Read King: las vegas bad boys Online

Authors: Frankie Love

King: las vegas bad boys

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KINGLas Vegas Bad BoysKINGLas Vegas Bad BoysFrankie LoveContents

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

McQUEEN

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

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EditedbyLarks and Katydids

Cover byMayhem Cover Creations

Copyright © 2016 by Frankie Love

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Chapter OneLandon

Idon’t livemy life for anyone but me. Does that make me a dick? According to my family, sure. But family isn’t everything.

Right now, the thing I’m most interested in is finding a nice piece of ass to take back to my suite tonight.

Is this something out of the ordinary? No. I like to fuck—no hiding that. And what I like more is a woman who’s fearless in the bedroom. I don’t want some girl I can train into dominating.

I don’t want to be calledSir. I want to be called a motherfucking King.

Besides, I’m not into that hardcore shit. I just like to spank an ass, use a blindfold, tie a girl up to the bedpost while I lick her pussy.

And, looking around this wedding reception, I can’t help but think there must be some girl here looking for a hook-up that’s less risky than swiping through Tinder.

“When they said their vows, I thought I’d just melt,” Tess says, her tone reflecting absolute longing. “I want what Ace and Emmy have so much it hurts.”

Tess, sitting next to me at the wedding party table, sighs into her Lemon Drop cocktail. She’s the epitome of sappy bridesmaid.

I smile tightly at her desire to be partnered up. I held her arm as we walked down the aisle, and I swear I could see her heart pitter-patter through the strapless pink chiffon.

“Chin up, Tess,” I say, offering her my best groomsman pep-talk. “Surely there’s some chap here you fancy.” I look around the room appraisingly, wanting to find myself a woman to bang.

The wedding reception is small—neither Emmy nor Ace have any family—but there are business associates and friends in attendance. Still, only fifty or so people have gathered here today, and Ace was adamant about no paparazzi.

Jack appreciates it, and his on-and-off girlfriend, Grammy-award-winning pop star Ashley Fast hangs on him with the same starry eyes Tess has.

I don’t want any woman like that tonight. Sure, a nice wedding always gets a girl’s panties wet—but I’m an asshole, and not interested in a woman looking for anything longer than one night. Some women get so damn clingy after a night with me, and I can’t handle a girl like that.

Ace and Emmy are on the dance floor, swaying to their first dance. I truly thought Ace would be above all this wedding bullshit, but Emmy has his nuts in a pretty tight grip. Not that I blame him. Emmy is an absolute gem of a girl. I understand why Ace fell so hard, so fast. Plus, I’m sure she’s absolutely banging in the bedroom.

I mean, with a rack like that—which, I know, not cool to talk about my friends wife that way—but the truth is, what Ace has found isn’t something I want. Not in the least. I’ve spent my life avoiding commitments and running from my posh, old-money childhood. Running from my father’s estate, and his wishes that I’d come home and work in the family business.

But my stick-up-his-ass brother Geoffrey has always held that role. And I learned early on that I wanted nothing to do with him and his long-time girlfriend Fiona. They’re wound up so tight they give me a fucking ulcer just being around them.

Everyone claps as Ace dips Emmy low at the end of the song. They’re laughing, all smiles, and my shoulders tighten as I take another glance around the room. There are some women over at the bar holding up their phones, but they look tacky as hell taking selfies at a fucking reception. At this point I’ll consider one of the waitresses—they might be my best bet for tonight.

The band, playing old jazz standards, opens up the dance floor and McQueen, who sits next to me, takes Tess’s hand like the gentleman he isn’t, and leads her to the dance floor. Jack and Ashley follow them, and the lights dim as couples find their way.

“Landon, you need to ask someone to dance, bro,” Ace says, coming up behind me. “You kinda look like an ass sitting alone.”

“I’m not alone,” I say, looking across the table at Emmy’s friend Claire, who’s still sitting here. But she’s nearly as bad as the selfie girls; she’s been looking down at her phone in her lap all throughout the reception.

Emmy takes a seat next to Claire, and I see a smile stretch tightly across Claire’s face. Her eyes are brighter than they have been throughout the reception, but I can tell it isn’t genuine. I know, who the hell am I to judge her, right? I just appreciate she isn’t starry-eyed like Tess and Ashley.

“Go dance with Claire, asshat,” Ace tells me. “She looks sad as fuck.”

“You see that, too?”

“Yeah, Emmy says she’s been off lately. Stressed out about money and shit. I feel bad for her, in all honesty. Tried to give her a raise, but she said it was ridiculous to pay her twice as much as the other cocktail girls. That girl doesn’t want hand-outs.”

“So she isn’t a gold-digger?”

“Hardly. She’s a pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps kind of girl.”

“Okay, I’ll dance with her. I just can’t deal with a clinger right now.”

“Then Claire’s your girl. And, fuck, looking around this reception, you don’t have many other options.”

“So you don’t mind me leaving with Claire tonight?”

“Shit, dude,” Ace says, laughing. “I said dance with her, not fuck her.”

“Ace, hate to break it to you, man—but one dance with me and she’ll want me for more.”

* * *

Claire

Don’t get me wrong. I like happily-ever-afters, and this Ace and Emmy thing is a freaking Cinderella dream-come-true. I don’t begrudge them their happiness. They went through so much crap to get here today. Iwantthem to go off on their honeymoon in Tahiti riding a freaking unicorn.

It’s just not always sugar plum fairies in the real world, and I can’t help but wonder what happens next for them? Because I’m the freaking poster child for dashed dreams and grin-and-bear-it, crash courses in reality.

But who wants to listen to my sob story right now? I sure as hell don’t. Especially when this wedding is about my friend.

And, okay, I call her my friend ... but I am a pretty shitty one.

I haven’t been honest with Emmy ... like, at all. Not even a little. But she counts me as one of her closest friends—heck, I’m a bridesmaid in her wedding—and eventually I will open up and tell her and Tess my not-so-little secret.

I’m a private person. And, as a rule, I don’t mix work with my personal life. I didn’t expect to take this job and meet these girls who see me as a sister.

So, I will tell them ... it just hasn’t been the right time yet.

The last few months have been the Ace-and-Emmy whirlwind, and then they planned this wedding in like ten days. And the truth is, I do think they are a teeny bit insane.

Like, maybe take the next year and be engaged and actually get to know one another. Like, maybe don’t rush down the aisle before you live together for a month and learn about the terrible habits your partner has. Like, maybe spend a year figuring out if this guy is actually the person you want to make babies with.

You know—all the things I should have done before I got pregnant.

This afternoon while we were at the spa getting our entire bodies waxed and shined and sprayed for the wedding, I kept checking my phone, and it was driving Tess and Emmy nuts.

They kept asking who I was texting. And I should have just said it right then and there. But I didn’t, because it felt weird to tell them after spending three months in their company when I hadn’t dropped any hints.

Now it would just be awkward.

So I made excuses.

“My mom doesn’t now how to figure out her refinance loan and she keeps texting, asking what APR means.”

Which was true. Iwasbeen texting my mom, but not about a refinance. And sure, sheisrefinancing and doesn’t know what an APR is, but that wasn’t why she was texting right then. She was texting because Sophia was sick, and she wanted to know if I knew where the children’s Tylenol was.

They know I live with my mom in her condo, and that I’ve lived in Vegas my whole life. What they don’t know is who else lives with us.

Emmy sits with me, after her and Ace’s first dance. I slide my phone into my clutch and then squeeze her hand.

“It’s all been so perfect, Emmy.”

“Thanks, Claire. I don’t understand how there hasn’t been one single catastrophe today. It’s all been seamless.”

I can’t help but think when they’re able to throw thousands of dollars at everything they do, things do seem to happen without a hitch.

“I can’t believe you’re going to Tahiti,” I say, picking up my flute of champagne. I catch Landon looking at me from across the table and I turn back to Emmy without pausing on him. Or his chocolatey eyes, or his chiseled jawline.

Ace’s friends are not my type ... I need regular. I want a guy who spends his weekends fly fishing or working in the garage on a car. Not these bad boys.

I’ve had enough bad boys in my life. Well, I’ve had enough of one particular bad boy, and I will never fall for another one as long as I live.

“I can’t believe you’re not dancing, Claire,” Emmy says. “You’ve been so wound up lately.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “I’m chill. I’m smiling.” I flash her a tight grin that’s not at all sincere. “Sorry, things have been stressful. You know that. And my mom is trying to refinance her condo, and she keeps asking me how to make the Internet work. Like, those are the actual words she used.”

Emmy smiles, and I do, too. My mom’s last text was actually a relief. Sophia’s fever was gone, and after fighting it all day she was asleep for the night.

“Excuse me,” Landon says, standing next to me. I didn’t even notice him get up from the table. “Would you care to dance?”

Okay, I know I’ve said Ace’s friends aren’t my type—and they aren’t. But Landon’s English accent is actually pretty hot. As in very hot. Like, the hottest.

“Oh,” I say, caught off guard. “Yeah, sure.” I raise my eyebrows, setting down the champagne.

He takes my hand, leading me to the dance floor, and I tell my shoulders to relax. Yes, that is something I actually have to command. Because Emmy is absolutely right.

I have been wound up lately.

Or, more like, I’ve been wound up for five years straight.

I’m a twenty-four year old single mom in Las Vegas—a cocktail waitress trying to make life as stable as possible for my five-year-old daughter. Which isn’t easy when I’m doing it all on my own.

And there isn’t a man in sight who’s up for the task of helping me balance it all.


Page 2

Chapter TwoLandon

Claire may be no-nonsense—but she’s also rather hot. Her platinum-blonde hair and always-on bright red lipstick make her an absolute bombshell.

So why have I never attempted to shag her before? Mostly because Ace told me if I so much as tried, he would murder me. And considering he grew up in the mob, I tend to believe him.

And, secondly, Claire isn’t my typical conquest. She’s ... well, how do I put it? She’s quite adult. I’ve been out with her and the crew numerous times, but she’s never gotten drunk, never let any bloke get too close—certainly never gone home with anyone. She always pays her own tab and doesn’t chat about trivial things, like the celebrity sightings in the casino that get Tess and Emmy all bubbly.

She is, like I’ve said, much more mature for her age than I’ve ever been—than I am. Fuck. I’m twenty-seven, and a completely worthless asshole compared to her. And yet, as I lead Claire to the dance floor, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to sleep with her.

She isn’t a stick-up-her-ass adult, mind you. She’s clever. And funny. And gorgeous. She’s just not frivolous. Which is actually quite an appealing combination.

She just seems a bit out of the league I usually play in.

Which isn’t to say I can’t have her. Ace is going to be off with Emmy, headed to a honeymoon in the South Pacific. He doesn’t bloody well need to know about Claire and me having a little post-wedding rendezvous.

“So, Claire, how are you this evening?” I ask, wrapping an arm around her waist. I’ve never been this close to her before, and as she places one hand on my shoulder and takes my hand in other, I can’t help but think that I like the way she fits against me.

I’m rather tall and lean, whereas Claire is average height and her body is quite slight—narrow shoulders, not curvy or voluptuous.

Rather, Claire is a classic beauty, save for her bright blonde hair. Still, even with her loud hair, she isn’t gaudy and excessive. And besides her signature red lips, there’s little make up on her face. Her skin is naturally bronzed from plenty of time in the Vegas heat, and her eyes are bright, alive. A gorgeous green.

And, being this close to her, I’m actually quite taken by the way she hums along with this old jazzy tune. The way her body seems to rest into mine as we glide over the dance floor. And she actually appears to know how to waltz. I haven’t waltzed in years—not since they forced us to learn at the boarding school mum and dad sent Geoffrey and me to—yet we’ve unconsciously found a rhythm.

“Are we waltzing?” I ask Claire, leaning close. My lips graze her ear as I speak, and a smile finds its way across my usually sharp and sarcastic face. Fuck, this woman smells amazing, too—honeysuckle and vanilla—and I would inhale her if that weren’t a very creepy thing to do in public.

Claire lets out a sigh, and I swear she’s just breathed me in, too. “I was obsessed with learning these stuffy dances when I was a girl. Forced my mother to get me lessons at a dance hall where a very old woman named Mrs. Macarthur taught me. No one else knows how to waltz. But you do,” she says, crinkling her eyes in surprise as we continue to float across the room.

“I do. I know quite a lot of things, actually.”

“What else do you know, Landon, blackjack player extraordinaire and self-proclaimed asshole?”

“Fucking bullocks. You already know all there is to know about me. I’m just a washed-up Englishman far from home.”

“You’re all talk, Landon,” Claire says, smirking. Her lip curls in such a teasing way that I’m sure when she’s in a bedroom she knows exactly how to play. “I heard you’ve taken the lead with the property investment that Ace was wrapped up with. That isn’t something a washed-up Englishman would do.”

“I suppose.” I shouldn’t be surprised Claire knows about the property, I’m sure Emmy tells her everything. “But I don’t even know what I’ll do with that half-burned down space.”

“I’m sure someone as smart as you will figure it out.” Claire squeezes my hand as the song comes to an end, and suddenly I don’t want to let her go.

I want to take off her dress, if I’m being honest.

We stand on the dance floor, arms still holding one another, and the MC calls everyone to watch as Ace and Emmy cut their cake.

I swallow, all of a sudden wanting Claire so badly. I want to see her glowing skin bare, her blonde tresses pulled down, my hands running over all of her.

Fuck. My cock twitches in desire.

Claire turns her head, and I follow her gaze. We watch as Ace and Emmy cut their cake, shoving it in one another’s faces. It’s sugary sweet, the entire thing.

“Do you want to go somewhere with me?” I ask Claire.

“Is it somewhere less ... I don’t know ... perfect?” She looks around the ballroom filled with bouquets of red roses—Emmy’s signature flower. There are piles of decadent food and glossy people and flawless ambience. “It’s an awful lot to take.”

I see then that the reason Claire doesn’t have eyes all starry like Tess and Ashley is because she’s jaded, bruised. Not like Emmy—not because of a sordid past full of drugs and whatnot. No, Claire has had her heart broken and she can only take so much love-at-first-sight nonsense.

Good. She’s even better to take to my suite than I thought. She won’t get clingy after tonight. She isn’t looking for forever, because she doesn’t believe in it.

“I’m taking you to my room, and we’re going to fuck ourselves silly. It won’t be rose petals and love notes. It will be hot sex, just one night.”

“I can’t do one night,” she says, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve read her all wrong. But then she licks her lips, smiles. “I can only do one hour.”

* * *

Claire

I don’t do hook-ups, mostly because the guys who offer them are creeps at the casino. And Landon is a casino junky, and an absolute no-go as far as boyfriend material is concerned. To be honest, what I’m really looking for is father material.

But I can’t help but feel myself get hot at the idea of his hands on my skin, his body pressed tight to mine ... oh, God, I’ve never been with anyone as sexy as Landon.

Those regular shmoes I’ve been dating don’t have ripped muscles and strong jawlines and absolutely panty-wetting accents. Beer bellies are kind of a guarantee.

Landon does not have a beer belly. He has a rock-hard chest, at least from what I could tell as he led me around the dance floor.

“Well,” Landon says. “If you can only spare one singular hour, we’d best be getting on.”

“We should wait until they’re off, shouldn’t we?”

“Look,” Landon says, pointing at the happy couple. “They’re ready for their wedding night to begin as much as we are. Watch.”

The MC directs everyone to wish the bride and groom a happy life, as Emmy tosses her bouquet into the crowd. Tess dives for it. Bless her heart, of course she does.

Then Ace sweeps his bride up in his arms and they’re off, toward the helicopter on the top of the casino, to the airport and Tahiti and most likely ridiculously amazing beach sex.

I’m not jealous, I’m just really, really horny all of a sudden. Standing so close to Landon is getting me all bothered.

Reaching for a flute of champagne that a waiter carries on a tray, I take a swig of liquid courage. I need it. Before today’s spa with Tess and Emmy, I hadn’t been properly trimmed down there in well, years.

To say I’m a bit rusty in the sex department is an understatement. Sex with hotties is never on my priority list. That’s usually taken up with Kindergarten drop-off and bedtime stories.

So. Okay. The truth is I haven’t had sex with anyone since Sophia was born.

Five years ago.

Sex is never on the agenda. And most of those guys I date don’t get past second base. Because if isn’t going to be the real deal, I don’t have time to waste.

“Let me grab my purse and you can do with me whatever you like.”

I mean it. I need it. I don’t even know if I know how to do it anymore. But for one hour, I want to try and remember.

Landon slides an arm across my back, smoothly guides me to our table where I grab my clutch, then expertly holds the door for me as we walk to the bank of elevators.

I don’t know how these hook-ups work. But from the looks of it, Landon is a player, a bad boy, who knows exactly how they operate.

If I’m going to have sex for the first time in an embarrassingly long time ... I’m actually very glad it’s with someone like him.

Someone who’s not a man I’d ever bring home, not a man I’d ever sleep with twice. Not a man I’d give more than one hour, one time.

Chapter ThreeLandon

“Are you nervous?” I ask, tossing my suit coat on a chair in the corner. Claire bites her lip, seemingly very out of her element.

We’re standing in my suite. I’ve gotten myself a permanent space here, set up courtesy of Ace. Considering what I spend a month at the casino, the room rate is a joke. Being able to call myself a serious blackjack player—which is an oxymoron in and of itself—is a perk of being the son of a diamond tycoon.

“I just ... I haven’t done this in a while.”

“Done what?” I ask, my brows furrowing as I pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. It’s all she drank tonight, and the moment I let her in my room, it was clear she needs to loosen up some more.

Pouring a glass, I hand it to her, and she looks up at me with those piercing green eyes.

“It’s beenawhile.” She shrugs, dropping her eyes to the floor.

“Ahh.” This is quite shocking, actually; Claire is confident and drips sex appeal. She’s classic and smart—and hell, her legs in those fishnets she wears around the casino each day ... there’s no way men aren’t shagging her left and right.

“I don’t know why I told you that. That was stupid. Iwantto do this. With you. I need to do this. I never do anything for myself. And so, I shouldn’t be weird about it. Or nervous. Right?”

Rambling women usually give me a headache, but Claire’s rambling reveals a softer side to her that I’ve never seen before. It’s actually quite precious.

“Claire, relax. It’s me. I’m not a stranger. And this is just sex. At least for me it is. Is that the problem? You want this to be ... more?”

“Oh, God no,” she says, so emphatically I actually start to laugh. My ego is impossible to bruise—but I do, however, appreciate her honesty. “This is for one hour. Only.”

“Got it, one hour,” I say. “And if you’re apprehensive about your ... err, skills ... I can take control of the situation.”

Claire swallows a sip of champagne and nods eagerly. “Yes, just—please, Landon, don’t make me feel like a idiot.”

“Never.”

I take the flute from her hand and set it on the table. Then I wrap my arms around her and find the zipper of her dress. I slide it down, inch by inch, and feel my cock grow in desire as the dress gives way and falls to the floor.

Claire takes a sharp indrawn breath, suddenly naked save for the strapless bra and tiny thong crossing her soft skin.

“You are divine,” I tell her.

“Shut up.”

“You are. Now don’t be coy with me.”

Her hands reach to the collar of my dress shirt and she slowly eases off my tie. It falls between her fingers as she drops it to the floor. Button by button, she moves her fingers down my chest. I tug off the shirt once she’s finished.

“Now the trousers,” I direct.

A soft smile plays on her face; she tugs on my belt, whipping it from the loops. It hits the floor, and she quickly unbuttons my pants. I know she’ll get wet when she sees what I have for her.

My cock is thick and massive, the kind a girl like Claire, who hasn’t been properly fucked in far too long, is going to love.

My trousers fall to the floor and my hard rod has sprung to life under my boxers.

“This is really happening,” Claire says, her voice full of soft surprise.

“Do you want it to happen?”

“Badly.”

I unclasp her bra and her perfect tits fall out. They are full and round, with faded stretch marks on the sides, reminding me that Claire is a fucking woman. Her breast are gorgeous and her hard little nipples beg me to lean in, kiss her skin.

She inhales as my lips reach her breast; her flat stomach pulls in as she holds her breath.

“It’s okay, Claire. You’re perfect.”

The tiniest hint of insecurity flashes over her body. Her hips pivot; her head turns away for a moment. I cup my hands on her face, reflexively, holding her still. Not wanting her to look away. I want to fuck her, sure. But I also want her to know it’s perfectly okay to enjoy it.

* * *

Claire

Tiny memories of the last time I had sex flash though my mind. Sophia’s father’s rough voice, bruises and tequila and shattered glass. A much younger me, a much stupider me.

Nothing about that night was soft. Not like this. Not like now. Landon may be a player ... but he isn’t treating me like a piece of meat. I think I knew that, deep down, the moment he started leading me around the dance floor.

He’s an ass, for sure—he sleeps with a different woman every night—but he’s also a decent man. He’s trustworthy, solid.

He knows how to waltz.

And, right now, I have to admit he is being a gentleman. That’s something I never thought I’d say about Landon, yet with his hands on my body and his hot breath in my ear, I know it’s the truth.

“Let yourself enjoy this, Claire,” he says, kneeling before me, his hands on the sides of my panties, tugging down the fabric, over my thighs, past my knees, to my feet.

I swallow, realizing this is really happening. The very thing I thought might never happen again is happening. I’ve been terrified of sleeping with someone again and getting pregnant on the first try, but it’s obvious Landon is the kind of bad boy who makes sure accidents don’t happen.

Landon’s face presses against my flesh, where my thighs meet my opening, and soft kisses flutter over my sensitive skin. I groan, my eyes closing, and instantly wish I’d been silent.

But Landon seems to respond to my voice. His mouth covers my mound, and his tender kisses become heated, and soon his hand slides between my thighs, inching my legs apart. His hand caresses my skin, grazing the lips of my entrance.

“Over here,” he says, standing and grabbing my ass, lifting me with what appears to be zero effort and laying me on the edge of the bed. He kneels on the floor, pulling my knees toward him, parting my legs as I try to catch up to what is happening.

The bedspread is soft and luxuriant, the light dim, a soft glow cast about the room. Landon’s face is covered in shadows that give him an even sexier, dark, and handsome look. His edges are hard, but his hands are so soft.

His head lowers between my legs, his mouth pressing into me. He licks my pussy up and down, fast, and then slips his tongue into me, slowly. He holds my thighs in his arms, as if he knows just how to maneuver my body into his face, so that he can get in me with the perfect mounting pressure.

My pussy drips, and I know I said it’s been a long time since anyone has touched me like this, there. But the truth is, I’ve never had a man kiss me this way.

This? This is a melt on the bed, better-than-my-vibrator,I’ll never be the same againsort of kiss. There is no way that I can believe it feels like this every time a girl has a man go down on her. They’d be grinning from the memory every moment of their lives.

Landon uses his hands to touch my folds as he sucks my clit, and then I feel myself soaking his face as my pussy comes in pleasure. My hands find his hair. I run my fingers through his locks, biting my lip as I foolishly attempt to suppress a moan.

There’s no point. My legs quiver as he refuses to stop the penetration with his perfect mouth. He flicks my clit, sliding his tongue across my opening again, faster and with more pressure. The movement fills my core with desire. My legs shake; my back arches. I gasp his name.

“Landon, this is ... so good.” I cover my face with my hands, sweat on my chest, goosebumps trailing my skin. He just gave me an orgasm I’ve only read about.

He stands, slips off his boxers, and crawls onto the bed, his eyes filled with hunger. When he straddles me, his stiff cock is more than impressive. Of course his rod is hard and long; he wouldn’t be a Vegas sex-King if he had nothing to work with.

I lick my lips, not even aware of the movement, but Landon is. His smile is cocky and smooth, and so gorgeous.

“Scoot back,” he tells me. “On the pillows. I want you to be comfortable.”

“I’m more than comfortable,” I tell him, doing as he asks. My head falls onto a pile of feather-filled pillows, and I sink into the decadence.

“I can see that,” he says hovering over me, his chest all molded, ripped muscles—complete strength.

“Will you come in me?” I ask him, my voice a whisper. I have never had a longing like this before, but his cock makes me wet all over again, as it presses against me. “I want this, Landon.”

“I do, too,” he says, leaning down, covering my mouth with a kiss, soft and sweet. My lips part, and our tongues mingle. I taste myself on him and it causes me to moan again.

My legs wrap around him, his hands push back my hair softly, and we roll over, so I’m on top of him. