Main Ruckus

Ruckus

5.0 / 5.0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?
They say that life is a beautiful lie and death a painful truth. They're right. No one has ever made me feel more alive than the guy who serves as a constant reminder that my clock is ticking. 

He is my forbidden, shiny apple. The striking fallacy to my blunt, raw, truth. He is also my sister's ex-boyfriend. One thing you should know before you judge me; I saw him first. I craved him first. I loved him first. Eleven years later, he waltzes into my life, demanding a second chance. Dean Cole wants to be my bronze horseman. 

But my clock is ticking. 

See, I'm not like the rest. I have an illness. Sometimes I conquer it. Sometimes it conquers me. My white knight has finally arrived. Hopefully, he isn't too late.

Volume:
2
Year:
2017
Language:
english
Series:
Sinners of Saint Series
File:
EPUB, 720 KB
Download (epub, 720 KB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Most frequently terms

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Rude Shock

Year:
2018
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 256 KB
0 / 0
2

Ruckman Road

Year:
2017
Language:
english
File:
AZW3 , 325 KB
0 / 0
Copyright © 2017 by L.J. Shen.



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



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



RUCKUS

Cover Model: Blake Kalawart.

Cover Designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA Designs.

Interior Formatting: Stacey Blake, Champagne Formats.





Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Soundtrack

Epigraph

Preface



Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Epilogue



Acknowledgements

Other Books





For Kristina Lindsey and Sher Mason.





Soundtrack



Halsey – Hold Me Down



Hey Violet – Guys My Age



Train – Drops of Jupiter



Fall Out Boy – Immortals



Hooverphonic – Mad About You



Breathe Me - Sia





“Because the birdsong might be pretty,

But it’s not for you they sing,

And if you think my winter is too cold,

You don’t deserve my spring.”

Erin Hanson





Stars are known for symbolizing the eternal. They’ve been a fixed constant in the sky since time immemorial. The first inhabitants of earth used to stare at the same sky as we do now. And our children.



And grandchildren.



And their grandchildren.



Stars also symbolize the cycle of life, solitude and grav; ity. They glow in the dark energy that’s the majority of space, and remind us that even in the pitch black, there’s always something that can shine.





I SHOULD PROBABLY GET ONE thing out of the way before we begin. My story? It doesn’t have a happy ending. It won’t. It can’t. No matter how tall or handsome or rich and captivating my Prince Charming might be.

And my Prince Charming was all those things. Oh, he was all those things and more.

Only problem was he wasn’t really mine. He was my sister’s. But there is something you should know before you judge me.

I saw him first. I craved him first. I loved him first.

All that didn’t matter when Dean ‘Ruckus’ Cole had his lips on my sister’s in front of my eyes the day Vicious broke into her locker.

The thing about these moments is you never quite know whether it’s the beginning or the end. The fluidity of life stops, and you’re forced to examine your reality. Reality sucks. Trust me, I know firsthand just how hard it does.

Life ain’t fair.

Daddy said it right when I hit sixteen and wanted to start dating. His answer was resolute. “Good Lord, no.”

“Why not?” My eyelid ticked with annoyance. “Millie dated when she was sixteen.” It was true. She went on four dates with our mailman’s son, Eric, back in Virginia. Daddy snorted and wagged his index finger at me. Nice try.

“You’re not your sister.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know what it means.”

“No, I don’t.” I did know.

“It means you have something she doesn’t. It’s not fair, but life ain’t fair.”

Another fact I couldn’t argue with. Daddy said I was a magnet for the wrong kind of boys, but that was like sugarcoating a ball of dirt and rusty nails. I understood the underlying complaint he had made, I did, especially as I’d always been his little princess. Rosie-bug. The apple of his eye.

I was racy. It wasn’t intentional. It was even, at times, an inconvenient liability. With thick lashes, cascading caramel hair, long milky legs, and downy lips so full they took over most of my face. Everything else about me was small and ripe—wrapped in a red satin bow with a siren expression that seemed to have been permanently inked on my face, no matter how hard I tried to wipe it off.

I attracted attention. The best kind. The worst kind. Hell, every kind.

There were going to be other boys, I tried to convince myself when Dean and Emilia’s lips touched and my heart shriveled in my chest. But there was always going to be one Millie.

Besides, my sister deserved it. Deserved him. I had Mama and Daddy’s attention, all day, every day. I had plenty of friends at school, and admirers lining up outside our door. All eyes were on me, while no one spared my sister a second glance.

It wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t make me feel any less guilty. My older sister had become the product of both my illness and popularity. A solitary teenager hiding behind a canvas, obscured behind paint. Quiet all the time, sending her message through her weird, eccentric clothes.

When I think about it, it was really for the best. The first day I noticed Dean Cole in the hallway between trig and English period, I knew that he was more than just a high school crush. If I had him, I wouldn’t let go. And that in itself was a dangerous concept I couldn’t afford toying with.

See, my clock was ticking faster. I wasn’t born like the rest.

I had an illness.

Sometimes I conquered it.

Sometimes it conquered me.

Everyone’s favorite Rose was wilting, but no flower wants to die in front of an audience.

Besides, it was better that way, I decided when her lips were on his and his eyes were on mine and reality became a complex, agonizing thing I was desperate to run away from.

And so I watched as my sister and the only guy who made my heart beat faster fall in love from my front-row seat.

My petals falling one by one.

Because even though I knew my story wouldn’t end with a happily ever after, I couldn’t help but wonder…could it have a happy ending, even if just momentarily?





The summer when I turned seventeen was bad, but nothing prepared me for its fucking grand finale.

All arrows pointed to calamity. I couldn’t isolate what path would lead me to it, but knowing my life, I braced myself for a sucker punch that’d send me straight to hell.

In the end, it all boiled down to one, reckless, movie-cliché moment. A few Bud Lights and sloppily rolled blunts weeks before our junior year was over.

We were lying by Vicious’s kidney-shaped pool, drinking his dad’s flat beer, knowing we could get away with it—Christ, with fucking everything—under Baron Spencer Senior’s roof. There were girls. They were high. There weren’t many things to do in Todos Santos, California, on the verge of summer break. Everything was scorching hot. The air heavy, the sun bloated, the grass yellow, and the youth bored with their problemless, meaningless existence. We were too lazy to chase cheap thrills, so we looked for them while we were leisurely sprawled on pool floats the shape of donuts and flamingos and Italian-imported sunbathing chair lounges.

Vicious’s parents weren’t home—were they ever?—and everyone was counting on me to supply. Never one to disappoint, I brought over sweet hash and some Molly, which they greedily inhaled without even thanking me, let alone paying me back. They figured I was a rich, stoner bastard who needed more money like Pamela Anderson needed more tits, which was partially true. And I never sweated the small stuff anyway, so I let it slide.

One of the girls, a blondie named Georgia, flaunted her new Polaroid camera, which her dad gave her on their latest Palm Springs vacation. She took pictures of us boys—Jaime, Vicious, Trent, and myself—flaunting her assets in a little red bikini and clasping the freshly printed pictures between her teeth, handing them to us, mouth-to-mouth. Her tits spilled out of her small bikini top like overflowing toothpaste from a tube. I wanted to rub my dick between them, and knew with certainty that I would, by the end of that day.

“My, my, this one’s going to be gooood.” Georgia used an indefinite amount of O’s for the last word for emphasis. “Looking uber-sexy, Cole,” she purred when she caught me on camera pounding the remainder of the beer with a blunt clasped between my fingers and slamming the can on my hard thigh.

Click.

The evidence of my wrongdoing slid out of her camera with a provocative hiss, and she plucked it with her glossy lips, bending down and handing it to me. I bit it and shoved it into my swim trunks. Her eyes followed my hand as I nudged the elastic downwards, revealing a straight line of light hair below my naval that invited her to the rest of the party. She swallowed. Visibly. Our eyes met, silently agreeing on a time and a place. Then someone cannonballed into the pool and splashed her, and she shook her head, chuckling breathlessly before skipping to her next art project, my best friend, Trent Rexroth.

Destroying the picture before I got home was always the plan. I blame the fucking Molly for forgetting. In the end, my mother found it. In the end, my father gave me one of his low-tone lectures that always seemed to eat my insides like arsenic. And in the very, very end? They made me spend my summer vacation with my fucking uncle, the one I really couldn’t stand.

I knew better than to fight them about it. The last thing I needed was to stir shit and jeopardize my Harvard stint a year before I graduated. I’ve worked hard for this future, for this life. It was splayed before me, in all of its rich, entitled, fucked-up, private jets, timeshare, annual Hamptons vacation glory. That’s the thing about life. When something good falls into your hands, you don’t only hang on to the fucker, you clutch it so hard it almost breaks.

Just another lesson that I learned way too late into life.

Anyway, that’s how I ended up flying to Alabama, burning two months on a fucking farm prior to my senior year.

Trent, Jaime, and Vicious spent their summer drinking, smoking, and fucking girls on their home field. Me, I came back with a shiner, generously gifted to me by Mr. Donald Whittaker, AKA Owl, after the night that had changed who I was forever.

“Life is like justice,” Eli Cole, my lawyer-slash-dad, had said to me before I boarded the plane to Birmingham. “It’s not always fair.”

Wasn’t that the fucking truth.

That summer, I was forced to read the Bible cover to cover. Owl told my parents he was a born-again Christian and big on bible studies. He backed it up by making me read it with him during our lunch breaks. Ham on rye and the Old Testament were his version of not being a dickface, because he was pretty much horrible to me the rest of the time.

Whittaker was a farmhand. When he was sober enough to be anything, that was. He made me his barn boy. I agreed, mainly because I got to finger his neighbor’s daughter at the end of every day.

The neighbor’s daughter thought I was some kind of a celebrity just because I didn’t have a Southern accent and owned a car. I wasn’t one to crush her fantasy, especially as she was eager to be my sex ed student.

I humored Owl when he taught me the Bible, because the alternative was brawling with him in the hay until one of us passed out. I think my folks wanted me to remember that life wasn’t all about expensive cars and ski vacations. Owl and his wife were like Low Income Life 101. So, every morning I woke up asking myself what’s two months in comparison to my whole fucking life.

There were a lot of crazy-ass stories in the Bible; incest, foreskin-collection, Jacob wrestling an angel—I swear this book jumped the shark by the second chapter or so—but one story really stuck with me, even before I’d met Rosie LeBlanc.

Genesis 27. Jacob came to live with Laban, his uncle, and fell in love with Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters. Rachel was hot as fuck, fierce, graceful, and pretty much sex on a stick (as indicated in the Bible, though not in so many words.)

Laban and Jacob struck a deal. Jacob was to work for Laban for seven years—then he could marry his daughter.

Jacob did as he was told—busting his ass under the sun, day in and day out. After those seven years, Laban finally came to Jacob and told him he could marry his daughter.

But here was the catch: it’s not Rachel’s hand he had given him. It was her older sister’s, Leah.

Leah was a good woman. Jacob knew that.

She was nice. Sensible. Charitable. Cute ass and soft eyes (again, paraphrasing here. Other than the eyes part. That shit was actually in the Bible.)

She was no Rachel, though.

