~ GABE (BLUE COLLAR BILLIONAIRES #3) ~
I am a good guy.
I help little old ladies cross the street. I recycle. Anyone looking at me will see a solid, respectable, upstanding member of the community.
Which is exactly what I want them to see.
Gabe Marshall is tall, charming and a successful businessman. He’s also a skilled con artist. Now that he’s heir to the billionaire father he never knew, everyone gives him what he wants. Except Sasha Whitman.
After Sasha is humiliated on national television, she seeks solace in her plans to open a jazz lounge. But she’s not a businesswoman and no one has time to help her except the last man she would ever trust.
Before long, Gabe is matching wits with the one woman who can see through his game. And finding out that all the money in the world can’t protect you when the sins of the father pass to the son.
Two months earlier…
“Five minutes, Sasha.”
The words from the set director race through me, leaving a string of nerves that feel like live wires. I roll my head and turn back to the mirror, scrutinizing every aspect of my appearance. A costume would have felt over the top, so instead I chose to wear a black cocktail dress with a flirty hem and delicate cap sleeves. My makeup is minimal and I’ve pulled my ultra-curly black hair up into an elegant knot on the top of my head. My skin glows despite the harsh lighting backstage.
Everything I’ve done the past year has led me to this moment. Networking, auditioning and finally being chosen to appear on the show SuperNova, a televised competition to win a recording contract, has been the culmination of a lifelong dream. I have worked so hard and sacrificed so much.
My hand shakes as I reapply my lip gloss. Chaz’s earlier words run through my mind.
All you care about is this stupid competition.
Do you seriously think you have a chance?
You’re not good enough.
I shake my head to dispel the negative thoughts and rub my thumb below my lip to catch a stray bit of color. Then I leave the dressing area and walk to the left-side stage entrance. It’s true that I’ve sacrificed a lot for this, including time with family and friends, but I’m ashamed to realize how little my boyfriend actually thought of my dreams. How little he believed in me. All the time I’d spent with him trying to make up for the long hours rehearsing and the Saturday nights when I couldn’t go out because I was performing, would have been better spent with my parents or my sisters.
I take a deep breath and place a shaky hand against my lower belly. The muscles clench beneath my fingers and I suck in another breath as I listen to the roar of the crowd. Despite the sudden attack of nerves, competing on a major show like SuperNova is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I’ve been performing in clubs and coffeehouses for years all with the same goal: to end up having a chance like the one I have right now. I won’t let personal issues derail the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.
“Miss Whitman, you’re up next.”
A harried backstage attendant hands me a microphone and then hustles away before I can respond. Another contestant smiles at me before peeking around the curtain. The man with her strokes her cheek and she buries her face against his shoulder. My eyes burn watching the loving embrace. Chaz was supposed to be here with me, supporting me, but now I’m alone with his last words to me ringing in my head.
I shake off the negative thoughts when I hear my name being called. Head held high, I step out from behind the curtain.
* * * * *
“Being a godmother is awesome.”
I hold out my arms and my best friend’s one-year-old daughter, Hope, crawls obligingly into my lap. She’s the mirror image of Kaylee, especially her big, dark eyes. Holding her always gives me a sharp stab of envy. I’ve always loved kids and wanted a big family.
Unfortunately I’d need to be able to pick out a half-decent guy in order to make that happen.
Kay’s future in-laws brought their kids and they’re all running around the backyard of her new house. By the sound of their happy shrieks and squeals, they’re having a ball. Hope looks over my shoulder at a particularly loud scream right near the window of the living room where we’re sitting.
“You’ll be running around with the big kids before long too, sweetie.” I snuggle my face into her soft, dark curls and inhale that perfect baby smell. Until I can get my own personal life sorted, I’ll indulge my need for snuggles with Hope.
Kay bites the top of a package of cookies, trying to pull it open with her teeth. “Thank you for bringing me cookies. You are the best godmother ever. And the best friend ever.”
At her words, I reach over and squeeze her hand. I’ve been right there by Kay’s side ever since she got pregnant by the douchebag ex-boyfriend who promptly ditched her, so I know how hard things were for her in the beginning. Her parents are just as conservative as mine so she was hit with a double whammy of parental guilt and the shame of being an unwed mother who suddenly couldn’t show her face in church.
I wanted nothing more than to track that guy down and rearrange a few body parts but Kay is such a softie. She doesn’t like violence or harsh words. What she needed most from me was support. So I had to put my homicidal urges on hold so I could be there while she dealt with being pregnant and suddenly having a child to support. Luckily it wasn’t too long before she met her fiancé. Kay is a singer just like I am, except she’s got the kind of voice that sends chills up and down your spine. A local producer took her under his wing and she ended up falling in love with his older brother.
As if on cue, Elliott Alexander sticks his head into the room. He’s a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy with big muscular arms and a permanently brooding expression. In other words, the last person I would have expected my sweet friend to end up with. But there’s no denying the way he feels about her. His dark eyes immediately laser in on Kay.
“Are you okay, baby?”
Kay grins up at him. “I’m fine. And you’re supposed to be meeting Nick today, aren’t you?”
He walks into the room, his eyes running over her. The heated looks between these two make me want to open another window. If we weren’t such good friends, I would be completely sick with envy every time I looked at Kay. She has everything I’ve ever wanted. A recording contract, a man who looks at her like she’s his oxygen and a sweet little girl.
I cuddle Hope a little closer. These types of feelings make me feel like such a jerk. Kay has always been my biggest cheerleader and she deserves every bit of her good fortune.
“Hey Eli. You can’t bear to let Kay out of your sight for even one afternoon, huh?”
Eli grunts but the corners of his lips turn up slightly. When we first met I was completely intimidated by him but after witnessing how the big, strong guy turns to absolute mush at one word from my best friend, I know his gruff looks are just a mask. He’s one of the good guys.
“Hey, Sasha. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Eli, I’m fine. Don’t keep your brother waiting.” Kay sounds completely exasperated so I have a feeling this is a familiar argument. Even though I’m jealous of the way Eli looks at her, I’m not sure I could deal with that type of alpha male. That much attention at once could be exhausting.
“I’m going. Put your feet up,” Eli orders and then kisses Kay on the forehead.
Once he’s gone, Kay immediately sits back up and grabs the package of cookies again. “So what’s been going on with you? Dating anyone new?”
“I’m not dating.”
At that blunt statement, Kay looks over at me sharply. “Since when? Have you taken some religious vow that I’m unaware of or something?”
“Let’s just say I’m on hiatus. I have a knack for picking the wrong guys so I think staying single is the best thing I can do for myself right now.”
Kay purses her lips. I know this look. She’s trying to figure out how to tell me that she disagrees without hurting my feelings. “That seems a little drastic. You just need to meet the right guy. Eli could introduce you to some of the guys who work for him.”
“I don’t think a set up is the answer. When I’m ready I’ll start dating again.”
“No offense sweetie, but you have broken radar when it comes to men. It’s time you let someone else choose for you. I was actually going to try to fix you up with Tank before he started dating Emma,” she says, mentioning one of Eli’s employees.
“The fact that you were thinking of putting us together proves my point. Setups never work. Tank and I didn’t even like each other at first.” Even though I’ve always thought Tank was sexy in a dangerous sort of way, we didn’t exactly hit it off when we met. Probably because he suspected me of stalking Kay and manhandled me a few times.
