মুখ্য Scandalous

Scandalous

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They call him The Mute for a reason.
Hard, cold and calculated, he rarely speaks.
When he does, it’s with disdain.
When he does, his words aren’t meant for me.
When he does, my stomach flips and my world tilts on its axis.

He is thirty-three.

I am eighteen.
He’s a single dad and my father’s business partner.

I’m just a kid to him and his enemy’s daughter.
He’s emotionally unavailable.
And I am…feeling. Feeling things I shouldn’t feel for him.
Trent Rexroth is going to break my heart. The writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s inked on my soul.
And yet, I can’t stay away.
A scandal is the last thing my family needs. But a scandal is what we’re going to give them.
And oh, what beautiful chaos it will be

খন্ড:
3
সাল:
2017
ভাষা:
english
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Sinners of Saint Series
ফাইল:
EPUB, 549 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 549 KB)

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2 comments
 
USA
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09 May 2021 (20:14) 
Karina saoirse
Its a good book. But when i remember his 33. Nvm... But yeah ill give it a 3.5/5 review.
03 June 2021 (16:04) 

আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

Scandalous

Year:
2017
Language:
english
File:
MOBI , 702 KB
0 / 0
2

Scandalized by My Prince

Year:
2017
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 408 KB
0 / 0
Copyright © 2017 by L.J. Shen



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.



Resemblance to actual persons, things, living or dead, locales or events is entirely coincidental.





SCANDALOUS

Cover model: João Antonio Marques

Cover Designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA Designs

Interior Formatting: Stacey Blake, Champagne Book Design





Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Epigraph

Dedication

Soundtrack

Preface



Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Epilogue



Acknowledgements

Other Books

Connect with L.J. Shen

Sneak Peek of Arrogant Stranger by Mia Asher





If he touched her, he couldn’t talk to her.

If he loved her, he couldn’t leave.

If he spoke, he couldn’t listen.

If he fought, he couldn’t win.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things





To Sunny Borek and Ella Fox





Soundtrack



“Believer”— Imagine Dragons

“Girls and Boys”—Blur

“Just the Two of Us”—Grover Washington Jr.

“Pacific Coast Highway”—Kravinsky

“Sweater Weather”—The Neighborhood

“Lonely Boy”—The Black Keys

“Shape (Of My Heart)”—Sugababes cover





Seahorses prefer to swim in pairs with their tails linked together. They’re one of the rare;  monogamous animals, and engage in an eight-hour courtship dance which, among other things, includes swimming side by side and changing colors. They’re romantic, elegant, and fragile.



Just like love.



They remind us that love is meant to be wild, just like the ocean.





Gluttony.

Plural—gluttonies

1: excess in eating or drinking

2: greedy or excessive indulgence accused the nation of energy gluttony.



THE WORST OUT OF THE seven deadly sins. In my opinion, anyway. And my opinion was the one that mattered in that moment, under the unforgiving sun of SoCal on a May afternoon on Todos Santos’ promenade, when I was in desperate need of some cash. Leaning against the white railing separating the bustling boardwalk from the shimmering ocean and dazzling yachts, I people-watched.

Fendi, Dior, Versace, Chanel, Burberry, Bvlgari, Louboutin, Rolex.

Greed. Excess. Corruption. Vice. Fraud. Deception.

I judged them. The way they drank their organic, ten-buck smoothies and glided on custom-made multi-colored skateboards signed by Tony Hawk. I judged them, knowing full well they couldn’t do the same to me. I was in hiding. Veiled beneath a thick black hoodie, my hands shoved deep inside my pockets. I wore black skinny jeans, an old pair of unlaced Dr. Martens, and a tattered JanSport backpack held together with safety pins.

I looked androgynous.

I moved like a ghost.

I felt like a hoax.

And today, I was about to do something that’d make living with myself harder.

As with any dangerous game, there were rules to abide by: no children, no elderly, no struggling, average folk. I thrived on the rich, targeting the prototypes of my parents. The women with the Gucci bags and the men in the Brunello Cucinelli suits. The ladies with the poodles peeking out from their studded Michael Kors handbags, and the gentlemen who looked like they were comfortable spending on a cigar what a normal person would put toward their monthly rent.

Spotting potential victims at the promenade was embarrassingly easy. Todos Santos was the richest town in California, as of the 2018 census, and much to the old money’s dismay, Nouveau Riches like my father had come settling on this piece of land, armed with monstrous, Italian-imported vehicles and enough jewelry to sink a battleship.

I shook my head, staring at the explosion of colors, scents and tan, half-clothed bodies. Focus, Edie, focus.

Prey. A good hunter could smell it from miles away.

My meal for the day had passed me briskly, unknowingly drawing attention to herself. She threw her head back, revealing a straight row of pearly whites. A middle-aged, Chanel-wearing trophy wife, wrapped head-to-toe in the latest season’s garments. I wasn’t big on fashion, but my father loved spoiling his beloved mistresses with luxurious garbs and parading them around at social events, introducing them as his very personal assistants. My mother would buy these designer items herself in a desperate plea to resemble the younger women who entertained him. I knew wealth when I saw it. And this woman? She wasn’t hungry. Not for food and not for love, the only two things that mattered.

Little did she know, her money was going to buy me love. Her soon-to-be empty wallet was going to fill my heart to the brim.

“I’ve been dying for a duck salad at The Brasserie. Think we can go there tomorrow? Maybe Dar will tag along,” she drawled, puffing her chin-length platinum bob with her manicured hand.

Her back was already to me when I noticed her arm was linked with that of a tall, dark, and handsome type, at least twenty years her junior. Built like Robocop and dressed like a dapper David Beckham. Was he her boy toy? Husband? Old friend? Son? It made little-to-no difference to me.

She was the perfect victim. Distracted, disordered, and overbearing; parting ways with her wallet would be merely an inconvenience for this lady. She probably had a PA or some other form of poor, unfortunate soul on her payroll to deal with the consequences. Someone who would order new credit cards and issue a new driver’s license and unburden her from the nuisance of bureaucracy.

Someone like Camila.

Stealing was much like walking a tight rope. The secret was in your poise and ability to not look into the abyss, or in my case, the victim’s eyes. I was lean, short, and nimble. I navigated through the throng of boisterous teenyboppers in bikinis and families licking ice cream, my eyes trained on the black and gold YSL bag dangling from her arm.

Sounds became muffled, bodies and food trucks vanished from my vision, and all I saw was that bag and my goal.

Recalling everything I’d learned from Bane, I inhaled deeply and lunged for the purse. I yanked it from her arm and made a beeline to one of the many alleyways slicing the shops and restaurants on the boardwalk. I didn’t look back. I ran blindly, desperately, furiously.

Tap, tap, tap, tap. My Docs were heavy against the sizzling concrete beneath me, but the consequences of not coming up with the money I needed sat heftier on my heart. The thick sound of girls laughing on the promenade evaporated as I put more space between me and my target.

I could have been one of them. I still can. Why am I doing this? Why can’t I just let it go?

One more corner to round and I’d be in my car, flipping the bag open and examining my treasure. Drunk on adrenaline and high on endorphins, a hysterical laugh bubbled from my throat. I hated mugging people. I hated the feeling that accompanied the act even more. But most of all—I hated myself. What had become of me. Yet, the liberating feeling of doing something bad and being good at getting away with it shot an arrow of elation straight to my heart.

My stomach dropped in relief at the sight of my car. The old, black Audi TT my father had purchased from his business partner Baron Spencer was the only thing he’d given me in the last three years, but even this gift was loaded with expectation. Seeing less of me in his mansion was his goal in life. Most nights, he opted for not coming home. Problem solved.

I scooped my keys from my backpack, panting the rest of the way like a sick dog.

I was mere inches from the driver’s door when my world spun in place and my knees gave out. It took me a few seconds to realize I hadn’t stumbled on my own gaucherie. A firm, large hand twisted me by the shoulder, knocking the air out of my lungs. The hand grabbed my arm in a bruising grip and pulled me into the alleyway between a fast-food joint and a French boutique before I could open my mouth and do something. Shout, bite, or worse. I dragged my boots in the opposite direction, desperately trying to wiggle free, but this guy was twice my size—and all muscle. I was too blinded by rage to take a good look at his face. Chaos brewed in my gut, shot flames to my eyes and momentarily blinded me. He slammed me against a building and I hissed, feeling the impact from my back to my tailbone. Instinctively, I sent my arms out, trying to claw at his face, kicking and screaming. My fear was a storm. Sailing through it was impossible. The stranger clutched my wrists and crashed them above my head, pinning them to the cool cement.

This is it, I thought. This is where you end. Over a stupid purse, on a Saturday afternoon, on one of the most legendarily crowded beaches in California.

Flinching, I waited for his fist to connect with my face, or worse—for his rotten breath to hover over my mouth, for his hand to yank my pants down.

Then the stranger chuckled.

I furrowed my brows, my eyes narrowing as I tried to regain focus and blink away the terror.

He came to me in pieces, like a painting in the works. His gray-blue eyes were the first to pop out from behind the fog of fear. They were sapphire and silver swirled together, the color of a moonstone. Next was his straight nose and symmetrical lips, his cheekbones sharp enough to cut diamonds. He was pungently masculine and intimidating in his looks, but that was not what made me recognize him immediately. It was what rolled off of him in dangerous quantities, the menace and the ruggedness. He was a dark knight made of coarse material. Cruel in his silence and punishing in his confidence. I’d only met him once, at a barbecue at Dean Cole’s house a few weeks ago, and we hadn’t spoken a word to each other.

He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone.

Trent Rexroth.

We were barely acquaintances, but every piece of information I knew about the guy, I also held against him. He was a millionaire, single and therefore probably a playboy. He was, in short, the younger version of my father, which meant that I was interested in getting to know him as much as I was in catching cholera.

“You have five seconds to explain why you were trying to mug my mother.” His voice was bone-dry, but his eyes? Fuming. “Five.”

His mother. Crap. I really was in trouble. Though I couldn’t find it in me to regret my decision, I’d been spot-on. She was a white, rich woman from suburbia who wouldn’t miss the cash nor the bag. But it was unfortunate that my father’s business partner for the past six months was her son.

“Let go of my wrists,” I hissed through still-clenched teeth, “before I knee you in the balls.”

“Four.” He ignored me completely, squeezing them harder together, his eyes daring me to do something we both knew I was too much of a coward to even try. I winced. He wasn’t really hurting me and he knew it. He squeezed just enough to make me seriously uncomfortable, and scare the bejesus out of me.

No one had ever hurt me physically before. It was the unwritten rule of the rich and noble. You could ignore your child, send them off to boarding school in Switzerland and leave them with the nanny until they reached eighteen, but God forbid you lay a hand on them. I looked around for the YSL bag, confusion and panic churning in my gut. Rexroth caught up with my plan quick enough, because he kicked the bag between us. It bumped into my boots with a thud.

“Don’t get too attached to it, sweetheart. Three.”

“My father would kill you if he knew you touched me,” I sputtered, trying to regain balance. “I’m—”

“Jordan Van Der Zee’s daughter,” he cut in matter-of-factly, saving me the introduction. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t give two shits.”

