Said No One Ever by Stephanie Eding
April 4, 2023
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April 11, 2023
Wings Once Cursed & Bound by Piper J. Drake
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A Problem Princess by Anna Harrington
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One Hot Cowboy Wedding by Carolyn Brown
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In the dim light from the nightlight, Riley crossed her old bedroom floor and dropped to her knees in front of the closet where she began rummaging through all the stuff she’d brought home with her deemed too essential to be stuck in storage. Finally, her fingers brushed the cardboard box she was searching for. Back in Atlanta, where she’d lived until two days ago, it was a quarter to six. Here in Missouri, it was an hour earlier, and not at all a desirable time to get out of bed. Especially for a girl with nowhere to go.
Thanks to Hercules, a big orange tabby cat with a long, spindly tail and the newest addition to her mom’s cat menagerie, she was wide awake after several back-to-back pounce attacks. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten the memo that cats in the Leighton household weren’t allowed to disturb the sleeping.
On the bright side, there was no better time to head out for the jog she’d promised herself she’d get to today. With the heatwave hanging over two-thirds of the country, this was the coolest it would be today, and with as many breakups as she’d had over the last decade, Riley knew good and well she was nearing the end of her bounce-back window, the one at the end of which it became clear that pushing herself just a little harder wasn’t going to fix all her broken and imperfect parts.
Box in hand, she sank to the floor and pulled out the brand-new, top-of-the-line running shoes that had nearly broke the bank. Some people went on benders after breakups. Some moped. Others hopped right back into the fray. Riley nearly always treated herself to a new pair of running shoes.
One of these days, her body would believe her ‘There’s no better time like the present’ pep talks. She’d reconnect with the cross-country runner she’d been in high school, the one who could, a bit begrudgingly, complete a 5K on a Saturday morning and still make it to her volunteer job to walk dogs.
After tying on the shoes—walking in them really did feel like floating—Riley made her way downstairs. She spotted the soft glow of the light over the kitchen sink as she neared the landing and half-expected to spy Tommy, her younger brother, who still lived at home. He had apartment-style digs in the basement and was a night owl. Instead, the coffee pot was brewing, and her mom was wiping down the counters as her other two cats circled her feet. She did a doubletake to spy Riley walking in fully dressed. “Where on earth are you going so early?”
“Jogging.” Riley recognized the irony in her single-word answer as she crossed to the sink for a drink of water. She was just over four weeks from turning thirty and could count the miles she’d managed to jog since track ended on both hands, but her mom didn’t know that.
Brenda looked as if she were trying to bite back a comment, but temptation won. “Not to play mother to a girl who fled the nest at eighteen and hardly looked back, but it’s dark out there. Careful not to trip on those uneven slabs of sidewalk."
“I will.” While her mom was still in her pajamas, she didn’t appear to have just rolled out of bed. “I didn’t expect to see you up this early. Did Hercules wake you, too?” Not that Brenda didn’t have enough reason to be awake in the early morning hours even without a cat waking her up.
“No, I just couldn’t sleep, and seeing as you’re up, I’m guessing he had plenty to entertain him.”
“For the record, he’s my least favorite of your cats.”
“He’s half feral. Give him time; he’ll be a sweetie soon enough.”
Riley didn’t agree but also didn’t feel the need to argue the point. “So, what’re you doing up? You feeling okay?” Maybe Riley had fled Atlanta on the heels of a breakup, but it was her mom’s cancer diagnosis that had her heading home with the assuredness of a homing pigeon. If only for a little while.
Brenda smiled in that ‘I’m a mom and have everything under control’ way of hers. “My sleepless early mornings started with menopause, not breast cancer, dear.”
After drinking half the glass of water she’d poured, Riley set the glass on the back of the sink and nodded. “It’s just that with radiation starting next week, no one would fault you if you were.”
“It’s stage one, Riley. Well, it was stage one. Now that the lumpectomy’s out of the way, it’s probably not even that.”
Riley knew better than to argue with her. Brenda Leighton was a go getter who outpaced most go getters. “They’re getting really good at fighting breast cancer. At least, that’s what I keep hearing. But I’m here if you want to talk about it.” The declaration had her lips feeling a bit like rubber. Riley and her mom never talked about things. Not about anything real. Not anymore. Riley wondered if her mom missed their old talks as much as a part of her did—the part sheworked hard to ignore.