She was no Rachel, and he wanted Rachel. It was. Always. Fucking. Rachel.

Jacob argued, fought, and tried to talk some sense into his uncle, but in the end, he’d lost. Life was like justice, even back then. It was anything but fair.

“Seven more years of work,” Laban promised. “And I’d let you marry Rachel, too.”

So, Jacob waited.

And lurked.

And yearned.

Which, anyone with half a brain should know, only gratifies your desperation for your subject of obsession.

Years ticked by. Slowly. Painfully. Numbly.

In the meantime, he was with Leah.

He didn’t suffer. Not per se. Leah was good to him. A safe bet. She could bear his children—something Rachel, he would later find out—had difficulty doing.

He knew what he wanted, and it may have looked like her, and may have smelled like her, and fuck—maybe even felt like her—but it was not her.

It took him fourteen years, but in the end, Jacob won Rachel fair and square.

Rachel might not have been blessed by God. Leah was. But here was the thing.

Rachel didn’t need to be blessed.

She was loved.

And unlike justice and life, love is fair.

What’s more? Eventually, love was enough.

Eventually, it was fucking everything.





Seven weeks into my senior year, another looming calamity had decided to blow up in my face in spectacular fashion. Her name was Rosie LeBlanc, and she had eyes like two frosted-over lakes in an Alaskan winter. That kind of blue.

The what-the-fuck moment grabbed me by the balls and twisted hard the second she opened the door to the servants’ house on Vicious’s lot. Because she wasn’t Millie. She looked like Millie—kind of—only smaller, shorter, with fuller lips, higher cheekbones, and the little pointy ears of a mischievous pixie. But she didn’t wear anything overtly weird like Emilia. A pair of sea-starred flip-flops on her feet, black skinny jeans cut wide at the knees, and a tattered black hoodie with a name of a band I didn’t know plastered in white. Designed to blend in, but, as I’d later find out, destined to shine like a motherfucking lighthouse.

Inferno-red hit her cheeks and crawled down the edge of her collar when our eyes tangled, and that told me everything I needed to know. She was new to me, but I was a familiar face. A face she studied, knew and stared at. All the fucking time.

“Are we engaged in a secret staring competition?” Her recovery was immediate. There was something in the rasp of her voice that almost sounded unnatural. Too small. Too hoarse. Too uniquely her. “Because it’s been twenty-three seconds since I opened the door and you haven’t introduced yourself yet. Also, you blinked twice.”

I originally came there to ask Emilia LeBlanc on a date, cornering her like a frightened animal with nowhere else to go. She wouldn’t give me her phone number. A hunter by nature, I was adequately patient to wait until she was close enough for me to pounce on, but it didn’t hurt to check on my prey every once in a while. If we were being honest, though, pursuing Emilia wasn’t really about Emilia. The thrill of the chase always made my balls tingle, and to me, she provided a challenge other chicks hadn’t supplied. She was new meat, and I was an insatiable carnivore. But I wasn’t expecting to find this.

This changed fucking everything.

I stood there like a mute and flashed my come-hither smirk, taunting the shit out of her, because on some level, she taunted the shit out of me. And it occurred to me that at that particular moment, maybe I wasn’t the hunter. Maybe, for a split, flashing second, I was Elmer Fudd with an out-of-bullets gun in the woods who just spotted an angry tigress.

“Can it even talk?” The tigress’s light eyebrows pulled together, and she leaned forward, poking me in the chest with her little claw. She called me it.

Ridiculing me. Undermining me. Fucking with me.

Wearing my best, innocent expression (that shit was hard to begin with. I forgot what innocence was before my umbilical cord was thrown into the trash), I clamped my teeth beneath my lips and shook my head no.

“You can’t talk?” She folded her arms and leaned against her doorframe, arching a skeptical brow.

I nodded yes, biting down a huge smile.

“That’s bullshit. I saw you at school. Dean Cole. They call you Ruckus. Not only can you talk, but most of the time, you can’t seem to shut up.”

Fuck yeah, little pixie. Bottle that rage and save it for when I roll you between my sheets.

To understand my level of surprise, you first have to know that no girl has ever talked to me like this before. Not even Millie, and Millie seemed to be the only female student who was immune to my all-American, hot-jock, tear-your-panties-with-my-teeth charm. Hell, that’s why I noticed her in the first place.

But as I said, plans change. It’s not like we’d dated yet. I sniffed Millie’s tail around school for a few weeks, debating whether she was worth pursuing, but now that I saw what I’d missed—this little firecracker—it was time to find warmth in her crazy flames.

I unleashed another dirty smirk. This particular one landed me the nickname Ruckus in All Saints’s hallways two years ago. Because I was. I was fucking chaos, brewing anarchy everywhere I went. Everyone knew that. Teachers, students, Principal Followhill, and even the local sheriff.

When you needed drugs—you came to me. When you needed a good party—you came to me. When you needed an amazing fuck, you came to me—and on me. And this was what my smirk—the one I’d been practicing since I was fucking five—said to the world.

If it’s corrupted and dirty and fun—I’m all over it.

And this girl? She looked like a whole lotta fun to corrupt.

Her eyes traced my lips. Heavy. Wanting. Drunk. It was easy to read them. High school girls. Though this particular one didn’t smile as wide as the rest. She didn’t offer a silent invitation for flirtation either.

“You speak,” she coughed her words accusingly. I sucked my lower lip and released it. Slow. Calculated. Teasing.

“Maybe I do know a few words after all.” I got in her face on a hiss. “Wanna hear the interesting ones?” My eyes begged for me to slide down her body, but my brain told me to wait it out. I decided to listen to the latter.

I was relaxed.

I was cunning.

But for the first time in years, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.

She gave me a lopsided grin that rendered me speechless. Shoving so many words into one, single expression. Telling me that my attempt to butter her up left her sorely unimpressed. That she liked me—yes—and noticed me—sure—but that I was going to have to do better than casual, half-assed flirting to get there. Wherever it was, I was ready for the journey.

“Do I really?” She dallied, not even noticing as she did. I dipped my chin down, leaning forward. I was big, commanding, and confident. And I was trouble. She probably heard all about it, but if not, she was about to find that out.

“I think you do,” I said.

Two minutes ago, I was determined to ask her sister out—older sister, I bet, this chick looked younger and besides, I would have known if she was a senior—and lookie here, fate made her open the door and change my plans.

Baby LeBlanc sent me an odd look, challenging me to continue. Just as I opened my mouth, Millie galloped into my vision, sprinting toward the door from the small, stuffy living room like she was fleeing a war zone. She was clutching a textbook to her chest, her eyes puffy and red. She was staring straight at me, and for a second, I thought she was going to smack me across the face with the five-pound textbook.

In retrospect, I wish she had. It would have been far better than what she actually did.

Millie pushed the little pixie aside without even realizing that she was there, threw herself onto my chest—uncharacteristically affectionate—and pressed her lips to mine like a possessed demon.

Fuck.

This was bad.

Not the kiss. The kiss was fine, I guess. I didn’t have time to process it, because my eyes widened, darting to the spear-eared elf who looked horrified, her cornflower-blues staring, processing, and boxing the three of us into something I wasn’t ready to accept.

What the hell was Millie doing? A few hours ago she was still pretending not to notice me in the hallway, buying time, seeking space, faking indifference. Now she was all over me like a rash after a dodgy one-night stand.

Gently, I pulled away from Millie and cupped her cheeks so she wouldn’t feel rejected, still making sure we had enough space to fit the little pixie between us. Emilia’s proximity was unwelcome, and that was a fucking first when it came to a hot chick.

“Hey,” I said. The body of my voice lost its usual playful tilt, even to my own ears. This wasn’t like Millie. Something happened, and I had a general idea who caused this little scene. My blood boiled. I breathed through my nostrils, determined not to lose my shit. “What’s up, Mil?”

The emptiness in her eyes made me nauseous. I could almost hear the sound of her heart cracking inside her fucking chest. I chanced another glance at Baby LeBlanc, wondering how the hell I was supposed to walk out of this one. She took a step back, her eyes lingering on the hot mess express that was still trying to hug me. Millie was distraught. I couldn’t deny her. Not then.

“Vicious,” the older sister said through a loud sniff. “Vicious happened.”

Then she pointed at the calculus textbook like it was evidence.

Reluctantly, my gaze drifted back to Emilia ‘Millie’ LeBlanc.

“What’d the asswipe do?” I snatched it from her hand and thumbed through the pages, looking for nasty comments or offensive drawings.

“He broke into my locker and stole it,” she snuffled again. “Before stuffing said locker with condom wrappers and garbage.” She wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve.

Jesus fucking Christ with this idiot. That was the other reason why I wanted to date Millie. The need to protect the strays burned in me from a young age. A soft spot and all that bullshit. I wasn’t all bad, like Vicious, neither was I all good, like Jaime. I had my own moral code, and bullying was a long, red line, drawn in blood.

See, as far as strays go, Millie was the perfect, shivering-in-the-rain fleabag in need of shelter. Terrorized at school and haunted by one of my best friends. I needed to do the right thing. I needed to, but fuck if I wanted to.

“I’ll take care of him.” I tried not to snap. “Go back inside.”

And leave me with your sister.

“You don’t need to, really. I’m just glad you’re here.”

I stole a glimpse at the girl who was destined to be the Rachel to my Jacob, this time longingly, because I knew I stood no chance with her the minute her sister kissed me to get back at fucking Vicious.

“I thought about it.” Millie blinked fast, too caught up in her own mess to realize I had barely spared her a glance since she appeared at the door. Too busy to notice her sister was right fucking there beside us. “And I decided—why not? I’d love to date you, actually.”

No, she wouldn’t. What she wanted was for me to be her shield.

Millie needed saving.

And I needed to smoke a fucking blunt.

I sighed, pulling the older sister into a hug, cupping the back of her head, the light-brown wisps of hair entwining between my fingers. My eyes still zoomed at Baby LeBlanc. At my little Rachel.

I’m going to make it right, my gaze promised her. It was clearly more optimistic than I was.

“You don’t have to date me. I can make life easier for you, as your friend. Say the word and I’ll kick his ass,” I whispered into Millie’s perfectly curved ear, my pupils honing in on her sister.

She shook her head, burying it deeper into my shoulder. “No, Dean. I want to date you. You’re nice and fun and compassionate.”

And completely in awe of your sister.

“Doubt it, Millie. You’ve been shutting me down for weeks. This is about Vic, and we both know it. Drink a glass of water. Rethink. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning at practice.”

“Please, Dean.” Her wobbly voice steadied as she balled the fabric of my designer tee in her fists, pulling me closer to her and away from my new, shiny fantasy at the same time. “I’m a big girl. I know what I’m doing. Let’s go right now.”

“Yeah. Go.” I heard Baby LeBlanc rasp, waving her hand in our direction. “I need to study anyway, and you guys are a distraction. I’ll drown Vicious’s ass if I see him in the pool, Millie,” she joked, pretending to flex her skinny arms.

Baby LeBlanc was a shitty student, with C minuses for miles, but I didn’t know it back then. She didn’t want to study. She wanted her sister to be saved.

I took Millie for an ice cream, this time not looking back.

