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The Initiation

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No one knows how new members are selected to the board of Hale Banking and Holding. But there are rumors of a sordid rite of initiation.

Whispers how one woman and nine men disappear into a boardroom.

This time, that woman will be me.

The Hale family owns everything—the eighth largest bank in the world, everyone in our town, even the mortgage on my parents’ mansion. And now Royce Hale wants to own me.

He is charming. Seductive. Ruthless. But above all, he’s the prince of lies. My body may tighten with white-hot desire under his penetrating gaze, but I refuse to enjoy it.

I’ll make a deal with the devil to save my family and sell myself to the Hales. But Royce will never own my heart.

Year:
2019
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 281 KB
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TABLE OF CONTENTS

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

Other Books by Nikki Sloane

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Copyright





ONE


RAIN STREAKED ACROSS THE WINDOW, blurring the view of the landscape out the back seat of the car as it hurried my sister Emily and me past the front gate. The drive leading up to the Hale estate was long, straight, and lined with tall, manicured hedges. It was a tunnel of green. The only escape was the impressive fountain at the end where the driveway circled, and the historic stone mansion loomed beyond.

I clutched the book in my lap tighter, my fingers tensing on the edges of the hardcover, making the dust jacket crinkle against the skirt of my dress. The sound drew my sister’s attention, and she shot me one of her famous disapproving looks. It was the same one my father had wilted under earlier this evening when he’d suggested Emily find something more appropriate to wear.

Her cocktail dress was as black as the limo we were traveling in. The fabric plunged deep down her chest, flaunting her impressive cleavage. The flouncy skirt was cut short in the front, teasing well above her knees, and hemmed longer in the back. It showed off her legs and the precariously tall heels she wore. Her lips were stained a vivid red. She had blue undertones in her pale skin, so it looked terrific on her.

In theory, that same lip color would work on me. My sister was only fifteen months older than I was, and although we weren’t twins, people often asked if we were. Except we were easier to tell apart these days. On a whim, I’d dyed my hair an unnatural shade of deep green during spring break. It had faded since the last time I’d had it colored, but the hue was still there.

As I’d discovered with the hair color, I could pull off bold colors like Emily. We had the same sable hair and crystal blue eyes, but in stark contrast to her, tonight I wore a white dress with lace c; ap sleeves. It was fitting. I was the weird, virginal loner, and she was the confident, sexy bombshell.

We looked nothing alike on the inside.

She was friendly, quick-witted, and a pleaser. She had a knack for putting people at ease.

I had the ability to make everyone uncomfortable with my awkward bluntness but had learned not to care what others thought. My sister was the darling of the social scene, and she was destined to be the queen of Cape Hill—one of the wealthiest villages in Massachusetts. It had bay views, sprawling estates, and private golf courses, and each year the housing market climbed closer to matching the Hamptons.

My destiny, however, was to be left alone. I could do whatever I wanted, which suited me just fine. I’d never have to fulfill obligations or handle the family duties. I’d been given my mother’s maiden name as my first name to appease my rich grandparents. That was the only responsibility I had to carry.

“Marist.” Emily placed her hand on my wrist and eyed the new Greek mythology book in my lap. “If that doesn’t fit in your purse, don’t take it inside. You can’t show up to a party with a book to read—and definitely not to Royce’s party.”

Because Royce Hale was a modern-day Gatsby. He’d thrown ragers nearly every weekend when he’d been in high school. I was several years behind him, but they’d still talked about it at our elite prep school, long after he’d gone off to Harvard.

I stared at Emily as the car promenaded around the fountain. When it pulled to a stop, my sister’s dangling earrings swayed and glinted in the fading sunlight.

“It fits in my purse,” I said softly. “Don’t worry.”

Even though I didn’t give a shit what people thought of me, this was a huge night for my sister. I wasn’t about to screw it up for her. I was fiercely protective of her, and she was my best friend.

The door on Emily’s side opened and a man stood at the ready, an oversized black umbrella in one hand, and his other extended to help her out. “Good evening,” he said.

As she took his hand, I shoved the book into my bag. I watched the pair of them as he ushered her up the stone steps, sheltered under the umbrella so her hair and makeup wouldn’t be ruined by the drizzle.

I was out of the car before she’d gone inside, and when the man turned and saw me walking toward the house in the rain, he sprinted in a panic, rushing to get me safely under his protection. It was ridiculous. Besides the fact it was basically misting, no one really cared how I looked—most of all me. I was only here for my sister’s benefit. The invitation had been for both Northcott sisters, and it would have been rude for me to decline.

Besides, part of me was curious. I’d been to the Hale’s house many times over the years, but never for one of Royce’s parties.

The usher’s voice boomed when I stepped through the front door. “Miss Marist Northcott.”

It stunned me motionless. Had he legitimately announced me? Like this was some social ball from the 1800s? I waited for a chaperone to appear and pair me up for a stilted dance with a suitor, but thankfully no one came.

There were a few people milling about in the foyer, but no one I recognized. Conversations and laughter buzzed from the next room over, echoing in the large entrance. I faced the grand staircase that split halfway up, running away from the enormous painting of the Hale family centered over the landing. I stifled the urge to slink up the staircase and away from the horror of having to mingle.

Emily was just inside the front sitting room. She snatched two glasses of a bubbly drink from a waiter’s tray as he passed by and then held one out without even turning to glance over her shoulder at me. I took the glass and slipped by her side.

I was only twenty, but no one cared whether it was legal. We’d all been drinking since high school.

“Christ, I think half the company’s kids are here,” she muttered beneath her glass the moment before she took a sip.

I surveyed the crowd and came to the same conclusion.

Hale Banking and Holding Company had started out as a simple bank, but over the last one hundred and fifty years had grown into so much more. Now the eighth largest bank in the world, they had financial and wealth management, commercial banking, and were pressing deeper into the global markets.

At the helm of HBHC sat Macalister Hale.

He controlled an enormous empire and was barely fifty years old.

I’d only spoken directly to him once. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome, but also the kind of man who made you feel like a nuisance. Like you had no business being near him and using up any of the air in the room to breathe because that was his air. It, along with everything else, belonged to him.

Mr. Hale didn’t appear to be around. It was unlikely, anyway. This was Royce’s party to celebrate his graduation from Harvard Business School. His father had better things to do than hang out with college kids on a rainy Saturday night.

Conversations bounced off the dark paneled walls, high ceilings, and hardwood floor; the sound was too loud to be soaked up by the Persian rugs and expensive couches. I lingered at Emily’s side as a shadow while she mingled. She made effortless small talk with a dozen people I recognized from school or our father’s job.

We believed Charles Northcott, our father, was on the cusp of making the board of directors at HBHC now that Mr. Steinway had retired. Twenty percent of our sleepy Cape Hill town was a company employee.

I didn’t miss the way my sister’s gaze subtly darted around the room, searching for—but not finding—the man of the hour. Royce would emerge later when all pretenses of this civilized soiree were dropped. Eventually, people would indulge in the hard liquor and the best drugs their overpriced dealer could procure for them. Then the party would officially start, and Royce would make his appearance.

Emily latched a hand on my elbow and pulled me close, bringing her lips right by my ear. “Where the fuck is he? I’m dying here.”

“You want me to go look for him?” Oh, God, please say no.

“No,” she sighed.

Relief swept through me. I made other people uncomfortable, and yet Royce Hale? He seemed to be the only one able to do it to me. His piercing blue eyes were always hungry and relentless. Like his father, he dominated all the air in the room.

I didn’t envy Emily’s situation. Our mother had been best friends with Mrs. Hale, and before she had passed away, they’d always joked that their children would marry. Even after her death, our parents had remained friends—if you could call it that—with the Hale family.

Arranged marriages didn’t typically exist in our tightly woven circle, but there was an unspoken understanding between our families. Perhaps it was to honor his late wife’s wish, but Macalister Hale had decided long ago it would be advantageous for Royce and Emily to partner. They were a good match in every area. Wealth, intelligence, looks. Together, Royce and Emily would be the unstoppable power couple, and now that he’d finished school, it was time for him to make his move.

It should be easy. Royce had essentially been granted first right of refusal over my sister.

The situation was sort of fucked up, but Emily didn’t protest. In fact, she didn’t seem to mind at all. She liked the idea of dating him.

The thought made me uneasy. Like an itch that wouldn’t go away no matter how much you scratched.

I hovered beside my sister for an eternity, wearing a perpetually amused expression on my face to mask that I was dying of boredom on the inside. I didn’t care Rachel Sanderson was going to do a semester abroad in Spain, or Eric Hineman had a venture capitalist interested in investing in his dumb start-up idea. I did my time beside Emily until she finally gave a slight nod. It was her signal I was about to be released.

She dug out her tube of red lipstick and held it up. She’d pestered me the whole car ride tonight to put it on, but I’d refused. I’d won the battle, but I was about to lose the war.

“Bitch,” I groaned under my smile and snatched the tube from her.

She laughed. “It’ll look amazing on you.”

Once I’d smeared on the red lipstick and returned it, I stole away through the kitchen. Up an empty back staircase I went, seeking out a quiet room where I could read until Emily would text me it was time to go. No one would miss the weird Northcott sister with oddly green tinged hair and bright red lips.

The first room I came to was dark. The door was open, just a sliver, but enough for me to see it was occupied. A girl was perched on the edge of a bed, her dress pulled down around her waist and her pale breasts undulating with her shuddering breaths. A man, his back to me, was on his knees before her, his head buried between her spread thighs. She threaded a hand in his hair and clenched it tight as she gasped in contentment.

I hurried past the open door with my cheeks burning, and a rope of desire tightened inside me. Was it envy, or curiosity, or both? I wanted to know what that felt like. The sensation of someone besides myself giving me pleasure.

I was so fucking curious about sex.

But I wasn’t going to find out tonight, here on the mostly empty second floor of the Hale estate.

My footsteps were quieted by the plush carpeting as I wandered down the corridor. The walls were covered in more intricate paneling. The whole enormous house felt masculine and cold, and I couldn’t imagine growing up here. Not that I pictured Royce, or his younger brother Vance, as the poor little rich boys. They were quite the opposite. The Hale men were cunning, ruthless predators.

But all this space wasn’t so much secluded as it was isolated. Did they ever get lonely? Macalister and their stepmother were workaholics and never around. In fact, Alice Hale was currently at a spa for “an intensive cleanse,” but there were whispers. Rumors that Macalister had put her in rehab.

I tried several doors until I found one that didn’t lead to a bedroom, but a library. Or maybe it was a home office. A warm toned writing desk was placed across from a marble fireplace.

I didn’t turn on the six-armed chandelier overhead. Instead, I flicked on the desk lamp, which cast soft amber light up onto the shelves of books. The gold embossed titles on the spines glinted back at me. The bookcases spanned every inch of the room except for the curtain-draped window at the back, where bronze velvet fabric pooled on the floor.