Brenda’s expression softened. “You know, I was thinking how it’d be nice to go get mani-pedis sometime. Like we used to.”
You’re going to have to get over all this sometime. You might as well start with your mom. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”
“Great. It’s a date.”
Riley jutted her thumb toward the door. “Well, I’d better get out there before the sun comes up, seeing as it’s going to be another scorcher.” As she headed for the door, the cats followed, hoping for the chance to sneak outside. Riley shooed them off before stepping out into the silver-grey morning. Ever since she was little, her mom had been known around town for her dedication to the school PTO board, her award-winning Christmas cookies, and for the stray cats who found their way here.
Forgoing a calf stretch that would only give her more time to change her mind, Riley pushed off into a jog that was slow paced enough a speed walker could pass her. Her new shoes clapped monotonously against the asphalt as her body acclimated to the early morning strain. With the streetlights and hint of brightening sky in the east, she could make out the uneven slabs of sidewalk well enough not to worry about proving her mom right and tripping.
Two blocks in, her body announced it was time for a break, but she pushed on, weaving alongside streets ingrained in memory even though she’d all but avoided her hometown of Webster Groves since leaving for college. Quick trips in and out a couple times a year at holidays, that was it.
As Riley passed a quaint house on Portland Terrace, one with a delicate-looking concrete bench under a stately weeping willow, she remembered daydreaming of sitting there and reading a book every time she’d ridden past on her bike. After that, she jogged past two stately brick homes that were mirror images of one another, all the way down to the landscaping, matching rocking chairs, and ornate urns lining their porches, looking like matching rooks in a chess competition. They hadn’t changed one bit.
At the end of block six, her legs protested their way to a walk, completely disregarding the mental pep talk they were being given.
Considering how hard she’d worked to get over him, Riley wished it wasn’t Levi Duncan popping into mind again on this trip down memory lane. Ever since she’d decided to come home, he’d been a prominent fixture in her thoughts. Not that he’d ever been out of them for too long of a stretch at that. The part of her that didn’t want to admit the truth knew that all the running away she’d been doing, hopping from job to job, city to city, guy to guy, had started with him.
“Nobody falls in love in their senior year of high school.” Tightening her ponytail, she glanced around, half expecting someone out grabbing their morning paper to be witness to this outburst of doubt, but the stately yards she was walking past were empty, save a foraging bird or two.
Levi, with his amber brown eyes that were mocking and playful and covering up a mess of hurt he didn’t want anyone to see. Levi, with his athlete’s physique and smooth as silk grin who’d had close to half the senior class wishing they could call him theirs even though pinning him down had proven to be as impossible as carrying fistfuls of sand.
Just thinking of him filled her limbs with enough tension that she pushed off into a jog again. “We’d never have made it anyway.” Yeah, that’s it, talk yourself down from that ledge of regret.
Riley faltered a step even though the slabs of concrete underfoot were perfectly even. She might as well be standing at a stove, thinking of peeking under the lid of a boiling pot and knowing she’d be blasted in steam if she dared do so. She and Levi could never have made it—not with what they’d had going against them. End of story. Coming home didn’t change that. Nor did pining about all the things she’d do differently if she could do them over again.
I never liked visiting my sister Mara, though I loved her so desperately that sometimes I found myself convinced the feeling was not love at all, but something much fouler: guilt, bone-crushing shame, a confused, defensive revulsion.
We visited her on the third Wednesday of every month-Farrin, Father, and me. By conventional means, it would have been an excruciatingly boring two-week journey to the center of the continent, where the Mist stretched from coast to coast like a seething silver river.
Fortunately-or unfortunately, according to Farrin-no one in the Ashbourne family could be described as conventional. Centuries ago, at the time of the Unmaking, hundreds of families were chosen by the gods to receive kernels of their power and serve as guardians of Edyn, the human realm. Our family was among them-one of the great Anointed clans. Yet even among our Anointed peers, we stood apart. Generations of eminent magicians, shrewd investments, and even shrewder political maneuvering will do that-a reality that Farrin despised.
I didn't, though I'd never admit that to her. To admit that I actually liked being not only an Anointed family but one of the most respected in the world would mean acknowledging the horrible truth to Farrin: Yes, when the Warden came to our home twelve years past, it was me she was meant to take away. Yes, I was the one originally meant to serve at the Middlemist-Farrin, the heir; Mara, the spare; and me, Imogen, the youngest, the superfluous. And yes, Mara took my place because at the last moment, Father fretted that I, fragile kitten that I am, was ill suited for such a life.