Kay crunches on another cookie. “My point is that he’s exactly the type of guy you need. One that Eli has done a background check on so you know what you’re getting into. What about Tank’s brother?”
I shake my head. “Finn is engaged, remember? Emma invited you guys to the surprise engagement party she’s throwing for him.”
She gives me a knowing look. “Not him. The brother he asked Eli to find. Luke? I’ve seen his picture and he is a cutie.”
Dang. I was hoping to throw her off but I guess she’s already heard about Tank finding some long-lost family members. Kay doesn’t know that I’ve met Luke before.
“He’s some sort of computer genius. He’s also young. Really young.” I’m hoping she’ll stop asking questions about Luke. She can be like a dog with a bone sometimes when she gets an idea in her head.
Kay rolls her eyes. “He’s our age, I’m pretty sure. Early twenties.”
“Really?” I actually hadn’t known that part but knowing Kay she snooped and looked at the background check Eli did on him. “He looks like a baby. You know I like my men a little more mature than that.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that.”
Kay definitely understands how I feel on that score since her fiancé is about a decade older than we are.
“You know how people do those cleanse diets? Well, that’s what I need for my dating life. I’m on the stay single plan. A man fast!”
Kay doesn’t look impressed.
“Well, whenever you get tired of your man-less diet, I’m sure I can set you up with one of Eli’s cousins or something. As fine as the Alexander boys are, you know there have to be some hot cousins on that family tree somewhere.”
By the excitement in her voice, I know she’s not going to let this go. So I just nod and then try to think of something, anything, to distract her.
“You’re still coming to the engagement party right?” It’s hard to believe that it’ll be here so soon. When Emma found out that I was opening a small business, she asked Finn to introduce me to some local business owners. This party is going to be a networking dream. I’m excited but also nervous.
“Yeah, we’ll be there. Eli has gotten to know Finn pretty well lately. It’s good for him to get some guy time in. It’ll be good for you, too. You’ve been holed up so long ever since the show—”
“No talking about that day! You know the rules.”
“Sasha, it’s really not that bad. I saw the video—”
She looks a little scared, probably because of the death glare I’m giving her. “I’m just saying that you’ve cut yourself off from the world for the last two months. Yes, whoever uploaded that video to Youtube is a jerk but you can’t let this keep you from living your life.”
She stops talking and sits back with a disgruntled look on her face when I make a cutting motion with my hand across my neck. “Okay, okay, no talking about it. I’m just saying it’s not that big of a deal.”
“Everything is going to be fine.” I don’t look at Kay, trying to keep a lid on my emotions.
After my disastrous appearance on the reality TV show, SuperNova, I had retreated from my life for a while. I’d known that going on the show had been a long shot but I’d assumed that I’d get some publicity. Several of the past contestants so far had been offered recording contracts even if they didn’t win.
I’d been so sure that I could impress the judges and walk away with a contract, a career, anything other than the heaping dose of humiliation I’d gotten from choking on stage on live television.
“I know you’ve been worried about me but you don’t have to be. My whole family is investing in my new venture and I think this is going to be the start of something wonderful. For all of us.”
I lift Hope up in the air and nuzzle her belly, prompting a round of charming giggles from her.
Kay’s eyes are shining. “I’m so proud of you, Sasha. I know everyone in the community is excited about having our own jazz club. Eli’s cousin, the one who’s a reporter, will be there. I’m sure you’ll be in the newspaper. And all the other local business owners are going to be out to support you. This is the perfect opportunity for you to meet someone new.”
I’m about to protest again when Kay reaches out and grabs my hand. “I know you don’t want to. I know you think it’s a waste of time. But honey, that’s just because you’re so used to bad guys. There are some amazing men out there. I got lucky enough to find one of them and I just want the same for you. You deserve that.”
I close my eyes and let the feeling of contentment wash over me. Kay and I have been friends since elementary school and I’ve never had a friend who has supported me the way she does. No matter how many times I fail, no matter how many stupid decisions I make, she always believes the best in me.
When I open my eyes, ready to agree just to make her feel better, I smile at the sight before me. Kay is snuggled into the pillows of the couch, her hand that’s encased in mine completely slack.
She’s fast asleep.
I pick up Hope and snuggle her against my shoulder. “Come on sweetie, let’s go for a walk and let Mommy have a nap.”
And hopefully when Kay wakes up, she’ll have forgotten all about her plan to fix me up.
There are many things that I’m willing to do for family. Several things cross my mind that I’ve done in the past, things I’m not particularly proud of and that are one foot over the line into illegal territory. But as I listen to my brother Zack, I’m seriously considering rethinking my stance on family loyalty.
“She’s a friend of Emma’s. Finn wants me to help her with setting up her business. Mentoring if you will,” Zack explains.
“So let me see if I understand correctly. Finn asks you for a favor and you want to pawn it off on me? Nice.”
Zack chuckles. “Oh come on. You know I’m not good with shit like this. You’re the one who handles the customers at the shop. It shouldn’t take that long, maybe a few afternoons explaining how to get started. Showing her the paperwork she needs to file. You know, stuff like that.”
I shift my cell phone to my other shoulder. “Do you really think I’m the best person to be a mentor? Wouldn’t she be more comfortable with someone she knows? And why the hell didn’t Finn ask me to do it?”
Zack snorts. “He knows how you are with women. I’m sure he doesn’t want his female friends anywhere near you. Look, he’s going to set up a meeting but I figure I can just claim to be sick and send you in my place. Finn won’t know until after the fact.”
I groan and look impatiently to the long ass line I’ve been standing in for what feels like forever. Zack is lucky he caught me when I’m feeling generous. Whoever this poor girl is, if I don’t agree, she’s going to have to suffer through an afternoon with Zack grunting and scowling. Standing in the local business office reminds me of when I was first starting out and had no one to help me. The least I can do is pay it forward, especially to help out a friend of a friend.
“Ok, I’ll do it. But I’m only committing to a few days and then after that she’s on her own.”
“Awesome. I’ll let Finn know to set up the meeting. Thanks. I’ll owe you one.”
I hang up and slip my cell phone back into the inner pocket of my suit jacket. Today I’ve dressed the part in a simple two-button pinstripe that never fails to convey responsible business owner.
The auto garage that Zack and I own has been doing really well for a few years now. He’s been trying to convince me to open another location for six months. Since most of the counties in Virginia require you to appear in person to gain a business license, I’ve been putting it off. But after running reports and seeing the proof in black and white that our business has been on a steady increase for the past year, I finally agreed.
But as the voices of the women in front of me increase, so does my feeling that I should have waited longer to tackle this particular issue. Preferably when we were big enough to be a corporation and I could designate someone else to handle these sorts of things.
“This is the wrong form. You need an application for a business license, not a liquor license.”
The woman behind the counter looks like she’s rapidly losing patience. With her gray hair and oversized glasses, she reminds me of a teacher I once had. If this lady is anything like Miss Rosings, then all the explanations in the world aren’t going to cut it.
The girl at the counter is apparently fearless. Or reckless. Her voice rises in what is starting to sound like hysteria.
“But that can’t be right! The last time I was here, the man told me I needed a liquor license. I downloaded all this and filled it out and now you’re telling me this is wrong again?”
“Ma’am, you do need a liquor license. This is just the wrong place to submit that. This is where you get your business license. Did you bring the form for that?”