It smelled like books in here. Like leather, and logs that had been burned during the winter, and . . .

Power.

I fell in love with the library in one slow, wonderous blink. There was a brown arm chair with a matching ottoman backlit by the window, and I was drawn to the spot like a magnet.

I curled up there, tucking my legs beneath the scratchy crinoline of my white dress, and pulled my mythology book from my oversized purse.

Outside, the sun set and darkened the room, but time halted as I read. My obsession with mythology had begun a long time ago. I liked how twisted the stories were. Murder, and betrayal, and jealous wrath . . . all the worst traits were displayed in the Gods’ behavior, and they were unapologetic about it.

It was fascinating.

The book was so engrossing, I didn’t hear the door open, or click shut, or the footsteps that approached. It was only the unnerving sense I was being watched that caught my attention. I glanced up from my book to find a pair of hungry eyes staring at me.





TWO


MY LUNGS SEIZED with an awful, cut-off sound.

Royce Hale’s thick, wavy brown hair was swept back over his high-arched eyebrows and hypnotic eyes. He was tall and trim with broad shoulders and stood with his hands hooked in his black suit pants pockets, his thumbs peeking out. His posture was causal, yet it wasn’t a word I’d use to describe him. Perhaps oppressive, or invasive, or . . .

Sexy.

I narrowed my eyes. No, he was only sexy if I found arrogant pricks appealing, and I’d decided long ago I didn’t. Besides, he was Emily’s. Over the years, the only attention he’d given me was when he wanted to be mean. It was entirely possible he didn’t remember my name.

“Marist Northcott,” he said, his tone like sweet liquor with a sharp, bitter aftertaste.

The jerk remembered me. I lowered the book in my lap. “My sister was looking for you.”

The corner of his mouth tugged upward. It wasn’t exactly a smile, but he was amused. “I bet she was.”

I gave him a slow, plain blink, letting him know I wasn’t going to engage. Lots of women fell all over him, but I wasn’t one of them.

He took a step deeper into the room. The tie around his neck was the same green as his daddy’s money and the knot at his collar was askew. Had he loosened it recently, or not quite finished getting dressed? Perhaps he’d been the man on his knees in the other room, making the woman moan. His suit was the same shade of black, but his hair wasn’t rumpled.

“Did you find Emily?” I asked.

He sobered. Something ghosted through his eyes, but it was gone too fast for me to recognize the emotion. “Yeah.”

The single word carried an unmistakable finality to it. This was something he didn’t want to discuss. Instead, all he did was trap me with the gravity of his gaze.

This was what I remembered most about him, how he’d stare intensely. He didn’t break eye contact, didn’t flinch. He peered at you as if it were only a matter of time before he discovered all your secrets. Everything you tried to hide or were ashamed of, he’d find it. His scrutiny always forced me to look away first. I had to run before he learned just how exposed I felt around him. He’d take it as an advantage and somehow exploit it.

He was so fucking comfortable holding my gaze too long, staring into the depths of me. Like me, he typically said whatever he was thinking. Honesty was a great trait, until it wasn’t. Too much of it and it cut painfully deep. As acute as his stare was, I tried not to wither.

“Congrats on your MBA,” I said flatly.

He waved my insincere pleasantry away like it was an annoying fly. “It must be some book to have you hiding up here.”

“I don’t like parties.”

It came out before I thought better of it, but Royce didn’t seem offended. “Yeah, me either.”

What was he talking about? “Do you know how many times my sister snuck home after curfew from one of your parties? If you don’t like them, why’d you throw so many?”

He considered my question. “The bigger the party, the more freedom I had.” He grinned. “Fuck, half the time I wasn’t even here.”

He’d revealed it like a secret, and an unwanted thrill shot through me. If this wasn’t widely known, why would he share it? Everything in Cape Hill was about being elite and exclusive. Money was easy to come by, but power was harder, and knowledge was its own form of currency.

“What are you reading?” His question was simple, but a demand, nonetheless. His father was the king of Cape Hill, which made Royce a prince, and I was merely a subject in his castle. So, I was forced to hold the book up for him to see. His eyes sharpened on the gold and white artwork on the cover. He sounded dubious. “Mythology?”

I nodded then dropped my gaze to the pages, striving to look indifferent. I couldn’t read as he stood over me, but I’d act like I was. I could pretend I didn’t smell his cologne or was wondering if he’d just finished fucking the girl down the hall and was prowling for his next meal.

“Is that for a summer class or something?” he asked.

“No.”

As I tried to focus on the page, his confusion was distracting. “Why are you reading it?”

“Because I want to?”

My tone was a bit more pointed than I meant for it to be, and the silence that hung in its aftermath was taut. I glanced up to find Royce’s eyebrow arched halfway up his forehead. He didn’t like my sass.

Or . . .

Did he?

Something thickened in his eyes, hot and heavy.

“And this is more riveting than my party?” He placed his palm on his chest, covering his heart, feigning I’d wounded him. “I’m deeply offended.”

“I’m sure,” I said dryly then refocused on the printed page. I scanned the words and absorbed none of them. It didn’t matter. Seconds later the book was yanked from my hands. I scrambled up out of the chair, chasing after it. “Hey.”

Royce held the book out of my reach and wore an evil grin.

“Oh, my God, are you five?” I said. “Give it back.”

Instead, he clamped one of his large hands down on my shoulder, keeping me an arm’s length away as he skimmed the passage I was reading. My heart skipped as his fingers tensed against my skin, the heat of his palm soaking through the lace cap sleeve. I didn’t like the way his touch buzzed through my body. He’d probably touched a hundred women who’d melted from it. I wasn’t going to add my name to that list.

“Is that why your hair looks like that?” he asked. He kept the book high and far away, and it was easy for him to hold me in place, no matter how I struggled. “I get it. Medusa was always my favorite too.”

I choked on a breath and jerked to a stop. “What?”

“I assume you’re a fan. With that green hair and those red lips, you sort of look like her.”

My heart banged in my chest, a side effect of the anger bubbling in my bloodstream. Had he just called me ugly? “Actually,” I snapped, “in most versions of the story, Medusa was beautiful.”

“I know that.” He looked at me strangely. “Do you . . . not think you’re beautiful?”

Wait, what?

He didn’t think I was ugly, but beautiful? The floor beneath my feet softened, and I struggled to stand on this newly uneven ground. I could handle Royce treating me a variety of ways. He could be indifferent, or annoying, or even cruel, but he’d never been nice before.

It was unsettling.

He’d sounded sincere, but I refused to believe it. He was working some angle, and I just hadn’t figured it out yet. I had to regroup.

“What I meant,” I said, “is that in the original versions, she was gorgeous. But once she became a symbol for feminist rage, men retold the story and made her ugly. I assumed that was the version you’d know.”

His hand slipped from my shoulder, and I was cold in the absence of his touch. His eyebrows tugged together. “Feminist rage?”

I was vaguely aware this was a ridiculous conversation to be having, but my mouth ran away with itself. “Yeah. She was raped by Poseidon, and after that she could turn any man who looked at her into stone.” I reached for the book. “Not women,” I clarified. “She only used her power on men.”

I tugged the book gently, but Royce wouldn’t release it. “Interesting.” He cocked his head to the side, and his icy eyes sharpened. “So, you are Medusa.” A smile tilted on his lips. “It was temporary, but you turned me to stone just now.”

My mind went blank. “What?”

“Do you have any idea how long I was standing there, watching you?”

And with that, he let go of the book. The sudden lack of resistance, or perhaps it was the seriousness in his expression, left me stumbling backward. This version of Royce was lethal. He’d sold it well enough for me to believe him.

But only for a single breath.

The idea of my beauty turning this man into stone, the one who could have nearly any woman he wanted, fluttered in my belly. And then it soured and crashed to my toes. He wasn’t really a man, but an entitled brat, and it was just a line. I knew better. His favorite toys growing up were the ones that lived and breathed and had feelings that could be manipulated.

I wasn’t going to be his plaything tonight.

“Did you forget which Northcott sister you’re talking to?” I tightened my grip on the edges of my book. “Save your attempts at being charming for Emily.”

It was like I’d unexpectedly punched the hollow laugh from him. “I’m not attempting to be charming. And, Jesus, what happened to you? I don’t remember you being so prickly before.”

“Really? I’m amazed you remember anything at all about a nobody like me.”

The half-smile on his lips froze and his shoulders stiffened. His reaction was probably as close to embarrassment as he got.

“You remember saying that, I guess,” I said.

He let out a long sigh.

Back when I’d been a sophomore in high school, I’d begged Emily to let me tag along to some crappy dive bar on the outskirts of town. It had been a school night in the middle of the week. The bar agreed not to serve liquor until after ten to allow the group of kids from Cape Hill Prep, who had formed a shitty band, to perform for an underage crowd. Emily had been dating the drummer—who had zero fucking rhythm—and we’d stood in the crowd sipping sodas as her friends fumbled their way through a pathetic set of five songs.

I still remembered standing on the sticky floor in the dark, in a place I wasn’t usually allowed to go. The too-loud guitars and muddled music vibrated in my chest as the band covered songs and butchered them, and I thought up to that point it was the coolest moment of my life. All the popular kids were there, swaying to the haphazard beat, and I’d been included. For the first time, I felt like part of something.

Later that night, we’d wound up at an all-night diner.

Royce hadn’t seen Emily and me come in. He’d been drinking coffee at a table on one side and his back was turned, and we’d arrived just in time for him to recap his night. He’d announced he thought the evening was cool . . . up until the moment he’d “seen a nobody like Marist Northcott was there.” My presence, according to him, had made the whole experience lame.

Sophia Alby was sitting across the table from him and lifted her surprised gaze to me, and it was enough to grab his attention. He turned over his shoulder, just enough to give me a view of his side profile. I saw him, and he saw me, and he had to know his comment had registered, given my shocked expression. He didn’t care how his words had landed or stripped me down. He just shrugged, turned back around, and rolled right on into his conversation.

I was worthless. He was the prince of Cape Hill, and he had declared me a nobody, which meant it was now law.

His offhanded comment decided my whole fate at Cape Hill Prep and the social circles I would never be allowed into. He’d labeled me a leper. It wasn’t like I couldn’t survive, but he’d made the last five years so much harder. Not to mention lonely.

I didn’t like how he’d had that kind of power over me. If there was a specific moment in my life when I’d decided I didn’t give a fuck what other people thought, I’d point a finger to that moment.

It gave me satisfaction to know if things went well between Royce and Emily as his family wanted, this nobody would become his sister-in-law. Royce’s blue eyes clouded over, but the tension in my body firmed up as the memory drifted through my brain. I wouldn’t show any emotion. I wasn’t going to let him know his offhanded comment had affected me or shaped me in any way.

“That was a long time ago.” His voice was hollow.

“Hmm.” Funny. The lingering sting was still sharp enough it felt brand new.