And yes, Farrin, I know, of course, that Father claims it was not long after Mara was taken to the Mist that Mother left us, because grief is deadlier than poison, he says, and will bring anyone crashing helplessly to their knees, no matter their beauty or cunning or how passionately they are loved.
The whispers flew across the country like storms. No one could believe it; little Mara Ashbourne had actually persuaded the Warden of the Middlemist, for the first time in recorded history, to break with the tradition of recruiting a family's youngest daughter to serve in the Order of the Rose. Mara Ashbourne had insisted on taking the place of her younger sister, and the Warden had acquiesced. And wasn't it remarkable that the Ashbournes even had three daughters in the first place, when most Anointed families were blessed with only one or two?
This was what I could never tell Farrin-that I liked all the gossip, even when our neighbors chewed over the shreds of our grief as though they were bonbons, lighter than air and easily forgotten. Even then, I liked how people whispered and bowed and watched us with dreamy admiration wherever we went. I liked the gowns our wealth and status afforded us. I could enter any restaurant in the capital and immediately be seated at the best table. At our lavish parties, I could hold my beaded fan a certain way, cast my gaze just so about the ballroom, and in less than two minutes have twenty of the room's most exquisite people crowded around me with their sweeping brocaded coats and plunging necklines, each of them desperate for my favor.
I liked this about my life. I reveled in it. What girl wouldn't? I was breathtaking and wealthy and beloved, and I wouldn't have given up any of that, not even if it meant bringing Mother and Mara back. Even if some diamond-eyed artificer from the Old Country came to Ivyhill and offered me a new strong body, free of ailment, fear, or strangeness, and in exchange I need only live a humble but peaceful life out on a country farm somewhere-even then I'd laugh in their face and have Father expel them from the grounds.
Unbidden, the family story of my pet name flashed through my mind. Three-year-old Mara, insistent on speaking as often and impressively as possible, had one night struggled with my name so spectacularly that Imogen quickly became Immie, then Genna, then Gemma, which was the one to stick. Triumphant once she had settled upon the word, little Mara had pounded her fist on the table, catapulting a spoonful of mashed vegetables onto Father's vest, and shouted joyfully, "Gemma!"
Imagining this, my heart broke into a thousand pieces and yet, if given the opportunity, I would not have exchanged my pretty life for Mara's freedom.
That selfish cowardice was my deepest, most terrible secret. I shared it with no one, not even my dearest friend, Illaria. Farrin would have despised me for such thoughts. She probably suspected the truth and despised me anyway.
She despised most things, Farrin, but she wasn't always that way.
This spring morning, as the three of us strode through the dew-sprinkled hedge maze just before sunup, I looked at Farrin sidelong, trying to find in her pale face the echo of the laughing girl she had once been. Sharp chin and cheekbones, a coy little mouth most often held in a grim line of displeasure. Honey-gold hair, unglamoured and a bit darker than mine, tied back from her face in a ruthless braid. Brown eyes, just like Father and Mara. A serious brow that never seemed to relax into contentedness, not anymore. She would have wrinkles in a year if she wasn't careful, and if she kept refusing to be fitted for a glamour. As a child, Farrin was always serious, but she was never bitter, and she was never cruel. Now, at twenty-four years old, Farrin was made of thorns.
Just before we passed through the greenway, she caught me watching her. Her mouth thinned.
"Have I not groomed myself well enough this morning to satisfy your standards?" she snapped.
In reply I showed her the sweetest smile I could muster, though my chest pulled tight with anger. On an ordinary morning, I wouldn't have so much as flinched at a lash from Farrin's sharp tongue, but visiting Mara always left me feeling brittle as old glass.
When a girl has condemned her sister to a life of servitude, that girl does not much relish the times when she must look said doomed sister in the eye.
"You look stunning, as always, dear sister of mine," I said, cupping Farrin's cheek. "A paragon of fashionable taste and refined manners."