I took Millie when I should have taken Rosie.

I took Millie, and I was going to kill Vicious.





Present



What makes you feel alive?

Condensation. For it reminds me that I still breathe.



I MEAN, I GUESS THIS is classified as talking to myself, but I’d always been this way.

The voice that always asked the elusive question seemed to have been implanted in my brain, and it wasn’t me. It was a man’s voice. No one familiar, I don’t think. He always made me remember that I still breathed, which wasn’t necessarily something I took for granted. This time, my answer floated in my head like a bubble that was about to burst. I pressed my nose to the mirror in the elevator of the glitzy skyscraper that I lived in and blew air from my mouth, creating a thick cloud of white mist. I pulled away, staring at my doings.

The fact that I was still breathing was a huge screw-you to my illness.

Cystic Fibrosis. I always tried to get all the details out of the way when someone asked. All people needed to know was that I was diagnosed with it at the age of three when my sister, Millie, licked my face and said I tasted “really salty.” It was a red flag, so my parents had me checked. The results came back positive. It’s a lung disease. Yes, it is treatable. No, there’s no cure for it. Yes, it affects my life immensely. I’m constantly on pills, have three physiotherapy sessions a week, an indefinite amount of nebulizers, and I will probably die in the next fifteen years. No, I don’t need your pity, so don’t give me that look.

Still clad in my green scrubs, my hair a tangled mess, and my eyes glassy with lack of sleep, I inwardly prayed that the elevator would finally close and carry me to my apartment on the tenth floor. I wanted to undress, dip into a hot bath, and lie in bed, binge-watching Portlandia. And I wanted not to think about my ex-boyfriend, Darren.

Actually, I really wanted not to think about him.

Violent clicks of street-corner high heels echoed in my ears, seemingly out of nowhere, growing louder by the second. I twisted my head to the lobby and stifled a cough. The elevator’s door had already started to slide shut, but a feminine hand with red-hot fingernails slipped through the crack at the very last second, pushing it open with a high-pitched laugh.

I frowned.

Not him again.

But sure enough, it was him. He barged into the elevator, reeking of alcohol that I suspected would intoxicate a mature elephant to the point of death, armed with two women of the Desperate Housewives variety. The first one was the genius who compromised her arm to catch the elevator—a chick with velvet-red Jessica Rabbit hair and cleavage that left nothing to the imagination, even if you were extremely resourceful. The second was a petite brunette with the roundest ass I’ve ever seen on a human being and a dress so short, you could probably perform a gynecological exam on her without having to remove any clothing.

Oh, and then there was Dean ‘Ruckus’ Cole.

Tall—perfect size for a movie star—with moss-green eyes, almost radioactive in their sparkle and bottomless in their depth, disheveled, deep brown sex hair, and a body that would put Brock O’Hurn to shame. Sinfully sexy to the point you really had no choice but to look away and pray your underwear was thick enough to absorb your arousal. Seriously, the man was so outrageously hot, he was probably outlawed in ultra-religious countries. Luckily for me, I just so happened to know Mr. Cole was a world-class jerk, so I was mostly immune to his charm.

Mostly being the operative word here.

He was beautiful, but he was also a mess of epic proportions. You know those women who want the fucked-up, gorgeous, vulnerable guy they could fix and nurture? Dean Cole would be their wet dream. Because there definitely was something up with this guy. The notion that people in his immediate environment didn’t see the flashing neon warnings—his drinking, excessive pot-smoking, and raging addiction to everything sinful and fun—saddened me. Yet, I recognized that Dean Cole wasn’t my business. Besides, I had my own problems to deal with.

The HotHole hiccupped, punched the button to his penthouse five hundred times, and swayed in the small space the four of us shared. His eyes were feverish, and he wore a thin coat of sweat on his skin that smelled like pure brandy. A thick, rust-eaten wire twisted around my heart.

His smile didn’t look happy.

“Baby LeBlanc.” Dean’s lazy tone slipped right into my lower belly, and I stilled. He grabbed me by the shoulder, spinning me in place so that I faced him. His companions eyed me like I was a pile of rotten eggs. I placed my palms on his iron-steel chest, pushing him away.

“Careful. You smell like Jack Daniel’s just came in your mouth,” I deadpanned. He threw his head back and laughed—this time sporting an honest smile—thoroughly enjoying our bizarre exchange.

“This girl.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and squeezed me to his chest. He pointed at me with a hand that held onto the neck of a beer bottle, looking at the girls with a dazed grin. “Is fuck-hot and has brains and wit that would eclipse Winston Churchill in his finest hour,” he gushed. They probably thought Winston Churchill was a Cartoon Network character. Dean turned to face me, his brows dropping low all of a sudden. “That puts her in a high risk to be a condescending bitch, but she isn’t. She’s also fucking kind. That’s why she’s a nurse. Hiding that fine ass under scrubs is a crime, LeBlanc.”

“Sorry to disappoint, Officer Pothead, but I’m just volunteering. I’m actually a barista,” I corrected, ironing my scrubs with my hand as I wormed out of his touch, offering a polite smile to the girls. I volunteered at a NICU three times a week, monitoring incubators and cleaning baby poop. I wasn’t as artistically talented as Millie or as lucky as the HotHoles, but I had my passions—people and music—and I didn’t think any less of my aspirations than what they did for a living. Dean had an MBA from Harvard and a New York Times subscription, but was he really better than me? Hell, no. I worked in a small coffee shop called The Black Hole between First Ave and Ave A. The money was bad, but the company good. I figured life was too short to do something I wasn’t passionate about. Especially for me.

Jessica Rabbit rolled her eyes. The petite brunette hitched one bare shoulder and turned her back to us, messing with her phone. They thought I was a salty bitch. They were right. I literally was. But if we were being literal here, they were in for a rude awakening. I knew my neighbor and my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s ritual by heart. In the morning, he’ll call them a taxi and won’t even bother to pretend he saved their numbers.

In the morning, he’ll act like they were nothing but a mess he had to clean. In the morning, he will be sober, hungover, and ungrateful.

Because he was a HotHole.

A privileged, unhinged, egomaniac from Todos Santos who thought he deserved everything and owed nothing.

Come on, elevator. What’s taking you so long?

“LeBlanc,” Dean barked this time, leaning against the silver wall and pulling a joint from behind his ear, fishing for his lighter in his tailored, dark jeans. The bottle was discarded and passed to one of the women. He wore a designer V-neck tee—the kind of lime green that made his eyes pop and skin look even more tan—an open black blazer and high-top sneakers. He made me want stupid things. Things I never wanted from anyone, much less from a man who dated my sister for eight months. So I bottled them up and tried to be mean to him. Dean was like Batman. He was strong enough to take it.

“Tomorrow. You. Me. Sunday Brunch. Say the word, and I’ll be eating more than just food.” He dipped his chin down to exhibit his emerald eyes, a sinister expression on his face. No question marks with this guy. Brat, the bitter thought crossed my mind. He is going to have a threesome in a few minutes, and he’s standing here hitting on his ex-girlfriend’s sister. They can hear everything, too. Why are they still here?

I ignored his less-than-stellar advance on me, warning him about something else entirely. “If you light that thing in the elevator,” I pointed at his blunt, “I swear I will sneak into your apartment tonight and pour hot wax all over your groin.”

Jessica Rabbit gasped. Petite Brunette shrieked. Well, they would be in the fire line if that happened.

“Geez, get some chill.” The brunette waved a hand at me, ready to explode. “Like, creepy much?”

I paid no attention to the woman with the crayon makeup. Instead, I simply stared at the red numbers above the elevator’s door, indicating that I was getting closer and closer to a bath, wine, and Portlandia.

“Answer me.” Dean ignored the girls he was about to pork, returning his glazy eyes to mine. “Brunch?” Hiccup. “Or we can just skip the whole thing and fuck?”

Hopeless romantic, I know, but sadly, it was still a no for me.

In all honesty, I wasn’t just turned off by how he tried to drag me into his bed, but also by his poor timing. It had been three weeks since Darren packed his things and moved out of the apartment we had shared for six months—we had been together for nine months, after a short stint I had with a greasy monkey, metal music enthusiast named Hal. Dean hadn’t wasted any time trying to accommodate the casual rebound position. The fact that Dean was essentially my landlord and that I only paid him a hundred bucks a month for legal reasons didn’t make it easier to reject him. He co-owned my apartment with Vicious, Jaime, and Trent, and while I knew he wouldn’t kick me out—Vicious would never let him—I also knew I had to play nice with him.

But the notion that he could possibly give me every STD listed on WebMD did make it easier to turn him down. A lot easier, actually.

The red numbers crept up on the display.

Third.

Fourth.

Fifth.

Come on, come on, come on.

“No,” I said flatly, when I realized he was still staring at me, waiting for my response.

“Why?” Another hiccup.

“Because you’re not my friend, and I don’t like you.”

“And why is that?” he pushed, smirking.

Because you broke my heart and I pieced it back together all wonky and wrong.

“Because you’re a hopeless manwhore.” I gave him reason number two on my ‘Why I Hate Dean’ list. That thing was long with a capital L.

Instead of feeling embarrassed or disheartened, Dean leaned in my direction again and pressed his index finger to my cheek with the hand that held the unlit blunt, his face cool and collected. He produced an eyelash he had picked from my face, his finger so close to my lips I saw the round pattern of its print swirling around my curly eyelash.

“Make a wish.” His voice was satin wrapping around my neck, squeezing softly.

Closing my eyes, I bit my lower lip. Then opened them. Then blew the eyelash, watching it rock back and forth gradually, like a feather.

“Don’t you want to know what I wished for?” My voice came out hoarse. He leaned into my body, his lips pressing against my cheek.

“Doesn’t matter what you wished for,” he slurred. “What matters is what you need. I have it, Rosie. And one day—we both know—I will give it to you. In spades.”

I was coming back from a six-hour stint volunteering at a small children’s hospital downtown, which I ran to right after finishing a full shift at the coffeehouse. I was tired, hungry, and my feet had blisters the size of my nose. I shouldn’t have felt a thousand little fingerlings swimming in my chest, but I did. I did and I hated that I did.

“Brunch,” he murmured into my face, his hot, stinking breath fanning my skin. “You’ve been living in my apartment for almost a year. It’s time to reevaluate your rent. My place. Tomorrow morning. Ready when you are, but you better be there. Capiche?”

I gulped, averting my gaze, and when I looked up again, the elevator door slid open. I leapt forward, practically sprinting out, pouring myself into the hallway, and fishing my keys from my backpack.

Space. I needed it. All of it. Now.

His laughter still carried to my door all the way from the twentieth floor, his penthouse, where he ended his journey for the night with two gorgeous women.

After I bathed, poured myself some wine, and had a healthy, balanced dinner consisting of Cheetos and an orange-colored dip with an unknown origin I’d found in the back of my fridge, I parked my ass on my couch and started flipping channels. Even though I wanted to watch Portlandia, because it made me feel a little more sophisticated than my dinner had suggested, I somehow got sucked into watching What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Awful, and not just because it scored 22% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But because it made me think of Darren.

And thinking of Darren made me want to call and apologize to him once again.

I stared at the phone for long seconds, debating, mulling the scenario in my helplessly tired brain.

He’d pick up.

Try to tell me I made a terrible mistake.

That he doesn’t care. He still wants me anyway.

Only he does. He cares a lot.

And I’m not good enough.

Not for someone like him.

Another thing I should mention: despite my sarcastic nature and motor mouth, I was all bark and no bite. I wasn’t interested in ruining lives. I’d much rather save them. That was why I’d given up Darren.

Darren deserved a normal life, with a normal wife and an appropriate amount of kids to start a football team. He deserved long vacations and open-air activities outside the hospital walls. When he wasn’t working there, that is. In short—he deserved more than I could ever give him.

I tucked myself into bed, pressing my back against the headboard as I gaped at my bedroom door, willing it to open, pushed by a god of a man who was going to keep me warm for the night.

Dean Cole.

Jesus, I hated him. Now, more than ever. He wanted to reevaluate my rent. He couldn’t. I was dirt-poor as it was. Especially by Manhattan standards. Besides, he made in a day what I made in two years. Was it really necessary, or did he want to get back at me for not giving in to his advances?

Closing my eyes, I envisioned the world-class douchebag eating out Jessica Rabbit, who was straddling his chiseled, perfect face, while Petite Brunette sucked him off. Appalled, I snaked a hand into my already-damp panties, the crease between my eyebrows deepening, and coughed softly.

Dean Cole was probably the filthy kind. The type to flip Jessica Rabbit over a second after she came and pound her from behind, pulling at her scarlet hair.

I pushed my forefinger inside my sex, then the middle one, looking for that spot.

Disgusted, I imagined Petite Brunette being grabbed by the neck and thrown into position on her back when he was done with JR. Now he was screwing her, too, pinching her nipples. Hard.

I arched my back, revolted.

I moaned, repelled.

Then I came hard on my fingers, repulsed.

I hated everything about Dean Cole.

Everything…but him.





S-E-X.

That’s what it all boils down to, really.

The whole world is built on one, single, animalistic need. Our quest to look better, work out harder, become richer, and to chase things we don’t even need—a better car, more defined obliques, a promotion, a new haircut, whatever bullshit they try to sell us on ads.

All. Because. Of. Sex.

Every time a woman buys a perfume or a beauty product or a fucking dress.

Every time a man enslaves himself to ridiculous payments on a sports car that’s not half as fucking comfortable as the spacious Korean car he had a week ago and injects steroids in the locker room at a stuffy gym…They. Do. It. To. Get. Laid.

Even if they don’t know that. Even if they don’t agree with that. You bought that blouse and that Jeep and that new nose to become more fuckable. Science, baby. You don’t argue with that shit.

Same goes for art. Some of my favorite songs were about sex before I even knew I could do something with my dick that didn’t involve pissing my name in snow.

“Summer of ’69”? – Bryan Adams was nine. He’d clearly been singing about his favorite sexual position. “I Just Died in Your Arms” by Cutting Crew? – Talks about orgasms. “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles? – Prostitutes. “Come On Eileen”? That cheery fucking song everyone dances to at weddings? Sexual coercion.

Sex was everywhere. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s fucking magnificent. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was good at it, too. Did I say good? Scratch that. Amazing. That’s the word I was going for. For practice makes perfect.

And God knows I’ve had a lot of practice.

Which reminded me—I needed to order another box of condoms. I had them specially made by a company called SayItWithaRubber. I didn’t just design the foil to have my name on it—hey, some chicks wanted to keep that as a souvenir, who was I to deny them?—and pick the colors (I liked red and purple. Yellow made my balls look a little pale. Not a good color for me…), but I was also picky about the type of rubber, thinness—0.0015mm, if you must know—and the sensitivity level.

“Morning, you,” one of the girls croaked, rising from her sleep. She pressed a fluttery kiss to the back of my neck. It always took me a few seconds to remember whom I spent the night with, but this morning was even worse, because I’d spent yesterday drinking like my mission was to liquefy my liver into rum.

“Did you sleep well?” the second chick droned.

My body was tilted to the side, toward the nightstand, as I scrolled down a long-ass text message written by my friend and business partner, Vicious. Most people wrote curt text messages to get their point across. This intense bastard made Siri his bitch and sent me the whole fucking Bible. Waking up to a message from him was the equivalent of waking up to a blowjob from a shark. And this was what he wrote:



Dear Dickbag,



My fiancée brought it to my attention that her headache of a sister might be late to the rehearsal dinner next Saturday because she’s trying to save a few bucks taking two connecting flights to make it to Todos Santos.

She is Em’s maid of honor, hence her attendance is not fucking optional. It is mandatory, and if I have to drag her by the hair, I will, but I’d rather not. You know how I feel about this place. New York is hard on the body. Los Angeles is hard on the soul.

I have no soul.

I’m asking you as a friend to knock on Rosie’s door and shove a new ticket into her hand. Have Sue book her a first-class ticket next to you and make sure she gets on that plane with you on Friday. Chain her to the goddamn seat if you must.

This is the part where you’re probably asking yourself why the fuck would you do me any favors. Consider this a favor to Millie, not me.

She’s stressed.

She’s worried.

And she doesn’t deserve this type of shit.

If Em’s baby sister thinks she can do whatever the fuck she wants, she’s wrong.

Make her realize how wrong she is, because every day she plays the dutiful, frugal saint, my future wife is getting hurt.

And we all know how I react when something of mine is being damaged.

Peace, motherfucker.

-V.



Not exactly purple prose, but that was Baron Spencer for you.

I stretched, feeling a hot body climbing on top of me, fighting the lake of navy blue, seamless, silk sheets between us. There were heaps of rich fabric, hot flesh, and soft curves all around me. The sun poured in from my floor-to-ceiling window, shining over my one-thousand-square-foot balcony, a sea of freshly cut grass bleeding into the Manhattan skyline. Rays of warmth licked at my skin. A wet bar called for me to fix myself a Bloody Mary. And plush, gray and navy loveseats begged me to take the girls on a ride against them for all of New fucking York to see and hear.

In short: this morning was awesome.

Vicious, however, was not awesome.

Therefore, I allowed myself to bathe in the comfort of these women—Natasha and Kennedy—and do what God, or nature, or both, wanted me to do—fuck them hard. Because civilization and seed spreading and shit.

As Kennedy—the lovely redhead, my memory reminded me—peppered kisses down my neck, making her way to my morning wood, and Natasha—the racy, fun-sized yoga instructor—kissed my mouth ravenously, I processed the new information through the pounding hammers of a well-deserved hangover.

So, Millie LeBlanc was stressed about her dinner rehearsal. No surprises there. She was always this goody-two-shoes girl who wanted everything to be perfect and worked hard to make it that way. A stark contrast to the man she was marrying, who took it upon himself to tarnish as many lives as he could using his dry wit and appalling behavior.

She was the sweetest person I knew—not necessarily a good thing, by the way—and he was by far the nastiest.

I guess I was supposed to think about the ‘what if?’ because Millie used to be my girlfriend. Because the human brain is designed to fill in the gaps, and I was twenty-nine, and Millie was my only serious girlfriend, so people might assume it was some big, lost love.

The truth, as always, was both disappointing and unflattering.

Millie was never a big love. I liked her, but it wasn’t fierce or deprived or insane. I cared for her and wanted to protect her, but never in a way that drove me out of my fucking mind, like it did to Vicious.

The fact that I still liked her after she bailed out on me and fucked off leaving a half-assed breakup letter just goes to show we weren’t really meant to be. Because the truth was, I was enamored with Emilia LeBlanc…until I wasn’t.

Sometimes I think I just loved the idea of her, or never loved her at all. Either way, one thing couldn’t be disputed—when I was with her, I was good to her. Loyal. Respectful. She, in return, fucked me over.

To this day, I don’t feel like I truly knew my only ex-girlfriend. I knew her traits, sure. The crap that would make it onto your dating website profile. Dry facts. She was artistic, shy, and well-mannered. But I had no idea what her fears and secrets were. What kept her up at night, what made her blood simmer and her body sizzle.

The other part of my ugly truth was I never felt like I wanted to know these things about anyone other than Rosie LeBlanc. But Rosie fucking hated me. So, I stayed single. She was going to change her mind. She had to.

Speaking of Rosie, she didn’t take money from Vicious and Millie unless it was out of necessity. That was common knowledge, and she made that point a year ago by furnishing my two-point-three-million-dollar New York condo she had been living in with Craigslist discards that cost less than two hundred bucks in total. I doubted I could change her mind, but when it came to her, I was always up for trying to.

So, anyway. Back to the important stuff—fucking.

It was when Kennedy took me in her mouth, exhibiting some serious deep-throat talent, that I heard a knock on my door. No one was allowed into the building without a code, and no one had asked me for one recently, which brought me to the simple conclusion it must be Miss LeBlanc herself.

“Dean!” Her raspy voice crawled from the outside hall into every tissue in my body and I immediately grew harder. Kennedy noticed, I’m sure, because her grasp on my dick loosened, then I felt her breathing hard against my thigh. Natasha stopped the tongue-action. They both froze. Three more knocks. “Open up.”

“Is that the weird girl again?” the latter inquired with a hybrid of a scowl and a pout.

“Sure fucking is.”

“She’s freaking me out.”

“Such a weirdo,” Natasha agreed. Like their opinion mattered. To me. To Rosie.

I rose to a sitting position and tucked myself into my black sweatpants. I didn’t mourn the unfulfilled fuck. I was more eager to catch a glimpse of that tiny thing, wondering what she came here for. I got up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, my hands sliding up to purposely mess my hair. “This was fun.” I kissed both the backs of their hands before I started stalking to the entrance door with purpose. “We should do it again sometime.”

We weren’t going to do it sometime. Or anytime. This was goodbye, and they both knew it. I was clear when I picked them up the night before at some Manhattan bar I went to. They were inhaling cocaine like it was powdered sugar, maybe a grand’s worth of it, on a table in a glitzy place I went to whenever I needed to make use of those custom-made condoms. I sat at the bar, exchanged some flirty looks with them, then signaled the bartender to send the girls some drinks. They invited me to come over and do some shots with them. I invited them to sit on my face. One drink turned into seven. This script was getting old.

“Whoa, you’re such a piece-of-work.” Kennedy was the first to get up from the bed. I twisted my head to watch her collect her dress from the floor, yanking it up like it wronged her somehow.

Really? I thought. Before I hailed a taxi to take us to my place, I laid it out for them, clear as the fucking August sky: this was a random hookup. Christ, what part of picking them up from a bar and using Two Girls, One Cup as a small-talk topic made them think there would be more?

I offered the girls a consolation wink before swaggering my way into the vast, champagne-lit hallway, cream marble flooring, and black and white family portraits glaring at me from every corner with huge, white-toothed smiles.

“Uh, excuse me, Mr. Asshole? We were kind of in the middle of something!” Natasha added in a high-pitched voice. I was already in the foyer, swinging the door open, drawn like a magnet to the source of my entire fucking libido. Baby LeBlanc. That little, beautiful, crazy, pixie.