“No, I thought this was what I needed.”
The Miss Rosings lookalike hands a sheaf of forms over the desk. “Fill those out and then bring them back. Next!”
“But wait a minute—”
I can feel the tension rising in the room. This is the last time I volunteer to handle the paperwork just to spare Zack. Normally we share the administrative hassles but I wanted to escape the office. When I made the decision a few years back to go straight, I knew I’d have to get used to a more sedate life. Being a responsible law-abiding citizen is by definition less exciting but it’s also safer. There’s no worries about who might be after me or whether I’ll get caught up in something. And I’m proud of the atmosphere Zack and I have created at the shop. We have fun most of the time.
We have a great group of guys and Jim and the crew are like family. But every day it’s the same thing. Every night it’s the same thing. Sometimes the need for excitement has me feeling like I want to crawl out of my skin. Or scream.
More than anything I just want something to surprise me.
The guy in front of me makes a frustrated noise and puts his hands on his head. I can’t see much of the girl at the counter, just a riot of long black curls and an oversized black coat. But she doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.
I lean forward. “Sweetheart, you’re holding up the line.”
“Did you just call me sweetheart?” She whips around and the rest of whatever else I was about to say gets trapped in the back of my throat.
Golden brown skin. Full, pouty lips. Whiskey-colored eyes framed by long lashes. Big innocent eyes. She looks like Bambi. From her husky voice I was expecting a much older woman, not this fiery little thing who is currently shooting daggers at me with her eyes.
Now this is a surprise.
By the time my brain makes sense of what she’s said, I open my mouth to say something and nothing comes out. While she’s distracted, the guy in front of me pushes past and drops a big file folder on the counter. Bambi looks over at him and then sends me another glare. Then she clutches the papers to her chest and walks out, the glass door to the office swinging shut behind her. A sheet of paper floats behind her and lands in the hallway.
I glance up front again at the guy’s overflowing folder. Then I turn and walk out, pausing only to pick up the piece of paper she dropped. I read the top of the form. Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control. It’s an application for a liquor license, filled out with her name, business name, address—the works. Sasha Whitman. The dramatic swipe of her signature fits her.
My hand clenches around the form. Although it’s doubtful she’ll thank me, I follow her outside. I definitely don’t want anyone else to pick this up. Any psycho could have found this. Or a guy like me which isn’t much better.
I jog slightly to catch up with her in the parking lot. She’s bent over, shoving her things onto the passenger seat of an ancient Volvo. I wince when she closes the door and it lets out a screeching sound. When she turns around, I’m startled at the tear tracks on her face. She wipes at them hastily with the back of her hand.
“Please tell me I didn’t make you cry.”
That coaxes a small smile from her lips. “No, it wasn’t you. In case you couldn’t tell I’m having a fantastic day.”
“Well, good. I honestly wasn’t trying to be patronizing. I was trying to warn you not to provoke the warden in there. She doesn’t look like the sympathetic type.”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Her words aren’t even bitter, more resigned. She seems sad now.
I hold out the paper she dropped. “You’ll need this. It needs to be submitted at the ABC. You can mail it though. You only have to appear in person for the business license.”
“Really?” She takes the paper hesitantly. “Thank you. This whole thing is so confusing and I feel like I’m doing it all wrong. Probably because I am.”
“I could look over your forms for you. I know a bit about owning a small business. I can probably save you from the most obvious mistakes.”
It doesn’t escape my notice that I’m volunteering to help her when Zack had to beg me to do this for Finn’s friend. The universe must be rewarding me because I’ll definitely tutor Bambi in anything she wants to learn.
She looks doubtful. “I don’t even know you.”
“Not to point out the obvious but I’ve already seen all your information. If I was a stalker, I wouldn’t have given that back.”
Her laugh animates her entire face, making her eyes sparkle. “I suppose that’s true. But just because you aren’t a stalker doesn’t mean you aren’t trouble. And I’ve had enough of trouble.”
She turns to go again and I’m suddenly gripped with panic. I don’t know what’s come over me but I can’t just let her leave.
“Trouble can be fun.” I give her my most charming smile, the one that Zack calls the moneymaker. “Give me a chance to prove that.”
She sighs, the sound so weary that it should be coming from someone three times her age.
“You don’t need to prove anything Calvin Klein. I can see right through you. I can probably tell you what you ate for breakfast.”
She crosses her arms and looks up at me, her eyes fixed on my face. “You’re gorgeous and you know you are. It’s something you use to your advantage. But there are times when it’s not to your advantage so you try to tone it down, such as with those glasses you’re wearing.”
Stunned, my hand reaches up to touch the clear frames I wore this morning to make myself look older. It’s something I only do when I need to appear on behalf of the business.
“I bet you don’t even wear glasses,” she continues. “A guy with cheekbones like yours wouldn’t want anything obscuring the view of his perfect face. I bet you had laser eye surgery and you just wear those glasses because they make you look intellectual. They also save you from the envy of men around you because they’ll either dismiss you as a nerdy type or assume that you’re gay and not their competition.”
I stand as she neatly dissects me, ticking off each point on her fingers.
“I’ve dated pretty men like you before so I’ve already seen this show. I’m not impressed by flattery or whatever line you’re currently thinking up. You’re probably not even listening right now because you’re thinking of how to sweet talk me.”
I’m stunned again because she’s right. In the middle of her rant, I was only half paying attention because I was trying to think of what to say to calm her down. As I stand in front of her, the entirety of who I am exposed as if she’d ripped my seams open, I can’t think of a single thing to say in my own defense.
“Goodbye, pretty boy.” She rounds the car and climbs behind the wheel while I stand gaping at her. Once inside, she puts on her seat belt and then pulls out slowly. I watch until her taillights turn right on the main road and she disappears.
Once she’s gone, I’m able to clear the cobwebs from my brain and suddenly I can move again. What the hell was that? I let out a breath and turn in circles, looking around the parking lot as if the asphalt can give me answers.
The first time I meet a woman who can see past all of my bullshit and she wants nothing to do with me.
* * * * *
I am a good guy.
I remind myself of that fact as I drive to meet my brother at our father’s hotel, the StarCrest. Getting dressed down by a pint-sized girl with innocent eyes shouldn’t have shaken me this much but I can’t help it. She took one look at me and instantly saw everything that I’ve worked so hard to hide.
I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to hide my roots and to appear the way a responsible local businessman should. I help little old ladies cross the street. I recycle. I make a number of charitable contributions each year. Anyone looking at me will see a solid, respectable, upstanding member of the community.
Which is exactly what I want them to see.
As I pull up in front of the hotel, I lift my hand and wave to Zack, who is leaning casually against the side of the building. When I step out of the car, a valet appears instantly. His lips curl up into a grin of appreciation as he takes in the restored 1967 Chevy Corvette. As he takes the keys and the twenty dollar bill in my hand, I slap him on the back. “Take care of my girlfriend for me.”
Zack rebuilt the engine for me and the leather seats and exterior have all been painstakingly restored. I’ve spent more money on this car than most guys would spend on an engagement ring. Hell, I love this car and since the 400 hp under the engine practically gives me a hard-on every time I slide behind the wheel, this is the closest thing to a long-term relationship I’ve ever had.