Then I looked pointedly at her rather severe gown-slate gray and high necked, tiny buttons at her wrists and throat, unadorned with lace or ribbon. No one had worn dresses like that in a decade. I remembered it well: the entire continent of Gallinor had suddenly become fascinated with the Order of the Rose and had begun imitating the reclusive, demure Roses. I'd hated those few months. At ten years old, I'd been without my sister for two years, and my breath had caught painfully in my throat every time I glimpsed some giggling debutante garbed in austere Middlemist gray. Kerrish, my stylist-an ancient old viper with eyes and hands of steel-had informed me back then that such obsessions with the Order swept through Gallinor quite regularly. The collective fixation would surface in every art, from the sartorial to the culinary.
Farrin had long ago stopped caring about such things. Frippery and fashion is your specialty, Gemma, she would say, wearing a smile as false as my own.
But before she could draw breath to reply, before Father could scold me for goading her, I turned away with a breezy little laugh and closed my eyes. Ignoring the pain buffeting up my spine with a force I knew from experience would bruise me, I reached out for a nearby hedge, thick and glossy with tangled ivy.
At my touch, the greenery gave way to a cold, snapping mouth of air that enveloped my hand. As I stepped into its hungry pull, I hoped this time would be different. Surely this time, I prayed desperately to the gods, something inside me would shift. I would no longer grow ill at the touch of this magic. I would emerge from the greenway just as sure-footed and unbothered as Farrin and Father, both of them right on my heels.
Father's stern reprimand chased me into the darkness. The greenway's magic twisted his voice, first deepening it, then muddying it, then turning it shrill and sharp as an angry jay's. Even without understanding his words, I knew what they would be.
Gemma, you know you must never enter the greenway first. You must always follow me or Farrin.
Gemma, how could you be so foolish as to risk becoming ill and upsetting Mara?
Gemma, you know these rules exist for a reason-to protect you.
The greenway released me with a vicious little shove, and I fell forward onto the ground, into a patch of thick green clover at the back of Rosewarren's garden. It was hidden from the house by a stone wall and an iron gate, the latter of which was draped with heavy vines of snow-blossoms.
Years ago, when the Warden took Mara, Father had hired an elemental to magick that thick tangle of blooms to forever chime and jingle like tiny winter bells to mask our arrivals. Here, my family could emerge from the greenway unseen and unheard. People would think we had simply strolled up the long winding dirt road that led up the mountain from the main thoroughfare below. They would never know of the greening magic-rare and staggeringly expensive-that allowed us to travel instantaneously from our family estate of Ivyhill to the priory of Rosewarren. They wouldn't know, but they would suspect, and wonder, and whisper to their friends with sparkling eyes.
We were Ashbournes, after all.
Senior Corporal Trevor McCall stood in front of the three-floor industrial building in the heart of Burbank, California, comparing it to the address on his phone, not quite sure if he was in the right place. This was supposed to be Jenna Malone’s apartment, but on the outside, it looked more like a warehouse than a residential complex. Then again, this was Los Angeles. Maybe this was what passed for an apartment building out here.
Before he could step inside and find out one way or the other, the phone in his hand rang, making him almost drop the damn thing. He checked the screen, prepared to let the call go to voice mail, until he realized it was Hale Delaney, his SWAT teammate from back in Dallas. Hale was also his fellow conspirator in this wild scheme to sneak out to southern California so Trevor could spend some quality time alone with Jenna—the sister of one of his best friends, Connor, who also happened to be a member of Dallas SWAT team. And a werewolf. Just like Trevor and everyone else on the team.
Trevor thumbed the green button, then held the phone to his ear. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Not much. Just calling to make sure your flight arrived okay,” Hale said. “And to let you know that the plan worked. Everyone in the Pack thinks you’re in Richmond, Virginia visiting family, exactly like you said you were doing. No one suspects a thing.”
“Excellent. Thanks for covering for me,” Trevor said. “I owe you big for this. I hate asking you to lie to the Pack—hell, I hate lying to them, too—but they’ve been so damn nosy lately.”
“Well, you have to admit that asking for vacation time out of the blue to visit a family you’ve barely spoken to since joining SWAT five years ago is a little suspicious.” Hale chuckled. “Then there’s also all the time you and Jenna spent hanging out at the barbecue when she was here a few weeks ago. Trust me, your interest in her definitely didn’t go unnoticed.”
Trevor tensed, grip tightening on his phone. “Do you think Connor was one of those people who noticed? I mean, if there’s one way this whole thing is going to blow up in my face, it’s if Jenna’s brother decides to follow me out here.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Hale assured him. “I’ve been keeping a close eye on him and it doesn’t seem like he’s suspicious. To be honest, he’s been so focused on Kat, I don’t even think he knows you left.”