Rosie wore a pair of untorn jeans and a basic white button-down shirt, her version of a tailored suit. A high, messy bun sat on top of her head, and her huge eyes told me she was not impressed. I leaned my shoulder against the door, grinning.

“Changed your mind about brunch?”

“Well, you blackmailed me into it with your reevaluation threat.” Her eyes strayed from my face to my abs for a second before lifting back up to narrow at me.

Shit, I did. My memory of last night was fogged by alcohol, weed, and pussy.

“Come in.” I stepped sideways. She turned her head in my direction as she stepped in.

“Thought you’d at least make some coffee before you tear me another asshole with the rent. So much for being neighborly,” she muttered, drinking in my apartment through wide eyes.

I folded my arms over my chest, aware of my cut figure, and swiped my tongue over my bottom lip.

“You want neighborly? I can buy you breakfast at the bakery downstairs and give you a few orgasms for dessert,” I said, adding, “And I can tear you another asshole in bed if you prefer.”

“You need to stop hitting on me.” Her voice was painfully flat as she walked past the massive white and gray island in the middle of my kitchen, stainless steel winking at us with a sparkle from every corner of the room. She plopped onto a stool and glared at my empty coffeepot by the sink as if it committed a hate crime.

“Why?” I taunted, turning the coffee machine on. Why did I have to stop hitting on Rosie LeBlanc? She was single now, after she dumped her boring, doctor boyfriend. She was fair game, and I was going to try to play with her until she had third-degree carpet burns all over her back.

In fact, that was the first thing I thought about when I saw the sorry-ass motherfucker moving his shit from her apartment. From my apartment.

I’m going to fuck your ex-girlfriend before the tears on her pillow dry, I thought. And she is going to love it so much she’ll be crawling back for more.

Meanwhile, in real life, Rosie greedily accepted the mug of steamy coffee I silently offered her, taking a sip. She closed her eyes and moaned. Yes, moaned. Fuck, I wanted this sound to be my new ringtone. Then she opened her eyes and poured ice-cold water all over my fantasy.

“Because you’ve already dipped your sausage in my family gravy, and even though I know it’s a secret recipe everyone wants more of, I’m afraid you’re all out of luck.”

“I love it when you talk culinary sex with me.” I took a step toward the island, placing my forearms on it with a heated gaze.

“Maybe it’s because we’re Coca-Cola, and you always settle for Shasta.” Her eyes wandered to the direction of my bedroom.

Every muscle in my torso tightened as I let out a genuine laugh. My noticeable V-taper, veiny arms, tight abs, and prominent pecs didn’t escape her, and her newly peach-colored cheeks admitted that, even if she never would.

“I want you,” I said simply, unapologetically—vulnerably, even—because I did.

“As you did my sister.” Baby LeBlanc gave a curt nod. “Are you planning on screwing your way through our family tree? Should I print out a copy of our ancestry.com profile?”

“Please, when you get the chance.” I served her some sass back. “Though I have a feeling you can keep me busy just fine.”

“You’re too stubborn,” she coughed, as she did every other minute, taking another long sip of her cup of Joe.

“Yeah. Not lacking in that department. Or any department, for that matter.” My smirk widened as my eyes slid down to my groin. We were engaging in a battle of will. That was fine. I was bound to win. I always got what I wanted. And what I wanted was sitting in front of me, waiting for my verdict about her rent.

Kennedy and Natasha appeared from the hallway. They were roommates, so I wasn’t surprised when the latter told her friend the Uber they called would be downstairs in three minutes. Sharing a cab was smart economy. They needed to watch their spending after snorting their rent’s worth in coke. Good for them.

“Bye, girls.” I waved.

“Bye, asshole.” Kennedy hurled her heeled shoe at me with an arm swing that made the quarterback in me want to whistle in admiration. I dodged it, ducking my head down fast. The red heel flew across the kitchen, passing next to Rosie’s shoulder and crashing against the fridge.

It made a dent. At least she had that going for her. No woman had managed to do that before.

Rosie took a tentative sip of her coffee, reeking of indifference. “Hmm,” she said. “This tastes good.”

She didn’t mean the coffee. She meant watching the side effects of me being a manslut. But she did that little moan thing. Again.

This is so on, Rosie LeBlanc, I thought. I’m going to drag you by the hair to the dark side, and you have no fucking clue.

“Let’s cut to the chase, sweetheart. You’re flying with me to Todos Santos on Friday.” I fished the scoop of the whey protein from its container, mixing up the powder with fat-free milk. You don’t get to look like me from scarfing junk food all day. I made things happen. No matter the price. At the gym, at work, at being a sweet, perfect son. Everything was calculated and earned the hard way. No shortcuts for me. It’s been like this from a young age, but I didn’t know anything different. To them—to Rosie, her sister, my friends—I was this lucky asshole who was born with a silver spoon shoved so fucking deep in his mouth, he never had to lift a finger and work. I let them think that. No harm in being underestimated.

I heard Rosie shuffling on the high stool by the island and knew she wasn’t going to go down without a fight. For a sick girl, she was feisty as fuck.

“Millie has already asked me. The price difference is two hundred bucks for a ticket. It’s just the rehearsal, dude. It’s not like I’ll miss the actual wedding.”

The actual wedding was on Sunday, but most attendees—Jaime, Trent, and me included—were flying into Todos Santos on Friday, staying a full week and a half and cramming a rehearsal dinner, a bachelor/bachelorette party, and the wedding into one, out-of-control escapade. We were a tight-knit group. Abnormally so. Whenever we could spend a good chunk of time together, we jumped on the opportunity. Rosie was strapped for cash by choice. Her sister was marrying one of the richest men in America. I appreciated how Baby LeBlanc wasn’t the type of girl to leech on someone else’s purse—she did get the nearly free apartment and amenities, and also got her meds paid for—but she worked hard for everything else. And made the time to change dirty diapers and greet guests at a children’s hospital a few times a week. She was a keeper, but I didn’t need a reminder of that.

“You’re the maid of honor.” I turned to face her, leaning a hip against the counter. Her eyes were fixed on my bulging bicep as I shook my drink. It moved back and forth like a tennis ball. She licked her lips, shaking her head, probably to get rid of the mental image of me slapping her ass with the same muscular arm.

“I understand the gravity of the role, and I’m perfectly capable of walking in a straight line in uncomfortable shoes for two minutes while holding her dress. You do realize that’s the only thing my part entails, right?”

“What about a bachelorette party?” I rubbed my naked abs to try to make her moan or lick her lips again, tossing back my head and taking a gulp of the cookie and caramel drink that tasted nothing like cookies or caramel and everything like rotten ass.

“What about it?” She challenged, her gaze hard on my face.

“Who is planning Millie’s? Shouldn’t that be the maid of honor’s role, too?”

“It’s under control, and it’s going to be epic. Why? Are you planning Vicious’s party?” she asked, surprised. She angled her body forward, her small, perky tits squeezing together inside her bra. I grunted, feeling my cock swelling inside my low-riding sweatpants.

From the outside, it looked like Vicious and I had a shit-ton of issues. Truth was, our friendship was strong. It was different from the normal brotherhood the rest of the guys had, but it was solid.

“I am. Jaime is helping, too. We’re doing a weekend in Vegas.”

“Classy.” Her smile was condescending.

“Well, we considered not giving a fuck and bailing on our friend’s rehearsal dinner, but then you came and stole our idea. What crawled up your little perky ass, anyway? Are you jelly your older sister’s getting hitched?”

She spun in her seat, and when I saw her face, something tightened in my chest. Great going, jackass. Whatever I said affected her enough to drain the blood from her face.

“Shut up, Ruckus. I’m just wondering if what I have planned is fancy enough. I was going for a slumber party of some sort. With a special playlist and all.” Unsure flaky eyes asked for my opinion. It was unlike her. Rosie was usually burning with self-confidence, and it felt like shit to be the one who put her flame out.

“Slumber party, ah?” I walked past her just so I could brush my fingers against her waist. By accident, of course. “Millie is a low-key chick. Can’t see a reason why she wouldn’t dig it.”

“I’ll tell you why, because you’re doing Vegas. Now I need to up my game,” she complained, helping herself to a second cup of coffee without asking.

“You want to be a good sister? You can start by accepting the goddamn ticket I’m going to buy you.”

“The answer is no,” she drawled, sighing big. “Is English not your native tongue? Should I say no in another language? I don’t speak Asshole fluently, but I can try,” she grunted.

“Vicious is dead serious about this. He is going to come here and drag you himself. I’m the lesser of two evils, Baby LeBlanc. You’re coming with me,” I repeated. Not that any of them deserved any favors from me, but I was happy for Vicious and Millie. Even happier to spend a week with Baby LeBlanc. I’d been crushing hard on her creamy, round ass for years now. It was time for me to claim it.

Rosie looked away, folding her arms like a stubborn kid. “Nope.”

“Yup,” I said in the exact same tone. “And you better pack a fucking bag, because the flight leaves Friday morning, and we both have a busy week ahead of us.”

She blinked, not answering.

“Let’s cut a nice deal, shall we?” I got in her face, my elbows on the island. Her body followed suit, gravitating toward me. We were aligned, and she didn’t know it, but we looked like two, sculptured bodies. Made for each other. What she also didn’t know was that we were going to test my theory and see if we were going to match. Soon. Real fucking soon. “I’ll take you to the devil’s den, because you have to come.” I knew how impossible Vicious could be. “But I’m on call if you need anything. Think about it. It’s a good way to get to know each other.” I offered her a dimpled smile.

“I don’t want to get to know you. Everything I know about you, which is quite a bit, I don’t like,” Rosie said. “If we’re not going to talk about my rent, let me know, and I’ll leave.”

“Come to Todos Santos with me.” I ignored her last statement.

Fuck, she was so persistent. Why did that turn me on? Maybe because most women had the tendency to act different in front of me. They were agreeable, extra nice, and flirty. Three things you couldn’t blame Baby LeBlanc for being.

“Forget it,” she muttered, hopping down from the stool.

“Rosie,” I warned.

“Dean.” It was her turn to mimic me. She rolled her eyes. “Let me know what my new rent is before the end of the month, please. I need to make the necessary arrangements if I can’t keep the apartment.”

She walked to the door and slammed it in my face before I had the chance to tell her that her rent would stay the same if she came along.

That was fine, I had patience, as long as things went my way.

Baby LeBlanc was going to bow down to me eventually.

Her clock was ticking faster, and I was done letting her waste our time.





What makes you feel alive?

Taking a bus with a route I don’t know. Walking the long way home. Feeling my senses heighten as my body becomes more alert to the unfamiliar scenery around me.



“SICK PLAYLIST, CHICA,” MY BEST friend remarked the following Wednesday, as I plugged my USB into The Black Hole’s laptop. I made an eight-hour playlist of the best of the best, just like I had done on every other shift I had. People came in from all over New York to hear my playlists. Customers said I gave them Williamsburg from the comfort of their Manhattan residency. From French electric pop, anarchist punk to old British rock—my music was like a milkshake. It brought all the boys to the yard and made them pay five bucks for a small latte. So. Much. Win.

