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this book was really good I loved the mcs personality
11 September 2021 (03:43)
this is really good. Worth time reading it
13 September 2021 (10:29)
Came here because of steph.
15 September 2021 (12:34)
@yu gosh same!!!! hope it's worth her hype lol but knowing her recommendations, it probably is. can't wait to read it
15 September 2021 (18:11)
Came here because of steph, but eh? I'm not sure. @avnigosw_ on Instagram if anyone wants to talk and stuff!!
17 September 2021 (18:46)
immediately fell in love with the story and the author is amazing, I love all of her books! also, steph talked about this book??
30 September 2021 (23:45)
Came here because of steph as well
06 October 2021 (11:29)
Who's Steph? Booktuber?
15 October 2021 (18:35)
Read it by chance and I don't regret reading it. It was lit ?
22 October 2021 (14:12)
i knew about this book , but i didn't read it . the today steph bohrer recommended it , so i thought to give it a try !
12 November 2021 (10:49)
Came here out of nowhere but I love Steph haha
12 November 2021 (18:46)
*sigh* just finish read this book and dangg, where can I find someone like Roman irl
14 November 2021 (13:44)
i swear everyone came because of Steph lmao
15 November 2021 (02:23)
Im so excited to read this book, steph is so good at selling her little synopsis. (yes she is a booktuber, she recommends really nice books!)
17 November 2021 (21:41)
I came here because of Steph too
21 November 2021 (09:01)
Yes, I came here cause of Steph too xD
30 November 2021 (16:06)
OMG SOOO GOOD !!! absolutely love rowan ?
02 December 2021 (10:36)
Who’s Steph ?? Stephanie soo ??
08 December 2021 (02:37)
Za kadjo i za isus NEPOBEDIMITE 1000
@nini steph bohrer - she's a youtuber and makes book recommendation videos also many book toks! She's the cutest!
14 December 2021 (19:37)
came here coz of Steph too
20 December 2021 (10:20)
I really loved this book its also funny??
25 December 2021 (10:43)
I fucking loved this book. It was amazing and a whole ride. Their relationship was amazing. Rowan and his fathers character development was unbelievable!!!!!!!!!!!!
27 December 2021 (00:36)
I didn’t have any expectations when I downloaded the book, but OMG this is amazing, it’s beautiful, romantic and s*x scenes? *chef kiss*
09 January 2022 (00:09)
If anyone is confused, steph is a youtuber
09 January 2022 (08:07)
The is my all time favourite romance book. There I said it. Sue me.
11 January 2022 (21:15)
they should make a section with just books recommended because of steps lol. i came here because of steph i haven't read it yet but its on my tbr
16 January 2022 (19:24)
OMG THIS BOOK GAVE ME BUTTERFLIES THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE BOOK!!!
I strongly recommend!!!! ??✨?
DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED WITH THE SMUT… OMGGG IT WAS IMPECCABLE ??
I strongly recommend!!!! ??✨?
DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED WITH THE SMUT… OMGGG IT WAS IMPECCABLE ??
19 January 2022 (06:03)
I recommend reading chapter 39 to the song “HRS AND HRS BY MUNI LONG” on repeat… the chapter will hit different !! ??✨?
19 January 2022 (06:13)
I LOVE THIS BOOK SM IM SO HAPPY I READ THIS. DEF A STEONG CONTENDER IN THE ROMANCE CATEGORY
23 January 2022 (09:17)
The Fine Print Dreamland Billionaires Book 1 Lauren Asher Copyright © 2021 by Lauren Asher. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The Fine Print Editing by Becca at Edits in Blue and Erica Russikoff Proofreading by Sarah at All Encompassing Books and Gem’s Precise Proofreads Cover Designer: Books and Moods Contents Playlist 1. Rowan 2. Rowan 3. Zahra 4. Rowan 5. Zahra 6. Zahra 7. Rowan 8. Zahra 9. Zahra 10. Rowan 11. Zahra 12. Rowan 13. Rowan 14. Zahra 15. Rowan 16. Rowan 17. Zahra 18. Rowan 19. Rowan 20. Zahra 21. Rowan 22. Zahra 23. Rowan 24. Zahra 25. Zahra 26. Rowan 27. Zahra 28. Rowan 29. Zahra 30. Rowan 31. Zahra 32. Zahra 33. Rowan 34. Zahra 35. Zahra 36. Zahra 37. Zahra 38. Rowan 39. Zahra 40. Rowan 41. Zahra 42. Rowan 43. Zahra 44. Zahra 45. Rowan 46. Zahra 47. Rowan 48. Rowan 49. Zahra 50. Rowan 51. Zahra Epilogue Books by Lauren Asher Check out my posts, boards, and tweets. Let’s get to know each other! To the girls who dream of meeting a prince but end up falling for the misunderstood villain. Playlist Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked – Cage the Elephant Oh, What a World – Kacey Musgraves My Own Monster – X Ambassadors Cloudy Day – Tones And I Flaws – Bastille Rare Bird – Caitlyn Smith Lasso – Phoenix Bubbly – Colbie Caillat Believe – Mumford & Sons Take a Chance On Me – ABBA From Eden – Hozier Could Be Good – Kat Cunning R U Mine? – Artic Monkeys 34+35 – Ariana Grande Ho Hey –; The Lumineers Can’t Help Falling in Love – Haley Reinhart Wildfire – Cautious Clay White Horse (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift Need the Sun to Break – James Bay Landslide (Remastered) – Fleetwood Mac Missing Piece – Vance Joy Dreams – The Cranberries 1 Rowan The last time I attended a funeral, I ended up with a broken arm. The story made headlines after I threw myself into my mother’s open grave. It’s been over two decades since that day, and while I’ve completely changed as a person, my aversion to mourning hasn’t. But due to my responsibilities as my late grandfather’s youngest relative, I’m expected to stand tall and unbothered during his wake. It’s nearly impossible, with my skin itching like I’m wearing a cheap polyester suit. My patience wanes as the hours go on, with hundreds of Kane employees and business partners offering their condolences. If there’s anything I hate more than funerals, it’s talking to people. There are only a few individuals I tolerate, and my grandfather was one of them. And now he’s gone. The burning sensation in my chest intensifies. I don’t know why it bothers me as much as it does. I’ve had time to prepare while he was in a coma yet the strange sensation above my rib cage returns with a vengeance whenever I think of him. I run a hand through my dark hair to give myself something to do. “I’m sorry for your loss, son.” A nameless attendee interrupts my thoughts. “Son?” The one word leaves my mouth with enough venom to make the man wince. The gentleman centers his tie across his chest with fumbling hands. “I’m—well—uh.” “Excuse my brother. He’s struggling with his grief.” Cal places a hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. His vodka and mint-coated breath hits my face, making me scowl. My middle brother might look dressed to the nines in a pressed suit and perfectly styled blond hair, but his red-rimmed eyes tell a completely different story. The man mumbles a few words I don’t bother listening to before heading for the nearest exit. “Struggling with my grief?” Although I don’t like the idea of my grandfather’s passing, I’m not struggling with anything but uncomfortable heartburn today. “Relax. That’s the kind of thing people say at funerals.” Two blond brows pull together as Cal stares me down. “I don’t need an excuse for my behavior.” “No, but you need a reason for scaring off our biggest Shanghai hotel investor.” “Fuck.” There’s a reason I prefer solitude. Small talk requires far too much effort and diplomacy for my taste. “Can you try to be nicer for one more hour? At least until all the important people leave?” “This is me trying.” My left eye twitches as I press my lips together. “Well, do better. For him.” Cal tilts his head toward the picture above the fireplace. I let out a shaky breath. The photograph was taken during a family trip to Dreamland when my brothers and I were kids. Grandpa smiles into the lens despite my tiny arms wrapped around his neck in a chokehold. Declan stands by Grandpa’s side, caught in the middle of an eye roll while Cal raises two fingers behind his head. My father shows a rare sober smile as he wraps an arm around Grandpa’s shoulder. If I try hard enough, I can imagine Mom’s laugh as she snapped the photo. While the memory of her face is fuzzy, I can make out her smile if I think hard enough. A weird scratchiness in my throat makes it difficult to swallow. Residual allergies from spring in the city. That’s all. I clear my irritated throat. “He would have hated this kind of show.” Although Grandpa was in the entertainment business, he disliked being the center of attention. The idea of all these people driving out to the edge of Chicago for him would have made his eyes roll if he was still here. Cal shrugs. “He of all people knew what was expected of him.” “A networking event disguised as a funeral?” The side of Cal’s lips lifts into a small smile before falling back into a flat line. “You’re right. Grandpa would be horrified because he always said Sunday was a day of rest.” “There’s no rest for the wicked.” “And even less for the wealthy.” Declan stops by my other side. He stares at the crowd of people with an unrelenting scowl. My oldest brother has intimidating people down to a science, with everyone avoiding his pitch-black stare. His suit matches his dark hair, which only adds to his cloak and dagger look. I’m somewhat jealous of Declan since people typically talk to me first, mistaking me as the nicest child because I happen to be the youngest. I might have been born last, but I most certainly wasn’t born yesterday. The only reason guests take the time to speak to us is because they want to stay within our good graces. That kind of fake treatment is to be expected. Especially when all the people we associate with have a moral compass pointed permanently toward hell. An unknown couple walks up to the three of us. A woman pulls out a tissue from her purse to dab her dry eyes while her counterpart offers us his hand to shake. I look down at it like he might transfer a disease. His cheeks flush as he tucks his hand back into his pocket. “I wanted to offer my condolences. I’m very sorry for your loss. Your grandfather—” I tune him out with a nod. This is going to be one hell of a long night. This one’s for you, Grandpa. I stare down at the white envelope. My name is written across the front in my grandpa’s elegant cursive. I flip it over, finding it untampered with his signature Dreamland’s Princess Cara’s Castle wax seal. The lawyer finishes passing out the other letters to my two brothers. “You’re required to read his individual letters prior to me reviewing Mr. Kane’s final will and testament.” My throat tightens as I break the seal and pull out my letter. It’s dated exactly a week before Grandpa’s accident three years ago that led to his coma. To my sweet little Rowan, I choke back on a laugh. Sweet and little are the last words I’d use to describe myself since I’m as tall as an NBA player with the emotional range of a rock, but Grandpa was blissfully ignorant. It was the best thing about him and the absolute worst depending on the situation. Although you’re a man now, you’ll always be the same little lad in my eyes. I still remember the day your mother gave birth to you like it was yesterday. You were the largest of the three, with these fat cheeks and a head full of dark hair that I was sadly jealous of. You sure had a pair of lungs in you and you wouldn’t stop crying until they handed you over to your mom. It was like everything was right in the world when you were in her arms. I reread the paragraph twice. It’s strange to hear my grandpa talk about my mother so casually. The subject became taboo in my family until I could barely remember her face or her voice anymore. I know I’ve been busy with work and that I didn’t spend as much time as I should’ve with you all. It was easy to blame the company for the physical and emotional distance in my relationships. When your mother died, I wasn’t sure what to do or how to help. With your father pushing me away, I devoted myself to my job until I became numb to everything else. It worked when my wife died and it worked when your mother met a similar passing, but I realize that it set your father up for failure. And in doing that, I failed you all as well. Instead of teaching Seth how to live a life after great loss, I showed him how to hold on to despair, and it only hurt you and your brothers in the end. Your father parented in the only way he knew how, and I’m the one to blame. Of course Grandpa excuses my father’s actions. Grandpa was too busy to pay close enough attention to the real monster his son turned out to be. As I write this, I’m living in Dreamland, trying to reconnect with myself. Something has been bothering me over the last couple of years and it didn’t click until I came here to reevaluate my life. I met someone who opened my eyes to my mistakes. As the company grew, I lost touch with why I started this all. I realized that I’ve been surrounded by so many happy people, yet I have never felt so alone in my life. And although my name is synonymous with the word “happiness,” I feel anything but. An uncomfortable feeling claws at my chest, begging to be released. There was a dark time in my life when I could relate to his comment. But I shut that part of my brain off once I realized no one could save me but myself. I shake my head and refocus my attention. Growing old is a peculiar thing because it puts everything into perspective. This updated will is my way of making amends after my death and fixing my wrongs before it’s too late. I don’t want this life for you three. Hell, I don’t want it for your father either. So Grandpa is here to save the day, in true Dreamland prince fashion (or villain, but that’s going to depend on your perspective, not mine). You each have been given a task to complete to receive your percentage of the company after my death. Do you expect anything less from the man who writes fairy tales for a living? I can’t just GIVE you the company. So to you, Rowan, the dreamer who stopped dreaming, I ask you one thing… Become the Director of Dreamland and bring the magic back. To receive your 18% of the company, you’ll be expected to become the Director and spearhead a unique project for me for six months. I want you to identify Dreamland’s weaknesses and develop a renovation plan worthy of my legacy. I know you’re the right man for this job because there’s no one I trust who loves creating more than you, even though you lost touch with that side of yourself over the years. I loved creating. Emphasis on the past tense because there’s no way I would draw again, let alone willingly work at Dreamland. An independent party will be contacted and asked to vote on your changes. If they are not approved, then your percentage of the company will be given to your father permanently. No second tries. No buying him out. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, little lad. I had to work to make the Kane name what it is today, and it’s up to your brothers and you to make sure it lives on forever. Love you always, Grandpa I stare at the ink until the words blur together. It’s difficult to concentrate on the lawyer when he discusses the splitting of assets. None of that matters now. These letters put every plan on standby. Declan shows the lawyer out before returning to the living room. “This is utter bullshit.” I swipe the whiskey bottle from the coffee table and fill my glass to the top. “What do you have to do?” Declan takes a seat. I explain my impending task. “He can’t demand this of us.” Cal rises from his chair and starts pacing. Declan runs a hand across his stubble. “You heard the lawyer. We either go along with it, or my ability to become CEO is null and void.” Cal’s eyes grow wilder with every ragged breath. “Fuck! I can’t do it.” “What could possibly be worse than losing your percentage of the company?” Declan smooths out his suit jacket. “Losing my dignity?” I give him a once-over. “That still exists?” Cal flips me off. Declan leans back in his chair as he takes a sip from his tumbler. “If there’s anyone who has a right to be pissed, it’s me. I’m the one who needs to marry someone and impregnate them to become CEO.” “You know babies are created by having sex, right? Is that something your internal software is capable of learning?” Cal’s pushing for a fight he can never win. Declan prides himself on his reputation as America’s most untouchable bachelor for a reason other than sleeping around. Declan plucks Cal’s letter from the floor and gives it a bored glance. “Alana? Interesting. Wonder why Grandpa thought it would be a good idea for you both to reunite again.” Alana? I haven’t heard that name in years. What does Grandpa want Cal to do with her? I reach out to grab the letter from Declan but Cal rips it out of his hand before I have the chance. “Fuck off. And don’t speak about her again,” Cal seethes. “If you want to play with fire, then prepare to be cremated.” Declan tips his glass at Cal. His gaze flickers between the two of us. “Regardless of our personal thoughts on the matter, we don’t have a choice but to proceed with Grandpa’s terms. There’s too much at stake.” I will never allow our father to obtain our shares of the company. I’ve waited my entire life for the ability to control The Kane Company with my brothers and I don’t plan on losing against my father. Not when we’re fueled by something far stronger than the need for money. Because if there’s one lesson we learned from Seth Kane, it’s that love may come and go, but hate lasts forever. 2 Rowan My new assistant, Martha, is a Dreamland veteran who has worked for all the Directors of the theme park, including my grandfather. She’s handled my transition with ease. The way she knows everything about everyone has been a bonus, making me breathe easier considering my move to Florida. Because of Martha’s key intel, I know how to find most of the Dreamland employees all in one place to formally introduce myself. I’m able to secure my choice of a seat because I made sure to be the first one to arrive for the morning meeting. I pick the perfect spot in the back of the auditorium where the fluorescent lights don’t reach, cloaking me in much-desired darkness. Sitting away from curious eyes will allow me to observe how the crew interacts and how the managers resolve problems. Ten minutes before the meeting, everyone files inside the space and fills the countless rows of seats. Whatever energy I give off has the employees avoiding the back row for the more preferred seats in the front and middle. There’s only one person who braves the seat in front of me. The older gentleman stares at me like I’m inconveniencing him by sitting in his territory, but I ignore him. Spotlights at the front of the room focus on Joyce, the daytime crew manager and Dreamland house mom. She has a helmet of white hair and blue eyes that scan the entire room like a drill sergeant. I’m not sure how she knows my location, but her eyes land on mine and she nods with pressed lips. Joyce taps her clipboard. “All right, everyone. Let’s get started. We have a lot to cover and little time before the first guests arrive.” She sets the meeting agenda and moves through countless questions with confidence. She barely breathes as she discusses the July schedule of parades, festivals, and celebrities visiting the land. The door behind me creaks open. I turn in my chair and look over my shoulder. A younger brunette woman slides through the small crack before shutting it softly behind her. I look down at my watch. Who is she and why is she twenty minutes late? She clutches onto a neon pink Penny skateboard with one golden brown arm as she scans the packed room. I take advantage of her distraction to assess her. She’s beautiful in a way that makes it difficult to refocus my attention on the conversation at the front of the room. I hate it yet I can’t look away. My eyes trace the curves of her body, drawing a path from her delicate throat to her thick thighs. The speed of my heart picks up. I clench my hands into two fists, disliking the lack of control I have over my body. Get a hold of yourself. I take a few deep breaths to slow my heart rate. A lock of dark hair falls in front of her eyes. She tucks it behind an ear decked out in gold piercings. As if she senses my gaze, her eyes land on me—or more so the empty seat next to me. The woman walks out of the lit entrance and toward the aisle shrouded in darkness. She checks out the seating arrangement as if she wants to figure out how to slide into the chair beside me with as little contact as possible. “Hi. Excuse me.” Her voice is soft with a hint of an accent. She takes a deep breath as she moves inch by inch into my personal space. I don’t say a damn thing as I clutch onto the armrests. I’m given an up-close and personal view of her backside, barely constrained by her unregulated attire of jeans and a T-shirt. There’s a reason uniforms are mandatory while on company property and I’m staring straight at it. The back of my neck heats, and the armrests creak under the pressure of my hands. Her perfume hits my nose. My eyes drift shut at the intoxicating smell—a mix of flowers, citrus, and something I can’t quite place. She fumbles around my long legs with the gracefulness of a newborn giraffe. Wanting to end this, I give her some space by sitting up. My sudden movement has her tripping over my feet. One of her hands smacks against my lap for balance, missing my cock by only a few inches. Electricity shoots up my leg right to my crotch. Shit. Since when has someone’s touch given me that kind of a reaction? Her wide eyes look into mine, showing off thick lashes and brown, almond-shaped eyes. She blinks a couple times, proving she possesses some form of cognitive functioning. “I’m so sorry.” Her lips gape apart as she stares down at her hand on my lap. She gasps and rips her hand away from my thigh, taking her warmth and the weird feeling with her. Some older crew member looks over his shoulder. “Do you mind taking a seat already? I can barely hear Joyce over your usual racket.” Usual racket? Good to know that this is a pattern. “Right. Yes,” she sputters. I consider her ability to slide into the chair beside me without another accident as a miracle. She drops her loud jangling backpack on the floor, causing yet another distraction. Metal rattles and pings as she bends over and unzips the bag. I shut my eyes and breathe through my nose to calm the dull ache pulsing at my temples. Except I take in more of her perfume with each deep breath, making it impossible to forget her. Her arm brushes up against my leg during her search. A similar spark shoots down my spine at the contact, like a rush of heat begging to go somewhere. Anywhere but there for fuck’s sake. “Do you mind?” I grind out. “Sorry!” She winces as she finally grabs her notebook and snaps back into a sitting position. Her Penny board slides off her lap and smashes into my two-thousand-dollar shoes. There’s a reason those damn things were banned from the park decades ago. I kick the contraband item away from me and right into the ankles of the same man who reprimanded her earlier. “Come on, Zahra.” The man turns his head and shoots her a withering look. Zahra. Her name fits the wildness I’ve only had a tiny taste of. “Sorry, Ralph,” she mutters. “Stop being sorry and start being early for once.” I fight the urge to smile. There’s nothing I enjoy more than people being called out on their bullshit. She leans over and places a delicate hand on the man’s shoulder. “Can I make it up to you with fresh bread that Claire and I made last night?” Bread? Is she seriously offering this man food after he got annoyed with her? Ralph shrugs. “Throw in some cookies and I won’t complain to Joyce about you being late again.” I blink at the graying grump in front of me. “I knew you had a soft spot for me. People say you’re mean but I don’t believe a word of it.” She shoves his shoulder in a familiar way. I see what she’s doing here. Somehow, she wrapped old Ralph around her finger with nothing but a smile and a promise of baked goods. This woman is dangerous—like a landmine someone doesn’t see until it’s too late. Zahra grabs a package from her backpack and drops it into Ralph’s waiting hands. Ralph cracks a smile, revealing a chipped front tooth. “Don’t let anyone in on our secret. I couldn’t handle the fall out.” “Of course. I wouldn’t dare.” She lets out a soft laugh that reverberates through my chest like someone smashed a damn gong with a sledgehammer in there. Warmth spreads through my body, scaring the shit out of me. Her white teeth stand out in the dark as she shoots Ralph a beaming smile. There’s something about the look on her face that has my heart racing faster in my chest. Beautiful. Carefree. Innocent. Like she’s actually happy with her life rather than faking it like the rest of us. My teeth smash together as I let out an agitated breath. “Are you done? Some of us are trying to pay attention.” The whites of Ralph’s eyes grow larger before he turns around in his chair, leaving Zahra all by herself. “I’m sorry,” she whispers under her breath. I ignore her apology and refocus my attention on Joyce. “Some big changes are happening at Corporate that we will be reviewing over the next week. They’re going to be keeping a close eye on us this quarter.” “Great. Just what we need,” Zahra mumbles under her breath as she scribbles in her notebook. “Do you have a problem with Corporate?” I’m not sure what I expect to hear or why I even care. She laughs to herself, and I’m hit with another weird feeling in my rib cage. “The real question is who doesn’t have a problem with Corporate.” “Why?” “Because The Kane Company Board is filled with a bunch of old men who sit around talking about how much money they’ve made, without actually discussing the important matters at hand.” “And you’re an expert on board meetings all of a sudden?” “It doesn’t take a genius to draw conclusions based on how they treat us here.” “And how’s that?” “Like we don’t matter as long as we make them billions of dollars a year.” If she notices my glare, she seems unbothered by it. “Aren’t employees paid not to complain?” She directs her smile at me. “Sorry, that’ll cost the company extra, and seeing as most of us make minimum wage, silence isn’t part of the deal.” Her voice is light and airy, which only annoys me more. “It should be if only to prevent you from spewing more ignorant statements.” She sucks in a breath and returns her focus to her notebook, finally giving me the quiet I wanted. “This next quarter is going to be different from the last one.” Joyce’s eyes brighten. A few crew members grumble under their breath. “Oh, come on. It’s the truth.” Zahra makes a noise in the back of her throat. She scribbles some notes across her notebook, but I can’t make out the words in the dark. “You don’t believe her?” What the hell are you doing, man? She finally shut up and now you’re asking her questions? Her head snaps in my direction, but I can’t make out her expression. “Because nothing good can happen now that Brady’s really gone.” Her voice cracks. My molars smash together. Who does she think she is to call my grandfather Brady? It’s insulting. “The park has performed better in the last year alone than ever before, so I find your statement baseless.” Her knee bounces in an annoying fashion. “Not everything is about a bottom line. Sure, the park performed better, but at what expense? Small wages? Cheaper health insurance benefits for employees and unpaid vacation days?” If she’s trying to appeal to my humanity, she might die trying. People in my position don’t lead with our hearts because we would never be satisfied with something so ridiculous. We don’t seek to make the world better. We seek to make it ours. I readjust my position in my chair to look at her. “Spoken like someone who knows nothing about running a multibillion-dollar industry. Not that I’m surprised. You do work here, after all.” She reaches out and pinches my arm. Her small fingers lack the strength to do any real damage. “What the hell was that for?” I snap. “I was trying to see if this was a nightmare. Turns out this whole train wreck of a conversation is very real.” “Touch me again and you’ll be fired on the spot.” She freezes. “Which department did you say you were from again?” “I didn’t.” She smacks her forehead with her hand as she switches between English and a foreign language I’m not familiar with. “What department do you work in?” I counter. She sits up taller with a grin like I didn’t threaten to fire her a second ago. Bizarre. “I’m a beautician at The Magic Wand Salon.” “Great. So at least you don’t do anything important enough to be missed.” Her chair creaks underneath her as she recoils. “God, you’re such an asshole.” Joyce couldn’t have planned my entrance any better than this. She calls out my name and everyone’s heads turn in the direction of our dark corner. I rise from my seat and look over at Zahra with a raised brow. Her head hangs low, and her chest shakes. From laughter? What the hell? She should be apologizing and begging for her job. Joyce calls my name, and my head snaps in the direction of the stage. I turn toward the crowd and walk away from Zahra. There’s only one thing I need to focus on, and my goal has nothing to do with a woman who dared to call me an asshole and laugh about it. 3 Zahra I slam the door to my locker shut. “What’s got you all upset?” Claire takes a seat on the bench across from me and puts on her flats. Her dark, shoulder-length hair curtains around her face, and she shoves it out of the way. “I met the biggest jerk this morning during the meeting. And you won’t believe who it was.” “Who?!” “Rowan Kane.” “Get the fuck out!” My roommate’s brown eyes go wide. A couple heads snap in our direction. Mrs. Jeffries fumbles for her cross necklace as she stares at us. “Claire.” I groan. “He’s Dreamland royalty. Excuse my shock.” “Trust me. Some things are better left to the imagination.” Whatever sweet stories Brady shared about his youngest grandson were nothing but a fantasy. The rumors circulating Dreamland were right. Rowan has earned a reputation as a ruthless businessman known to stir up the same level of happiness as animal euthanasia. He first gained attention after being the tie-breaker vote against increasing the minimum wage for employees. Because of him, The Kane Company has continued to pay their employees pennies for their hard work. His reign of terror was solidified over the years. He has cut back on employee’s paid vacation days, swapped our health insurance plan for one that hurts rather than helps, and laid off thousands of employees. Rowan might have the looks of an angel but the rest of him is pure sin. Claire tugs on my dress. “Well, tell me! Does he smell as good as he looks?” “No.” Yes. But I’m not about to tell Claire that. Not only did Rowan smell amazing, but his company photo doesn’t do him justice. Rowan is beautiful in an unapproachable kind of way. Like a marble statue surrounded by a red velvet rope, tempting me to cross into forbidden territory for one single touch. His cheekbones seem sharp enough to cut while his lips look soft enough to kiss. And based on the part I pinched and the thigh I touched, he is packed with lean muscle. He seems perfect, looking every bit like a pretty boy with his perfectly styled brown hair, pressed suit, and deep caramel-colored eyes. That is until he opens his mouth. “Okay, let’s ignore the fact that he’s a jerk and talk more about if he’s single or not.” She bats her lashes. “Last time I checked, he isn’t your type.” I shove her shoulder, knowing she doesn’t give a damn about boys. She declared herself gay during high school and never blinked at men ever again. “Bitch, I’m asking for you, not me.” I run a hand down my purple renaissance costume. “Seeing as he told me that my job wasn’t important enough to be missed, I’m not interested. Not to mention he’s our boss.” Even though Dreamland doesn’t have any rules against fraternization, I’ve officially labeled Rowan off-limits. Been there, done that, and bought the souvenir. My ex-boyfriend met my lifetime asshole quota. “Man. What a dick.” “Tell me about it. I can’t believe he’s our new Director. It was so all of a sudd—” “Roll call!” Regina, the salon manager, shouts from the main floor. Claire and I step onto the salon floor and line up with the rest of the staff. We’re surrounded by a sea of empty, colorful chairs and lit vanities waiting to house children who dream of being dressed up as princesses and princes during their time in Dreamland. All the employees stand through our assignments before setting up our stations. “Ready?” Claire looks over at me from her vanity. I grab my unplugged curling wand and wield it like a sword. “I was born ready.” Henry, today’s floor attendant, opens the doors and lets in a crowd of kids and their parents. My heart warms at the bright-smiling, starry-eyed children who assess all the costumes lining the walls. Henry rolls a little girl in a wheelchair toward my station. “Hi, Zahra. This is Lily. She’s excited to have you make her look like Princess Cara today.” I bend over and give Lily my hand. “Are you sure you need a makeover?” She nods and smiles. “Are you sure you’re not a princess already?” Lily muffles her giggle with her other hand. Her straight blonde hair falls into her face, shielding her green eyes from me. I tap her scrunched nose. “You’re going to make my job so easy that my boss might think I have superpowers.” Lily laughs. The sound is so sweet, I can’t help joining her. “I like your pin.” She points at today’s enamel pin that rests above my name tag. “Thank you.” I smile at the Bee Happy script covering a cartoon bumblebee. My small rebellion against the uniform code is a hit with the little ones. I get to work, starting with Lily’s hair. Her straight hair stubbornly struggles to hold the classic Princess Cara curls, but I don’t give up until she looks perfect. A weird prickling sensation shoots down my spine. I turn toward the vanity without watching my hands and swipe Lily’s cheek with purple eyeshadow. “Hey!” She laughs. “Oh God.” “What?” Rowan stands beside the front desk. His weighted stare in the mirror has my skin heating and my eyes threatening to pop out of their sockets. A flush spreads across my cheeks, and I turn away from the makeup station to hide my reaction. “Ohh, you’re getting red. Mommy does that with Daddy.” Lily’s eyes light up. “Hmm.” What is he doing here? Am I going to be fired? Lily catches me staring at Rowan’s reflection in the mirror. “Do you like him?” “Shh! No!” I wipe the makeup off her cheek. “Is it a secret?” she whispers. “Yes!” I’ll say anything to get her to shut up. I take another peek over my shoulder. The asshole-in-Armani’s eyes remain focused on me, adding to my anxiety with nothing but a scowl. Henry walks up to my vanity under the guise of offering Lily a juice box. “So, care to share why Mr. Kane is asking about you?” “Because I might have made him angry earlier?” Henry’s eyes crinkle with concern. “I wanted to come over and warn you that he’s asking Regina all kinds of questions about you.” I hope Regina keeps her personal dislike toward me to herself. While she would love nothing more than to complain about me, my performance speaks for itself. My client tips are nearly double everyone else’s, which only fuels her personal vendetta against me. I don’t understand her problem. Her daughter is the one who had an affair with my now very ex-boyfriend while we were still dating. I’m nothing close to a threat because I wouldn’t touch Lance with a hazmat suit, let alone get back with him. I straighten my spine. Thinking about Lance and Tammy only dampens my mood. It puts me back in that bad mental place, and I refuse to reduce myself to being that girl who thought she would marry her college sweetheart. That future crashed and burned after finding out about Lance’s double life with Tammy. Let it go. Show them that they didn’t break you, no matter how close you got. “Is he your prince?” Lily grins. I snap back into the conversation. Henry shimmies his shoulders. “We’ll have to wait and see if he carries her off to his kingdom.” The only kingdom that man resides in is hell and I’m not interested in visiting. He’s a devil in a designer suit with a personality to match. “Good luck! You’re going to need it.” Henry leaves after patting me on the head like a child. Every time I look in the mirror, Rowan’s emotionless, brown eyes meet mine. I shiver under his stare despite the warm lights of the vanity. During the entire makeover, I somehow keep a straight face despite my heart pounding against my rib cage. I throw all my energy into ignoring my new boss while making Lily the prettiest princess in the whole park. As I get closer to the reveal, I turn her chair toward the center of the room and away from the mirror. I finish up the final touches before making a show of swiveling her chair back in front of the mirror for the big reveal. Her eyes water as she checks out her reflection. “You look beautiful.” I bend over and give her a small hug. “Thank you.” She frowns at her chair. My heart squeezes in my chest, making me wish I could do more for kids like Lily. They always seem to be overlooked. I wrap my arm around Lily’s shoulder and smile into the mirror. “You’re one pretty lady. I bet someone is going to mistake you for the real Princess Cara the moment you leave here.” “Really?” Her entire face brightens again. I tap her nose. “You bet. And I know kids are going to be jealous of your cool wheels when their feet are aching and sore.” She laughs. “You’re funny.” “If someone asks you for a free ride, make sure to charge them. Promise?” “Pinky promise.” She holds up her tiny finger for me. We lock ours together and shake on it. I turn to call for Lily’s parents. My eyes lock on Rowan’s. Heat blooms in my stomach, spreading like wildfire across my skin from one look. Am I coming down with a fever? I knew that sniffling kid at my station yesterday didn’t have allergies. Lily’s parents come over and rave all about her makeover. While her dad kneels to talk to Lily, her mother turns and clutches my hand with her trembling one. “Thank you so much for taking care of my daughter. She was scared she wouldn’t fit in here like the other girls but you went out of your way to make her day special.” She throws her arms around me. I return her hug. “It’s my pleasure. But Lily made it easy because you both have one beautiful daughter, inside and out.” Lily’s dad blushes while her mom grins. With one last look in the mirror, her parents roll Lily away. I turn toward the area where Rowan and Regina were chatting, only to find it empty. My stomach sinks. I remain permanently nauseous for the rest of the day. No matter how many smiling kids leave my chair, I can’t shake this weird feeling in my gut. I’m not sure what Rowan’s up to but I need to keep an eye out. There was a time I ignored my intuition and I refuse to make that mistake ever again. 4 Rowan Dreamland might be in the business of selling fairy tales, but it brings me nothing but nightmares and bitter flashbacks. The energy surrounding this place chokes me as much as the Florida humidity. Despite the raging summer sun, a chill runs down my spine as I stare up at Princess Cara’s Castle. The architectural monstrosity that put my grandfather’s park on the map nearly five decades ago reminds me of a past life I’ve long since forgotten. Get over it, you worthless piece of shit. Focus on what matters. I’m not sure why my grandfather tasked me with fixing a theme park that has run seamlessly for forty-eight years. Tickets are always sold out, and we meet maximum capacity every single day. With the park outperforming each quarter, I question how I can make improvements. To put it simply, this place is perfect. Almost too perfect. I’ve dealt with more issues in one day as the chairman of our streaming service subsidiary than this park manages in a whole year. But with my twenty-five-billion-dollar shares on the line, I’ll turn over every single rock in this entire place if it means exposing weaknesses and building upon Dreamland’s strengths. There is no other option. My brothers are counting on me to do my part in securing our future, and I don’t plan on letting them down. I abandon my spot on the wooden drawbridge. My breathing becomes easier as I add some distance between the castle and myself. Think of how much better life will be once you get the hell out of this town. That’s the thought that keeps me sane in a world built on nothing but haunted memories and broken dreams. My patience is thinning with each roadblock I hit. After back-to-back pointless meetings with Dreamland staff, I’m desperate for news about where the park is underperforming. I’ve learned nothing worth noting since I arrived forty-eight hours ago. On paper, Dreamland is hitting new goals with every financial quarter. The demand for more is the only common theme I’ve heard from employees. More rides. More lands. More hotels. More space. There’s only one team that can help me with this kind of grand-scale expansion. Dreamland’s Creators are world-renowned in the theme park business. If there’s an attraction, venue, souvenir, or consumer experience at Dreamland, the Creators helped design it. So they’re the people I plan on working side by side with for the next six months. My micromanaging approach will be a significant change from the laid-back attitude they’re used to from the previous Director, but quite frankly, I don’t care. It helped me turn a start-up streaming company into a billion-dollar empire, and it’ll help me here. I enter my office and shut the door behind me. The two head Creators jump in their seats before regaining their composure. Sam, the male who has the common sense to mix a plaid shirt and a polka dot tie, can barely look me in the eyes. The top of his brown curly hair is the only image I get as he scribbles in his notebook. Jenny, the brunette co-manager, sits straighter than a needle beside him as if one kink in her posture will set me off. I take a seat. “Let’s get started.” They nod in unison. “I am expected to come up with a new plan for the park that identifies our weaknesses. Together we will evaluate the performance of Dreamland’s attractions and determine how we can better serve our guests. That includes renovating current rides, creating new lands, updating skits and float parades that will increase Dreamland’s ROI by five percent, at the very least.” Sam’s eyes somehow double in size while Jenny’s face remains stoic. “Based on my preliminary analysis, our competitors have been growing fiercer over the years. And although Dreamland performs above average each quarter, I’m looking to obliterate our competition and steal their profit margins.” Sam’s throat bobs while Jenny scribbles in her notebook. I appreciate their silence, given my limited time between meetings with each department. “Projects like these take years to go from blueprints to live-action rides. That being said, I’m expecting your two teams to develop the initial plans that I will then present in front of a board in six months.” It was Declan’s idea to keep my real reason for being here a secret. He thinks that if I revealed my less-than-altruistic intentions for a project of this magnitude, people might sabotage me for the right price. So no one will be the wiser about my temporary position here for the next six months. In their eyes, I will be the Director they always dreamed of. In reality, I can’t wait to crawl out of this hellhole and go back to Chicago to replace Declan as the CFO. “Six months?” Jenny croaks. Her cheeks lose all their coloring. “I assume that won’t be a problem.” She shakes her head, but the hand clutching onto her pen trembles. “I’m looking to package this whole idea as a fiftieth-anniversary celebration and generate a buzz that pulls at people’s heartstrings. The project should appeal to the new and old generations who grew up with Dreamland characters. I want it to emulate everything my grandfather loved about this park while also moving us toward a brighter—and more modern—future.” Sam and Jenny are nothing but two bobbing heads, hanging on to every word as they scribble in their notepads. “So whatever needs to be done, do it. Time is not our friend.” “What is our budget?” Sam’s eyes shine. “Keep it reasonable—so around ten billion for the entire park. If you need more, my accountants will review the numbers.” Sam nearly chokes on his tongue. “I expect results. If not, then you’re better off applying for the traveling carnival.” Jenny stares at me while Sam’s eyes drop to the carpet. “Sir, may I speak freely?” Jenny taps her pen against her notepad in the most irritating fashion. I check my watch. “If you find it absolutely necessary.” “Based on your rapid timeline, I was wondering if we could open up the annual employee submissions early this year? That way, the Creators could work with fresh ideas rather than starting from ground zero.” I blink at her. Annual submissions are nothing but a headache meant to boost employee morale. We have plenty of Creators who have worked at Dreamland for decades already. They don’t need the useless input from low-paid employees who don’t know the first thing about how to design a park. But what if someone submits something the current Creators haven’t considered? I work through the pros and cons before determining that I don’t have much to lose. “Open up the applications for two weeks only. I want you to personally review the submissions and deliver only the best ones to my desk.” Jenny nods. “Of course. I’m sure we have a good idea about what you’re looking for.” Doubtful but I don’t bother wasting any words correcting her. “Get to work.” Jenny and Sam exit in a rush, leaving me behind to answer emails and prepare for the next meeting of my day. “Son.” I instantly regret answering my father’s unusual personal call. Stupid curiosity got the better of me because he’s been too quiet about the whole Dreamland business. Something about his silence makes me wonder what he’s planning behind the scenes. I settle into a leather couch across from my desk. “Father.” Our titles are nothing but a front developed over the years for public appearances. “How’s everything in Dreamland? I assume you’ll be attending our board meeting on Monday regardless of whatever plans you’ve got going on.” His tone remains light and indicative of the calm facade he’s perfected across decades. My molars grind together. “Why do you care?” “Because I’m intrigued by your sudden interest in becoming the Director after your grandfather’s passing.” Does he think so little of my intelligence? Of course he does. He’s done nothing but mock you for the entirety of your existence. “Is there a purpose to this phone call?” I ask with a faux indifference. “I was curious about your progress after reviewing the funding request you put in. Ten billion dollars isn’t a joking matter.” Every muscle turns rigid in my body. “I don’t need your advice.” “Good. I wasn’t offering it.” “God forbid you acted like a father for once in your pathetic life.” “Interesting word choice from my weakest son.” My fist tightens around my cellphone. It was stupid for me to answer my father’s call because of some budding curiosity. I should have expected that nothing would change, even after my grandfather’s death. The only thing my father is interested in is reminding me how inept he thinks I am. He’s trying to screw with your head. That’s all. “I’ve got to go. I have a meeting that I can’t be late for.” I hang up the phone. I take deep breaths to lower my blood pressure. I’m not that hopeless boy anymore that craved a real relationship with my father. Because of him, I turned my mind into a weapon rather than a weakness. No matter how hard he tries to poke at me, I’ll always come out on top because the child he once knew no longer exists. I made sure of that. 5 Zahra Claire drops onto our couch and shoves her laptop onto my lap. “This is your chance!” “What is?” She pauses the TV, interrupting my binge marathon of The Duke Who Seduced Me. I read the email before putting her laptop on the coffee table. “No way. Not happening.” “Hear me out—” “No.” “Yes! You’re going to listen to my argument without interrupting me. You owe me that much as your best friend and personal chef.” She wags her finger in the same way my mom does. “My stomach might love you but my thighs sure don’t.” She only glares at me. I cross my arms. “Fine. I’ll give you a chance.” She readjusts her tiny bun. “Okay, so I get why you’re hesitant. I’d be too if someone betrayed me like Lance did.” “Do we really need to bring up Lance?” A cold feeling seeps through my chest, chilling my veins. Betrayal like that is hard to come back from. Claire’s smile falters. “The only reason I’m mentioning him is because this is the final step in the process of letting him go.” She waves at her laptop like it will solve the world’s problems. “I’ve moved on already.” “I know you have, but there’s still a tiny part of you that is afraid of chasing after the dreams he stole right out of your hands.” He stole a lot more than my dreams. My eyes sting. “I don’t dream about inventing anymore.” “The bullshit he said about your skills was only a diversion to keep you from submitting the same idea as him. You know that, right?” “But—” “But nothing. Lance lied because he wanted to hold you back long enough for him to steal your idea.” It makes sense in theory, but I’m still not sure. Claire grabs my hand and holds on to it. “This is your chance to prove to yourself that nothing anyone says defines who you are. Only your actions do.” My chest tightens. “I’m not sure…” She squeezes my hand. “Come on. Just submit one teensy little project. That’s all. What’s the worst that can happen?” “Well, where should I start? I mean—” Claire covers my mouth with her palm. “It was a rhetorical question!” I raise a brow. “Why are you pushing me so hard to apply?” “Because that’s what friends are for. We need to push each other out of our comfort zones. Because if you’re not afraid—” “Then you’re not growing.” I smile back at her. “So what do you say?” I pull out my phone from my pocket and open an email I received last week. “Speaking of comfort zones…I wanted to bring this up to you, and now seems like the perfect time. Because if you’re not afraid…” I tease. “Oh no.” My grin widens. “If I’m submitting a proposal, then you’re applying for the apprentice position at The Royal Chateau. They have an opening in the kitchen that has your name written all over it.” Claire’s smile drops. “This wasn’t supposed to be about me.” “We’re a duo. If I’m pushing myself to my limit, then you’re coming along with me.” This is my chance to help Claire out. She never wanted to permanently stay at The Magic Wand Salon, but she never worked up the nerve to apply for the position she was initially rejected from. “I can’t apply there. They have a Michelin star!” “All the more reason to apply to the very best.” “But I don’t have a culinary degree from some fancy French school!” She jumps up from her spot on the couch. “No, but you have a degree and heaps of experience working at restaurants during high school and college.” She throws her arms in the air. “Last week I burnt a batch of cookies.” “Only because I forgot to set the timer.” I laugh. “The entire building had to evacuate because of the fire alarm. There’s no way anyone would trust me in a kitchen after that.” I laugh. “Don’t be so dramatic.” She plops onto the couch and lays her head on my lap. “You weren’t supposed to blackmail me.” “What are friends for?” “Oh, I don’t know, anything but felonies?” I smile. “Come on. What do you say?” “I say you’re annoyingly chirpy for someone who was against this whole idea only five minutes ago.” “I’m taking advantage of an opportunity.” “Just so you’re aware, I’m only agreeing because I’m okay with being rejected if it means seeing you chase after your dreams again.” My smile wobbles. “Sure thing. Just like I will only agree to your plan because I’d rather see you try again. If not, you’ll end up like Mrs. Jeffries, working at the salon until you retire at ninety.” Her lips purse. “Now you’re just being intentionally cruel.” Together, we laugh up to the ceiling before shaking on our agreement. Sifting through the weathered pages of my idea notebook hits me with bittersweet memories. I trace over Brady’s cursive handwriting covering the pages where we brainstormed what Nebula Land would look like if it became a new land within the park. He and I spent weeks on it after he rejected my initial submission and told me I could do better. The catch? He would be the one to guide me. Together, we formulated a proposal while developing a brief mentorship. Nebula Land was supposed to be the project that turned me into a Creator. But after Brady’s accident, it felt wrong to submit it, so I held off. I was surprised to read about my idea in the company newsletter after learning Lance stole the main parts I had shared with him in private. What would Brady think of Lance manipulating our idea? The ride looks nothing like our original plan. My lungs burn with the heavy breath I let out, and my eyes become watery as I run a finger across a sketch Brady did. Critiquing Lance’s idea isn’t going to get you anywhere closer to submitting yours. I turn on my laptop, sign in to my employee account, and open the annual Dreamland submissions portal. The blinking cursor in the empty text box mocks me, but I refuse to give up. Claire believes in me, and maybe it really is time I stop letting Lance get in my way of believing in myself. This was a very bad idea. After my first failed draft, I decided wine and a broken heart were a good combination for my second attempt. Update: It was not. I’m still nowhere close to having a submission ready. Everything I write about seems too underwhelming and lacks my usual passion. I take another swig of wine straight from the bottle in a way that would horrify my mother. What if working through your negative feelings about the Nebula Land ride helps open up your mind to more creative ideas? Yes! Maybe that’s what I’m missing. I delete everything from the text box and restart. At the top, I write The real Nebula Land that would make Brady Kane proud. My fingers fly across the keys as I let out every single thought I have toward the project. I’m done staying silent and pretending the ride doesn’t bother me. When I was with Lance, that’s the kind of person I became comfortable being. The silent, demure type who didn’t want to make any waves because I prioritized his happiness. In the end, it was all for nothing. I gave up the person I was for a man who couldn’t handle the woman I was meant to be. All my fingers cramp up from typing. It feels empowering to tear apart something that broke me first. By the time I’m done, my vision is a bit blurry and my coordination could be better. Since drinking and typing have no place in my life, I decide to click the Save Draft button at the bottom and shut my laptop for the night. “Oh no!” Oh no, no, no. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuuuuck!” Claire runs into my room. “What is it?” I stare at the application portal. This can’t be real. I pinch my arm so hard, I wince. The bright green letters mock me in a way that has my stomach threatening to revolt. Your application has been submitted. Claire looks over my shoulder at the screen. “You submitted it without asking me to double-check for typos? Who are you and what have you done with the real Zahra?” “It was an accident!” I drop onto my bed, cover my face with a pillow, and scream. Claire rubs my trembling arm. “What if you send an email to Mr. Kane and the Creators explaining the mistake? I’m sure they would understand.” I tug the pillow away from my face. “Are you kidding me?! What am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry I got a tiny bit drunk and submitted an application tearing apart your most expensive ride’?” She brushes my hair out of my face. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.” “I called Lance’s ride a big metal pile of shit that would make Brady Kane roll over in his grave.” She winces. “Oh, okay. Well. Yeah. You have always had a talent with words. At least you’re putting that English degree to good use.” I groan. “I can’t believe I hit the wrong button. I should have never been drinking and working. What was I thinking?” The bed dips under her weight as she sits next to me. Her arms wrap around me in the best hug. “Well, this was the first big step in letting go of the past. Maybe it needed to happen like this.” “Yesterday you said fate was a fool’s way of avoiding plans.” Her chest shakes from silent laughter. “Only because you love to tout your kismet horn for everyone to hear. So what, you only believe in fate when things go your way? That sounds like some bullshit logic to me.” I purse my lips. “Yeah, but what if I get fired? I’ve already made some mistakes.” First, I called Rowan an asshole and made fun of his board, and now this? I’ll be lucky if I’m allowed to pick up trash at the end of all this. Claire pats my hand. “It’s too late now. You’re in deep.” She points at the green font on the screen. I sigh. “Let’s hope for the best?” What’s done is done. I can’t change the proposal I submitted and there was something cathartic about pouring out all my feelings. Maybe it really is kismet. 6 Zahra The last week has been hell. It’s taken all my willpower to make it through my shifts at the salon because I’m tired from worrying. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop because it’s only a matter of time before the Creators call me out on my proposal. My worst nightmare came at the most unexpected time when I received an ill-fated summons from Rowan Kane. His single-lined email didn’t give away much. Your presence is required at my office tomorrow at 8 a.m. sharp. R.G.K. I’m not sure what’s more shocking. The fact that he emailed me demanding my presence on a Saturday morning or the way he signed an email so casually with three initials. I call Regina to explain the circumstances of why I will be late to work. She lets me know that she’s already aware of my meeting before hanging up. Damn. I’m totally in trouble. I rush through my morning routine and ride my skateboard through the Catacombs so I can make it to the meeting on time. My sneakers squeak as I run into the lobby of Rowan’s private office suite. It’s hidden behind one-way mirrored windows that look out at Story Street and Princess Cara’s Castle. The door to Rowan’s office remains shut. His secretary, Martha, points at an empty chair beside her desk. I recognize her from my visits with Brady. My strawberry print dress puffs around me as I plop into the seat. I decided to go for an innocent until proven guilty look today. Martha offers me a small cup of water. “Do I have you to thank for his good mood this morning?” I gasp in mock shock. “Don’t tell me you’re referring to Mr. Kane. He wouldn’t know a good mood if he was overdosing on Valium.” I take a sip of water to refresh my parched throat. Her eyes glitter. “You’re trouble.” “And late,” Rowan calls out. I turn in my seat, making the water in my cup slosh. I’m about to correct him on the fact that he is the one who is running late but I somehow forget the entire English language when I get a look at him. Rowan in a suit is my kind of corporate kryptonite. Today, the custom royal blue fabric hugs his body like someone sewed the material onto him. His dark brown hair is styled without a single hair out of line and his stubble is nonexistent during this early morning hour. The ocean blue material highlights the dips and curves of every single muscle, like waves of water I want to drown in. I let out the tiniest sigh that makes his secretary smile at her computer screen. All the attraction is sucked out of me once his hardened gaze crashes into mine. The shadows in his eyes douse the small flame in my chest. I grab my phone from my dress pocket. “I was on time. Right?” I look over at Martha for approval. She remains silent as she focuses all her attention on cleaning out her junk mail inbox. The betrayal. “Follow me.” Rowan steps away from the door to give me space to enter. I rise from the chair and grab my backpack off the floor. His gaze lingers on my puffy tulle sleeves before eying the rest of my dress like he wants to burn the fabric. His scowl only deepens once his eyes land on my cherry red sneakers. I click the heels together twice with a smile. His eyes snap toward mine. My cheeks heat from the look on his face. Is that yearning in his gaze or intense dislike? Let’s hope for the first while expecting the latter. Whatever lingers in his eyes disappears as he blinks and removes any trace of emotion. He turns in a huff, giving me a prime view of his firm bubble butt. I pause and look because I am a warm-blooded human after all. No man in power should possess a body like that. It should be considered a corporate crime to look that good while wearing a suit. I shake my head and follow him into his domain. Rowan’s office is a complete contrast from his personality. The vintage space reflects the romantic charm of Dreamland with crown molding and pale-yellow walls. It reminds me of something I’d find in one of my regency novels, with white wainscoting and elaborate wood furniture carved with an artist’s touch. Rowan frowns, sticking out like a thundercloud on a bright summer day. He stands by his desk and presses his clenched fists against the top. “Sit.” He takes a seat in his leather wingback chair. The dominance emanating off him makes it difficult to take deep breaths of air. I settle into the chair across from his desk, crossing and uncrossing my legs as he grabs papers from a file drawer. “Do you need to use the restroom?” His face remains blank. “What?” “Bathroom?” He grunts, pointing toward a door in the corner of the office. “You keep moving around.” “Oh no!” My cheeks heat. “Just trying to get comfortable.” “Don’t set yourself up for failure like that.” A laugh escapes me before I have a chance to stop it. The side of his mouth lifts a whole quarter of a centimeter before dropping again. Honestly, what does it take for someone like him to smile? Stealing candy from babies? Blood sacrifices? Watching live feeds of families having their homes foreclosed on? I need to know. He slides the file over to me. “Here’s your new contract. It’s quite similar to your previous one with The Magic Wand Salon.” My mouth drops open. “I’m sorry. A contract?!” When people are fired from Dreamland, are they given a contract to never come back? How exactly does this whole thing work? He sighs as if I’m inconveniencing him. “You’ll be joining the Creators’ team effective immediately.” The room spins around me. I place a hand against his desk for stability. “I’m what?! Joining the Creators’ team?” He blinks at me. “This annoying habit of repeating everything back to me is a waste of time and oxygen.” “Excuse me?” I rear back. “First off, I have every right to be confused. I thought you were about to fire me!” This time his face shifts from a neutral stare to something that translates into You’re the dumbest person I’ve had the displeasure of being around. “You’re getting a job promotion.” How did I go from tearing apart the entire Nebula Land ride to getting a job offer with the most elite employees in all of Dreamland? This has to be some kind of payback for wasting everyone’s time with my submission. “How?” The vein on his forehead makes an appearance. “Do you always feel the need to ask so many questions?” “Do you always feel the need to be evasive and curt in everything you do?” He proves my point by remaining silent. I’m tempted to knock his head around like a busted vending machine until I get some answers. He taps the top of the file. “Your Nebula Land submission was rather bold. Not many people dare to critique a billion-dollar investment.” “I submitted it while I was drunk!” I blurt out. He blinks at me. The only noise I hear is the rush of blood pounding in my ears. Oh God. Why did I admit that?! I rub a sweaty palm down my face. His lip curls. The look on his face makes me want to curl into a fetal position. “Will this be a habit while you’re on the clock?” I shake my head so fast, I’m hit with a wave of dizziness. “Oh no! I rarely drink. It was a stupid idea to help me unwind—” He lifts his hand. “Save me the monologue. I don’t care.” Now it’s my turn to blink. Rowan might be a man of few words but they serve their purpose at making me feel like an idiot without actually calling me an idiot. It must be his superpower. I smile to ease the tension between us. “But I’m guessing you liked my idea or else you wouldn’t be offering me a job.” “My general feelings on the matter are irrelevant. I make decisions based on facts and years of fine-tuned expertise.” The air escapes my lungs like a deflating balloon. Seriously, was this man not held enough as a baby? There’s no other explanation for his coldness. That’s not fair. You’ve heard the stories about his mother… I choke on the weird feeling squeezing my neck. “You want me to work as a Creator permanently?” “Nothing here is permanent. Your job is contingent on your performance, so as long as it meets my standards, then you can consider yourself employed.” Oh my God. This was definitely not a part of Claire’s plan. Self-doubt trickles in, erasing my happiness. I was supposed to submit a proposal and earn a stripe of courage, not be hired as a full-time Creator. I might be creative but I’m not that creative. Dreamland Creators are legendary. They’ve made history for their inventions and were even invited to the White House a few years back. I haven’t earned the right to serve as part of the team. Plus, I don’t fit the typical Creator formula. They’re people who graduated from expensive universities and attended specialty internships across the globe—a mix of architects, artists, engineers, writers, and more. I’m a woman with a community college degree who works at a kid’s salon. I couldn’t work on a team filled with the best talent around the world. There’s no way I could do this. “I’m sorry. I can’t accept your offer.” His eyes narrow. “I didn’t ask a yes or no question.” My jaw drops. He slides the contract toward my side of the desk. “You can take your time and review the paperwork but you’re not leaving this office without signing the contract.” I stare at my hands, wondering if they would fit around Rowan’s tree trunk of a neck. “This is the twenty-first century. You might be my boss but I won’t let you tell me what to do.” “That in itself is a contradiction.” I fist the fabric of my dress to avoid doing something stupid like punching his pretty face. “Are you always this cold?” Rowan stares at me in silence. He rubs his sharp jaw in a way that sends my stomach into a flurry of butterflies. It draws my attention to his plump lips. Hello! Earth to Zahra! I glare at the contract. Rowan has every right to fire me after my mockery of a proposal. But instead, he offered me the most coveted job in all of Dreamland. I’d be stupid to turn this down. Not that you have an option anyway. I swipe the contract off the table in defeat. He plucks a pen from the glass holder. “Sign on the dotted line.” I reach out for the pen. Our fingers brush, and heat shoots up my arm like flames licking my skin. I pull back and drop the pen. Rowan looks down at his hand like it offended him. Great. Glad to know I elicit that kind of facial expression from him. It shouldn’t matter either way. He’s your boss. I grab the pen off the desk and refocus my attention on the contract. My heart slams against my rib cage as I reread the bold numbers at the top until they blur together. I turn the page toward him and point at the salary. “Is this a typo?” “Do I look like a man who makes typos?” “But there’s a ten-thousand-dollar raise.” “At least your eyesight isn’t as impaired as your judgment.” I should be angry at his insult but all I can do is laugh. The kinds of things he says with a straight face impress the hell out of me, and I can’t help feeling oddly attracted to his blunt nature. I blame my exposure to Pride and Prejudice at a young and impressionable age. He stares at me with wide eyes. His expression has me going into another fit of laughter. There’s something about breaking through Rowan’s icy exterior that I find entertaining. I’m not sure what the hell is wrong with me, but I find his matter-of-fact comments funny rather than off-putting. They’re awkward and stilted like he isn’t comfortable doing anything besides barking out orders. Yeah. There’s definitely something wrong with me. 7 Rowan I take the opportunity to observe Zahra while she’s distracted with reading the contract. This weird feeling in my chest hasn’t stopped since she walked into my space, and the way she looks at me makes me feel alert. Her feet dangle an inch above the carpet, with the edges of her shoes irritatingly grazing the floor. From the offensively cheery strawberry fabric of her dress to the way she laughs, I’m somewhat disarmed by her presence. I hate it. There’s nothing I want more than for her to be gone from my eyesight and olfactory range. I pull at the tie wrapped around my collar to relieve some of the tension in my neck. My eyes drop to the stupid pin located above the curve of her breast. Bloom even when the sun doesn’t shine. She’s an uncomfortable bright spot in my office, and I’m tempted to shoo her out the door. She frowns as she turns the page. The gesture brings my attention to the red coloring on her lips. It stands out against her golden-brown skin, and I find myself uncharacteristically focused on the way her tongue darts out to trace her cupid’s bow. Heat trickles down my spine as I imagine those lips doing something else. What the fuck? No. I let out a huff, ignoring the warmth spreading throughout my body. Her nose scrunches at whatever she reads. “Problem?” I grind out with clenched teeth. She doesn’t even flinch. “No.” “You’ve reviewed the same page twice already.” She tilts her head and looks at me in a way that makes the hair on the back of my neck rise. “I’m flattered you’ve been paying such close attention to me.” I refrain from releasing a groan. Whatever look she registers on my face has her grinning to herself. She taps the paper with her pen. “Contracts like these require my full and undivided attention. I’m not signing anything before I have a chance to read the fine print.” “You’re not special enough for any fine print.” She doesn’t look the least bit offended by my comment which only irritates me more. What is it about this woman, and why can’t she fall in line like everyone else? It’s like she shits sprinkles and consumes rainbows for sustenance. I’m not sure what kind of fairy tale forest she was raised in, but no one can be this optimistic about everything. “You’re nothing like your grandfather described.” The wooden armrests groan under my tight grip. “What did you say?” The only reason my voice comes out flat and disinterested is because of years of practice. She stares at my white-knuckled fists. “Forget I said anything. It slipped out.” One simply can’t forget something like that. I’m stuck between pushing her for answers and looking unbothered by her comment. “Whatever my grandfather said to a stranger in passing is nothing short of casual conversation.” She laughs to herself but says nothing else. My skin itches for more information, but she remains tight-lipped as she returns her attention back to the contract. That’s it? “How did you catch yourself in a conversation with my grandfather?” I blurt out. She shrugs at my wide-eyed expression. “Fate. And it was conversations. Plural.” Great. I’m betting my entire fortune on someone who believes in fate. “And what happened during these conversations?” “That’s between Brady and me.” Brady? This is the second time I’ve heard her call him that. She interrupts my thoughts with a knowing smile. “He had quite a bit to say about you.” The tightness in my chest intensifies. “Part of me doesn’t want to know.” Her grin widens. “But part of you can’t help being curious.” I roll my eyes which only makes her whole face light up like a damn Dreamland firework. I’ve never seen someone look at me like that before. It’s strange. Like she’s genuinely interested in my company rather than the idea of getting something out of me. My skin itches under her assessment. “Don’t worry. He didn’t say too much about you except that you were the dreamer of the three grandkids. And he was very excited for you to take over as the Director one day. Said it was your calling, so I’m sure he would be happy to see you in his office, destroying his favorite chair.” She gestures at the armrests I hold on to like a life-preserver. I release my grip and crack my knuckles. “That’s all?” “For the most part. Sorry to disappoint. We were pretty busy working on other things, but I remember how highly he spoke of his grandsons.” The burning in my chest increases tenfold. I take a few deep breaths to ease the tension in my muscles. Zahra scribbles her signature on the bottom of the page and passes it back to me. I purposefully swipe my fingers across hers as I grab the contract. The same weird feeling from earlier sparks between us, making me pause. Zahra sucks in a breath and pulls away, tucking her hand under the layers of her dress. Interesting. It seems our connection wasn’t a one-off. “When do I start?” She rises from her seat and runs a hand across the length of her dress. I drag my eyes away from the curve of her waist toward her face. “Monday. Be here at 9 a.m. sharp.” “Thank you for the opportunity. Really. I might have been shocked earlier when I said no, but I do really appreciate it. I don’t plan on letting you down.” A flush of color surges to the surface of her brown cheeks. I find her reactions to the simplest things interesting. What else would make her blush? An image of her red-painted lips wrapped around something incredibly inappropriate flickers through my mind. She’s on your payroll. Get a fucking grip on yourself. I frown at the uncontrollable reaction spreading through my body like a row of falling dominos. I’ve never been the type to be attracted to those who work under me. What’s different about her and how can I stop it? I release a tense breath. “See yourself out.” I grab her contract and add it to the stack of paperwork for Martha to handle. Zahra grabs her backpack off the floor. She stands and turns on her heel, giving me a view of at least fifty different pins scattered across the pocket. What’s the story with the pins, and why does she carry them with her wherever she goes? I stop breathing as I zone in on one pin in particular. It catches my attention not because it’s bold but rather because it’s so different than all the other ones. No normal person would notice that pin out of the countless ones, but I’m all too familiar with the symbol and what it represents. Maybe there’s more to Little Miss Bubbly than meets the eye, and something tells me it has to do with the understated black semicolon pin. “How’s it going?” Declan leans into the camera. “My schedule has been slammed with meetings from nine to nine but I finally think I have an idea of what I need to do.” All thanks to Zahra. “At least I have one brother taking this seriously.” Declan takes a shot at Cal. His jaw locks. “I’m waiting for a particular moment.” “Sounds like an excuse.” I shrug. He rubs his eyebrow with his middle finger. Declan sighs. “Rowan, let’s concentrate on your plan first. I’ll get to Cal after.” “I don’t need you trying to micromanage me. Have a little trust in my process and let me go about this my way. I’ve already proven myself.” Declan rubs a hand across his stubble. “There’s a lot more banking on this one project. If any of us fails—” My molars smash together. “Then we all fail. I got it the first five times you mentioned it. Give me space to figure this all out. You don’t see me chasing after you, checking in on whether or not you found a wife that meets your unreasonable standards.” “There are no standards in this process because it’s a contractual obligation. All I care about is finding someone who’s practical, fertile, and has a face considered proportionate enough to be deemed attractive.” Cal grins. “With that kind of charm, I bet you’ll be walking down the aisle in no time.” Declan shoots a withering glare into the camera. “Will I be your best man? Before you decide, think about it. Rowan wouldn’t know the first thing about planning a bachelor party. He considers puffing cigars at your house a good time.” “That’s because it is a good time.” “Think about it. I’m talking Vegas. Buffets. Strip clubs. Casinos.” Cal ticks off each of his fingers. “If you’re trying to sell me on this, you lost me at Vegas.” I laugh. “Declan’s happy place happens to be the four walls of his home.” Cal rubs his stubbled chin. “Okay. I’ll compromise and bring Vegas to you.” “Neither of you will be my best man because I’m eloping.” Cal scoffs. “You and Rowan are so boring it’s no wonder you both get along so well. Only you would skip out on a massive party for eloping.” Declan shows off the small smile he saves for us. “You sound jealous.” “Mr. Kane. Mr. Johnson is waiting on line one. A fair warning—he’s in a foul mood.” Declan’s mic picks up on Iris’s voice. “Old man Johnson still giving Iris a hard time?” Cal leans forward. “Did he threaten you again?” He mutes his mic. Whatever Iris says makes the vein in Declan’s neck pulse. Declan shakes his head and unmutes his mic after a minute. Cal frowns. “One day, you’re going to regret making Iris work on weekends. The best years of her life are ticking by taking care of your old, grumpy ass.” Declan’s jaw ticks. “Next week. Same time.” He ends the meeting call, leaving me with nothing to look at but a black screen. Instead of going home and making dinner for myself, I pull up Zahra’s electronic employee file. Something in the way she spoke about my grandfather has bothered me ever since she left my office. I’d be stupid to trust whatever she said about Grandpa. Nothing in my preliminary search reveals much besides the fact that she’s been a dedicated salon worker since her college internship days. Frustrated with my lack of findings, I dive deeper into her file, reviewing everything from her first Dreamland interview to her college transcripts. I somehow find myself clicking on an old employee submission from over three years ago and scrolling to the bottom. There’s a virtual sticky note, signed and dated by my grandfather two months before his accident. Schedule a meeting with Ms. Gulian to discuss rejection and improvements. I review the paperwork again. Zahra submitted a proposal about Nebula Land? That’s odd, given the kind of proposal she turned in that ripped the ride apart. I pull up the Nebula Land submission that was accepted by the Creators two years ago and compare Zahra’s to this version. Someone named Lance Baker submitted the idea with a few more bells and whistles compared to Zahra’s more basic proposal. How did they both come up with similar ideas? Were they creative partners who had a dispute? My questions continue to grow without any real answers to appease my curiosity. I search Zahra’s file for more submissions but come up empty. She didn’t submit any after the one my grandfather reviewed until this year. What made her stop in the first place? And who the hell is Lance Baker? 8 Zahra “Let me get this straight. You’re going to be a Creator? How did you keep this from me all day?” Claire’s fork drops against her plate. I’ve held back from spilling the news because I wanted to share it with my whole family during our weekly Saturday dinner. My parents are the whole reason we all work at Dreamland together, so I wanted to celebrate with them too. Ani jumps out of her seat, making her brunette curls fly around her head. She throws her arms around me. “Yay! You did it!” I hug my sister back, cherishing her warmth. It means the world to me to show her that nothing can get in her way, regardless of her Down syndrome diagnosis. And in other ways, she pushes me to be my best self every day with her infectious happiness. “We need to celebrate!” My mom’s hazel eyes brighten as she runs into the kitchen. The brown skin around Dad’s eyes wrinkles as he grins. “I’m so proud of you! I knew once the right person realized how talented you are, they wouldn’t be able to resist.” My chest tightens. Dad has always supported me, ever since I was a little kid who said I wanted to be a Creator when I grew up. He never stopped dreaming enough for the two of us, even when I gave up on myself. Mom steps out of the kitchen with a bottle of champagne and a few plastic champagne glasses. “Do you have champagne bottles sitting around now?” “Your mom was planning on opening it for our anniversary next week but today’s news calls for it.” Dad claps his hands together. Mom places a hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “Forget about our anniversary. We have plenty of those.” Twenty-eight, to be exact. They’ve been solid since Dad swept Mom off her feet with his stories about Armenia and his tenacity to take her out on a date despite her weekly rejections. Mom wraps her arms around me. “Our daughter is going to be a Creator! Did you hear that, Hayk?” “Hard to miss since I was sitting right here.” Dad winks at her. I sigh. That’s my parents. Voted most likely to make me nauseous with their love since the day I was born. Mom takes her seat beside Dad. “I can’t believe Mr. Kane offered you a job after you told him how disappointing his ride was. Now that’s our daughter.” She shoots Dad a knowing look. I grimace. “Well, I didn’t tell him that exactly…” “She’s lying. She told him that it represented everything Brady Kane would hate if he were still alive.” Claire tips her glass of water in my direction before taking a sip. Ani’s brown eyebrows rise. “You didn’t.” “I might have gone a little overboard but it’s true. The design Lance submitted was only a fraction of the idea I created with Brady.” Dad’s smile drops. He reaches out and gives my hand a squeeze. “Well, the joke is on Lance. Now you have a new job and you have the chance to fix it until it’s exactly what you dreamed of.” “I’m not sure that’s what Rowan wants.” I’m already going into a job grossly underprepared and under-qualified. The last thing I want to do is make waves with the Creators, especially after my accidental proposal. “If he hired you, then he has a good idea of what he’s doing,” Dad says. I wish I felt as confident as he did in my skills. Ever since I left Rowan’s office, the worrying thoughts have multiplied until they became overwhelming. What if I only had one good idea that Brady Kane helped take from average to amazing? What if I was a one-hit wonder who will crash and burn in front of the very people I’ve looked up to my entire life? I hate that I’m slipping into these old thinking traps. I’m letting Lance win every time I give his criticisms any airtime in my head, and it only annoys me more. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. My family pulls me out of my thoughts. I pop the champagne bottle and raise it toward the ceiling. Cheers, Brady. I arrived ten minutes early today to impress Rowan with my newfound punctuality, but my efforts were for nothing. His door remains shut, so I talk Martha’s ear off. It doesn’t take us long to become gal pals who bond over our favorite romance author and our forever craving of Chick-fil-A on Sundays. Talking with her helps pass the time. Even Martha has to work, so I fiddle with the fabric of my polka dot dress and mess around on my phone. The door to Rowan’s office opens with a bang. I jump in my seat and press a hand on my racing heart. Whatever coffee Rowan drinks in the morning clearly isn’t working for him. He walks out of his office without giving his secretary and me a second glance. She all but shoves me out of my chair. “Go!” I speed walk out of the lobby to catch up with him. It takes me double the amount of steps to keep up with his long strides because the man is tall. How does he fit through a doorframe without ducking his head? As we continue walking, the silence eats away at me until I burst. “I’m starting to think you’re not much of a morning person.” I somehow find myself matching his strides. Rowan grunts under his breath. He leads us toward the Story Street Catacombs entrance. “Wonderful weather, am I right?” Someone cue the crickets. “Why yes, Zahra, I was wondering what’s the point of showering in the morning if the humidity does the job for me?” I try to imitate his voice with a low pitch but fail when my voice cracks. The corner of his lip lifts the tiniest bit and I mentally fist pump in the air. I take another stab at rescuing this conversation. “How do you like Dreamland so far?” “I don’t,” he mumbles under his breath. I trip on the toe of my sneaker. “Oh.” Well, shit. I didn’t expect him to say that. “Do you have a favorite ride?” “No.” My brain cells all cheer for his response. We’re getting somewhere, people. “Me neither! There are too many good ones.” That earns me another grunt. “What’s your favorite part about being the Director?” “The silence at the end of the workday.” I flat out lose it. My lungs burn from laughing so hard at his response. He stops walking and stares at me for a second before recovering. He leads us through the tunnels like he does this all the time. Together, we walk up a pair of stairs and through a door marked The Creators’ Workspace. My breath catches as we walk into a massive warehouse, partitioned into four sections with tall dividers. A certain smell wafts through the air, reminding me of an elementary school art class. Rowan shuffles me through each room, staying quiet as I take in the beauty of it all. The first space is packed with animatronics and robots for rides, parades, and shows. I run a hand across a cold metal arm of an animatronic. It moves and I jump back and straight into Rowan’s chest. His hand clutches onto my arm to stabilize me. Every cell fires off in unison within me, sparking to life at the gentleness of his touch. My body becomes an inferno from the contact. Skin heats where his hand presses, and I find myself leaning into him. He releases me and exits the room like his shoes might catch on fire. I keep up with his hurried pace, following him into a designer’s paradise where the walls are covered with storyboards and the tables are filled with all kinds of art supplies. The next room features many tables covered in mini 3D models of Dreamland, and I’m blown away by the attention to detail. I lean over one, finding an exact replica of Fairy Tale Land and Princess Cara’s Castle. I can’t help myself from running my index finger across one of the spires. My neck prickles and I look over my shoulder to find Rowan staring at my ass. Oh my God. Is he attracted to me? As if he has the same thought, his lips press into a thin line. My scoff becomes a full-blown belly laugh as I curl over. He blinks a couple of times, erasing the look of darkness from his eyes. “Are you ready to meet everyone or are you still interested in wasting company time with your tour?” he snaps before moving toward the door. I don’t bother correcting him about who started this tour. I’m not too sure who he’s trying to fool here because I see right through him. But the real question is why? Why bother giving me a moment to take in my surroundings like this? Why lead me through the warehouse himself rather than throw the task on someone more willing and available? I remember Brady mentioning how Rowan loved visiting the warehouse when he was a child. Is he enjoying this walk-through as much as I am? If so, why is he so angry now? Rowan is like a secret code I want to crack—a human Fort Knox I’m interested in breaking into, if only to uncover a vaulted heart full of gold. Or maybe that’s just the hopeful part of me that wonders if Rowan is truly as sweet as Brady described him to be. I follow him into the final room packed with Creators, and the main room seems to be a gathering space surrounded by rows of cubicles. The room is paradise, with bean bag chairs, dry erase walls, and 3D simulation stations. Welcome to your new home. I can’t believe I’m finally here. Brady was right. It was only a matter of time before I would find myself officially trading in my old work badge for a Creator one. What would he think of me now? He might have told you to lay off the wine and write something while sober, but beggars can’t be choosers. I blink away the mistiness in my eyes. Rowan introduces me to the Creators, who he refers to as the Alpha and Beta teams. Different members welcome me to the warehouse. My heart squeezes in my chest at their eagerness and the idea of working by their side. Jenny, a brunette woman who is the head of the Beta team, claims me as a member of her group once Rowan steps away from me. I look back at him to check if this is part of the plan. Rowan offers me a bored look. “Go on.” He looks around the room. “Get back to work, everyone.” Everyone follows his royal decree like the faithful foot soldiers we are to the Kane brand. Jenny takes the time to show me my new workspace. My jaw drops open as I take a look inside my cubicle. I’ve never had my own office, and I’m in awe at the L-shaped desk in the corner with dual monitor screens taking up a chunk of space. There’s even a shiny new laptop in one corner, just waiting to be opened up. I drop into the luxurious rolling chair and run a hand over the ergonomic keyboard. Look at me, having grown-up things like a desk and my very own stapler. I click it twice to make sure I’m not dreaming. Jenny readjusts her already pristine ponytail. “We’re thrilled to have you as a part of our team, Zahra. I’m glad Sam backed down pretty fast during our fight for you.” “A fight over me?” The words seem ridiculous leaving my mouth. She grins. “Don’t worry. I took it easy on him. I laid on the fake tears and he broke down quicker than a McDonald’s ice cream machine.” We laugh. Compared to Regina, Jenny is a breath of fresh air. “I’m the one who thought Mr. Kane needed to read your submission himself. Sam was a bit hesitant given the nature of the content.” I wince. “I’m sorry.” She waves her hand in the air. “Please. No apologies needed. We’re in such a time crunch and there’s no reason to apologize for stating how you feel. You’re the kind of Creator we need on our team.” “Wow. I mean—thank you.” That went so much better than I thought. “Let me give you a quick rundown of how things work around here. On Fridays, each Creator is responsible for presenting a new proposal. There’s a multi-step six-month process set in place to give Mr. Kane as many options as possible to choose from.” “Choose for what?” Jenny smiles. “He’s planning a fiftieth-anniversary update. A lot is riding on a project of this scale, so he expects us all to be at our best.” “You got it! I won’t let you down.” “I’ll let you get settled in. I hope you like Italian because the Betas planned a welcome lunch for you.” “Only monsters hate Italian food.” She laughs. “I knew you’d fit right in. See you at noon.” She walks out of the cubicle, leaving me with all my shiny new toys. I might collapse from how nice everyone is here. It’s a much different vibe than I expected based on the stories I’ve heard about the Creators. My worries from before seem kind of silly now. I slide my backpack underneath my desk before giving my rolling chair a spin. After my dizziness goes away, I swipe the stapler and press it together over and over again. Staples rain around me like celebratory confetti. I feel Rowan before I see him. My neck tingles, and I look over my shoulder to find his eyes piercing my back like he wants to stab it. “Yes?” I smile wide because I enjoy the way it makes his right eye twitch. “Do you mind putting away your weapon before I start speaking?” His eyes narrow at the stapler. “Is the big bad Mr. Kane afraid of a little stapler?” I click it a few times in his direction. The staples fly in the air before landing a few inches from my ballet flats. “I wouldn’t trust you with bubble wrap, let alone a stapler.” “You’re right. That choking hazard warning should be taken more seriously.” A strange noise between a scoff and a groan escapes from his throat, and I classify it as a laugh. Looks like he has a personality after all. I place the stapler back on my desk where it belongs. “Any other weapons I should know about?” I roll my eyes as I pretend to grab an invisible gun out from under my desk. I’m sure to make a show of removing the fake magazine and placing it on the desk. If I squint, I could classify the small smirk on Rowan’s face as a smile. He lets out an exaggerated breath and steps inside the cubicle. Wow. Was that his attempt at a joke? I reward him with a grin that goes unreturned. The space instantly feels smaller, with his size taking up a quarter of the square footage. I break the silence. “Can I help you with something in particular?” He opens his mouth, only to close it a second later. Does he even know why he’s here? The thought makes my chest all tingly. Bad Zahra. “What do you think of my new digs?” “Leaves something to be desired.” His eyes slide from my face to the gray cubicle walls. I blink at him. Would it kill him to be nice? Probably. I focus my attention back on my desk. I’m committed to ignoring him until he goes away because I don’t want him to rain on my parade. I press every single button twice on the computer but the damn thing won’t turn on no matter what I do. “Move over.” He walks up to my desk, bringing his addictive cologne with him. “Why?” I rasp. “For some unknown reason, I feel like helping you.” “Because?” I keep my smile hidden behind a curtain of my hair. “Because you shouldn’t be trusted around electrical outlets.” I laugh and scoot my chair out to give him some room. He kneels down on his perfectly pressed trousers. I shouldn’t find it as hot as I do, but the cubicle heats up as he looks up at me from his spot on the floor. His gaze darkens as his eyes scan my crossed legs. My heart thuds in my chest at the pace of a jackhammer, and I’m surprised he can’t hear the erratic beats himself. Whatever passes between us disappears as he crawls underneath the desk, giving me the perfect view of him on all fours. Now who’s the one staring? I ignore the voice in my head and choose to enjoy the show. Rowan’s body is nothing like my ex’s. Every inch of his lean body is packed with muscle like he runs for fun. His muscular calves stick out from beneath the desk, and his firm ass moves as he readjusts the cables down there. It takes every ounce of self-control in my body not to reach out and touch him. I take a moment to guess his shoe size. The only conclusion I come to is that I’m hopelessly immature and desperately horny. Of course I’m attracted to my arrogant boss who lacks any sort of people skills. This has to be some cruel joke on me after everything I’ve been through. Maybe there is some kind of chemical imbalance in my body or gravitational pull toward assholes like Rowan. What if jerks are my kink? Well, at least it explains your unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy. I barely get my breathing under control before he rises back on his feet. Something about the way he looks at me has my blood reaching a new temperature. Goosebumps scatter across my skin despite the raging inferno spreading through my chest. It comforts me to know my body is just as contradictory as my brain. Why him? Why me? My smile disappears. His hand flexes by his side before he pockets it. Jane Austen, are you my guardian angel now? I look up at the high ceiling for answers but come up empty. “What in God’s name are you whispering about?” Oh shit. I said that aloud? “Is the computer all fixed now?” Sounds close enough to what I mumbled before. “Yes.” “Great. Thanks! You can see yourself out.” I throw his words back at him, half hoping for any kind of reaction. He offers me nothing but a frown and a pinched expression on his face. Well, it’s a start. He walks toward the entrance of the cubicle, taking his allure with him. Maybe I can finally think again once he’s out of my eyesight. There’s something about him that throws me off-kilter, like I don’t know what to say or do anymore. He strolls out of my cubicle, leaving me behind with all the thoughts bouncing around in my head. I take a deep cleansing breath only to get hit with another inhale of his cologne. Why does he have to smell so damn good? My head drops into my hands, muffling my frustrated groan. I recover and hesitantly press the power button on my computer. Let’s get to work. 9 Zahra I give my presentation one last look through. After Jenny’s kind words, I thought I beat back the self-doubt, but it decided to come back with a vengeance. I groan as I reassess the drawing I created of Nebula Land. While the PowerPoint reflects everything that Brady and I designed together, my sketch proves why I’m an English major. If I was meant to be an artist, I’d move to New York with all the other starving talent and eat ramen every day of the week until I have my big break. Can I really present this to the group? My skills seem on par with a two-year-old child learning how to hold a crayon for the first time. It’s not like Rowan expects us to be perfect at everything, but my drawings are far from it. And seeing as I have zero skills in anything Adobe-related, I’m stuck relying on my own two hands, which are severely lacking. I sigh as I add a photo of my drawing to the last slide of my presentation. Maybe if I go over my allotted time slot, I could hold off on showing this tragedy. Now that’s an idea. I wipe my damp forehead before packing up all of my supplies. “Here goes nothing.” I enter the conference room with my head held high. Everyone smiles up at me before resuming their tasks, and I take a seat toward the back. Despite the group lunches and brainstorming sessions, I still feel like an outsider. My addition to the team was anything but traditional, and I’m afraid people think I’m being favored because I fast-tracked my way into a Creator job. Jenny walks into the room and starts up the projector. “So who wants to go first?” A bunch of hands shoot into the air. I don’t bother lifting my arm because worry weighs mine down like an anvil. Jenny calls on the Creator closest to her. They stand at the front of the room and crush their presentation on an update to Princess Cara’s Castle. While their idea is nice in theory, it’s just that. Nice. Not riveting or enthralling, and even Jenny can’t suppress her yawn halfway through the discussion. The conference room door slides open and everyone’s heads turn toward the sound. The presenter stops mid-sentence. No! As if this day can’t get any worse. Rowan waltzes into the space without a care in the world. Today he wears a gray suit that has my mouth watering and my thighs pressing together. The charcoal color brings out the severity in his gaze. His muscles shift under the luxurious fabric as he settles into the chair at the front of the room. “Proceed as usual.” His air of authority shouldn’t be considered an attractive trait to me, but there’s something about the way he commands a room that has me wanting more. The rest of the team sits pin straight in their chairs as the presenter finishes their speech. One by one, Creators take the podium. The series of ideas all follow a similar pattern—some updates here, some immersive line experiences there. I begin questioning if my presentation is too bold for this kind of setting, especially with Rowan right there. With each presentation, Rowan’s frown becomes more pronounced. His reactions add to my already fraying nerves. I’ve suffered from stage fright since I was a little kid, but I don’t remember it being this bad. My hands remain permanently clammy and my breathing grows heavier with each presentation. “Zahra. You’re up,” Jenny calls out. I rise on wobbly legs. If the pressure I placed on myself wasn’t enough already, now it’s hit a whole new level of distressing with Rowan’s gaze glued to mine. “Move along with it. I have another meeting in twenty minutes.” Rowan taps the face of his watch with finality. I’m tempted to run out the door, but I control the urge and set up my presentation. With a deep breath, I dive into explaining my idea. I feed off the team’s nonverbals, letting their nods and smiles boost my confidence. My self-esteem grows, and I nail my entire explanation without passing out. I count the entire thing as a major win. When I get to the dreaded final slide with the drawing, I click it so fast that the black screen pops up not a second later. Jenny’s timer rings simultaneously, and I thank the big man upstairs for saving me. “Looks like I’m out of time.” People clap and Jenny looks over at me with a massive grin and a thumbs-up. “Go back to the last slide.” Rowan’s voice hits me like a bucket of ice water. “Oh, it’s nothing important. Just a mock-up. And you have a meeting now anyway.” His nostrils flare. “I wasn’t asking.” Of course you weren’t. That requires the kind of manners you’re severely lacking. His jaw ticks. “Now, Ms. Gulian.” I mentally curse him in English, Spanish, and Armenian for good measure. “It’s really nothing.” I hide my shaky hands behind the podium. “I’ll be the one to decide that.” My teeth smash together as I bring up the drawing. I wouldn’t have included it if we weren’t required to have some kind of visual aid of our proposal. And of course, if I didn’t need another reason not to fit in, I’m one of the only Creators who can’t draw to save my life. The self-doubt comes back again, picking away at the newfound confidence I built throughout my presentation. Rowan runs a hand across his chin. “Your drawings could use some work.” “I’ll be sure to get right on that.” My voice is doused in sarcasm. The entire room goes silent. I wish I could slap a hand over my mouth and apologize. Rowan appears unbothered. “Everyone better come back with better ideas next Friday. I was underwhelmed to say the least.” Shit. The entire team’s faces mirror my own shock. No one dares to move, probably too afraid to do anything but stare at Rowan. He tilts his head toward the projector. “Use Ms. Gulian’s presentation as a guide for what I expect from here on out. Minus the last slide.” My cheeks heat. “Everyone is dismissed except for Ms. Gulian.” Something takes flight in my stomach at the way he says my name. It’s quickly doused by the reality of my situation. He wants me to stay alone with him. Here? Team members funnel out of the room like the floor is lava. Rowan doesn’t move from his seat until the last member shuts the door behind them. He prowls toward the podium, giving me no room to escape his thousand-pound stare. My back hits the wooden frame as I try to put distance between us. I don’t want to test my self-control around him because I feel like it’s a losing battle. After he embarrassed me in front of everyone, the temptation to wrap my hands around his neck and give it a squeeze is too strong to be ignored. “If you talk to me like that in front of anyone again—” “Let me guess. You’ll fire me. It’s a bit predictable for my taste but I respect it since you’re the man in charge.” He stares at me like he can’t believe I spoke to him the way I did. Honestly, me neither. And I can’t exactly blame a bottle of wine for this level of bravery and stupidity. There’s something about him that makes me want to push all his buttons. I’m interested in seeing who the real Rowan is beneath all those layers of ice and indifference. His brows scrunch. “There are worse things I