When his gaze slid down the length of my body, his voice went as smooth as buttery leather. “I was wrong, though. You’re not a nobody.”

Unwanted heat sparked inside me. It was impossible to look at him and not think about sex. His cheekbones were cut high and elegant, and his mouth could twist into a devastating smirk. Life had cast Royce as a playboy, and he looked every bit the part.

“Again, save it for Emily.” I’d strived for an annoyed tone but faltered, and it came out breathy. Like I was begging, rather than chiding.

He took my reaction as a small victory, and it flashed in his eyes. “But I’m not interested in your sister.”

His meaning was perfectly clear when he drew in a deep breath, his broad chest expanding and filling the space between us. The library was suddenly cramped and tiny. The shelves closed in, the curtains strangled, and there was no escape.

An insidious voice whispered inside me, telling me I didn’t want to escape, anyway.

A war waged between my body and my mind. Physically, I wanted him. I was starved for attention when it came to boys, and on the surface, there wasn’t one more appealing than Royce Hale. But he was also the very reason I had such a hard time finding someone to date during my cloistered life. The crop of eligible men in Cape Hill was small, and I was awkward, and Royce’s comment had been the nail in the coffin.

He was fucking with me. There couldn’t be any other explanation. What was his end goal? Did he want me flustered and falling all over him like the other girls did? Was he going to pretend to seduce me and then spur me off, humiliating me at the last second? Run to my sister and tell her how pathetic I was?

“Oh, yeah?” I blinked innocently. “What exactly are you interested in?”

He matched my harmless attitude, threading his tie through two fingers and slid them down the length. “Avoiding people and staying here in the library with you.”

It was a rare misstep for him. He’d overcompensated, and this was a bluff. I was excited to have the power to call him on it. I swallowed in a preparing breath, shifted the book into my left hand, and set the palm of my right on the center of his tie, my fingertips resting on his dress shirt. The silk was cool and soft, contrasting against the warmth seeping through the fabric covering his hard chest.

I wasn’t practiced at seduction, but I threw everything I had at it. “What should we do?”

His eyes widened. Oh, my God. There wasn’t anything more exciting than seeing the prince caught off guard. It lasted only long enough for me to recognize it before his large hand came down on mine, trapping my fingers in his and pressing my palm flatter against his chest.

“I have some ideas,” he said.

With my hand pressed to him, Royce’s heartbeat was a slow, steady drum. If the roles had been reversed, he would have felt mine hammering in my chest. His thumb moved, brushing slowly over the back of my hand, and tension coiled in my body. I thought he’d back down, but instead he’d returned the challenge, upping the ante. How far was he willing to take this? And . . . how far was I willing to let it escalate?

Each tiny stroke of the pad of his thumb made me want to push further. Every quiet breath we took with our stares locked on each other gave me the courage to keep playing the game.

“Was the girl down the hall not enough for you?” I asked.

“Girl down the—” Confusion darted through him, only to be replaced with a slow smile. “Vance was fucking some blonde when I walked by the guest bedroom. You thought that was me?” When I didn’t answer, his voice dipped lower. “My brother probably left the door open because he wanted an audience. Did you watch them?”

“Maybe.” I dropped my book, and it thudded onto the leather of the ottoman. I graduated from pressing my hand to him to my whole body. The crinoline beneath the skirt of my dress crushed softly between our thighs. Pleasure washed through his expression and simmered into something else.

Something darker and hotter.

His hand was gone, only so he could slip it behind me and lock me in place to him. My white dress was demure in the front but backless, and a shiver glanced down my spine as his fingertips settled on my bare skin. I tilted my chin up, wanting to look strong as his unwavering eyes threatened to undo me completely.

“I like this dress,” he said, trailing his fingers up my back, dragging them along each ridge of my vertebrae like he was counting stacks of money. “But would Medusa wear white? She wasn’t a virgin, after all.”

There was so much sex laced in his voice, I was going to combust and spoke without thinking. “Well, I’m not Medusa.”

The corner of his mouth lifted like it was on a hook. “Is that so?”

Was I supposed to feel shame I hadn’t fucked anyone when I was twenty years old? Like there was something wrong with me? Or was I supposed to feel pride I was a good girl and had kept myself pure?

Because I felt neither. “So what if I’m a virgin? Who fucking cares?”

Royce did, and I disliked the way he looked at me now, like I was a prize. I hated how society, even today, placed so much value on something entirely worthless. Yes, I hadn’t done it yet, but I was sure sleeping with someone wasn’t going to change me.

“How is that possible?” His hand continued to stroke lazily up and down my back, perhaps hoping to elicit another shiver. “No boyfriend while you were off at Etonsons?” A smile dripped off his lips. “Oh, that’s right. It’s an all-girls college.”

It was a strange feeling how my body liked being in his arms and yet the rest of me detested it.

Etonsons was one of the most prestigious schools in the country. They only accepted four percent of the women who applied there, and the private tuition was outrageous. Emily and I both attended, although her acceptance had been more on the strength of our mother’s legacy, whereas mine was my grades.

“What’s the reason you haven’t fucked anyone?” He studied me critically, searching for the answer.

“Economics keeps me busy,” I said casually. “I just haven’t found the time.”

“Bullshit.”

“Maybe I’m not into guys.”

He leaned down so his face was a scant inch from mine. “Try again. Your pupils are dilated. You’re out of breath, and I can see your pulse pounding in your neck. I’m sure if I put my hand up your skirt right now, my fingers would come away wet.”

“They wouldn’t,” I lied.

It was like he knew. “I bet you’re soaked.”

“Fine. Go ahead and do it,” I challenged, “and let’s see who’s right.”

I was glad I’d been gutsy enough to say it, and a thrill ghosted down my legs. He couldn’t accept my challenge. He’d have to cede ground. Everyone knew which Northcott sister he was supposed to end up with, and I wasn’t her. If he put his hand up my skirt, there’d be hell to pay.

But rather than act disappointed, satisfaction flooded the handsome face looming over me. “Oh, don’t you worry. I plan to.”

Breath stuttered and broke down in my lungs, sapping my confidence. He was older and had been playing this game a lot longer. What if I was in over my head? It had seemed like a bluff at first, but now I was less convinced. I lifted my arms and set my hands on his shoulders, drawing us toward the edge of danger.

He brushed the long sweep of my seaweed colored hair back over my shoulder, making room for his warm breath to fill the space and remind me just how close his lips were to my skin.

“You’re doing it again,” he said.

“What?” I whispered.

“Turning me into stone.”

My knees trembled but I locked them in place. “I don’t have that ability. And if I did, it wouldn’t matter. You’d have to actually see me for it to work.”

“I see you.”

“Come on,” I said with irritation. “No, you don’t. I’m a faceless girl to you, Royce. A nobody.”

Fire scorched his eyes. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. I fucking see you, Marist.”

And as if it would prove his point, he slammed his lips down on mine, crushing everything I believed into a million pieces.





THREE


ROYCE’S KISS WASN’T A three-hundred-dollar bottle of champagne you could sip, it was a shot of the cheapest whiskey you could get your hands on and had to take as quickly as possible. He invaded my senses. His taste stormed past my lips, seared against my tongue, and burned all the way down my throat.

Was he the prince of fire?

His kiss ravaged and consumed.

I cried out against it, a mournful sound escaping my chest as my eyes slammed shut. The idea this wasn’t real sliced deep and left me gasping from hurt. This thing between us, it couldn’t be pretend. It was too powerful, too desperate to be a lie.

His lips moved against mine, demanding I meet his level and match his urgency. His hand on the small of my back drove me deeper against him while his other grabbed a fistful of my hair, tangling my strands in his rough fingers.

Kissing me was forbidden, and I wondered if it was gasoline on the flame between us.

Not to be outdone, I curled my fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck and pulled. He made me mad. Not angry—but crazy. Out of my mind. Reality sifted through my grasp. I could claim surprise at first, but letting him continue to kiss me was a bad idea, and there were major consequences for actively participating in it.

In some versions, Medusa didn’t start as a gorgon. She’d been a beautiful mortal who worshipped Athena and had the terrible misfortune to catch Poseidon’s eye. He followed her into a temple and raped her. Outraged at the desecration of her temple, Athena engaged in the ultimate victim-blaming—she cursed Medusa to become a gorgon with snake hair and banished her to live out her days on a secluded island. There were different versions of the myth, but the ending was always the same. Perseus came along, cut her head off, and was hailed a hero.

Would it be the same for me? Macalister decreed Royce and Emily should be together, and I’d seen what he did to people who created obstacles when he wanted something. Nothing as nefarious as death, but just as bad, really. A single negative word from him meant the offender would be shunned. Their status would evaporate overnight, and soon after, their money. It was what Royce had done to me in high school, but on a much grander scale, and one that involved the whole family.

It was a different kind of murder.

And Macalister wouldn’t blame his golden son for anything. No, the blame for this dangerous and potentially destructive kiss would fall solely on my head, regardless of who had started it or whether I wanted it or not.

You do want it. You want more.

Heat sizzled across my skin, a mixture of desire and anger. I was upset Royce had put me in this position and pissed at how good it felt as his tongue slicked over mine. I didn’t like him, but my body didn’t care. I tugged harder on his hair, not to pull him off me or break the kiss, but to create a manifestation of the discomfort he’d caused.

He grunted so softly it was barely audible, but satisfaction warmed in my center. It died as quickly as it had arrived, because he tore his lips from mine, jammed his face in my neck, and sank his teeth into my flesh.

“Fuck,” I gasped, more surprise than pain, although he’d bitten hard enough it was likely there’d be a mark. The sharp edge of his teeth was replaced by the damp velvet of his tongue, and the shiver that flitted through my shoulders was unstoppable.

“I see you,” he murmured. “And now I’ve tasted you.”

Oh, God.

In addition to Macalister’s threat, my sister’s face flashed through my mind. “No one can know.”

“Who the fuck would we tell? You don’t have any friends.” His mouth latched onto the spot where my neck met my body.

I tried to shove him away but put no effort behind it. His kisses sucked all my strength. “I have friends.”

He straightened and gave me a hard look. Then I was turned roughly in his hands until I was facing the bookshelf and his chest was a wall at my back. “Fictional friends do not count.”

I had to move forward to try to turn and protest, but he just used it as an opportunity to advance on me. We shuffled two small steps until I was trapped and all I could see were the different colored spines of books. And then his lips were on the curve of my neck again, and his fingers traced a line down my bare back.

I peered at the titles before me and slipped deeper into his seduction.

I wished for a lot of things at that moment. To know if my sister had legitimate feelings for the man at my back, whose erection was poking against me. I wanted the door to this library to have a lock on it, and for Royce to use it. And I needed to know, since everything was going to hell anyway, when he was going to make good on his threat of sliding his hand up my dress and discovering how badly he’d turned me on.