“Thanks, boo.” I winked, moving away from the laptop and wiping the counter in front of me for the hundredth time that morning. Even though I had one hundred percent disability because of my illness, I chose to work. Productivity spun my straw into gold. Working was my saving grace, because when you’re my kind of sick, your whole adulthood is on probation.

“How is your hot neighbor doing?” Elle asked, her elbows pressed against the counter, her legs tapping to the tune of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys that played in the background. “Still mega-rich?”

“Oh, yeah. Also, still a mega-douche.” I coughed out my answer. I wish my blonde, curvy, gorgeous friend, Elle, hadn’t met Dean last month for two seconds. I didn’t think he noticed her existence as he met us in the elevator and asked if I wanted to come, and when I asked where, he said on his tongue, but she noticed him, all right. And when she found out he was one of the CEOs to the monstrous investment firm Fiscal Heights Holdings on top of being good-looking, all bets were off. She’d pretty much been bugging me about him ever since.

“We don’t care about that.” She waved her hand around, ignoring a table of desperate customers on the far end of the shop who signaled for her to hand them the check a century ago. They could dance the “Copacabana” and she still wouldn’t notice. Elle was an amazing woman as much as she was a terrible waitress. I rang their order up and printed out their check, walking over to the table and offering them complimentary lemon cakes before returning to a still-oblivious Elle. Even though I was the barista and it technically wasn’t a part of my job, I still covered for Elle all the time.

“You don’t, but I do. Anyway, he is trying to get me to go with him to Todos Santos on Friday instead of a Saturday. I don’t want to.” I munched on my lower lip, thinking about Mama and Daddy. I haven’t told Elle about my conversation with Dean. She was away all week, visiting her parents in Nebraska. The last thing I wanted was to dump my personal crap on her and ruin her vacation.

“Screw that, hell no.” Elle waved her forefinger around, her hazel eyes skimming over two young, male customers who walked into the café, foolishly expecting her attention. “Your parents are a drag, and your mom is always on your case. Also, they still don’t know you’ve broken up with Darren, right?”

Right.

On top of my parents, I would have to hang out with Vicious and Dean, two of my least-favorite people. The week was definitely going to be challenging. I changed the subject, bypassing the self-pity fest I was tempted to throw for myself.

“By the way, I need to change my plan for my sister’s bachelorette party. My new one needs to be crazy with a touch of glitter.” I unscrewed one of the jars of chocolate chip cookies that lined the counter behind us, taking two and shoving them into my mouth. “Any suggestions?”

Don’t say Vegas, don’t say Vegas, don’t say Vegas, I inwardly prayed.

“Two words: Las Vegas.” She drew an imaginary flashing sign in the air. “Do the Sin City Tour-de-Trash. Male strippers. Booze. A Britney Spears gig. All the guilty pleasures you can pack in, basically.”

I groaned, throwing my head to the counter with a thud.

Money wasn’t an issue. If I told Vicious, he would shell out whatever sum I needed to make it happen. Even though time in Vegas meant less time with Mama and more time with Millie, it was still not my thing.

“Any other ideas?” I quirked an eyebrow. Elle had a better chance luring me into a cave full of starving vampires than getting me to consciously spend time in the same Vegas strip with The HotHoles of Todos Santos, AKA the groom’s best friends. Especially Dean Cole. His constant advances and sexual innuendos grated on my nerves.

“Honestly, Vegas is your best shot, chica. Otherwise, you can go the usual route. Do a dildo-themed party—which you don’t want to do anymore because it’s lame—or a weekend in Cabo. Now, now, no more carbs for the bridesmaid.” She placed a hand over the jar lid when I went for another cookie, shaking her head. “And remember—you can’t be an Annie.”

“An Annie?” I frowned.

“Yeah. You know, from Bridesmaids. Don’t let any of Millie’s other bridesmaids outshine you. That shit’ll haunt you for life.”

Somehow, I doubted that. Millie didn’t have many friends. I was her only bridesmaid. Her expectations were terribly low to begin with, thank God.

“I appreciate the tip,” I snorted.

“Don’t mention it.” She wiggled her bony shoulders. “Seriously, don’t. To anyone. I swore off rom-coms when I was sixteen as a part of a bet. I think it’s still going. But I broke it like once or a thousand times.”

I laughed, because with Elle, you couldn’t not laugh.

“Seriously, though, Rosie. Vegas would be perfect. Don’t think about what you want—think about Millie. It’s her week. And that’s true about your hot neighbor’s invitation to arrive earlier in Todos Santos, too.”

I hated it when Elle was right.

Glancing at the time on my cell phone, I had to walk my neighbor’s dog in half an hour, and the subway was always packed that time of the year with enough tourists to populate a medium-sized country. I tipped my chin down. “Wine and sushi tonight?”

“Sashimi for me. I’m skinny-bitching this summer.” She ran her hands down her body, tracing non-existent curves before giving me the thumbs-up. Then she paused, frowning. “Hey, who are you going to invite to this bachelorette party, anyway? Your sister is not exactly a social butterfly.”

That was an understatement if I ever heard one. Other than her high school friend, Sydney, who stayed in Todos Santos, and a random older chick she met in L.A. called Gladys, who helped her set up her gallery, she didn’t really hang out with anyone. I shook my head, busying myself by rearranging coffee mugs on the counter.

“Shamelessly milking an invitation. What has the world come to?”

“Hey, lady, if you don’t care for our world, you’re welcome to move to another planet. And on that note,” Elle fist-pumped the air once, “we’re going to Vegas! High-five?”

“High-five and a thumbs-up? No, thanks, I think I’ve had a healthy dose of lame today,” I teased.

“Is your sexy neighbor going to be there, too? Vegas, I mean. He seems like the type to throw a crazy-ass party.”

“Yes,” I groaned, and as I said that, I realized that I wasn’t just annoyed with the prospect of having Dean around.

I was also excited.

Just a tad, but enough to make my stomach do that flip.

That should have tipped me off. Been the first alarm bell. Because everyone knew one thing—after the flip, comes the boom.





“Fuck if I care, Colton. We’re dropping that lawsuit on his ass faster than a load of shit after a visit to that all-you-can-eat restaurant on Broadway just to make sure he can’t buy any more stocks until further investigation. Am I clear? Colton? Colton! Goddammit.”

Oh, crap.

His voice rushed into my ears a second too late. I didn’t have the time to jump out of the elevator before he sent his arm across the barrier—the one clutching his cell phone—to make the door slide back open.

Dean walked past the elevator’s threshold wearing his navy blue, three-piece suit and cocky smile, pressing his phone to his ear as he loosened his silk maroon tie.

“LeBlanc,” he hissed seductively, ending the call. I ignored him, staring at the numbers above my head.

His body pressed against mine from behind and his lips found my ear. “Do your nipples always pucker when someone enters the elevator with you, or do you save this reaction only for me?”

Double crap.

My eyes dropped down to my black top. Horrified, I remembered I wore a thin, barely-supportive bra under my Misfits shirt that morning.

“Just kidding, but good to know you have a reason to be worried.” Dean let out a mocking snicker. Asshole.

“What do you want?” I groaned.

“You, in my bed, playing with my balls as I suck your tits until they bleed. Maybe jerk me off. Just as an appetizer, obviously. The main course will be better, but you’ll have to see for yourself.”

Triple crap. Now I was wet.

The elevator pinged. I darted out, jerked my door open, throwing the keys into a handmade bowl Mama made in pottery class that was supposed to be an Egyptian figure but looked more like a crying monkey, kicking my flip-flops against the wall with a thud. Padding barefoot to the kitchen, I opened my fridge and grabbed the orange juice, taking two big gulps straight from the carton. It wasn’t until I wiped my mouth with my forearm that I realized Dean was in the kitchen with me, pinning me down with the most vivid green eyes I’d seen in my life.

“Rent reevaluation.” He smacked his lips together. “Before you throw another hissy fit, hear me out. There’s a good offer on the table.”

“Just tell me the price. Your offers are sexual harassment suits waiting to happen.”

Dean smirked when his phone buzzed again. Then he looked down and frowned, his nostrils flaring. Ignoring the buzz, he met my eyes again.

“It’s not harassment when you’re obviously game.”

I walked to the sink, washing my hands to buy time, abstaining from answering him.

“It’s time to pack a bag to Todos Santos, Rosie-bug.”

Just hearing the name my daddy nicknamed me on his tongue made me shudder.

“Is it? I’m boarding a plane Saturday evening. That’s what my plane ticket says.”

“Not the one you’re going to use.” He leaned his waist against my sink, his eyes undressing me item by item. The call on his phone died, but another one started, making the screen flash. He ignored it, too. “Make that very early Friday morning, meaning tomorrow.”

“I’m not coming with you.”

He chuckled, shaking his head like I was an adorable, silly puppy. “Wanna bet?”

“Sure.” I shrugged. “Why not? Preferably for money. You’re not short in that department.”

“Or any other, as we’ve already established.” He pushed off the sink, stopping where I could smell but not touch him. Not too close, but close enough for that shiver to roll down my spine.

And it was true that even after all these years, he still had this effect on me. The unsolicited feeling that I wasn’t entirely responsible or in control of what I might say to him. Or do with him. He stood behind me and brushed a lock of hair away from the back of my neck, making my flesh warm and prickly.

He then leaned down and murmured into my ear, “This kind of apartment goes at eight thousand dollars a month on the market. You’re paying me a hundred bucks a month. Do I need to make you fall in line with the rest of New York, Miss LeBlanc?”

There was zero menace in his tone. Dean ‘Ruckus’ Cole was a different kind of asshole to Baron ‘Vicious’ Spencer. He fucked you over with a polite smile on his face. In that sense, he was the Joker. In his mix of confidence, cockiness, good looks, and money, there was a dash of insanity thrown in. Enough to let you know that he meant every word he said.

Living on the edge, so fully, so recklessly, willing to take the fall.

I swallowed, my heart beating so fast I thought it was going to spill all over the floor. Excitement filled my chest, nauseating and addicting. I’d always stayed away from the Dean Coles of the world. I was the Red Riding Hood who took one look at the wolf, said ‘screw it, it’s not worth the pain’, turned around and ran for her life.

Come to think about it, Dean was the very guy who taught me that lesson.

Darren was more my type. Handsome in a shy, reserved way. A med student I’d met when he ordered herbal tea at The Black Hole. Now, I didn’t know what to do with myself with Dean being so close. My hands felt like they’d been artificially glued to my body. Heavy and alien. I knew what would make the feeling stop. Touching him. But that wasn’t an option.

“Pack. A. Fucking. Bag.” His voice was hard, and if I’m not mistaken, it wasn’t the only thing that was hard about him. “If Vicious comes to New York to take you, he’ll give me shit. See, Baby LeBlanc, I like to keep my life simple. Trouble-free.” He twirled another piece of my hair around his finger, glints of lust flashing through his pupils. The light touch sent frissons all the way to my skull and spine, spinning through the rest of my body like electric shock.

What the hell is happening, and why am I letting it happen?

“That means no girlfriends, no fishy business partners, and no un-neighborly neighbors,” he stressed. “You’re a complication right now, and I hate to do this, but if it’s between pissing you off and pissing that motherfucker off, you know my pick.”