He let out a sigh of relief. “Thank God for soul mates.” If Kat was simply some woman that Connor was dating instead of The One for him, the guy would probably be all up in Trevor’s business. “I don’t want to have to deal with him—not until I know if there’s anything real between Jenna and me.”
Trevor had only vaguely been aware Connor even had a “baby” sister and that she had witnessed the kidnapping of their other sister a decade ago. Connor refused to talk about what had happened but said that it had left Jenna mentally and emotionally scarred. Then, a few weeks ago, Jenna had shown up in Dallas to visit Connor. Trevor had been attracted to her on the spot. Like…seriously attracted. Unfortunately, he’d barely said two words to her before Connor lost his damn mind, telling Trevor to stay away from his sister because she was too “fragile” to handle any kind of relationship with someone after everything that had happened to her. Connor hadn’t said it out loud, but Trevor was pretty sure there was also a certain amount of that you-aren’t-good-enough-for-my-sister crap going on as well.
Considering the fact that Connor had been acting like a complete jackass, it wasn’t shocking that Jenna had gotten into an argument with her brother. What was surprising was that instead of going to a hotel, she’d asked Trevor if she could stay with him while she was in Dallas. He didn’t have to think twice about agreeing.
“So,” Hale’s deep voice came through the phone, startling Trevor out of his reveries. “Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do if Jenna is The One for you—or how you’ll break it to Connor?”
Trevor’s mouth curved as he thought of how much fun he’d had hanging out with Jenna back in Dallas. They’d spent hours talking and laughing about the silliest things. And while it would have been easy to do a lot more than that together, he knew that in some ways, Connor was right. Jenna might put on a good face, but she was still dealing with the trauma of seeing whatever had happened to her sister. Trevor hadn’t wanted to rush her into anything, but the whole time they’d been together, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about what could be…if they had time to explore it.
Which was why he’d jumped at the chance to come out to LA when Jenna had asked.
He stared at the warehouse building in front of him. “If Jenna is my soul mate, then I’ll worry about telling Connor. Until then, I’m not going to think about him.”
He expected push back on that, waited for Hale to tell him he was being stupid…silly even. But his teammate, his pack mate, and his friend didn’t do any of that.
“I wish you all the luck in the world then,” Hale said. “And don’t worry about Connor finding out before you’re ready to tell him. I’ve got your back.”
Trevor still wasn’t sure how Hale had figured out he had a thing for Jenna or that she’d been staying at his place. He knew it wasn’t because Hale had picked up her scent because, seriously, the guy had the worst nose in the Pack. But somehow, Hale had, and Trevor would be forever graceful. Coming out here to California to woo the woman who might be his soul mate was nerve-wracking as hell. It helped to know he had someone on his side.
“I’ll call you later and let you know how things go,” Trevor said.
It was time to stop talking and do this.
Shoving his phone in the pocket of his jeans, Trevor took a deep breath, trying to psych himself up. He didn’t why he was so damn nervous. But talking to Jenna a few times a week since she’d left Dallas—even FaceTiming now and then when they got the chance—was one thing. Showing up in LA was another. It was a big step—even if his inner wolf insisted he was ready for it.
Well, ready or not, he was here.
Tightening his hold on the handle of the weekender bag in his hand, Trevor opened the door, walked inside, and headed for the steps.
The interior of the building was a lot nicer than the exterior, but it still had a decidedly industrial feel, with lots of exposed concrete and steel support beams. There was some splashy, colorful modern art on the walls here and there, which wasn’t exactly Trevor’s thing, but it all came together in a way that seemed to work.
Jenna’s delectable scent hit him the moment he reached the second floor. Then again, he supposed there was always a chance someone was simply burning candles in their apartment. That could explain the heavenly scent of honeysuckles filling the air. When he finally reached Jenna’s door at the end of the hallway and breathed in the flowery fragrance wafting gently out from underneath it, he knew for a fact it could only be Jenna’s scent. In all honesty, he’d already known that because it was the very same one that had enveloped him since he’d first met her back in Dallas. There was no mistaking it.