I didn’t have feelings for him. At least, not in the way a normal girl would. He used people, and I was eager to do the same to him. He could satisfy my curiosity about sex, and hopefully be very satisfying while doing it.

His hot, hungry mouth roved over me, like he needed to press his lips to every inch of my defenseless flesh he could find. I put my hands out and grasped the dusty shelf before me. Once again, he pushed my hair over my shoulder and out of his way, exposing my back, and I tilted my chin down to my chest.

“This is my favorite part of a woman.” He drew a line across my shoulder blades with his tongue. Goosebumps pebbled on my skin. Of course, this was his favorite spot. Not the breasts, or the ass, or the legs . . . but the place that controlled all of a woman’s physical power.

The place where she was most vulnerable.

If someone walked in right now, they’d have to think the scene was beyond strange. A girl with green hair in a virginal cocktail dress, clutching the bookcase for dear life as the man in the suit behind her worshiped her back with both his hands and his mouth. It was relatively benign what we were doing, but it was the most erotic moment of my life.

Pleasure radiated from his kisses, and the warmth spread deep between my legs. It got worse as he gripped my hips and ground himself against me. I wasn’t sure which was more shocking, the sensation of his hard length, or that he found kissing me arousing.

Royce’s words twisted with lust. “I want to fuck you under this white dress.”

He kept one hand tight on my hip but slid the other up the curve of my body. All the way until it was cased around my throat, forcing my head back onto his shoulder. His fingers flexed, constricting just enough to make me feel his dominance but not outright fear.

He growled roughly in my ear. “I want to see your red lipstick smeared all over my dick.”

I exhaled a sharp breath.

His voice was abruptly so low and smooth, it sounded like he was inside my head. “Would you like that?”

Would I? The image of me on my knees, his belt and pants undone flickered through my mind. It was undeniably hot, but what about Emily? What about the door that anyone could walk through and catch us?

He sensed my hesitation not by my lack of answer, but by the tension in my body.

“No?” His question was rhetorical. The hand on my hip snaked down to the center of my skirt where he pressed his thick fingers between my legs. The dress had many layers of fabric, but as he rubbed me, the sensation was pleasurable enough to make my heart stop.

When a moan drifted past my lips, a satisfied chuckle rattled in his chest. My legs shook as he deliberately worked the layers of the skirt up, and I jolted when his palm found my inner thigh. What we were doing was bad.

But—God—it would be worse if he stopped.

I couldn’t control my breathing as his hand inched upward and brushed the damp crotch of my panties. His tone was pure evil. “What’s this?”

I didn’t defend myself. I just stood there, waiting patiently for him to cross the line. His phone chimed in his pocket, but he ignored it. He was more interested in teasing and balancing me on the knife’s edge of desire.

Royce finally stroked his hand between my thighs, touching me through the thin satin. He wasn’t gentle about it either, and I was glad. It made it easier to remember I didn’t like him. Plus, the heat between us was searing and urgent, and I’d rather have his touch now than wait for him to be careful.

“I want this,” he said. “Give it to me.”

He couldn’t have sounded more like the spoiled rich brat he was if he’d tried.

But a shudder wracked my body. This was a demand from the prince and one I would have to obey, but I’d do it gladly, even when I didn’t understand exactly what I was surrendering. My body? My virginity? More?

It was poetic justice that the man who’d caused the delay in my sexual journey would be the same one who’d start me on it. And he fucking owed me.

“All right,” I whispered.

My agreement was a release. It was a signed contract, a done deal, and tension poured from my muscles. It made me malleable in his steady and no doubt experienced hand.

He dug his fingers inside my underwear, and I tightened my grip on the bookshelf, clamping my teeth together to hold back a breathy moan. His touch was so different than my own. Rougher. Confident. Greedy.

It was so much better.

Could he feel my pulse roaring in my neck? His hand still collared me, but there wasn’t aggression there. He saved all of that for the hand strumming between my legs, stirring my clit. I was going to melt. Drip down his fingers, pool onto the floor, and seep into the fibers of the Persian rug.

His phone chimed again.

Its mechanical noise didn’t belong here. The only sounds I wanted ringing in my ears were my whimpers of pleasure and his hurried breaths. But the second text alert was a trigger. It felt like a bomb had been armed and we only had so much time left before it blew up in our faces. Someone was eventually going to come looking for him.

Royce’s tie swayed against my back as he moved his arm, working me over. Then he slid a finger inside, and I wanted to curl up onto my toes.

“Oh, fuck,” I groaned. I tilted my head forward, letting it thud onto the bookshelf with a soft bang. It wasn’t that his intrusion felt particularly good, but the idea of it? That, I enjoyed very much. I liked his possession.

His tongue was at the shell of my ear, and although he wasn’t saying anything with words, his hot breath whispered dark thoughts directly into my mind. I spread my legs wider, increasing my stance, and rocked on the finger pulsing inside me.

“You sure you’re a virgin?” He nipped at my earlobe, and his tone was teasing. “Because you’re fucking my hand like you’re not.”

“Shut up,” I gasped.

He laughed and tightened his hold on my neck, wordlessly telling me I’d better watch it. I didn’t get to tell him what to do. His firm hand was a reminder of who was in control right now.

His long, fat finger withdrew, only to rub lazy circles on my swollen, sensitive clit. It was overwhelming, everything that was happening. He returned to kissing my neck, his lips working just under the hand he pressed to my pulse point. I jolted and stretched at the fingers twitching inside my panties, writhing like a mindless animal.

Royce boiled the thoughts in my head down to single words. Want. Need. Come.

“This is mine now,” he said.

I couldn’t see his face, but I pictured his expression. It was the same one he’d wear someday in the boardroom during a hostile takeover. Absolute.

He said I was his. I tried to understand what he meant, but I was fracturing. He increased the intensity, and pleasure spilled from my center, running down my legs. I was coming apart.

“You wait for me. You understand?”

Wait for him? My confusion made the orgasm brewing in my system hesitate.

It was less of an order from him, and more like a plea. “I get to be first, Marist. No one else touches you.”

I tried to step away, but his strong arms crushed me back against him, trapping me. And as I settled into my new prison, he rewarded me. His hand fluttered until it became too much. I cried out, my voice soft but soaked with bliss as I came.

It was violent.

I flinched and contracted under the weight of the pleasure, its intensity so strong for a moment it felt like dying.

I hadn’t finished recovering when Royce turned my head toward his and captured my mouth in a brutal kiss.

“You’ll wait,” he demanded. “Say you’ll do it.”

Nothing made sense right now, but I was under his influence and would agree to nearly anything. His magnetic voice was a siren’s call, luring me in.

“Yes,” I breathed.

Something oddly like relief filled his eyes and then vanished. “Good.”

He let go of me and stepped back so suddenly, I had to use the bookcase to keep myself upright, nearly toppling it and crushing us both. I got strength back in my legs and whirled around to face him, only to see his broad back heading quickly for the exit.

“Royce.” I said it the same way I’d tell him to stop.

But he didn’t. He opened the door and disappeared into the hallway, never once looking back at me.





FOUR


One Year Later


I WAS STILL A VIRGIN on my twenty-first birthday.

It wasn’t done out of loyalty to Royce, I continually reassured myself. I hadn’t seen him since his graduation party a year ago and did my best not to think about him at all these days. It had been hard at first. I’d spent an unhealthy amount of time obsessing over our night in the library and wondering what the hell had happened. Had I done something wrong? Or had the whole thing just been one massive mindfuck?

It was going to be tough to get through today without thinking about him. He, along with his father, was due at the house within the hour.

I sat on the tile floor of Emily’s bathroom, gazing at my purple toenail polish. She was beside me, and I stroked a hand over her hair as she bent over the toilet and spit the lingering stomach acid from her mouth. I tore off a strip of toilet paper and passed it to her as she leaned back, and I stayed quiet as she wiped the corners of her mouth.

Her eyes were bloodshot. She’d thrown up so many times today, it’d burst blood vessels.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

“A little. God, please tell me it’s finally out of my system.” Her skin was ashen and waxy. “Shit,” she groaned, collapsed back against the wall and put a hand on her forehead. “What the hell am I going to do?”

“People get sick,” I offered. “Everyone understands that.”

Her red-rimmed eyes popped open and stared at me like I was nuts. “Macalister won’t.”

She was right, so I wasn’t going to argue with her. Humans got sick, but Macalister Hale wasn’t human, so he wouldn’t be able to relate. Our father had tried to cancel the luncheon, but his boss refused. There were important things that needed to be discussed. Plus, he told my father there was “plenty of time for Emily to get herself together” before they arrived.

Macalister probably thought it was just a hangover and not actual food poisoning as my father had explained.

“Maybe a shower will help,” I said, glancing at the screen of my phone. The meeting was unavoidable, and she needed to get her ass in gear if she was going to attempt to look presentable.

“Okay,” she said weakly. I helped her up off the floor and plodded over to the shower, turning on the water.

After she finished, there was a knock at the bathroom door, but it swung open without waiting for a response, and our mother floated in. Her dark chocolate colored hair didn’t show a speck of gray because she paid a great deal of money for it not to. She wore a red and navy striped dress with a pleated skirt, and although lunch wouldn’t be served for another hour, she was all polished and ready to give Martha Stewart a run for her money.

She watched Emily climb feebly out of the shower, and worry streaked across her face. “Did anyone else get sick?”

I shook my head. “Em is the only one who ordered the salmon.”

My mother scowled, creating a crease in her forehead. “Don’t call her that today, all right?”

My sister’s nickname had never been an issue before. Any other time, I’d have been irritated at the idea of changing my behavior to please someone else, but today I would go with it. “Okay.”

The Hale family held sway over everything, and my parents would have less stress over the President of the United States visiting. They were supposed to be friends, but every moment with the Hales was rigid and formal. A visit with Macalister was a job interview that never ended. Every answer and action you made was evaluated and catalogued in his brain, and one wrong move would be disastrous.

“I should call the restaurant and let them know,” my mother said. “A lot of times it doesn’t get reported and—”

She froze as she stared at her daughter’s bloodshot eyes. It was obvious the thoughts running through her mind. First was concern over how sick Emily was, but the second thought was given almost as much priority. She was worried what Macalister’s reaction would be.

“I think I’ve got some Visine,” I whispered.

My mother’s attention swung toward me and, as she blinked, it was like she was seeing me for the very first time. Her critical gaze took in my deep emerald hair, scoured downward over my tank top and shorts, and landed on my flip-flops.

“Marist, please. Get dressed. I’m getting nervous sweats just looking at you.”

Emily lurched toward the toilet again. There wasn’t much left to throw up, and my mother and I stood helplessly by as she dry-heaved. If there was a way I could have transferred the sickness to myself, I gladly would have done it. It was so hard to watch my sister feeling miserable.

And she’d said the salmon wasn’t even that good. We’d gone out last night with her friends to celebrate her graduation from Etonsons. It had been a small gathering. The garden party my parents were planning would happen over Memorial Day weekend when the weather was better.