As I move back, my eyes land on a man across the street. He’s too far away to see clearly but I know what I’ll see if I get closer. He has a thin white scar across his cheek. This is the second time I’ve seen this guy. The valet is waiting patiently so I move out of the way and meet Zack in front of the doors leading into the elegant lobby.
As we walk across the polished marble floors, Zack peers at me with a concerned expression. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Although his question is annoying, it’s an honor since I know that I’m one of the few things in the world that my brother gives two fucks about.
“I’m fine. We decided this is the best way so we’ll stick to the plan.”
Zack doesn’t look convinced, which just serves to remind me of all the things that I’ve been trying to forget all week. That I’m breaking a promise I made to myself years ago. That what I’m about to do is unethical, possibly even illegal, and most importantly, just wrong.
But knowing that I should feel guilty for what I’m about to do doesn’t change anything. Neither does the very real possibility of failure. I’m about to pull my first con in years and I’m excited.
After all, it’s not every day you pull a job on your own father.
We enter the elevator and I’m glad there’s no one else getting on. I need a few moments of peace before I have to turn it “on.” That’s how I think of it. Like a game. Manipulating people into doing what you want — whether it’s to give you money, access or information— is about making them feel that you’re on their side. That you’re their friend. It’s completely mental. It’s a rush but it’s also exhausting and requires one hundred percent of my concentration and focus. And what we’re doing today is too important for me to risk screwing up because I’m shredded with second thoughts and guilt.
My father has come back into our lives offering money and apologies but very little in the way of explanations. Nothing to explain why he left our mothers pregnant and alone and nothing to explain why he hasn’t contacted us before. For a little while it’s been like a dream come true but I’m too cynical to believe that anything is free.
Maxwell Marshall has his reasons for coming back into our lives now and I plan to find out what they are.
“Do you have time to help me with an engine rebuild later today?”
Zack apparently doesn’t share my need for self-reflection. The sides of his hair have grown in a little and the top is spiked up into a little mini-hawk. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt so all his ink is exposed. Our reflection in the mirrored elevator doors is pretty amusing. He looks like he’s on the verge of committing a felony and I look like I’m on the way to a business meeting.
How deceiving appearances can be.
“I don’t have time today. Maybe tomorrow?”
Zack makes a face. “On a Friday night? Aren’t you going to be busy?”
I don’t look up but I can sense his scrutiny. “No.”
“What happened to Gabriella? The two of you were so cute together. Even your names were cute.”
I snort as the elevator opens on the top floor with a tinny ding. Zack never liked Gabriella. Not that it mattered since I wasn’t inviting her over for family dinners.
“We parted amicably.”
He shrugs and follows me down the hall. “Which means she begged you to stay and you convinced her the whole breakup was her idea, right?”
Gabriella was a way to pass the time and I suspect I was the same for her. There were no tears when we broke up. She just seemed more annoyed that she would have to find someone else for the occasional night of dinner and uncomplicated sex. I suspect she was more upset about the disruption to her schedule than she was about the possibility of not seeing me again.
Zack knocks on the door of my father’s suite before I have a chance to. I don’t bother giving him an answer and he doesn’t look like he’s expecting one anyway. Probably because he already knows he’s right.
Sometimes I hate that he knows me so well.
There’s movement behind the door, a soft shuffling and then the sound of voices. The door opens and Carol, one of my father’s many assistants, stands in the doorway. She’s a pretty young redhead with soft blue eyes and a perky ass. My father has managed to surround himself with beautiful women even in his retirement. He particularly seems to like redheads.
Carol stands back so we can enter. “Zack. Gabe. Your father is expecting you. Please come in.”
“Last chance to back out,” Zack murmurs.
He glances back at me and I nod. He looks vaguely disappointed but then he turns back and steps across the threshold. Carol smiles at him absently but when her eyes meet mine, she blushes slightly and looks away. I sigh.
The game is on.
* * * * *
When we enter the room, Max turns toward us. If he’s surprised to see that Zack is with me, he doesn’t let on. Part of our unholy deal with our newly found billionaire pops is that we each have to visit him for an hour each week. Zack has already been to see him at his usual time yesterday. My brother is here today for a different purpose.
Today, he’s the distraction.
“Hey Max. Taken over the world yet?”
It’s a familiar joke by now, spawned by the fact that my father owns so many different businesses. There are few industries that he doesn’t have some interests in and as someone who grew up owning jack shit, the concept is fascinating to me.
“Not yet. There’s always tomorrow.” His familiar reply comes in a voice that sounds raspier than usual. He’s sitting in a chair by the window but his wheelchair is in the corner. I wonder how hard he had to fight to be allowed to sit unaided.
Zack takes a seat on the couch, looking uncomfortable. It’s been a long time since he’s done this and that’s why I only tapped him for an easy role today. Manipulating doesn’t come easily to Zack and he’s only doing this because we both agreed that it’s time for us to find out what our father is up to. Zack never enjoyed these games the way I did. But then I’ve always known that my little brother is a much better person than I am.
“Here you go. A Coke for you and a glass of water.” Carol brings the drinks in on a tray, the same way she always does. Somehow she manages to keep straight all of our usual drink orders, something Zack and I realized during our planning.
He looks up at me and nods slightly. Then he reaches forward and knocks the glass of Coke over, the dark liquid immediately spreading across the coffee table. Carol gasps and jumps back.
That’s my cue.
“Here, use my handkerchief.” I step closer, much closer, into her personal space.
She looks up at me, her pupils dilating slightly. When she realizes how close I am, she sucks in a breath and her cheeks flush red. I’m using the fact that she likes me to my advantage, something I should feel terrible about. Instead, I raise the white handkerchief I brought for this purpose in front of her face.
As soon as her eyes latch onto it, I move a little closer, bumping into her. My right hand simultaneously unclips the security card on her waistband.
“Oh thank you,” she whispers. She takes the small square of fabric and blots at the drops on her sleeve.
“I’ll grab some towels from the bathroom.”
Before Carol can respond, I duck into the hallway. The suite has three bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. I can never poke around because Carol is always there but I’ve observed her entering and exiting my father’s private area before. That’s how I know she needs an access card. Paranoid bastard. How many people have this level of security on their bedroom? But his security just increases my belief that he’s hiding something. Innocent people are rarely this careful. Hopefully Zack can keep them distracted for a few minutes so I can get into my father’s room.
I glance behind me but the hall is empty so I hold the card up to the door on the last room. The electronic keypad flashes green and I enter. The curtains are drawn slightly but it doesn’t matter. The only thing I want to do is check out what’s next to my father’s bed.
We spent the last few weeks planning this and the one thing that Zack and I agreed on was that whatever Max is up to, it’s personal. He’s spent a lot of time and money ensuring that his children have to talk to him. But what we can’t figure out is why now? Since his stroke, my father hasn’t been able to get around as easily so we theorized that he’d keep his most important possessions near his bed. Where he can reach them.
I pull out my cell phone and start snapping pictures of everything around me. A spill won’t distract Carol for long. After snapping everything near the bed and everything visible when I pull open the nightstand drawer, I leave the room.
A few seconds later, Carol enters the hallway from the living area. Her eyes narrow when she sees me standing in the hall.
“Did you get a towel?”
I run a hand through my hair and feign confusion. “Uh no, actually. I was looking for a linen closet and then realized that this isn’t actually an apartment. It’s easy to forget this is a hotel suite.”