Heart beating faster, he rapped his knuckles on the door. It opened a few seconds later to reveal the most beautiful woman in the world he’d ever set eyes on. Maybe it was simply the fact that he’d been waiting for weeks to see her in person again, but she was even more gorgeous than she’d been the last time he’d seen her.
Slender and graceful, with perfect skin, soft pink lips, a button nose, and hazel eyes gazing out from under graceful arching brows, she looked like an elf who’d just stepped out of a Lord of the Rings movie. While in Dallas, she’d usually worn her hair up in a high ponytail, but now, her honey blond hair was loose around her shoulders, the silky waves hanging down to her waist. It was all he could do to not reach out and run his fingers through it and feel its softness. Hell, what he really wanted to do was bury his face in those tresses and breathe her in. The only urge stronger than that was the one demanding he sweep her into his arms and kiss her until they were both out of breath.
Crap. He’d been standing in front of Jenna for who knew how long, neither of them saying a word, and he was already about to lose it. Damn, he was in so much trouble.
Before he could open his mouth, Jenna rushed forward and threw her arms around him, squeezing him so tightly it practically choked the air out of him. Strangely, it was still the best hug he’d ever gotten. Not that he was like a big hugger or anything. But if he were, her hug would have been award winning. Easily two thumbs up and five stars.
The air was electric between them when Jenna finally stepped back, gazing up at him with expressive eyes that were filled with innocence and fire at the same time. His lips were tingling with the desire to bend his head and kiss her, even as it seemed she might do the same thing at any second.
GET YOUR COPY NOW!
Despite a late night at a club opening and an even later night in the bedroom, Ayaan Malhotra woke up miraculously energized and lacking the hangover he’d anticipated.
It was a sign, he’d decided. Of what, he wasn’t sure, but it was going to be a good day.
The city hadn’t woken up yet. It was still dark out—the sky was navy blue and the streetlights were on, lazily twinkling in the early hours.
He glanced at his phone absentmindedly, and an email from his manager appeared on his notifications.
The marketing campaign you designed for Divinity’s wellness brand is outstanding. They’ve seen a monster rise in sales since using your social strategy. Great work.
He couldn’t stop the goofy grin that crawled across his face.
Ayaan shifted his weight, burrowing his head into the pillow, and glanced to his left where Neha slept, still spent from last night’s antics.
Neha Dev was a model—she’d recently landed a campaign with an up-and-coming South Asian fashion house. Her star was on the rise, and he liked feeling the warmth of its glow.
And they had shared a bed at her place, around the corner from his best friend Kai’s, for what felt like the millionth time in the last year.
He’d say she was his—they’d been dating for some time, after all—but that felt too committed…as though they’d never get a chance to be anyone else’s. He wasn’t ready for that.
Not to mention they broke up every few weeks for a myriad of reasons: he’d eyed the waitress in front of her, she’d gotten too close to an old flame on the dance floor, he’d forgotten to call her back, and therefore, she “wasn’t a priority,” and a couple of times he barely remembered because they’d both been too drunk.
But as he watched her sleep, her long black hair with chestnut-brown highlights splayed out on the pillow after a passionate night of not resting, the jolt inside his chest told him he certainly felt something. Perhaps even something strong.
He appreciated her confidence, her drive, and her focus. It was sexy as hell being with a woman who had no problem saying she was busy but that she’d make time for him later. Selfishly, it allowed him his freedom, which he’d moved from London for, and it made their reunions that much more fun when they’d been apart for a few days, hustling at their respective endeavors.
Yeah. Neha was a catch. And she gave him something to look forward to. God knows he didn’t have much of that in London…to Ayaan, Neha was synonymous with the hope New York offered him, away from his family, obligation, and the weight that dragged him down when he spent too much time around them.
He rolled over, ready to sleep again, when his phone vibrated loudly on the bedside table.
Scrambling so he wouldn’t wake her, he grabbed it and jumped out of bed, glancing down at the screen as he made his way to the bathroom for a private space where he could speak.
Ayaan wondered if Arun sensed his passing thoughts about the family. His older brother consistently forgot—or, Ayaan knew, likely didn’t care—that there was a five-hour difference between them, and calling at noon in London still meant Ayaan had to answer at the ass crack of dawn in New York.
“Do you ever consider that I could still be sleeping?” he furiously whispered as a form of greeting when he’d shut himself into the white-tiled space.