My mother locked eyes with me as Emily coughed and moaned. “Wear something nice. You might have to represent both my daughters today.”





After much arguing, I wore the pomegranate dress Emily had intended to wear. With my green hair, I was modern Christmas colors in May. The V neck party dress wasn’t my style, but it fit me and satisfied my frazzled mother.

After getting dressed and putting on the makeup my sister insisted I wear, I lingered upstairs as long as I could when the Hale men arrived. I waited until my father had to call for me to join them. It had been a small miracle I’d gone this long without running into Royce since I’d returned from college, but I couldn’t avoid him any longer. I teetered down the staircase on Emily’s heels, which were a half-size too big and made me clutch tight to the banister.

The polite conversation ceased at my entrance, and for a moment I became Medusa, turning everyone into statues. My father was the first to break form and gave a surprised smile, happy to see me. There was safety in numbers around the Hales, after all.

The patriarch of the visiting family took longer to recover and look mostly human again.

At fifty-two, Macalister’s hair didn’t contain a single thread of silver. It was swept perfectly over to one side, not a strand out of place, and I wondered if he simply decreed it in the morning and his hair fell into line. His nose was long, his cheekbones were high, and he was in perfect shape.

And just like his sons, Macalister was ruthlessly attractive.

But there was an unsettling edge in his eyes. As if he’d seen the entire world, down to every crevice, and found all of it so very disappointing.

His top lip curled as his gaze evaluated me top to bottom. Oh, he fucking hated my unnatural hair color, and it was so bad, he wasn’t even going to acknowledge me. I didn’t deserve a sliver more of his attention.

Royce, on the other hand, was frozen and focused only on me. His wide eyes didn’t blink for an abnormally long moment, and with the surprised expression fixed on his face, he looked . . . strange. Like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Otherwise, he appeared the same as last time. Still irritatingly sexy, wearing a cobalt blue suit with no tie, and shoulders set with confidence.

Had he not expected to see me? I guessed that made sense. His younger brother Vance hadn’t come, and when Macalister had requested the lunch, he’d only asked Emily attend.

The anxiety of it hadn’t helped my sister with the nausea.

Macalister cleared his throat, jolting his son from his stupor, then narrowed his exacting gaze on my father. “Where’s your other daughter?”

My father stiffened. “She’s still not feeling well.”

Macalister was only a few inches taller than my father, but he seemed to loom over everyone, and his displeasure drifted down, permeating the room. “Then she can join us after lunch.”

My mother’s shoulders sagged, but she nodded and gestured to the dining room, ushering us toward the table our housekeeper Delphine had set with our fine china.

Since my father sat at the head of the table, I ended up across from Royce, and I spent the majority of the meal staring at the gold filigree in my plate, rather than endure his stare that drilled down into me.

The conversation was stilted pleasantries like it always was. Macalister’s only hobby was being an asshole, so it made him difficult to talk to. He’d changed so much over the years. I barely remembered how he used to be, or if he had ever genuinely smiled.

As soon as Delphine cleared the plates from the main course and disappeared through the door to the kitchen, my father’s boss laced his fingers together and set them on the table. The air shifted in the room. It was time to discuss business.

“Royce will be joining the board of directors,” Macalister said.

Holy shit.

He dropped his plain statement on the table, but it fell like an anvil and crushed through the floor, threatening to pull us all down with it. It was no secret my father wanted the coveted seat on the board. Royce was a Hale, so it was natural he’d be offered one eventually but, Jesus, he’d only been working at the company for a year.

And he was twenty-five.

Splotches of red crawled up my father’s neck and peeked out over the starched collar of his dress shirt. No doubt he was thinking how he’d been working for Hale Banking and Holding from before Royce was born. Charles Northcott was supposed to be next in line.

My gaze snapped to Royce, but he simply stared back, devoid of any emotion. He’d become a statue once again.

“How wonderful,” my mother choked out.

“Yes,” my father lied.

Macalister gave a subtle nod. “As you know, this is a huge honor.” His tone was cursory. “We have a tradition that goes along with it.”

A thousand tiny spiders crawled along my back.

The last time someone had joined the board, I’d been eight. No one explained to me what the process was, and not that anyone could. The tradition went back several generations in the company, and only the board members were privy to it. There was an initiation, or a ceremony, or some weird rite of passage, and then an enormous party afterward to celebrate. Like the private and elusive societies at an Ivy League school, I found the whole secret thing pretentious. Men making a big deal and pretending to be more important than they were.

“Now that Emily has finished school,” Macalister continued, “it makes sense that she joins Royce. Once he takes his seat, we will announce their engagement at the celebration afterward.”

It was surprising when my jaw fell open, it didn’t thump audibly onto the table.

In the past year, Emily and Royce had been on exactly one date, and she’d said it had been horrible. They had little in common and zero chemistry, according to her. I’d found that a little surprising. He was an asshole for sure . . . but no chemistry? I certainly hadn’t experienced that issue with him.

His kiss had burned for weeks after.

A part of me was secretly thrilled it hadn’t worked out between them.

Wait for me, his voice echoed through my mind.

Beneath the table, I pinched my knees together. It was hard to handle the memory while he was seated right in front of me.

But he didn’t protest the suggestion of marrying my sister. He didn’t say a goddamn thing about what his father had just announced, and irrational jealousy knifed through me. And even if you put the lack of chemistry thing to the side, Emily wasn’t even in the fucking room.

It shouldn’t have been so shocking. This marriage proposal wasn’t about love, it was a business merger. Macalister didn’t think my sister needed to be included in the negotiations of it, apparently.

My family’s confusion came out in a single word from my mother. “What?”

He looked irritated he had to spell it out. “Royce would like to ask for Emily’s hand in marriage.”

An incredulous laugh burst from my mouth. Was he seriously letting his daddy do this? “Maybe we should get Emily in here,” I said, my tone sarcastic. “She might have some thoughts about it.”

When Macalister’s icy gaze turned on me, I shivered. I wanted to fold up inside myself until there was nothing left.

“Then perhaps you should go and fetch her,” he decreed.

I stole away from the table, happy to be gone. I stepped out of my heels, depositing them at the base of the steps, and raced up the front staircase, my dress swishing as I went. I burst breathlessly into Emily’s room without knocking and discovered her sitting on the side of her unmade bed, her arms folded across her stomach. She looked like she was holding herself together.

“Em,” I said. “You need to get downstairs now.”

I darted into her walk-in closet and rifled through the dresses hanging there. There was a peach floral dress that was a bit too summery, but it would do. I snatched it off the hanger and stormed back into her room, holding it out urgently.

“Macalister just asked if Royce could have your hand in marriage.”

I’d expected laughter. Disbelief. Shock.

Instead, she cast her glassy, red-rimmed eyes down at her damask bedspread. Somehow, she knew this was coming.

A void opened in my chest. My sister was my best friend, and we told each other everything.

No, you don’t.

I hadn’t told her about my night in the library with Royce. I’d had a good reason not to before they attempted a relationship, and after it was clear nothing was going to happen, it seemed pointless to tell her.

I pushed my questions and sting of betrayal to the side. We’d deal with it later. Right now, we needed to handle the situation. I loved my father with all my heart, but he wasn’t as strong as he needed to be. He was susceptible. He folded and gave in too quickly, especially when it was something he wanted, like another cigar or glass of whiskey.

What if Macalister offered a seat on the board in exchange for Emily? It was absolutely something the shrewd businessman would do, and it was possible our father would be foolish enough to accept. Not that my sister would ever go along with it, but just the insane negotiation could be disastrous.

“Get dressed,” I ordered.

She did as I told her, moving like she was trying to delay the hangman’s noose.

Her hair was washed, but not styled, and there wasn’t a speck of makeup on her face when I led her downstairs, but it was better than her not being there at all. When we appeared, Macalister rose from his seat. Was this courtesy, or a power move? Royce stood as well, but his hesitation made it feel like an afterthought.

Her voice was as fragile as she looked. “Mr. Hale.” Her gaze rolled over to his son. “Royce.”

Macalister rounded the end of the table and strode toward her, his hand outstretched for a greeting. Earlier, he’d forgone a handshake when meeting a nobody like me, making it clear how much he preferred my sister.

“It’s nice to see you again, Emily.” There was no warmth in his tone, but I didn’t think he was capable.

She opened her mouth to say something, but words did not come out. Instead, she heaved the contents of her stomach all over his offered hand.





FIVE


MY MOTHER SCREAMED. It was an awful sound, far worse than the groan from Emily as she tried unsuccessfully to cover her mouth and stop the catastrophe. The red dye from the sports drink she’d consumed was a sickly color when it came back up, like fake, garish blood running through her fingers.

The legs of my father’s chair screeched across the hardwood as he leapt to his feet, yanked a cloth napkin off the table, and scurried to help his boss.

Macalister reared back. Red bile dripped from his hand, and he held it far away from his body. If he could have severed it clean off at that moment, he might have. Royce and I stood in stunned silence while everyone else buzzed around in a flurry of activity.

Emily muttered an apology and vanished. My father led his boss away to the nearest bathroom to wash off, while my mother chased down Delphine to clean up the puddle of vomit on the floor.

It left me alone with Royce, staring at each other from across the expansive table my family hardly ever used.

“Hello, Marist. Or is it Medusa now?” His lips held the faintest of smiles. “Did you do what I asked?”

Air halted painfully in my body as everything constricted. I couldn’t believe he had the balls to ask me that after what had just happened, after all this time, and to be so casual about it. Flames bloomed in my chest. “It’s Medusa.”

“Liar.” He smiled so victoriously, I almost didn’t catch the relief he was trying to hide beneath it. His gaze drifted from me to the door our fathers had disappeared through. “Is she pregnant?”

So much had happened in the last few seconds, I couldn’t process. “What?”

He didn’t repeat it, instead he let the question soak in silence.

Emily couldn’t be pregnant. “She’s not even dating anyone.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Last time I checked, that’s not a requirement for getting knocked up.”

I couldn’t manage my emotions. “She’s not.”

As soon as the statement was out, I began to question it. Whatever was going on with this insane wedding proposal, she hadn’t confided any of it in me. My mouth went dry. She hadn’t had anything to drink last night either. One of her friends had ordered celebratory tequila shots, but Emily turned hers down. She’d said she’d gotten sick off of Patron after finals week, and the smell made her nauseated.

Whatever expression I was making must have given away my thoughts because he looked smug.

“Fuck off, Royce,” I snarled. “If she was pregnant, she’d tell me.”

The door to the kitchen swung closed, announcing we were no longer alone. The cold draft of Macalister Hale was back, making the temperature in the room plummet until it was arctic.

“She’s pregnant?” He appeared just as horrified as when my sister had thrown up on him.

“No, she’s not,” I answered quickly.

Royce shoved his hands in his pants pockets and rocked back on his heels like he found the whole thing amusing. “Go ask her. One hundred bucks says she is.”