“I hate you so much,” I exhaled, and my lungs wheezed, reminding me that my heart needed to slow down. Being so close to Dean felt like that tumble you get in your stomach when you’re on a rollercoaster. He pressed his body to mine, and I sensed his smile on my skin, just below my ear. In that sensual place between your libido and your soul.

“Vicious claims hate-fucks are the best. Care to test his theory?”

Taking a side step and breaking the physical contact, I retorted, “Care to drop dead?”

There was no point in resisting him, though. He was going to follow through on his threat, and the worst part was, I couldn’t stop him. I knew I was in the wrong. Knew I should just accept the goddamn ticket. Something dark flashed across his face. Something that was always there, but only I seemed to notice.

“Pin this conversation.” He pointed at me with the hand that held his phone and swiped the screen. Finally. It was the third time that person called. “Be back in a sec.”

Dean disappeared into my hallway. I stood there, not sure what to do.

“Hello, Miss Golddigger, how may I be of help? Last time I checked, I told you not to fucking call me. Has that changed somehow?” He paused for just a moment before continuing. “But that’s the thing, Nina, my dear. You don’t get to snap your fingers and have me crawling back to save you. You made your fucking bed. Now lie in it. Not my war. Not my battle. None. Of. My. Fucking. Business.” His voice was exceptionally bitter.

In fact, he sounded so pissed, so angry, so not himself, that I visibly winced when I heard him. It ignited a foreign emotion in me I’d never associated with Ruckus before. Fear. Dean never got angry or flustered. He was the least hotheaded out of the four HotHoles. Rare were the times his feathers were ruffled—that he was truly upset—and I don’t think I’d ever heard him raise his voice outside the football field. Even earlier, when he yelled at Colton, he was scornful of the whole situation. Amused.

I pressed my ear to the wall, blatantly eavesdropping.

“I’m not coming to Birmingham.” Birmingham? As in Birmingham, Alabama? I always thought I knew Dean’s life pretty well. Clearly, he had more skeletons in his closet than Jeffrey Dahmer.

“There is something seriously fucked-up about the fact that I’m even listening to you right now. Your proposal is offensive at best and downright fucking insane at worst. You’ve had years to make this right. Years to let me see him. It’s too late now. I’m not interested. Seriously, Nina, erase my number from your contact list. Save us both time and money.”

Inhaling like his lungs were bottomless, he finished the call. A sudden punch straight to the wall dividing us awarded me with a white noise that rang in my ear. No doubt deserving that, it was my cue and I turned around, launching to the opposite side of the island.

Busying myself in the kitchen was hard, especially when I could still feel his anger floating from the other room. I opened the fridge and took out some vegetables, then a knife. Out of breath, I pretended to make myself a salad. I saw Dean’s tall figure emerging from my periphery, his phone grasped in a death grip between his fingers. He looked a little startled to see me, like he forgot I was there, but then relaxed and fixed his cocky smile back on his face, like he was rearranging a wonky picture on a wall. Loosening his tie even more, he made his way to me.

“One-night stand gone wrong?” I asked, slicing a cucumber into wafer-thin pieces.

“You can say that again,” he muttered, tousling unruly chunks of his delicious hair. “Where were we?”

“I believe you were blackmailing me.”

“That’s right. I was. Friday morning. Suitcase. Clothes. Attitude. On second thought, keep that attitude. I like all that excess energy. You just need a good place to allocate it. I have the perfect place for you.” He winked, and as if I needed confirmation, added, “My fucking bed.”





WHAT IS TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS?

Is it a lot of money? A reasonable amount of money? So little, it’s like no money at all? That depends on who you’re asking. To me, twenty thousand dollars was merely pocket change. It had zero effect on my life. Contrary to general belief, it wasn’t because my parents padded my bank account. People thought I’m a trust fund baby, and I let them, because frankly, who the fuck cares?

The reality of things was that my parents put me through Harvard University, fronted the money for my initial investment in Fiscal Heights Holdings, the company I have incorporated with three of my best friends, Trent, Jaime, and Vicious, and assisted me mentally and spiritually. A-fucking-lot. But the fact that I was swimming in more money than I could ever spend at the tender age of twenty-nine? That was all me, baby.

Me, and my savvy ways.

Me, and my persuasive nature.

Me, and my talent with numbers.

So, lack of funding certainly wasn’t the reason why I found it so goddamn hard to click the Approve Transaction button and wire her twenty thousand bucks.

I didn’t want Nina to have it. I didn’t want her to be happy. Did I want her to fail? Did I want her to stay poor, lost, and somber? Did I want to get back at her for being such a vile bitch to me?

And if so, did that make me a bad person? I didn’t think I was. Screwed up, sure. Would I ever want my future daughter to date someone like me? Hell no. I could smell my kind for miles. But then I couldn’t fully commit to the word evil, either. I’d seen evil. Grew up with Vicious—now that’s an evil man. I wasn’t cut from the same cloth. I helped the elderly cross the road, carried their grocery bags all the way to their Buick Lucernes, even if it meant that I ran late to important meetings. I never misled any of my one-night stands. I was polite—and not only by obligation, but by nature—I voted, always used my blinkers, never, ever offended people on purpose and had been sponsoring an African kid for five years now. We even exchanged letters from time to time. (Kanembiri and I both agreed that Scarlett Johansson was fuck hot and Manchester United FC sucked hairy balls. Because some things were simply an international consensus.)

So, can I wholeheartedly say that I was a bad person? No. I wasn’t.

I fucking loved people. And I loved fucking people even more. The most outgoing and social out of each of my friends. Which was why the situation didn’t sit right with me.

Me. Staring at my MacBook screen for twenty minutes. My index finger hovering over the pad. Just fucking do it, I pleaded with my inner asshole. What the fuck do you care? You’re still rich. She is still poor. She will always be miserable, no matter where she goes.

A soft thump on the door threw me out of my musings. Sue walked in without permission. Technically, she knocked, but that was just cheap semantics on her part. My PA was rude, vindictive, and downright nasty when the opportunity presented itself ever since she caught me fucking another chick against an office desk at the Fiscal Heights Holdings Los Angeles branch. Never mind the fact Sue and I only shared a brief, casual fling. Was it wrong of me to fuck my personal assistant? Probably. Did I tell her, right from the start, that she had better chances converting me to Scientology than getting me to commit to a relationship? Yes, I did, multiple times, before I even slipped the tip in. Did she say she ‘totally gets it, and, that she’s like, totally in the same place in life’? You bet your ass she did. But none of that mattered when push came to thrust, then a moan, then a wannabe actress from Los Feliz screaming my name so loud, security almost barged into the office to check if she was okay.

It’d been almost a year since Sue “caught” me not-cheating on her, and things had gotten progressively worse with every passing month of my non-existent infidelity. Any other chick would be long gone from my glitzy Manhattan office, but Sue had a special contract I had written myself (no legal background, thanks for asking), in a very particular situation where she deep-throated my cock, so I couldn’t fire her. She wouldn’t quit either, and I could see why.

I paid her well, and the hours were relatively sane for a financial company in downtown Manhattan—but she wouldn’t give me a break either. Like now, she breezed into my office with her pencil skirt and high heels and impeccable bleached-out, side-bangs and sour face. I was lucky my office was made solely of glass windows (other than the black wood door). There was always the possibility she’d try to cut my balls off and shove them down my throat.

“Morning, Mr. Cole.” Her crimson lips barely moved as she swiped a finger over her iPad, staring at it intently. I closed the website window to my bank account, holding the thought of wiring money to my archenemy. She could wait. She sure makes me wait. For years and years.

“Sue,” I said, leaning back and lacing my fingers together. I refused to play the bullshit game where I called her by her last name—Miss Pearson—because I was approachable and casual with my staff. Also, it was a little too porno-ish, even for my taste, to refer to someone as “Miss Last Name” curtly when I had been knuckles deep inside of her at some point in my life. “How are you today?” I asked.

“Fine. Yourself?”

“If I were any better, I’d be worried I might explode from happiness.” My smile was intact, but my voice paper-dry. Was I happy? Was I sad? Was I just too fucking high to distinguish the two feelings? Who the fuck knew? What I did know was that I needed a drink or three, which was what I usually felt after speaking with Nina.

Sue stopped in the middle of the room, her body tilted toward my glass desk, my executive leather chair, and the floor-to-ceiling painting of an antique world map behind me.

Generic.

Expensive.

Rich.

Everything I sold the world about myself.

This office was a shell, just like my looks.

This office didn’t represent me. Just. Like. My. Looks.

“Okay…” she trailed off before huffing, moving her special fancy pen over her special fancy iPad. No common shit for this chick. “I have reservations for you at The Breakfast Club for noon with Cynthia Hollyfield. Don’t forget your Skype meeting with Mr. Rexroth, Mr. Spencer, and Mr. Followhill at two. Your dry cleaning should be picked up later on today and will be waiting at your place.” She was firing away all these things while I was flipping through the pages of a report for a client I was supposed to meet when her head snapped up.

“Then there’s your email about booking an extra ticket to Todos Santos for Rose LeBlanc? Can you confirm she’ll be flying first-class with you tomorrow morning?” Sue arched a plucked eyebrow. The real question, of course, was are you fucking her? and the honest answer to that question—which I replied to with two, slow blinks, was it’s none of your fucking business.

“Confirmed,” I said, staring at a paragraph of another merger deal in the works without really reading it.

The AC hummed between us. Forty-six floors down, a bunch of taxi drivers honked their horns. Polite keyboards purred from different cubicles on the floor. Her eyes were on mine, and it was a lost battle for our little Sue. She couldn’t read me in them. Only I knew their language. And I chose not to share me with the rest of the world.

“Right,” she shifted in place. Sue tucked her iPad under her armpit, turned around, and headed for the door. I watched her tiny ass moving to the rhythm of her pointy Louboutins, knowing it was not the end. Sue knew that Rosie was Emilia LeBlanc’s baby sister, but never had the pleasure of meeting my pixie-sized neighbor. However, Sue was privy to the fact that I wasn’t the type to babysit anyone’s sibling, unless there was something in it for me. And Miss LeBlanc was definitely capable of dragging her own ass to the airport, which left her with one, correct conclusion: I wanted into Rosie LeBlanc. In more ways than I’d ever wanted into Sue Pearson.

And it wouldn’t be the first time I crashed someone else’s special day for pussy, either.

I’d been known for taking my dates to inappropriate places. Sue knew that I dragged a one-night stand to the hospital when I went to Chicago to congratulate my best friend, Trent, when he welcomed his daughter, Luna. When Jaime Followhill—another good friend—married his wife and my ex-lit teacher, Melody Greene, I came to his wedding with two randoms I picked up on the way from a bar. My dad’s retirement party, before he un-retired himself and remarried his work? – showed up with one of his interns, no less. So it was really no surprise that I was traveling with a woman, but to Sue, it was a surprise because she knew I’d be there for more than a week. And spending nine days with the same woman? That was definitely a first.

She didn’t know Rosie and I weren’t going to stay under the same roof.

Didn’t know that Rosie hated my guts, and for a good reason. Every time Baby LeBlanc saw my face, she saw empty fun; a stoner who got to where he was because his daddy was a famous lawyer, and his last name was Cole, and the Coles donated enough money to Harvard to feed the better half of Africa, so my future was paved for me before I even knew how to spell the word entitled.

Sue didn’t know Rosie LeBlanc was the only woman in my life who wouldn’t give me the time of day, and she certainly didn’t know that ironically, Rosie LeBlanc was the only woman whose time I wanted.

And Sue didn’t need to know any of those things, because like every other part of my personal life, they were mine to keep.

Cue Sue turning around. Staring at me from under what I suspect were fake eyelashes. Sucking her cheeks in.

Then she did the unbelievable and inhaled without finishing the act with another one of her huffs.

“Mr. Cole, will you need anything else from me today? I’m not feeling very well.”

“That would be all,” I said. “Take the rest of the day off. Go rest. You deserve it.”

She nodded.

I nodded.

Yeah, I wasn’t a bad person, letting my PA ditch me so she could teach me some useless lesson.

I fired my MacBook right back up and finished my transaction, sending twenty thousand dollars to her.

It was supposed to make me feel better.

It didn’t.





The next morning was a rehash of the one I had when Baby LeBlanc came to my apartment dressed to impress (by her standards.) Meaning, I woke up next to a stranger, braved a hangover from hell, which I decided to tame by smoking a big, fat blunt on my terrace while sipping a Bloody Mary. Not the virgin kind. These days I never took a virgin anything. After all, the last one I had fucked me over, ran away, and was now marrying one of my best friends.

But I digress.

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea I had in mind to stop at a convenience store in the armpit of New York on my way to JFK at six a.m. and grab a bottle of who-the-fuck-knows-what and finish it before the poor taxi driver even dropped me off.

I knew it was a shitty move on my end, but couldn’t stop myself from smoking and drinking before I boarded the plane.

Fuck you, Nina, I muttered the entire drive to JFK, like it was some kind of bullshit yoga mantra. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.

Zigzagging my way to the terminal, I hoped to hell Baby LeBlanc was already inside the plane and made good use of the ticket and taxi I sent for her. The odds were in my favor. I threatened her, and she had no clue I couldn’t, in good conscience, raise her rent, even by a penny. I always had a soft spot for this girl, and it seemed like the more she hated me, the more I wanted to prove to her that it was always us. That if I believed in that bullshit of two people who were meant to be with each other—it was because we actually were.

I was late, and the flight was delayed as a result. Little Miss CrankyPants didn’t take any of my calls, and I felt an invisible rope tightening around my neck. I wanted to get to Todos Santos, dump Rosie at her sister’s, and collapse into my childhood bed. Somewhere in the back of my head, I wanted more out of life. To stop drinking and smoking like a fucking chimney. To let go of the bad shit that kept ricocheting into my life. To ask her on a date instead of asking her to reverse-cowgirl me, because all the sexual crap I was dishing at her was a defense mechanism in case she said no.

Because no one ever said no.

No one other than her, and if she was going to turn me down, might as well offer her my dick and not my heart.

My last recollection was of the flight attendant showing me the way and the soft thud of my head hitting the headrest, followed by a sharp pain that suggested my brain had just detonated. I winced, scrubbing my forehead before I heard her strained, out-of-breath voice. At first, I thought she was going to yell at me for being late, for delaying the flight, and for fucking breathing. So, it didn’t register when my half-dead mind actually decoded her words into their meaning.

“Here. Two Advils and water.” She dropped something in my palm. “I’ll ask the flight attendant for some milk after we take off. You pull this shit on our way back home, and I will make sure every woman you bring into the building knows your dick is more contaminated than the public restroom in the subway.”

I opened my eyes, turning my head on the cushioned seat to face her, my gaze gliding over her face.

“You seem to take a lot of interest in my dick, Baby LeBlanc. First, you wanted to pour wax on it; now, you want to cockblock it. Maybe you should meet him and see if you two could be friends. I think you will get along great.”

“No, thank you, I’d literally rather eat someone else’s puke.”

“Literally? Somehow I doubt it. Unless you have a very peculiar taste for puke.”

Rosie had always been a bitch to me. I didn’t blame her, but didn’t trust her either. But now, her face looked blank and genuine and, fine, fucking gorgeous. Her cheeks the color of ripe peaches, freckles decorating her little nose, and those huge bluest-blues staring back at me. Two hundred different shades of brown and blonde on her head, all courtesy of Mother Nature. She was the very definition of a nymph. Everything about her was so incredibly smooth and velvet, there was no way you could tell she was sick.

I groaned, tossing the Advil and bottle of water into my dry mouth. I wiped my lips as the plane started sliding forward, gaining speed.

“Do you need help?” she asked, her voice neutral. She meant the drinking. The pot. The general mess that was my life. I was a high-functioning, borderline alcoholic who smoked like being stoned was an Olympic sport. Nobody complained when I sealed those deals and wired that money and fucked like a champion.

“I do, actually. I need you to leave me be until we get to San Diego. Think you can do that?”

Fuck, you’re a dick.

The last thing I remembered before I blanked out was Rosie’s chest rising and falling irregularly to her ragged breaths.

“Whatever,” she whispered. “I’m letting you off easy, because I’ve a feeling you had a shitty week. But if you wanna talk about it, I’m here.”

I wanted to tell her everything.

I didn’t want her to know shit.

She confused me, and right now, she was the very complication I talked about when I told her I always opted for the easy route. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. And when darkness came, so did she.

Nina.





Eleven years ago



What makes you feel alive?

Watching my reflection in the cool, calm water of the pool. Blue-hued, unblinking. Diving into a quieter space without even dipping my toe in the water.



DANGEROUS CHEMISTRY.

That was our main problem.

And that was why I vowed to never be home when Dean came to visit my sister. It wasn’t a difficult task. Millie had always been a creature of habit. Her room was neat, her notebooks tidy with perfect handwriting, granting her straight A’s back to back. Much like everything else, she allotted a perfectly specific time frame in which she hung out with her perfectly polished boyfriend. Tuesdays and Thursdays after school—because Dean had football practice in the mornings on those days—and on the weekends, they made plans outside of the Spencer’s mansion, because Millie couldn’t stand Vicious and vice versa.

It wasn’t like I was lying in my bed, listening to Miranda Lambert man-hating songs, and crying my eyes out. I was the C-minus troublemaker who loved a good thrill. I entertained myself with friends and after-school activities. Got my navel and nose pierced downtown, applied for odd jobs, saved money for a new bike, and skinny-dipped in the ocean near a deserted beach with friends when the weather permitted, which was always, because…well, SoCal.

Indeed, I did a lot of things that fall. Dutifully, none of them were my sister’s hot-as-sin boyfriend.

I can tell you flat out, right here, that being under the same roof with them made me want to skulk deeper into my skin and disappear into myself, vanishing into nothing. They made noises. I hated those noises. They were the worst type of noises.

Heavy breathing, panting, giggling, and loud, messy kisses. The fact that I was able to hear them through the closed door to Millie’s room only made the searing hole in my chest grow wider. Despite my shortcomings, I’d always been a sensible chick. I didn’t need this kind of negativity in my life. So, it was really for the best that I was never there.

If I could pinpoint the moment that brought on that resolution—staying away from Dean Cole even when Millie was in the room with us—I would pick the pool incident.

It was a Thursday, and Millie was late. She had to stop at the gas station on her way home to fill some air in her bicycle tires. I was about to leave the servants’ house where we lived on the Spencer mansion’s lot. Everything about that encounter felt like it was ripped out of a movie scene. I opened the door just as Dean was about to knock on it. Our eyes locked and so did my jaw, because I was fighting a smile I was determined not to let loose, knowing it could very well rip my face in two.

Dean looked like temptation. And I don’t just mean the fact that he was stunning in his regal blue varsity jacket and panty-melting bad boy expression. The way he smelled, of faint laundry detergent and expensive sex, and his commanding height and build made me desperate. I swear, half the time he was around, my desperation for him hung in the air like stench.

“Hey.” My goddamn voice cracked.

“Right back at ya,” he replied. Our eyes were roaming again. Not good, but also not the first time it happened. It always made me feel guilty. If they were hands, his fingers would pull at my waist now, right after flipping my black Dead Kennedys hoodie down so he could see my face better; mine grabbing at his perfect, sun-kissed brown hair, and our bodies glued together like two pages in a brand new book.

“Millie’s not here yet, but you can come in.” I stepped sideways and pushed the door wider. “I’m just heading out. She should be back any minute.”

“Where you heading?” he asked, placing his arm on the doorframe and blocking my way out.

“I’m sorry.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I didn’t get the memo. Is it suddenly any of your business?”

“Maybe the memo got lost in the mail.” He took a step in, forcing me to take a step back, and Jesus, I couldn’t even look him in the eyes I was so flustered. Luckily, my head was level with his pecs. “Because you’re definitely my business, Baby LeBlanc.” My heart jumped to my throat, making it impossible to suck in a breath, before he added, “And I think we both know better than to pretend I don’t keep tabs on you.”

I pulled my hood all the way down to cover my burning face.

Normally, he was the poster child for cocky. The whole cliché of the rowdy badass the HotHoles were feeding All Saints High about themselves. Their subjects and minions ate that shit up and came back for seconds. Perhaps I was at fault for not caring for that type of thing, but I never got the power trip and ‘grownup’ vibe the HotHoles were sporting. Part of the reason I noticed Dean in the first place was because he didn’t take himself too seriously, and wasn’t as brooding and douchebaggy as the rest. Ever since he started to date Millie—which wasn’t that long ago—he always tried to catch a word with me. At first, he assured me that he wasn’t touching her. After I told him that he should touch her, he got really mad. Nowadays, he was going out with her and acting like it—kissing her, God, I heard them just the other day—even though his eyes were on me. Always on me.

“I, ah…” I zoned out, the rusty wheels in my brain reeling, searching for a potential lie. My alibi was sound. I did need to go someplace. But I didn’t share it with people, much less fellow students, and definitely not the dude I had a huge crush on. Dean wasn’t a guy to back down, though. I had to say something—anything—so I opted for the truth. “I have a doctor’s appointment.”

Chancing a look up, I saw recognition and calm washing over his face. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Something wrong?”

Yes. My whole life is wrong.

“No, it’s nothing like that.” I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear under the hoodie. “Sometimes I just need to…” shut the hell up, the voice told me. Feeling small and vulnerable wasn’t my jam.

“To…?” He dipped his chin down, egging me on. And it was a crying shame that chemistry was an unexplainable string that pulled and bound two people together. Because that was how I felt at that moment. Chained. The way he looked at me, like I was the center of the world, bothered me. Flattered me. Possessed me. God, I had to say something fast to make him shut up and leave me alone. No matter how embarrassing the truth may have been.

“To get a chest massage.” I had to get all the mucus out of my airways, but that wasn’t something I was eager to share with him. I quirked a brow and shoved my fists into my pockets. “You know, just keeping it sexy, and stuff.”

My eyes were securely covered by the hoodie, but it still wasn’t enough. Nothing was enough next to him. Even with three layers of clothes, I had always felt naked.

Chest massages were a weekly occurrence. Sometimes I had to go to the clinic. Sometimes a nur