Her pinched look dissolves into a smile. “Yeah, it is. But you can just take one from any of the bathrooms. It’s fine.”
I duck into the guest room I’m standing next to and walk past the perfectly made up bed to the bathroom. It’s fully stocked and ready for guests, so I grab two towels from the stack above the toilet.
When I come back out, I hand one to Carol. “Sorry about that again. My brother can be a little clumsy.”
“Oh it’s fine. He was so apologetic about it that I actually feel bad. He got more of it on himself than me. He said one of his tattoos wasn’t fully healed and it was burning him. I had to help him get it off. Poor guy.”
My mouth twitches. Zack is not a fan of being touched by people he doesn’t know so if he had to let her play nursemaid, I’m sure I’m going to get an earful about it later.
When we enter the living room, Max looks over from his seat by the window. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, found ‘em.” I hold up the towels. His eyes follow me as I walk over to the table and make a big production about cleaning it up. I nod at Zack, letting him know that I got what I needed. He stands and walks over to Max, positioning his body between us. I pull the keycard from my pocket and tuck it under the towel.
“You don’t have to do that. I can clean it up.” Carol appears at my side with the other towel.
“I don’t mind.” I bend back to the liquid dripping onto the carpet before she can protest again.
Carol wipes the tray she brought the drinks on. As I’m mopping up the puddle on the carpet, I casually toss the keycard over to the side of the table where she’s standing. When she wipes the side of the table, she stops when she spots it.
Her hand immediately flies to her waistband. “Oh I must have dropped it.” Her soft mumble is barely audible over Zack’s loud voice. I glance over my shoulder.
“Are you telling him about that weird tattoo artist?”
Zack looks over his shoulder at our prearranged signal. He moves out of the way so Max is visible. I stand with the soiled towel in my hands, the table behind me arranged the way it was when we arrived. Carol stands too, holding the tray with the empty glasses.
“I’ll be back with more drinks.”
Max watches as Carol leaves the room. Then his eyes swing back to me. For a long moment, we don’t break eye contact. Of all of his children, I am probably the most like Max. We’re both liars and manipulators, and extremely good at it. The only difference is that I made a conscious decision to stop. To try to be something better.
But as he watches me, there’s something in his eyes I wasn’t expecting. Like he knows there was more to all that chaos than meets the eye but he isn’t going to call me on it. Like he’s aware that I’m playing him but doesn’t even care to stop it.
Something that looks a lot like regret.
“Your brother was just showing off his latest artwork. Sit down, Gabriel. And tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Is it ready yet?”
I look over at my sister Audra in confusion. “What?”
She points at the pan in front of me. “The cornbread. You took it out of the oven and you’ve just been standing here staring into space ever since.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking.”
I know I’ve been spaced out today but it’s just because I’ve been so busy.
After spending weeks holed up in my house and avoiding the world, I’d realized that there were so many other dreams to pursue. Before I’d gone on the show I’d made inquiries about a space for rent in downtown New Haven. It has always been a dream of mine to open a small jazz lounge and my entire family promised to invest.
After my public humiliation, I was doubly glad that I had something else to focus on. Making plans and dreaming about how to make it happen has given me a new goal and my sanity back.
I signed a lease on a commercial space in the center of town earlier this week so it’s finally happening. And I can’t wait to share the good news with my family.
I look up when my sister Brenna enters the kitchen with a covered casserole dish. She’s only a year older than I am and we’ve always been close. Even though Audra’s only four years older than me, growing up it felt like light years. Her tendency to be a know-it-all doesn’t help.
Brenna puts her casserole dish down on the stove and then shucks off her coat. “I brought that smothered chicken casserole you like so much.”
The rest of the house is suspiciously quiet. Usually my brother-in-law Evan comes to the kitchen to say hi before plopping down in front of the television. Brenna also usually has my nephew, Carter, on her hip.
“Where is everyone?”
Brenna glances over at Audra before turning to the refrigerator. “Evan stayed at home with the baby. We thought it’d be nice to have it be just us tonight. Like old times.”
Something about that doesn’t seem right. Audra’s husband stayed home tonight with their two daughters, too. She’d claimed they were feeling under the weather. I know how overprotective Audra can be so I didn’t think it was anything serious but maybe Brenna didn’t want to expose Carter to any germs she thought the girls might be carrying.
“Well, I’d hoped everyone would be here because I have good news.”
Opening a small jazz lounge for enthusiasts like my father is a dream come true. There were a few times I almost gave up this past week, especially when I got to the business office and found out that I’d done my paperwork incorrectly. I had to stand in line all over again this afternoon but I’ve finally got it all sorted. And the feeling when my landlord gave me the keys to my new space was magical. This has been the culmination of years of saving and planning. I’m doubly excited to tell my family about it since they’ve all promised to invest in the club with me. It’ll be a true family endeavor.
Mom enters the kitchen then and we all scurry to finish getting things ready. Once we’re all seated at the table, we all clasp hands while she says grace. Brenna’s casserole smells amazing. But when I pick up a serving spoon and stick it in the dish, I realize what’s missing from the table.
My mom doesn’t meet my eyes as she answers. “He went out. Which is for the best because we need to talk to you.”
“About what?” I hold out my plate to accept a serving of vegetables. Then Brenna puts a heaping serving of the casserole next it.
“The club. About our investment,” Mom states.
“What is there to talk about? The grand opening should be in a few months if all goes to plan. I’ve already signed a lease for the space.”
“Sasha, don’t you think it’s time to consider some alternatives? You were counting on getting publicity from being on television. But now … “
She doesn’t say anything else but I can imagine what she’s leaving unsaid. Now that I’m not on the show, how will the club get exposure? Now that I’m a failure and a laughingstock, who will come?
I pause with my fork halfway to my mouth. Across from me Audra chews her food slowly. When I look over at Brenna she won’t look at me either.
“So you’re all pulling out? How am I supposed to have my grand opening? I won’t be able to afford to build out the space let alone pay for furniture or fixtures. Thank God I got Kay and Eli to invest.”
Audra doesn’t look impressed. “Eli owns that big security company. He can afford to lose money. I can’t. Keith’s hours just got cut and I’ve had to start working part-time to make up the difference. We can’t afford to take chances.”
“On me. That’s what you mean. You can’t afford to take a chance on me. The girl who fails at everything.”
Brenna looks distraught. We’ve always been close and I know she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. But it hurts that she doesn’t think I can pull this off. That she thinks I’m a failure just like everyone else. She puts her arms around me.
“That’s not what we’re saying. We just think you should reevaluate. You were counting on a lot of press and attention from being on the show. Now that you aren’t, it’s going to be really hard to get people in there.” Brenna speaks softly, as if the cadence of her voice can soften the blow of what she’s saying.
Shame boils through my blood as I’m confronted by the evidence that no one in my family believes in me. Even worse, the fact that my father isn’t here just twists the knife. My father is the one who got me into jazz in the first place. I wanted to own a jazz lounge so badly because of all the stories he told about the club his best friend owned back in the seventies.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that you guys don’t get it. You never really have.”
Mom suddenly looks hurt. “We have always tried to support you Sasha. But what kind of family would we be if we weren’t honest with you? By the time you finish fooling around, you’ll have spent the best years of your life chasing foolish dreams. I don’t want you to look back with regret later when you have nothing to show for it.”