I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of running away, but his father had a way of making his desires known without saying a word. The set of his shoulders and the way he angled them toward me expectantly left me with no choice. I trudged back up the stairs with my hands balled into fists. I wished I could have reveled in the moment when someone threw up on Macalister, and if it had been anyone else not in my family, I would have.

She wasn’t sitting on the bed this time, and I could hear her soft crying coming from the bathroom. She was bent over the sink, splashing water on her heated face. As soon as she saw me over her shoulder in the mirror, she straightened.

“Is it possible to die of shame?” She stared up at the ceiling, trying hopelessly to blink back her tears. “I want to. I’m so fucking embarrassed and miserable.”

I had no idea what to say. I wasn’t good at sugarcoating things, and my sister wasn’t an idiot. She knew this wasn’t something Macalister would quickly forgive or forget.

When I lingered awkwardly in the doorway, her expression changed to one filled with worry. “What now?”

“Are you pregnant?”

I’d whispered it, but her reaction was as if I’d screamed it at her. My sister’s eyes expanded with shock, and then guilt spread through them like red wine spilled on a white tablecloth. Her gaze fell to her feet. “I’m . . . three weeks late.”

“Three?” I had a million questions, but the practical one came out first and in a rush. “Shit, why haven’t you taken a test?”

She shoved away from the sink and pressed the back of her hand to her lips. “Because,” she said in a hush, “I know what it’s going to say, and I don’t want it to, okay?” Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped onto the travertine tile.

My heart broke a little. Not just for her, but selfishly for myself. She’d suspected for weeks and not confided in me. How many secrets was she keeping? “Whose is it?”

“I haven’t told him yet.”

“Em.”

“He’s married. Oh, God, I’m a terrible person.” She shut her eyes, squeezing out a fresh batch of tears. “It’s . . . Dr. Galliat.”

“Your psychology professor?”

She nodded. “What the hell am I going to do?”

“Well, you’re not marrying Royce Hale, for starters.” I put my hand on her shoulder and pulled her close, crushing her into a hug. “It’s all right,” I murmured. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

I held her reassuringly while the sobs wracked her body, not caring if her tears were staining my dress. I wondered if this baby could be a blessing in disguise. I certainly couldn’t imagine Macalister as a father-in-law and didn’t want us involved with the Hale family any more than we already were. It already felt like too much.





By the time I returned to the dining room, everything was back the way it had been at the start of lunch—except for the faint, lingering smell of disinfectant. Everyone was seated and appeared calm, but the tension was so strong, it invaded my senses like a thick paste.

“How is she?” my mother asked.

Royce took one look at me and smirked. “Pregnant. You owe me a hundred dollars.”

Macalister didn’t react with his face. He was perfectly composed even as he slammed a fist on the table so hard it created an enormous boom and made the silverware dance on the plates. Royce sobered, and for the first time I could remember, he looked nervous.

“That is unacceptable.” Macalister’s eyes were an intense Nor’easter, and I locked my knees before the hurricane-force winds knocked me down.

My parents were stunned, but the blow to the table seemed to knock my mother back to life. She pushed back her chair. “Please excuse me.”

“Sit down.”

At Macalister’s snarl, she froze halfway out of her seat but then straightened until she stood tall, her backbone hardening. “No. I need to speak with my daughter.”

“In a minute,” he ordered. “You’ll hear what I have to say first.” His attention slithered my direction. “Take your seat. This involves you now, Marist.”

He hardly ever said my name, and for that, I was grateful, because I always shuddered when he did. My feet moved independent of my mind to follow his order and bring me to my chair, and I fell into it while my heart rose into my throat.

“I’m not sure if you’re aware,” he adjusted the sleeves of his dress shirt beneath his suitcoat, “that the Northcott family has accrued so much debt, it’s likely you’ll declare bankruptcy by the end of the summer.”

I let out a short laugh.

What the hell was he talking about? I glanced around our dining room. The ornate, hand-carved table had enough seating for sixteen, and the curtains were Dupioni silk. We’d just had a meal cooked by our private chef and served by our live-in staff.

We had money in spades.

Yet . . .

When I glanced at my parents, they both looked like they’d swallowed the canary, and choked half to death on it.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

My grandparents, the ones I’d been named after, had left their enormous wealth to my mother. Besides that, my father’s annual salary was six figures. We had money in multiple markets. Property. Assets. There was no way bankruptcy was lurking around the corner. It just wasn’t fucking possible.

“A decade ago,” Macalister announced, “your father made a series of terrible investments. He chased the market for a while and dug a deeper hole. To stay afloat, they began draining their savings. You’re a student of economics at Etonsons, correct?”

Hyperawareness inched over my skin, coupled with a terrible feeling of dread. “Yes, sir.”

“Then I don’t need to tell you how your tuition, plus your sister’s, is more than Charles makes in a year. To keep you enrolled, he sold off his stock options.”

My heart raced as the financial walls began to close in, making me swallow thickly. “But the house—”

“Was mortgaged three years ago and is now in default. I’m sure you know which bank holds the lien.” He looked sickeningly pleased to tell me all this. “The fact is Charles and Delancey have been living well beyond their means for years. But that ends today.”

I expected my parents to say something, to either defend themselves or say it wasn’t true. But they were utterly silent, and the quiet grew more crippling with each breath I pulled in. All of our money was . . . gone?

Macalister spread his hands and placed his fingertips on the tabletop. “The only thing you currently own worth any value is your name and reputation.” His statement was laced with a threat. We were all acutely aware he could take those just as easily as he could take the house. A single word from him and we’d be shunned.

“I’m going to make an offer,” he said. “Only a fool wouldn’t accept it.”

I dragged my gaze from Macalister, unable to look at him. I didn’t want him to see the panic swamping in my eyes. Instead, I turned my attention to his son.

Royce sat perfectly still, one hand on the table, his fingertips resting against the edge of his folded napkin. The way he was unnaturally frozen in this casual position made me think it was for show. That inside he was tense and uncomfortable, and worried if he moved, he might give that away.

Macalister straightened in his chair, drawing my attention back to him. “When a new member is welcomed to the board, a woman plays an important role in the tradition.”

My parents’ shame had left them unable to speak, so I had to. “What kind of role?”

“She becomes his wife.”

Oh, my God. The Hales had always been old-fashioned, but this was . . . archaic.

“Marriage is an important partnership,” he continued. “And it’s one the board needs to approve.” He didn’t notice the shock rippling through me. “Your parents were terrible with their finances, but they did a sufficient job raising their daughters. Obviously, Royce isn’t going to marry Emily now, but your family name has enough status that, even though you’re young, this pairing makes sense. And a Hale marrying a Northcott is what Royce’s mother always wanted.”

My shoulders rose and fell as I struggled to catch my breath. “You mean, Royce and I—?” My gaze flicked toward the man seated across from me. He hadn’t moved, but there was an edge of excitement in his blue eyes.

An unwanted flash of heat coursed through me, when it should have been disgust.

“You will marry my son,” Macalister stated flatly. “In exchange, I’ll forgive your parents’ mortgage and they can keep the house that’s been in your mother’s family for four generations. For appearances’ sake, your father will continue at the company, but his finances will be taken over by a manager of my choosing.”

Because he wouldn’t want any scandal with his daughter-in-law’s family, and more likely, because he preferred having total control.

My voice was hollow. “If I don’t?”

“Charles will have to find employment elsewhere.” Macalister’s expression was a storm, and he dropped the pretense. “I’ll foreclose on the house, and everyone will know how your parents squandered their money. When I’m done, you won’t even have your reputation. You’ll be left with nothing.”

My mother burst into tears, and my heart tore down the middle. One side ached for her and this humiliation, and the other side was hot with anger. They’d seen this coming for years and purposefully kept it from my sister and me. They hadn’t scaled back or tightened their belts. How could they continue living like nothing was wrong? Was it avoidance? Or pure denial?

I sucked in a breath through my teeth as another idea took shape. Perhaps they had a plan and had just been biding their time. Maybe they’d been counting on Emily marrying Royce and bailing them out.

It was the anger that gave me strength, although it couldn’t be heard in my voice. I’d been told Macalister was a ruthless negotiator, but I was about to find out firsthand. “I . . . have a counteroffer.”

His shoulders snapped back like I’d asked if his Cartier watch was a fake, but I sensed he was simply posturing. He probably enjoyed this sort of thing. “My offer was more than generous.”

I ignored him. “If I agree to marry Royce,” hysterical laughter bubbled in my throat, but I tamped it down, “we keep the house, my father keeps his job and agrees to the financial planner.”

Macalister’s irritation swelled to outright anger. “That’s the exact offer I just proposed.”

A tremble worked its way up my legs but was thankfully hidden beneath the table. Outwardly, I tried to match his merciless personality. I said it before I lost the nerve.

“And also, ten million dollars.”





SIX


A DEAL IS DEEMED GOOD when neither side is happy at the end of negotiations, and right now Macalister Hale looked very, very unhappy.

I could relate.

My parents gaped at me. A stunned, short laugh came from Royce and hung awkwardly in the air.

Macalister’s question was deadly quiet. It was scarier than if he’d shouted it at me. “Are you out of your mind?”

Obviously, I was, because I was considering this absurd deal. I had no desire to be married at twenty-one, and even less interest in becoming Mrs. Royce Hale. But what choice did I have? My entire family was broke, soon none of us would be employed, and it was likely my sister had a baby on the way.

I risked angering him further, and my voice warbled with a tremble. “Ten million isn’t that much to you.”

“No.” Rather than storm away from the table, he leaned over it, getting closer to me. “Understand something. I’m already forgiving a huge mortgage. I’m not stupid enough to extend your parents another loan.”

“It wouldn’t be a loan.” I scrambled to come up with something. Anything to leverage. How deep did our money troubles run? What if my parents had years’ worth of back taxes outstanding? Beneath the table, I balled my hands into fists. “Think of it as a reverse dowry. You’d be buying my silence and . . .” I choked it out, “loyalty to Royce.”

Meaning I was essentially selling myself to him.

Macalister’s eyes went thin as he evaluated it, and he made me wait a lifetime before speaking. “Five hundred thousand.”

Relief and terror mixed inside my stomach. I was a freight train, barreling along much too fast and locked in on a path with one destination. Negotiations had started, and there was no turning back. I needed as much money as I could get. “Eight million.”

His sneer cut me in half. “You think I’d be willing to pay that much? It’s insulting.”

“No more than your counteroffer.”

The corner of his eyes crinkled. He was surprised I hadn’t backed down, and perhaps intrigued. “I want this done. Two.”

I was terrified to push my luck but went for it. “Five.”

There was no emotion on his face. No hint of what he was thinking or what would happen next. He could laugh, he could curse, or he could walk away and leave us with nothing. I waited with painful anticipation.

