguely recalled of the photo I’d been shown—but I still wasn’t totally convinced that this was the best decision for any of us. As a result, I’d only been to Gerald’s manor house once since I’d arrived in London. I’d let Mom go on ahead to settle in before I joined her, assuming she might want some ‘alone time’ for a few days with her new fiancé before I moved in with them. That way the two of them could figure out if this was really the best choice for them. So, instead of living in the manor house, I was staying with my friend Liana for the time being. I’d met her online in a chat room years before, and we’d stayed in touch our entire teenage lives. We’d always promised that we’d meet up at some point in our lives, so I’d been absolutely over the moon to learn that I would be living near her when we moved to England. As soon as she’d heard about it, she’d invited me to stay in her spare room whenever I wanted, and I’d jumped at the opportunity when I’d first arrived and realized that Mom and Gerald might want some private time together. Tonight, Liana and I were heading to what sounded like an amazing masquerade party that a friend of hers was hosting. I hadn’t been prepared for such a lavish affair, so yesterday we’d gone out shopping so I could buy something suitable to wear, and I was now clad in a silver sequined kneelength dress which showed just a hint of cleavage and hugged my curves well. The color of the material made my skin look even more tanned than usual, and a black lace mask sat snugly around my deep hazel eyes. I wasn’t normally one to think highly of myself, but as I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t help but be pleased at what I saw. My first proper night out in the UK, and I’d scrubbed up pretty well! “Ooh, I think I hear the cab outside. Come on, let’s go!” Liana said a moment later. She was the complete opposite of me in terms of appearance. She was tall, slim and leggy with the palest blonde hair I’d ever seen, which she’d had cropped into a pixie cut. Her choice of a pastel pink dress and matching mask made her look almost ethereal, and while she was completely and utterly gorgeous, I didn’t feel intimidated in the way that I usually would in the presence of a girl like her. Liana was a great friend who’d never try to make me or anyone else feel bad, and I was feeling rather confident in myself, which was a sure sign that tonight was going to be an amazing night. “Okay, let’s do it,” I said. I smiled back at her as she grabbed my hand and dragged me out the door into the black cab waiting outside. She chatted away excitedly as we drove to our destination. “We’re going to have so much fun,” she said. “There are normally loads of people at Tom’s parties.” I sat there, trying not to be too nervous. Now that we were actually on our way to the party, the whole concept of socializing with a bunch of strangers was starting to creep up on me a bit. I’d always been quite sociable in America, but I didn’t know anyone here aside from Liana, and I didn’t want to be clingy and hang off her like a mollusk all night.

“Not just my friends,” she continued. “There’s always random people he knows from his classes at uni, and others too. What I’m trying to say is…there’ll be heaps of hot guys there! Maybe you can meet someone, huh?” I giggled at this. Liana had always struck me as boy-crazy. In the time that I’d known her, she’d confided many crushes, boyfriends, and hook-ups to me, and she always seemed to fall hard before getting bored and moving onto the next. She was nowhere near settling down, but then again, at my relatively tender age, neither was I. “I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’ve only just moved here, so I’m not sure that complicating my life with a guy is such a good idea.” “What are you on about? You’re still a teenager…but only for a few more months. You need to act like a teen and have some fun before you hit the big two-zero! Besides, guys here will go nuts for your American accent—probably even more so if they know you aren’t looking for something serious.” “Mm…maybe.” Before I had time to decide once and for all whether I wanted to meet a sexy guy tonight, we pulled up outside the house the party was being held at. To be honest, I wouldn’t really call it a house. It was more like a freaking mansion; nearly as big as Gerald’s manor, and the main party room we entered a few minutes later was almost as grand as a palace ballroom. It was decorated in shades of gold and deep purple, and everywhere I looked, there was something fancy in my line of sight. Liana’s friend Tom was either rich as hell, or English parties were far different to the beachside barbeques that I was used to. “Let’s get a drink!” Liana said, clearly unfazed by her surroundings. It took an hour and four drinks for me to start to relax and enjoy myself. By this point, Liana had introduced me to about a dozen people, and now she was voraciously making out with one of them on the dance floor. At first this had been fine because I’d been talking to a group of people she knew from her high school days, but then I’d gone to the bathroom, and I hadn’t been able to find them upon my return, so now I was alone and feeling quite awkward. I finally spotted someone I’d been introduced to earlier across the dancefloor, but my thoughts of going over to her were interrupted by a husky masculine voice speaking directly into my ear. “Not dancing like everyone else?” the guy asked, his voice tinged with amusement. I turned to see a tall, muscular man standing beside me, and I looked him up and down as my mouth dried up out of sheer nervousness. I couldn’t see all of his face because of the black mask he had covering some of it, but I could tell from the rest of his features that he was handsome as hell, and his hard physique alone was enough to make me feel rather hot and bothered. He was rocking a tuxedo like no one I’d ever seen before; it seemed to fit his sculpted body perfectly. In the dim light of the room, I could just make out his grey-blue eyes behind the mask, and the way he was looking at me sent a bolt of electrified desire racing through my body. I had a brief thought of him pulling me closer, bending me over the nearby drinks table and taking me right there in front of the rest of the partygoers, and while the thought was gone in seconds, I was left with a treacherous blush on my face. When I didn’t reply immediately, he took a step closer, and I almost shivered with desire under

his gaze. “Sorry, it’s loud in here. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” he said. “I…uhh…that’s okay,” I said, feeling my cheeks heat up. I wasn’t normally a big flirt, but I was usually at least capable of forming a coherent sentence around members of the opposite sex. But not tonight, apparently…at least not around this guy. “Ah! You’re American,” he said. He gave me a smug smile, as if my nationality answered his earlier question, and I didn’t know what to make of this response. Was he insulting me because of where I came from, or was it some sort of odd English flirting technique? Either way, it didn’t matter—I still found him to be hot as hell. The effect he was having on me was bizarre, and I decided to put it down to the booze. I just couldn’t find any other rational explanation for the way my body was already seeming to crave him despite the fact that I couldn’t even see his entire face. As I watched him lift his drink to his lips, I noticed a glimpse of a black tattoo twining around his right arm that had me wanting to see more, and as he ran his fingers through his thick dark hair, I wished that it was my hand there instead. Yup…it was definitely the alcohol making me this man-crazy. At least that’s what I was going to tell myself for now. “Um, yeah, it’s my first time in England,” I finally said, seemingly able to speak normally again. “I only arrived a few days ago.” “On holidays?” “No, I’ve actually moved here from California with my Mom. Transferred my college course and everything. When the next term starts, I’ll be at the University of London.” “Nice. I’ve got some friends who go there. I went to Manchester Uni myself. Well, up until a year ago, anyway. So what are you studying?” “I’m pre-law,” I replied. He raised his eyebrows. “So you’re beautiful and smart, huh?” I shyly cast my eyes down at the floor before looking back up at him. “Thanks,” I said softly. He must have sensed my awkwardness, because he grinned and smoothly went on without adding to my embarrassment. “So you’re gonna be a big legal eagle one day, huh?” “Maybe,” I said with a smile. “I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be specializing in, but I think entertainment law would be really cool. Although that’s more applicable back in America in my home state, where the big movie industry is.” “True.” “But while I’m here, I’ll study as much as I can and figure out if there are any other things I’d like to specialize in. I was actually driving past somewhere with my Mom yesterday, and there was a sign saying there was some sort of archaeological dig-site nearby. It reminded me of a class I took once on heritage law, and that was always really cool to learn about.” “So maybe you’ll end up doing that, then,” he said with a nod. “That’d be awesome. There’s a lot of archaeological stuff that goes on in this country. Like up in York, there’s a lot of cool ancient stuff from when it was first established in Roman times. And in Leicester, they recently found King Richard III buried under a carpark. Crazy, right?”

I nodded. It was amazing how much this guy knew about such random subjects, and he made me feel totally at ease talking about it. Liana’s earlier words suddenly flooded my mind, and I considered them. Why not have a little fun while I’m here? Especially with a guy that’s so damn hot. There was nothing wrong with a few kisses and some groping on the dancefloor, and after all, like Liana had alluded to, I’d only be nineteen once, right? Pretty soon I’d be out of my teens and well on my way to adulthood, and there’d be less chances to throw caution to the wind and make out with hot guys at parties. “So aside from that dig-site you drove by, have you seen any of the major sights around here yet?” he asked, eyes still twinkling under the mask. Something about the way he spoke had me thinking about seeing all of him, rather than London Bridge or Big Ben. “No, not yet,” I said. I smiled, feeling a warm blush fill my cheeks. “But I certainly want to.” I ran my eyes slowly up and down his body, knowing that I was suddenly being far more forward than I’d normally be, but no longer caring. Liana was totally right about what she’d said earlier, and if I didn’t have some fun now, I might end up regretting it one day. The masked stranger leaned even closer to me, allowing me to soak in his scent. It was musky, manly, and dear god, it turned me on like crazy. “Will you need a tour guide for that?” he asked. The conversation still sounded innocent enough, but the sexually-charged undertones were definitely there. There was no mistaking that, not even for a second. “Sure. I’ve always wanted a tour guide in a mask,” I said. “Makes me feel like I’m with the Phantom of the Opera or something. Always had a crush on him when I was a kid.” His handsome features twisted into a smirk. “So you’d even be okay with your tour guide being a complete stranger in a mask?” he asked. “Especially a stranger in a mask. That’s actually always been a fantasy of mine,” I said with a coy smile. On the outside, I might’ve appeared confident and seductive, but on the inside, my heart was hammering like mad, and my brain was screaming, oh god…oh god…what the hell are you saying? I couldn’t believe these words were coming out of my mouth, but somehow they felt perfectly natural to speak. Whoever he was, this sexy stranger was bringing something out in me that I hadn’t even known was there till now. “I can make that happen,” he replied. “Why don’t we start with a tour of this grand old house?” “I’d love that.” He grabbed my left hand and started to lead me up the double staircase on the right-hand side of the elegant party room, and suddenly I was certain that it wasn’t just the booze that was causing my head to swim and my panties to practically melt. It was him; the sexy masked stranger, and the lust that was consuming me with every step I took as I followed him. We were moving through the party in a haze, as if everyone else there had vanished and it was just me and this stranger left. The desire that was pulsing through me was driving me wild, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this man. Sure, I’d dated and been attracted to other guys before, but it had never been quite like this. I’d never felt like I might actually shrivel up and die if I didn’t have them right at this second, but that was how I felt about Mr. Mask.

The room he led me into moments later was cold and dark, and I could only make out vague outlines of the furniture, but I still felt his presence; hot, sexy, and oh-so delicious. His hand wrapped around mine and I gasped out loud as he pulled me in. “You’re so fucking hot,” he growled in my ear, sending shivers down my spine. “It’s actually a bit chilly in here….oh,” I stupidly said, only realizing what he really meant at the last possible second. I felt his lips curl into a grin against my neck as he lowered his mouth to the sensitive skin there. “You’re funny,” he murmured. I gasped, unable to utter another word as his mouth descended on my throat. It was so dirty, being here in complete darkness with a total stranger….and yet it was the sexiest thing I’d ever experienced. He nibbled on my neck, gently at first, then harder and harder, and then he drew back. I heard his footsteps heading a few feet away, then the clicking sound of a switch being turned on, and a split-second later, the room was bathed in light. “I wanted to see that body of yours properly,” he said by way of explanation, his gaze roaming over my curves. I looked around. We were in a large bedroom, which was just as ornately-decorated as the rest of the house that I’d seen so far. It even had a four-poster bed, like I always saw in movies about oldfashioned English places, and I sucked in a discreet gasp as I took it all in, amazed by everything that the owner of this house had. Mom and I had moved around a lot when I was younger as work in her field was hard to come by, which meant I’d never been able to have lots of stuff, and it had never bothered me before. But now that I’d seen Gerald’s manor along with the house I was currently in, it made me wonder for the first time about all the things I’d missed out on by growing up in a lower middle class environment. Before I could think anything else, I was sucked into my ‘stranger’ fantasy once more. The guy I’d secretly nicknamed Mr. Mask was directly in front of me again, looking down at me as if he could see right into my soul now that the darkness in the room had dissipated, and he traced his hand around the back of my neck, the touch of his fingertips making me shiver with bliss as his lips moved slowly to meet mine. He kissed me gently at first, but it wasn’t long before our embrace turned wilder and frenzied. An involuntary moan escaped my lips as our tongues clashed and warred in a bid for domination, and he grabbed me even tighter. I felt him hitch my dress up, and a fire ignited in my stomach, completely taking over me. This wasn’t like me at all. I’d never gone so far as to have sex with someone I’d literally only just met moments ago, but I was more turned on than ever before, and I needed to get it out of my system...and soon. I grabbed hold of his shirt and dragged him backwards until I felt my back hit a cold wall, and I reached my hand down a second later. I was thrilled to find that he was already hard for me; his cock throbbing against his black pants, and his fingers traced the edge of my panties, sending me crazy with desire. I tossed my head back as he peppered kisses along my neck, earlobes and collarbone, and he let out a low groan as he moved his fingers under the lacy material, feeling the wet warmth that lay below. It was almost as if he hadn’t expected me to be that turned on by him so quickly, which made me feel strangely powerful.

He clearly wanted to explore further, and my panties were in the way, so he tugged them off. I let him. As I stepped out of them, I yanked at his belt, needing it gone as well. I was no longer thinking about what I was doing or pre-emptively regretting my wanton actions like I usually did every time I went further than chaste kissing with a guy. I was just allowing my body to do what it wanted— probably for the first time in my life. And damn, it felt good. I’d never been this turned on in my entire life; intense pleasure bubbling just under the surface as he kissed my throat and my collarbone, slowly descending to my cleavage. As I fumbled with his zipper, he stepped back to take a look at me. I was being scrutinized under his intense gaze….and suddenly it didn’t feel so great anymore. My body might’ve been begging for me to have this guy, and my mind might not have cared about how I might feel about my actions in the morning, but my heart did. My heart always cared, and it wouldn’t let me do this with a guy whose face I’d never even seen, no matter how hot the fantasy. I dropped my hand from his zipper and looked up at him. “Let me see you,” I whispered. “You can see me already,” he said, and then his mouth was on mine again. He wasn’t patient, sliding his tongue inside my mouth and pulling on my bottom lip gently with his teeth. I could feel the heat building up between my thighs, but I pushed aside the sensation and broke away from his embrace. “Please,” I said. “Take off the mask. I want to see all of you.” He stared at me for a few seconds, seemingly considering my statement, and I held my breath, feeling a stark tension suddenly flowing between us; something other than the sexual tension of a few moments ago. Then he finally lifted his hand and tugged away the dark mask, revealing his face. His perfect face. His familiar face. And that was when every fantasy I’d had about this guy went straight out the window. “Oh, shit!” I said with a gasp, throwing my hands over my mouth. He wrinkled his nose. “What’s wrong?” “I….uh….” Suddenly I was back to my earlier stage of not being able to form a coherent sentence. I recognized the guy before me from the photograph I’d seen of him all those weeks ago, and now that I was seeing his whole face, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized before now. Those grey-blue eyes, the chiseled jaw, the perfect ski-jump shaped nose—I knew who he was, and I could scarcely believe it. Surely it couldn’t actually be true… And yet it was true. He was Jace Wilde, my soon-to-be stepbrother…and I’d almost slept with him. Oh, crap. “I…I’m sorry. I have to go,” I mumbled, thanking the lord that I hadn’t taken my mask off at any

point in this brief encounter. My mask barely covered anything with its flimsy lace, but hopefully it was enough that Jace wouldn’t recognize me in future when we were properly introduced to each other as brand new family members. “What? Don’t go,” he said, reaching out and wrapping his arms around my waist. I pushed him away, the raw need to have him inside me still pulsing between my legs. He reached out for me again, probably thinking I was playing some coy little game, but even though my body was on fire from his touch, I knew I couldn’t do it. “Sorry,” I said, not meeting his eyes. “I really need to go.” “Are you serious?” His voice was incredulous, almost offended, and his British accent somehow made him sound even more annoyed than if he were an American like me. “You’re leaving?” I nodded and headed for the door without another word and without another glance in his direction. Then I did the only thing I could at a time like this. I stepped out into the long hallway and ran as fast as I could.

Chapter 2 Jace Shit. It was daytime already? I woke up as the warm morning light streamed through the curtains, causing my hungover head to throb like hell, and I sat up in the ridiculously oversized four-poster bed, wondering what the fuck I was doing there by myself. I was far more accustomed to waking up after a party with some random chick beside me, so waking up alone was just weird. Had I finally lost my touch with the ladies? I fucking well hoped not. I’d returned to London from Scotland a week ago, and I’d been staying here at my buddy Tom Ballanger’s place for two reasons. Firstly, Tom always threw kickass parties when his parents were away on business trips, and they were away quite frequently. Secondly, I couldn’t face going home to meet my father’s new fiancée just yet—the fourth damn fiancée in nine years—so it had been a good excuse to avoid it for just a little bit longer. With Dad, there was always some woman, always some crazy bullshit situation that ended it, and then it was onto the next. I hated it. It was a terrible vicious cycle that drove me insane, and I was fucking sick of being a part of any of it. In fact, if I hadn’t been forced to leave Edinburgh, I would’ve never come back, and I would’ve avoided this new fiancée forever. And probably the next one too. The face of the girl who’d run away from me the night before suddenly flashed in my mind, and I groaned as I realized I had no way of finding her. In my aroused state, it hadn’t occurred for me to ask her name….I’d just wanted to have her then and there. Names could come later. Of course, that wasn’t the way it had all worked out. Goddamn, she’d been beautiful. Even thought she’d been wearing a flimsy little mask, I could still see her sparkling hazel eyes and perfect button nose, and her plump lips drove me insane. The very first second I’d seen her, all I could imagine was those lips wrapped around my cock. On top of that, there was that shimmery dress, those sexy curves, and that amazing hair that I wanted to thread my fingers through. But it hadn’t just been her appearance that I’d been attracted to. There were goodlooking girls everywhere, but this girl—there was just something special about her. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on; something that I’d never experienced before…and I wanted more of it. Despite the mask, her eyes had given her away. She’d wanted it as much as I did, and I’d known that by the end of the night, I’d have her on her knees. I was Jace Wilde, and I could have any woman I wanted. Until I couldn’t. Just as I’d gotten her knickers off, she’d done a runner, and I’d been left high and dry, wondering where the hell it all went so wrong. Was I that fucking unappealing to her once the mask had come off? Surely not. It had to be something else. Either way, she’d immediately gone from hot to cold and

left me here in this very room with a boner the size of Wales and the most severe case of blue balls ever known to man. All I’d been able to do was return to the party and smash back another few drinks until I finally stumbled upstairs in an exhausted, drunken haze, but even the resulting case of whiskey dick wasn’t enough to stop me from wondering why my mystery girl had left. What the hell was it about me that caused such an extreme reaction in her? She was American and she’d apparently only just arrived in London, so it wasn’t as if she could know anything about my reputation here. I hadn’t even told her my name, for fuck’s sake, so even if she’d heard things about me from the person who’d invited her to Tom’s party, she wouldn’t have realized that I was the Jace she’d heard about. It just wasn’t possible that she knew a single damn thing about me. So where the hell could she have seen my face before, and what about it put her off so much? I’d certainly never had any complaints from anyone else before. In fact, girls always went crazy for my face and body. Wild for Wilde. I wasn’t trying to sound arrogant in thinking this way about myself; I worked hard to make myself look good by eating well and rarely skipping the gym, and people told me that all the time. So all in all, I didn’t want to accept that the attraction hadn’t been mutual between me and mystery girl. It just didn’t seem right. Okay, yeah, maybe I was being a little arrogant…but I had the goods to back it up. The unexpected rejection was, of course, the main thing that’d caused me to go so silly with the booze after she left, even though I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t. I didn’t normally drink until I passed out anymore, but that blatant rejection when I was so damn raring to go just threw me for a loop. I had no idea what the hell was wrong with me—I should’ve just moved onto the next chick. There wasn’t exactly a shortage of hot, willing chicks at the party, but I didn’t have it in me to even pretend to care about approaching one of them. Apparently, mystery girl had taken all my mojo with her when she left. As I glanced around the room, working up the energy to move, a pink lacy garment sitting in the corner of the room caught my eye. Her panties. I remembered tugging them from her rocking body, grazing her silky soft skin as I went, and I almost got a hard-on all over again. Goddammit, why the fuck had she run away? It was driving me bat-shit insane. She’d honestly been acting like she wanted it as much as I did, and then something—fuck knows what—had made her leave. I’d probably never find out what it was. Or maybe I would…. An idea suddenly struck me. I could track her down! Surely someone else at the party would remember her if I described her, and they’d be able to tell me who she came with, where she was staying, and various other details that might aid in my search. I jumped up and snatched the panties from the ground before stuffing them into my pocket. I felt like a bit of a creep doing so, but I figured it would surely be worse to leave them behind in one of Tom’s spare rooms for someone else to stumble across. I would hand them back to her when I found her anyway, and I would find her. I was absolutely determined to do so, and when I set my mind to something, I always got it. When I found her, I wouldn’t let her go until I’d finally fucked her brains out. I wasn’t some sort of soppy, sentimental guy, but there’d been something there between us. She wouldn’t be able to deny that, so I’d find out her reasoning for leaving me high and dry, and then I’d

find a way to put her mind at ease…and then I’d finally get to taste that sweet body of hers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t set about my plan just yet. Right now, it was time to face the music, because I couldn’t avoid going home forever. Dad didn’t know exactly when I was heading back to the manor, but he knew I was coming to stay with him for a while, and I was expected to show up at some point today to meet his millionth fiancée. Apparently she had a kid, but I couldn’t remember how old she was. I was pretty sure Dad had said nine, though. I grunted from the headache as I went into the bathroom and splashed my face, but the freezing cold water did nothing to wake me up any further. Perhaps my body was trying to tell me to sleep through the meeting with Dad and his new fiancée, because it might go better that way. Ha. I wish. Let’s just say that Dad and I hadn’t spent my life being on the best of terms. Tom was still passed out when I left, but that was cool—I’d see him again soon. We’d gone to school together, and he was one of the only real friends I had these days. Somehow, despite all the partying and girl craziness, he’d managed to stay stable and avoid developing any sort of problems or addictions. Too bad I couldn’t say the same for myself, but I was getting better. This year was gonna be different for me. As I drove, I thought about what my father’s fiancée might be like. All I’d heard about her was that she’d moved into the manor already, and that she’d been living somewhere in the U.S. with her daughter before she met my father. I hoped that I didn’t like either her or her daughter—that would make it that much easier when the relationship inevitably went tits up. I’d actually liked one of Dad’s partners before. She was wife number two, and we’d gotten along very well, but Dad had treated her like shit until she’d stormed out one day. I was only eleven years old at the time, and it had crushed me. I’d even tried to keep in touch with her, but she said that she couldn’t face seeing me because I reminded her too much of him and how much she’d loved him. So at the tender age of eleven I’d decided I wouldn’t ever let myself get hurt like that. Love was bullshit, anyway—it was all a sham, for pussies and pathetic daydreamers. As I reached the sprawling estate that I’d once called home, I took in a few deep breaths, trying to prepare myself for the inevitable barrage of questions, none of which I wanted to answer. ‘Why are you back?’ ‘Why are you such a fucking failure?’ ‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’ I was just going to have to go inside and get this over with; like ripping off a Band-Aid. As soon as the initial meeting with my Dad was done, I was certain we could return to the ‘barely communicating’ relationship that I was used to, and in this moment, I was actually looking forward to it being like that. I pushed the front door open and stepped inside. “Oh…hello,” a feminine voice said from somewhere to my left. A nervous-looking woman stepped out of the main dining room and moved towards me with her hand outstretched. She was older than Dad’s usual type, but beautiful all the same with her lovely caramel-colored skin, dark eyes and wavy black hair. I couldn’t focus on any of that, though. All I

could see was the hope in her eyes that I knew was going to be crushed sooner or later. It wouldn’t be long before tears filled those eyes instead, and we’d be seeing the last of her. “Jace, right?” she said. I nodded curtly. “I’m—” “Dad’s next victim, I know.” I knew I was being rude, but I wanted to make my position clear. I wouldn’t get close to this one. I was absolutely determined to keep my distance, and the sooner she could see that, the better. “Elena Silva.” She gave me a strained smile as her hand limply dropped down by her side. “I was just making some lunch, if you’d like some.” Just as I was about to refuse, Dad burst out into the main foyer. “Jace! It’s great to see you, son,” he said. He pulled me in for a big bear hug, which was fucking weird as hell for a man who’d never once showed even a hint of affection towards me. Was he putting on an act, or had he actually somehow changed in the several months since I’d seen him last? A flicker of hope burst into my chest, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Elena might be the woman who would change him; the one who could make him the man he was capable of being deep down. “Now,” he stepped backwards, getting a better look at me. “Am I to assume this is a fleeting visit, or are you back home for good?” “I’m here to stay. The rest of my stuff from Mom’s is being shipped…” “Great!” He cut me off, as if he didn’t want me to say any more in case I made Elena feel awkward. He must’ve spoken to my mother, and he knew exactly why I was really here. “You must join us for lunch. Elena has been whipping up something wonderful. She’s quite the whiz in the kitchen, you know.” He grinned at Elena, and for once, he actually looked like a man in love. I’d never seen this side of him before, and it was rather unnerving. “I wanted to sleep for a few hours, actually. Rough night last night.” “Nonsense. You need to meet your new family. Elena’s daughter is about your age, so you two should get along well. She’ll be here any minute.” “I thought you said she was nine?” “No. Nineteen.” This statement stunned me a little. Elena may have been older than Dad’s usual conquests, but she didn’t look old enough to have a daughter who was almost the same age as me. “Oh. Right,” I finally muttered. “So you’ll have lunch with us,” Dad repeated, his tone slightly cooler now. This time, it wasn’t so much of a question as a command. “Fine,” I said, following them both into the dining room. It would’ve been nice if I’d had a chance to shower and get changed first, because I was still in

the damn suit I’d had on last night at the masquerade party. I looked ridiculous, and I was certain that I still stank of booze. Some first impression this was… As Elena dished up some sort of pasta dish for us, my father made a great effort to act as if we were the best of friends. If I hadn’t known better, even I would have been hard pressed to believe that he’d torn my family apart when I was eight years old, when Mom caught him screwing the nanny. She’d immediately moved out and started the divorce proceedings when that happened, and I’d stayed living here at the manor until sixth form was over, as it was closer to the school they both wanted me to attend. Eventually Mom moved to Scotland with her new partner, but that hadn’t been till later in my teens, so I’d still been able to spend enough time with her growing up. Still, it was shit having my family broken like that and having to go to a separate house every weekend just to see my mother, and if Dad had been capable of keeping his fucking cock in his trousers, then it wouldn’t have happened. I sighed and put my elbows on the table, listening to Dad drone on. He asked me about absolutely everything, from current girlfriends to future plans, completely avoiding the one topic that I’d been expecting and dreading all at once. I was barely answering, being more than a little childish, but this was all far too strange for me to know what the hell to say. I wasn’t sure what kind of impression I was giving Elena, but I just didn’t care. Whether my Dad seemed different or not, I still wasn’t getting involved with his new ‘family’ until I knew whether or not he’d really changed, or if this was all the bullshit act I’d initially assumed it was. Elena excused herself to the kitchen, then returned and set a wooden board with garlic bread down on the table. She glanced at me a second later, a bright smile beaming across her face, and I found myself smiling back, even though I hadn’t planned on it. She just had such a kind and friendly face; it was difficult to ignore her. “All right, it’s all dished up, and I think I hear Rayna’s cab outside. I’ll just go and get her.” As she stepped out of the room, I waited for the other shoe to drop, but my father kept up the pretense of being a born-again family man. At least I thought it was a pretense—honestly, it had to be. This change was just too dramatic to be real. “So, are you glad to be back?” he asked. “Sure.” “How is your…” It seemed as if he was actually going to ask how Mom was—something he’d never done before—but we were interrupted by Elena and her daughter coming back into the room. I didn’t turn around to look at them, and I kept my eyes firmly focused on the garlic bread in front of me. I was determined to stick to my guns and to make zero effort to get close to the two women. “So, Jace…” Elena sounded nervous now. “This is Rayna.” Dad arched a brow at me, silently commanding me to turn around and say hi, and I rolled my eyes. “Hi,” I said, shooting a brief glance at her. The girl had long dark hair and a rocking body, but that was about all I noticed, and even that felt like too much. I’d prefer to know nothing at all. “Hi, Jace,” she replied quietly. “I’m Rayna.” The hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stood up. Her voice was barely above a whisper, but it still stunned me to my core. She sounded exactly like my American mystery girl from last night.