Her words cut me through and through. “How long have you guys been planning this little intervention?”
Brenna looks guilty, probably that she didn’t warn me about what I was walking into tonight. “We just want you to find happiness. You’ve spent so much time working on this. You never go out anymore. How are you supposed to meet anyone if you’re working all the time? I worry about you living alone. I don’t know what I’d do without Evan.”
I love my brother-in-law but his idea of a good time is watching sports on the couch, remote in one hand and a beer in the other. Not my thing at all.
I push back from the table. “I need to go.”
There’s a flurry of sound behind me as they all push their chairs back and follow me into the kitchen.
“Thanks for letting me know that you’re backing out of the deal.” I grab my scarf and wrap it around my neck. I motion for Brenna to hand me my coat which is hanging on a hook next to the back door.
She hands it over, watching me warily. “Why are you thanking us?”
I pull the coat on, zip it and then flip up the hood in preparation for stepping out into the chilly night air. Then I look behind me. Brenna and Audra stand by my Mom. That’s kind of the way it’s always been though. I’ve never really belonged, not even in my own family.
“I’m thanking you for letting me know early enough so that I can find other investors. Luckily I have friends who are willing to help me learn about the business side of things but I still have a lot of work to do. Including planning a grand opening on a shoestring budget.”
Mom glances over at the others. “You mean you’re still going through with it?”
“Just because you guys don’t think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean that it won’t be a success. And I’m glad to know what you really think of me. I was silly enough to actually think that you guys were proud of me for trying to follow my dreams but that’s only when those dreams match up with what you want me to do. I won’t make that mistake again.”
I step out onto the back steps, pulling the door shut behind me over their startled protests. My fists clench at my sides and I have to restrain myself from turning around and pounding on the door. But I don’t have time for nonsense. It’s time for me to go hunting.
I need to find twenty thousand dollars.
* * * * *
The next day, I pivot in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, finally satisfied with my outfit. I have to get ready to leave since Emma asked me to help her set up for the surprise engagement party she’s throwing for her future brother-in-law. Despite being rich, handsome and charming, Finn is also really nice. He even got me a recurring gig at a big hotel in Virginia Beach that pays my rent most months.
When he found out that I was starting a business, he promised to introduce me to some other small business owners that can help me. More than likely, I’ll be doing some networking tonight at this party so I want to look festive but professional, too. Finn knows me as a singer. Tonight, I need to show everyone that I’m a businesswoman, too.
If only I could show my own family as easily. I spent all night making plans on my ancient laptop. I can’t deny that it hurts, knowing that my own family is just waiting for me to fail, but it only makes me more determined. I can do this.
I’m a businesswoman.
I repeat that to myself as I put the finishing touches on my outfit and through the entire drive to Norfolk.
Finn’s penthouse is in a newly redeveloped section of the city. A rich part of the city. When I pull up, someone is pulling out of a space directly in front of the building. I quickly pull in and cut the engine. I look up at the impressive gray structure and have to swallow against a sudden attack of nerves. The first time I saw Finn arrive at Tank and Emma’s place in a black Bentley that probably cost more than the duplex I live in, it was surreal.
Now I’m going to his penthouse.
I wonder if he has cool rich guy toys like a real life version of Batman or something. It’s hard to believe that I know people with this kind of wealth. It’s the kind of thing you see on television or in movies but is so far removed from your normal existence that it doesn’t even register. However, it’ll be different seeing it up close and personal. But this isn’t just a social visit. This party has the potential to change my life.
As I gather my things, I remind myself to keep my cool when I get up there. No gawking. I need to be cool and sophisticated.
I walk into the lobby and falter when I see a guard behind a desk. Am I supposed to check in or what? Luckily before I can work myself into a state of anxiety, Emma walks in. She waves to the guy behind the desk and then holds out her arms for a hug. With her long blond hair and blue eyes, she looks so innocent. It’s hard to believe that we bonded over our crappy jobs at a strip club, where I was singing and Emma used to wait tables.
“I’m so glad you’re here! My sister just texted me that she’s running behind so I really need the help.” Emma planned this surprise engagement party for her future brother-in-law and I know she wants everything to be perfect. “Eli and Kay are still coming, right?”
“They plan to. Kay told me they were when I talked to her a few days ago.”
Emma visibly relaxes. “This is going to be so much fun. Finn and Rissa are going to be so surprised!”
“Where are they anyway?”
“Tank got them dinner reservations at that new French place. They should have just arrived so we have at least two hours before they get back home.”
We ride up to the penthouse and she opens the door with a key. Emma immediately puts me to work crafting crepe paper bows and hanging the small banner she had rolled up in her bag.
“So, who is this guy? The businessman?” I add when she looks at me blankly.
“Actually, I’m not sure. Finn said he knew a few people but had to check to see if they could do it. I’ve invited all his friends so I just assumed whoever it is will be here. Since the party is a surprise, I couldn’t exactly ask Finn.”
“Right. Of course.”
She stops fiddling with the streamers she’s unrolling. “You’re really nervous about this, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah. I really need help. I just found out yesterday that my family is pulling their investment money.”
Emma pouts. “Sasha, you know Tank and Finn will invest. They’d love to help.”
Before she even finishes her sentence, I’m already shaking my head. “Thank you but I really want to do this on my own. The only reason I let Kay and Eli invest is because she’d badger me until I gave in. She knows all my weak spots. That’s the hazard of knowing someone since grade school.”
“I understand. I didn’t even want to let Tank pay for my school fees so I get it. But you know we’re happy to help if you change your mind.”
The most amazing thing is that I truly do know. Emma doesn’t have a self-serving bone in her body. She truly wants the best for everyone around her. It’s what makes her such a great friend and I suspect, what makes her so perfect for Tank.
“I do know that and it means a lot. It’s just that I’m so close. I know I can do this. But I just need to figure some things out first. I’ve never owned anything before. I need advice. Badly.”
Emma comes over and squeezes my arm. “Don’t worry. Finn mentioned that he had several people in mind so you’ll have more than one to choose from. Get them drunk enough and you can ask them all the questions you want.”
The intercom buzzes. Emma winks and then opens the door for the caterers.
In less than half an hour, the place looks ready to go. Most of the guests have arrived. Tank arrives finally and Emma greets him with a relieved sigh. He waves at me from across the room and then sets the case of beer he’s holding on the counter.
Emma taps a spoon against her flute of champagne. “Thank you for coming everyone. Before the guests of honor arrive I just want to say—”
The front door opens and a woman with a head of curly red hair stumbles through the door backward, her arms and lips attached to Finn. The crowd grows silent and the couple freezes when they realize they aren’t alone. Finn looks surprised but not guilty so I figure the woman in his arms must be his fiancée.
Emma turns to glare at Tank.
He looks down at his shoes before glancing over at Emma sheepishly. “Oops. I guess my guy at the restaurant forgot to call and warn me that they were on the way home.”
Finn still has his hands on Rissa’s behind and doesn’t look as though he has any plans to move them. A giggle escapes before I can stop it. Emma still looks pissed but soon she’s laughing softly too.
The room erupts into applause and wolf whistles. Rissa extricates herself from Finn’s arms even though he doesn’t look too happy about it. When her eyes light on the banner I attached to the wide living room window, she lets out a soft gasp.
“It’s a party. For us!”
She grabs Finn’s arm and tows him across the room to where we’re standing. Even though Finn still looks murderous, Rissa grabs Emma in a big hug. “Thank you so much. I can’t believe you did this for us!”
Finn shakes hands with his brother. “Yeah, thanks bro. Great timing as usual.”
Tank winces and pulls his hand back. “That’s what family is for, right?”
Finn kisses me lightly on the cheek. “Sasha, this is my fiancée, Rissa.”
We shake hands and then she’s back in Finn’s arms.
“This is a gorgeous room. I love the colors.” I direct my comments to Rissa. The room is decorated in mainly muted shades but with strategic pops of color. The yellow throw pillows are the kind of thing I can’t ever imagine a guy buying for himself.
Her eyes light up. “I finally convinced Finn that we need a little more color in here. If he had his way everything would be beige.”
Finn shrugs. “It’s practical. Brown matches everything.”
Rissa gazes up at him adoringly. Next to me, Emma is looking at Tank the same way. Suddenly the room feels suffocatingly small. Everywhere I go I’m surrounded by lovey-dovey types and even though I don’t begrudge my friends their happiness, it’s getting harder and harder not to ignore the emptiness I feel that there’s no one standing by my side.
“I think I’m going to take a walk. It’s a little stuffy in here.”
Tank shifts uncertainly. “There are parts of this area that still aren’t safe. Maybe we should go with you.”
Finn eyes me knowingly. “Why don’t you go up to the roof? It’s got a great view and it’s only accessible to residents. You can have a breather from all the noise.”
I smile at him gratefully. “That sounds perfect.”
After retrieving my coat, I ride the elevator up one floor. It lets me out in a small sitting area that leads to a wraparound outdoor space. Wow. I knew that Finn renovated this building when he bought it but I wasn’t expecting anything like this. Most of the rooftops in the city are dirty and kind of scary looking. This looks like the outdoor seating space at a restaurant. I feel my tension start to melt away.
I lean against the brick wall and look over the rooftops of the shorter buildings in the distance. Way up here, everything looks so small. But at least I’m alone finally.
Until I open my eyes and see the dark shape standing next to me. Air escapes in a little gasp and I instinctively move back. The man standing there has on a long black trench coat and one of those old fashioned hats like men used to wear back in the forties. My breath freezes in my chest. It’s the guy from the business office. The gorgeous one.
“You. What are you doing here?” I meant to say it forcefully but it comes out in such a breathy way that if I didn’t know better would make me think I’m happy to see him. Which is crazy since he clearly is a stalker of some kind.
“Getting some air. I love this view.”
“Of all the rooftops in all the world, huh?” I consider whether I should just turn around and go back inside. Seeing him turn up like this is seriously creeping me out.
He chuckles. “Your expression gives away everything you’re thinking. I’m not some weirdo. I come up here every time I visit my brother. I’d say it’s more likely that you are stalking me.”
“I’m here because my friend lives in the building and recommended it. And I was here first.”
He holds up his hands and backs away slightly. “Friend? Boyfriend?”
“Maybe.” I’m sure he can tell I’m lying but there’s no way I’m admitting to him that I’m alone.
“Lucky bastard,” he mutters.
I come back to my previous spot at the wall and look back out over the city. Night comes so quickly now and the temperature has dropped enough that I can see my breath. Inhaling, I take in the cool, fresh air.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Why the sigh?”
He gives an exaggerated sigh and then bats his eyelashes. I realize that he’s imitating me.
“I did not do that.”
“Yes you did. Quite dramatically I might add. What could a girl like you possibly have to be sad about?”
A little tingle of pleasure at his words is drowned out by the dismissive way he looks at me. I’m so tired of people thinking they know what I’m about. What I need.
“I’m not sad. I’m just thinking. Okay maybe I’m a little sad but only because some of the things I’ve been thinking about make me feel like a jerk.”
“I don’t know why you’re even asking. Clearly you don’t care and we don’t even know each other. We are not friends. I don’t even know your name.”
“Damn that’s harsh. I really thought we had something. The way you looked at me yesterday. Then when you came to my house last night wearing that little black dress. I really felt a connection.”
My startled laugh echoes a little. “Since that never happened I’m going to assume you’ve been hallucinating.”
He grins and looks so unrepentant that I can’t help but smile back. He really is very handsome. That little spark of recognition that I felt that first day flares again even stronger this time. I can’t figure out why I feel like I know him. If we’d gone to school together, I would remember. This is not the kind of guy you could forget.
“That last part didn’t actually happen? Well, you can’t blame a guy for his fantasies. And my name is Gabe.” He holds out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Gabe.” It feels rude to ignore him so I take his hand and shake it.
“Okay now that we’re friends, why would you feel like a jerk? You can tell me. I’m just some random guy on a rooftop. You can be honest.”
I huff out a breath and scratch at a groove in the brick wall. “My friends are all coupled up and so happy. It’s wonderful, really. Just not the easiest thing to witness when you’re always alone.”
He doesn’t turn, just keeps looking over the city. The sounds of the traffic below merge with the whisper of the wind and the soft sounds of our breathing.
“It’s a strange and terrible thing to be alone while surrounded by people who love you.”
His softly spoken words touch something deep inside of me. I can tell that he’s not just spouting platitudes or trying to make me feel better. He understands loneliness.
“Yes, it is.”
We stand in companionable silence for a few more minutes before I’m aware that he’s turned slightly and is now watching me.
“I can feel you staring.”
When I look over at him, he’s smiling. “Men look at beautiful women. Is it really so shocking?”
“I’m not going to date you. Whatever this is, it’s not going to work out. Any time I’m attracted to a guy, there’s a one hundred percent chance that he’s a jerk. So, I’m taking a break for a while.”
“So you admit that you feel it, too? Besides, I thought you had a boyfriend?” The smug grin on his face grows even wider.
Caught, I ignore the question. But just standing this close to him has already caused a number of reactions that I’m sure he’s aware of. My pulse has been racing the entire time and I’m grateful I’m wearing this big coat. I have to resist the urge to cross my arms over my suddenly sensitive breasts.
“It’s okay. I’m not dating either.”
I send him a dark look at that statement. I’m not sure if he’s making fun of me or not but there’s no way a guy who looks like him isn’t out there racking up as many notches in his bedpost as possible.
“I’m serious. Finding the right person is damn near impossible and being with the wrong person, well, that’s worse than being alone. Have you ever wondered if the person you’re supposed to be with is right under your nose but you turned left instead of right one day and missed them?”
His question surprises me. It’s way more contemplative than I would have expected from him. It reminds me that I can’t assume I know anything about his life either.
“That sounds like the kind of thing that would happen to me.”
At his curious stare, I find myself explaining. “Things have a tendency to go left when I want them to go right. Sometimes it feels like the more I want something, the less likely it is to happen.” I start to say more but stop myself. Why am I telling him all of this?
“Why did you stop just now? What were you going to say?”
I won’t meet his eyes. It feels strangely intimate, talking to him like this but I have to remind myself that he’s a stranger. He’s beautiful and very easy to talk to but he’s still someone that I don’t know well.
He makes a soft sound of disagreement. “Come on. What have you got to lose telling the truth? You don’t know me and I don’t know you. You can finally say all the things you really want to say but can’t most of the time. All day long we censor ourselves, tone things down or edit out the unpalatable bits of life and sometimes I wonder if we’re losing the ability to be honest. Everyone is so afraid of causing offense that we’ve ceased saying anything that really matters.”
His speech feels almost like it’s aimed at me. Isn’t that what I do all the time? I’m constantly making decisions about what I should talk about or not talk about. There are so many things that I can’t say to my parents, my sisters or even my friends because they just don’t get where I’m coming from and I’d rather say nothing than argue.
“That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Perfect. You’ve probably never failed at anything. Whereas I seem to fail at everything. My singing career. Relationships. And today I found out my family is backing out of investing in my new business. Just one more thing to add to the failure pile. I should have just stayed home tonight for a little chocolate therapy. I’m not good company right now.”
He turns back to look out over the city and I’m presented again with the perfect line of his profile. The lines of stress around his eyes do nothing to diminish the beauty of his face, only emphasizing it.
“You’d be surprised by the things I’ve failed at. The people I’ve let down. I’m talking about the kind of stuff that usually results in jail time. I wasn’t a very good person for a long time. But I’m trying to change.”
He moves closer and tucks a stray curl back behind my fur hood. The motion forces him to lean down slightly since he’s so tall and my heart rate speeds up as I catch a hint of his scent. His finger brushes gently against my cheek and my mouth falls open slightly at the soft touch. It takes all my willpower not to turn into the caress and rub my cheek against his hand.
Oh, what is it about this man? Everything about him calls out to me and makes me want to rub up against him like a kitten. The thought jolts me back to where we are. On a rooftop, in the cold, while my friends party a floor below without me.
“I should get back. The party will be over soon. I feel bad for bailing out.”
“Party?” His hand lingers in the air, like he’s about to touch me again. My stomach tightens, preparing for the touch, but then suddenly, he smiles.
“Yes, you should go. I have a feeling fate will throw us together again. Soon.”
It seems like an odd thing to say but then again this entire conversation has been strange. So I decide not to say anything, instead giving him a small smile before I turn to go. I’m halfway to the door when he calls my name.
He pushes away from the wall and comes to stand right in front of me. In the moonlight, the masculine beauty of his face is even more apparent. He doesn’t even seem real. Like he’s just some illusion my mind has conjured up to torture me.
“Failing at something isn’t the same thing as being a failure. That’s like saying a person who falls down is the same thing as a person who can’t walk. You may not have found where you belong yet but you will. And when you do, you’re going to shine in all the ways that really matter.”
“Thank you.” His words touch me deeply. I know he’s just trying to make me feel better but it still gives me a warm feeling that someone believes that I’m more than just my mistakes. That I’m destined for more.
As I ride the elevator down a floor to Finn’s level, I think back on our strange conversation. It shouldn’t have taken a stranger to make me see my course but when I think about it, I’d been more honest with Gabe in that short conversation than just about anyone else in my life.
And I know nothing about him other than his name.
* * * * *
A few minutes later I reenter the party. There’s even more people here now and several of them look drunk already. I must have been out on the roof for longer than I realized. I fold my coat over my arm and drop it on one of the chairs facing the window. Finn and Rissa are dancing, swaying sensually in a way that says they’ll be doing a lot more than dancing once they’re alone again.
Maybe I should just make my excuses and go home. Even though I was hoping to make some business contacts, I really don’t want to ruin Finn and Rissa’s party with my dark mood. The only person who’ll notice if I’m not here is Emma. I feel guilty leaving before Kay and Eli arrive but it’s not like they don’t know a lot of the people here. Tank works for Eli so they would have been coming anyway.
I start walking toward Emma, ready to make my excuses, when someone grabs my arm. I turn, startled to see Kay. Eli stands just behind her and nods hello.
“Hey! We just got here. Nice party, huh?” Kay looks around the crowded room.
Eli brushes a quick kiss against Kay’s forehead. “Sit down and put your feet up.” He whispers it but since we’re standing so close I can hear him.
We both watch as he walks across the room and joins Tank, who is standing with a group of men I don’t know. They clasp hands and then a few seconds later masculine laughter rings out.
“What’s going on with you? You had a weird look on your face when you came in. Why’d you get here so late?” Kay asks.
Thinking of my almost kiss with Gabe up on the roof, I’m sure I did look weird when I first came in. Probably weird and sexually frustrated.
She moves to the couches set in front of the windows. I take a seat right next to her.
“Oh, I was here earlier to help Emma set up. I just went to the roof for some air. I’ve been distracted all day. Thinking about the club. I didn’t get to tell you that I finally signed the lease for the space.” I haven’t told Kay about my family backing out of the deal. I know my best friend and she’ll feel obligated to offer to help. I don’t want her to ever feel like I’m taking advantage of her generosity.
“Congratulations! It’s going to be awesome. I’m going to help and Eli has that cousin who does event planning, remember? She told me that she’d love to help you plan the grand opening.” Kay leans back and sighs heavily.
She looks exhausted. She hasn’t said anything yet but I strongly suspect that she’s pregnant. I remember when she was carrying Hope and the main things she craved were chocolate chip cookies and afternoon naps.
“So, what were you doing up on the roof?”
I can feel myself blushing so I look around, hoping Kay doesn’t notice. Finn is now behind the counter in the kitchen. There’s a man sitting on one of the barstools chatting with Finn while nursing a beer.
”Do you want a drink? I’m going to get another drink. I’ll be back.”
“Okay, I’ll just have water though.” Kay looks perplexed at my sudden announcement but then Emma sits down next to her. I take the opportunity to slip away.
Finn looks up when I approach the counter and hoist myself up on one of the barstools.
“Sasha, this is my brother Zack.” He gestures at the man sitting next to me. “Emma told me you’re looking for some business advice. Zack is a small business owner.”
So this is one of my choices. I try to check him out without being completely obvious. Zack has an impressive array of tattoos covering his arms and dark hair fashioned into a row of short spikes. He’s handsome like his brothers, although in a completely different way.
“Hi. Nice to meet you.”
He raises his beer in my direction. I don’t know that much about Tank and Finn’s situation, just what Emma has told me, but I know that they have several half siblings they never knew about. This guy is the last person here that I would have pegged to be related to Finn but when he smiles at me, there’s a welcoming twinkle in his eye. Despite his intimidating exterior, I get the sense that he’s a pretty easygoing guy.
I turn back to Finn. “Sorry I was gone so long. That view from the roof is amazing.”
Finn nods. “I go up there all the time. It’s a great place to think. Very peaceful.”
I would agree but my thoughts turn to my mysterious stranger. There’s nothing peaceful about the way I feel when he’s around. He seems to bring out the best and the worst in me, inciting me to give a voice to my darkest desires and my most shameful truths. But he never made me feel bad about anything I revealed. He seemed to get it: how isolating it can be when you’re surrounded by successful people and you know you can never measure up.
But that sense of connection was surely a fantasy. A man who looks like that could never understand what it’s like to be a failure. He was just being nice.
And just that quickly I’m a little depressed again. It was nice to share that sense of camaraderie. For a little while it felt like it was just the two of us but it’s time to come back to reality.
Suddenly Finn breaks into a huge smile. “Hey, you made it!”
The barstool next to me slides out and someone sits. “I was on the roof. You know I love that view.”
That voice, smooth as silk, wraps around me. Oh no.
I turn to my left and look directly into the laughing eyes of my mystery man.
** GABE releases everywhere 2/17/15