“Five million dollars, Marist Northcott,” he said, “and you better be the perfect, dutiful wife. You will look and act exactly how we tell you to. A paradigm of class, the girl who everyone looks up to and wants to be.”

Oh, God. It was impossible to breathe. How was a nobody like me supposed to accomplish that?

“If you don’t receive approval from the board, this offer is revoked. The house, the money, everything evaporates. You understand?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded.

“Then, we have a deal?” It was more statement than question from him.

“Marist.” My mother’s voice was a ghost. “We’ll figure something out. You don’t have to do this.”

Who was she fucking kidding? Of course, I did. Up until now, my life had been easy. I’d been protected. My parents had spoiled Emily and me and given us anything we’d ever wanted. They’d ensured I’d never had to sacrifice or struggle.

I peered across the table at the man who looked a lot like his father but hadn’t gained as hard of an edge yet. I traced the lines of Royce’s fingers with my gaze and couldn’t help but think about how he’d made me come. How he’d shattered me so completely with that same hand when he’d push me against the bookcase and jammed it inside my panties.

I could still smell the dusty, oaky scent of the library even now.

Agreeing to this was hard and unfair . . . but there were worse things than having to marry into one of the wealthiest families in the country. Becoming a Hale wasn’t exactly a death sentence.

It wouldn’t be—as long as I didn’t lose who I was along the way.

“Yes.” I said it so softly it was impossible to hear, so I cleared my throat and strived for an even, sure tone. “I agree.”

Royce’s unexpected smile made my heart stumble. Was I reading him right? He looked pleased at my answer, like he wanted this. What kind of sense did that make?

His father’s reaction was far more muted. Macalister was relieved to have an unpleasant task completed. He rose from his seat, reached across the table, and extended his hand. I smoothed my palms down on my skirt as I stood, wiping the sweat from them, and took the first handshake Macalister had ever offered me, sealing the deal.

His grip was overpowering and dominating, and I had the terrible feeling this was only a small taste of the control he craved. He held on to me as he spoke. “While I would have preferred you accepted my initial offering, I respect that you didn’t. Maybe there’s a brain in there beneath that ridiculous hair you’ve got.” His compliment was mostly backhanded. Then he added, “I can see why Royce likes you.”

Since he still had hold of me, Macalister had to feel the jolt traveling through my body. My gaze snapped to his son. Alarm blared loudly on Royce’s expression but was shuttered instantly.

“I don’t,” he said quickly. “Like I told you before, either Northcott girl is fine with me.”

My brain quit functioning, and the word fired off before I could rein it in. “Wow.”

As he retreated into his emotionless, statue-like state, I must have misinterpreted his reaction from before. He didn’t care about my sister or me. We were interchangeable women to be married off. Merely a commodity.

Aren’t you?

I’d just sold myself to him.

Turmoil churned in my belly, and for a moment, I wondered if I too would throw up all over Macalister’s hand. I jerked back and forced my anxiety down. The full scope of what I’d agreed to hadn’t hit me yet, and I needed to keep it together long enough until the Hales were gone. Then I could process the terrible decision I’d made.

A sinister smile lifted on Macalister’s lips as he looked at his son, as if he wanted to see Royce squirm. “If that’s true, what was all that on the car ride over here?”

“It was nothing.” His voice was clipped. “I think it’s time for dessert.” When no one moved, he prompted my mother. “Mrs. Northcott?”

God, what an arrogant prick.





I didn’t eat any of the chocolate tart Delphine served. My parents didn’t either, unless my mother pushing around the raspberries with her fork counted. My family had no appetite following all the shit that went down. We sat as captives while Macalister laid out the instructions for the next month of my life.

An appointment was set up with Alice Hale. Royce’s stepmother would meet me at her favorite salon and personally approve the “drastic changes” Macalister said were required to bring me in line with the Hale brand. Obviously, my evergreen hair color would be the first thing to go.

After coaching, which I was sure would be extensive, I’d sit for an initial interview with the board of HBHC. If I passed, a more extensive interview would be held just before the party celebrating Royce’s new position. It would be lavish and extravagant, and the event of the year.

If I was approved, Macalister would announce his son’s engagement to me during his toast that evening.

I saw my opening for a momentary escape when Delphine came in and began to clear the untouched desserts. I set my napkin on the table and seized my plate. “If you’ll excuse me.”

My legs wobbled as I pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, and the plate clattered as I set it beside the sink. Delphine followed right behind me. Did she know? Did she have any idea my parents were in deep financial trouble and she could be out of a job very soon? Her questioning look was too hard to stomach, and I fled into the empty sitting room.

I shut the door and sank back against it, closed my eyes, and cupped a hand to my forehead. I fought my trembling bottom lip because I was on overload, but I refused to succumb to my emotions. I didn’t want to face them again with a blotchy face and give them the upper hand, plus crying wasn’t going to solve anything.

And it certainly wasn’t going to undo what had been done.

Holy shit, I said I’d marry Royce. Until now, I’d spent my life obscured in Emily’s shadow and I liked it that way. There would be nowhere to hide once I became the princess of Cape Hill.

Deep breaths.

You might not make it that far.

If I couldn’t win the ridiculous approval of the board, at least I’d bought some time to get my parents’ finances in order. With a plan of action drafted up, the helplessness inside me dimmed just enough so I could straighten, press my cool fingertips to my warm cheeks, and calm down. I turned, pulled open the door, and buried my face in a dress shirt as I collided with a hard, male chest.

Royce’s hands clamped down on my shoulders.

My gasp had no impact on him. He drove me back into the room and pulled the door closed behind us. His expression was . . . off. He had the audacity to look concerned.

“Are you all right?”

I blinked. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“If it helps, I have about as much say in this as you do.”

“No, it doesn’t help, and that cannot be true.” My shoulders tensed. Even though he was no longer touching me, the warmth of his palms lingered against my bare skin.

Frustration was an interesting look for him. The spoiled rich boy probably didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with it. He always got whatever he wanted. Royce brushed back the sides of his suit coat as he rested his hands on his hips. It showed off his trim form and the curves of his powerful arms.

Stop looking at him like that.

“Believe what you want, but it’s true,” he said. “I do what I’m told because there’s no alternative. Everything is planned or scheduled. I don’t get to make decisions because my entire fucking life has already been scripted.”

I didn’t want to believe him, but it echoed true. Macalister’s controlling personality was everywhere. My father had told me a story once how his boss had dictated what each staff member would wear during an audit.

Royce’s expression warmed unexpectedly, and his voice dipped low. “But you and me? I was . . . hoping for this outcome.”

Did he think I was stupid? “You literally said ‘either Northcott girl is fine.’”

“I said that to protect you.” His tone was sincere. “It was a lie, Marist. Like I told you last year, I’m not interested in your sister.”

At the memory, the room seemed to grow smaller the longer Royce and I stood alone in it. “Protect me from what?”

He gave a pointed look, as if the answer were obvious.

He was protecting me from his father. I sucked in a breath and matched his gentle tone. “Why?”

“I don’t have time to explain right now. I need your phone. I told them we were exchanging numbers.”

I begrudgingly dug it out of my dress pocket and passed it to him. “Right. Because you should probably have your fiancée’s number.”

He ignored my sarcasm and typed in the new contact, then texted himself from the phone. When done, he held it out to pass it back. Only he used it as an opportunity to jerk me close. His free hand slipped onto my cheek, forcing me to meet his intense gaze.

He was so close, a kiss threatened, and although our lips hadn’t touched, it was powerfully intimate.

“You’re not my fiancée, Marist. Yeah, you made the deal out there, but I haven’t asked you to be my wife.” His gaze roamed across my face, like he was memorizing each detail, before finally ending on my lips. His whispered words brushed over my sensitized skin. “Not yet.”

Was he talking about proposing?

Or kissing me?

He carried out neither threat. Instead, he abruptly released me, and my body was bereft in his absence. Everything was off-balance. And like he’d done last time we’d been alone, he turned on his heel and was out the door before I could utter a word.





Numbness took up residence in my heart that afternoon after the Hales left.

Emily cried as she told our parents she thought she was pregnant, but her shame at disappointing them shifted to fear as they confessed how much financial trouble we were in. I emulated Royce and sat eerily still on the patterned couch in the front room, an emotionless expression slathered on my face like the makeup I’d been asked to wear.

It was the first time I’d seen my father break down, and it was unnerving. Once again, I didn’t want him to surrender so quickly. Why didn’t he fight or defend himself?

Horror splashed across Emily’s face as my mother explained—in between her choked sobs—the deal I’d made with Macalister to try to save us. My sister leaned across the couch and seized my hand in a vise-like grip. “Marist, no. You can’t marry him.”

My voice was detached. “Sure, I can.”

My lack of emotion only increased hers, and panic flooded her face. “No.”

“Why not?”

She glanced at our parents before returning her focus to me. “You don’t love him, and he’s a Hale. They can’t love anyone but themselves.”

Was that true? Was Royce capable of loving another person, or was he Narcissus? In the myth, he’d refused all others and wasted away staring at the only thing he’d been cursed to love—his own reflection.

“There are worse things than marrying Royce Hale,” I said.

“Like what?” she snapped.

I lost the reins on my emotions for a moment. “Oh, I don’t know. Being pregnant and homeless?”

Her eyes went white from the pain I’d inflicted, then filled with tears.

“Shit.” Shame poured onto my shoulders, weighing me down. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Emily shook her head, silencing me as she brushed the tears away that had collected in her eyes. I didn’t want to be mean. I understood everyone was fragile, but we didn’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. My parents had squandered that time just as they had their money.

Thanks to Royce’s cruel comment about me while I was in high school, I’d survived on the fringe of high society. I was certain the rest of my family wasn’t strong enough to do the same.

If our name was all we had left, then—fuck—I’d do everything in my power to keep it.





SEVEN


DIAMONDS AND SAPPHIRES GLITTERED in the glass box in front of me, and the modern crystal chandelier overhead sparkled, radiating rainbows down on the carpet. The store was decorated in creams and grays so it wouldn’t compete with the breathtaking gems on display. I was at the back, waiting patiently on the edge of my seat for the owner to meet me. For once, traffic had cooperated and the drive into Boston had only taken forty-five minutes, which meant I had arrived early for our appointment.

It forced me to stare at the jewelry locked in the case before me. The gorgeous diamonds were so clear, they looked cold and heavy. Was that how it would feel when Royce slipped an engagement ring on my finger? Like an anchor? I swallowed a breath and tucked a lock of my doomed green hair behind an ear.

“Ms. Northcott?”

The warm, male voice caused me to turn in my seat. “Yes. Sorry, I’m early.”

“No, you’re fine.”

The owner was in his fifties with thinning hair on top, but I liked how he’d buzzed it close rather than grow it long and comb it over. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a jet-black suit that fit him perfectly.

“I’m Richard Costolli. It’s so nice to meet you.” When I pushed to my feet, he smiled. “Please, keep your seat. I was honored when your mother called.”

“She planned to come, but something came up,” I lied. “It’s just me. I hope that’s okay.”

The truth was my mother found this too difficult. It made our dire situation “too real.” My blood had run hot through my veins. I was doing everything in my power to bail them out, and I was pissed that still, I was the only responsible one.

“Of course. I hope everything is all right.” Mr. Costolli took the empty chair beside me, put one elbow on the glass case, and leaned forward. His expression was full of anticipation.

“Oh,” I said, glancing around. “Do I . . .”

“Right here will be fine.” His eyes gleamed just as much as the jewelry we were surrounded by. “I’m dying to see it.”

I bent down and pulled the blue, leather-bound case from my purse and set it on the glass counter. He ran a hand reverently over the top of the lid, trailing appreciative fingers over the embossed silver logo.

My mother had done the same this morning before handing the box to me, only her fingers had been forlorn, and her eyes filled with unshed tears.

“May I?” he asked, motioning to open it.

I nodded.

There was a sharp intake of breath as he lifted the hinged lid and gazed at the necklace seated on velvet. His voice dropped to a hush. “It’s stunning.”

“Thank you,” I said, my throat tight.

He was absolutely right. The diamond wreath necklace resting below the Harry Winston logo was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I’d ever seen. I’d never worn it, other than the few times growing up when my mother let me try it on.

The diamonds were set so they looked like vines covered in exquisite, faceted ice.

I didn’t know why I felt compelled to tell him, but the words tumbled from my mouth. “My great-grandfather surprised my great-grandmother with it to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. She nearly had a heart attack because I’m told he was . . .” I lowered my voice, “well, a cheap bastard.”

Mr. Costolli laughed, and I gave a forced smile, not wanting him to see how hard this was.

It must not have worked because he turned serious. His solemn expression said he understood whatever figure the necklace appraised for, its sentimental value to my family would far exceed that.

“My mother only wore it once, on the day she married my father,” I added.

Emily and I had both hoped to wear it on our wedding day. I didn’t want to sell it, but we were strapped for money, and insuring a necklace that appraised in the six figures was one of the many expenses we had to cut. I needed to soften the fall for my family if I failed to hold up my end of Macalister’s insane deal.

“This is a very special piece,” Mr. Costolli said quietly. He pulled out a jeweler’s loupe and examined the stones while I retrieved the envelope from my purse that contained all the paperwork he’d need to hold the necklace while it was prepared for auction.

When it was done, I took a final look at the necklace. I tried to ignore the pang of sadness lining my heart as I climbed to my feet. I said my goodbyes to Mr. Costolli, shouldered my purse, and headed for the entrance.

A whisper of something caught my attention. I turned and glanced at the case closest to the door. The rows of engagement rings glinted back, mocking me. I paused then changed course and went to the case.

The settings ran the gamut. Some were simple and understated, and some had no center stone set in them yet. Others were enormous or encrusted with jewels in elaborate designs.

Ever the salesman, Mr. Costolli’s tone was light, but hopeful. “See anything you like?”

“Just looking.” I gave a vague smile.

I wasn’t about to tell him the display filled me with dread. Besides, what I liked was irrelevant. I had no doubt Macalister would have a say in the ring I’d be forced to wear.





After rinsing the dye from my hair, the stylist sat me in his chair and swiveled it away from the mirror, wanting to give me the “grand reveal” when he was done. He’d been blowing out my hair for at least thirty minutes, and every now and again I’d get a flash of a newly-dark lock before it was brushed out of my line of sight.

“I’m sorry, Marist, but this is a mess.” Alice Hale stood across from me, clutched my phone in her hand, and used a manicured finger to scroll through my Instagram profile. Each swipe she made only deepened the crease in her forehead. “It’s all mythology stuff and random pictures of food. This tells me nothing about you. What’s your color story?”

“Color story?” I repeated over the incessant hairdryer.

Alice was classically beautiful. Her look was timeless, with her long blonde hair, big doe eyes, and skin that glowed. I’d swear she had a filter, like I was constantly viewing her through an old timey camera lens. She was luminescent.

Macalister’s second wife was ten years younger than he was, barely in her forties, and although she looked like a trophy wife, Alice was anything but. She was the vice president of marketing at HBHC, a creative genius, and one of the few people at the company who didn’t cower in fear of the boss. It helped she was sleeping with him.

But being married to Macalister came at a price, and she often searched for it at the bottom of a bottle of vodka. Her last stint at rehab seemed to take, though. She’d been ‘on’ and focused the whole time we’d been at the salon, and it had taken a while to cut and color my hair.

“Are you ready?” the stylist asked, but I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to Alice. In any case, he didn’t wait for an answer. The chair spun and, as I found my own gaze in the mirror, my lips parted on a deep breath.

“Well?” his voice teemed with pride. “What do you think?”

Alice glanced at my reflection, scrutinized his work, and nodded her approval. “So. Much. Better. Thank you, Sebastian.” She leaned over my shoulder, bringing her face beside mine in the mirror. “Now you look like—”

“My sister,” I interrupted.

“What?” Alice turned and peered at me with new eyes, considering my statement, but shrugged it off. “No. You look better than her.”

I had no idea how to feel about that.

Now that my hair was done, the makeup artist on standby stepped in like a surgeon waiting for the patient to be transferred to their care. She discussed palettes with Alice, and the women found the perfect day-to-evening look for me, all without having to address me directly. My input was not needed.

I wasn’t a tomboy. I liked dresses, and makeup, and feeling feminine, but there was no joy in this unwanted makeover. It wasn’t just my appearance, it was my whole persona they were determined to manipulate. To manufacture. I’d had to give her access to all my social media accounts so she could rebrand them.

It left me powerless as she stripped away one thing after another that made me unique. That made me, me. As Alice’s personal shopper arrived with bags of dresses to try on, each one too sexy, or bold, or edgy . . . anxiety needled up my spine.

If I wasn’t careful, I’d become a Stepford wife. My personality would be hollowed out to make room for their brand, and I’d exist as a shadow of a real woman.

No.

I was determined to play this game until I found a way to beat it.





It wasn’t all that warm outside for late May and there was a breeze, but I was already sweating as I walked up to the restaurant and put a clammy hand on the door handle. The air conditioning slammed into me as I stepped inside and caused a shiver.

Or perhaps it was the man waiting in the foyer for me.

Royce had his back to the door, but he sensed my arrival. He turned, and his intense gaze swept down over my frame, taking in the new, repackaged me. My hair was now back to my natural shade, the color of dark chocolate, and had been curled into soft waves. My eyebrows had been waxed into perfect arches.

Other parts of my body were still pink and raw from wax as well, but they were hidden beneath my lace skirt.

I couldn’t tell from his expression if he liked my new look, or if his smile was fiction. “You look nice,” he said simply.

“Thank you,” I parroted back. “You too.”

He had on a navy sport coat and a check-patterned shirt over his blue jeans. Business up top and casual below, but at the same time, he looked like he could exist in both worlds without any effort. Maybe Alice had helped him find his day-to-evening look too.

Every pair of eyes in the restaurant was on us as we were led to our table for dinner. Probably not every pair, but God, it felt that way.

“Is it just me,” I asked over the top of my menu, “or is everyone staring at us?”

Royce was indifferent. “They’re staring at you.”

His statement rattled me. “Why?”

“Because you’re here with me.” His gaze never lifted to mine, like he couldn’t be bothered. “Or more likely, because you’re fucking gorgeous. Who knows?”

Breath halted in my lungs. “You can’t just say shit like that.”

The leather-bound menu holder dropped onto the table with a thud, and I was met with the full power of Royce’s irritated stare. “That you’re beautiful? You are. Get over it.”

Dismay twisted my lips into a frown. “Please, don’t. I don’t need bullshit lines from someone like you.”

“It’s not a line, and . . . someone like me?” More annoyance darted through his eyes, but intrigue too. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

How was I going to put it into words? “You’re a ‘haver.’ I mean, you could have any woman in this room if you wanted, and probably some of the guys too. You’re young, hot, and filthy rich.”

His irritation vanished. It was replaced with an arrogant expression that said none of this was news to him. I pushed forward, gathering steam.

“Me?” I said. “I’m a ‘have-not.’ I’m sure you didn’t intend for it to happen, but when you said I was a nobody, you made it true. No one will touch me.”

“I touched you.”

He was immune to my scorching glare. “You wanted to know why I was still a virgin last year. Well, there’s your answer. You’re the reason, Royce. Nobody would be caught dead with me.”

He considered the accusation I’d lobbed at him. “You’re wrong,” he said finally. “I was aware what was going to happen. It’s exactly why I said it.”

My head turned into a void. “What?”

He leaned over the table to ensure he had my full attention. “I saw you at the bar with your sister that night. You were swaying to the music, all happy, and pretty, and it pissed me off. My father had already laid out plans for me. I was supposed to be with Emily, but that wasn’t what I wanted.”

I clenched the menu in my hands. I sensed where he was going, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. My heart chugged along, thumping loudly in my ears.

“So, yeah. I knew you were behind me when I called you a nobody. I did it on purpose, because I couldn’t stand you with anyone else. I wanted you for myself.”

“Oh, my God.” My body flushed hot, although I didn’t know if it was with anger or excitement, or a deadly combination of the two.

“I’d tell you I’m sorry if that was hard for you, but honestly?” He tossed a hand up. “I’m not. I take my victories where I can get them, and I don’t regret what I had to do to earn it. It’s win-at-all-costs in the Hale family. You’ll learn that soon enough.”

Catching my breath was impossible. “You’re making this up.”

He looked dubious. “Seriously? Why would I? I went out with Emily once. Did she tell you about it?”

“She said,” I swallowed thickly, “you were a jerk.”

“Is that it?”

When I didn’t answer, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, looking at me like I’d just proved his point.

“I wasn’t aware that was something you could turn on or off.” My tone was dry. “I thought it was a default setting for you.”

He chuckled. “See? You’re like me. You say what you’re thinking, and no one talks to me like that. It’s one of the reasons I like you. Everyone else has their nose so far up my family’s ass it’s uncomfortable.”

One of the reasons. What were the others? “She also said you had zero chemistry.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “That should have been a dead giveaway. Because you and me, Marist? There’s no fucking issue of chemistry. I still remember what you taste like.”

Oh, Lord.

I put my hands on the linen tablecloth because the world was spinning too fast and threatened to hurl me off. The naïve part of me wanted to believe everything he’d said, but my brain didn’t trust him. He was a master manipulator.

The waitress appeared. “Have you decided?”

“I’m not hungry.” Because what I was interested in wasn’t on the menu.

Royce gave her a strained smile. “We’ll each have the filet, medium rare, with a Caesar salad.” He snatched up the wine list and pointed to an entry. “And this bottle of wine, please.”

She was gone almost instantly.

“I said I’m not hungry,” I repeated.

“And this is s