My father was in business with Rexroth, and held forty-nine percent of Fiscal Heights Holdings, the company Trent incorporated with his high school friends. It made Jordan a threat to the man in front of me, even if he wasn’t exactly Rexroth’s boss. Trent’s intense frown confirmed he really wasn’t scared. But I knew my father would flip his shit if he knew Trent had touched me. Jordan Van Der Zee rarely spared me a look, but when he did, it was in order to assert power over me.

I wanted to taunt Rexroth back. I wasn’t even entirely sure why. Maybe because he was humiliating me—though part of me acknowledged I deserved it.

His eyes shot daggers at me, burning the skin wherever they landed. My cheeks blossomed into crimson, and it hit me hard, because he was nearly twice my age, and outrageously off-limits. I was feeling juvenile enough getting caught red-handed without the side-bonus of feeling my thighs clench as his fingers dug into my wrists like he wanted to split them open and pop my veins out.

“What are you going to do? Hit me?” I jerked my chin up, my eyes, voice, and stance defiant. His mother was white, so his dad must be either black or biracial. Trent was tall, built, and tan. His black hair was buzzed close to the scalp, marines-style, and he wore charcoal slacks, a collared white shirt, and a vintage Rolex. Gorgeous prick. Stunning, arrogant bastard.

“Two.”

“You’ve been counting down from five for ten minutes, smartass,” I notified him, one eyebrow arching. He let loose a grin so devilish, I swear it looked like he had fangs, dropping my wrists like they were on fire. I immediately collected one into my palm and rubbed it in circles. He hovered over me like a shadow, completing the countdown with a growl, “One.”

We both stared at each other, me in horror and him in amusement. My pulse skyrocketed, and I wondered what it looked like from the inside. If the ventricles in my heart were bursting with blood and adrenaline. He raised his hand teasingly slowly and tugged my hoodie down, letting my mane of long, wavy blonde hair cascade all the way to my waist. My nerves shredded into ribbons at how exposed I felt. His eyes explored me lazily, like I was an item he was debating whether or not to buy at the Dollar Tree. I was a good-looking girl—a fact that both pleased and upset my parents, but Trent was a man, and I was a senior in high school, at least for the next two weeks. I knew rich men loved their women young, but jailbait was rarely their jam.

After a stretched beat, I broke the silence, “What now?”

“Now I wait.” He almost caressed my cheek—almost—making my eyes flutter and my heart loop in a way that provoked me to feel both younger and older than my years.

“Wait?” I furrowed my brows. “Wait for what?”

“Wait until this leverage on you becomes useful, Edie Van Der Zee.”

He knew my name. My Christian name. It was surprising enough that he recognized me as Jordan’s daughter just from seeing me across the lawn at his friend’s barbecue weeks ago, but this…this was oddly exciting. Why would Trent Rexroth know my name unless he’d asked for it? My father wouldn’t talk about me at work. That was a hard fact. He tried to ignore my existence whenever he could.

“What could you possibly need from me?” I scrunched my nose, skeptical. He was a powerful, thirty-something mogul and so completely out of my league we weren’t even playing on the same field. I wasn’t being hard on myself. It was by choice. I could be rich like him—correction, I was potentially fifty times richer. I had the world at my feet, but I chose to kick it aside instead of making it my oyster, much to my father’s consternation.

But Trent Rexroth didn’t know that. Trent Rexroth didn’t know that at all.

Under his arms and scrutiny, I felt incredibly alive. Rexroth leaned in my direction, his lips, made for poetry and sin and pleasure, smiling into the skin between my throat and my ear, and rustled, “What I need is to keep your father on a short leash. Congratulations, you’ve just reduced yourself to potential sacrifice.”

The only thing I could think of when he moved away and escorted me to my car, gripping the back of my neck from behind like I was a wild animal in desperate need of taming, was that my life had just gotten so much more complicated.

He tapped the roof of the Audi and smiled through the rolled down window, tipping his Wayfarers down. “Drive safe.”

“Fuck you.” My hands shook, trying to pull down the hand break.

“Not in a million years, kid. You’re not worth the jail time.”

I was already eighteen, but it hardly made any difference. I stopped, seconds short of spitting in his face, when he rummaged in his mother’s bag and threw something small and hard into my car. “For the road. Friendly advice: stay away from people’s pockets and bags. Not everyone’s as agreeable as me.”

He wasn’t agreeable. He was the very definition of a jerk. Before I could fashion a comeback, he turned around and walked away, leaving a trail of an intoxicating scent and interested women. I looked down at what he’d tossed in my lap, still dazed and disturbed by his last comment.

A Snickers bar.

In other words, he’d ordered me to chill—treating me like I was a child. A joke.

I drove away from the promenade straight to Tobago Beach, getting a small loan from Bane to pay my way through the next month. I was too distracted to try to hit another mark for some fast cash.

But that day changed something and, somehow, twisted my life in a direction I never knew it could take.

It was the day when I realized I hated Trent Rexroth.

The day when I put him on my shit list, with no possibility for parole.

And the day I realized I could still feel alive under the right arms.

Too bad they were also so, so wrong.





She’s a maze with no escape.

An ethereal, steady pulse. She’s there, but just barely.

I love her so much I sometimes hate her.

And it terrifies me, because deep down, I know what she is.

An unsolvable puzzle.

And I know who I am.

The idiot who would try to fix her.

At any cost.



“HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN you wrote it?” Sonya held the whiskey-ringed paper like it was her fucking newborn, a curtain of tears glittering in her eyes. The drama levels were high this session. Her voice was gauzy and I knew what she was after. A breakthrough. A moment. That pivotal scene in a Hollywood flick, after which everything changed. The strange girl shakes off her inhibitions, the dad realizes he is being a cold-ass prick, and they work through their emotions, blah blah pass the Kleenex blah.

I scrubbed my face, glancing at my Rolex. “I was drunk off of my ass when I wrote it, so I probably felt like a burger to dilute the alcohol,” I deadpanned. I didn’t talk much—big fucking surprise—that’s why they called me The Mute. When I did, it was with Sonya, who knew my boundaries, or Luna, who ignored them, and me.

“Do you get drunk often?”

Chagrined. That was Sonya’s expression. She mostly kept it schooled, but I saw through the thick layers of makeup and professionalism.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no.”

Loud silence lingered in the room. I strummed my fingers against my cell phone screen, trying to remember whether I’d sent out that contract to the Koreans or not. I should have been nicer, seeing as my four-year-old daughter was sitting right beside me, witnessing this exchange. I should have been a lot of things, but the only thing I was, the only thing I could be outside of work, was angry, and furious, and—why, Luna? What the fuck have I done to you?—confused. How I’d become a thirty-three-year-old single dad who didn’t have time, nor the patience, for any female other than his kid.

“Seahorses. Let’s talk about them.” Sonya laced her fingers together, changing the topic. She did that whenever my patience was strung out and about to snap. Her smile was warm but neutral, just like her office. My eyes skimmed the pictures hung behind her, of young, laughing children—the kind of bullshit you buy at IKEA—and the soft yellow wallpaper, the flowery, polite armchairs. Was she trying too hard, or was I not trying hard enough? It was difficult to tell at this point. I shifted my gaze to my daughter and offered her a smirk. She didn’t return it. Couldn’t blame her.

“Luna, do you want to tell Daddy why seahorses are your favorite?” Sonya chirped.

Luna grinned at her therapist conspiratorially. At four, she didn’t talk. At all. Not a single word or a lonely syllable. There was no problem with her vocal chords. In fact, she screamed when she was hurting and coughed when she was congested and hummed absentmindedly when a Justin Bieber played on the radio (which, some would say, was tragic in itself.)

Luna didn’t talk because she didn’t want to talk. It was a psychological issue, not physical, stemming from hell-knows-what. What I did know was that my daughter was different, indifferent, and unusual. People said she was “special”, as an excuse to treat her like a freak. I was no longer able to shield her from the peculiar looks and questioning arched eyebrows. In fact, it was becoming increasingly difficult to brush off her silence as introversion, and I was beginning to grow tired of hiding it, anyway.

Luna was, is, always will be outrageously smart. She scored higher than average on all the tests she’d been put through over the years, and there had been too many to count. She understood every single word spoken to her. She was mute by choice, but she was too young to make that choice. Trying to talk her out of it was both impossible and ironic. Which was why I dragged my ass to Sonya’s office twice a week in the middle of a workday, desperately trying to coax my daughter to stop boycotting the world.

“Actually, I can tell you exactly why Luna loves seahorses.” Sonya pursed her lips, plastering my drunken note to her desk. Luna would sometimes speak a word or two when she and her therapist were all alone, but never when I was in the room. Sonya told me Luna had a languid voice, like her eyes, and that it was soft and delicate and perfect. She had no impediment at all. “She just sounds like a kid, Trent. One day, you’ll hear it, too.”

I cocked a tired eyebrow, propping my head on my hand as I stared at the busty redhead. I had three deals I needed to attend to back at work—four if I’d forgotten to send the contract to the Koreans—and my time was too fucking precious for seahorse talk.

“Yeah?”

Sonya reached across her desk, cupping my big bronzed hand in her small white one. “Seahorses are Luna’s favorite animal because the male seahorse is the only animal in nature to carry the baby and not the mother. The male seahorse is the one to incubate the offspring. To fall pregnant. To nest. Isn’t that beautiful?”

I blinked a couple of times, slicing my gaze to my daughter. I was grossly unequipped to deal with women my own age, so taking care of Luna always felt like shooting a goddamn arsenal of bullets in the dark, hoping something would find the target. I frowned, searching my brain for something—anything, any-fucking-thing—that would put a smile on my daughter’s face.

It occurred to me that social services would scoop her ass up and take her away from me had they known what an emotionally stunted dumbass I was.

“I…” I began to say. Sonya cleared her throat, jumping to my rescue.

“Hey, Luna? Why don’t you help Sydney hang up some of the summer camp decorations outside? You have a great touch with design.”

Sydney was the secretary at Sonya’s practice. My daughter had warmed up to her, seeing as we spent a lot of time sitting in the reception area, waiting for our appointments. Luna nodded and hopped down from her seat.

My daughter was beautiful. Her caramel skin and light brown curls made her deep blue eyes shine like a lighthouse. My daughter was beautiful and the world was ugly and I didn’t know how to help her.

And it killed me like cancer. Slowly. Surely. Savagely.

The door closed with a soft thud before Sonya trained her eyes on me, her smile fading.

I glanced at my watch again. “Are you coming over to fuck tonight, or what?”

“Jesus, Trent.” She shook her head, clasping the back of her neck with her laced fingers. I let her have her meltdown. This was a reoccurring issue with Sonya. For a reason beyond my grasp, she thought she could tell me off because she sometimes had my dick in her mouth. The truth was, every ounce of power she had over me was because of Luna. My daughter worshipped the ground Sonya walked upon and allowed herself to smile more in her therapist’s presence.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“Why don’t you take it as a wake-up call? Luna’s love for seahorses is a way to say—‘Daddy, I appreciate you for taking care of me’. Your daughter needs you.”

“My daughter has me,” I gritted through clenched teeth. It was the truth. What more could I have given Luna that I hadn’t already? I was her dad when she needed someone to open the pickle jar and her mom when she needed someone to tuck her undershirt into her black ballet tights.

Three years ago Luna’s mother, Val, had put Luna in her crib, grabbed her keys and two large suitcases, and disappeared from our lives. We hadn’t been together, Val and I. Luna was the product of a coked-up bachelor party in Chicago that had spun out of control. She was made in the back room of a strip club with Val straddling me while another stripper climbed on top of my face. Looking back, screwing a stripper bareback ought to have awarded me with some kind of a Guinness record for stupidity. I was twenty-eight—not a kid by any stretch of the imagination—and smart enough to know what I was doing was wrong.

But at twenty-eight, I was still thinking with my dick and my wallet.

At thirty-three, I was thinking with my brain and my daughter’s happiness in mind.

“When is this charade going to end?” I cut Sonya off, getting tired of running in circles around the real topic at hand. “Name your price and I’ll pay it. What would it take for you to go private with us?”

Sonya had been working for a private institution partially funded by the state and partially funded by the likes of yours truly. She couldn’t have made more than 80k a year, and I was being extremely fucking optimistic. I’d offered her 150k, the best health insurance on the market for her and her son, and the same amount of hours if she’d agree to come work with Luna exclusively. Sonya let out a long-suffering sigh, her azure eyes crinkling. “Don’t you get it, Trent? You should be focusing on getting Luna to open up to more people, not allowing her to depend on me for communication. Besides, Luna is not the only child who needs me. I enjoy working with a wide range of clients.”

“She loves you,” I countered, plucking dark lint from my impeccable Gucci suit. Did she think I didn’t want my daughter to speak to me? To my parents? To my friends? I’d tried everything. Luna wouldn’t budge. The least I could do was make sure she wasn’t terribly lonely in that head of hers.

“She loves you, too. It will just take more time for her to come out of her shell.”

“Let’s hope it happens before I find a way to break it.” I rose to my feet, only half-joking. My daughter made me feel more helpless than any grown-ass person I’d ever dealt with.

“Trent.” Sonya’s voice pleaded when I was at the door. I stopped, but didn’t turn around. No. Fuck it. She didn’t talk about her family much when she came over for a quick fuck after Luna and the nanny were already asleep, but I knew she was divorced with one kid. Fuck normal Sonya and fuck her normal son. They didn’t understand Luna and me. On paper, maybe. But the real us? The broken, the tortured, the curiosities? Not a chance. Sonya was a good therapist. Unethical? Maybe, but even that was debatable. We had sex knowing there was nothing more to it. No emotions, no complications, no expectations. She was a good therapist, but, like the rest of the world, she was pretty bad at understanding what I was going through. What we were going through.

“Summer break has just started. Please, I urge you to make room for Luna. You work such long hours. She’d really benefit from being around you more.”

I twisted in place, studying her face.

“What are you suggesting?”

“Maybe take a day off every week to spend time with her?”

A few slow blinks from my end were enough to tell her she was grossly overstepping. She backpedaled, but not without a fight. Her lips thinned, telling me she was growing tired of me, too.

“I get it. You’re a big hotshot and can’t afford the time off. Promise me you’ll take her to work with you once a week? Camila can watch over her. I know your office building offers a play room and other amenities suitable for children.” Camila was Luna’s nanny. At sixty-two, with one grandchild and another on the way, her employment with us was on borrowed time. So whenever I heard her name, something inside me stirred uncomfortably.

I nodded. Sonya closed her eyes, letting out a breath. “Thank you.”

In the lobby, I collected Luna’s Dora the Explorer backpack and stuffed her toy seahorse into it. I offered her my hand and she took it. We made the silent journey to the elevator.

“Spaghetti?” I asked, glutton for disappointment. I’d never get a response.

Nothing.

“How about FroYo?”

Nada.

The elevator pinged. We strode inside. Luna was wearing her black Chucks, a simple pair of jeans, and a white tee. The kind of stuff I could imagine the Van Der Zee girl wearing, when she wasn’t busy mugging innocent people. Luna looked nothing like Jaime’s daughter, Daria, or the other girls in her class who preferred frills and dresses. Just as well, as she found zero interest in them, either.

“How about spaghetti and a FroYo?” I bargained. And I never bargained. Ever.

Her lax hold of my hand tightened a little. Getting warmer.

“We’ll pour the FroYo on top of the spaghetti and eat it in front of Stranger Things. Two episodes. Break bedtime routine. You can go to bed at nine instead of eight.” Fuck it. It was the weekend and my usual willing bodies could wait. Tonight, I was going to watch Netflix with my kid. Be a seahorse.

Luna squeezed my hand once in a silent agreement.

“No chocolate or cookies after dinner, though,” I warned. I ran a tight ship when it came to food and routines in the house. Luna squeezed my hand again.

“Tell it to someone who cares, missy. I’m your dad and I make the rules. No chocolate. Or boys—after dinner or otherwise.”

A ghost of a smile passed on her face before she frowned again, clutching her bag with the stuffed seahorse to her chest. My own daughter had never smiled at me, not even once, not even by accident, not even at all.

Sonya was wrong. I wasn’t a seahorse.

I was the ocean.





WEIGHTLESS.

The feeling never got old.

Floating on a fat wave, becoming one with the ocean. Curving it skillfully—knees bent, stomach tucked in, chin high, focusing on the only thing that really mattered in life—not falling.

My black wetsuit clung to my skin, keeping my temperature warm, even in the briny water at six in the morning. Bane was charging on another wave in my peripheral, riding it the same way he did his Harley—recklessly, aggressively, ruthlessly. The ocean was loud. It crashed against the white shore, deafening my negative thoughts and tuning out nagging hang-ups. It switched off my anxiety, and for an hour—just for one hour—there was no drama and no financial worries and no plans to be made or dreams to be shattered. There were no Jordan and Lydia Van Der Zee, no expectations and no threats dangling over my head.

Just me.

Just the water.

Just the sunrise.

Oh, and Bane.

“Water’s fucking freezing,” Bane growled from his wave, squatting down to prolong every moment of gliding on one of nature’s most arduous forces. He was much taller and heavier than me, but still good enough to go pro if he really put his mind into it. Whenever he rode a sick wave, he cleaved to it with bloody claws. Because surfing was like sex—it didn’t matter how often you’ve done it, every time was different. There was always something new to be learned, and each encounter was unique—wild with potential.

“Not a good day for hang eleven,” I grunted, my abs flexing as I rounded the edge of a wave to keep the ride alive. Bane liked surfing naked. He liked it because I hated when he did it, and making me feel uncomfortable was his favorite pastime. Seeing his long dick flapping in the air, on the other hand, was distracting and annoying.

“You’re going to eat it, Gidget,” he said, rolling his ringed tongue over his pierced bottom lip. Gidget was a nickname for small female surfers, and Bane called me that only when he wanted to piss me off. His balance was already stuttering, and he’d barely hung onto his wave. If someone’s board was going to snap, it was his.

“Dream on,” I shouted over the ferocious waves.

“No, really. Your dad’s here.”

“My dad is…what?” I’d misheard him. I was sure of it. My father had never sought me out before, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to make an exception at butt crack o’clock, on a sandy beach that couldn’t accommodate his expensive suit addiction. I squinted toward the coast, losing stability, and not just physically. The beachfront was lined with palm trees and bungalows in pink, green, yellow, and blue. Sure enough, amidst the carnival of bars, hot dog stands, and folded yellow loungers, there was Jordan Van Der Zee. Standing on the beach, the sun rising behind him like an inferno mounting straight from the gates of hell. He was wearing a three-piece Brooks Brothers ensemble and a disapproving glare, both of which he had refused to strip out of even after his working hours.

Even from afar, I could see his left eye ticking in annoyance.

Even from afar, I could feel his hot breath cascading down my face, no doubt with another demand.

Even from afar, despair clutched my throat in a death grip, like he was too close, too severe, too much.

I slipped on the board, my back slamming against the water. Pain shot from my spine to my head. Bane didn’t know my father, but like everyone else in this town—he knew of him. Jordan owned half of downtown Todos Santos—the other half belonging to Baron Spencer—and had recently announced he was considering running for mayor. He smiled big for every camera in his vicinity, hugged local business owners, kissed babies, and had even attended some of my high school functions to show his support for the community.

He was either loved, feared, or hated by everyone. I stood with the latter group, knowing firsthand that his wrath was a double-bladed sword that could slice you open deep.

The taste of salt attacked my tongue and I spat, tugging the leash on my ankle to find my floating yellow board. I climbed on, flattened my stomach against it, and started paddling toward the shore, my movements quick.

“Let the prick wait,” Bane’s voice boomed behind me. I shot him a look. He was straddling his black surfboard, staring at me with fire in his eyes. His long blond hair was plastered to his forehead and cheeks, his forest-green eyes blazing with purpose. I watched him through the lens my father probably had. A dirty beach-bum with tattoos covering the better half of his torso and entire neck. A Viking, a caveman, a Neanderthal who felt comfortable living on the outskirts of society.

A bad apple.

Van Der Zees always hang with the shiniest fruit in the basket, Edie.

Snapping my head back to the shore, I paddled faster.

“Fucking coward,” Bane yelled loud enough for Jordan to hear.

I didn’t answer, and not for lack of words. Bane didn’t know the whole story. I needed to stay civilized with my father. He held my future in his callous hands. I wanted it back.

Bane got his name for a reason. With zero filters, he was essentially a glorified bully. Only reason he was never kicked out of school was because his mother had a shit-ton of connections with the city council. But Bane ruled us all. Every single damn kid in the school. The rich assholes. The corrupted footballers. The cheerleaders who made the other girls’ existence a living hell.

Bane wasn’t a good guy. He was a liar, a thief, and a drug dealer.

And my sometime boyfriend.

So, while Bane was right—my father was indeed a world-class prick—Jordan was right about something else. I was obviously making dubious life choices.

“Jordan?” I asked, hoisting the board horizontally and tucking it under my arm as I strode toward him. The cool sand clung to my feet, numbing my skin. The rush of the surf still coursed through my veins, but I knew the adrenaline would die down soon and I’d freeze. I didn’t wince, knowing my father would take small pleasure in watching my discomfort and deliberately lengthen the conversation.

He jerked his chin behind my shoulder, his eyes narrowed to slits. “That the Protsenko kid?”

I scrunched my nose, a nervous tick. Even though Jordan was a first-generation immigrant, he had a problem with me making friends with a Russian kid who’d come here with his mom after the downfall of the Soviet Union.

“I told you to stay away from him.”

“He’s not the only person you’ve told me to stay away from.” I sniffed, squinting to the horizon. “Guess we agree to disagree.”

He thumbed the collar of his dress shirt, loosening it around his neck. “See, this is where you’re wrong. I’ve never agreed to disagree with you, Edie. I simply choose my battles. It is called good parenting, and I try to execute it as much as possible.” My father was a chameleon, interchangeable, and adaptable to a fault. He masked his ruthlessness with concern, and his bulldozing ways with enthusiasm and a type-A driven personality. It was his actions that made him the monster he’d become in my eyes. From afar, though, he was just another law-abiding citizen. A poor Dutch boy who’d come to the States with his parents, fulfilled the American dream, and became a self-made millionaire through hard work and merciless wit.

He sounded concerned, and maybe he was, but not about my wellbeing.

“Father.” I wiped my face with my arm, hating that I had to call him that just to please him. He hadn’t earned the title. “You’re not here to talk about ‘the Protsenko kid’. How can I help you this morning?” I jammed the surfboard into the sand and leaned against it, and he reached to touch my face, before remembering I was wet and withdrawing his hand back into his pocket. He looked so human in that moment. Almost like he didn’t have a hidden agenda.

“Where did you hide your acceptance letters to Boston University and Columbia?” He parked his hands on his waist, and my jaw almost dropped to the sand. He was not supposed to know that—obviously. I’d been accepted to five universities. Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Brown, and Boston University. My GPA was 4.1, and my last name was Van Der Zee, meaning these people knew my father would donate a couple million dollars and a kidney to the fine institution that would unburden him from my presence. Unfortunately, I’d never had much interest in attending an out-of-state college. The obvious reason was my surfing. It was my oxygen and air. The sun and the open sky were food to my soul. But the main reason was that the only person I cared about in this world was in California, and I wasn’t moving away. Not even to Stanford up north.

Jordan knew that damn well.

“I didn’t hide them. I burned them.” I stripped out of my wetsuit, the latex slapping my flesh punishingly as I revealed my small purple bikini underneath. “I’m staying close to him.”

“I see,” he said, knowing we were not talking about Bane. The whole reason why my father had decided to have this conversation at the beach and not at home was because he couldn’t chance my mother overhearing us. Lydia Van Der Zee was in a fragile state, her sanity constantly hanging by a thin thread. Shouting was a hard limit for her, and this topic was volatile enough to bloom into a massive fight.

“Just say it.” I closed my eyes, a sigh rolling from my throat.

“Edie, I think I’ve failed you as a father, and for that, I apologize.”

I was shuddering. The adrenaline from surfing had long subdued. I was standing practically naked and exposed, waiting for the stingy sun to come out and caress my skin.

“Apology accepted.” I didn’t buy it for one moment. “So what’s your next scheme? Because I’m sure there is one. You didn’t come here to check in on me.”

“Since you are not going to go to college this year—and let us be clear that this does not mean you will not be attending next year—and since you’ve officially graduated from high school, I think you should come work for me.”

For. Not with. The devil is in the small details.

“In an office? No, thank you,” I said flatly. I taught kids how to surf three times a week. Now that it was summer break, I was trying to pick up more work. Yes, I was also mugging on the regular ever since my father cut off my money stream. I tried to pay for my gas and insurance and clothes and life and him, and wasn’t going to apologize for stealing the cash. When I wasn’t stealing—I was pawning stuff from my father’s mansion. The one he’d purchased in Todos Santos the minute he shoved himself into the Three Comma Club. Jewelry. Electronics. Musical instruments. Hell, I’d pawn the family dog if we had one. I had very little limits when it came to keeping the dude I loved happy and content. And, yes, stealing wasn’t a hard limit. Although I only stole from those who could sustain the financial hit. I made sure of that.

“It wasn’t a request. It was an order,” my father said, tugging at my elbow. I dug my heels deeper into the sand.

“And if I refuse?”

“Then Theodore has to go,” my father enunciated, unblinking. The ease with which he said his name broke my heart. “He’s been a constant distraction in your life as it is. I sometimes wonder how much further you’d have gotten if I’d done it years ago.”

Chaos brewed within me. I wanted to push him away, spit in his face, and yell, but I couldn’t because he was right. Jordan did have power over me. And connections galore. If he wanted Theo out of the picture, he’d make it happen. No sweat.

“What’s the job?” I bit the inside of my cheek until the metallic taste of blood rolled in my mouth.

“Whatever there is to do around the office. Mainly legwork. No filing or taking phone calls. You need a good dose of reality, Edie. Getting accepted to several Ivy League universities and turning them all down so you could spend your days surfing with a pothead? Those days are over. Time to apply yourself. You will come with me every morning at seven a.m. and open the office—and you will not leave until I tell you to, be it seven, or eight at night. Understood?”

My father had never gone this far to try to punish me, and I was already well over eighteen, but that meant absolutely nothing. I still lived under his roof, I still ate his food, and most importantly—I was still at his mercy.

“Why are you doing this to me? Why here? Why now?”

His left eyelid ticked again, his jaw tensing. “Please, you brought this on yourself with your thoughtless lifestyle. It’s time you lived up to your name. There’s no need for these theatrics.”

Then he turned around and stalked to the Range Rover waiting on the curb of the empty boardwalk. The engine was purring, his driver shifting his eyes between us and the time on his phone. A thin smile found his lips. My father had taken less than ten minutes to put me in my place.

I stood there, rooted to the ground, like an ice statue. I hated Jordan with the kind of passion people usually reserved for love. I hated him like hate was supposed to be felt—it tainted my soul and poisoned my mood.

“I’ve a feeling you’re now regretting not taking my advice to tell him to piss off,” Bane muttered beside me as he dug the sharp edge of his board into the sand and collected his wild blond hair into a man bun. I didn’t answer.

“Sounds like your ass has been served.” He elbowed me, plucking a Budweiser from his backpack lying on the sand, because who cared that it was seven in the morning?

I clenched my seashell necklace and gritted, “You have no idea.”





CRAZY.

The place was the very definition of madness.

I’d never been to my dad’s office before, but I knew anarchy when it looked me in the eye. And on the fifteenth floor of the Oracle building in Beverly Hills in which Fiscal Heights Holdings was located, I met true chaos.

The only man whose madness could match Bane’s.

Baron ‘Vicious’ Spencer.

The whole place was buzzing with ringtones, women gossiping in St. John pencil skirts and men arguing in sharp suits. Ivory-colored granite and antique dark-brown leather adorned the reception lounge of FHH. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered the perfect view of ugly, beautiful, fake, real, raw Los Angeles in all its glory.

And there, in luxury, in indulgence, in power, I came face-to-face with the man who was deemed a legend at All Saint High, so much so that even over a decade later, they’d named a bench after him—Vicious.

“If you are going to plagiarize a whole article about the stock exchange, at least don’t steal it from the fucking Financial Times. Who hired your ass as head of PR? Who?” The man with the sleek raven hair and dark indigo eyes threw a batch of documents in a horrified-looking young man’s face. The papers rained down like hail, not confetti. Vicious’ jaw ticked as he stabbed a finger into the guy’s ironed shirt.

“Fix this shit before you box up the two and a half pictures of your fucking family you probably brought here to domesticate your four-by-four-inch office, dickface. And do it by five, because when I sit down for my six o’clock meeting, I want to act like it never happened. Am I clear?”

Although nearly every person on the floor had gathered in an open circle to watch the show, no one called Vicious out on his rotten behavior. Not even my father. Everybody seemed too scared of him, and while I felt really bad for the PR guy, who mumbled that his name was Russell, I didn’t want to start off my employment by pissing more people off.

“Please, sir. You can’t fire me.” Russell nearly dropped to his knees. It was nothing short of torture to watch. I shrank into the sensible black wool dress with a French designer tag I’d snatched from my mother’s closet that morning and tried not to flinch.

“I can, and I am, and fuck, where is my coffee?” Vicious looked around, tapping his finger on his lip. He had a wedding band on his left hand. You’d think marriage would have made him mellower. You’d be wrong.

Suddenly, the commotion stopped. The throng of suits sliced in two and in walked three men I recognized all too well from the financial magazines lying around my house.

Dean Cole, Jaime Followhill, and Trent Rexroth.

The first two were merely decoration, standing on either side of Trent, a few inches shorter, and leaner, and generally less God-like. It was Trent who had the room, who stole the show. He wore a baby blue button-down shirt and light gray slacks. He looked like sex, he walked like sex, and I was obviously not the only one to think so, because at least three women in my vicinity let out breathless giggles.

“Spencer.” Trent regarded him coolly, clutching a Starbucks in his hand. “Is Aunt Flow in town? Tone this shit down. It’s eight a.m. on a Monday.”

“Yeah, what crawled up your ass, V?” Dean Cole chimed in, his wide smile making the room significantly warmer and less daunting.

“Language,” my father boomed beside me, clutching my arm tighter. I’d forgotten he held me in place. He’d first started manhandling me at sixteen, when I showed up at his house with two rings in my left nostril, and moved to bruising grips when I’d decorated my lower torso with a huge back cross. It was never too bad—as I said before, rich people don’t hit their children—but we both knew he did it because I hated standing next to him. The fact he’d sometimes leave bruises was probably a nice bonus in his eyes.

The cross wasn’t about religion. It was a message, marred with bold, black ink.

Do. Not. Cross.

“Dudebro is fired. I want his laptop on my desk by noon. Not to mention all his passwords, company phone, and parking pass, which I will give to someone more worthy. Maybe the fucking kid who delivers us fruit baskets every morning.” Vicious waved in Russell’s general direction, snatching one of two coffee cups from Jaime’s hands. My heart tightened.

Trent kicked what I assumed was his office door open silently. I probably shouldn’t have felt sheer glee at how they’d all dismissed my father. “No one’s getting fired today. Besides, we have bigger fish to fry. In my office.”

“A—fuck your fish. And B—don’t order me around,” Vicious finished his coffee in two swallows and handed the cup to the person nearest to him. “C—coffee. I need more of it. Now.”

“Vicious…” Jaime cleared his throat as the guy holding Vicious’ cup quickly ran to the elevator to get him a second Starbucks.

“The man copied and pasted a Financial Times article to our site. We could have gotten sued, or worse.”

“P-please,” Russell stuttered, tickling the blood sport inclinations in any predator in his vicinity with his overflowing weakness, mine included. “It was a mistake. I had no time to write the article. My daughter is two weeks old. She doesn’t sleep well at night…”

I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Give the man a break!” I blurted out. I wiggled my arm free, shaking my father off as my legs started working their way to the HotHoles. All four men snapped their gazes to me, and even though they all looked surprised, Trent was the only one who had that extra layer of abhorrence on his face. I ignored him, pointing at Russell.

“He said he was sorry. Why would he deliberately screw up? Come on, he’s got a family to feed.”

“I love this.” Cole chuckled, slapping Spencer’s back and shaking his head. “Bossed around by a teenager. Cute.”

My cheeks turned scarlet. Vicious looked indifferent—barely acknowledging my existence and looking back to Russell, shooing him away and sparing him his redundancy, while Trent bared his teeth, turning his focus to me.

“Is this bring-your-kid-to-work day? Because I don’t remember getting the email.” His voice was laced with enough venom to kill a whale. I returned a stern stare, burrowing into faux confidence I wasn’t feeling.

You’re a potential sacrifice, his words swam in my head, drowning every positive thought I’d had about him and his good looks. He’d said it mere weeks ago, but I’d almost forgotten he’d be a complication in working here.

“Edie will be working here for a while.” Jordan pulled me to his side again, not unlike a possession.

“Says who?” Trent asked.

“Says me.”

“I haven’t agreed to that. None of us have.”

“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t ask.” My father smiled politely, choking my arm with his thin, strong fingers. I ignored the pain. Starting another beef with him could lead to me not going to see Theo on Saturday, and I couldn’t risk that. Trent strode in our direction, every step he took sending a current to my body, like paddling into turbulent waters.

“With all due respect to white, upper-class nepotism and awarding your underqualified daughter with a job most deserving candidates would kill for, every major HR decision goes through all of the partners, correct?” He turned to his friends, who nodded solemnly, forgetting all about poor Russell. I was now the newest victim to mess with, spineless and helpless. A little mouse lured into a fat cats’ den.

“For God’s sake, Rexroth. She is going to be an assistant, not an account manager.” Jordan’s impatient wave did nothing to make matters better. His grip on my arm became so tight, my bones were ready to pop, sticking out of my skin.

“She is going to be on this floor, have access to our things. I don’t care if her job is to peel bananas in the kitchen. This goes to a board meeting tomorrow morning. End of discussion,” Trent growled.

All eyes were on him, the dark energy in the room buzzing with shock. The Mute had spoken. Not only a few words—but sentences. And it was because of me, no less.

I’d finally found him. The one man scarier than my father. Not that I was looking. Because while Vicious made a lot of noise, Trent Rexroth was the silent hunter who would circle you for hours, striking when you least expected it.

A desolate panther. Wild, quiet, and slick. His pale, cold eyes ran the length of my father like he was muck, coming to stop where his hand held my arm like a vise grip. I’d never seen anyone look at my father with such disdain. Jordan’s fingers eased on my skin.

“You’re really going to fight me over this.” My father scrubbed his smooth cheek with his knuckles, incredulous. Figures. He was so used to my mother and me bowing our heads to his every whim, I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t Team Rexroth. Sure, The Mute didn’t want me around—but I didn’t want to be around, either, so we were on the same wavelength. Trent stopped his stride inches from Father, where I was able to breathe in his singular scent, of a clean man and a dirty fuck. He oozed sensuality, making me want messy, forbidden things. My reaction to him was almost sickening, and I made another mental note to stay away from him.

Trent tipped his head down to meet my father’s eyes, whispering darkly, “I would fight you to death over anything, Jordan, including the service provider for the coffee machine, if need be.”

Bad blood. This place was like poison to the soul. Luckily, it looked like Rexroth hated me, and the HotHoles always had each other’s backs. That was the legend in All Saints High, and I very much doubted they’d break their tradition for little ol’ moi.

“Fine,” Jordan bit out. “We’ll take it to the boardroom.”

Trent’s gaze cut to mine and stopped when his grays met my blues. The fading noise of Vicious barking at people to move along, and my father finally letting go of my arm to move toward Jaime and Dean—probably trying to gain both allies and sympathy—died down.

“I don’t like you,” Rexroth whispered under his breath, his voice harsh.

“I never asked you to.” I shrugged.

“You won’t be working here.” His arm brushed my shoulder, but I didn’t think it was by accident. I let loose a sugary smile, scanning his face and torso for no other reason other than to taunt him. “Good, you’ll be doing me a favor. My father is the one forcing me to work here. He’s pissed I turned down five Ivy League colleges. Remind me, Mr. Rexroth—which top tier university did you attend for your degree?”

The low blow was supposed to retrieve some of my lost dignity, but bile burned my throat, shotgunned from my stomach. Trent Rexroth was known in Todos Santos as an exhilarating success story, rising from the gutters of San Diego. He went to a shitty state college that accepted even the illiterate, working as a janitor on campus after hours. Those were given facts he’d recited himself in an interview for Forbes.

Had I really just tried to make him feel less worthy because he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth? It made me sicker than wearing my mother’s designer garbs.

Trent smiled, leaning into my body, into my soul. His smirk was more frightening than any scowl, frown, or grimace I’d ever seen. It threatened to tear me apart and sew me back together however he pleased.

“Edie.” His lips were dangerously close to my ear. A delicious shiver moved down my spine. Something warm rolled inside of me, begging to unknot and flower into an orgasm. What was happening, and why the hell was it happening? “If you know what’s best for you, you will turn around and leave right now.”

I elevated my head to meet his gaze and showed him my version of a grin. I was born and raised in a world of intimidating rich men, and I’d be damned if I go down like my mother—addicted to xanax, Gucci, and a man who paraded her on his arm for a short, glorious decade before keeping her solely for public appearances.

“I think I’m going to go find my desk now. I’d wish you a good day, Mr. Rexroth, but I think that ship has sailed. You’re a miserable man. Oh, and one for the road.” I fished for a Nature Valley bar in my mother’s purse and plastered it to his hard, muscled chest. My heart slammed into my neck, fluttering like a caged bird.

I hurried after my father as he glided down the vast, golden-hued hallway, not daring to look back. Knowing I’d started a war and arrived unequipped. But I also knew something else that gave me a surfer’s rush—if I could slam the final nail in my employment coffin and make Rexroth vote against me, I’d be off the hook.

I had just the plan for it. All I had to do was act like a brat. Game on.





I ATE LUNCH BY MYSELF.

Growing up as an only child because my parents couldn’t afford to give me siblings (a decision I respected) meant that dinners weren’t a noisy event. Still, that did not make them silent.

I met true loneliness the day Luna stopped speaking. It happened days after her second birthday, and deflated my already shaky confidence regarding parenthood. Up until then, being a single parent was hard—but not impossible. I had the money and resources to hire the best nannies on the planet, my parents to rely on when I needed to get out of town, and my friends and their wives, who were always accommodating and treated Luna as their own. Bonus points—I was so used to being dealt every crappy card life had to offer, I was barely surprised when Val bailed out on our asses.

I’d been robbed my whole life.

Robbed of my football scholarship when a douche named Toby Rowland greased the floor under my locker, causing me to fall and break my ankle.

Robbed out of my freedom when Val broke the news about her pregnancy, though that was on me just as much as it was on her.

And, finally, robbed out of a happy child when Val fucked off and left Luna with me.

But this? This was the last straw. The silence. It ate me from the inside and my normal, quiet self turned into a raging asshole of massive proportions who just needed a good excuse to unleash my wrath.

I was quiet and resentful and a fucking mess—because of my daughter.

After lunch, I walked into my office on the fifteenth, ready to tackle my mile-long to-do list, freezing on the spot when I spotted Edie Van Der Zee waiting on the other side of my desk.

Sitting in my chair.

Legs on top of my closed laptop.

Heels pointing at me teasingly.

Arms crossed over her chest.

Venus in a dress. Smart ass. In need of fucking saving.

Not today, sweetheart. I’ve already got one girl to save and she is keeping me hella busy.

I threw my briefcase on my desk, loosening my tie. “You have three seconds to take your feet off of my laptop.” Before I spread them wide and eat you out for the whole fucking floor to hear, I refrained from adding.

“I don’t believe you.” Her eyes clung to my face like they were trying to peel away a persistent layer of a façade to get to a truth. “Last time you counted down the seconds, nothing happened. I may be a thief, but you, Mr. Rexroth, are a liar.”

Last time I’d let her off the hook because I’d needed to get home. I’d caught a quick lunch with my mother while my dad had watched Luna. Right now I had all the time in the world. Furthermore—I was her new boss until tomorrow morning, and she was begging to be disciplined.

I stepped over to the desk, grabbed her slim ankle, slid the heel off, and snapped the red Louboutin shoe, tearing the sexy heel from the beige footwear. Her eyes darted to me in horror. I pocketed the heel like it was sexy underwear, and nonchalantly slipped Cinderella’s shoe back in place.

“Balance,” my voice was grave, and so was I—she needed this lesson—“is everything in life. I try not to be a dick unless absolutely necessary, but I got a feeling you’re here to test boundaries, aren’t you, kid?”

Her cool evaporated like thin smoke, replaced with hot despair. She shot up from my seat and rounded the desk, hyperaware of her broken heel. Her hands were balled into fists.

“What. The. Hell!” Edie’s eyes were dancing in their sockets. Her rage was pouring out in buckets and I wanted to gargle on her sweet fucking wrath, drinking from her well of sorrow. “What’s your problem with me?”

“I don’t have a problem with you. You’re not even on my fucking radar. I walked into my office and found you here, all over my desk like a rash.” I dumped my loosened tie onto my desk, rolling my uncuffed sleeves up to my elbows.

“Well, I came here to tell you that I don’t want this job.”

“Good. Because you don’t deserve it,” I shot.

“In that case, I’d appreciate you telling me you’ll vote against me. I mean, I know you will, but hearing it from you would make me feel a lot better.”

“I’m not here to make you feel better. What’s so bad about working at Fiscal Heights Holdings, anyway?” I had no reason to humor her, but she was still standing there, for a reason beyond my grasp, so I thought I’d throw her a bone. She scrunched her nose, something I’d seen her do before.

“I can’t work here. I have things to do. Plans…different plans for my future. So, can you just tell the others to vote against me, too?”

“Do I look like I’d take orders from you?” I blinked slowly, only slightly amused by her brazen approach.

“Please.” Her voice was steady, her eyes afire on mine.

“Don’t,” I grunted, holding one hand in the air to stop her. I leaned a hip against my desk. “Never beg, Edie. Now, go make me a coffee.”

She threw her head back and laughed. Rather hysterically, I noted. Teenage girls were typically full of emotions and bullshit, and I had to come to terms with that because Luna was going to hit puberty in less than ten years. Great.

“I’m not making you shit.”

“I didn’t ask for shit. I asked for coffee.”

“I’m not your PA.”

“True. You’re lower than that. You’re the office bitch,” I retorted calmly, watching as Edie’s eyes followed the veins on my forearms like her life depended on it. I’d chuckle if it didn’t make me feel like a perv.

“I’m the what?” she mouthed.

I nodded. “General Assistant. That’s your title. Your father just sent the contract to HR and CC’ed all of us ahead of the board meeting tomorrow. GA is just diplomatic wording for an office bitch. I can ask you for anything within reason. So I’m asking you for coffee. No sugar. Black.”

If nothing else, I was a fucking asshole for loving the look on her face. Like she’d been broken—but just for now. Just for this moment. Just for me. Realization washed over her, making her straighten her spine and slant her chin up.

She was going to do it. Take my orders, make my coffee, burn my time, and be a welcomed distraction.

A maelstrom of emotions swam in Edie’s eyes. If they could speak, they would scream. But they couldn’t. So all I saw was an extremely irritated girl who’d recently grown a new pair of tits and had just discovered life was not a picnic.

“Chop, chop.” I clapped my hands twice.

I wasn’t the nicest person in the world. I liked to think I was good enough to at least warn her to take her shoes off before she walked away. But before I had a chance, Edie turned around and stormed toward the door, falling flat on her ass.

The only solace in her unfortunate scenario, as I leaned against my desk, watching her pull herself up on unsteady feet, was that I didn’t laugh.

Then again, I didn’t spare her the humiliation because I liked her. I hadn’t moved to help her up for a different reason.

I was hard as a stone, and moving would have given that away.

“You failed your first lesson at balance. Big surprise.”

“You’re failing at life, Rexroth!” She galloped out of my office, her face red with humiliation.

I rearranged my package as soon as she left and shot a text message to Sonya.

Edie Van Der Zee had started to feel like an itch. Luckily, I was going to scratch her out of my life first thing tomorrow morning.





And then the morning arrived. It was the kind that reminded me why I fucking hated talking to people. One where everything was chaotic, everybody was loud, and everyone was on my ass, firing questions, begging for attention, and asking for shit.

“Mr. Rexroth, you have the Duran-Dexter file on your desk. Can you sign it for me?”

“Trent, you have a conference call at three.”

“Can you go to a charity event in Palo Alto next week? Someone needs to, and Jaime is too busy with Mel and the new baby.”

“Trent—why is Luna here?”

“Rexroth—are we still on for drinks on Saturday?”

“Rexroth.”

“Hey, T-Rex!”

“Trent, darling…”

I came to a stop in the middle of the hallway, ignoring the throng of colleagues, and squatted down to Luna’s eye-level, my voice rusty from lack of talking. She was clutching Camila’s hand, a faraway look in her eyes. Dragging her into the office with me every Tuesday was a terrible idea, but Sonya seemed hell-bent on it and I wasn’t the fucking expert.

“How about tacos for lunch?” I brushed my thumb on her cheek and handed Camila some cash. “Take Luna to pick up some bagels and meet me in my office.”

“Why? Where are you going now?” Camila’s thick, Spanish accent made a cameo, which meant she wasn’t pleased with me.

I’m going to get an eighteen-year-old kid fired because I’m too selfish to trust myself not to fuck her raw in her father’s office if she gets anywhere near me.

“Board meeting. Should be quick. Just voting on something and then I’ll be out.” I patted Luna’s head and pressed a kiss to her forehead before rising up and gently squeezing Camila’s shoulder.

Turning on my heel toward my office, I saw Jordan Van Der Zee appearing from the sliding residential glass elevator doors, his daughter shadowing his steps. He was holding her like she was a convicted criminal again, and I tried not to lose my shit over it—again. Today, Edie was wearing a navy sailor dress a size larger than her tiny frame. At knee-length, it was conservative, but still highlighted her killer calves. A little gymnast that could bend to a man’s every need.

Whoa. Backtrack this shit, fast, Sir Perv-a-Lot.

She seemed to be a completely different person around her father. Away from him, she was confident, feisty, and a fucking headache. But now? Her eyes were on the floor, and her two nose rings were the only faint glimmer of her black, rebellious heart.

Badass, my ass.

Jordan nodded me a hello, and I returned the gesture. We met at the custom designed gold doors leading to the boardroom. I saw my three friends behind the fishbowl walls, hunched over the long, bronze table, discussing something among themselves.

“Reconsider.” Jordan smoothed his Armani tie. A statement, not a request. Not a fucking chance. I didn’t trust this man with a plastic spoon, let alone my company. In the six months since we’d been in business together, he’d killed four out of the five big deals I’d brought to Fiscal Heights Holdings. He’d slacked off on all of my big accounts—purposely—and blatantly tried to designate the greenest, least-experienced brokers for my clients. A week into our work together, I’d had my first unfortunate encounter with him. I’d overheard him talking on the phone on my way out from the office.

“No, not Rexroth. Let’s send someone else to try to save the Drescher and Ferstein account,” he’d said. An account I’d brought in, thank-you-very-fucking-much. I waited, loitering behind his office door like a General Hospital character and hating it. “He’s too…you know what. Too hood. Too angry. Not very talkative. I don’t want him anywhere near this account. Ask Dean to talk to them. He’s the kind of pretty boy charmer their CEO, Helena, would appreciate.”

And that was it. That’s when I knew Jordan Van Der Zee wasn’t only a racist, but that he wanted to push me out of the company. He had another thing coming, and it was going to boomerang straight into his face.

Vicious, Dean, and Jaime were already halfway out the corporate door, showing up to work three or four times a week and spending most of their time with their families. But me, I only had Luna. Though to be completely honest, even she seemed to prefer spending time with the nanny.

“This is where you part ways with Daughter Dearest.” I tugged at my collar, because Edie motherfucking Van Der Zee made the temperature in the room rise by at least ten degrees.

“Gladly.” She plucked her phone from her purse and walked away.

Jordan entered the conference room, and I snapped my fingers, smiling. “I need to sign off on a contract for the D&D account. Be right back, Jordi-boy.”

“I never saw this account.” His brows dove down. He hated when I called him that.

“Exactly,” I said, a bounce in my steps as I went to my office to fetch the contract. After signing it—taking pleasure in the fact I made Jordan wait in the boardroom for me like a little bitch—I walked over to the main reception area of the floor, where it split into two corridors with the huge boardroom in the middle. Deciding to make him wait a little longer, I took a sharp right into the break room to brew myself a coffee with the fancy machine I’d never tried before. Was it petty? Yes. Did inconveniencing Jordan by making him wait on me for an extra few minutes make me smile? Hell yes.

I was about to push the glass door open when I stopped on my heel, watching the girls inside the kitchen.

Luna. Camila. Edie. Standing together. Looking…excited? What the…?

Edie threw her arms around Camila and hugged her, burrowing into her shoulder. Luna was standing beside them, observing the scene, doe-eyed. For the first time in a long time, she was interested in something that wasn’t seahorses. Edie cupped Camila’s cheeks, before wiping her tears with the back of her hand. She wore her emotions like jewelry. Proud and unapologetic. It made me hate her a little less for trying to steal my mother’s handbag a few weeks ago.

Then Edie did the unthinkable, and yet what every girl her age would have done.

She crouched, ran her hand over Luna’s curly piggy tails, and smiled.

Almost in slow motion, she pointed at Luna’s fluffy blue seahorse, her mouth forming an O-shaped wow.

Luna’s face broke into a timid grin. She never smiled at me like that. I blinked away my shock, trying to wrap my head around her reaction. Edie must’ve asked Luna something, because Luna nodded.

Nodded. She never nodded. Nodding was one step away from vocalizing your needs, and Luna was all about keeping me in the dark.

My daughter looked alert and attentive and invested in that moment, which was something I couldn’t say about her ninety percent of the time. And I stood there, rooted to the floor, not wanting to step into the moment and pierce the fog of magic they were cocooned in.

“Yo, assface, is the weed eating at your memory? We’re all waiting for you in the boardroom.” Dean killed my trance by slapping my back from behind, chewing his gum deliberately noisily in my ear. “Come join us before Jordi hangs you by the balls and Vicious skins you and makes a new ottoman out of your flesh.”

Reluctant, I followed his steps, moving toward the boardroom, my eyes still on the break room.

I took a seat at the conference room, sandwiched between Dean and Jaime. Jordan was sitting across from me, looking one argument away from a heart attack.

“Nice veins.” I pointed at his forehead, fishing my cell phone out and dumping it onto the table.

“You’re very funny, Rexroth. Your charm has brought you a long way, to Beverly Hills, to Todos Santos. But I see underneath it, and I’m less than impressed.” A hiss slid between his thin lips.

I shrugged. “Thanks for the analysis, Dr. Strangelove. Now let’s do this as quick and as painless as possible, so that Jordi can go back to admiring the reflection of himself on the four-grand mirror in his office. Shall we?”

“We shall.” Jaime slapped the desk, dark circles framing his eyes. His wife, Mel, had just given birth to their second daughter, Bailey. He looked as happy as a pig in shit and as tired as the person hired to clean up the pigpen.

The poll had started off with Jordan, who obviously voted for keeping his daughter employed. Then came my turn, and I surprised everyone, including myself, with the answer.

“Yes.”

“Yes?” Vicious blinked, giving me his what-the-fuck-is-your-game look. “Yes means you vote for her employment,” he explained slowly, like I was an idiot.

“I know what yes means, dickbag.”

Vicious, Jaime, and Dean exchanged puzzled looks. They were going to go with my plan, but now, I’d changed it. Jordan appeared out of sorts, looking among all of us, searching our faces, trying to make sense of it all.

Jaime was the first to recover, rubbing the dark bags under his eyes. “Whatever. I don’t care.”

Dean’s turn. He tossed his tennis ball onto the table. “If Trent’s fine with it, I don’t give a damn if she works here.”

Then Vicious. He looked up at me, shaking his head slightly in warning.

I don’t want to fuck her, asshole. I mean, I do, but I won’t.

Then again I’d never had a serious girlfriend in my thirty-three years, and the one thing I did have was a runaway ex-stripper whom I’d knocked up in a dirty hookup and who’d left me with our kid. So maybe I did deserve that warning.

But even though Edie Van Der Zee was definitely trouble, Luna seemed to like her.

Maybe.

Probably.

Goddammit, hopefully.

I knew I was making zero sense. I didn’t give a damn. Let them think I was crazy. More power to me. No one liked to mess with crazy. Ruthless? Why not. Powerful? Sure. But crazy was unpredictable, the worst attribute in human nature.

Vicious opened his lips, relishing the power of having the room. “It’s a yes from me.”

She was in.

My friends were my tribe, my custom-made, hand-selected family. Saying we had each other’s backs was an understatement. Nearly twenty years and counting, we were still blindly loyal toward one another. When one of us jumped, the others gladly took the fall.

Dean stood up, collecting his shit from the table. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my wife. She had a doctor’s appointment today. Mazel tov, Jordi.”

Vicious and Jaime got up and started discussing a conference call with Japan they had tomorrow at the butt crack of dawn.

Van Der Zee and I found ourselves alone in the boardroom, surrounded by nothing but the white noise of the air conditioner. Jordan tapped his finger on his thin lips, his foot mimicking the irritated movement.

He was waiting for me to explain. Foolishly, I might add. Volunteering information to the enemy was a rookie mistake, one I’d learned not to make long before my rich, sheltered friends had learned how to wipe their own asses.

“Feeling indecisive today?” His long, bony, Voldemort-like face twisted in displeasure. He looked like a tsar and acted like a tyrant. Jordan thought he was intimidating, and maybe he was, but not to me. To me, he was all bark, zero bite.

I shrugged, resting my legs on the table, knowing it’d drive him nuts. “Nah, I was always okay with your daughter working here. Just wanted to make you sweat a little. Cardio is important at your age.”

“How considerate of you. You’re not one to waste time, and you just wasted plenty of ours, so I am guessing there’s a plan behind your change of heart. Let me be clear—my daughter is completely off-limits for you. You will be wise to stay far away from her.”

I couldn’t get butthurt over his comment, because no matter how wildly insane and sick it was, I did find his teenage daughter good enough to eat. At the same time, I knew better than to even think about it. She acted like a child. I had one at home. They weren’t much fun, and were ridiculously hard to tame.

“I expect the other guys won’t be getting the same warning?” I tipped my chin down, averting his warning. Not that I was going to fuck little Edie, but he didn’t have to know that. Pulling at his strings was my version of a hobby.

“Your colleagues are gentlemen.”

My colleagues had fucked enough women between them to populate a medium-sized country, but I wasn’t going to argue this point. Not with him, anyway. I stretched in my seat, yawning. I may have been The Mute—I was the one to never, ever talk. Not at meetings, not at company functions, and not to mingle with anyone—but when the situation called for it, I was happy to fight for what I wanted.

“You know, Jordi, I sometimes feel inclined to pull the race card on you. You seem to approach me with a bag of prejudice that doesn’t apply to my fair-skinned partners.” My voice was breezy, and so was I. I really didn’t care if Jordan was a racist, as long as he stayed out of my way.

Van Der Zee snorted, shaking his head. “Don’t even go there, Rexroth. You’re practically white. You look like you’re working on your tan.”

“A simple, ‘I’m not a racist’ would have been more sufficient,” I pointed out.

“At any rate.” He stood up. “Stay away from my daughter if you want to survive a year in this company.” A year ago, Jordan had agreed to buy forty-nine percent of the shares in the company, with us four splitting the remaining shares. We did it so we could all move to Todos Santos and live close to each other. But we never knew Jordan would be such a pain in the ass.

“Color me bored at your idle threat. Besides, I heard you the first time.”

“Heard, yes. Acknowledged? No.”

“I’ve got your acknowledgement right here, sir: Fuck. Off.” I slid my hands out of my pockets and showed him my two middle fingers before getting up and grabbing my phone and wallet. I dialed Sonya’s number to give her the good news about Luna nodding. She answered after the first ring. “Sonya, hold on one sec.” I shot him a smirk, pressing the receiver to my chest. “Word to the wise, Van Der Zee—next time you get into business with someone, make sure they are a gentleman. Because I sure as hell am not, and I don’t care how many shares you have in my company. Let it be known—if you threaten me one more time, I will leave you to collect dust and a string of financial losses. We’re done here, partner.”





TWO DAYS.

Not a lifetime, but not a minute, either. Two days had passed since Trent Rexroth broke my mother’s precious Louboutins, and truth be told—I was still both disorientated and ridiculously aroused at what he’d done.

A delighted shudder seeped into me, bone-deep, from watching the lavish designer footwear snapping—seeing expensive things devalued was one of my favorite pastimes—but in the same breath, I was glad to put some distance between me and Broody O’Asshole.

I had no one to blame but myself. I mean—I’d asked him specifically not to hire me. Should have known it would only make him want to be petty and do it to spite me.

Work had left its mark on my body, soul, and mind. I had to wake up at half past four in the morning every day to make time for surfing. Then, I usually did five hundred coffee runs for Vicious (cold and rude), Dean (fun and crude), and Jaime (polite and impersonal) before kicking off my shift as the secretaries’ and PAs’ bitch. Picking up clothes from the dry cleaners, holding ties for stock brokers to choose from before meetings, helping maintenance when one of the faucets in the men’s restroom was leaking—my father hadn’t been joking. I’d been appointed to do the most mundane, mind-numbing tasks.

After our encounter, Rexroth steered clear of me, not even sparing me a glance as he glided the hallways like a fire-breathing demon, darkness gleaming from his light eyes.

On my lunch breaks, when I sat alone outside the building and sucked on a Ramen noodle from the sad pack I’d bought at the Dollar Tree to save some money, I found myself wondering whether my stunt on his desk had made an impact, or if he thought I was a weirdo unworthy of his attention.

Didn’t matter. What did matter was that now, I was one of the many overworked, overstressed assistants to these privileged, rich, self-entitled men, who in two short days had managed to make me want to commit serious crimes.

I hate this place, I hate these people, I hate this life…

I was standing in the break room, picking at a fancy fruit basket (those were delivered daily to the fifteenth floor of Fiscal Heights Holdings, accompanied with fresh pastries and cold-pressed organic juices) when the cute girl and Camila walked in.

“Show me what you want to eat for lunch.” Camila handed the girl a tablet with pictures of food items. My old nanny looked up, saw me, and her face split into a grin. “My sweet Edie, we meet again!” Camila clasped me in a bear hug, and I embraced her back like she was an anchor. In many ways, she was. I firmly believed some people came into the world to make it bearable for others. Camila was one of them.

“Is it wrong to be jealous of a three-year-old because she has you?” I murmured into her white, delicate hair, allowing myself some self-pity. Camila laughed and pulled away, running her fingers over my face, doing inventory, making sure that everything was in place. Physically, it was.

“She’s four.”

“Oh.” I leaned against the counter, watching the pretty girl more closely. This was our second encounter, so I noticed things I hadn’t in the first one. Like, she was dressed like a boy, as though trying to hide how lovely she was. It made me like her instantly. She regarded her beauty as a secret, and like any secret, she chose the people to confide in carefully. Which was probably why she was stingy with the smiles, too.

“You’re not much of a talker,” I observed, scrunching my nose at the kid. Years of being talked about when I was in the room had taught me that kids listen, discern, and hate being treated like they’re invisible.

“Guess you could say that.” Camila cleared her throat and averted her stare to the fruit basket, grabbing a strawberry and popping it into her mouth. “She doesn’t talk.” She chewed instead of elaborating.

“Huh.” I crouched, offering the girl a pecan. Did kids her age eat pecans? I wasn’t sure, but she took it anyway, pocketing it.

“I never asked what her name was,” I said as an afterthought.

“Her name is Luna.” Camila’s voice cut above my head. She brushed the girl’s soft, brown curls. The kid was enchanting. A mixture of everything beautiful in the human species crammed into one person. Mocha skin on blue eyes. It reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t remember who. Maybe a baby Adriana Lima.

“I’m Edie.” I offered Luna my hand. She didn’t take it. I wasn’t embarrassed or annoyed by her rejection.

“Fine.” I withdrew my hand. “I don’t need your germs all over me, anyway.”

Luna swallowed down a snort.

“In fact, don’t get anywhere near me, okay? You look like a nose-picker.”

I loved children. Not in the way most girls my age liked them. I liked the hardened and the disorderly. The ones who struggled to communicate their feelings and felt trapped inside their bodies. Maybe because I saw so much of me in them.

I walked over to the other side of the kitchenette, opening the fridge and grabbing a can of Coke. Luna followed me with her eyes, a taunting smirk on her full lips. I arched an eyebrow and cracked the can open.

“I bet they don’t allow you to drink pop, huh?”

She shook her head. There was something hesitant about her movements. Like she wasn’t entirely sure how to do them—or if she should be doing them at all.

“If I give you some, would you tell on me?”

“No, no, no, no,” Camila interrupted, rushing toward us, her palms waving. “Her dad would kill both of us. Lord, no.”

I said nothing, because ‘no’ meant ‘maybe’ in Camila’s world. It was a matter of how hard you pushed for something. Luna looked between us, trying to pick on the nuance of our relationship.

“I need to go to the bathroom for a second. Can you watch her?” Camila smoothed her long skirt and blazer.

I nodded. “’Course.”

“No soda.” She wiggled a finger from the door.

I nodded again. She knew better than to believe me, but still felt her duty to point the same threatening finger at Luna. “I mean it, Luna. Your dad will not be happy.”

Needless to say, as soon as she left, Luna’s lips united with her very first can of Diet Coke. I held the can in my hand as I allowed her a small sip, squatting down to catch her every reaction when the fizz hit her taste buds.

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

Luna nodded solemnly in agreement. I took a long pull, staring into the little hole.

“Yup, so good. Wait till you taste beer,” I snorted.

“No need, since that will never happen,” a steel voice came from the entrance of the kitchenette and I twisted my head, my jaw slacking in horror.

Shit.

Trent Rexroth walked in, looking fifty shades of pissed off and wearing one of the most sinfully sexy suits I’d seen on a human being. I wasn’t even big on suits, mainly because Jordan liked them and I hated everything he loved by association, but the way the silky black fabric hugged Trent’s ripped, tall frame made me wonder what he’d look like in a wetsuit. Or out of one. Either way, he’d leave Bane and the other guys at Tobago Beach eating his dust. I wasn’t sure what he did to maintain this kind of body, but it wasn’t sitting on his ass from nine-to-five, writing angry emails and scowling at me and everyone else.

I drew the can away from Luna’s lips, straightening up.

“Is she…” My gaze wandered around, looking for a distraction or a sharp object to defend myself with, should he decide to kill me.

“My daughter,” he cut into my words. “She is. Where the hell is Camila?” He sounded like the beast from Beauty and the Beast. Low, gruff, and commanding. But I refused to shrink into a corner and let him intimidate me.

“What kind of four-year-old has never tasted Coke?” I accused, throwing my arms in the air.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” I put a hand on Luna’s shoulder, hoping she wouldn’t shake it off. She didn’t. “Seriously, what is wrong with you? She shouldn’t have it every day, or even every week—agreed. But not, like, ever? Why? Soda is awesome. It’s sweet and it fizzles in your mouth and it makes you feel happy. Right, Luna?” I nudged her.

She nodded vehemently, and now it was Trent’s turn to stare at me, bewildered. He took a step forward, his eyes moving from me to his daughter.

Silence. And awkwardness. And what the hell was happening?

“What? What!” I lost my cool, looking between them.

“Do it again,” he said, to both of us, I think.

“Do what?” I rubbed the back of my neck, still trying to read the situation.

“Make her nod again. Please.” The last word came out reluctantly, as if admitting defeat. I worried my lower lip, inspecting him like he’d just landed from space wearing a pineapple hat and a Hula skirt.

“Okay…” I scrunched my nose, looking down at Luna.

“Hey, dude, want another sip of Coke?”

Luna nodded and reached for the can. Trent laughed. God, he laughed. And not the way he’d laughed at me when he caught me trying to steal from his mother. He laughed like the world was ending and he didn’t care. Like this office wasn’t a hellhole and we didn’t hate each other’s guts. He laughed with a promise, with a melody, with a mellifluous sound that trickled bone-deep and changed the rhythm of my heartbeat. My knees snapped like thin twigs, and I almost stumbled down in shock.

He was such…a man.

Not that Vicious, Dean, and Jaime weren’t men. They were—along with eighty percent of the people populating this floor. But only Trent Rexroth looked tortured and serious enough to cross all the bridges in the world and burn them shore to shore to get his way. Only Trent Rexroth looked liable to ruin your life if he put his mind to it. The fear he’d ingrained in me turned me on. And that worried me. A lot.

“I can do it again,” I mumbled, half-desperate to hear the sound coming out of his mouth again, half-hoping it would make him look at me as more than a potential sacrifice.

He arched a devilish, thick eyebrow. “Let’s see. But no Coke.”

I squatted down to Luna and whispered something into her ear. She lowered her head and tried to stifle her laugh with her tiny fist. Triumphant, I looked up to examine Trent. This time, he wasn’t smiling. His eyes were gleaming with something I wasn’t entirely sure he could even feel.

For a fleeting moment, something passed between us, but I didn’t know what it was. He looked at me with an intensity I could feel on my shoulders. Like I had a superpower he wanted to get his hands on. I was almost relieved when Camila walked into the break room and he snapped his head toward her while I hurried to discard the Coke into the recycle bin.

“Mr. Rexroth! I’m s-so so sorry. I told her not to give Luna any soda. I would never let Luna stay with a complete stranger.“ She was stuttering, her eyes moving frantically among the three of us as she cupped one of her cheeks with her hand. “Luna, come here, sweetie. Look, I was Edie’s nanny for eight years. I know her very well. And I was just down the hallway, in the restroom…”

Wow. He must be a shithead for a boss. Although I didn’t need Camila’s reaction to know he was the take-no-prisoners type. Trent waved her off, losing interest in her speech.

“It’s fine. Camila, can you take Luna to the play room on the tenth floor? I’ll be right down.”

“Of course.” Worry still marred every cell in my old nanny’s face as she scooped Luna in her arms and rushed outside of the spacious galley, her steps quickening as she glanced behind her shoulder at her dictator employer. Trent and I were left alone, and even though I felt disgusted with myself, my stomach flipped the way it usually did before a first kiss.

He got into my personal space with one stride. I gulped when I realized he was over ten inches taller than me.

“Is pissing me off your mission in life?” His tone was a flat line on a monitor, dead and grave.

I shrugged, not skipping a beat. “No, but it’s a nice bonus.”

He smiled. There was a threat in his smirk. His scent did stupid things to my head. Pulling at strings in my body I didn’t know could ache and tugging my reason in the wrong direction. I gulped, taking a step back. Trent seemed to disregard my plea for space and ate the distance between us again. My lower back hit the tawny, cool counter. Why was everything gold and corrupted here?

“There’s a Funny Felix party on Saturday for Luna’s kid camp. Tobago Beach. I want you to be there.” His request was direct, callous. So was the big hand he put on the counter behind me, hovering over my body. I shook my head.

“I…I can’t.”

“I don’t think you understand, Edie. I’m not asking your underage ass on a Chuck E. Cheese date. This is not optional. It’s part of your job description. Look at your contract. Clause 4.4 requires you to put in some additional hours every month—weekends included. This is a business transaction. Nothing more.”

“You don’t understand.” I gripped the counter behind me until my knuckles turned white, hyperaware of how his right hand was inches from mine. The idea of touching him was crazy and enticing. Sinful, even. “I don’t do Saturdays. My Saturdays are mine, and I spend them out of town, in San Diego. I can work Sundays—no problem. But not Saturdays.” I choked out every word. Trent’s hardened face didn’t flinch. His lips were so close to mine, I wasn’t sure whether I was imagining it or if we really were molding into something else. I could feel his torso moving to the tempo of his breath without our bodies touching. The intimacy stripped me bare from the snark I usually carried like a cloak to keep the world at bay.

Please come closer. Please stay away.

“Why? What’s on Saturdays?” His jaw was granite, his eyes titanium. If he didn’t look so unattainable, I would caress his stubbled cheek the way I’d wanted.

I met his stare. “With all due respect, that’s none of your concern.”

“I’m hardly concerned. Just trying to figure out how reckless you are as I make plans around you and my daughter. For some reason, she seems to have taken a shine to you.”

I hesitated, grimacing. “What makes you think I’m reckless?”

“Turning down Ivy League schools—and bragging about it—pickpocketing in the middle of a busy promenade, pissing off the most powerful men in the state on your first day at work, to name a few. Since we’re hardly even acquaintances, I’m placing my bet on a lot more random shit coming my way if I dig any deeper.” His words cut me like a knife as he unbuttoned the two first buttons of his shirt.

I’d noticed some things. Like how it was the second time he‘d gotten rid of his tie or loosened his collar when I was around. Like maybe it had meant he felt hotter when we were in the same close space.

I focused on the floor, trying to avert my thoughts from where he’d taken them the minute he’d loosened his collar. “Up until a week ago I worked as a surfing instructor. I mean, yeah, I mug people. But only because…” I trailed off, looking for the right words without giving too much away, “look, I have no choice, okay? Trust me, just because my father is loaded doesn’t mean I see a dime of it. I’m not a kleptomaniac. And I only target certain people. The rich kind. The ones who don’t need the money to pay for electricity or food,” I added. Because to me, it made a difference.

“Bra-fucking-vo, Robin Hood. Newsflash—fifteen years ago, my mother couldn’t have paid her electricity bill if you’d stolen her wallet. Stop making indolent assumptions. It’s unbecoming.”

“You should remind yourself of that—you just labelled me as reckless,” I pointed out.

“Because you are. I don’t think you’ll be a good fit for Luna.”

“I never auditioned for the job, so no harm done.”

The speed with which he moved away from me was startling. Trent scanned me coldly, a sneer on his face. “You’re coming to the party. Non-negotiable, Van Der Zee.”

“Don’t,” I said, grabbing my phone from the counter and angling my body toward the door. “I see what you’re trying to do here. I like Luna, and I‘m willing to be there for her—even after hours, no problem. But on my own terms. And ideally, without you around, either. Camila is great, but you and I don’t get along.”

He opened his mouth to say something when Dean Cole waltzed in, grabbing a plate and loading enough fruit onto it to choke an elephant, his eyes impassive on the colorful basket.

“Hey, man.” He stuck a toothpick into a piece of watermelon and shoved it into his mouth, chomping. Trent spun to face him and offered him a wordless frown that screamed fuck off. Dean continued, undeterred. “As your best friend, I feel like I should give you a fair warning. Hitting on your business partner’s daughter, who could practically be your own kid, is a bad move. We noticed you were in each other’s face from across the hall, and we all know hate turns into something else more often than not. So here’s my two cents—keep your crotches to yourselves, kids. Right. Fucking. Now.” Dean was still smiling cheerfully as he delivered the message. An onlooker from the other side of the glass would think he was discussing the weather or football. I looked between the two men. Trent’s eyes screamed something Dean was obviously able to read, his lips remaining pursed.

“Gotcha, dude. Was just warning you.” Dean lifted one palm up in mock defeat.

I excused myself, sneaking out of the kitchenette and leaving the two men locked in a stare-down. Before I managed to make my escape, Trent grabbed my arm—gently, not like my father—and whispered into my hair, “What did you tell Luna to make her laugh?”

I closed my eyes, leaning toward his neck, holding my breath so as to not inhale him and feed the growing addiction. “I told her that her dad is an uptight jerk.”

I didn’t look back to see who won the stare-down, Trent or Dean.

It didn’t matter, because I was the one who was losing.

My sanity, my logic, and my mind.

I was on the losing end, and I needed a fast win if I ever wanted to run away with Theo. Which I did. A lot.





“ANY NEWS?” I LET MY shirt fall to the cathedral marble floor with a soft thud. Amanda stripped out of her dress mechanically, as she did most things, hanging the colorful number over the brown, tufted wingback chair in my bedroom and watching the Todos Santos skyline from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

I realized that this was not a healthy way to conduct a relationship with the private investigator whom I’d hired to hunt down the woman who’d abandoned my child. I also realized that two-timing her and my child’s therapist could go disastrously wrong. Yet, I’d always liked messy, and mixing business and pleasure was a great idea—if you didn’t mind the blowup and knew how to leverage the pleasure part to your own benefit.

Amanda worked extra hard for me. Sonya saw Luna twice as much as any other kid at her clinic.

And then there was another thing that kept me drawn to them: convenience.

As far as my family, parents, and friends were concerned, I haven’t touched a chick since Val fucked off to God-knows-where, and I wanted to keep it that way. I didn’t want them to try to set me up with a woman, knowing I was in the market for one. Didn’t want them to keep tabs, and to tell me how goddamn wrong it was to be alone, and how I needed to settle down.

Luckily, Amanda and Sonya didn’t see me as more than a hot piece of ass who paid a healthy fraction of their salaries and fucked them so raw and hard (with a rubber—lesson learned) that they needed a whole week to recover. Amanda unclasped her white lace bra from behind and it slid off of her arms. It looked like heaven against her chocolate skin.

“Still looking,” she murmured, lighting a joint between her rosy lips.

“Where now?”

“Brazil. Trying to figure out if she’s staying with her relatives there.” Val’s mother lived in Chicago. She’d run away from Val’s abusive father in Rio when Valenciana was three years old. The chances of finding Luna’s mother in Brazil were slim, but after three years and no news, I was going on a wild goose chase. Money wasn’t an issue these days, though it still felt weird spending it on such an abstract cause. Ever since Valenciana decided to fuck off, I’d been searching for her relentlessly. It wasn’t the leaving part I cared about; I’d given up on her acting as a mother long ago. I wanted to make it official. Wanted her to sign over custody rights to me. If Val decided to waltz into my life again—which wasn’t that farfetched, since she loved money, and I had plenty—Luna not speaking at four would be something she could exploit in court to get her way. Because if Val took Luna, she would get enough child support to sustain her love for everything designer and expensive.

And if there was one thing I’d definitely never survive or allow, it was someone taking my kid away from me.

Amanda walked over to where I leaned on the window, still in her kitten heels, a Caribbean goddess who had no time for a husband or kids herself. She stopped by my wet bar (so nineties, but I’d been a poor kid back then and that was my dream, and Old Trent worked part-time on making Young Trent’s dreams come true), and plucked a bottle of limited edition Jameson. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but after butting heads with a teenybopper today and having her scrawny ass refuse me, a little sip wouldn’t hurt. Amanda sat on the bed and patted the velvet linen beside her, and I sat next to her, pressing my head against her bare tits as she poured the liquor into my mouth from above.

“I feel inclined to tell you, Rexroth, you’re probably not going to find Val. No one cares if you cross the border into Mexico, never mind farther south. Val didn’t even need burner phones, a darknet email address and a fancy, fake identity. She could likely skip to a beach town and stay there with a friend, or pick up an odd job. She sold most of the things you’d purchased for her prior to her disappearance and had a healthy sum of child support, which could tide her over for a long time.”

I felt the burn of the liquor slithering down my throat and wondered how the fuck Dean could have been an alcoholic in the past. Booze depressed me. Plus, I found myself doing stupid shit when I was drunk. Like writing notes about my daughter and showing them to her therapist. I plucked the joint from Amanda’s lips and tucked it between mine, tilting my head back and puffing out a ribbon of sweet-scented smoke skyward. Amanda’s coal black hair engulfed my pecs as she leaned to kiss my bare shoulder, across the tattoo I’d gotten right before college, when I was sitting at home with a broken ankle and burning time was a priority.

“Fuck,” was my sophisticated answer to her little speech. My dick was already hard and thick. She sucked on my neck, declaring her intentions by biting my shoulder. The air conditioner in the room hummed between us and I listened closely for noise from the outside. Luna was fast asleep in the other wing of the penthouse, her room right next to Camila’s. She would never meet Amanda. She would never know what her daddy did at night.

“Let go of her, Trent. Find a good woman who can take care of your kid. Literally every single woman in the continent with eyes and ovaries is a willing candidate. You’re the whole package,” she said.

Catching the blunt between my teeth, I slid her matching white thong down her thighs and shoved three fingers into her at once, working my way up to her G-spot and rubbing it lazily. She didn’t even have time to drop her ass back on the covers from giving me access to her pussy. Her sudden moan sliced the air when I pushed my thumb to her clit and started massaging, working her up.

“It’s going to hurt today,” I said.

“Why?” she purred, instantly warming up to the idea. “Who pissed you off this time?”

Her name sat at the tip of the tongue, but letting it loose was acknowledging Edie was on my mind. She was young. So, goddamn young. And even if I didn’t care about the age—which I did, her body was straddling the rope between ripe and juvenile. It still hadn’t reached its full potential and gotten all its defined curves. I cared about Fiscal Heights Holdings and had plans for it. Plans that didn’t include