“I do,” Arun said in an infuriatingly smug way. “But if I depended on your ability to get out of bed and be productive, then I’d be waiting forever, wouldn’t I?”
Ayaan bristled but refused to take the bait. “What’s up? Did I miss a birthday or something?”
“While that wouldn’t be surprising, no, I was calling to see how you’re doing.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to pick me up off the floor. I’ve died of surprise.”
“You’re hilarious,” Arun replied, sounding bored. “We had dinner with Mum and Dad last night. Mum said she missed you. I thought I’d give you a call to see how you’re holding up across the pond.”
“I’m doing well. I’ve been seeing someone.”
He blurted it out before he knew what he was saying, and he had no idea why. Perhaps he was prompted by the way Neha had elicited tenderness out of him just moments before, or perhaps he was ready to settle down after all. Or—even he wasn’t dense enough to deny it—perhaps he wanted a moment to bond with his older brother…a moment where Arun was proud that his wayward younger sibling had landed a steady girl and a beautiful one at that, and he’d give Ayaan a virtual pat on the back for finally doing something right for a change.
Maybe he’d tell Ayaan how he’d pined for Sarika, his wife—and, Ayaan would admit to anyone who would listen, the best thing to ever happen to the Malhotra family—since they were preteens, feigning surprise each time that she was at dinner parties their families attended when in truth, he’d asked his parents for days who would be attending, hoping her name would come up. Maybe he’d say he was happy Ayaan had found anything that bordered on a similar thrill.
“Well, it’s about time,” Arun said instead. There was no warmth, just the tone of an impending lecture ahead.
Ayaan pushed away the stab of disappointment. “I have no idea what that means, but she’s great. She’s smart and funny—”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a model. She graduated from—”
“A model, Ayaan? Seriously?” Arun’s exasperation was impossible to miss.
“What? What’s wrong about that?”
“You know Mum and Dad are worried about you settling down, don’t you? You’re over thirty. At some point, you’re going to have to buckle down, go for a nice girl with some prospects for the family, and quit being such a noncommittal flake.”
“I just told you I was in a relationship.”
“Did you now?” Arun sounded amused. “I thought you said you were ‘seeing someone,’ like how you would describe seeing a therapist…which, by the way, you should probably do.”
“Oh, fuck off, Arun,” Ayaan grumbled.
“Anyway…aside from your dating life, I kind of lied about why I called.”
“Is everyone okay? Is Sarika all right?”
“Everything’s great—for me, especially. Dad is going to name me CEO of Veer.”
The words hung in the air, and Ayaan, who had been running his fingers through his hair, grasped onto it in shock instead.
“Why are you surprised? I’ve been running the show behind the scenes for years.”
“I—I thought they were still deciding—besides, Dad isn’t retiring yet, is he?”
“If you were around more often, you’d know that Dad’s thinking about stepping down early and staying on the board instead.”
“And so you’re getting the job?”
Arun seemed to grow exasperated. “Yes. How many times do I have to repeat myself?”
“I’m just surprised. I thought there was more time—I could—”
“What? You could take over instead?”
“No,” Ayaan said slowly. “I thought I could be be included in the new direction.”
“If you have any CMO candidates, send them our way. Vincent is leaving for non-profit life and I’m leading the search.”
His brother had turned the knife painfully. Had they not considered Ayaan as the rightful fit for the Chief Marketing Officer job?
His silence wasn’t taken well.
“Well, I’ll take that silence as congratulation,” Arun said. “But as a note of advice—”
“You mean as a directive?”
Arun continued as though he hadn’t heard Ayaan. Come to think of it, he probably hadn’t. “You need to grow up, Ayaan. Get it together. That’s probably why Dad didn’t consider you for the advancement of the company.” Then he dug the knife in a little more. “Given your history, I’d think you’d try twice as hard to prove yourself but you keep demonstrating you don’t deserve a second chance.”
Then he hung up.
Ayaan stared at the phone, tempted to hurl it against the wall before deciding that it wasn’t worth paying more money to Apple to compensate for a moment’s frustration.
He set the phone on the counter, leaning against the sink and staring at his face in the mirror.
Traces of dark bags under his eyes were visible, souvenirs from late nights out. A five o’clock shadow gave his face a ragged appearance, though he was nearly always clean-cut and took pride in his good looks.
“You’re not lazy and you’re not worthless,” he whispered to himself.
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Evita’s pulse raced. It was a man on the youngish side with shaggy golden-brown hair. He wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt and had his hands in his pockets. Sauntering along barefoot like he hadn’t a care in the world and striding toward the house like he owned it.
But he didn’t own it.
The owners were in Kenya, and the Machados had been told that this cottage was theirs.
“Okay enough.” Chachi yanked his cell from his pocket. “I’m dialing 9-1-1.”
“Wait,” Kendra said. “Maybe there’s been some mistake?”
Evita’s mom huffed. “What kind of mistake?”
Eunice nodded. “An accidental double booking? I mean…” She glanced around and nodded at the gin bottle then at the approaching guy. “They don’t seem like the sort to squat. Do they? Just look at him.”
“He does look kind of preppy,” Robby said.
“Shh!” Chachi warned. “He’s coming closer.” And he was. He’d just passed the firepit and was almost to the covered porch.
Her sisters-in-law were making sense. The civilized thing to do would be to confront these people first and discuss the situation. Maybe there really had been some sort of mix-up? Once the Machados explained they had the week, surely the other group would understand. Might even apologize for getting the dates wrong on their calendars. Then they’d pack up and go, and problem solved! Her parents had been looking forward to this week so much, and so had she. “Let me handle this.”
“Evita, no,” her mom said. But she was halfway to the French doors.
“Excuse me!” she said when the guy was almost to her.
He stared at her long and hard. Then blinked.
“Evita?” he asked. Wait. How did he--
Her heart pounded like a kettle drum. His voice was deeper. Richer. Now a smooth baritone. Tiny shivers raced down her spine. It couldn’t really be him, could it? Part of her wanted it to be, but another part was terrified. For his sake, mostly. Her parents would freak first, and then toss him out on his ear. They’d never liked the idea of Evita being around Ryan, even when they weren’t together romantically. No fault of hers. She would have seized that opportunity in a heartbeat. “Ryan?” she asked uncertainly. “Ryan Hatfield?”
“Yeah” he said with an air of confusion. “That’s me.” Her head spun and her world went topsy turvy. He was so much better looking than she remembered. All grown up but with those same amazing brown eyes and that heart-melting grin. Her stomach flipped, memories flooding her. They used to sneak off campus for coffee in high school. They’d quickly go through the drive-through then arrive back at their school parking lot, chuckling about their sneaky deed.
“Come on,” she said, nudging him. “You know you want your java.”
He laughed, unaware she was flirting. Darn it. He never picked up on that. “My java, right,” he said, drawing out the word. “Like you don’t need your fix?”
“Guilty as charged,” she responded, grinning. “But at least our addiction’s legal.”
“All right.” Ryan raked a hand through his hair, and it flopped back down in sexy waves. “I’ll drive.” He sat behind the wheel and glanced her way. “I want you to know you’re corrupting me.”
“Am I?” she asked, pleased. She buckled her seat belt. “Good.” She only wished she could corrupt him more. By covering him with kisses…
She stared down at her clothes, remembering she was in Nantucket and covered in baby vomit. Nooo. She probably reeked too. Her hand shot to the side of her head, hiding the barrette and the biggest blotch of nasty.
Ryan’s face registered concern. “Are you all right? You look a little—”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Ha-ha. My niece she…” she winced, “…had a little accident.”
“I see that,” he said, like he couldn’t. Or maybe he could? His sister was several years younger, so maybe he remembered some baby stuff. Like about how unpredictable they could be. Also terribly embarrassing. And it was hard to imagine being much more embarrassed than she felt now. Running into her old high school crush all these years later. Looking—and smelling—like this.
“I’m kind of surprised to see you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Her face flushed hot. “I, uh. I’m here with my family.”
He gave her a dazed look. “Funny. So am I.”
The Hatfields arrived on cue, traipsing up the wooden steps from the beach. Mr. Hatfield stopped walking when he saw Evita. He wore a white button-down shirt cuffed at the sleeves. His business slacks were rolled up at the ankles. Those had to be his shoes and socks in the house. His tie, too, more than likely.
Ryan’s teenage sister yelped like she’d seen an alien. “Ahh! Who’s that?”
Evita startled and dropped the hand shielding her hair.
Maddy shrieked again. “Is that our maid?” she asked in horror.
“No.” Ryan’s mom covered her mouth, looking like she might faint. “It’s a Machado.”
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