Shit, could this mean…? Nah, of course it didn’t. It was just a coincidence that they sounded the same, and there was no way this Rayna chick was the girl from Tom’s party. American people came to England all the bloody time, and London was a huge city. Just to make sure, I looked up at the girl, expecting to see a totally unfamiliar person looking back at me, but instead I felt like I’d been hit in the guts by a sledgehammer and had the wind knocked right out of me. It was her—the girl from last night. Oh, fuck. Even without the black lace mask on, I’d recognize her sparkling eyes anywhere, and I had to say, she was even more beautiful than I remembered now that she was bare-faced and standing here in the light of day. Rayna Silva. So that was my mystery girl’s name. It suited her; feminine, sweet, and decidedly unique. Part of me was glad that I knew it now, but the rest of me was thunderstruck. Shit, shit, shit. I’d almost fucked the girl who was soon to be my stepsister…and judging by the look on her face, she felt awkward as fuck. No wonder she’d taken off like a bat out of hell when she saw my face last night. As soon as she caught my eye, I flashed her a smug smile, and a violent red blush filled her cheeks, just confirming even further what I already knew. A-ha. I still had it. She hadn’t left last night because she didn’t want me…she’d left because she knew I was going to be related to her soon, in a technical sense. Rayna quickly averted her gaze from me and started eating, and I watched her carefully. I could sense the coldness emanating from her now, and she was clearly trying to pretend she had no idea who I was, but that didn’t matter. She could ignore me all she wanted—it didn’t change the fact that I had her panties in my pocket. And I was going to have a lot of fun with that little fact…

Chapter 3 Rayna Crap. He knows. As soon as I saw the flicker of recognition cross Jace’s face, I knew my life was never going to be the same again—as long as I was in England, anyway. If Jace hadn’t known who I was, I could’ve slowly forgotten about the night before and let it pass. I could’ve pushed it to the back of my mind and locked it in a little memory box labeled ‘Do not open…ever.’ But no, he knew exactly who I was. It was obvious in the way that he was staring at me. I fixed my eyes on the expensive china plate in front of me and began to stuff food into my mouth as quickly as possible in an attempt to get all of this over right away. As much as I was desperate to look up to see if Jace was still staring at me, I refused, because I couldn’t let him know I was affected by his presence. It would be far too embarrassing, especially if anyone else at the table caught on. I couldn’t let our parents suspect a single thing, because that would be horrendous, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the humiliating problems it would cause. “So Rayna, are you ready to move your things in here, or are you going to remain at your friend’s house for a little while longer?” Gerald asked, flashing a smile in my direction. I stared at him, unable to comprehend anything other than Jace’s presence right now, let alone speak. “Are you all right?” Mom asked, frowning when I didn’t reply. “I think she’s just got a mouthful of food,” Jace said with a genial smile. He leaned forward so that only I could hear him, pretending to grab the pepper grinder as he whispered something to me. “And you nearly had a mouthful of me last night, huh?” What? What the hell was his problem? I shook my head and gulped, trying to ignore him. “Sorry, Gerald. I was just a bit spaced out for a sec. Anyway, I think I’ll just stay with Liana for a while lon—” “No, you’ve gotta move in here so we can all be a real family,” Jace interrupted, smug smile still fixed on his handsome face. I stared at him with horror, silently asking ‘why?’ with my eyes. Surely he must find this at least somewhat awkward, and yet he was insisting I move into the manor. What the hell was he playing at? If he thought he was going to get a repeat of last night’s show, he was sorely mistaken. Now that I knew who he was, there was no way I was ever going to touch him again, let alone anything else. “I think Jace is right,” Mom said. “Gerald and I are all settled in together now, and you’ve had enough time to hang out with Liana. Besides, you can see her anytime. You need to be here with us, so we can get used to being a family.” “I…um…” My voice trailed off as I tried to think of an excuse—any excuse—to not move in, but my mind was blank. I didn’t really have a choice. I had to be here for my Mom, and I didn’t want to

make things awkward for her new relationship by refusing to participate in our new family, so I had to say yes. I finally nodded and forced a smile. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll get my stuff from Liana’s place soon.” “Wonderful,” Gerald boomed as Mom gave me a relieved smile. I dropped my gaze back to my plate, but I could feel Jace’s eyes practically burning a hole in me. What a creep. Why couldn’t he just let me eat in peace? My mind drifted back to last night, and I remembered the way he’d touched me…the way he’d kissed me…the way he’d made me feel…no, I had to stop thinking about it. What was done was done, and we couldn’t take it back, but that didn’t mean it had to stay on my mind. The further back I could push the incident in my head, the better. “…oh, and one thing I need to mention to you two kids is the fourth floor.” I could hear Gerald talking again now, and I had no idea just how long my mind had been elsewhere, but it must’ve been a while, because everyone else had almost finished eating. I glanced up and smiled quickly, just to let Gerald know that I was actually listening to him, and he continued. “It’s being renovated, but the workers are currently on a hiatus. Something to do with some big union strike at their company. Anyway, it’s just a mess up there, and thick with dust seeing as the workers haven’t been up there for a couple of months now. It’s pretty dangerous while it’s only half-finished, so it’s best to keep out. The main stairwell that leads up there is right next to where your new room will be, Rayna—in the east wing of the third floor. Anyway, it’ll all be okay once it’s done, but for now I ask that you both just keep away from the fourth floor.” “Sure,” I said. I couldn’t help but wonder just how big this damn house was. “Okay.” I watched Gerald slide back in his chair, scraping it along the ground. “Elena, we need to go and meet the wedding caterer at three o’clock, and we also need to see my lawyer about getting all those cars transferred over to your name.” “What cars?” I asked. Gerald looked over at me with wide eyes, like he’d already forgotten I was here within the last five seconds. “I…er…it’s nothing, dear,” he said hurriedly. “I’m just giving your mother one of the sports cars from my collection, that’s all. Something to drive around in, right, darling?” Mom nodded, and I arched an eyebrow. Gerald was sure acting weird about his cars, but then again, I hadn’t been around many rich people before. Maybe they were all this weird about their stuff. Gerald turned back to Mom. “So did you want to head out now? Thank you for lunch, by the way. It was divine.” “Yes, that sounds lovely,” she replied. “Let me just clear the table and get the dishes done first.” Gerald waved his hand. “Nonsense. Leave that to the maids.” “All right. Let me just touch up my lipstick and grab my coat.” I snapped my head up, my body suddenly flooding with panic. They couldn’t go out and leave me and Jace alone in the manor—what the hell was I meant to do? I didn’t even know exactly where my new room was yet, so it wasn’t like I could escape to it. As if he could read my mind, Jace smirked in my general direction, then turned his attention to his

father. “I’ll show Rayna to her new room while you’re out and help her get settled in. I’m sure she’ll need some help taking her clothes off….taking her clothes out, I mean, of her suitcases and such.” “Thanks, son. That’s very nice of you,” Gerald replied. I narrowed my eyes. Jace hadn’t misspoken just then. He was just trying to get a rise out of me by talking about taking my clothes off, the prick. Why the hell was he making things so damn awkward between us? Also, when the hell had my Mom become such a Stepford wife? I’d never seen her so keen to wear lipstick and do housework before. I’d always known her as a free spirit; the kind of woman that other mothers referred to as a ‘hippie’. She’d gotten pregnant with me at twenty-two, despite her very traditional parent’s wishes for her to be married to some Harvard-educated lawyer and put off having children till she was thirty-five, and after my father had left her for her best friend—something she rarely spoke of—she’d focused only on me. For as long as I’d been alive, she’d never gotten into another serious relationship, claiming she didn’t want to be tied down, and that was what made all of this so bizarre. She was almost too smitten with Gerald, wanting to be perfect for him, and I wondered how long the charade would last before she finally snapped and started to act like her usual self. I allowed my horrified eyes to skate around the room until they met Jace’s, completely shaking all thoughts of my Mom’s odd behavior right out of my mind. He was still staring at me as if our situation was the funniest thing in the world; as if he had no reservations whatsoever about us being left alone. This sent a burst of rage coursing through my veins. How dare he find this funny? None of this was even slightly amusing. In fact… Something had just occurred to me. This was entirely his fault! His mask covered half his face last night, meaning that I was unlikely to recognize him until he took it off, whereas my face was almost completely exposed in my flimsy lace mask. There was no way he didn’t know who I was; Gerald was bound to have shown him my photograph before Mom and I moved over here. So he’d kissed me, felt me up, turned me on and stripped me, all while knowing we were going to have to live together as brother and sister. What kind of sick game was he playing? Suddenly I didn’t want to hide away. I wanted to have it out with him. There was so much that I needed to say, and I was going to do it as soon as our parents left, while I was still feeling so damn pissed. He had it coming, and I had no intention of holding back. “Will you be all right with Jace showing you around?” My mother fixed me with an intense gaze, almost as if she could tell that something was wrong. “We won’t be too long. I can help you unpack as well, once we’re done.” “I’ll be fine, Mom,” I said. “Take your time.” “All right. Don’t get up to too much mischief, kids!” she replied. “We’ll try not to, but I can’t make any promises,” Jace said. Gerald and Mom chuckled, not realizing that Jace probably wasn’t kidding, and I rolled my eyes. I stared directly at him as I heard our parent’s fading footfall in the hallway a moment later. He

grinned at me again and began to speak, but I jumped in immediately, not allowing him to continue with whatever bullshit line he wanted to give me. “What the hell kind of game are you playing at?” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “How could you do what you did, while knowing? Did you think it’d be funny or something? Because let me tell you, it’s not funny at all.” “What are you—?” I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Don’t play dumb. You knew. You knew exactly who I was, and you knew I was about to be your stepsister. So you tried to seduce me when you saw me last night, and now you’re making all these sleazy comments just to be a dick and make things awkward for me. God knows why, but that’s clearly what’s happening.” He cocked a brow. “Ever heard the saying ‘it takes two to tango’? Because I didn’t try to seduce you last night…you were all over me from the minute I started talking to you.” My cheeks flushed with warmth. “That’s beside the point.” His lips twitched, as if he still found this whole debacle to be entirely amusing. “Well, you’re completely wrong, anyway. I didn’t know who you were; I hadn’t even seen a picture of you. I haven’t been here with my father for a long time. Until last week, I was living at my mother’s place in Edinburgh.” “I thought you said were from Manchester when we talked at the party,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Actually, if you recall our conversation properly, I said I used to go to uni in Manchester, up until a year ago. I dropped out of my course, and I’ve been up in Scotland with my Mom ever since. I definitely haven’t been here at my Dad’s, looking at photos of you. Today is the first day I’ve come back to the house and spoken to Dad properly.” “Sure. How convenient.” “No….this is convenient. For me, anyway.” I watched him reach into his pocket and tug something out. As he opened up his hand, showing me what it was, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. I’d recognize that pink lace anywhere—it was my panties from last night. I’d completely forgotten them as I’d run out of the bedroom at the party house, and he’d obviously picked them up and brought them here to torture me. “Oh my god…give that back!” I said, trying to snatch the panties from his hand. As I did so, he yanked them back and shoved them in his pocket again. “As I was saying, it’s pretty convenient for me that you left these last night,” he said, looking smugger than a cat in a bowl of cream. “Because I’m not going to give them back until you’ve learned to behave. And if you don’t behave, I can always show them to our parents and tell them what happened between us…” I scoffed. Was he twelve? “Go ahead and show them. I’ll just say you stole the panties from my drawer or something, and that you made up the rest of the story.” I could also say they simply weren’t my panties, but my Mom would recognize them from whenever she’d hung out our washing back home. They were pink lace, but they had a distinctive keyhole cut-out near the top with a purple bow, and she’d always remarked on what cute undies they were.

He pulled out his cell phone and held it up. “What if I call them right now and make them come back? They’ve only just left, so they aren’t too far away…and how could I have possibly gotten my hands on your underwear drawer in the last five minutes when your stuff hasn’t even arrived from your friend’s house yet? I think they’ll believe my side of the story over yours, and you wouldn’t want Mommy dearest to find out what her only daughter’s been up to, would you? Hooking up with her new stepbrother…naughty, naughty.” I folded my arms. “You aren’t actually my stepbrother yet, and you wouldn’t actually call them.” “Wouldn’t I?” he asked, arching an eyebrow. “You’re not being very friendly to me, so maybe I should call them. But if you start being nice to me, I’ll be nice to you in return.” My heart began to thump loudly in my chest as angry adrenaline coursed through my veins. “Sure you will,” I said sarcastically. “God, I can’t believe I thought you were hot last night. You’re just an ass.” “I’m an ass who’s still got your panties, though.” I folded my arms across my chest. “Why are you being such a prick? You don’t even know me!” “Funny, because a second ago you were flying off the handle and accusing me of definitely knowing you, and saying that was the only reason I hooked up with you last night. I think you’re kind of the ‘prick’ in this scenario, wouldn’t you say?” “Wow, you found the world’s thinnest argument, well done,” I said, my voice tinged with sarcasm. He smirked. “So am I calling them or not?” I gritted my teeth before letting out an embarrassed sigh of defeat. “No. I’ll be….nice.” Jace grinned widely. “Good. Now let me show you to your new room.” I narrowed my eyes and followed him up the main staircase, wondering what would happen if my Mom actually found out about what happened last night, and the thought left me ice-cold. She would be freaking pissed. It could ruin her upcoming wedding, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. We’d always had an amazing relationship, and I didn’t want to mess that up—along with her relationship with Gerald—over one drunken night of passion with Jace. “Here’s your room,” he said once we’d reached a doorway on the third floor, right near the stairwell. “Thanks,” I mumbled. “Thank my Dad. He’s the one who put you right next to my room,” Jace replied with a wink. “Anyway, I’ve gotta take a shower. Your stuff isn’t here yet, is it?” I shook my head, and my heart sank as I pictured myself trying to sleep every night, knowing that Jace was only a few feet away. Even though he was clearly a sociopathic asshole, he still had the exact same effect he’d had on me last night…that crazy, panty-melting feeling, like I wanted to strip down right in front of him just like I’d started to do last night, whether he was my soon-to-be stepbrother or not. As I went to open the door to my new room, he leaned closer to me, and for a second, I thought he was going to kiss me. I drew back, but then I felt him sliding something into my hand instead, his fingers brushing ever-so-gently against mine; so gently that I wondered if it had even happened. My

hot, tingling skin, wildly thumping heart and the pink panties in my hand were proof that it had, however. “I was only kidding before, to get a rise out of you,” he said. “I wasn’t really going to use these as some sort of stupid blackmail device. Your secret is safe with me.” Hmm…maybe he wasn’t such a sociopath after all. Twisted sense of humor, but not a future serial killer. “Oh, um….thanks,” I said. He turned to leave, and I called out to him, making him look back over his shoulder. “Wait. Isn’t it our secret? Like you said earlier, it takes two to tango.” He grinned and winked at me. “Touché.” For the first time today, I felt a real smile quirking my lips up. Jace was a bit of a jerk, but he was still quite amusing. So maybe living here with him wouldn’t be so bad after all…

Chapter 4 Jace I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I walked away from Rayna. She was witty; I had to give her credit for that. I hadn’t planned on playing games with her when I’d first grabbed those panties off the floor this morning—hell, all I’d wanted to do was find her—but the minute I did find her and comprehended the fact that she was about to be my stepsister, I hadn’t been able to resist playing with her. Her reddened face as she tried not to remember me over lunch was just far too adorable, and she’d made it so easy for me. There was no way I couldn’t have messed her around a little. It was too funny. I glanced around my bedroom, surprised to see that everything was still exactly where I’d left it since I’d last visited around eight months ago to catch up with friends. I suppose I couldn’t be too surprised that Dad had ignored the room and left it as it was. It wasn’t like he cared about clearing out my junk and converting it into yet another guest bedroom when the manor already had two entire floors of guest bedrooms. The place had an insane number of rooms, and the whole estate reeked of someone with far too much money and no idea what to do with it all. Yup, that was my Dad. There’d been a point where I’d been a bit like that—eager to flash the cash from my trust fund with no consideration of where it had come from, just to impress people and make them think I was fucking ‘cool’ or whatever. But I wasn’t like that anymore. I couldn’t be that shallow after all that’d happened in the last year or so. I let out a deep sigh and wished once more that I hadn’t had to leave my Mom’s place last week. I’d always felt far more welcome there than I did here at Dad’s, and it was a shame that everything else was so fucked up for me in that city. I’d been determined to change things for myself while I was there, but my plan hadn’t quite worked out, and there was nothing I could do about that now, so it was time to unpack and to accept that I was back in London for good. It may not have been what I wanted, but I could still make the best of it and start over. I showered and began to unpack, and just as I’d finished hanging the last of my clothes in my wardrobe, I heard my phone vibrating on one of the bedside tables where I’d left it earlier. As I picked it up, I noticed a familiar face flashing on the screen—the face of a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I only hesitated for a split-second before answering. “Hello?” “Jacey boy!” came the overly-excited reply from the other end. “It’s Roy. I heard you were back in London. Please tell me this is true, because I’m back in the city too!” Roy sounded so happy to speak to me that I couldn’t help but smile. “Well, well, well….if it isn’t Roy Cummings. You heard right, I’m in London now. Scotland was a proper washout.” Roy and I had been friends all throughout school, and we’d gone on to have some very wild parties as we’d grown older and gone off to our first year at university in Manchester, where we’d

both elected to study in order to put some distance between us and our parents. There’d been lots of booze and other illegal substances involved—too much, in fact—but it had been a lot of fun. We’d had some damn good times and made some amazing memories together. We’d drifted apart in the last year when I dropped out of my course and moved to Edinburgh to stay at my Mom’s, because I’d wanted to separate myself from all of the temptations that uni life held for me. It had just become too much, and I actually wanted to make something of my life…but that hadn’t exactly happened. Edinburgh had been ten times worse. I’d managed to find a job, but I’d fallen in with the wrong people almost right away, and my uni days had suddenly seemed tame in comparison. I’d always had trouble with retaining self-control. Maybe that was the real reason I was playing these stupid games with Rayna—if I didn’t, I’d have no distractions, and I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from trying to have her. And that wouldn’t exactly go down well with Dad… “What are you up to? We need to hang out, it’s been far too long,” Roy said. I was grateful for the way he was totally skating over any awkwardness there might have been after the way I’d abruptly left uni a year ago. He was simply acting like it’d never happened, allowing us to pick up where we’d left off. “Not much. What do you wanna do?” “How about a drink?” “I don’t know, man. I went to a party at Tom’s last night, and I got totally hammered. I’m still pretty hungover from that.” “I don’t mean ‘let’s get fucked up’,” he said. “Let’s just go for a nice quiet beer at our old favorite pub down on Faversham Road. Catch up and whatever.” “Yeah, all right,” I replied. “How about we meet at two?” There was nothing wrong with that plan. One beer in the afternoon was pretty standard behavior. “Yep, cool. See you in an hour, then,” he said. I hung up and stared at the screen on my phone, wondering what my old friend was up to these days, as he hadn’t said much over the phone. If he was back in London now, then there had to be a reason for that. He hadn’t said anything about dropping out of his course like I had, so perhaps he’d transferred his course to somewhere here in London. Or perhaps he had dropped out, and hadn’t wanted to say anything. That’d be understandable. I hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone about why I’d dropped out when I’d done it last year, out of pride. There was no point wondering about it now, anyway. I’d be seeing him in an hour, and he could tell me all about what he’d been up to then. I put my shoes on and went back into the still-steamy bathroom to spritz on some cologne, and through the vent near the ceiling, I could make out the sound of Rayna talking on the phone in her room next door. “Okay, I didn’t tell you this part of the story this morning because I was almost convinced that I dreamed it all last night. Honestly, it’s so insane, and I was so embarrassed,” she was saying. “But remember how I told you that I sort of hooked up with a guy last night? Well….he’s Gerald’s son, and he’s about to be my stepbrother. Can you believe it?”

A moment went by where her friend was obviously talking on the other end of the line, and then I heard Rayna’s voice again. “He’s called Jace…yes, Jace Wilde! I didn’t know you knew him. Oh my god, you could have warned me last night!” Another pause. “Are you serious? No freaking way! He’s going to be related to me, Liana. It doesn’t matter how sexy he is.” Oh, so she thought I was sexy, huh? Not that I didn’t already know that, but still, it was nice to hear her say it out loud. “I’d never do that to my Mom,” Rayna continued. She paused for another moment, then went on. “Yes, I know, but that was different. I didn’t know who he was last night, but now I do, so it’s not going to happen. I’ll never, ever sleep with him.” I grinned at my reflection in the mirror and then mouthed two words towards the vent. Challenge accepted. *** The second I saw Roy nursing a beer at the corner table of our favorite pub, which we’d long ago claimed as ours, I felt my spirits lift. It was just so damn good to see him. He looked rather tired, although I was certain that I did too after the party at Tom’s last night, but apart from that he was still the same old Roy. I quickly ordered myself a beer and joined him before he’d even looked up from his phone to notice my arrival. Luckily the place was dead, so it looked like we were going to have some privacy for our reunion. “How you doi…?” I started to ask before being wrapped up into a tight bear hug. “Oh man, it’s just so great to see you,” he said. I was happy too, of course, but Roy just seemed over the moon. “Uni really wasn’t the same without you, when you dropped out and all,” he added, finally allowing me to sit down. “What do you mean?” “Oh, you know, it just wasn’t the same. It got boring, even the parties weren’t the same.” I had no idea what to say. When I’d left, I hadn’t considered everyone I was leaving behind, and now I felt a little bad about it. I’d just been focused on myself, and it was fair to say that I’d acted a little selfishly. “Well, I still love parties. Just not those kinda parties.” My concern must have been etched into my features, because Roy grinned. “Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to make you feel like shit. It was just different once you left, that’s all. Anyway, how’s things?” I shrugged. “All right, I guess. My Dad’s getting married again, so I’m having to deal with getting to know yet another fiancée.” He snorted. “Seriously? He’s getting married again? Jesus, who is it this time?”

“Some American woman he met online. She’s actually quite nice.” “Any kids you have to play nice with?” “Err…” I hadn’t planned on bringing up Rayna, but I couldn’t exactly lie to my friend and tell him Elena had no children. “Yeah, a daughter called Rayna,” I finally added. “Young?” “Nineteen.” Roy arched his eyebrows, and his eyes glimmered with amusement. “Is she hot?” “She’s all right, I guess.” He laughed. “Bullshit, man. I can tell by your expression…she’s fucking fit, isn’t she?” I grinned. “Fine. You got me. Yeah, she is.” “So are you gonna try to get in there?” Roy asked, and then his expression changed. “Oh, shit. You already did, didn’t you? You dog!” “Nah, I didn’t.” Well, it was half true. Rayna and I had been interrupted mid-hookup by her realizing who I was, so I hadn’t actually slept with her, even though we’d definitely been about to fuck each other’s brains out. “You totally should.” “Nah. That’d just be awkward,” I said. I was still lying. Fuck the awkwardness; I still wanted her. I just didn’t need everyone else to know that. “Like that’s ever stopped you in the past. You fucked Lyndon Turner’s sister in his own bedroom when we were seventeen, remember? That was awkward.” “True,” I said, nodding and grinning. “But this is different. Rayna’s gonna be my sister.” “I guess. But you clearly like her, at least enough to keep trying to change the subject away from you wanting to screw her.” “Well, she is pretty cool,” I admitted, before trying to make a joke to get off the subject. “She’s got that special ‘didn’t pepper-spray me’ quality I’ve been looking for all these years.” Roy chuckled. “Sure, like you’ve ever had any issues getting chicks to like you. She’s probably already in love with you. Anyway, speaking of chicks, I totally forgot to tell you, Kristy dropped out of uni too. She got married to some lawyer.” “Kristy Miles?” I said, remembering the hot leggy blonde that Roy and I had always fought over in a silly banter type of way. I’d actually hooked up with her a few times, but I’d never told my friend that. I’d always allowed him to believe that he was still in the running for her affections. Unfortunately for Roy, he’d been in my shadow the whole time we’d known each other; since sixth form. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Kristy didn’t even know who he was. Where I was charismatic and took care of my body, he’d always been shyer and a little tubby—though that had changed. Now he was erring on the side of too skinny. “Yeah, her. Fucking hottest girl around, right?”

“Mm,” I said in a noncommittal voice. Truth be told, the thought of Kristy didn’t make me feel the same twinge in my cock that it used to. Even though I’d only met Rayna yesterday, she was already cemented in my mind as the hottest chick I’d ever laid eyes on, and some bleached-blonde girl with zero aspirations—like Kristy—couldn’t hold a candle to her. It didn’t surprise me at all that she’d married a lawyer and dropped out of her course—she’d always struck me as the type of girl who was only at uni to find a husband. Rayna, on the other hand…she was different. In our brief conversation at Tom’s party, she’d mentioned that she was studying law, and she’d actually sounded passionate about it. “Hey, do you remember that night she dared me to jump in the pool at that party, but because I was so fucked off my face, I thought it would still impress her if I pushed you in instead?” We both chuckled at this memory. What I didn’t tell him was this actually did work as a seduction technique….only not in the way he’d intended. It’d worked for me after he’d passed out on one of the sun lounges. Apparently Kristy liked the ‘drowned rat’ look on me, because she’d dragged me into one of the bathrooms at the party house and practically begged me to do her over the sink. “Oh, and do you remember when we went to that rave at the Armstrong’s farm?” Roy continued, obviously excited to be reminiscing with me. As much as I’d rather talk about where he was with his life now, this subject was still fun to think about all the same. “Yeah, that farmer went apeshit when he found us in the barn with his daughters,” I said with a nod and a snort of laughter. “You know, we should do it all again!” Roy said. “There’s a rave over in Whitechapel tonight, actually. I know the rest of the boys would be up for it, if you could just sort out some cash for the stuff…” And there it was—the real reason he’d invited me to catch up. He just wanted money. My stomach felt hollow as I considered this. Roy had never had as much money as me, so back in high school and during our year at uni in Manchester, I’d bankrolled most of our shenanigans. So maybe that was the real reason uni apparently hadn’t been the same without me after I’d left—because he didn’t have anyone to pay for his pills, coke and weed anymore. How wonderful….I’d come here to catch up with an old friend, but it had turned into this instead. I shook my head. “Nah, man. I’m happy to have a drink with you and hang out, and hell, I still like to party. But no raves or pills or anything like that. Just a regular old party; not like what we used to do.” He nodded. “Sure, you can just drink. Me and the other boys will still do a few lines or whatever, but you don’t need to join in.” My stomach felt even worse now. I’d left both Manchester and Edinburgh to get away from the drug-fueled craziness that seemed to follow me around, and while I had no problem going to a normal party and catching up with friends, I really didn’t want to be around people who’d be snorting coke, dropping pills and smoking god knows what. It was too easy to slip back into old habits, and I needed to keep away from that now. “I don’t know, man. I’m trying my best to change, you know. That’s why I left Manchester last year.”

Roy’s face darkened slightly. “Really? Because I heard you were even worse in Edinburgh.” Ah, the old rumor mill. No matter where or how far I went, it seemed I couldn’t escape it. There was no point denying this particular rumor, though, because it was true. I nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. I was. I thought being there would be better for me than Manchester, but it wasn’t. That’s why I finally came home to London. Another fresh start, seeing as my last fresh start didn’t really work out for me.” “Surely you can still lend me some cash for stuff tonight, though, aye?” I shook my head. “I don’t mind paying for some drinks, but nothing else. And I don’t want you or the other guys doing any shit in front of me, either. Like I said, I’m trying to change and get away from all that.” Roy slammed his fist down on the table. “Jesus, Jace. You’re so fucking boring now. You’re right, you have changed—but not for the better. You’re just a fucking sanctimonious asshole. Can’t even shell out for a few lines of coke.” “Are you fucking kid—” I started to reply, but he was already getting up and heading for the door. I closed my mouth and watched him storm out of the pub only seconds later, leaving me sitting alone. Boring. Was that all I was now? A boring old man at the not-so-ripe old age of twenty? All I’d wanted to do was grow up and stop fucking myself over by getting high every night. I hadn’t wanted to alienate anyone, and surely Roy could see that I was doing my best. I wasn’t sure why he had to be such a dick about it, just because I refused to give him money to pay for pills and blow. Then again, maybe Roy had a vague point. Just because I’d sobered up and stopped snorting shit at parties didn’t mean I was suddenly a good person. Take my new family, for example. I’d been pretty rude to Elena when I’d first met her, and I’d been even worse to Rayna, although I’d just been kidding. She obviously hadn’t thought any of it was funny, but I’d still kept going with it for my own amusement. Maybe I really was just a giant fucking asshole. On top of that, why the fuck was I so hung up on Rayna? I’d only just met her, yet every time I thought of any subject at all in the last day, my brain found some way to involve her. Sure, she’d had an effect on me when we’d met, but that didn’t mean she needed to be on my mind twenty-four-seven, especially seeing as she was about to be my stepsister. No, I needed to push her from my mind, and that shouldn’t be too hard. After all, I might very well have changed, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still Jace fucking Wilde. I still knew a ton of people in London who were decent non-users—like the people I’d been at the party with last night—and I still had a ton of chicks available to me for a hookup if that’s what I felt like. That was what I needed right now. A distraction in the form of a hot body to look at and a warm pussy to slide into. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts list as I finished the beer in front of me, trying to put Rayna out of my mind and concentrate on other girls instead. I almost dialed one number—a girl I’d met only hours before Rayna at the party yesterday—but instead I pressed ‘delete’, then slid my phone back into my pocket without a single call made. I just couldn’t

bring myself to do it, not when the sweet taste of Raynaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s full lips was still lingering on my mouth. I guess as long as Rayna was in my life, driving me crazy the way she did, the closest thing Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d be getting to any action would be sitting across from her at the breakfast table every morning with a stiff cock. Great. Just fucking great.

Chapter 5 Rayna After I heard Jace leaving the house, I headed out as well. Liana and I had chatted for a while earlier when I’d called her to tell her I’d be moving into the manor, and after we hung up, I headed to her place to get my stuff. It didn’t take long; all we had to do was pack up my things into the four giant suitcases I’d brought with me and shove them into her car to take back to my new home. “Thanks for your help with this,” I said as we stashed the last case in the trunk of her car. “And thanks for having me for the last week.” She grinned. “No worries, you can stay anytime. I’m so jealous, though. You get to move into that giant place!” “Don’t worry, it’s not that great,” I said with a shrug. “My new room is right next to Jace’s. Out of the billion or so rooms in that huge place, that’s where they put me!” Her smile grew even wider. “Ooh la la!” she said in a silly voice. “It’s like your parents actually want you two to hook up.” “He wishes.” “More like you wish.” I put my hands on my hips. “I told you earlier, that’s not going to happen! He’s so freaking annoying. You should’ve heard what he said at lunch.” I was more or less trying to convince myself that nothing was going to happen, rather than convince Liana. She winked. “Well, you know what they say…men are like babies. If you want them to shut up, just shove your boobs in their mouth.” “Liana! I’m not shoving my boobs in Jace’s mouth, let alone anything else.” She raised her eyebrows. “Uh-huh,” she said, clearly not believing that I had zero interest in Jace anymore. Truthfully, she was right. The thought of last night’s encounter still made me tingle in the best kind of way, but I knew it couldn’t happen again. Not now, not ever. “I still can’t believe he’s actually your stepbrother,” she continued. “When you first told me your Mom’s fiancé was named Gerald Wilde, it didn’t occur to me that he might actually be related to the one Wilde guy I know.” “Doesn’t matter,” I said with a rueful smile. “We both know now, anyway.” “Yeah,” she replied. “Anyway, before we haul all this crap back to the manor, do you wanna grab some tea or coffee somewhere?” “Sure,” I said with a smile.

We headed towards the nearest café for some much-needed caffeine, and Liana filled me in on more details of the guy she’d hooked up with last night. “…thing is,” Liana continued, after giving me far too many details of her sex life. “I really like him. I have for a while. I think I told you about him ages ago; he works in the accounting department at the office next door to where I work, so we run into each other a fair bit. We’ve had this flirtation thing going on forever, so it felt like last night had been coming for a very long time.” “Yeah?” “I know what you’re thinking; I always fall for guys and then lose interest. But this time it really is different. I’ve liked him for ages, and when I heard that Tom actually knows him too and was inviting him to the masquerade party, it was like…well, basically, last night just made it even worse. I actually want to be with this guy, like proper boyfriend and girlfriend.” I smiled as I sipped on my latte, and Liana’s expression turned dreamy as she continued. “So what did you think of him? Cute, right?” “I didn’t actually get to see his face because you were kissing it all night,” I said. “Plus he had that Zorro mask on.” She laughed and nodded. “True.” “Anyway, how did you leave things this morning? I was already asleep when you got back with him last night, and I was still asleep this morning when he left, I think.” “Yeah, you were dead to the world,” she said. ”Anyway, he said he wanted to see me again, but he would have to call me to organize a date. Do you think that’s bad? Like, why couldn’t we have just figured something out this morning before he left?” “Well, did you actually exchange numbers? And have you heard anything from him today?” “Yeah, he sent me one text, but that’s it.” “Okay, well, even just one text is a good sign.” I wasn’t sure if the UK dating rules were the same as what I was used to back home, and I didn’t exactly have much experience with guys either way, so I really wasn’t the best person to ask for advice, but Liana needed to talk, so I decided that being upbeat was my best option. She obviously already had a seed of doubt in her mind, and I didn’t need to be negative and make it worse. “I’m sure it’ll all work out. I bet you’ll be on a date with him by next week!” I added with a grin. “Yeah, I hope so…” Liana trailed off, and then her face brightened. “Anyway, back to what we were talking about earlier—don’t worry about it being awkward living with Jace. He’ll probably annoy you for a while and then move on to the next girl he feels like screwing with. He’s a bit like that.” I felt a twinge of sadness at that news, but I didn’t let it show. “Oh?” I said, putting on my best ‘I don’t really care’ voice. “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t actually know him all that well. I’ve only met him a few times over the years. I mostly just know about him from stuff Tom’s told me.” “Oh, I see.” “Yeah. Tom went to high school with him, and apparently he was a really nice guy for most of

their time there. Studious and helpful. He was the guy who was friends with everyone. But something must have changed around about the time they were in sixth form, because he suddenly became this massive douchebag man-whore, shagging just about everyone, and throwing these crazy parties.” After today’s encounter with Jace, I could definitely picture the ‘douchebag’ part of that story being true, but the rest? I couldn’t believe people had once described Jace as ‘studious and helpful’, and I couldn’t picture that earlier high school version of him at all. “Anyway, after sixth form he apparently moved to Manchester for uni, then….I don’t know. All I know is he’s back in London now.” “Yeah, he told me he dropped out of uni and moved to Edinburgh for a while, and only came back to London a week ago.” “I wonder why he dropped out of uni. He might’ve been a party animal, but he was still a really smart guy.” “Hmm…yeah.” Who the hell was Jace Wilde? To me, he’d gone from sexy stranger to douchebag soon-to-be stepbrother in the short time I’d known him, and to others, he’d gone from a good guy to man-whore party animal within the last couple of years. So who was the real Jace? Asshole or nice guy? And why did I even care? *** By the time I was home at the manor and finally finished unpacking most of my clothes, I was still confused as all hell about Jace and any feelings I might have towards him, and it suddenly hit me just how tired I was. I was pretty sure that I was still a little bit hungover from the night before, and the only way to deal with that was going to be to sleep it off, even though it was still very early in the evening. I climbed into my new king-sized bed, luxuriating in the soft Egyptian cotton sheets beneath me. I wasn’t used to sleeping in this kind of luxury, and I was enjoying it far more than I cared to admit. I’d never wanted to be one of ‘those’ people who cared too much about money, but I finally understood why people were willing to pay extra for high thread counts and huge beds with memory foam mattresses. It was like sleeping on a cloud. I flicked the TV on the other side of the room on, switching to a random chick flick which I intended to watch for a while as I rested, but before the opening sequence had even finished, I was already fast asleep. I knew I was dreaming as soon as I pictured Jace and I locked in a passionate embrace, and it was nice to be able to act on my feelings without any worries about consequences, because it wasn’t real. I was perfectly aware that it was still wrong, but at the same time, it was fine for me to fantasize over in my own little dream world. The kissing quickly turned into something more and we began to run our hands over each other’s bodies, slowly at first, then frantically as we stripped each other. His stubble rubbed my chin, sending little frissons of excitement through me as goose bumps broke out on my bare arms, and I moaned into

his mouth as he suddenly picked me up and carried me to an enormous bed. Before I knew it, we were both naked and he’d slipped inside of me, hard and fast. He slid out and grabbed my arms a moment later, rolling me over, and the next minute, I was riding him like there was no tomorrow, losing myself in all of the sensations coursing through me. I held my hands steady on his hard chest as I straddled him, building up to a crescendo as moans spilled from my lips. For a moment all I could hear was the slapping sound of skin against skin as I bounced up and down on him, and I bit my lip as heat rushed to my core. Just as I was on the brink of having the most intense orgasm ever, the door burst open, and Mom and Gerald came in, screaming and shouting at us, telling us that we’d ruined their wedding with our antics. Their yelling became louder and louder until I had to cover my ears to stop my head from exploding out of sheer shame. I sat up in my bed, suddenly more wide awake than I’d ever been in my life. All of the confusing and conflicting emotions from my dream were still whirling around inside of me, and I was horny and ashamed of myself all at once. It almost felt like the dream had actually happened. I glanced down at the bedside clock to see that it was only a quarter past two in the morning, and I groaned. Why was I awake so early? It was then that I remembered that I’d actually fallen asleep at about six P.M., so it made sense for me to be waking up around this time. Dammit. I tossed and turned in my bed for a while, trying desperately to get back to sleep before giving up and deciding to go and get a glass of water. I stepped down onto the warm floor—Gerald actually had floor heating installed under the floorboards in the bedrooms, something I’d always assumed was a myth before moving here —and shuffled across my room. Now that I was standing, I realized that I was still foggy-headed and very tired, so I figured that once I’d had some water, I’d probably be able to fall right back to sleep. I quietly pushed open my bedroom door and crept towards the stairwell, rubbing my weary eyes, and when I eventually opened them, I spotted a strange shadow on the ground. My heart practically leapt into my throat at the sight, and I allowed my eyes to travel up the shadow to find out what it was attached to. Then I saw it. Or rather…I saw her. A ghostly-pale woman clad in a flimsy white gown stood under the moonlight, staring at me with wide dark eyes. It wasn’t my Mom, and it definitely wasn’t one of the manor maids, seeing as none of the staff lived on site. So who—or what—the hell was she? As I stared back at the woman, my mind instantly reflected on every single horror movie I’d watched at all the girly sleepovers I used to have with my friends back home, and my mouth went dry as I recalled the few movies we’d seen that were about haunted old English manors. My heart seemed to stop beating for a few seconds, my limbs started to tremble and I felt my body collapse from underneath me, hitting the floor hard. I was shaking with horror, my chest constricting under the weight of it. I knew it was probably all a dream, because there was no such thing as creepy manor ghosts, but it was a dream I couldn’t wake up from. I could hear a horrible shrieking noise, a shrill sound that painfully burst through my eardrums, and I clamped my hands over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut, willing it all to be over. Then I realized that the screaming was coming from me, and I opened my eyes again, only to see that the woman was gone and the hallway was totally empty.

So that was that, then. One day of living under the same roof as Jace Wilde, and Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d officially lost my damn mind.

Chapter 6 Jace I didn’t arrive home until about seven, not because I’d changed my mind and taken Roy up on his offer to get high and hammered, but because I’d needed some time to do some thinking. First, I’d gone for a walk around the streets near the pub, still trying to shake Rayna and Roy from my mind, and when that failed to work, I headed to the closest gym to do some weights and cardio. Working up a sweat always made me feel better and helped me think clearly, and as I’d been pumping weights, it became obvious to me that Roy had just been lashing out at me. This wasn’t our first argument, and it was unlikely that it would be our last. I would just have to speak to him when we’d both calmed down; try to discuss his party-hard drug habits when he wasn’t in such a bad mood. After this revelation, I’d headed to my favorite place in the whole damn city—24 Hour Books, a bookshop that really was open twenty-four hours a day. It had everything and anything you could ever want. Despite what everyone thought about me, I loved reading. This had been obvious to everyone when I was growing up—I’d been pretty studious in school—but when some of the other guys started to tease me for being a nerd, I started to hide it, as if it was something that I should be ashamed of. I soon found alcohol and got distracted by girls, and ever since then, I’d kept my reading habits hidden, like it was some sort of shameful vice. One of my tattoos was actually a quote from one of my favorite dystopian books—a quote which said ‘Be only you’. I always told people it was a line from a rock song, and no one ever questioned that, but really it was said by the most badass character of all time, Billy-Joe from World’s Over. All of my tattoos meant something important to me, but this was one of my favorites. It was on my wrist, and I looked at it every time I needed to smile. The fact that no one knew what it meant apart from me made it even better. There was just something relaxing about losing myself in an epic plot line when real life became too annoying to deal with, and this was certainly one of those times. I wasn’t finding it easy, knowing that some of my oldest friends were still lost in the vicious cycle of drugs; a fact that I could do absolutely nothing about. It was as if they didn’t yet realize the devastation that their addiction could cause. I didn’t want them to have to go through the life-changing shock that I’d had back in Edinburgh, but I wasn’t sure what else could cause them to change. Time and growing up certainly didn’t seem to have helped. After buying a few books, I headed home and trudged up to my room before sitting back on my bed and losing myself in a story. Because I’d slept in so late this morning, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to get to sleep till quite late, and before I knew it, it was past two in the morning. “Aarrghhh!” A feminine scream suddenly burst through the wall from somewhere out in the hall, shocking me to my core, and I dropped the novel that I’d been reading and jumped up, my heart pounding.

What the fuck? The scream sounded like it came from Rayna, and I dashed out of my bedroom and headed out into the hallway, my mind concocting a million different reasons as to why she would be shrieking at this ungodly hour. Giant spiders in her room. Thieves breaking into the manor. A fucking serial killer breaking into the manor. The only thing I ended up finding was Rayna curled up in a ball outside her bedroom door, and I could hear frightened sobs escaping from her. “What’s wrong?” I asked before realizing that I was going to have to be much closer to get her attention. She was in far too much of a bad state to be able to hear me from all the way over where I was. I tentatively stepped up right next to her, my eyes scanning the hallway, desperate to find out what was wrong. “Rayna?” I whispered, reaching my hand out to touch her. As my hand grazed her shoulder, she jumped backwards as if she’d been electrocuted. Her eyes were wild and panicked, and she gulped. “Oh god, it’s just you,” she said. “Always nice to see you too, Rayna.” “Sorry, I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” she replied, grabbing my hand and clinging to it. “When you touched me just then, I thought you were the….god, Jace, it…it was horrible. I…I don’t even…I think I’ve totally lost my mind!” “Shh, try to calm down. I’m here.” I crouched down next to her, rubbing a comforting hand along her back and making sure my voice sounded as calm and soothing as possible. “Tell me what happened.” “I woke up a few minutes ago, and I was thirsty, so I went to get a drink. And I saw….I saw…” “You saw what?” “A ghost. I saw a ghost.” Seriously? She actually thought she’d seen a fucking ghost? I pressed my lips together, trying not to laugh. Even though she’d obviously just had some sort of sleepwalking nightmare, she was still freaked out, so I didn’t want to be an asshole and laugh my head off right in front of her. “Either this place is haunted, or I’ve lost my mind and started seeing things,” she continued. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I ended up awkwardly patting her hand for a moment before speaking up again. “Do you wanna come hang out in my room for a while to calm down? Might make you feel better if there’s someone with you.” I half-expected her to assume that I was trying to use her fear as a way of getting into her pants, but instead she nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” Jesus. She really thought she’d seen something. Why else would she be too scared to be alone

right now? The fact that she was actually choosing to join me in my bedroom showed just how petrified she was. I helped her get up, and as I grabbed her hand, I swore I could feel a spark shooting up my arm. My cock stirred in my pants, and I tried to will the feeling to go away. I couldn’t be getting turned on right now; it wasn’t the right moment. In fact, it would never be the right moment for that with Rayna, because she was about to be my sister. So tonight I would be polite and I’d help her out, but that would be it. If only I could stop thinking about her gorgeous legs and pert tits. If only her hazel eyes and curvaceous body didn’t filter into my every thought and every fantasy. If only I could stop wanting to touch myself over the thought of what it would be like to actually be with her; if our encounter the other night had occurred under different circumstances and we hadn’t stopped. Looking at her frightened face right now, I realized it was going to take all of my willpower to make that happen. There was a deep, primal tug inside of me, begging me to rescue her, to make her feel better, to claim her for good and make her mine. Shit. Life with Rayna as my stepsister was going to be fucking hard….and it wasn’t the only thing that was fucking hard.

Chapter 7 Rayna Jace’s room was nothing like I expected. I wasn’t sure what I’d thought, really—maybe pictures of scantily-clad women plastered all over his walls, dirty plates everywhere and a whiskey bottle sitting in the corner somewhere. I thought it would really scream ‘Jace’, and from what I’d been told about him, partying and sex was all he was about. Instead, the room was smartly-designed and clean. Granted, he’d only just moved back to the manor, so maybe he simply hadn’t had time to trash the place yet, but still, it was refreshing to see a young guy with such a nice room. The first thing I spotted was a seriously cool record collection. I’d never thought of him as a Beatles or Rolling Stones fan, and vinyl and old-school rock didn’t fit with the image that I had of him in my mind. He seemed more of a hardcore raver type like every other young guy these days, but there was obviously more to him than met the eye, and I really needed to stop trusting my assumptions, as they were so clearly wrong more often than not these days. I wandered over to the record collection and scanned the albums for some of my favorites. I could see him watching me curiously from the corner of my eye, so I started to hum Octopus’ Garden, just to show him that I was cool with his tastes. I wasn’t sure why that was important, but despite everything, I still wanted him to like me. “I know, I know,” he said with a grin. “My taste in music isn’t exactly cool.” “What?” I replied. “What do you mean? I love all of these bands, especially the Beatles. Octopus’ Garden is actually one of my favorite songs. I heard this orchestral version of it once, and it was amazing. Honestly, I can actually picture myself walking down the aisle to that version of it one day, if I ever get married.” Even though I was babbling—about getting married, no less—it was nice to talk about something else other than what I’d just seen out in the hallway. My heart was still pounding but my legs were no longer trembling, and I felt warm and safe in Jace’s presence, and while we hadn’t exactly been friends since our first few encounters with each other, that seemed to be quickly changing. I was glad for that. “Really?” he replied, arching a brow. “I’ve spent half my life being teased by my mates because I don’t only like the trance music that we used to listen to when…” His voice trailed off, as if he couldn’t bear to finish that sentence. “When you went out?” I asked. I already knew that he had a wild history, so that news wasn’t exactly going to bother me. “You know, sometimes I used to go out and act stupidly with my friends too. You should’ve seen the number of cocktails we got through on Spring Break a few months ago.” “Yeah?” he replied with a grin. “I can just imagine you on Girls Gone Wild.” A warm blush crept over my cheeks. Did that mean he was picturing me dancing on tables and flashing my breasts at random guys? I’d never gone that far with my vacation antics.

“Very funny, Jace,” I mumbled. For some reason, his comment had also made me imagine all the girls he was used to hanging around at parties—the girls who liked to get wild and flash their bodies for the cameras. He’d probably had sex with hundreds of them, considering how hot and desirable he was, and the thought drove me insane. Sensing that he might’ve gone too far, Jace changed the subject. “Would you like a cup of tea? It’s supposed to be good for shock, and you looked pretty damn shocked out there.” I couldn’t help but smile at this. “I swear you English people use tea as the answer to everything. We hardly ever drink it in America. I mean, some people do, but coffee is way more popular.” “Yeah, but you’re not there now, are you?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re here.” “True. Well, if you’re offering, then yes, I’d love some tea,” I said. “Thanks.” “Sure. I’ll be back in a moment. Try not to get attacked by any poltergeists.” “Not funny!” I said, but a smile was still creeping over my face anyway. As he left the room, I took the opportunity to have a better look around. I wasn’t exactly snooping, it was more like investigating. I was trying to get a fuller picture of who Jace really was, and it was damn near impossible because he kept on surprising me. My eyes kept fixating on the massive bookshelf sitting on one side of the room. From the looks of it, he was an avid reader across almost every major genre, which once again seemed so out of character for the guy I’d heard so much about. Seeing this other side to him made me wonder if we actually had a lot more in common than first met the eye. We both liked things that made us a little different to most other people our age. We both liked old-school music and reading, and from the look of his film collection, we both liked cheesy eighties movies as well. I quickly turned away from the shelf as I heard Jace walking back up the stairs a few minutes later. For some reason, books felt more personal than music, and I didn’t want to look like I’d been going through them, so instead I sat on the bed and pretended to look at my fingernails. As Jace stepped back through the door, confused emotions began to swirl around in my mind. If I’d hoped that finding out more about Jace would put me off him, then I’d been terribly wrong, because everything I learned about him just made the feelings that I was trying desperately to ignore stronger and stronger. I could feel my body heating up as my core throbbed with need, and I watched him set the cup of tea down on one of the bedside tables before stretching and yawning. As he stretched his arms above his head, his T-shirt lifted slightly, and I could barely even choke out the words ‘thanks for the drink’ as my gaze went straight to his hard muscles. God…we’d only had one brief hookup the other night, and he was already like a drug that I couldn’t quit. As I picked up the teacup, I tried my best to push my feelings aside for what felt like the hundredth time, and I reminded myself how my Mom would react if she knew how I was lusting over the guy who was about to be her stepson. But then my eyes connected with Jace’s again, and all of that just flew right out of the window… “Do your tattoos mean something?” I blurted out, desperately trying to find a safe topic to talk about. I wasn’t convinced that anything involving me looking at his body was a good idea, but it was too late now. I’d already spoken.

“Yeah, most of them,” he replied. “Can you tell me about them?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment. “Rayna Silva, are you trying to get me naked?” he said in a teasing tone, before lifting his shirt and pointing to a tattoo on his chest. “Just kidding. Anyway, I got this one first. It’s the worst one I have, but I was eighteen and stupid and all of my friends were getting them. It was the only one I got out of a book.” “Where did the rest of them come from?” I asked. My own skin was a blank canvas, completely untouched by ink, and I’d never been tempted to get any, but looking at all of the artwork drawn on Jace, I could see why some people liked to have tattoos. “I designed them myself,” he said, as if this was the most innocuous statement on earth. I was completely blown away by that—his work was fantastic. The designs covering his chest and arms were amazing, like nothing I’d ever seen before. “This rose here, I drew for my Mom. And this little thing here, I designed when I finished my first term at uni.” “Wow, you’re really talented.” I shuffled closer to him to get a better look. “You should totally be an artist or something.” “Thanks. I do like drawing and designing the tatts, but it’s more of a hobby. On the creative front, I’ve actually always been more interested in writing. Even did an elective class on creative writing and publishing while I was still at uni.” I still didn’t know why he’d dropped out of college, but now didn’t seem like the right time to ask, so I asked another question instead. “Is that what you’re going to do, then? Become an author?” He stiffened at this. “No. That’s just a pipe dream. I know I’m not doing much at the moment, but I need to figure something out soon, and it has to be serious. A real job. I’m interviewing at some of my Dad’s friend’s finance companies soon. If all else fails, I’ll just work at his company.” “Well, that’s good, but being an author isn’t a pipe dream if you’re seriously talented, and I bet you are. I mean, look at all these books,” I said, gesturing at his shelf. “People who read a lot are usually pretty good at writing.” “Mm. I guess.” I was about to mention some good online creative writing courses I’d heard of, but Jace’s expression suggested that the subject was already closed. “Okay, so what does ‘Be only you’ mean? Is that an inspirational quote of yours?” I added hurriedly, pointing at another one of his tattoos. I smiled as I spoke, trying to bring back the light atmosphere that had been surrounding us before I’d mentioned the publishing career thing. “It’s from my favorite book.” He said this hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure how I would react. “World’s Over. Have you ever read it?” I shook my head. “Never heard of it.” He walked over to the bookshelf. “Would you like to borrow it? I think you’d like it.” “Sure.”

He returned to the bed and handed it to me, and I took it from him, touched by the kind gesture. Books were a personal thing; at least for me, and I’d only ever lend ones I owned to people I liked and trusted. “Thanks,” I said softly. We fell into a comfortable silence for a few moments, before Jace brought up what had happened earlier again. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, and I swear I’m not calling you a liar or anything, but could you tell me again what you saw in the hallway?” I could understand him asking this question. I sounded completely insane, claiming to have seen a ghost, but I knew the woman I’d seen in the hall hadn’t been my Mom. On top of that, the manor’s housekeeper and maids didn’t live at the manor, so none of them would’ve been sleeping here. “I woke up needing a drink, so I left my room to get one, but as I got out into the hallway, I saw a woman standing near the stairwell. She was just staring at me, and she had this long white gown on. Look, I know it sounds crazy.” “Just a bit. Anyway, go on.” “I was so scared, and I barely even knew what I was doing, but I crouched down on the floor—I guess as some sort of reflex action. Then I shut my eyes and screamed, and when I looked up, she was gone.” “Is it possible you were sleepwalking? Maybe you just had a really bad dream where you were seeing things in the hall, and then when you screamed, you woke yourself up and actually found yourself out in the hall because you’d sleepwalked out there.” I shook my head. “No. I know I was awake. I know what I saw, and I’ve never sleepwalked before.” He didn’t have to believe me—of course, it’d make it much easier if he did—but I knew the truth regardless. Someone or something had definitely been out in the hallway. I wasn’t exactly a massive believer in the supernatural, but now I was questioning everything. “Okay, okay.” Jace lifted his hands up in defeat, but I could still see the small smile playing on his lips. “Before Dad leaves for that trip tomorrow, we’ll ask and see if he knows anything. This place is bloody old, so who knows? Maybe we have a friendly manor ghost.” “She didn’t exactly seem friendly from the way she was staring at me. Anyway, where’s your Dad going?” “He and your Mom are going away for a few days, remember?” “No?” Jace’s forehead wrinkled. “What time did you go to sleep tonight?” “Six.” “Ah. That explains it. Dad called me while I was out earlier to tell me what was going on. Apparently your Mom left just after six. He said she got a call from an American friend of hers who also lives in London now, and they were going to have dinner. Anyway, her friend ended up inviting her to stay for a few nights at the new bed and breakfast place she owns, as a sort of pre-wedding gift. She invited Dad too, but he had too much work to do in his office, so he told your Mom to go on ahead and spend the night there tonight, and he’s joining her tomorrow. They’ll be gone for three days.”

“Wow, okay. I thought she’d wake me up to tell me something like that.” He shrugged. “She probably figured she should let you sleep and then just call you and let you know tomorrow. Anyway, like I said, go and ask Dad about the history of this place tomorrow, before he leaves. I’m sure he’ll help get this ghost situation of yours sorted out in no time.” I nodded. “Thanks, I’ll do that. I feel like such an idiot, but I swear I saw something.” He patted me on the shoulder. “I know. Anyway, you’re clearly exhausted, so why don’t you try to get some rest?” “Um….I don’t know if I can.” I was tired, but I wasn’t exactly keen on returning to my room and being alone right now. “If it makes you feel safer, you can sleep in my bed. Don’t worry, I’ll take the sofa,” he said, gesturing towards the black leather couch on the eastern wall of his room. “Are you sure?” I asked, embarrassed at how childish I was being. Next I’d probably be asking to have a night-light installed in my room. “Of course,” he said. “And I’ll protect you from any other ghosts or monsters that might come in,” he added with a wink. “Ha. You’re so funny,” I said, voice tinged with sarcasm. He grinned. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist.” A half-smile curled my lips up at the corners. “Well…thanks for letting me have your bed. I know you think I’m an idiot, but the idea of sleeping alone right now really sucks,” I admitted. “I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you just had a weird experience, and until we’ve come up with a rational explanation for it, it’s only natural that you might be a bit freaked out.” “I guess. I still feel dumb, though,” I said before stifling a yawn. “Anyway, goodnight.” “Night.” Before I got the opportunity to lie down, Jace pulled me in for a deep and comforting hug, and I leaned into him, allowing my body to rest against his. I inhaled his familiar musky scent, which dragged my thoughts right back to the night of the party. His lips on mine… His hands roaming over every inch of my curves… His hard body pressed up against mine… A tingling sensation started to form in the pit of my stomach, and I squirmed as wetness exploded between my legs. This was no innocent hug between two people who were about to be related. It felt as if we were back in that room with the massive four-poster bed, masks still covering our identities and hands still exploring each other’s bodies with wild abandon. I wanted desperately to be back there before the masks came off, only this time I’d keep my mouth shut and allow our hot and heavy encounter to continue. If I hadn’t known it was wrong that night, I might very well have let Jace take me then and there, and while he was embracing me in this way, I wished that he had, just so I’d know what it felt like. Just so I’d know how good it could get.

Jace started to rub my back, and he pulled me in closer, our bodies meshing together perfectly. I could feel his hardness pressing up against me, and wild shivers went down my spine as I pictured him thrusting inside me. God, I wanted that so badlyâ&#x20AC;Ś With only this thought in my mind now, and everything else completely forgotten, I leaned back and pressed my lips firmly against his.

Chapter 8 Jace I hadn’t been able to resist. I had to hug Rayna before she went to sleep—she looked so tired and worried. I convinced myself that I was doing it as a brotherly act, but I knew it was a bad idea; knew I probably wouldn’t be able to stop my cock from stiffening as she pressed up against me in the hug. When she suddenly kissed me, I was powerless to stop her….not that I wanted her to stop. Hell no. We kissed hard and fast, and her hands began to work their way up my body, slowly tugging my Tshirt over my head. She broke away from my lips as I helped her get the shirt all the way off, and there was a hungry look in her eyes, one that was desperate to devour me. Seeing her need this just as much as I did turned me on more than anything else ever had, and I pressed my lips back to hers. I’d seen a similar look on girls before—usually they were gagging for it by the time we got down and dirty—but it’d never affected me as much as this. Deep down I knew it was because my feelings for Rayna already ran much deeper than anything I’d ever experienced before, but I wasn’t quite ready to admit that to myself just yet. This was far more than just a lust-filled hookup, but if I accepted that, then I knew I was heading right into trouble…and trouble was what I was trying to avoid. That wasn’t going to stop it from happening right here in my bedroom, though. I usually kept my torrid sex life as far away from my home life as possible, because I didn’t like people judging me for my stuff; I almost always took the girls back to their houses or did it somewhere more public—cars, bathrooms, even cold alleyways. However, Rayna made me feel awesome about my taste in things, and she didn’t judge me at all. I almost felt as if she belonged here already…and to be fair, she kinda did. After all, this was her home now, right here in the manor with me and the rest of the family. Somehow that thought made this entire experience even hotter; the forbidden nature igniting a brightly-burning fire within me. She moaned against my mouth, and I pulled away for a second. “Tell me to stop,” I murmured against her lips, my hand cupping her ass cheeks. “Tell me this is a bad idea, and I’ll stop.” “No. Don’t stop,” she said, flashing me a bold stare. I grinned. That was exactly what I wanted to hear. I broke away from her and slid out of my pants, and Rayna bit her lower lip as I stood before her in only my boxers. I could tell she was nervous by her slightly-trembling hands, but the lusty look in her eyes made it clear she was ready. I hurriedly stripped off her top and pajama pants, leaving her in only her panties, and I sat down on the end of the bed and pulled her onto my lap. “God…you’re so fucking beautiful,” I said, taking a second to look her over. She really was. She was perfect in every way; every curve, every inch…all of her.

She straddled me and lowered her lips to mine again, and the tips of my fingers roamed over her soft skin, caressing every sensational curve before cupping her breasts and pinching her nipples with one hand. She gasped, and I grinned and used my free hand to steady her on top of me. “You sure about this?” I asked, voice gravelly with need. “I’m sure,” she replied, not taking her eyes off me for a second. In one quick movement I threw her onto the bed, eliciting another surprised gasp from her. My hands went to her shoulders and coasted down over her perfect figure, and her warm breath caressed me as I gently nipped at her earlobes. She moaned loudly, and with that, I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers again, kissing her with an animal-like urgency, and she parted her lips, allowing me to deepen the kiss and explore her mouth with my tongue. Heat from her mouth began to trickle into mine, and my groin flooded with a pulsing warmth that only added to the burning desire I already felt deep inside. The kiss seemed to last forever, and my mind clouded as my tongue glided past her lips to entwine with hers. I knew this was wrong; of course I did. But fuck, nothing had ever felt so right. I blocked out the thoughts telling me this was wrong and pulled away from the kiss, gazing down at Rayna. She wanted me to fuck her—I knew she did, it was written all over her damn face—but I wasn’t going to. Not yet, anyway. I needed to make her come, to make her lose herself before I could. I wanted to see her face contorted in ecstasy, I wanted to learn what got her going, and I was desperate to see her fall apart at my touch. I moved my mouth down her body, and I could smell the sweet desire radiating off her. At first, she looked like she wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, but as soon as she clicked, she tossed her head back and tightly gripped the sheets beneath her. Her curvy body writhing on my bed was the sexiest fucking thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. I eventually reached her lower belly and began flicking my tongue over her soft skin, just teasing her. Her arched back and bucking body was clearly desperate to be played with, but I wanted to make her beg for it first. “Oh, god,” she moaned. “Oh fuck, Jace.” With that, I pulled her panties down and slid them over her ankles, and she lay before me, completely naked and quivering with anticipation. She gasped again as I moved my body further down between her thighs, lapping at her delicate skin and inhaling deeply. I could see her pussy glistening with slick desire, and I could feel the heat emanating from her center. It wouldn’t be long before she started begging, and as if on cue, she gave me exactly what I needed. Moaning, she raised her head and watched me over the curves of her breasts and belly. “Jace… please…I need you.” I feigned a confused expression, teasing her even more. “Need me to what?” “You know what…so do it!” she said. I grinned and moved my mouth over her folds, tasting her juices and running my tongue up and down in long, fluid motions, and I groaned with delight as Rayna reached down and stroked my hair in encouragement, threading her fingers through to hold my head steady. Christ, she was demanding

when she was horny. I fucking loved that about her. My tongue soon located the sensitive, throbbing nub of her clit, and I licked and gently sucked over and around it. Rayna’s body began to shake even more, and I drew my head back a second later and stared up at her. Her eyes seemingly bored right into my soul, and then I leaned back down. Once again my tongue raked across her most sensitive spot, making her writhe and moan as she thrust her hips. My swirling tongue was relentless as it lapped over her swollen pussy, and seconds later I carefully slid a thick finger inside her, letting out a deep groan of approval as I felt just how wet and ready she was for me. “Oh…Jace.” She began to pant hard, as if she was struggling to breathe through all of the pleasure, and I knew she was about to come. I kept licking and gently nibbling at her clit, keeping my head at an angle so that I could look up at her at the same time, just so I could see her losing it. She was going wild and loving every damn second of it, and I needed to see that because it made me hornier than anything. “Oh…shit.” Suddenly something seemed to snap within her, just as I was making the decision to fuck her until she came over and over again. I was desperate to know what her tight pussy felt like around my cock, but it looked like I was never going to get the chance, because she squeezed her legs tighter and sat up to push me backwards. “Shit…no, no, no. Jace, we can’t. We just…we can’t. I’m sorry.” It seemed that she was getting one of those awful stabs of conscience I’d been getting earlier. “We can,” I said. “Our parents aren’t even married yet. You’re not really my stepsister.” “I know, but I just can’t do this to my Mom, no matter how much we want to. If she ever found out…” She scrambled around for her clothes and started putting them back on, much to my disappointment. “I have to go back to my own room.” The moment was officially over, cut short just like our last heated encounter, but at least I knew why this time. “Okay. Yeah, I get it,” I replied, nodding even though I didn’t really get it. She thought us being with each other was a mistake, and she thought she was doing the right thing by stopping, but something was telling me that the opposite was actually true. The real mistake was preventing such a wonderful moment and stopping a budding relationship like the one we had. We’d barely known each other for more than a day or so, and yet I could already tell there was something between us; something real. Something incredible. “This can’t happen again. I’m sorry,” Rayna repeated, unable to meet my eyes. Then she rushed to my door and looked over her shoulder, giving my room one last lingering look before opening the door and disappearing into the cold, dark hallway. Well, at least our failed hookup had managed to cure her fear of the alleged ghost in the hall, right?

Chapter 9 Rayna Leaving Jace’s room that night was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do. I’d wanted so badly to stay…and yet I hadn’t. The next few weeks passed in a blur, without even a mention of what had happened. Jace and I went out of our way to avoid eye contact with one another whenever we had family breakfasts or dinners, not because we didn’t like each other, but because we both knew what would happen if we let ourselves be alone again….and that couldn’t happen. I’d known that when we’d been kissing and stripping each other, and yet I’d still let it get that far—I’d literally been on the verge of a powerful orgasm when my conscience had finally forced me out of there, and believe me, nothing had ever been more difficult. Now I knew exactly how it felt when guys said they had blue balls. I couldn’t believe that I’d allowed it to go so far again. Actually, scratch that—I could believe it. I’d been so unbelievably turned on; it was like ninety-nine percent of my brain cells just ceased to function when Jace’s mouth was on me. I’d never felt like that in my life, and I’d kept begging my conscience: please…I know this is wrong, but god, just one more second. Just one more minute. Just one more….oh, hell, give me a whole millennium of this. Sure, I’d had boyfriends in the past—two to be exact—and with both of those guys, I’d had a decent sex life. But that had been it; just decent. With Jace’s hands and mouth on my body, I felt like I was on top of the world, like I needed him more than life, more than air, and we hadn’t even had sex yet. God, how I wanted to…. Notwithstanding my mission to avoid Jace as much as possible, I hadn’t seen that much of him in the last couple of weeks because he’d gotten a job at one of the finance companies he’d interviewed at, so he was often away during the day until six or so. The only time we really saw each other was at breakfast and dinner, which we almost always ate with our parents, so there was no chance for any awkward or embarrassing conversation, which was a small blessing. Honestly, though, I was actually feeling more sad than embarrassed over the whole incident. As I’d walked from his room that night, I’d told myself that I was doing the right thing, but as I lay there in my bed afterwards, desperately trying to get to sleep again, I’d felt more alone than ever before. That was when the tears had started falling… As soon as I’d realized just how upset I was, I’d known I needed to distract myself from all those thoughts before I ended up doing something stupid. So instead of talking to anyone about it, which would likely only serve to make things worse, I’d thrown myself into helping Mom and Gerald with the upcoming wedding preparations, and now that four weeks had passed, the wedding was only two days away. I’d also done my best to finally settle into my new life in England. I’d had my American driver’s license transferred over to an English one so I could officially drive here, and while I wasn’t quite used to driving on the left side of the road yet, the roads meandering around the manor estate were spacious and empty enough for me to practice on. It really was lovely out here. The city wasn’t too

far away, but there was also fresh air and sprawling green fields, and I was very lucky to be staying here. On top of the wedding preparations, I’d also gone and visited a lot of historical and archaeological sites, just like Jace had suggested on the first night we’d met. After our short chat about heritage law, I’d found myself thinking about it more and more, and I really thought it was something I could get into. There were a few relevant classes I could take once the university term started here in six weeks, and I was looking forward to having my studies to distract myself from Jace. In fact, speaking of distractions and historical things, something had only just occurred to me. With all the tension surrounding me and Jace in the last few weeks, I’d completely forgotten the terrifying incident in the manor that had led to me going into Jace’s room that night. My so-called ghost. Honestly, now that so much time had passed, the whole thing felt a little ridiculous. Jace was right; it was probably just a nightmare, and I’d probably sleepwalked out into the hall. Still, I found myself wanting to ask Gerald about it, like Jace had suggested. Even if there was nothing supernatural about the manor, it’d still be interesting to hear about the history of the place. Right now, it was early on a Thursday morning, and Jace, Gerald, Mom and I were sitting around the breakfast table. The tension between Jace and me was still thick in the air, and I didn’t dare look at him, in case I was tempted to reach under the table and slide my hand up his leg. “Gerald, can I ask you something?” I said, looking over at our parents. “Hm…okay,” Gerald replied, barely even looking up from his newspaper. “I was just wondering about the history of this manor,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jace watching me as he chewed on a piece of toast. “Um…has anyone ever thought that maybe the place is haunted?” Gerald scoffed and looked up. “Haunted?” I gave him a strained smile, knowing how dumb I sounded. “Well, I got up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago—around about the time you and Mom went to visit her friend’s B&B—and I swear I saw this woman standing in the hallway right near my room. She was wearing a long white gown, and I thought…well, I know how stupid it sounds, but I honestly thought she was a ghost.” Mom smiled at me. “Rayna, honey, I think you might’ve been watching too many movies.” Gerald nodded. “Yes, you must have been sleepwalking, or simply imagined it after seeing a scary movie.” “Well, when I found her shrieking about it in the hall, she was definitely wide awake,” Jace said, cutting in. “There must be some other rational explanation. Some sort of moonlight mirage, perhaps.” I finally looked directly at him for the first time in what felt like forever, flashing him a grateful glance for stepping in. He smiled back at me, and my core tingled with desire, making me shift uncomfortably in my chair as wet heat flooded my panties. Gerald raised his eyebrows. “So you really think you saw something?” “I think so, yes. But even if I didn’t, I thought it would be cool to know about the history of this

place,” I said. He nodded. “Well, as you know, there’s an extensive library on the second floor, in the east wing. There’s a few books in there that detail the history of this whole area, so that’d be a start. As for your alleged ghost, if you honestly think you saw a woman in here, then I might have to look into upping security around here.” “Security?” He nodded again. “We already have the fences and gates with their security cameras, and the alarm system in the house—plus the added benefit of being quite far out, so people wouldn’t usually just try to wander onto the estate. But who knows? Perhaps some drunk woman was in the area for some reason, and she somehow managed to get in. Not sure why, as nothing has been taken, but I can’t think of any other reason why you might’ve seen someone.” “Oh. I didn’t even consider the possibility of an intruder. I just assumed…” ‘That this place is safe?” he said. “I would’ve thought so too, considering how bloody much I pay for the security measures, but just to be sure, I’ll call up my security company and have them check the feed from the cameras near the front gate. If they saw anyone unusual come onto the estate during the last few weeks, then they really should’ve told me, but I’ll call them anyway and make sure, just so we all have some peace of mind.” “That’s very thoughtful of you, darling,” Mom said, squeezing his arm. “I’m sure Rayna was just having a nightmare, though.” Speaking of nightmares…with the way Jace was staring at me now, and the way my body was wantonly responding to that, it looked like I was going to be trapped in one for quite some time. All I wanted to do was touch him, but as long as our parents were together, nothing like that could happen, so I was trapped in this sexual limbo where I couldn’t even think of another guy. I pictured myself leaping across the table and onto Jace’s lap, where he could kiss me, strip me, and bounce me up and down on his hard cock, and as the images flashed in my mind, I sighed quietly to myself. It was an extremely vivid fantasy…but it was one which could only exist in my head from now on. Dammit…

Chapter 10 Rayna “Rayna, have you seen my hairpin? The one with the turquoise stones set on it.” I turned to my Mom with a smile, holding up her hairpin. “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ve got your ‘something blue’.” Her face sagged with relief, and she took the pin from me and gave it to the hairdresser, who’d just arrived at the manor. The wedding day had finally arrived, and we were getting ready in a large guest bedroom on the second floor. The ceremony was being held here on the manor estate, and the subsequent reception was to be held at a ritzy hotel in downtown London. Even though it was Gerald’s fourth wedding—or was it his fifth? I couldn’t remember—he’d still gone all out and made sure my Mom had her dream day, which was really sweet of him. A lot of money had been spent, a lot of people had been invited, and it was going to be featured in the wedding section of the country’s biggest paper. Two hours later, we headed out into the extensive gardens, where two hundred guests were gathered. They were sitting in French-style white chairs on either side of a cream runner carpet that had been set up on the perfectly manicured lawn, and beautiful pink floral arrangements adorned each row. For a place like England, which probably often had grey skies this time of year, it was actually a beautiful day for a wedding—not a cloud in the sky, and the horizon had never seemed brighter. Too bad I couldn’t say the same for my mood. I knew I should be happy for my Mom and Gerald on their special day, and I was, but still, knowing that Jace would officially be my stepbrother soon had made a dark cloud descend on my mood, and I couldn’t shake it, no matter how hard I tried. A string quartet began to play a classical song, and everyone stood and turned to watch as I headed up the carpet, smiling and holding my little bouquet of pink peonies. I was Mom’s only bridesmaid, and Jace was Gerald’s only groomsman, so when I arrived at the wreathed arch at the end of the runner, he was standing directly opposite me, staring at me. I looked back at him, and he gave me a half-smile; a smile which made me die a little on the inside. He was so close, only a few feet away, and those eyes of his…the way he looked at me… Determined, I looked away. I would not like him like that anymore. What the hell was wrong with me, anyway? How was I not over our two failed hookups after this long? Not only that, I was being incredibly selfish. This was my Mom’s day, and I was making it all about me and Jace. With that guilty thought, I turned and watched my mother walk down the aisle. Her face was radiant, and I really was happy to see her like this; glowing with joy and anticipation. I hadn’t been sure about Gerald at first, seeing as he’d just been some internet stranger when I’d first heard of him, but the two of them seemed very happy together, and by now I was sure they’d be happy for a long time. While Gerald could be gruff sometimes and had been through previous relationships like a box of tissues during flu season, he seemed to have his heart in the right place when it came to Mom.

When Mom finally reached the altar, the priest smiled and looked at us. “Friends, family… welcome. Today we are gathered here to celebrate the wonderful union of…” He started the whole spiel, and in what felt like just a few seconds, it was done, and my Mom was kissing her brand new husband. I finally dared another glance at Jace, and I saw that the halfsmile was gone from his face now. His expression was stony, and I wondered what he was thinking. Was he angry at his father for putting him through yet another wedding ceremony? Or was he thinking about me and wishing we hadn’t just become legally bound as siblings? Either way, it didn’t matter. Our parents were officially married now, so whatever Jace and I had shared during those brief encounters of ours…it was really over. Over for good. *** Most of the people at the reception were posh, uptight people from the upper class world that Gerald inhabited, and I’d made polite yet awkward conversation with a few of them for as long as I could handle it. After a while, I needed a break from it all, so when the food had been served and the liquor was flowing, I sat at a table in one corner, sipping champagne and sneakily reading snippets of the book I’d hidden in my bag. It was the book Jace had lent me weeks ago—World’s Over. I’d only just had the chance to start reading it, seeing as I’d been so busy with everything else lately, and so far, I loved it. There was a central mystery along with action, romance and other thrilling moments, and I could see why it was one of Jace’s favorites. Reading it made me feel strangely close to him, even though we hadn’t talked in weeks, and funnily enough, it was actually the book that made us finally speak to each other after all this time. As I sat there reading, I suddenly had the distinct feeling that I was being watched, and I looked up to see Jace standing in front of me, looking handsome as heck in his tux. “Enjoying the book?” he asked. My cheeks flushed, partly from seeing him, and partly from being caught out hiding in the corner. “Yeah. It’s great.” “Reading at a wedding reception, though…being a bit antisocial, huh?” “Uh, yeah. Sorry.” “Don’t apologize. This party is stiffer than a teenage boy upon seeing his first pair of tits.” “Should you really be talking about teenage boy’s erections at our parent’s wedding?” I asked, arching a brow. He grinned. “Oh, shut up.” I smiled back at him. Despite all the weeks of silence, we’d somehow fallen right back into regular conversation with very little awkwardness. “So what part are you up to?” he asked, gesturing towards the book. “The NASA scientists have just figured out where the supposed extraterrestrial signal was coming from, and I think Billy-Joe is about to kiss Lola.”

Jace laughed. “You reckon?” “Yeah. They end up together, right?” “You’ll see,” he said softly. We looked at each other, charged tension thick in the air between us. We’d only been talking about the characters in the book, but for some reason it felt like we were both referring to us. “Do you want another champagne?” Jace asked, changing the subject. “Yeah, sure. Thanks.” I watched him get up and approach a waiter, and he made polite conversation with him and then headed back over to me a moment later with two full champagne flutes. “Here.” He handed one to me, and I gratefully accepted it. “Thanks. Hey, do you mind if I ask you something?” I asked. “Sure.” “Well…this is gonna be an awkward question…” I said, my voice trailing off uncertainly. “I think we already passed the point of awkward when we first hooked up and only realized we were going to be siblings after the fact,” he said with a grin. “Doesn’t get more awkward than that.” “True. Okay, well, I saw you talking to that waiter just now.” “Uh-huh.” “I just noticed that you’re much politer to the wait staff than some of the supposed ‘elite class’ here, who were meant to be raised with all these good manners and so on. That’s who you are—a naturally nice guy. Most of the time, anyway. So why do you feel the need to hide that from certain people?” He stared at me, his expression impassive. “What do you mean?” “I mean…you just seem to have so many sides. My friend Liana told me that you’re meant to be this douchebag party animal sex addict—” He cut me off with a snort of laughter. “Sex addict, huh?” “Yes. You probably are a sex addict, but you’re not a douchebag. At least not all of the time. When you think no one’s watching, you’re actually pretty cool and nice. So why hide that?” He sighed. ”You really wanna know? Might be a long story.” “Of course.” He shrugged and gestured around us at the rich reception guests, clinking their glasses together as they swanned around in their elegant designer gowns and suits. “See all these people?” he said. “As stiff and annoying as I might find them, I grew up around this posh crap, so I know how to act around them and fit in. I know how to play the role of the polite trust fund kid, basically. But with some of my friends…well, it’s hard to explain.” “I’ll try to understand.” “Okay. This will probably sound really whiny, like I’m complaining about all the good fortune I’ve had, but that’s not how I mean it. But anyway, you know how wealthy my Dad is. He’s an asshole

most of the time—don’t give me that look, you barely know him. Just wait, you’ll see. Anyway, as I was saying, he can be a prick, but he’s still taken care of me and my mother, financially speaking. I’ve never had to worry about money.” I nodded. “Uh-huh.” “I went to a good school; one of the best in the country. But just because a school is good doesn’t mean all the students are good people.” “Yeah, I get that. Some of the biggest assholes I knew back in the States went to the best schools.” “Exactly. Anyway, I sort of had two main groups of friends back in school. The first group had guys like Tom, who I think you met at the masquerade party—he’s the guy whose house it was at. Nice guy, doesn’t get into trouble. Easy to fit in with as long as you aren’t a serial killer. So yeah, first group was a bunch of guys like him.” “Uh-huh.” “The second group was more like the ‘cool’ kids. Like some teenagers do, they wanted to grow up too fast, and after a while, I started ditching the first group more often to hang out with the second. I wanted to seem cool; wanted to fit in. So I changed.” “You changed?” He nodded. “Yeah. I started drinking and partying on weekends with them, and by the time we started uni, I was in pretty deep, and a lot of us were starting on more serious shit.” “What do you mean?” “Pills. Weed. Coke. That kinda shit. And I paid for most of it. A lot of the supposed cool kids came from families who either cut them off financially once their parents figured out what they were doing, or they just didn’t have that much. But my Dad never gave a shit what I did. So yeah, I footed the bill a lot, and bought a metric fuck-ton of drugs over the last two years. I guess you could say we all got a bit addicted.” My eyes widened. “Oh.” I’d known Jace had a wild past, but I had no idea he’d been that wild. I’d known a few people who’d smoked pot back in high school, and even a guy who’d been hooked on his brother’s ADHD meds for a semester during my first year at college, but I’d never known anyone who was addicted to party drugs. As a result, I wasn’t quite sure what the right thing to say was, but I was glad he was telling me about it. It meant he trusted me with his problems, and the thought made my heart flutter. “I dropped out of uni in Manchester because I wanted to get away from it all. Went to live in my Mom’s city up in Scotland for a fresh start, but I fell right back into all that kinda shit with another crowd of people. It was even worse. I really fucked things up.” Something told me I shouldn’t press him for details on what exactly he’d done to fuck things up. If he wanted to tell me, he’d go ahead and do it, and I wouldn’t gain his trust by being invasive and nosy. “Oh. I’m sorry. So that’s why you came back to London?” I said instead. “Yeah. Trying to stay out of trouble. Don’t get me wrong, at the time I was more than willing to go along for the ride,” he said. There was no self-pity in his voice at all, just acceptance about what he’d

done. “But I lost myself along the way. I guess I started to be a different person to fit into the lifestyle and all, and pretty soon I was like that most of the time. It’s weird; sometimes I think I’m still the normal guy I used to be, but most of the time I think I’ve really become the asshole I started pretending to be when I was eighteen. Like I pretended so much that it became real. Like the mask I put on became my real face.” I nodded slowly, and Jace arched an eyebrow. “So does that long, boring sob story answer your question?” “Yes. The douchebag party animal thing is like a mask you originally put on to fit in, and it sort of became part of who you are.” “Yeah.” “Well, you don’t have to act like that around me,” I said. “I kinda like the original Jace. The nice one.” “Thanks. And what about you…how are you gonna act around me from now on?” “Huh?” “You’ve been avoiding me for the last few weeks. But you really don’t need to. I get it; I get why you think we shouldn’t talk. But we can be friends, Rayna. I’m not gonna try and seduce you over the breakfast table every morning,” he said. “Believe it or not, I kinda like the real Rayna too, from what I’ve seen so far, even if we can’t touch each other. So what d’ya say…friends?” I gave him a tentative half-smile. “You really think we can just be friends, without any of the….you know…the hooking up stuff?” “Sure. Friends without benefits,” he said with a teasing smile. “If you even want to be friends with me, that is.” “Yeah, I do. I’m sorry I haven’t been talking to you. But on the other hand….well, I hate to sound like a broken record, but a guy I know once told me that it takes two to tango.” He grinned at that. “Yeah, I know, I haven’t been talking to you either. Honestly, I just figured you needed some space.” “Well, not anymore. You’re right, we can just be friends,” I said. “After all, we have to live together for god knows how long, so we may as well get along. Just don’t call me ‘sis’.” Jace chuckled. “All right, I’ll call you ‘bro’ instead.” “Don’t you dare.” He grinned, then held up his champagne. “Well, Rayna,” he said. “To friendship without benefits.” “Friendship without benefits,” I echoed with a smile, holding up my glass to toast his. Jace was right. If we liked hanging out together and generally got along well, then there was no reason we couldn’t just try to be buddies, like normal stepsiblings usually managed to do. We’d be able to keep things platonic and keep our hands off each other—I could totally manage that, and things would be fine. It couldn’t be that hard, could it? Yeah, I was totally lying to myself…

Chapter 11 Jace I lay in my bed later that night, wondering why it had been so damn easy to open up to Rayna. I never discussed my past, not with anyone, yet with her it had been so simple. I’d basically poured my heart out to her at the reception—not the worst parts, but the general story of what had happened to me in the last two years—and let her know exactly who I was and why I’d become this way. It was the truth, and I’d finally admitted it; admitted that I’d become a huge douchebag in the last couple of years. But that didn’t mean I had to like who I’d become. With Rayna around, I was beginning to think there was another way through life. If she could like me and accept me for who I really was deep down, then surely others could too. I usually found it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about my feelings and experiences with my friends, and I couldn’t even discuss it with my family. To be honest, that was the reason things had gone so sour with my Mom recently. When I dropped out of uni and moved in with her to try starting afresh a year ago, she couldn’t understand how much I’d changed; how I’d gone from a normal kid to the trashy idiot I’d become. I didn’t understand it either, and I didn’t know how to stop. I fell in with all the wrong people again, and before I knew it, I’d fucked things up irrevocably. But that was a story for another day. Anyway, Mom just didn’t know how to cope with all of that, and I didn’t know how to explain my reasons for acting the way I was to her—I couldn’t even explain it to myself until now—so although she never expressly told me to leave, I knew it was for the best. Sometimes things just didn’t need to be vocalized for them to be completely obvious. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her any longer, so I’d left at the first chance I’d gotten and wound up back in London….right here with Rayna. So the move really had been for the best. With someone as cool and understanding as Rayna to talk to and share my concerns with, I could seriously start to move on and get a real fresh start to my life. I yawned and closed my eyes, trying to get some much-needed sleep, but my phone rang, delaying that for the time being. I checked the caller ID to see that it was my friend Tom. “Hey, man,” I said as I answered. “How you doing?” “Good, good. How’s your new job going?” “Pretty decent. Typical finance stuff, but it’s all right,” I said. Truthfully, the job I’d recently scored at my Dad’s friend’s company bored me to tears, but it was still a job, so it was better than nothing. I wasn’t doing anything I really wanted to in life, but I was still lucky to have the sort of connections that could get me jobs. It was more than some people could boast. “Cool. Oh, and how was the wedding?”

“It was pretty good,” I said, my mind instantly snapping back to the conversation I’d had with Rayna at the reception. We’d agreed to be friends from now on, but deep down, I knew it was simply an excuse to start being around her again without making her feel awkward. There was nothing that could stop me from wanting her, but now that our parents were officially married, there was nothing I could do about that. “Cool. Anyway, I’m having a Halloween party next Friday night. You in?” “Sure,” I replied. “Can I bring someone?” There was only one person I wanted to take as a date, even though it wouldn’t be a real date by any means. “Of course, the more the merrier. You bringing a girl?” “Yeah. Just my new stepsister, though,” I replied. A part of me wanted to claim that Rayna was my girlfriend, just so she would be out of bounds to everyone else at the party, but everyone would soon figure out who she was, so there was no point in doing that. “So you’ll be single and free to pull all the birds, huh?” I coughed. “Er….yeah, you know me,” I said. “I’ll be pulling all the chicks who reject you.” He snorted with laughter. “Yeah, yeah. Sure. Anyway, seeing as it’s a Halloween party, wear a costume.” “What’s with you and costumes? First you have the mask party last month, and now this. You got some weird sexual fetish we need to talk about?” I asked in a teasing tone. “Nah, man. Just doing it for your benefit. It’s easier for you to pick up girls when you’re masked or in a costume. That way they can’t see your big ugly mug.” I chuckled. “Touché. Anyway, I’ll see you at the party.” “Cheers, man.” I hung up the phone and closed my eyes again, trying to picture what my life would be like now that Rayna and I were nothing more than stepsiblings and friends. That’s all we’d be from now on; nothing sexual. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but if being friends with Rayna was all I could have, then I’d take it. It was better than nothing. *** I poured myself a glass of orange juice at the breakfast table the next morning, and when Rayna emerged from upstairs, I glanced up at her. “Morning. You look well-rested,” I said, trying to keep a straight face and failing miserably. Truthfully, she looked like an absolute mess. Her hair was wildly frizzed up, some bridesmaid makeup from the wedding was still smeared around her eyes from where she apparently hadn’t bothered to wash it all off after the reception had finished, and she was wearing a ratty old pair of pajamas.

She was still the hottest girl I’d ever seen, messy or not. She rolled her eyes, knowing I was teasing her. “Shut up. Not all of us wake up looking like models, like some people around here.” “Why, thank you.” She yawned and grabbed the bottle of juice. “Where’s my Mom?” she asked as she poured herself a glass. I quirked a brow at her. “Are you serious?” She rubbed her eyes. “Oh, god…I’m so tired I actually forgot they got married yesterday, and I forgot they stayed at the hotel last night.” “Didn’t get much sleep, huh?” “Yeah. I think I drank too much champagne at the reception. I kept having weird dreams and waking up all night.” “You remember what we talked about at the reception, though, right?” She nodded. “Of course,” she said, sticking her tongue out at me for a brief second. “We decided to be friends.” Something about the way the word ‘friends’ rolled off her tongue made me think there was another hidden meaning in there somewhere, but I didn’t want to push it. “Yeah. Well, seeing as friends go to parties together, do you wanna go to a party with me?” “That sounds a bit like a date in sheep’s clothing,” she replied, arching a brow. She was right, but I didn’t want to admit that, so I shook my head. “Nah, I just thought you might be interested in going. My friend Tom’s having a Halloween shindig. Anyway, it’s next week if you’re interested.” “Tom as in the guy Liana is friends with as well? The guy who had the masquerade party where we…um…where we first met?” Her face flushed at the reminder of our first encounter, and I tried to suppress a grin. “Yeah, him,” I replied. “Tom Ballanger.” She chewed on her lower lip for a second, then nodded. “Sure, I’ll go. Liana will probably be going anyway. Do I need a costume?” “Apparently.” “Damn. I don’t have anything.” “That’s okay, we can go shopping for one. Just promise me you won’t go as a slutty version of a cat or bunny. I won’t be able to tell you apart from all the other girls if you do,” I said with a grin. She giggled. “I’ll go as a slutty aardvark instead.” “Sounds good. Definitely more original. Anyway, wanna go shopping for it after breakfast? I’ve got the day off work today.” “Sure,” she said. Her face suddenly broke into a wide smile. “This’ll actually be really cool. For some reason I always assumed only us Americans celebrated Halloween. I had no idea you guys do

as well.” “You probably assumed that all we do in Britain is have tea parties and sit around with the Queen eating scones, right?” She snorted with laughter. “Something like that. Oh, and you’re also all on horseback polo teams. That seems really British to me for some reason.” I chuckled. “Well, I was actually on the polo team in sixth form, although it was more of a drinking team with a polo problem.” “Eh, still counts,” she said with a grin. After we’d finished eating breakfast, Rayna turned and raced back up the stairs, seemingly as eager as me. I headed back up to my room to get dressed, and from her bedroom next door, I heard the shower running. Although I was still aware that it was wrong, I couldn’t help but imagine her naked body covered in soap suds, and my cock stirred in my pants. Pushing the sexually frustrated thoughts of her nude body aside, I got dressed and then trudged downstairs to wait for her. When she finally came down, the same old frustration returned, because she looked fucking perfect. She was wearing a casual pale blue top which she’d teamed with black skinny jeans that hugged her curves perfectly, her face was makeup-free, and her hair hung naturally down past her shoulders, still damp. She was effortlessly beautiful, and my heart ached to look at her like that, knowing I couldn’t hold her or kiss her. “Ready?” I asked, trying to act like she was just any old buddy of mine and not the sexiest damn thing I’d ever laid eyes on. “Uh-huh. Slutty aardvark costumes, here we come.” As we drove to the nearest shops, the conversation flowed easily between us, and it felt completely natural despite the underlying sexual tension. Having Rayna talking to me was like standing in the warm sunshine, and I didn’t want to put myself back in the shadows ever again. After we arrived at the shops, we located a costume store, and as we wandered around checking out outfits, I listened to Rayna telling me about her life back home in California. The way she described it made it sound wonderful, and I could tell she missed it. I couldn’t blame her. London was a decent place, but it could also be pretty fucking dreary sometimes. Just as Rayna jokingly picked up a ‘slutty nurse’ costume, I heard a familiar voice; one which made me cringe. “Hey, Jace.” Shit. Not him, not here. I spun around to see Roy, and it suddenly hit me how terrible he really looked. In the dimly-lit pub the other week, it had been easy to miss the telltale signs—the spotty, pale skin, the hollowed cheeks, and the lank, greasy hair. He was so far gone into the world of dodgy shit, and as angry as I still was at him for the other week’s incident, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. That didn’t mean I wanted him around me, however, especially now that I was here with Rayna. “Err…hi, Roy.” I tried to hide Rayna a little bit behind me, wanting to stand in front of her as a protector just in case Roy said or did any shit, but she stepped forward anyway.

“How’s it going?” Roy asked. “And who’s this?” “My stepsister,” I said through gritted teeth. “Anyway, we better get going—” Rayna smiled and cut me off, clearly not noticing my haste to get away from Roy. “I’m Rayna,” she said, offering Roy a friendly hand. “Well, hello there, Rayna,” he said, flashing her a grin. “I’m Roy. I went to school with Jace. He told me all about you; I was wondering when I’d finally meet you. So what are you guys up to right now?" “Oh, we’re just shopping for Halloween costumes,” she said. He looked at me for a second before turning his attention back to Rayna. “For Tom Ballanger’s party?” “Yeah.” Roy had never really been good friends with Tom back in school, so I had no idea how he knew about the upcoming party. “Oh, that’s cool. I guess I’ll see you there, then! His sister invited me. Jace, you remember Marie…right?” Shit. I’d forgotten Roy had always been close with Tom’s sister, and he winked at me, clearly trying to get a reaction out of me. I’d hooked up with Marie once, and he knew from our pub conversation that I liked Rayna, so he was obviously trying to make things as awkward as possible by bringing up my past hookups in front of her, just to be a dick. All because I hadn’t given him money for blow, as if I fucking owed it to him or something. Prick. I forced a half-smile as if I didn’t care, but inside I was seething. If I’d known Roy was going to be at the party, I wouldn’t have invited Rayna. I wouldn’t have even gone myself. I didn’t want her anywhere near a guy like him, but there was no way I could back out now that Rayna was so excited. Besides, I’d really been looking forward to having a fun night with her. I was just going to have to keep an eye out for her, that was all. “Well, we’d better get going now.” I started to steer Rayna away, wanting to spend as little time in Roy’s presence as possible. I was struggling to understand why we’d ever even been friends, and the more time I spent with him, the more intense this feeling became. “Bye, guys,” Roy said, leering after us. “He seems nice,” Rayna said once we were out of earshot. “Why were you so desperate to get away from him?” I wanted to tell her the truth about him, but I couldn’t bring up the whole depressing drug money story; not out here in public. Plus, I didn’t want Roy to be responsible for ruining our day out, either. I wanted it to get back to the fun camaraderie we’d had earlier, so I simply shrugged and changed the subject. “How about this bee costume?” I said, pointing at a rack nearby. She snickered, the subject of Roy seemingly forgotten already, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “A bee costume? Who makes these things?” she said.

“The same people who make the slutty cat costumes, I presume.” “I suppose. What are you going to buy, anyway?” she asked. “I have my costume already. I’m just gonna wear the same thing I wore last time I got invited to a Halloween party.” “Are you going to tell me what it is?” “It’s a surprise.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “Is the surprise that it’s totally lame?” I held my hands up and grinned. “You got me. I’m going as Maverick from Top Gun.” She raised an eyebrow. “Yup, totally lame.” “Says the girl who wants to go as an aardvark...” “Shut up,” she said, playfully elbowing me and giving me a cheeky smile. “Ooh, can you go and have a look at the hats and see if anything gives you any inspiration for me? I’m struggling now. I have to outdo your lameness somehow.” “Of course.” I smiled before sauntering over to the accessories. I looked around for a while and picked up odd bits and pieces, finding nothing that gave me any amazing ideas, but I suddenly spotted something else. It wouldn’t help with Rayna’s costume at all, but I was sure she’d think it was a cool jokey kinda thing all the same. “Rayna, check this out!” I said, holding up the cardboard box I’d picked up. It was a Hasbro board game called Ouija Board—one of those silly supposedly supernatural things that kids used at slumber parties to pretend to summon spirits. I knew some people who were actually scared of the boards and thought they really worked, but if they did, then why on earth would Hasbro market it as a game? It was total bullshit, but it might be a fun thing to try out as a joke with Halloween coming up and all. Rayna sidled up to me a moment later. “What is it?” “It’s a Ouija board.” “One of those spirit summoning things where they spell things out?” she asked, her eyebrows arched curiously. “Yeah. Why don’t we get it for a laugh? Get in the spirit of Halloween and so on. Pun not intended.” “I don’t know, those things kinda freak me out, Jace.” “It’s not real. It’s just a mass-produced game. Anyway, even if it actually is real, we can use it to find that hallway ghost of yours back home.” She smiled and playfully elbowed me again. “You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” she said. “Fine, fine, we’ll get your silly board game. Maybe I can summon up a ghost to punch you for making fun of me.” I grinned. “Fine by me.” I went and paid for the game up at one of the counters, and when I returned to Rayna, I spotted a big red plastic shopping bag emblazoned with the store’s logo dangling from her arm. “Oh, you

already found a costume? That was quick. What is it?” I asked. She grinned and arched an eyebrow before echoing my earlier words. “It’s a surprise...”

Chapter 12 Rayna Jace and I burst through the main door to the manor, laughing and chattering excitedly about our day out shopping. There was a completely different vibe between us compared to how things had been only days before, and I was glad for that—no more silence and awkward tiptoeing around. As much as I knew I wanted more than friendship from him, I had to say, I actually liked being friends with him. The fun-loving, easygoing atmosphere was much easier to deal with than the way I’d completely ignored him out of guilt and shame. Even though paranormal stuff had been creeping me out lately—my manor ghost mystery was still unsolved—and I’d never been into the whole Ouija board thing, I was actually glad Jace had picked up that silly game, because it was a good excuse for us to spend more time together. It was pretty safe to assume that we were never going to be getting close enough to cross the line again—there were only so many times you could make that mistake—and as much as that was a hard pill to swallow, I was grateful that we could at least hang out. I knew it couldn’t last forever, but I’d vowed to enjoy it while I could. We may have only known each other for a few weeks, but Jace had already had a deep impact on my life, and there would be a massive crater in my heart if he ever decided he no longer wanted my friendship. I guess I really had a serious crush on him, but that would be over soon. As much as I felt for him now, crushes never lasted longer than a few months. “Okay, it says on the back of the box that we need candles, so I’ll go and grab some, and you can set up the board on the table,” Jace said, turning to me as we entered the dining room. “Sure.” As I watched him leave, I felt a pang of guilt for lying to him. I’d told him I could handle the platonic friendship, and like I said earlier, I loved being friends with him, but I knew I was misleading him by acting as if it was all I wanted. I began to set the game up, and as I did so, I tried to straighten out my head. This was the exact reason I hadn’t wanted to get emotionally involved with Jace. If this all somehow went to hell, it was going to be very difficult to deal with, and I only had myself to blame. I needed to shut these romantic feelings off. They were only going to get me hurt, and the sooner I accepted that, the better, but thinking those words and actually putting them into action were two very different things. Jace returned and placed a few tea-light candles around the board, and when he lit them and drew the curtains, the whole room took on a decidedly creepy vibe. “God, now I feel as if we’re in a horror movie,” I said, my gaze nervously shooting around. “Old manor? Check. Candles and scary spirit game? Check.” “And a big scary monster named Jace? Check,” he said with a wink.

I laughed, and then I took on a more serious expression. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to mess around with this stuff?” I asked, my voice tinged with trepidation. His face softened as he looked at me. “Look, to me this is all just a game. I think it’s fun, but if it’s really freaking you out, we can stop,” he said. I chewed on my lip as I considered his words. The rational part of me was telling me that things like Ouija boards were total bullcrap; nothing more than a party trick to amuse kids going through their experimental phases and rebelling against their god-fearing parents, but at the same time, another part of me was telling me that it was a bad idea. What if ghosts were actually real? I’d never believed in them up until a few weeks ago, but after seeing that woman in the hallway the other month, I was no longer sure. It would be arrogant of me to say that I was so smart that I knew for an absolute fact there was no such thing as a spirit world. After all, no one could possibly know that. I almost wanted to back out, but I was afraid that I’d look stupid. “No, never mind, I’m just being paranoid,” I said before taking a seat at the table. Jace joined me. I was concentrating hard on trying to seem calm, but my body was betraying me, and my knees were trembling under the table. I hoped to god that Jace couldn’t feel my shaking legs, otherwise he’d probably think I was the biggest wimp in the history of the universe. It’s just a game! I reminded myself. “We need to put our hands on top of the planchette,” Jace said, concentrating on the game instructions. He rested his hands on top of mine on the little triangular piece, and he smiled at me. I tried to return the smile, but my face was frozen so much that I felt like my head had been dipped in a vat of Botox. “Okay, so what do you want to say first?” Jace asked. “Um…maybe just ask if there are any spirits out there?” I said. I was feeling incredibly stupid now, as if we were actually in some sort of lame eighties horror movie. “Right.” Jace quickly changed his voice into a creepy silly tone. “Hello…is there anyone out there?” We sat there for a few minutes, just staring at the board with nothing happening, and my heart was thumping so hard I wouldn’t have been surprised if it exploded right out of my chest and bounced off the walls. Then the planchette started to slip under my hand, and I watched it slowly move to the box on the board which said ‘Yes’. I knew I hadn’t been moving the piece; my fingers were barely touching it. “Was that you?” I asked. “That’s not funny if it was.” “No!” Jace insisted, looking so sincere that I almost believed him. “But the window over there is open. This planchette is quite light, maybe a breeze came through and sort of moved it a bit.” “Um…okay, I guess it could’ve been that,” I mumbled, though I knew how unlikely it was. I slumped back into my seat and tentatively put my hand back on the piece, waiting to start again. “Okay, is there a reason you’re here? Is there something you want from us?” Jace asked, looking up at the ceiling before returning his eyes to the board.

I really hoped he didn’t start asking for physical proof that there was someone or something here with us, because I’d probably pass out if chairs starting flying around the room. Again, the pointer moved to ‘Yes’, then spelled out ‘Rayna’, and I gulped. “You want Rayna to do something?” Jace asked. Yes again. “So what is it you want Rayna to do?” Jace continued. The planchette started to move once more. It hit the B and I began to feel a bit sick. I’d known this was a bad idea, and yet I’d stupidly gone along with it, just to try and impress Jace and make him think I was cool, rather than the wuss I so clearly was. Then the pointer hit the letters L, O and W, and I narrowed my eyes. Surely it wasn’t actually saying…. Seconds later, my suspicions were confirmed, and the pointer moved to the letters J, A, C and E. I jumped up from my seat, anger coursing through my veins. Jace was just fucking with me and I’d allowed myself to get sucked in. “Screw you, Jace. That’s not funny. Not at all!” I said, my voice heated. “I can’t believe how immature you are!” I abruptly stood up and stalked out of the room, and I could hear him calling out from behind me as I headed up the staircase. “It was just a joke! Oh come on, Rayna, I thought you’d think it was funny!” Funny? No, he’d known I was a bit creeped out by the whole idea, but he’d gone along with it anyway. On top of that, he’d pushed the piece around and made the board spell out ‘BLOW JACE’ as if reminding me of our sexual history was a good idea. The more I thought about it, the more confused I got over the whole thing. I didn’t know what made me angrier; the fact that he’d played such a stupid, immature prank on me, or the fact that it reminded me I could never have him. I entered my room, flopped down on my bed and stared at the ceiling, and as my heart raced, I pictured Jace in the forefront of my mind, and I started to become far more annoyed at myself than him. It was my fault. I was the one who’d gone along with it—I could’ve just said ‘no’ to the whole Ouija game idea, but instead I’d basically walked right into Jace’s prank. Besides, he’d given me the chance to back out, and I’d said no because I wanted to impress him. It was just a silly prank, and I’d massively overreacted by storming out. As I pictured his bright blue eyes, hungry gaze and powerful arms, my anger toward him melted away, and the true underlying reason for the storm of emotions I was feeling become abundantly clear. Whatever I felt for Jace, it was more than just a silly little crush. I was actually falling for him.

Chapter 13 Jace Shit. That wasn’t what I’d intended to happen at all. I thought Rayna would find my little prank funny, but now that I was actually thinking about it, it wasn’t that funny. She probably thought I’d been faking the friendship with her just so I could tell her to ‘blow me’ in an elaborate way, but that hadn’t been it at all. My true intention had been to make her feel better about living in the manor. Judging by the questions she’d been asking my Dad at breakfast the other morning, she obviously still thought there was something creepy about the place, so I’d figured that if I could show her just how silly all the supposedly ‘supernatural’ stuff in the world was, she’d realize there were no ghosts or anything in the manor, and she’d feel more capable of settling in properly. Well, it had majorly backfired on me, and now I looked like a fucking asshole. I headed up the stairs, desperate to make it better before she decided to go another few weeks of zero contact with me. We’d only just gotten over the hideous awkwardness of our second failed hookup, so the last thing I’d needed to do was fuck things up again…and yet I had. In all of my excitement to have fun with Rayna and stop her from being afraid of the house, I hadn’t noticed just how afraid she truly was. I burst into Rayna’s bedroom, quickly spotting her lying flat on her bed. Her face was a little scrunched up but her eyes were closed, so I wasn’t sure whether she was crying or not, and the idea that she might be made me feel about a million times worse. “Rayna, I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to upset you.” “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay,” she muttered, almost under her breath. Her tone was flat, showing me just how upset she really was. At least she was a little calmer, though. Downstairs a moment ago, she’d been like a hurricane of rage. “No, no it isn’t.” I sat down next to her on the bed. “I just wanted to make light of a crappy situation. I thought you might still be a bit freaked out about the house and I wanted to make you laugh. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m fucking terrible at making jokes. I think I proved that with the panty incident when you first arrived.” She looked up at me, her expression starting to soften. “No, really, Jace. It’s fine. I overreacted.” A slow smile spread across my face as the surprise sank in. I couldn’t believe it; she was actually conceding to me. On the other hand, while I was glad that she was happier, it somehow didn’t feel quite right. There was a heavy feeling in my stomach, as if my subconscious had detected that there was something more to the story than whatever Rayna was letting on. “It was pretty funny,” she added. She laughed a little, but it was still halfhearted, so I knew I definitely wasn’t one hundred percent forgiven. “Would a hug make you feel better?” I asked. “I’ll even throw in a free foot massage to make up

for being a dumbass.” She smiled. “Sure.” I embraced her, knowing full well that there was nothing even remotely sexual about this hug, and she leaned into me. Her body was tense and stiff, so I knew that her heart wasn’t in it, and I thought for a few seconds, wondering what else I could do to make her feel better. An idea suddenly struck me. “Hey, you said you saw your ghost near the main third floor stairwell, right?” I asked, pulling away. She looked at me curiously. “Jace, there was never a ghost. Everyone else is right; I was just sleepwalking. I’m just an idiot for being freaked out.” I shook my head. “Nah, like I said the other day at breakfast, I think there’s another explanation. Remember how Dad said it’s possible an intruder got in? I was just thinking, if there was an actual intruder of some kind here, maybe she ran upstairs to hide after she saw you. Why don’t we go and take a look and see if there’s any footprints? Remember, he said there’s tons of dust up there because of all the renovations, so even though it was a few weeks ago, if the woman you saw in the hallway ran up there, we’ll know.” “But your Dad said that the fourth floor was out of bounds, didn’t he?” I stood up, holding out my hand to her. “As long as we’re careful, we’ll be fine. The worst thing that can happen is we’ll get a little dirty from all the dust.” I wouldn’t have minded getting dirty with her in other ways, but now was definitely not the time to be cracking sleazy jokes, considering how my sleazy Ouija prank had turned out. She nodded, obviously intrigued by my idea. “Okay, let’s do it,” she said, taking my hand and letting me help her up. “But even if there was an intruder, wouldn’t they have run downstairs, not up? You know, to get out of the place before being caught.” “Yeah, but maybe not. Worth a shot to take a look anyway,” I replied smoothly. She was right; I didn’t actually think we were going to find anything up there on the fourth floor, but if it made her feel better to explore the place and see that nothing was out of the ordinary, then I would do it happily. As we walked up the stairs, I tried to remember what the exact layout had been up here before the renovations had started. It’d been such a long time since I’d ventured up to the fourth floor that it was difficult to think. “What’s actually up there?” Rayna asked. “Just more bedrooms?” “Yeah, mostly just another load of guest bedrooms, but there was also a sort of play area. I think it used to be a sitting room of some sort, but when my parents were still together, it was like my little kid’s retreat. While Dad was at work and the staff were cleaning everything downstairs, I’d hang out up here and read or play with Mom.” “That’s cute. What’s it all being renovated for?” “I think Dad’s having it renovated so that the guest rooms are all bigger with their own bathrooms. Kinda like what we have in our rooms on the third floor.”

“Oh, cool. Any particular reason why?” I shrugged. “Because he can, I guess. It’s not like this bloody place doesn’t already have enough rooms.” I coughed from all the dust as we finally reached the top of the stairs, and I glanced around, spotting an old bookshelf in the hall which must’ve been moved by the team who’d been up here starting on the renovations. The sight of the old shelf sent my mind whizzing back to a time I’d assumed was long gone. I remembered how that very shelf had sat in my play area, filled with books, and when we were up here, Mom would sit on the sofa and read to me. We’d been so happy then, like a real family. Thinking back to that, it was difficult to remember how or why it had all gone so terribly wrong. “Oh shit, Jace. Look!” I turned to see Rayna pointing towards the ground, and I followed her gaze to see a set of footprints in the thick dust that overlaid the wooden floorboards. “That’s probably just from the workers before they left,” I said. “Either that or Dad.” On closer inspection, I could see I was wrong about that. These footprints had been made with bare feet, and they weren’t men’s at all. They were small and delicate; they had definitely come from a woman. They also didn’t look completely fresh; they had a thin coating of dust on them, meaning they’d probably been there for a few weeks. Jesus… Rayna hadn’t been sleepwalking after all. Someone had actually been in the house that night; at least that’s what it looked like. My mind spun around, trying to figure out what the hell all of this meant. Who the hell would break into our house at two in the morning, only to take nothing at all? Could my Dad’s theory be correct—could some drunk woman have somehow wandered onto the property and made her way inside the manor, only to run and hide when she encountered Rayna in the hall? Or was it something more sinister? I’d once heard a nightmarish story of a woman who had somehow attracted a crazed stalker, and the stalker had ended up living in her house for months and hiding out in the attic, only coming out at night to watch her as she slept. She’d discovered the horrifying truth after putting a nanny cam in her room to keep an eye on things around the house when she’d noticed food and other miscellaneous items had been mysteriously vanishing. I leaned in closer to get a better look at the prints, my heart thumping wildly at the same time. If there was some sort of insane stalker coming in and out of the manor—or worse, living here and hiding out in nooks and crannies—then I wanted to protect Rayna. “Look,” I said, pointing at the trail of footprints. “They go right along the hall. I should follow them to make sure there isn’t someone still up here somehow. But let’s get you back downstairs first.” “I don’t know,” she replied hesitantly. “I think I should come with you.” “You sure?” She nodded. “Yeah. I feel safe with you.” My heart swelled at her words. I’d never thought I’d hear those sentiments from a girl, and I

definitely never thought it’d feel so great to hear. “All right. Come on.” We tiptoed alongside the prints, not wanting to tread on them in case we wanted to show anyone later—Dad, Elena or the police if necessary. We were also careful to make as little sound as possible, and I was so busy focusing on the task at hand that I didn’t notice any of our surroundings until Rayna forced me to. “Who’s that?” she whispered, pointing to a framed photo on the wall. It was a picture of the whole family—Mom, Dad and me when I was a child. It had always hung here on the wall in the fourth floor hallway, and Dad must’ve just left it here to gather dust when he’d begun the renovations. “That’s me, back when I was cute,” I said with a grin, trying to distract Rayna from the image of my mother. I figured that seeing relics from one of Dad’s relationship from so long ago might make her feel uneasy for her own mother’s sake, and I didn’t want that to be her problem. “And your Mom?” she said, not missing a beat as usual. I sighed. “Yeah.” “It looks like your Mom liked books too.” Rayna indicated to a massive stack of novels that had been callously discarded under a pile of rubble from where the work team had knocked out one of the guest bedroom walls. “While we’re here, you should have a quick look and see if there are any you want to keep.” “Yeah, good idea. Do you think it’s weird that my father’s just letting this stuff sit here, and not getting rid of it properly?” “Well, you know him better than I do. Do you think it’s weird?” she asked. She purposely avoided eye contact with me and started to shuffle through the pile of books. “Do you think she was the love of his life, and he’s never gotten over her or something?” I joined her on the floor. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so, because their relationship ended so badly, but maybe he went on to realize his mistake. Or maybe he just misses having that whole family unit. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why he’s been so nice to me since I got back. He never used to be like that with me, you know. Almost always ignored me, never gave a fuck what I did unless I was somehow embarrassing him.” “Sorry. I didn’t know he was like that in the past. But maybe my Mom is the one to finally help him move on and want to be a real family man,” she replied. Her tone sounded as uneasy as I felt. I couldn’t exactly reassure her that Elena was the one, because until recently, I’d always assumed that my Dad didn’t have a ‘one’. I’d just thought that even when he was in his eighties, he’d still be running around with much younger women—women pumped full of Botox and silicone. Then again, Elena wasn’t like that. Just like Rayna, she was a natural beauty, and she was friendly and smart. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know,” I finally said. “Maybe you’re onto something with the family unit thing. Like you said, he seems to be making more of an effort with you now.”

“Yeah.” That was definitely true, but then again, he still hadn’t asked me anything about my return to London. Perhaps he’d spoken to my Mom and knew exactly what I’d done in Edinburgh, and he simply thought it was too awful to discuss and chose to sweep it under the rug instead. “Oh, check this out!” I said a moment later, grabbing a particularly old-looking book of stories from the pile. “Mom used to read this to me when I was little. It belonged to her when she was a child too.” “Take it. It’s yours, after all.” Rayna smiled, and I tucked the book under my arm, just as we heard a loud banging sound echoing through the hall. “Oh, shit. What the hell was that?” Rayna asked, her eyes wide. Her knuckles turned white as they gripped another book she’d picked up, and I saw her legs tensing, like she was getting ready to run. “I’m sure it was just something falling down,” I said. “I don’t know, Jace. Let’s get out of here,” she said. Her voice had turned shrill. I nodded, knowing she was truly scared right now. “Okay, let’s go.” She turned and bolted back down the hall and then the stairs, with me only a few steps behind her. She didn’t stop running until we reached the main dining room all the way down on the first floor, and we almost bumped right into our parents who had apparently just returned from the hotel they’d stayed at the night before, after the wedding reception. The echoing bang we’d heard a minute ago must’ve just been from the front door slamming behind them when they came inside. “Did you guys seriously miss us that much?” Elena said with a cheeky smile as she noticed Rayna trying to catch her breath. “We were only gone for one night; you didn’t need to run all the way down here!” Before we could respond, Dad spotted the book tucked under my arm and gave me a sharp look. “Where the hell have you two been?” “On the fourth floor.” He sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair in exasperation. “I thought I told you two not to go up there. There’s still piles of rubble from where the workers knocked out some walls. You could trip over or something.” “We’re not idiots, Dad, and we have eyes. We could see the piles and walk around them with these new inventions called legs.” He narrowed his eyes. “Don’t get smart with me, son. What were you doing up there, anyway?” “Well, I remembered Rayna saying how she thought she saw that woman near the stairwell, and you said you thought it could be an intruder. So I figured if there really was one here that night, then maybe they ran up there to hide when Rayna came out. That’d mean there’d be footprints in all the dust up there. And guess what?” I paused, and Elena flashed me a curious look. “What?” “There are footprints up there, and they don’t look brand new—more like they’ve been there a few weeks, which is when Rayna saw someone. And they’re not from you or the renovation workers, either. Too small. It’s either a child or a woman, and considering Rayna told you she saw a woman, I

think it’s safe to assume it was. So there really was an intruder that night. We should call the police.” Dad affected a bored expression. “Jace, I’m glad to see you and Rayna getting along so well now, but you’re behaving like overly-excited children. There’s been no one in this house except for us and the staff, and I can assure you of that. We don’t need to contact the police.” “But—“ He held up a hand. “No buts. I’ve already spoken to security like I said I would. They’ve examined all of the CCTV footage from the entirety of the last six months and they saw no one enter the property other than those who were invited or those who work here.” “So how do you explain what Rayna saw, then? The footprints are there. We can prove it.” “Rayna was obviously just sleepwalking and having a bad dream that night. As for the prints, perhaps one of the maids wandered up there recently.” “Without shoes?” He waved his hand. “Who knows how the bloody maids act when we aren’t around? You can’t trust working class people to follow instructions and act with dignity all the time, can you?” Elena and Rayna exchanged glances at that, and I almost wanted to smugly tell them, I told you so. He’s an arrogant asshole. “Seriously?” I said scornfully. “Christ, Dad.” He rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. I’m just tired from all the wedding festivities yesterday,” he said before turning to his brand new wife. “Elena, darling, I didn’t mean that.” She took his hand and squeezed it, and I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “It’s okay, I understand,” she said quietly, though I could still tell that he’d struck a nerve with his elitist comments. Dad turned back to me and Rayna. “I don’t want to tell you again. There are no ghosts in this house; only two very silly young adults.” With that, he stalked out of the room, and Elena followed closely behind him. I glanced over at Rayna, wondering if she was thinking the same thing that I was. Dad had made way too big of a deal about this whole thing, and it was strange how vehemently he was denying that there’d been any intruders in the place when someone obviously had been up on the fourth floor within the last few weeks. Why the hell was he not more concerned about the obviously lax security in the manor? Clearly the security company who monitored everything weren’t doing a good enough job, and yet my father was brushing it aside as if our safety meant nothing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I had a weird feeling about the whole thing; a creeping, lingering suspicion that there was something else going on here. I just knew it. Now all I had to do was find out what the hell it was.

Chapter 14 Jace Everything remained the same for the next few days, although my guard was up high. When I wasn’t at work at the finance firm, I was watching my Dad’s every move, just waiting for him to slip up and reveal what the hell was going on around here, but he seemed to be onto me. He was acting even more like the dedicated family man than ever before, which I was finding really off-putting, because it was all so damn fake. I just had to wait for his mask to slip again, like it had the other day. I tried to speak to Rayna about it, but it just made her upset at the reminder of Dad’s asshole-ish ‘working class’ comments, so I was forced to let it drop. I assumed she thought my Dad’s weird reaction was really down to seeing me holding my Mom’s book, and the unrequited love that she was convinced was still there, but I wasn’t totally sold on that theory. Dad was up to something else shady, and one way or another, I was going to find out what it was. I was prepared to let it go for one night, though, because we had finally arrived at Halloween and the night of Tom’s party. Gone were any feelings of unease; I was just excited at the prospect of seeing Rayna let her hair down for a night of silly fun. I had my Maverick costume on, and as I sat in the kitchen waiting for Rayna to arrive, I tried to imagine what she could possibly be wearing. I’d asked her a couple of times, but she’d completely shot me down, saying that I’d have to wait. I was certain it would be something cool, and no matter what it was, she’d look amazing. It would kill me to have to watch all the other guys checking her out, though, knowing full well that there was nothing I could do about it. It fucking sucked that I couldn’t touch her or hold her in public like I so desperately wanted to, but lately I’d been thinking—just because we couldn’t do it in public didn’t mean we couldn’t in private. What the hell was so wrong about two hormonal young people being attracted to each other and wanting to be with each other? Fuck the platonic friendship attempt…just fuck it. I was going to tell Rayna how I really felt tonight, and maybe—just maybe—she’d stop feeling so guilty about her own feelings, and we’d be able to go back to where we were that night in my room; filled with lust and barely able to stop ourselves from ripping each other’s clothes off. I heard her lilting voice call out from the hallway a moment later. “Are you ready?” I stood up. “Yeah, get out here and show me this surprise of yours!” “Ta-da!” She stepped into the room a moment later, wearing a totally awesome but also completely geeky Battlestar Galactica Cylon costume, complete with chrome-tinted body armor and a helmet. “Oh my god….you nerd,” I said, chuckling as I took it all in. “I can barely even tell it’s you under there!” “Yep,” she said, her voice sounding slightly metallic under the helmet. “You were totally expecting some sort of sexy surprise instead, weren’t you? Like one of those flimsy Playboy bunny costumes.”

“Nope,” I said with a grin, although I certainly wouldn’t have minded a sexy surprise. I was glad I wouldn’t have to worry about her flashing a lot of skin in some sort of skimpy outfit, though—that meant there’d be less guys perving on her. I loved how confident she was in herself; there weren’t many girls out there who were okay with dressing up in a decidedly un-sexy costume on Halloween. Somehow, that actually served to make Rayna sexier, and my heart thudded hard in my chest as I suppressed the urge to sweep her up in my arms, throw her over my shoulder and then tear the costume right off her after throwing her on the nearest bed. I needed to get out of the house now, because being this close to Rayna while we were alone was making my head spin. “Come on, let’s go, the car is outside.” I’d ordered an exclusive town car to take us to Tom’s party and to pick us up later on, so we could both have a couple of drinks. I knew Rayna wasn’t the type of girl who cared about a guy flashing the cash by ordering a car like that, but I figured it was safer and more efficient than getting a regular cab, and keeping her safe on a night out was a top priority for me. The car soon arrived, and I helped Rayna in before climbing in after her. The driver introduced himself to us, confirmed the address and then took off, and as we drove, Rayna turned to me in her seat. “Is this party going to be as fancy as the mask party the other week, or more like the raves you guys used to have?” “Well, considering the size of Tom’s place, any party will look fancy, but don’t worry, it’ll be more of a casual thing.” She hesitated, and I finally understood what she really meant by her question. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Tom is a decent, clean guy. He doesn’t let people in who do drugs or anything like that.” That was true for the most part. I hoped the second he saw Roy show up at the party thanks to Marie’s invitation, he’d kick him out or at least make sure he wasn’t trying to do anything seedy. Rayna nodded, and our conversation drifted into different territory for the rest of the drive. When we arrived at Tom’s, the party was already in full swing, and the place had been decorated with typical Halloween decorations—faux spider webs, skeletons and ghosts. There was even a cauldron in the middle of the main party room, filled with a green liquid I could only assume was some sort of punch, seeing as there was a group of girls currently ladling some of it out into cups. “Ooh, there’s Liana!” Rayna said, pointing out a tall, svelte blonde girl who I’d been introduced to by Tom a few times. She was dressed as Elsa from Frozen with a long blonde wig done up in an intricate braid and a blue cape swinging from her matching dress. When Rayna pulled off her helmet, she finally noticed us and dashed over to us. “Hey, Jace,” she said to me with a smile before turning to Rayna and hugging her. “Oh my god…I thought you were kidding when you said you were coming as a Cylon!” she added as she pulled away. Rayna grinned. “Nope.” “Well, it looks awesome. Want a drink? Tom has a bar set up over there,” she said, pointing over to the left of the room. “By the way, stay away from the punch—someone poured way too much tequila in it. It’s so gross.”

“Will do. Where’s your date?” Rayna asked. Liana pointed at a tall brown-haired guy wearing a wizard costume. “Over there. And yes, you can say ‘I told you so’ if you want.” I must’ve looked puzzled, because Liana smiled and explained. “I met this guy at the masquerade party a few weeks ago, and I was worried he’d never call me again. But Miss Positive here said he totally would, and she was right. We’re dating now.” “Cool,” I said, smiling at Rayna. “Anyway, Jace, do you mind if I steal Rayna for a while?” Liana asked. “Sure.” The two girls headed off to the bar to grab some drinks, and I smiled as I watched them go. I was glad Rayna already had other friends here in London. The more people she had around her, the more fun she’d have, and she deserved to have some fun. After chatting to a group of people whom I hadn’t seen in a while, I decided to try some of the green punch to see if it was as bad as Liana said it was, and I headed over to the cauldron. As I stood by the table which had been set up next to it, I didn’t notice the presence looming over my shoulder until it was too late and the person was tapping on my shoulder. Expecting to see Tom or another old friend behind me, I turned around with a smile, but that smile quickly faded as I saw Roy standing behind me, a Halloween monster mask dangling from one hand. “Hey, Jace. Was wondering when you’d turn up. Been looking forward to seeing you again,” he said. “Can’t say I thought the same about you,” I replied. There was no sense in even pretending we were friends anymore, considering how he’d spoken to me at the pub the other week, and now that Rayna wasn’t around, I didn’t have to play nice to avoid awkward conversations. Even in the dim light of the party room, I could see that Roy looked dreadful; even worse than before. His skin was pale and spotty, and his whole body was twitching. “I guess I deserve that for what I said to you in the pub the other week,” he said. “Yeah, you do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and—” He cut me off by placing a hand on my arm. “Jace, mate, I’m really sorry, okay? I need you to be my friend again right now. I need you to help me.” “With what?” I asked, my eyebrows furrowing. Perhaps he was trying to quit the drugs, and he actually needed my advice and help. I would never say no to someone who genuinely needed help, so I leaned in and waited for his response. “I can’t stand it. I need something, man. I can’t cope. You have to help me. You went through it; you know what it’s like.” I didn’t correct him by saying I hadn’t really gone through any of this. Sure, it hadn’t been easy to keep away from the rough crowds and that whole dodgy party atmosphere once I’d decided to leave, but I hadn’t had any real withdrawal symptoms when I’d stopped taking stuff. I hadn’t been in deep enough, and I hadn’t done anything as serious as Roy apparently had in the last year, judging by the look of him.

“So you want my help with the withdrawal stuff? Look, I know of some decent centers you could go to. They have programs and therapists who—” He cut me off again. “Man, I don’t need fucking therapy. I just need to borrow some cash from you.” I sighed. “Roy, you can’t keep behaving like this. You know I’m not going to buy you anything. You need rehab.” “Fuck, man, you seriously won’t help me out even when I fucking need it? A few thousand quid, that’s all I need.” I took a step backwards, losing all patience with him. “You don’t need coke or pills. You never needed it, so just leave me out of this shit. I can’t do anything to help you if you won’t help yourself, so you can call me if you ever decide to get some real help, but until then, don’t bother.” “You’re supposed to be my friend!” he pleaded, pulling me back towards him by my shirt. “Have some heart. Don’t you give a shit about any of us anymore? Why won’t you fucking help me, when you know for a fact that you can?” “Of course I care about you!” I snapped back. “That’s exactly why I won’t pay for your shit anymore. You need to get away from that life, like I did. I don’t want to be involved in any of it anymore. Not in any way. And you shouldn’t either.” Roy pushed me, but it barely affected me—he was so scrawny compared to me that it was like being attacked by a fourth grader. “You were always a shitty friend. You always thought you were so much better than the rest of us just because your Dad’s so fucking rich.” “Right.” It wasn’t true, but there was no point arguing with an addict when they were angry. “You’ll fucking regret treating me like this,” he continued, voice shaking with anger. I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure I will.” “Better watch your back, cunt,” he spat out before turning and disappearing into the crowd of costumed revelers. I watched him go, not even bothering to come up with any sort of retort. What the hell was the point? He was fucked; he wouldn’t see reason or care about anything I had to say, unless I was offering him cash to support his habit. It was sad to see how far down the rabbit hole he’d gone, but at the same time, I couldn’t help him unless he wanted to be helped. I needed to take a leak, so I grabbed my drink, cut through the crowd and headed for the stairs so I could use the bathroom. As I reached the top of the stairs and headed down the hall, I overheard familiar feminine voices and turned to see Rayna and Liana standing in the doorway to one of the bathrooms, where they must’ve gone to have some sort of private girly chat. I was about to go over and see how they were going when I heard my name being said. I froze and turned away so that I could still hear, but they couldn’t see me. Eavesdropping might have been the wrong thing to do, but I was curious to see what kind of stuff Rayna said about me to her friends when I wasn’t around. “….couldn’t happen anyway, now that your parents are actually married,” Liana was saying. “Exactly. Anyway, in the last week or so, he’s just been like a brother to me. And it’s great. We get along really well, so I’m happy with it,” Rayna replied. “I don’t want anything more from him.”

“Okay, well, if that’s really the case, then you have to meet my friend Eric. Hot blond guy, lots of muscles…” A raucously-giggling couple suddenly came up the stairs and headed for a nearby bedroom, drowning out the girls’ conversation, and I stepped away and headed for another bathroom down the hall so I could splash my face as everything I’d just heard sank in. So much for my plan to tell Rayna that I wanted to be more than friends with her tonight…not only did she actually see me as a friend, she apparently already saw me as some sort of brotherly figure, and in her words, she ‘didn’t want anything more from me’ than that. That hadn’t taken long, but then again, I was the one who’d had the bright idea of telling her we should have a platonic relationship the other week. She’d obviously taken it to heart and really committed to the idea, and she’d started to seriously view me as nothing more than a platonic stepbrother. Shit. I’d missed my chance with her. I couldn’t reveal anything to her tonight and tell her that I was sick of acting like I was okay with only friendship from her; not when she was obviously perfectly content with the way things were….not to mention the fact that her friends were already scouting out other ‘hot’ guys for her. So that was it. Whatever spark we’d once had had been dimmed, and it was my own damned fault for being so stupid and letting her slip through my fingers. Now I had to start seeing Rayna for what she really was to me. My stepsister, and nothing more.

Chapter 15 Rayna “So,” Liana said, polishing off the last of her cocktail. “Now that you’ve heard everything about Rick, you have to tell me everything about your love life.” We were still standing near the bar, and she’d just spent the last few minutes updating me on every detail of her fledgling romance with the guy from her office building whom she’d hooked up with at the masquerade party. I shrugged at her statement and put down my own empty glass. I’d had to take my Cylon headpiece off earlier, so it was currently dangling from my other hand. “Nothing much to tell. I’ve been so busy the last few weeks with all the wedding stuff, not to mention I’ve still been settling in here.” She regarded me with a suspicious gaze, then looked past me at Jace, who was chatting to a group of people near the spot where we’d left him. “You know what? That drink went right through me. Join me in the bathroom?” she said in a sweet, sing-song voice which I knew meant only one thing: ‘I know you have a secret, and we’re going to have a little private chat.’ We headed upstairs and found the first bathroom where we could have a private conversation, and she cornered me near the door and stared at me with a gleeful expression on her face. “I know there’s still something going on with you and Jace.” “Hmm?” I managed to choke out, affecting my most innocent expression and wishing I could put my Cylon helmet back on so that she couldn’t see the guilt in my eyes. What she was saying wasn’t true—Jace and I had been nothing more than friends for a week or so now. Still, it felt like a lie to say it, because I knew I still wanted him. Liana put her hands on her hips. “Oh, come on. You could’ve come to the party with me, but you came with him instead.” “It just made more sense. I live with him, so it made sense for us to share a car to get here, and I also knew you’d be coming with Rick, so I figured you’d want some alone time with him.” I completely left out the part where I still had strong feelings for Jace, because what was the point in discussing it? He’d made it quite clear to me that he thought we should stick to being friendly and nothing else, and I was trying to move past that. It was damn hard, considering how sexy he was, but I knew I’d get there eventually. At least I hoped so. Liana was silent for a moment, and then her shoulders slumped. “Damn. I was totally hoping for some gossip about you and Jace sneaking around and doing the dirty.” “Well, there were the times when we almost…you know…but that’s it. Since the wedding, nothing’s happened.” She sighed. “I guess it couldn’t happen anyway, now that your parents are actually married.”

“Exactly. Anyway, in the last week or so, he’s just been like a brother to me. And it’s great. We get along really well, so I’m happy with it,” I replied. “I don’t want anything more from him.” “Okay, well, if that’s really the case, then you have to meet my friend Eric. Hot blond guy, lots of muscles, and has an awesome job at…” Her voice trailed off as she saw the look on my face, and she practically crowed in triumph. “Aha! I knew it!” “Knew what?” “You don’t want any other guys. You might just be ‘friends’ with Jace, but you still totally want him, you liar!” I felt my cheeks turning hot, and I knew I was caught. “Okay, fine,” I admitted. “I still like him.” “Tell him!” “I can’t. It was his idea for us to be friends. I’d just look like some obsessive love-struck puppy.” “He was probably just saying that, you know, trying to do the right thing and all, to make it less awkward. But that guy looks at you like you’re a supermodel, even when you’re wearing a bloody Cylon outfit!” she said. “I’ve never seen or heard about him being like this—he’s usually such a manwhore—but he so obviously still wants you just as much as you want him. Guaranteed.” “You really think so?” She rolled her eyes. “Yes. God, you two are like characters in rom-coms. I just want to shake you both and say ‘communicate!’” I hesitated for a second before speaking up again. “You really think we should go for it? I mean, you just said nothing can happen now that our parents are married, and—” She cut me off with a wave of her hand. “Oh, please. I was just saying that. Who gives a crap if your parents are married? It’s not like he’s legitimately your brother.” “I think the law might see it another way.” “Screw the law. That just makes it even hotter…all the sneaking around, the forbidden aspect of it, and so on. Don’t you think so?” “I guess,” I said. Truthfully, I was all kinds of confused. Yes, the idea of doing something naughty and taboo was hot as hell, but on the other hand, I still felt a crushing sense of guilt over my feelings for Jace, and on top of that, if I was going to be with him, I wanted it to be real. I wanted us to be able to show our feelings to the world, not hide it all behind closed doors and veiled comments. Liana was right about one thing, though—I should at least talk to Jace about it and communicate my true feelings for once. “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to find him,” I said. Liana grinned. “Good. Talk to him about all of this, and I’ll go spend some more time with Rick.” We were about to head out of the bathroom when my phone began to vibrate in my handbag. “Oh, hold on, it’s my Mom, so I better take it,” I said after pulling it out and checking the caller ID. “You go on ahead.” Liana nodded and headed out of the bathroom, and I answered the call. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?”

“Hey, sweetie. I was just wondering where you were.” “Oh, sorry, didn’t you get my note? Jace and I are at a Halloween party. I stuck a note on the fridge to tell you, just like we used to do back home.” “I didn’t even think to check the kitchen for a note, silly old me,” she said. “That’s fine, I was just wondering where you were. Anyway, I’m about to go out for dinner and drinks as well, so have fun! I’ll see you later.” “You have fun too, Mom!” I said. I was glad to hear that Gerald was spoiling her a bit and taking her out on a date; at least I assumed that was what was happening. “Anyway, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” After we hung up, I checked my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and I decided to keep the helmet off for a while longer. The cocktail Liana had ordered me earlier was starting to warm me up, and it was bound to get sweaty if I left the helmet on for hours. I headed back downstairs alone, keeping my eyes peeled for Jace, but I couldn’t spot him anywhere. Just as I decided to head back upstairs to see if he’d gone up there for some reason, I bumped right into someone wearing a monster mask. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, looking up. “That’s okay. Hey, wait a minute….Rayna, right?” the monster replied. “Yeah?” He pulled the mask off and grinned. “Roy. We met the other day when you were costume shopping with Jace.” “Oh, sure, I remember. How are you?” “Good, good. And you?” “Not bad, just been busy trying to settle in,” I replied. I wasn’t sure why Jace had acted weirdly around this guy in the costume shop the other day, because he seemed perfectly normal—maybe a bit nerdy with his spotty face and skinny body, but hey, I was a bit of a nerd myself, so there was nothing wrong with that. “I can imagine. This place is quite a bit different than what you’re probably used to back in the States. Anyway, were you looking for Jace?” I nodded. “Uh-huh.” “I was just with him a second ago, and he was looking for you too. He went to the bathroom, though, so how about we grab a drink and wait for him?” I smiled. “Sure, sounds good.” I followed him across the room, and with his long legs and stride, he reached the bar before I did, so by the time I got there, he was already ordering our drinks. “Hope you like rum,” he said, handing me a glass before gesturing towards some seats in a little nook a few yards away from the bar. I didn’t usually like rum, but I also didn’t want to be rude, so I gratefully accepted the drink and took a swig as I headed over to the nook to sit down. The drink actually wasn’t that bad at all; it

seemed to have a hint of cinnamon and cloves along with some other similar spices, which gave it quite a nice flavor if I ignored how strong the alcohol was. Roy saw my expression and grinned. “It’s a new type of spiced rum. Nice, right?” “Yeah, not bad,” I said with a smile. “Well, cheers,” he said, raising his own glass. I raised mine to his after taking my second sip, but just as I did so, Roy looked over my shoulder. “Wait, is that Jace there?” He pointed over at the other side of the spacious room, and I turned my head over my shoulder, looking around for Jace in the crowd of partygoers. “Where? I don’t see him.” “Never mind, it was just someone else,” Roy replied as I turned back to face him. “Looked a bit like him. Anyway, how are you enjoying England so far overall?” “It’s cool. Literally. I’ve never been so cold in my life when I step outside,” I said with a grin. “I’m from California, so I’m used to much warmer weather.” “Wait till it’s actually winter here,” he said. “You’ll probably be wishing you could jump into a hot tub every minute of the day. Or a volcano, more like it.” I laughed, and we continued to chat for several minutes. Roy was obviously well-educated, and he had been nothing but polite so far, albeit a little twitchy, but I guess talking to girls made him nervous. I really couldn’t imagine why Jace had been so keen on losing him at the store the other day. Perhaps it was because of me…maybe he didn’t want me talking to his friends in case I became closer to them than him. The idea of Jace possibly being jealous over me talking to other guys made me want to smile, but as I tried to, I realized that I couldn’t. Every muscle in my body seemed to be momentarily paralyzed, and my head had suddenly begun to spin like mad. “God…that rum is really hitting me,” I said, finally summoning the strength to rub my eyes as I tried to keep them open. “Sorry, it’s pretty strong. Are you okay?” Roy asked, holding out an arm to steady me. It occurred to me that Jace still hadn’t met up with us, and I managed to mumble something else. “I don’t know. Where’s Jace? Wasn’t he coming to find us?” “Yeah. Maybe he forgot and went outside. You look like you could use some fresh air, anyway. Let’s go out into the courtyard and look for him.” “Okay,” I whispered in response, barely able to speak now. The alcohol was seriously hitting me hard; I’d never felt this way before, even when I’d gone on Spring Break back in the States and had six cocktails in a row one night. My limbs and eyelids were heavy, and I felt like I needed to sleep for a thousand years. Roy held me with both arms as I stumbled, preventing me from hitting the ground. “Come on, you’ll be okay. Let’s just get you outside.” Alarm bells finally began to ring in my woozy head as he led me out of the party, but by the time we got outside and the fresh night air hit my face, those bells were too faint for me to hear. In fact, every thought in my head was too faint to register, and everything around me was too fuzzy to see. By the time my exhausted brain had figured out what was going on, it was too late.

Everything was black.

Chapter 16 Jace “So did you talk to her?” A feminine voice interrupted my train of thought, and I turned to see Liana standing behind me upstairs. “Oh, hey. Did I talk to who?” I asked, my eyebrows furrowing in a puzzled expression. “By the way, where’s Rayna?” After leaving the bathroom earlier, I’d run into some more people I knew, and we’d had a nice long chat before one of them had checked his phone and realized his girlfriend was waiting for him, and he’d headed back downstairs. After that, the group had dispersed, and I’d taken the few minutes alone to check through my emails on my phone. I hadn’t worried about where Rayna was in the time I’d been upstairs chatting, because I’d assumed she was still with Liana, but Liana was definitely alone as she stood before me now, and she looked even more confused than I was. “I meant ‘did you talk to Rayna’,” she said. “But apparently you don’t even know where she is. So she didn’t even come to find you?” “No, I’ve been in the same spot up here for the last twenty minutes or so, and I haven’t seen her come up. I thought she was with you.” Liana rolled her eyes. “I bet she chickened out.” I raised an eyebrow. “Chickened out of what?” “Never mind. She was just…” She trailed off, and from that and the look in her eyes, I could tell she thought she’d said too much. “Just what?” “Erm…just talk to her, okay? I shouldn’t have said anything. Sorry, I just assumed you guys would have chatted by now.” “Did I do something to upset her?” She shook her head. “No. Look, I really shouldn’t say this, but she seems so bloody bad at communicating with men that I may as well give you a hint. She likes you, Jace. She was coming to find you to tell you that she thinks your whole idea of being platonic friends is rubbish.” My eyes widened. That wasn’t at all what I’d overheard earlier. Perhaps I’d heard incorrectly or somehow misinterpreted things. “What? You serious?” “Don’t act surprised. From what I hear, you’re used to girls falling all over themselves just to get a chance to drop their panties for you.” I had to grin at that. “Maybe, but Rayna’s not like other girls,” I said.

Liana smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Now go find her!” I nodded and headed downstairs, keeping my eyes out for Rayna. I couldn’t see her anywhere, but I didn’t panic—the place was huge and filled with partygoers, so she was probably just blending in with the crowds. I kept looking, and after ten minutes, I started to get concerned. I’d been around the party five times now and asked a lot of people about her, and I’d even checked all the bathrooms and knocked on every door I could think of. She was nowhere to be seen, and even Liana didn’t seem to have any idea where she’d gone. I wondered if maybe she’d simply gone home, but I figured she would’ve sent me a text if that were the case, just to let me know. Rayna wasn’t the sort of person who would just rudely leave like that. My heart raced as I did another lap of the main party room, and guilt seeped through every inch of my body. I’d promised myself I’d keep an eye on her tonight, but I’d let her out of my sight for too long, and now she was nowhere to be found. Simply assuming she’d been with Liana wasn’t good enough—I’d fucked up, and if anything bad happened to her tonight, it’d be my fault. When she didn’t respond to my third text, I tried calling her, but it rang out. I stepped outside where it was quiet to call her again, praying that she’d pick up this time, but she didn’t, and just when I was about to go back inside and tell Liana that I thought something had really gone wrong, my phone began to vibrate in my hand. Shoulders slumping with relief, I answered it, only to realize it wasn’t Rayna. “Jacey boy, still at the party?” I rolled my eyes. “What do you want, Roy? I think I made myself pretty fucking clear to you earlier. Don’t call me unless you really want help.” “You might wanna change your tone with me, man.” “Roy, I don’t have time for this shit right—” He cut me off midsentence. “Why? Because Rayna’s gone missing from the party?” His words sent an icy chill through me, and I fell silent. How the fuck did he know that? Was he still at the party, following me around and watching me search for her? “Yeah, now you’re listening,” he said before laughing; a short, sharp bark. “Well, you won’t find her at the party, man.” “Why?” I asked through gritted teeth. “Because she’s with me.” My heart leapt into my throat, and I was acutely aware of the fact that I no longer knew a thing about Roy. The old friend I’d once had was no longer here—he’d been replaced by this psychopath addict. There was no way Rayna would have left with him willingly, which left only one option. He’d forcibly taken her. “What the fuck, Roy? Where are you?” I could practically hear him smirking over the phone. “I told you earlier, man, you should watch your back.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, and Rayna has nothing to do with any of the shit between us. This isn’t fucking funny, so tell me where she is.” “Actually, she has everything to do with the shit between us. I remember the way you talked about her when we caught up the other week, and I know she’s more to you than just a stepsister. So you’d do anything to get her home safely, right?” “Of course I would,” I replied, my hands balling into fists by my side. “Now tell me what the fuck is going on. If you’ve done anything to her…” “Relax, she’s fine. She’s here with me at the old furniture warehouse in Brixton. I’m sure you remember the place.” He’d obviously picked our old dealer’s usual place of business on purpose to try and drag up all those old memories, reminding me that I’d once been like him. He wanted to put me on the same footing as him, but I wasn’t. Not anymore. Before I could say another word, he continued. “Don’t call the cops. I’ll know if you do. Just come here alone.” “Fine.” “And bring thirty thousand quid in cash with you.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. Surely he was just drunk and this was all some kind of sick joke, because what he was saying was utterly absurd. “This isn’t a fucking Liam Neeson gangster movie, Roy, this is real life, and what you’re claiming to be doing is kidnapping for ransom. Besides, do you think I have thirty grand just sitting around?” “You’ve got it in your bank account, I know that for sure.” “Yeah, but I can’t just go to an ATM and withdraw that much. There’s a limit, you fucking idiot.” “I don’t care. You’ll figure something out, I’m sure…if you want Rayna to be okay, that is. She looks like she’s got a nice little body under this stupid costume of hers. Anyway, you’ve got four hours.” He was actually serious. The threat in his voice was clear, and before I could say anything else, he’d hung up. I stared into space for a moment as a horrifying sickness swirled around within me, knowing that this was all my fault. My shitty past had come back to haunt me, as it always did, and now Rayna could get hurt, all because of me. I quickly dialed the number for the car service to come and get me again, and I told them if they hurried the hell up and got me home as quick as possible, there’d be a hefty tip in it for them. Fuck, I should’ve just driven tonight, so I’d be able to get to my car right away, but either way, it didn’t matter, because I needed to get back to the manor before I could try to get Rayna back anyway. There was only person I knew who had piles of cash as big as thirty grand sitting around in safes, and that was my father. I hated to ask him for help in a situation I’d created through my own stupidity, but this was a possible life or death situation, and I had no other choice. I’d do anything to get Rayna back and hold her safe in my arms. ***

“Dad?” I was sprinting down the hallway of the third floor, towards the western end where my father and Elena’s master bedroom was. I’d just arrived home, and while all the lights downstairs were off, I’d seen a yellow glow from the third floor, so I knew someone was home. I knocked on the door, and just was I was about to go ahead and open it, I heard low, panicked voices from inside. I guess I’d caught Elena and Dad doing the nasty, but I didn’t give a shit. Rayna was in trouble, so being forced to see my father caught with his pants down really didn’t register as anything too bad right now. “Dad, I don’t care what you guys are doing, we need to talk, and it’s important,” I said before pushing the door open. I figured Elena being there would make this conversation even easier, because there was no way Dad could refuse to help Rayna with her mother lying right there. Only the pale-skinned, dark-haired woman lying on the king-sized bed wasn’t Elena. “Oh, shit. Seriously, Dad…again?” I said, narrowing my eyes as he struggled into a shirt and pants, guilt etched into his features. Of course this wasn’t the first time he’d cheated on someone, but given his usual behavior around Elena and the way he’d made such a big deal about being a ‘good father and family man’ lately, I’d thought he might have been able to keep his dick to himself for once. But no, the lithe brunette lying on the bed was proof that he’d never change. He was still the same old lying, cheating asshole. “Jace…outside!” he snapped, as if I was the one who’d done something wrong here. I stalked from the room, knowing he would follow. “What on earth is so important you had to disturb me with my…er…friend?” he asked, crossing his arms. “Dad, I realize this will sound like total bullshit, but it’s not. It’s serious.” “Well, out with it,” he said, waving his hand impatiently. “Rayna’s been kidnapped.” He stared at me with nothing but a blank expression on his face, and I repeated myself in case he simply hadn’t heard me properly. “Dad, Rayna’s been kidnapped!” “Go on,” he said, still seemingly not understanding the seriousness of the situation. “This drug-fucked guy I went to school with took her from the party we were at. She’s in a lot of trouble, and I need to help her.” “Right,” he replied, affecting a bored tone. “What has all this got to do with me?” I stared at him, unable to believe that he could be so callous. Although this was the side of him that I was far more used to seeing, I’d actually gotten used to the fake nice display that he’d been putting on for the benefit of everyone else recently. “Are you kidding me? She’s your stepdaughter and she’s been kidnapped by some psycho guy, that’s what it has to do with you. Where the hell is Elena, anyway? We need to tell her!” “She’s at dinner with some friends. I really don’t think she wants her evening ruined with your silly little shenanigans, so please just go back to whatever party you were at and play your pranks on

someone else,” he said, looking at my Halloween costume with disdain. “These aren’t ‘silly shenanigans’ or pranks; Rayna is seriously in trouble. The guy wants a load of cold hard cash, which I don’t have. He’s demanding thirty grand from me.” He sneered at me. “How do I know this isn’t just money for one of your little dealer friends? You think I don’t know what you’ve been spending that trust fund of yours on for the last two years? Your mother and I do speak occasionally, you know.” “It’s not that, I swear. I’ll pay you back; take it directly out of my trust fund account. I just need real cash now, that’s all.” He rolled his eyes, still clearly not believing me. “Fine. We actually do have kidnapping insurance, but I don’t believe for a second that anything’s really happened to Rayna, so I’ll just take it out of my safe, and I’ll have my accountants withdraw it back out of your trust fund for myself later. So I’m getting that money back either way, no matter what you do with it tonight.” My shoulders sagged with relief. “Okay. Thank you.” He held up one hand, and a smirk crossed his face. “I have one condition.” I’d agree to anything right now, even though he really shouldn’t have been putting conditions on saving the daughter of his brand new wife. “What?” He indicated towards the bedroom. “I need you to keep quiet about what you saw in there.” I stared at him in shock. Was he fucking serious? Whether he believed it or not, Rayna’s life was seriously in danger, and all he cared about was not getting caught for his seedy little affair? That’s when something finally hit me. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. That mistress of yours…it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it? She’s Rayna’s ‘ghost’, isn’t she? He chuckled, and the fact that he wasn’t fazed at all about being an absolute prick made me want to throttle him. “Yes. She was here with me that night and went to get a drink, then came back up the stairs and almost bumped into Rayna. She didn’t know who Rayna was, so she got scared and ran up to the fourth floor to hide for a while.” “So you let Rayna be terrified and think she was either sleepwalking or losing her mind,” I said through gritted teeth. “You even told her she was just seeing things and lied about calling security. Way to go, Dad. And what about Elena? How did she fail to notice you had another fucking woman here in her house while she slept?” “It’s not her house. It’s my house; she just lives in it with me. And she was away that night, at her friend’s B&B. I took the opportunity to have some…well, let’s just say some extracurricular fun.” I shook my head. “How the fuck can you keep doing this to all these women? Elena doesn’t deserve this shit.” He snorted. “Elena was nothing back in America. Now, because of me, she has everything a woman could ever want—money, a big house, a name in the social circles. So what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.” “Fuck, whatever,” I said, my voice tinged with disgust. His attitude was appalling; he seriously

believed that all women wanted was money and a mansion, and love wasn’t important at all. He was like a relic from some misogynistic film from the 1940’s. “I don’t want to hear any more of this bullshit. Just help me get Rayna back.” “So you agree to keep this quiet?” he said, gesturing to the bedroom again. “Sure,” I said with a curt nod, although I was lying through my teeth. I was gonna tell Elena about all of this at the first opportunity, and I was also going to tell her how coldly Dad had acted upon hearing that Rayna was in trouble, whether he’d believed it or not. He wasn’t going to get away with screwing up another woman’s life, not this time. Elena didn’t deserve to fall for his bullshit. She’d given up so much for him—even moved halfway across the world to be here—and I wouldn’t let him stay married to her, knowing what a fucking scumbag he was. My father didn’t deserve any woman, really, but he especially didn’t deserve one as nice as her. He briskly led me into one of his home offices and fiddled with a safe in the back, and a moment later, he handed me a briefcase. “Here,” he said. “I trust this will be enough. It’ll come out of your account first thing on Monday.” “Thanks,” I muttered. Giving me what I needed to save Rayna was probably one of the only decent things he’d ever done, despite the bullshit ‘condition’ he’d put on it. Then again, thirty grand in cash wasn’t exactly a big deal to him—it was all in a day’s work to him, really. I hopped into my car and took off, not even caring that I was slightly over the speed limit. Now that I’d had a few minutes to think things through, I knew I needed to do something more than just show up at the warehouse with the money. Roy was unstable, and I had no idea what could happen if it was just me there tonight. As I drove, a new idea slowly formed in my head, and I pulled my phone out of my pocket before taking a deep breath and dialing as I hit a red light. This call could make or break everything.

Chapter 17 Rayna “Jace? Liana?” I mumbled. I forced my eyes open, wondering why Tom’s house was suddenly so cold. What happened to all the party people, and why was the music off? My head felt sluggish, my eyes were blurry, and every inch of me ached as I turned my head and took a proper look around. Shit, this wasn’t Tom’s house, or even my house. I had no idea where I was, and no idea how I got here. None at all. I forced my head upright, wanting to get a better look at my surroundings. I didn’t feel like I was lying down, so it was pretty safe to assume that I wasn’t in my bed, but I had no idea where that left me. So what was the last thing I could clearly remember? The party at Tom’s house. Talking to Liana. My phone call with Mom. Going to find Jace to tell him how I felt… That was about it. As I glanced around, I quickly realized I was in some sort of factory. It didn’t look like it had been used in quite some time; there were dust-coated workbenches, some rusty broken-down machinery to the left of me, and a ratty old sign nearly falling off a big corrugated sliding door ahead of me. Jeez….how the hell did I get here? Was this some sort of Halloween prank everyone had decided to play on me? If so, it wasn’t funny. Small sparks of memory began to flash in my mind, but there was nothing solid I could run with. A taste of cinnamon. A Halloween monster mask. Stepping outside and breathing in the cool air before…before what? As proper feeling started to return to my body, I noticed that my wrists were stinging, and as I tried to move them to find out what was wrong, it became abundantly clear that they were stuck. I twisted my body around and looked down to see that I was tied to a pole in the middle of the room I was in. Who the hell would do this? “Hey!” I called out, my voice weak as I tried to cling onto the desperate fantasy that this was all some sort of sick prank, and the perpetrators were right here filming me and laughing. “This isn’t funny!” I started trying to move, kicking my legs out and pulling my back away from the pole in the hopes that the rope on my arms would break or come loose, but it achieved nothing. I was stuck. Then a shadow appeared in my peripheral vision, telling me that I definitely wasn’t alone, and my heart

pounded painfully in my chest as I tried to turn my head further around to see who it was. “I think it’s pretty funny,” a soft masculine voice said from somewhere in the darkness. “What?” I managed to choke out as I gulped down my fear. “You said it’s not funny. But I think it is.” The speaker stepped out of the darkness and into the moonlight where I could finally get a good look at his face. It was Roy, Jace’s friend. I suddenly remembered our conversation at the party, the strong drink, and the promise of help when I started to feel sleepy, but after that, it was all blank. Roy must’ve slipped something in my drink to make me pass out. I thought back and realized I’d turned my back on him for a few seconds when he’d pointed across the room and said he could see Jace, and I mentally kicked myself for being such an idiot. I should’ve never kept my eyes off my drink; not even for a second. Then again, it hadn’t occurred to me that one of Jace’s old school friends might be some sort of date-rapist. “Please don’t touch me,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper now. “I’ll do anything.” He grinned. “Relax, sweetheart. Jace’s cast-offs aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I didn’t bring you here for any of that.” “Then why am I here? Is this some sort of joke you and Jace are playing? Because it’s not funny, and you’re hurting me.” “It’s no joke. Jace has something I need, and he hasn’t been willing to give it to me so far. So you’re going to help me get it from him. Just my luck I ran into you tonight.” “Huh? What is it you need from Jace?” I asked, becoming increasingly convinced by the second that I was trapped in some sort of nightmare. Surely this wasn’t real. I felt like I was starring in some sort of early nineties slasher film. “You’ll see,” Roy replied softly. He turned around for a second, and I saw him get something out of his pocket before sniffing loudly. I wasn’t exactly an expert on illicit substances, but I immediately knew what he was doing—he was snorting something, probably cocaine or speed. God, how the hell had I not put two and two together earlier? I’d thought he was just naturally skinny, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that he might be one of Jace’s old drug addict friends from school. No wonder he’d just been conveniently carrying around pills to slip in my drink to knock me out; he probably always had all kinds of things on him. “Roy,” I said, hoping I could reason with him before he got too high on whatever it was he was currently snorting. “Let me go, and I’ll talk to Jace for you. Whatever he has that you want, I can help. Just untie me.” He turned back to me. “Why? You think he’ll listen to you because you’re fucking him?” he spat out. I winced at the ugly way he’d worded that sentence. “I’m not sleeping with Jace.” “Bullshit. You know, you’re nothing to him, whether you’re his stepsister or not. He’s a fucking dickhead. He’ll fuck you and then toss you aside, just like he does with every single skank that jumps into bed with him. He’s a shitty person and a shitty friend. You might think that he’s there for you, but

he isn’t. He only cares about himself.” “I’m not sleeping with him,” I repeated. It was true; Jace and I had done other sexual things, but we’d never gone so far as full-on sex. He smirked. “Actually, that makes sense. If you had fucked him already, he wouldn’t give a shit about you—he’d have already moved on to the next slut. So the fact that he’s on his way here to get you shows that he’s obviously still trying to get you into bed. Lucky you….but mark my words, when he’s done with you, it’ll be like you never existed to him.” I felt a stinging pain in my heart as the darker parts of my mind wondered if that was even remotely true, but I didn’t let it show. “Okay, Roy, I get why you think that about him. I’ve heard all about his past. I have no idea what’s gone on between you and him, though, and I assure you, it has nothing to do with me.” He rolled his eyes, and I pressed on. “Please, you must be able to see that what you’re doing is crazy. If this spirals, you’ll get in so much trouble. You’ll end up in prison. Is that what you want?” “That won’t happen. I told him not to involve the cops. And on the off chance something goes wrong, well, I guess that’s just fucking life. Not all of us are rich fuckers with daddies who can buy us out of trouble.” “What do you mean?” “Why don’t you ask your precious Jace when he gets here with my money?” Of course…this was about money. Roy was obviously desperate for it to fuel his drug habit, so he’d taken me in the hopes that Jace would give him anything to rescue me. I hoped to god he was right about that. “I thought Jace was your friend,” I said, trying to keep Roy talking for the time being. That was probably a mistake, because he came right up in my face and practically screamed, spittle flying out of his mouth and hitting me on the cheeks. “Shut the fuck up! You don’t know shit, so stop talking!” I swallowed hard and kept going, knowing I needed to push through this. “Then please enlighten me, because this all seems totally crazy to me.” “Jace is a fucking bastard. That’s all you need to know.” “No, it isn’t. I want to know what he did to you that was so bad. If I’m getting dragged into it all, then I deserve to know why. Tell me.” “Okay, fine. You really want to know?” “Yes. The more you tell me, the more I can try to help,” I said, trying to keep my face as calm and neutral as possible. I wasn’t really going to help this asshole with anything, but if he believed I was going to, then it might keep me out of any immediate danger. “Jace fucking abandoned me when I needed him the most. He just left. I had some serious drug debts, and where was he when I tried to ask him for help? He’d dropped out of uni and fucked off to live in Scotland. I got two ribs broken and my leg was fucked up for ages because he wasn’t there to lend me the cash I needed. So he used to help me, and then bam, he fucking vanished and left me to

fend for myself.” I didn’t want to say that I had no sympathy for him at all and that it was his own fault, because I knew that’d make him even angrier, but how could he not see it for himself? Did he really expect his friends to pay off his debts? That was ridiculous. I kept my lips sealed firmly shut and let him carry on. “Do you know what it feels like, to be left on your own like that? Can you even begin to imagine how that is?” he asked. Okay, silence clearly wasn’t going to work. I had to say something. “Roy, I’m really sorry that happened to you, but Jace was trying to better himself by moving away from Manchester. I don’t think he meant to hurt you.” “Really?” Roy’s eyes snapped up to meet mine, a fire blazing behind his expression. “Was he really trying to better himself up there in Scotland? Because from what I heard, he got a lot worse up there.” “What do you mean?” I asked. I remembered a conversation I’d had with Jace weeks ago, one in which he told me he’d ‘totally fucked something up’ in Edinburgh. I hadn’t pressed him about it at the time because it seemed like it was none of my business, but now I was more curious than ever. Just what was it that he’d done? It looked like I was about to find out. “You know he killed two people, right?” Roy said, a smug smile turning his lips up now. What? What the hell was he talking about? He saw my eyes widen with horror, and the smile turned into a full-on grin. “Aww…you really didn’t know. How adorable.” My mouth turned cotton-dry. “I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Your precious Jace was driving around stoned off his face in Edinburgh, just a few months ago, and he crashed right into another car and killed two people. I can’t believe he didn’t tell you…that’s kind of a big thing to leave out of your sibling ‘getting to know each other’ chats, isn’t it?” I shook my head. “That’s not true. He’d be in prison for manslaughter if it was.” Roy snorted with derision. “Or maybe Daddy’s money got him off the hook when Mommy called to beg him for help,” he said. “Why do you think he came back here? He didn’t want to stay in Edinburgh anymore, because then he might have to face what he did.” His earlier words suddenly made more sense. Not all of us are rich fuckers with daddies who can buy us out of trouble. But still, it couldn’t be true. Jace was a decent guy; if he’d actually killed people while under the influence of something, he wouldn’t have accepted his father paying off the authorities to keep him out of jail. Or would he? “It’s not true,” I said, although my voice was shaking now. Roy was slowly getting to me, and he knew it. “Jace couldn’t do that. He’s a good guy.”

“Why would I make this up?” he replied. “I told you, I’m not interested in you. I’m not trying to get in your pants by turning you against him.” He had a point, but I still knew what he’d told me was a lie. “What I’m saying is true,” he continued. “Ask him yourself when he gets here. Just ask him about his accident. You’ll see.” “You’re making this up; he never caused any sort of car accident, and he never hurt anyone. It’s not true!” I insisted, tears streaming down my face now. Jace’s voice suddenly pierced the air from somewhere behind me. “Rayna…it is true.”

Chapter 18 Jace I stepped into the abandoned furniture warehouse, and as I got closer to the main work floor, I heard Rayna’s voice. She was sobbing and saying, ‘Jace is a good guy, it isn’t true,’ so clearly, Roy was filling her head with bullshit and trying to poison her against me. Then I heard Roy’s reply, and my heart sank. “What I’m saying is true. Ask him yourself when he gets here. Just ask him about his accident. You’ll see,” he said. “You’re making this up; he never caused any sort of car accident, and he never hurt anyone. It’s not true!” Rayna replied. Shit. I had no idea how Roy had even heard about the accident I’d had up in Scotland, but rumors had obviously spread far and wide. I loved that Rayna was defending me so much, despite all the shit I’d gotten her into, but she needed to know the truth. “Rayna,” I said as I stepped into the room, my voice tinged with shame. “It is true.” Roy smirked triumphantly, and Rayna’s face fell. It was then that I saw what Roy had done to her; he’d tied her to a fucking pole like some sort of hostage in a thriller flick. Jesus, he was seriously messed up. “You…you seriously killed two people and let your Dad pay the cops off?” Rayna said, seemingly not even caring about the ropes holding her wrists anymore as she stared at me with wide eyes. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?” I asked. I hadn’t killed anyone, and my father certainly hadn’t paid anyone off, so I had no idea where she’d gotten that from. I’d definitely caused an accident with my own sheer stupidity, and I had hurt someone, though not seriously at all, and that’s what I’d assumed they were talking about when I walked in here only seconds ago. Clearly Roy was just making shit up to try and make Rayna hate me. “You just said it was true about the accident,” she said. “I—” “Boo-fucking-hoo,” Roy cut in. “You guys can discuss this shit later. Just give me my cash, Jace.” I was shaking with rage, and I wanted to knock his fucking teeth out for spreading lies about me, but I had to keep myself controlled. One wrong move and Rayna could be hurt. I put the briefcase down on the dirty concrete floor and kicked it over to him, and then I held my hands up so he knew I wasn’t a threat. “It’s all there. Thirty grand. Count it.” He leaned down and opened the case, and I rushed over to Rayna. As I undid the ropes binding her to the pole and pulled her into the safety of my arms, I felt just how cold and scared she was as she trembled against me, and I gently rubbed her head and made soothing sounds. “I’m so sorry, Rayna. This is all my fault. I’m so sorry.”

She pulled back and slapped me, hard, and I rubbed my cheek and looked at her. “I guess I deserved that for getting you into this,” I said. “And I deserve to know the truth!” she said, her eyes blazing. “What the hell happened in Scotland? I really thought you were different, Jace.” “Look, I got in some trouble up there like I told you the other week, but it’s not what you think.” Roy snickered from over by the case as he held up a banknote against the light of his cell phone to make sure it was real, but I forced myself to ignore him and went on with my story. “I moved up there to get away from the whole drug scene, like I told you. I was okay for a while, got a decent job and everything. But then I met some new guys through work, and some of them were a lot like my old friends—they loved getting fucked up. I resisted at first, but it was hard to get out of the habit when there was nothing truly stopping me. So I gave in, and pretty soon I was in the same place as I’d been in Manchester. Getting fucked up all the time.” Rayna kept her eyes on me, her gaze never wavering. “And?” “One night I went out, and I was smashed off my head. I know it was fucking stupid, but at the time, I just didn’t care. Roy’s right; I did get into an accident. I crashed right into a parked truck, and another car swerved off the road to avoid me, and the woman driving that car ended up with a few cuts and bruises. But I didn’t kill anyone. I know I could have, driving around high like that, and I’ll regret that forever. But I didn’t kill anyone, I promise. The only person who got badly hurt that night was me.” I lifted up my shirt and angled my back towards Rayna so she could see the long, thin scar that ran down it. I’d kept this scar away from her eyes in the past by only ever showing her the front of my torso, but there was no point in hiding it anymore. “I was in hospital for a week, but aside from the deep cut on my back and some other bruising, I was fine. But I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to stop acting so fucking crazy and reckless, and it was the push I needed to sober up and start doing the right thing.” I recalled my Mom’s heartbroken face by my hospital bed when I finally came around after the crash. It was just another thing to add to the long list of shit I’d given her. “So once I was mostly healed up and able to get out of bed properly, I packed up and moved back here. As much as I loved being close to my Mom, all I did was hurt her. So I came back here to sort my shit out and straighten up. It needed to be done.” Rayna’s face crumpled, and she began to cry again. “I knew it,” she said softly. “I knew you could never do what he said you did. I’m sorry if I thought…” Her voice trailed off, and I took her in my arms again. I knew what she’d thought for a few seconds there. When I’d walked into the warehouse and told her it was all true, I hadn’t known the exact story she’d been told only moments before, so what choice did she have than to think I really had killed someone? I looked over her head at Roy, who’d just finished counting the cash in the case. He stared at me with a sullen expression before speaking. “Well, it’s real, and it’s all here,” he said. “I fucking told you it was.” He gave me a long, hard look. “You know, for what it’s worth, I really thought you’d killed

someone up there. That’s what I heard. You know what the rumor mill is like with the old crowd.” “I don’t give a shit what you heard. Take the fucking money and get the hell out of here.” He grinned. “All right. Nice doing business with you, old pal,” he said sarcastically. I tried to keep the smirk off my face as I looked at him. Roy thought he was getting away scot-free, but he wasn’t going to have that money for too long. My plan was still in motion, and he’d be in lockup within an hour. He closed the case, picked it up and headed out the main door, and as he walked away, I could hear him on the phone to his dealer already. Christ, he was well and truly fucked, but at least tonight hadn’t become even more of a nightmare with him descending into some sort of drug-fueled violent rage. “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here,” I murmured into Rayna’s ear. She nodded gratefully against me. As we stepped outside through the side entrance, the cold late-night air hit me like a slap in the face. Rayna fell into my arms, and she began to sob all over again. The incident had terrified her—as it would anyone—and her legs were shaking like mad. Hell, her whole body was shaking, and her hot tears were making wet patches all over my shirt, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was her. “Rayna…I’m so sorry,” I said, repeating my earlier words. She kept crying, but it was softer now; almost all out of her system. Finally she pulled away and looked up at me. “It’s not your fault. I let him trick me,” she said quietly. “I took a drink from him. How freaking stupid is that?” “Still wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t let it. I should’ve taken better care of you. I should’ve told you to avoid him, and I should’ve watched you at the party.” She sniffed and wiped her face, “Jace, you can’t watch me every second of the day and night. I’m not your responsibility, and you thought I was with Liana, anyway, right? So how is it your fault? It’s Roy’s fault. He’s the one who did this to me.” “I guess. But still, I’m never letting anything happen to you again. I promise.” “I know.” She looked deep into my eyes, and I knew she knew exactly how I felt about her. Even better…I knew she felt the same way about me, without a single word spoken about it. I held her steady, and we walked towards the spot where I’d parked my car in silence. A moment later, she stopped in the street and gave me a funny look before finally speaking again. “You’re not really letting him get away with that money, are you?” she asked. “I mean, I know you’re rich, but still…” Her voice trailed off, and I smiled for the first time in hours. “Of course not.” “What did you do?” “He said not to involve the cops,” I said. “But I figured a guy as drug-fucked as him wasn’t gonna be too smart about things. So I called the cops on my way here and told them what was going on anyway. They were right outside the warehouse on the other side, waiting for me to go in with the

money, and they were watching you the whole time to make sure nothing happened to you. I only gave the money to Roy to make him think it was all good so that you’d get away safely, but the cops were there to jump in as soon as he walked out. They’ve probably already arrested him, and he’ll be on his way into custody now.” She nodded, and I squeezed her hand and continued. “Listen, I don’t want you to think I put you at any major risk. If I’d thought involving the cops would actually get you hurt, then I wouldn’t have called them.” “I know. You did the right thing,” she said. “He was snorting something right in front of me while I was in there. I don’t think he’d have even noticed if there were policemen dangling from the rafters of that old building.” “Probably, yeah. We’ll have to go in and give them an official statement tomorrow, but Roy will go to jail for this, and he won’t be able to hurt you or anyone else. At least he might get rehabilitated while he’s in there.” She shivered. “You’re a better person than me. After what he did, I honestly can’t picture myself caring about what happens to him at all.” “I understand. I wouldn’t either, if I hadn’t grown up with the guy. He used to be decent, believe it or not. So even though I want to fucking kill him for what he did to you, a tiny shred of my conscience still hopes he gets the help he needs.” She nodded slowly. “I get it,” she replied. I knew she would. Even after everything she’d just gone through, Rayna would always be able to put herself in other people’s shoes and see their perspectives. That was just one of the many things I loved about her. Yeah, I said it. I fucking loved her. We finally reached the car, and as she buckled herself in, Rayna turned to me. “Did you tell our parents what happened?” she asked, her expression anxious. “I told my Dad. He gave me the cash. But your Mom…er…she wasn’t home,” I said. “Why wasn’t she home? She told me they were having dinner and drinks tonight, so if your Dad was home, then she should’ve been too.” “She was having dinner with some friends of hers. Dad didn’t go.” There was an edge to my voice, and I hoped she hadn’t picked up on it, because after what she’d just gone through, the last thing she needed to hear about was all the shit my father had been up to behind her mother’s back. Unfortunately, she picked up on it immediately, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Jace…what aren’t you telling me? I can tell by your voice; you’re hiding something.” I rubbed my chin with one hand, the other firmly on the steering wheel as I looked ahead at the road. “Shit, Rayna, can this wait until tomorrow? You’ve been through so much tonight.” She shot me a determined glance. “I’m American. I’m tough. Just tell me.” I sighed. “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. But my Dad…he’s been cheating on your Mom.” She gasped. “What?”

“Yep.” “That fucking prick! How could he? How did you even find out?” “When I went to find him to get the cash from him—because obviously I couldn’t just withdraw that much in one go from my own account, and I needed real cash so Roy wouldn’t get suspicious—I walked in on him screwing some woman. And guess fucking what?” “What?” she asked, her little hands balling up by her side in fury. “She’s your manor ‘ghost’. Apparently that night, she was sneakily staying over while your Mom was checking out her friend’s B&B, and she did the same thing as you in the middle of the night—she woke up and went to get a drink. When she was coming back up the stairs, she saw you, freaked out, and ran upstairs to the fourth floor to hide.” “Holy crap. So I wasn’t just sleepwalking or hallucinating.” “Nope. And Dad just let you think that so he’d get away with it. Fucking prick. I knew he hadn’t changed, and I fucking knew he was up to something.” Rayna slumped back in her seat. “What are we going to tell my Mom?” she asked, her voice shaking again. “She’s been through so much with guys in the past…my father cheated on her too, you know. I don’t know how she always manages to pick the worst ones.” “It gets worse, Rayna.” “How’s that possible?” “When I told him what was happening with you and Roy, he didn’t even care. He just assumed I was full of shit, even though I said I was telling the truth multiple times. He just didn’t seem to give a fuck. Then he said he wouldn’t give me the cash to help you unless I promised to not tell your Mom about the cheating.” “Wow. So he was willing to let god knows what happen to me, just so he wouldn’t get caught with his pants down?” she replied, rage etched into her features. “Yep.” “Jesus….how are you related to him again?” “Fuck knows. But don’t worry. We’re going to get all this shit sorted as soon as we figure out the best way to do it.” “Damn right we are,” she said, her voice steely with resolve. “You need to rest right now, though,” I said, reaching over and squeezing her thigh. “Go to bed as soon as we get home, and we’ll figure all of this out tomorrow when you’ve had a nice long sleep.” Rayna was silent for several minutes, and then she looked over at me as her hand crept onto my lap. “Jace, I will be going to bed as soon as we get home, but…” Her voice trailed off for a second, and I raised my eyebrows. “But what?” She smiled. “I don’t intend on getting much sleep.”

Chapter 19 Rayna Now that I’d said the words, there was no going back. I’d set something in motion that couldn’t be stopped, and I knew I didn’t even want it to stop. This was our moment. Our night. Jace and I could finally be together without any guilt, because after what he’d told me about Gerald, I knew that his marriage to my mother was a sham. It was awful for her, and it broke my heart to think about how hurt she’d be when we told her the truth about her husband, but at the same time I felt a strong sense of relief as the crushing weight of the guilt I’d been experiencing lately lifted from my shoulders like a cloud. No more guilt, and no more holding back. Jace and I belonged to each other from this moment onward. As we headed through the front door and rushed upstairs, we paused outside his bedroom. Jace stared down at me, searching for confirmation in my eyes, and I knew it was there. It had been burning brightly inside me since the moment we met that night at Tom’s masquerade party, as much as I’d tried to push it aside and try to be friends with him, I knew I couldn’t anymore. I knew he wanted me just as much—that much had been obvious in the look he’d given me after he saved me from Roy—and now I was more ready than ever…ready to become his and his alone. “Are you sure you don’t want to wait?” he murmured, grabbing one of my hands and raising it to his chest. “Why wait any longer?” I replied. He grinned, then shrugged. “Why indeed?” He lowered his mouth to mine to kiss me, and I tilted my head up in response. Our lips grazed together softly at first, but we were both impatient from the weeks of sexual tension and frustration that had been building up between the two of us. He pulled me in closer, our bodies tangling in a tight embrace, and I moaned softly into his mouth as his tongue explored mine in a kiss so hot it could’ve melted a glacier. I could feel Jace’s erection digging into my belly, and it sent wild shivers down my spine as I pictured it finally thrusting inside me. “Come on,” I whispered, breaking away a moment later. “Let’s get inside your room before anyone sees us.” He grinned and pushed the door open before walking over to his bed and flashing me that sexy smirk he was so well-known for. “I changed my mind about your costume,” he said, motioning towards the silver Cylon costume I still had on. “I don’t like it on you anymore. Take it off.” I smiled back at him. It was finally time to put my money where my mouth was…and my mouth on him. I slid out of the costume, and Jace groaned under his breath as I stood before him in only my bra and panties. Then I hurriedly stripped him of his shirt, leaving him in only his pants and boxer shorts, and he sat down on the end of the bed and pulled me onto his lap.

He kissed me hard, holding my face in his hands, and then he pulled away and just looked at me, his eyes burning with desire. I licked my lips, desperate for him to kiss me again, and then he did; lips crushing mine, tongue sliding into my mouth and entwining with my own. His hands slid up my back at the same time, stroking softly and slowly before finally unclasping my bra at the back. It was so intimate; everything I wanted and needed, and I reached down and worked at his belt, frantically trying to get his pants off. His bulge was already obvious, and the mere thought of it practically made me salivate. He let me slide the shorts off, and I cupped him, curling my hand around his cock and stroking it as he watched me with an intense gaze. His cock was beautiful, and I wasn’t the sort of person who’d thought to describe a penis as beautiful before. But it really was. It was long, thick and smooth…and just crying out for me to take it in my mouth. Before I could move down and do that, Jace squeezed my breasts and maneuvered my body so that I was lying back on the bed, drawing a gasp from my mouth as he did so. He slid a hand down my belly and inside my panties, and when he let out a groan under his breath, I knew what he was feeling. He was exploring just how wet I was; just how hot I was for him, and he leaned down and crushed his mouth against mine again. While our tongues feverishly danced, I moved my own hands back down to his cock, and I stroked up and down along his shaft as his fingers deftly played with my clit, making me squirm up and down on the bed. Then he pushed a finger inside me, and I gasped against his lips, still gripping his cock and jerking it up and down as his finger began to slide in and out of me. The pad of his thumb danced over my clit as he fingered me, playing me like a musical instrument, and I could feel myself getting wetter and wetter around him. He claimed my lips with his again before I could let out another moan, and then he pulled his hand out of my panties and moved my own hand away from his cock. “Mm…no,” I groaned, not wanting to be teased anymore. “Don’t stop!” He smirked and leaned back, pulling my panties all the way off before quickly rifling around in a drawer, and it was then that I realized he wasn’t teasing me at all, and he definitely wasn’t stopping. This was the real deal. He was just finding a condom, and now he was about to….oh! The tip of his cock was at my entrance now, and then he drove himself inside me, lifting me further up the bed as I let out a cry of bliss. He fucked me hard and fast, and I moved my hips to meet his every thrust. One hand rested between us, gently stroking my clit as his cock slid in and out of me, and Jace leaned down and growled into my ear. “Fuck…you’re so hot and wet,” he said, his words immediately sending another frisson of pleasure down my spine. I moaned an incoherent answer at him, and I could tell that the sounds of our sex were driving him wild. I could see it in his eyes, feel it in his movements as he sped up and fucked me mercilessly, and a big ball of pressure was quickly growing in my core, threatening to explode out of me at any moment. “God, yes…” I gasped, arching my back to meet another thrust. “Like that….god, don’t stop…” Jace’s fingers pressed harder against my clit, and his deep voice issued a command. “Come for

me.” And just like that, I was finally coming all over his cock, just like he wanted. He kissed me to keep me from screaming the house down as my muscles tightened and contracted around him, and I dug my nails into his back, riding out the waves of my climax as he drove me through it. He kept screwing me, even when I could barely see straight, and I kept shaking and shuddering as he kissed me and licked the side of my neck, moving down along the edges of my collarbone. I was struck with a new purpose; a need to make him come. He’d already brought me so much pleasure, and it was my turn to do the same for him. I pushed against his chest, making him roll onto his back while he was still inside me, and then I straddled him, running my hands up and down his abdomen, arms and chest, feeling the hard outlines of every muscle. God, his body was incredible, and I was so lucky to be the one and only girl who got to touch it now. I lifted my hips for a moment, so that only the very tip of him was inside me, and then I lowered myself back down on his cock again, holding myself steady with my hands on his chest. Jace groaned at the sensation of my tightness swallowing him up again, and I repeated the motion, faster and faster each time. He grabbed my hips, trying to control my movements, but I smiled and pushed his arms back down, letting him know that I was in control now. To tease him, I started riding him slower, letting my hair fall around my face before looking into his eyes. I saw lust mixed with pure emotion in them, and that spurred me on again; speeding up, bouncing up and down, moaning the loudest I’d ever moaned in my life. I was wild, throwing my head back and digging my nails into his arms and chest as I rode him, and a loud groan escaped Jace’s mouth a moment later. “Fuck, Rayna…..I’m gonna…” “Do it,” I panted as I felt another rush of pleasure shooting from my core. “Come.” I tightened around him as I slipped over the edge again, and he dug his fingers into my hips and growled. “Fuck, fuck, fuck….” And then a guttural groan of pleasure escaped his mouth, and white-hot bliss swept through me as we climaxed together. I collapsed against his chest, panting, and he rolled me over onto my side so that we were spooning, his heavy arms wrapping around me as we tried to catch our breath. He held me for a long time, and as sleep finally claimed me, I knew for certain that I never wanted him to let me go. Never.

Chapter 20 Rayna “Liar.” I woke up to Jace whispering in my ear, and I rolled over and grumbled. “Huh? What did I lie about?” He grinned. “You said you weren’t going to get much sleep. But you’ve slept for hours. Look at the time.” I tried and failed to stretch; I was simply too exhausted from the crazy time I’d had last night. “Just tell me what it is,” I murmured, closing my eyes again. “It’s ten A.M.” That was enough to make me sit bolt upright in bed and open my eyes wide. “Crap! I have to get to my own room!” “In case our parents see us?” he said, one eyebrow arched. Everything he’d told me about his father last night suddenly came flooding back to me in a deluge of bad memories, and my shoulders slumped. “Oh. Right. We’re not going to be family for much longer…but still, we should keep this to ourselves until we at least tell my Mom about your Dad, right?” He nodded. “Good call. We don’t want to upset her even more. But don’t worry, I got up earlier and checked, and she’s not even home. Apparently she went out shopping for a few hours.” The window was open, and a cold morning breeze blew through it, causing goose bumps to pepper my skin. I pulled the blankets up around myself, and I looked over at Jace as he walked over and shut the window before turning a heater on. He was only wearing a pair of shorts, and as I watched him fumble with the heater switch, my eyes traced the long pink scar on his back. It wasn’t ugly; it was simply part of who he was, and I was glad he’d finally told me all about how he’d obtained it. It’d been a nasty story, but apparently it had inspired him to be a better person, and I was proud of him. Maybe he’d done bad things in the past, but he’d learned from his mistakes, and every day he was taking steps towards being a good man. “Jace,” I called out. He turned around, and I smiled. “Thank you. For everything. Especially last night. I don’t know what would’ve happened without you there.” Jace walked back over to the bed, a deliberate nature to his step. Then he took my face in his hands and stared deep into my eyes, his brooding expression almost causing me to fall apart there and then. “You never need to thank me for stuff like that. I’ll always be there for you, no matter what.” “Well, I wanted to thank you anyway,” I said. “I…um…I…” I didn’t know how to say the words I so desperately wanted to, even though it should’ve been simple. Three words, eight letters. Not that hard. Jace must’ve sensed my nervousness, because he kissed the tip of my nose and then whispered in my ear. “I don’t mind going first, babe. I love you.”

My heart leapt, and I thought I’d never be able to wipe the grin off my face. “I love you too.” “Good,” he replied with a gentle smile. “After last night, I was kinda worried you’d hate me.” “The sex wasn’t that bad,” I joked, and he chuckled. “Very funny. You know that’s not what I was talking about.” I nodded, the smile finally slipping from my face. “I know. You meant the Roy thing, and the stuff you told me about your Dad. So what are we going to do about it?” “Well, first things first. We need to go to the police to give our statements about Roy—I called the nearest station and set up interview times for us while you were sleeping, so we need to be there in two hours—and after that, when your Mom gets home, we need to figure out how to tell her about Dad and sort out that whole situation. I already have a vague idea, but you might not be keen on it.” “Why wouldn’t I? What is it?” I asked, my forehead wrinkling with concern. “Well, it sorta involves me telling your Mom everything, then telling my Dad to go fuck himself and also telling him to cut me off and never speak to me again. Maybe losing his only son will be enough to make him realize he can’t keep fucking around with people the way he does.” My hand flew to my mouth. “Jace…you can’t. It’s really sweet that you’d defend my Mom so much, but you can’t just end your relationship with your father over an affair he had.” He shrugged. “Why not? He’s never given a fuck about me. All he’s ever done is throw money at me, like my whole life could just be bought. I know the money’s been good, and it’s given me opportunities most people don’t have. I’m still grateful for that, but I don’t want it anymore. It’s brought me so much trouble, and I‘m sick of drifting through life like a fucking trust fund baby idiot.” “You’re not an idiot,” I said. “You’ve been trying to sort yourself out, and you’ve even started working at one of those finance companies. And you’re doing well at it!” “The only reason I got the job is because it’s my Dad’s friend’s company. It’s just a copout; yet another thing Dad’s practically handed to me to keep me from doing something ‘lower class’ by his standards. But I want to earn my own money—not the same amount as him, just enough to be comfortable. I want to finally stand on my own two feet without his connections.” “Doing what?” I asked. “You already know. You’re the only one who’s ever said anything encouraging about it,” he replied, his gaze flickering over to his bookshelf. “You want to write?” “Yeah. I’d actually also like to run a publishing house one day. Not just print books, but e-books as well. I brought it up to Dad once, and he actually said he’d disown me if I tried such a thing, because apparently it’s not an ‘acceptable’ enough career, so there you have it. Either way, looks like he won’t be in my life much longer.” “So what made you suddenly want to finally do this? Just this whole thing with your Dad cheating?” “Nope. You,” he replied. My heart skipped a beat, and he continued. “You came into my life and made me see that I can be something more than what I was, and you showed me that I should go for all I want. There’s no point in life if I don’t at least try, and you know, you’ve been more like family to

me than Dad ever has. So if and when you and your Mom leave the manor, I’ll be with you, and I’ll be leading the way.” “I…” I started to speak, but before I could get a word out, Jace softly pressed his lips against mine, and the magic started all over again. I grabbed him and pulled him back towards me, and we fell onto the sheets together. Jace was on top of me in a second, and I could see the desire in his eyes; he was starving for me. “We have time, right?” I whispered, and he nodded before kissing me hard and roughly. I lost myself in his touch, and any thought of what we needed to do later was completely lost as I began to give myself over to him again. His mouth moved down and kissed my collarbone and chest, and I twined my fingers through his thick hair, gasping as he pushed my legs open. “I’ve been dying to taste you again,” he murmured as he moved even farther down, and I felt his lips kiss my clit ever-so-gently. I gripped the sheets on either side of me as he began to slowly lick and suck me, rolling his tongue over and around my clit and entrance, and waves of pleasure built through my body, threatening to engulf me already. I tried not to moan too loudly, in case any of the morning household staff heard, but it was practically impossible with the way Jace was playing with me. I felt two fingers slide inside me as he worked his magic on my pussy with his mouth, and then he pulled away for a second, looking up at me from between my thighs. “Fuck, you taste so good,” he said, sliding the fingers in and out of me. Then his mouth returned to my clit, and he was absolutely ravenous, licking at me like a starved man. His fingers pressed deep inside, sliding in and out and occasionally hitting the sweet spot on my front wall, and I let go of the sheets and let my hands trail over his body, loving the way his hard muscles tensed and moved under my hands. His fingers pressed even deeper, and I tipped my head back, almost losing myself as I moaned again and again, and I began to move my hips back and forth, feeling the blissful pressure building deep within. “Come for me,” Jace murmured against me, and the vibrations of his voice were just enough to send me over the edge. The orgasm rolled throughout my whole body, warm and wonderful, and I gasped and cried out, still unable to believe just how much pleasure one man could bring me within the space of twelve hours. As the pleasure began to fade and my legs stopped shaking, I got up and pushed Jace onto his back before sliding down between his legs and trailing my hair across his groin. I looked up at him for just a second, and he grinned down at me, knowing exactly what I had in store for him. I smiled back at him and grabbed the base of his cock, stroking him as I licked the palm of my other hand, getting it nice and wet, and then I switched hands and stroked him with the wet hand in long and slow movements. “Shit…” he groaned. “You’re good at that.” He hadn’t seen anything yet… I lowered my head and slowly licked him from tip to base, and Jace groaned his approval. Beads of pre-cum were leaking out of the tip, salty yet somewhat sweet at the same time, and I licked it up, keeping my eyes up so I could watch his reaction.

“Christ,” he muttered, his face contorting with pleasure as he reached down and laced his fingers through my hair. I slowly slipped my lips around his tip and sucked it hard, and then I took him deep into my mouth and really began to work his cock. I bobbed my head up and down, using my tongue and lips, sucking back and forth. His hands pressed down on my head, sliding his cock into my throat, and I worked hard to take as much of it as I could. He murmured dirty things as I worked away between his legs, and his words spurred me into action, making me move faster and harder. When I felt his legs beginning to twitch slightly, I stopped moving so much and let him take over, letting him fuck my mouth. His hips slid up, thrusting into my face, and I kept one hand wrapped around the base of his cock, alternating between letting him fuck my mouth and doing all the work. “Fuck…I’m so close,” he grunted only moments later, and then I tasted him as he stiffened, groaning loudly. His cum filled my mouth and throat, and I swallowed every drop before looking up at him with a smile. “You’re so dirty,” he said with a grin as he watched my lick my lips. “Only for you.” “Well, there’s only one thing to do with a dirty girl,” he said, quickly getting up and scooping me into his arms. I squealed as he carried me into the bathroom and deposited me in the shower before turning the water on, and he joined me a second later, wrapping his arms around me and chuckling as I tried to flick water at him. I knew we had things to do; knew we were needed down at the police station to give our statements soon. On top of that, we needed to tell my Mom what Jace had discovered last night, but she wasn’t home right now, so it could all wait a few more minutes. Just five more minutes…

Chapter 21 Jace I sat in the small office I’d been allocated at work, staring at my screen as I thought about the events of the day before. Rayna and I had told Elena everything, right after we’d returned from giving our statements about Roy to the police. It’d been heartbreaking to watch. Elena’s face had crumpled, and she’d almost looked like she was about to have a heart attack, even though Rayna had told her about everything as gently as possible. I even thought Elena might slap me, seeing as I hadn’t told her what I’d seen right away, but after a long silence, she sniffed, regained her composure and looked at me. “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely audible. “You did the right thing in telling Rayna first. There’s no one else I’d have rather heard it from, because if my own daughter is telling me to leave, then I know I have to. Otherwise I might’ve….I wouldn’t have wanted to believe it.” And with that, she’d crumpled into a ball on the sofa and cried for three hours. Rayna had sat there and gently rubbed her back as she cried, and I’d thought about the best way to reveal to Dad that he’d been caught out. Elena and Rayna had given up their lives in California and moved all the way here to live with him, and he’d completely fucked them over within the space of two months, so when Elena finally told him the marriage was over because of what he’d done, I wanted it to sting for him. A lot. I didn’t think revenge was a particularly mature response in most cases, but fuck…he couldn’t keep treating women like this. Something needed to be done. Something that’d make him think twice before he screwed over yet another decent person. After a few hours, I’d finally come up with a plan. Luckily, Elena and Rayna had agreed with me about it, and while it had taken more time than we’d hoped to sort it out—five days—we were finally ready, and it was all happening today at lunch. I’d invited my father to a restaurant in the city under the guise of a ‘business’ lunch to discuss where my career was heading at his friend’s firm, knowing that was probably the only way to get him to meet up with me without seeming suspicious. After all, it wasn’t like I’d ever invited him to lunch before, and vice versa. He hadn’t even asked what had happened the other night with the Roy incident, and I knew it was because he simply didn’t care. He probably didn’t even remember that I’d told him Rayna had been kidnapped, and why would he? All he cared about was money and getting laid by younger women. Everything else had just been an act; a weak attempt to paint himself as a perfect family man to the rest of London’s so-called elite. I remembered my old attitude a couple of years ago, and a chill shot up my spine as I realized just how close I’d come to turning out exactly like him—nothing more than a sleazy liar. I wasn’t him, though. I was me, and even if I’d done some fucked up shit in my life, at least I was trying to better myself nowadays. That was enough for me to know I’d never be like him; not even close.

“Jace?” I looked up to see him standing at the entrance to my cubicle, and I forced a smile. “Hey, thanks for picking me up, Dad.” He looked at his watch and then back at me. “I don’t see why you couldn’t just take your own car today and meet me there. I don’t exactly have time to be driving you around everywhere. But we can always cut this lunch short, I suppose.” I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “Well, thanks for making some time for me,” I said, keeping any hint of sarcasm out of my voice. “Like I said earlier, my car’s been making weird sounds lately. I was a bit worried about driving it this far into the city from the manor without having it looked at first.” “You should’ve taken one of my other cars. Would’ve saved me the bother.” I could barely hold back a smirk at that. Oh, how he’d regret those words in about half an hour. “Really? Didn’t even think of that.” “I’d be surprised if you ever did think,” he muttered. Ah, good old Dad. Ever the charmer. “Anyway, let’s head out.” My heart started to pound as we parked up fifteen minutes later and walked towards the restaurant. This was where it was all going to go down, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I’d planned out every single detail, but there was no telling how Dad was going to react. “Table for Wilde?” I said to the restaurant hostess. She smiled and directed us towards an outdoor table, and Dad was too busy looking at his phone to even notice who was sitting there until the hostess spoke. “Here we are. Table for five.” His head jerked up. “Five? What the…?” The sight that greeted him drained all the color from his face, and he looked at the three women in turn—Elena, Rayna and most importantly, his mistress. “Hello, Gerald,” Elena said coolly, her face stony as she looked up at him. Shit was about to go down. Knowing my Dad, I’d wondered if his mistress even knew he was married, so phase one of my plan had involved tracking her down and finding out. It hadn’t been all that hard for me to do so. I’d gone to one of the manor security guys and acted like I knew all about Dad’s affair and approved— like father, like son or some other such bullshit—and I’d told them that she’d left something at our place and I’d lost her number. He’d been suspicious at first and asked why I didn’t just ask my Dad to call her to come pick it up, but I’d told him Dad was busy and stressed with work, so I wanted to sort this out for him, and if Elena saw the item the mistress had left behind anytime soon, Dad would be in trouble, so I needed to contact her immediately. He finally relented and gave me her contact details, which I’d known would be there seeing as anyone who regularly had contact with my father had to be cleared with security, and then I’d made the call. She hung up on me the first time, but I kept trying, and then I finally got the full story from her. Her name was Milly, and it turns out I was right—she didn’t even know they were having an affair. They’d met two months ago, and from what I’d gathered, it was around three days after Elena

and Rayna had moved here. Dad had told her he was single. Surprise, surprise. Apparently he’d been sneaking away from the office almost every day on his lunch break to see her, and he’d told her that he had a ‘mentally disturbed’ son living with him, which was why they normally spent their time together at her house rather than the manor. That was also why she’d hung up on me the first time I called; he’d convinced her that I was completely deranged and might scream at her if I ever found out about her and got in contact. Also, on the one night she’d stayed over while Elena was away, Dad had told her that Rayna was just a live-in maid when she’d run into her in the hallway and been scared by the sight of the unfamiliar girl. All in all, Milly hadn’t had any idea that Dad had a wife, let alone a stepdaughter, and she’d been horrified when I told her the truth. I’d put her in contact with Elena, and the plan had evolved from there. “What the fuck have you done?” Dad said, turning to face me with his eyes blazing. “You useless little bastard.” He could obviously tell that I’d orchestrated everything, and this time I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face. Elena interrupted before things could get too out of control. “This isn’t about Jace. It’s about you and your lies. Now sit down with us, please. We have lots that we need to discuss.” Dad stood still for a moment, just staring at everyone, and then he finally sat down, his face practically twitching with anger. “What exactly is the meaning of all this?” “Well, firstly,” Elena said. “I’m leaving you. I’ve already packed all my things while you’ve been at the office this morning, and so has Rayna. Those things are being moved out as we speak. Secondly, I think you owe Milly an apology. She’s a nice woman and you’ve told her all sorts of lies. You even told her you’d marry her one day and managed to keep the fact that you were already married from her. She didn’t deserve any of that…” “You’re actually sticking up for this whore?” Dad scoffed, not even bothering to deny anything. He clearly thought he was so untouchable that it didn’t even matter. “If she had half a brain, she would’ve read the society pages and known I was married. Not my fault no one reads the papers these days.” Seriously? Milly didn’t read the society pages in the newspaper, and therefore it was somehow her fault that the affair had happened? My father really would stoop to any excuse to justify himself. “Screw you,” Milly hissed. “How dare you call me a whore? I’m worth more than you are. I thought I was dating a sweet, respectable and mature man. But now I know the truth. You’re just a sad, pathetic old loser. I doubt you’ll ever find a real woman who’ll stay with you longer than five seconds, not with all your bullshit.” Dad actually had the audacity to smile at that. “Women are always attracted to money, dear. Say what you want, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re replaceable.” “So that’s what I was?” Elena interjected. “Replaceable? You made me move all the way over here for this? I gave up my whole life for you, Gerald!” “I didn’t say that. I said she was replaceable. But you’re my wife, darling,” Dad said, switching tactics and reaching across the table for her hand. “Surely you can forgive a few indiscretions here and there. I do care about you, and that’s why I got you to move here. I’ve given you everything to

show how much I care. A wonderful house, a name in the social circles, a perfect—” Elena slapped his hand away. “How dare you?” she said. “I thought I was marrying for real love, not some cushy position in high society. You knew that, you bastard. You deceived me. Not to mention how you behaved when my daughter was essentially kidnapped by a drug addict. Jace and Rayna told me everything, and you acted like it was nothing!” “Oh, please,” Dad replied. “She was fine. She and Jace were just playing some silly little prank, and I—” I cut him off by slamming my fist down on the table. “It wasn’t a fucking prank! I told you that so many times, but you were so desperate to get back to screwing your mistress that you couldn’t even begin to take it seriously. Rayna was kidnapped, and you barely did a thing about it.” “I gave you the money you asked for, didn’t I?” “Yeah, under the bullshit condition that I keep my mouth shut about your affair,” I said. “Your stepdaughter’s life was on the line and all you thought to do was defend yourself from being caught.” “Well, it all worked out fine,” he said, sniffing. “Rayna’s clearly unhurt.” Rayna hadn’t said a word so far, and I could tell it was because she was trying to keep a firm grip on herself. If she opened her mouth, she’d probably explode and then jump across the table to strangle my father after what he’d done to hurt her mother. She’d been like a ticking time bomb these last few days, barely able to hold in her anger and keep a straight face around Dad as we waited for the perfect moment. When no one else said anything for a moment, a victorious gleam appeared in Dad’s eye. “So what was this little gathering meant to be? For you to tell me how awful I am? Quite frankly, I don’t care, and none of this changes a thing. Leave me if you want, Elena, but you won’t get a cent. That’s the good thing about being wealthy…fantastic lawyers and ironclad pre-nups.” He leaned back and smiled, and Rayna finally spoke up, matching his expression with her own wide smile. “You may have a lot of money, Gerald,” she said. “But your precious luxury cars now belong to charity…and I know how much you love them.” The smile faded from Dad’s face. “What did you just say?” “Oh, did you think Mom forgot about your little tax scheme?” she said, her eyes widening in a faux-innocent expression. “No, she told us everything.” Dad had a huge collection of luxury sports cars, but he didn’t keep them on the estate because they were too precious. He had his own driving track nearby for using them, and Elena had told us that in order to avoid paying so many luxury taxes on them—and to hide the fact that he had so many of them from Revenue—he’d put them in her name as soon as she’d arrived from the States. That was probably the dumbest thing he’d ever done, because it meant the cars belonged to Elena on paper, and she could do what she wanted with them. “What the hell do you mean?” Dad hissed. “We donated all your supercars to a charity auction,” I said. “Those cars are worth millions!” “Yes, and they’ll go a long way to helping the less fortunate,” Elena said. She glanced down at her

watch. “They’re being picked up from the track as we speak. Technically, they belong to me, so there’s nothing you can do about it.” Dad’s eyes narrowed. “Technically, you’re still my wife, so with anything you donate to charity, I can still have that claimed as a tax deduction. I guess you didn’t think your little plan through very well. I’ll still get some of that money back, written off my taxes.” “Ah, but we did think it through,” I said proudly. “We didn’t donate the cars in the proper sense of the word. We actually sold them to the charity organization for one pound each. So legally, it wasn’t a donation, it was a sale, and you aren’t eligible for the charity tax deduction.” His face turned white, and I grinned. “Working in finance these last few weeks has actually taught me a thing or two,” I added. “Guess I’m not as useless as you always said I was.” “You ungrateful little bastard. You’ll never work at my friend’s firm ever again, or at any other firm in this city.” “Fine by me. Finance is boring as fuck, and I’ve got my own shit to do, anyway.” “I’ll be freezing your trust fund, too. You won’t get another cent from me.” “Also fine by me. I don’t want your money anymore. Oh, and speaking of money…that thirty grand you gave me to give to the guy who took Rayna? I got it back from the police. But you aren’t getting it back. I’ve given it to Elena to help pay for the move back to California, seeing as you made her uproot her entire life to move here for you.” “You can’t do that.” “Oh? Try and stop me. I grew up with you, and I know of quite a few other dodgy tax evasion schemes you’ve cooked up over the years; not just for yourself, but for your company’s clients too. I’d really hate to have to get Revenue to audit you…” I let those words hang in the air for a moment. There was nothing more terrifying to a corporate finance guy than a threat to have him and his company audited by the government taxation department, and Dad sat in silence for a moment before abruptly standing up, knocking his chair over in the process. “You’re all done,” he said. “I’ll make you all pay for this rubbish. Especially you, Jace, you little shit. I should’ve just let your mother take you in the divorce all those years ago.” With that, he stormed out of the restaurant, and I watched him go with my lips pressed into a thin line. I knew he wouldn’t follow through on his threats; he was just saying them out of anger. When he calmed down, he would realize that it was in his best interests to do absolutely nothing, and maybe he’d realize exactly why we’d done this—to show him how awful he was, and to give him back a bit of the shit he’d dished out to other people over the years. I’d lost my trust fund money, but that was fine. I had a small amount of savings from the job I’d had for the last month, plus the job I’d had up in Edinburgh, and it’d be enough to get me by until I figured things out. I honestly didn’t care that I’d lost the trust fund anyway, even though it was millions of pounds. I had Rayna, and I now knew that love was far more important than any amount of money. I wish I’d known that sooner. Milly stood up. “I better go.”

“Are you sure you won’t stay for lunch?” Elena asked. “It’s on me.” She smiled. “No, I have to get to an appointment. But thank you for telling me the truth about Gerald and helping me confront him. I hope the bastard rots in hell.” “You’re welcome, and thanks for coming today and helping with this,” Elena replied, standing up and giving Milly a hug. I could still barely believe how gracious she was being. A lot of other women would’ve slapped their husband’s mistress and blamed her for everything, but Elena wasn’t like that. She understood that Milly hadn’t even known Dad was married, and she hadn’t held anything against her at all. She was a good, kind person, just like her daughter. I looked over at Rayna, and she smiled and put her hand on mine as Elena walked Milly out of the restaurant. We stayed like that for what felt like forever, staring into each other’s eyes, and it was only when we heard the sound of someone clearing their throat that we looked up to see that Elena had returned. Shit. In all the hectic mess of the last few days, it had totally slipped our minds that no one knew about our relationship yet. There was a very pregnant pause, and Rayna and I slowly moved our hands apart on the table. That fooled no one, and Elena finally spoke, her eyes wide. “You two…you’re together?” she asked. Rayna leapt to her feet. “Mom, I’m so sorry, this isn’t how we wanted you to find out. I—” “How long?” Elena interrupted sharply. “How long has this been going on for?” I stood up too. “Since we first met,” I said. “Listen, Elena, I know this might seem wrong, and it’s such a bad time to tell you, but I love Rayna. I love her more than anything.” Elena was silent for a long time, staring us down. “You’re in love?” she finally said in a small voice. I nodded. “Yes. But I understand if you don’t want me anywhere near you after what my father did to you. I can try to stay—” She cut me off. “No…it’s fine. It’s actually more than fine.” Rayna’s eyebrows shot up. “It’s fine? Just like that?” Elena nodded, then sat down and sighed. “Honestly, honey, I can’t imagine a better guy for you after what Jace has helped us with over the last few days. And if you love each other…well, who the hell would I be to stand in the way of that? Just because I got screwed over by the wrong man doesn’t mean Jace isn’t the right man for you.” “Elena…are you sure?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, looking back at me. “You’re nothing like your father, Jace. Nothing at all. I’m glad at least one good thing could come out of my marriage to your father. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off for a second, and tears filled her eyes. “Mom?” Rayna said softly, gently stroking her back. “Just what?” “I feel like I’ve lost a lot in these last few days, and I don’t want to lose my daughter too.”

“What do you mean?” Rayna asked. “You aren’t losing me. I’m not going anywhere.” “But I am. I’m going back to California. And if you and Jace are really in love, then I can’t make you come with me. You’re nineteen, Rayna. Still young, but old enough to make your own choices and live where you want.” A hint of a smile flickered over Rayna’s perfect face, and she reached over and grabbed Elena’s hand before taking a deep breath. “Mom…we discussed this for a long time the other day, and we’ve decided that we’re coming with you. Both of us.” Elena’s head jerked up again. “What?” I grinned brightly. “I’m coming with you. If you’ll have me, of course,” I said, echoing Rayna’s words. Tears of joy began to spill down Elena’s cheeks. “Oh my…this is just….of course it’s okay, Jace. Although I should warn you now—our old house isn’t exactly a mansion. Our lifestyle back in California isn’t at all what you’re used to here in England.” “I don’t care, as long as I’m with Rayna,” I said. I meant every word. Elena smiled. “Well, we’re leaving from Heathrow at eight o’clock next Tuesday night,” she said. “We’ll be staying at my friend’s B&B till then.” “I’ll be there on Tuesday, and I’ll be on the same flight,” I replied. “There’s just one more thing I have to do first...” *** The drive to Edinburgh the next day was seven hours long and nerve-wracking as hell, but I needed to do it. There was no way I could leave the country without sorting all of this out first; I couldn’t leave this stone unturned. As I pulled up outside the familiar house, my heart was pounding, but as much in excitement as it was nerves. For the first time ever, I knocked on the door, rather than letting myself in with my key, and I tapped my foot impatiently as I waited for it to be answered. The door finally opened a crack, and a short blonde woman poked her head around. “Jace?” she gasped as she looked up at me. I smiled weakly at her. “Hi, Mom.” “Come on, come in.” She opened the door wide and pulled me in for a massive hug. Over the last few months, I’d almost convinced myself that she didn’t want me around anymore, but somewhere deep down, I’d always known she could never stop loving me. She was a real parent, unlike Dad. After breaking away from the hug, I stepped inside and followed my mother through the house, breathing in the familiar scents of the sitting room as we entered it. Mom loved scented candles, and the vanilla variety were her favorite, so the house always smelled like that. She took a seat on the black leather lounge across from me. “So are you back to stay?” she asked. “No. I’m actually just here to apologize to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” “Yeah. I know I put you through hell when I lived up here, and you didn’t deserve that.” Her eyes widened. “Wow. Thank you, Jace. I honestly wasn’t expecting that. But I appreciate it.” “I know you wouldn’t have been expecting it. I’ve been a selfish asshole these last few years. But I’m trying to change. I haven’t touched any drugs in months now, and I don’t intend to ever again. I’m done with that shit.” She nodded, and her face relaxed. “I’m glad. I always knew you had it in you. You just needed the right push.” “Yeah. I got that push from you after the accident…just seeing how much I upset you. I didn’t want to do that ever again. And then I got another push from Rayna.” “Rayna?” “Elena’s daughter.” “Oh, of course. So you two are already good friends, then?” I shook my head and took a deep breath. “No, Mom, we’re together.” Mom’s eyebrows shot up. “I don’t understand…she’s your stepsister.” “Not for much longer. Dad cheated on Elena.” She scoffed. “Oh, heavens, of course he did. That man just isn’t capable of keeping it in his pants, is he?” “Apparently not. I caught him doing it and told her, so she’s left him now, and he’s cut me off.” Mom narrowed her eyes, and her whole body tensed up. “He did what? I’ll call him and—” I held up a hand to interrupt what was about to be a tirade. “No, don’t call him, Mom. I don’t want his money, and I don’t even want to associate myself with him until he can learn to be a decent person. I want to do things entirely on my own for once.” Her shoulders relaxed a little. “Oh. I see.” “Which brings me to my news. This might be hard for you to hear, but I’m moving to America to be with Rayna.” She was silent for a long time, just letting the news sink in, and I waited patiently, knowing it was a lot to take in. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she finally said. “I’m sure she’s lovely, but you’ve barely known this girl more than two months.” “I know. But I am sure. I’ve never been more certain of anything.” Mom smiled. “Well, in that case, I’m glad to hear it. But you have to come back and visit me as often as you can, and I expect you to call me once a week to chat.” I grinned back at her. “I will.” “And if anything goes wrong, you know you’re always welcome back here.” “I know. Thanks.”

“I’d also like to at least meet this girl before you go.” “You will,” I said. “In fact, she’s waiting right outside in the car.” “You left the poor girl just sitting out there?” Mom said. “It’s freezing!” “Only for a minute while I broke the news to you, and the car is toasty warm. No need to be clutching your pearls and reaching for the smelling salts just yet.” Mom smiled and playfully slapped me on the arm. “Very funny, son. Now go get her!” I got up and headed outside before tapping on the passenger side window of my car. Rayna had been playing a game on her phone while she waited, and she looked up and smiled at me before getting out. “So did she have a heart attack when you told her about America?” she asked, rubbing her hands together as the frosty air hit her. “No, she’s okay,” I said with a grin. “She wants to meet you.” “I want to meet her too,” she replied. “You can in a minute. There’s just something I need to do first.” With that, I leaned down and brought my mouth down on hers, wrapping my arms around her back. It was like one of those kisses from the movies; her back curving as I leaned over her, her hands gripping my shirt, her warm lips closing over mine…For a magical moment we were off in our own private world. I was hers, she was mine, and nothing could get in the way of that ever again. We finally broke apart and looked over at the house, and Rayna grabbed my hand. “Ready?” I nodded. “Yeah, let’s go.” I was more than ready to take her inside to meet my Mom. For the first time in a long time, I was ready to move forward in every single aspect of my life. I smiled down at Rayna as we headed up the garden-lined path toward the front door, and I knew I’d made the right choice in being with her. Moving to the States was going to change a lot of things in my life, and it would challenge me and give me responsibilities I’d never even dreamed of before. But with Rayna at my side, I was ready to deal with anything. I was with her for good, and I was never going to look back.

Chapter 22 Jace Three years later I never ended up going through with any of my auditing threats against my father. After I’d left for California three years ago, he’d stayed quiet and stayed out of our lives; a far cry from the hellfire he’d promised when he left the restaurant that day, threatening revenge on all of us. I still could’ve told Revenue to audit him and his company, just to be a dick, but I hadn’t. It seemed too harsh, even for him. Besides, from what I’d heard from my friends back in the UK, his life had gone to shit since we all left anyway. Apparently Milly hadn’t been the only woman he’d been having an affair with during his brief marriage to Elena—surprise, surprise—and not long after Elena left him, this other woman published a tell-all piece in the newspaper gossip columns detailing her sordid affair with him, right down to the fact that Dad had apparently sneaked out of his hotel suite on the night of his and Elena’s wedding night to have anal sex with her in the room right next door. So classy. According to my friend Tom, whose parents were part of the so-called social elite in London, Dad’s reputation was shot now, and he was very rarely welcome at any of the usual high-class events. Everyone in that posh world had always known about his womanizing ways in the past, but the way the upper class worked was this: it’s okay to have affairs and generally act like a man-whore, but only in private. If it goes public, then you’re finished. In a way, Dad had dug his own social grave without me having to lift a finger. Maybe one day he’d finally come crawling back to me with his tail between his legs, telling me he’d messed up and been a shitty father, a shitty husband to all his wives over the years, and a shitty person in general. If that ever happened, then I’d welcome him with open arms and try to make amends—I didn’t hate him, I just hated who he’d become over the years, and until he accepted that, I wouldn’t accept him in my life any longer. Another person who wouldn’t accept him in her life any longer was Elena, and I was happy to say that she’d finally met a decent man about six months after her return to California. He was a doctor named Brian Kenneth, and he’d just moved into the house Rayna and I had been sharing with Elena in San Diego. As much as we liked him, and as much as we liked living with Elena, Rayna and I knew it was finally time to move on and get our own place, so we were currently packing all our things. We’d found an apartment closer to the city center, and we were hoping to have all our stuff moved in within the next week. Rayna was still in college and making me proud with her awesome grades after having transferred her course back to the States, and just like I’d suggested to her a long time ago, she was minoring in

archaeology and heritage studies in the hopes of getting into the area of heritage law one day. She’d been a little miffed that she never ended up having the chance to see what it was like to study at an English university and work on ancient English heritage sites, but in the end she’d been more than happy to study all the interesting Native American heritage sites and get back to her old campus where she could see all of her old friends—and not just them, some new ones from the UK too. Liana had decided to take a year off from her English job and work in L.A. recently, so we often made the drive up there to visit her and her boyfriend, Rick, whom she’d apparently hooked up with at the fateful masquerade party Rayna and I had first met at. As for myself, I was doing well. It’d been a rough transition settling into San Diego at first, seeing as I hadn’t exactly had much money to live on, but Rayna had helped me find a job and also a position in a decent writer’s group, and I’d started working on a few projects. I hadn’t screwed around like a lot of the wannabe writers in the group did; I’d put my nose to the grindstone and worked my ass off, writing, editing, picking up new skills and storytelling methods. After a year, the leader of the group had noticed my efforts and come up with a proposition for me. He wanted to start an online e-book publishing agency, but he simply didn’t have the time to run it, so while he was happy to invest the capital that it would need to get off the ground, he needed someone doing most of the day-to-day work that came with it. I’d knocked my usual work hours down to part-time to give me time to work on the publishing site, and within six months, it had been well and truly up and running, with lots of promising authors featured. It’d done so well so far that I’d even been able to quit my other job, and at night, I was working on my own novel that could hopefully be published one day too. It was a mystery thriller story with elements based on my own experiences. For example, there was a storyline based on my old friend Roy—who was currently still in prison but being rehabilitated from what I’d heard—and also a highly dramatized scene similar to what had happened with Rayna’s ‘ghost’ back at Dad’s manor in the UK. Elena and I still teased her about that ghost sometimes, and being the good-natured girl she was, she always took it in her stride and found things to tease us about too. I loved that about Rayna. She was so witty yet laidback at the same time, and waking up next to her every day made me feel like I was falling in love with her all over again. Right now, I was cleaning out a closet and organizing our things into boxes to take to the new apartment, and I heard Rayna snort with laughter from the other side of the room. “What’s so funny?” I asked, looking over my shoulder. She held up a rectangular cardboard box. “Remember this?” she said, one eyebrow arched. I grinned. It was the old Hasbro Ouija game. I hadn’t brought all that much stuff over from the UK, but somehow the game had ended up in my things and made it all the way over to San Diego. “Yeah, I remember it,” I replied. Rayna dropped it on the bed and stepped towards me before putting her hands on her hips. God, she looked so fucking sexy, even though she was dripping with sweat from all her packing efforts. I thought about throwing her over my shoulder and carrying her back to the bed before bending her over it, but it seemed like she had something to say, so I cocked an eyebrow and waited. “It’s been a long time since you pranked me with that, but I’m still mad about it,” she said, her eyes sparkling with mischief as she drew ever-closer.

I rose to my full height and put my hands on the sides of her waist before leaning down and nuzzling her neck. “Really? Are you just saying that because you want me to apologize again, so we can have wild makeup sex?” “Maybe…” I couldn’t take it anymore; couldn’t wait any longer. Rayna was mine, she’d always been mine, and I had to have her again and again. Our packing could wait. I picked her up and threw her down on the bed, and she lay back and stared up at me with her sparkling hazel eyes as she bit her lower lip. I felt my groin seize with lust, and my cock stiffened in my pants. “God, you’re so fucking hot,” I murmured. She blushed, and for a second I saw the same girl I’d first seen three years ago; the seemingly shy girl I’d met at the masquerade party who’d secretly been hiding a firecracker of a personality under her black lace mask. She could blush all she wanted, but we both knew she was a dirty girl in the bedroom—not to mention any other room we were in—and that would never change. She was my dirty girl, and mine only. I kept my eyes trained on her body as she stripped her shirt, shorts and underwear off, and then I cupped her perky breasts in my hands. Her own hands ran down her body and slipped between her legs, and she groaned softly and opened her thighs wide, allowing me to see her touching herself. Fuck, it was one of the hottest things I’d ever seen her do, and I felt like my cock was about to burst out of my pants as I watched her play. With a fierce growl, I pounced on her, pinning her right back on the bed, my lips pressed hard against hers until she moaned into my mouth. She was so sweet, so delicious, and I could smell the arousal wafting off her in huge waves. Closing my eyes, I tangled my hands in her dark wavy hair and pressed my lips to hers over and over. Her soft hands slipped up my shirt, giving me goose bumps, and as she finally tugged the shirt over my head, she flushed again. I had the urge to yank her head back and suck on her neck until she was begging me to fuck her, but instead I moved my head down and took one of her stiff nipples in my mouth. Her skin tasted sweet, just like her mouth, and I wanted to run my tongue over her whole body until we were both spent and panting for breath. As I stroked and caressed her tits, she writhed on the bed and tangled her hands in my hair. I shivered as she tugged gently at it; it felt so good that my dick ached to be inside her. But that’d have to wait. I wanted to pleasure her first. She smelled so good, and I wanted to lick her pussy for hours, until her juices were running down my face. She’d always loved it when I went down on her; she’d practically lose all control of her body as she twisted and writhed all over the place. Crawling close between her legs, I buried my face in her perfect pussy. Her clit bumped up against my nose and lips and I inhaled her heavenly scent, and she gasped and ground her hips against my face. As I began to suck her clit, she let out a moan and dug her hands into my shoulders, and her nails sent shivers of pain and pleasure through my body. I slid a finger downwards and wriggled it into her pussy, and as I licked at her swollen clit, I curled my finger against her inner walls until she was shrieking with desire. I always knew Rayna’s body, always knew what she wanted. I always would. I drew back for a second and inhaled her musk before plunging my tongue inside her pussy and

licking her with reckless abandon. She went wild. She thrashed and moaned and called out my name as I sucked on her clit, and just when I thought she couldn’t go any crazier, I slipped a second finger inside her. Her tight wet muscles clamped down on the fingers, and I felt a gush of her moisture against my hand. Her juices were soaking into my face, dripping down my chin and neck, and she cried out. “Oh, god…Jace, I’m gonna come…just keep going…” I grinned wickedly into her crotch and kept licking and sucking, and in only a matter of seconds, I felt her muscles clamp down again and then release, over and over, in a series of spasms accompanied by squeals and cries of pleasure. I looked up to see her pink face, shiny with sweat, straining as her whole body bucked and convulsed, and before I could move, I felt her hands on me. I was almost a foot taller than her and about ten times stronger, but in moments like this, she always showed surprising strength, and the bossy side of her really turned me on. She tugged me up and threw me onto my back, and I grinned and let her. Then she pinned me down and got on top of me, straddling me. I could feel the wet heat from her core warming my cock through my shorts, and I groaned, arching up and grinding my hips against her. Rayna moaned softly and reached down, pulling my cock out of its confines, and then with one quick movement, she was impaling herself on me, hazel eyes flashing with wanton need as she moved up and down. Lust coursed through my body like a wildfire as she did so, and I moved my hips back and forth, getting into a heady rhythm with her body. Reaching up a moment later, I grabbed her and gently moved her off me, and she shuddered as I flipped her over onto her belly. The rounded curves of her ass quivered as I slipped a hand around and stroked at her clit, and she moaned. Her cries were mostly muffled by the sheets, but I could feel her whole body shaking as I gently teased her, and then she arched her spine. I couldn’t hold back any longer. I rubbed my cock up against her entrance and then slammed inside her in one hard thrust, and she cried out, her whole body tensing as I filled her tight pussy with every inch of me. “Oh, fuck, Jace…that feels so good…” Every time I pulled back and then entered her again, spasms of pleasure shook my legs, and even though I couldn’t see Rayna’s face, I could tell she felt the same bliss I did. I could feel her bucking against me, and I could see her hand rubbing between her legs, taking over from where my fingers had just been. Her cries were loud, and if anyone else was home right now, they’d probably think she was being hurt by something. But I knew better; knew she craved me with every inch of her body. No matter what happened between us, she’d always be mine. My Rayna. “Fuck...I’m gonna come,” I groaned, my legs tensing. “But not before you. Come on my cock, baby.” That was enough to send her gasping and careening over the edge of another climax, and her pussy felt so amazingly good contracting around my cock that I could barely move anymore. Watching her writhe and moan with the force of her orgasm sent my level of arousal to a new height, and before I knew it, I was gasping and coming as well. My cock pumped hot ropes of cum inside her, and every muscle in my body clenched and released as waves of pleasure swept over me. Finally we collapsed on the bed together, drenched in sweat. “God,” she murmured, rolling onto her back a moment later. “That was a nice little afternoon

surprise.” “Hardly a surprise when you instigated it, you tease,” I said, and she grinned and planted her lips on mine. Rayna might think an impromptu sex session was a nice surprise for the both of us, but she had no idea what a real surprise was. Not yet. I had something big planned for a few months from now, and she didn’t suspect it at all. She’d just have to wait and see…

Chapter 23 Rayna Four months later Bzzt, Bzzt. Bzzt. I groaned at the sound of my alarm going off, and I threw a pillow at it before closing my eyes and trying to settle back in to sleep some more. No such luck. Once I‘d been woken, I was awake for the whole day, so I had no choice but to get up. Groaning again, I reached over to cuddle Jace before I sat up, but my hand only hit the bedsheets and nothing more. “Jace?” I called out, opening my eyes and finally sitting up. I couldn’t hear him showering or making breakfast, so I figured he’d simply gone to work already. He was always putting in so much effort at the online publishing agency he’d helped his friend start up, and I was so proud of how hard he worked. It just went to show that he’d been a good person all along, and he’d always been capable of doing great things in life all on his own, unlike the spoiled trust fund fuck-up he’d once thought he was destined to be. Yawning, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and got out, only to almost trip on an enormous basket that was sitting on the floor. It was filled with pink peonies, and there was also a card. Smiling, I leaned down and picked up the card. ‘Rayna—you are the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I love the life we’ve created. I have a special surprise for you today, but in order for you to find out what it is, you’ll need to follow the scavenger hunt clues I’ve created. Look on the back for your first clue. I can’t wait till you reach the end of the hunt, and I hope you won’t be too mad at me for going behind your back so much ;) I smiled and turned the card over to find my clue. Put a ‘v’ on room. The thing you seek can zoom. Seek not anything higher. I’m hiding behind the tire. Easy. There was obviously something hidden behind one of the tires of my car, or at least near there, so I grabbed my keys, raced downstairs and headed into the parking garage before searching under my car. I finally found something taped behind the front right tire, and I pulled it out to see that it was another note. Check the glove compartment ;) After unlocking the car, I reached into the glove compartment and found a large velveteen jewelry box. I opened it, and I gasped as I saw a sparkling diamond bracelet, matching earrings, and best of all, a beautiful necklace with inlaid diamonds and a sapphire pendant. God, it was all so beautiful! It wasn’t even my birthday or any other sort of major occasion, and yet he’d given me such a wonderful surprise just because he loved me.

And speaking of love…every day I spent with Jace was even better than the last, and I knew that’d never change. He was perfect, and I wished I could just marry him right this second so I could officially lock him down for good. I noticed that there was another note taped to the back of the jewelry box, and I pulled it off and chewed my lower lip as I read it. Stiff is my spine, and my body is pale, but I’m always ready to tell a tale. Okay, that was obviously a book, but which book? I suddenly had a flash of inspiration. Of course I knew which book; it had to be the one that had brought us back together and made us start talking again after weeks of silence, back when our parents had still been married. I headed back into the apartment, raced over to the bookshelf and found World’s Over, and as I opened it, a brochure for a local hairdresser and beautician fell out. It had today’s date and a time scrawled on it, with a note saying ‘Put on your new jewelry and enjoy feeling like a princess for the day!’ Today was shaping up to be a lovely pampering day, and it was just what I needed after several harrowing months of papers and final exams which had resulted in me finally graduating from my undergraduate degree two weeks ago. Maybe that’s why Jace had done this; as a belated graduation surprise. I showered, dressed and put on the jewelry from the previous clue before heading out to make the appointment on time, and as I walked into the salon, a petite redheaded lady smiled at me as if she recognized me. “Rayna, right?” she said. “Uh-huh.” “I’m meant to give you this to think about while we get your hair and makeup done.” She handed me a slip of paper, then directed me to a chair, and I read the next clue as she fussed over my hair. Where you can watch shows and movies too, check near the ticket booth to find your next clue. I immediately knew what it meant. Jace wanted me to go to the Astor Theater, where we often went to watch plays or movies before taking a walk in the botanic gardens across the street from it. He must’ve booked me a ticket to a daytime show, and I smiled to myself as the hairdresser kept working on me. Half an hour later, she was done, and she called another two women over; one to do my makeup, and the other to do my nails. It was really nice, having a whole luxurious day to be pampered and fawned over, and I could definitely get used to it. I texted Liana while one of the women buffed my toenails. OMG, Jace is doing the sweetest thing for me right now! He’s organized this whole day for me, with all these clues. Getting my hair and makeup professionally done at the moment, and then it looks like I’m heading to a show—how cool is that? By the time my hair and beauty appointment was up, she still hadn’t replied, which I thought was strange. Liana was obsessed with texting, and she almost always messaged back within five minutes. Shrugging, I assumed she was too busy to reply, and I thanked the ladies at the salon and got back in my car before heading to the Astor. As I stepped up to the ticket booth, I smiled at the man behind it.

“Hi, my name is Rayna Silva,” I said. “I think there’s some tickets for me?” He shook his head. “No tickets, sorry, but you’re wanted backstage in Theater Room A.” “Backstage? What do you mean?” He simply gave me a genial smile. “I’ll have someone show you where to go.” He motioned to a woman nearby, and she approached me. “This way, Ms. Silva,” she said. What the hell was going on? Surely Jace hadn’t somehow put me in a play…god, I’d be so embarrassed if he did. I followed the woman to a backstage area behind one of the theater rooms, and she gestured towards a small fitting room with a full-length mirror on one side of it. “There’s something in there for you to put on before I give you your next clue,” she said. “Leave your bag out here, please.” “Um…okay,” I said, handing her my bag before heading into the fitting room and closing the door. Hanging on a hook on the back of the door was a mid-length cream-colored dress with intricate beading on the neckline—not too elaborate, but pretty all the same. Just my kind of style, and the light color would contrast well with my caramel-colored skin and dark hair. There was also a pair of lowheeled shoes in my size; a nice strappy pair in a shade that matched the dress. I could hear the woman who’d led me in here talking in a low voice as I assessed the shoes, and it sounded like she was on the phone to someone, but the only words I could make out were: she’s here….hit send on message. Strange. I slid into the dress and zipped myself up before putting on the shoes, and as I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, my eyes narrowed suspiciously. I was wearing a cream dress, had my hair and makeup properly done, and I had beautiful diamonds hanging from my ears, neck and wrists. There was even something blue on the necklace; the gleaming sapphire. Surely Jace hadn’t actually….no, of course not. What was happening in my head right now was ridiculous. I shook my head to clear my mind of my silly suspicions, and then I headed out of the dressing room. The woman who’d led me into the backstage area a few minutes ago smiled at me and gave my handbag back. “You look great. Just leave your other clothes here. They’ll be sent back to your place soon.” With that, she handed me a card, and I thanked her again and read the clue. What has a ring but no finger? I furrowed my brows. A ring but no finger….oh, of course, a phone. I pulled my cell phone out of my handbag to see that I had a new text message. Leave; go across the street, Someone has something to ask. Go quickly on your feet, And find the man in the mask. I headed out of the theater and crossed the street, heading to the botanic park across from it, and in front of a small gazebo to the left of the main gates, I spotted Jace immediately. It was impossible to miss him; he was wearing a suit and tie along with that same black mask he’d worn so long ago when

we’d first met. It made me remember each and every moment we’d had since we met that night; the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Each one was totally worth it, just to be with him today. I smiled and headed towards him, and he grinned back at me and pulled the mask off and hung it from his left arm by the string. “About time you showed up,” he said, quirking an eyebrow in good humor. “I’ve got a clue for you.” “Another one?” I said, shaking my head and giggling. “This is the wildest scavenger hunt ever. I‘ve been running all over town, and it just doesn’t end.” He gave me a good-natured smirk. “Oh, you’ll see about that…” “So what’s my clue?” I asked. “Well, you obviously figured out the earlier one: What has a ring but no finger?” “Uh-huh. The phone.” “So let’s try the opposite…what has a finger, but no ring?” I wrinkled my brows. “Huh? I don’t know….oh!” Before I could even finish my sentence, Jace was sinking to one knee, and my lips fell open in an O-shape of surprise as he pulled out a small red jewelry box. He opened the box, displaying a princess-cut diamond ring set in a gold band, and he looked up at me. “In case, you hadn’t figured it out yet, the answer to that last riddle is ‘you’,” he said as tears of joy filled my eyes. “Rayna, you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved. I didn’t even believe romantic love was real until I met you, but you showed me how wrong I was. So will you make me the happiest man on earth by agreeing to keep loving me forever?” “Oh my god, Jace…yes! Yes, yes, yes!” I cried. He slid the finger onto my left hand, and I wiped a tear from my cheek before throwing my arms around him. He reached down and gently tilted my chin up to kiss him, and he cradled the back of my head in one hand and placed the other at the small of my back, pulling me hard against him as our lips met again and again. For a second I forgot we were outside a public park; nothing else mattered except the electric connection we shared. Finally, I drew back, and I saw Jace’s eyes shining with emotion as we stared at each other, sharing the magical moment together. “You know, it’s like our minds are totally in sync or something,” I said, breaking the passionfilled silence. “I was just thinking earlier how I wished I could marry you right this second…and now you’ve actually gone and proposed!” He arched an eyebrow. “You really wished you could marry me right this second?” I wiped another tear from my cheek. “Yes.” “And you still wish that?” “God yes!” “Well, it’s lucky I planned all this, then,” he replied with a wide grin. “Wait….what?” “Follow me,” he said, taking one of my hands.

I trailed behind him and headed through the park gates, and in the distance, I could hear faint strains of music as we got closer and closer to a small white marquee that had been set up on a grassy area in between two beautiful gardens filled with purple, pink and white flowers. My ears perked up at the sound of the music as we got closer, and I turned to Jace and gasped. “That sounds like All You Need Is Love!” I said as it finally dawned on me that my earlier suspicions hadn’t been wrong at all. “Oh my god….Jace…you actually…” He grinned. “Yup, it’s a string quartet playing Beatles songs. I remembered you saying ages ago that you wanted to walk down the aisle to an orchestral version of Octopus’ Garden one day. A string quartet was the closest to an entire symphony orchestra I could get to play at a wedding. Our wedding.” Tears of joy filled my eyes all over again, and my hand flew to my mouth. “A surprise wedding… god, Jace, this is crazy!” “Yeah, well, I’m crazy about you, and you make me want to do crazy things,” he said, halting and looking deep into my eyes. “So what do you say? Wanna be crazy with me and walk down that aisle together?” I knew a lot of other women in this situation would be pissed; they’d wish they could’ve planned their own wedding down to the last detail, rather than just having it sprung on them like this. But I loved it. It was the best surprise I could’ve ever imagined, and I didn’t even need to hesitate to give Jace my answer. “Of course!” We linked arms and headed towards the marquee entrance, and when we appeared at the end of the carpet runner that had been laid down on the ground, all the guests Jace had invited turned to look at us. “She said yes!” Jace called out, and everyone stood up and cheered. The band started playing an instrumental version of Octopus’ Garden, just like I’d always dreamed of, and I nearly cried tears of joy again as everyone I knew and cared about smiled at me. Mom and her new partner Brian were standing up at the front with Jace’s Mom, and all my friends and other various family members were scattered throughout the seats on the left side. On the right, a group of Jace’s friends from England grinned at us, having obviously made the trip just to attend this wedding, and I wondered if it had even occurred to Jace what a big risk it could be, having people fly all the way out from the UK to attend an event that I might say no to. Then again….after everything we’d been through, he definitely had to have known that I’d say yes. I’d always say yes to Jace. He began to walk me down the runner, and my pulse raced as I looked up to the flower-covered white arch at the end, where an officiant stood. Once we reached the arch, everyone else in the marquee seemed to fade away for a moment as we stared at each other, and I honestly felt like I was about to burst from excitement. “Thank god you agreed to this,” Jace murmured as everyone sat down. “I would’ve looked pretty silly in front of all our friends and family if you’d said no.” “It’s okay,” I whispered back, a mischievous spark lighting my eyes. “You’re used to looking silly

anyway, right?” “Harsh. Remind me why I’m about to marry you?” “Because you love me.” “Damn right I do.” As the officiant began his whole speech, I noticed the black mask still dangling from Jace’s left arm, and I remembered how a long time ago, he’d told me how he thought he was a bad person because of the way he’d acted around other people for so long, and how he thought it had become a part of who he was. I’d proved him wrong, though. Once the masks had come off, he’d shown himself to be a good man—the greatest—and best of all, he was my man. A few minutes later, we were finally saying the two words that meant the most today. I do. And with that, we were officially married. I melted into his arms as we shared our first kiss as husband and wife, and when we finally broke away and turned to look at all our guests, I was unable to stop the jaw-breaking grin that crossed my face. We’d made it. Jace was mine, I was his, and we’d never been happier. We headed back down the aisle, grinning as guests showered us in white confetti and rose petals, and I thought about what an incredible story the surprise wedding would make to tell our future kids. Every love story was beautiful…but ours was definitely my favorite. THE END

Caitilin daire tease, a stepbrother sports romance  
Caitilin daire tease, a stepbrother sports romance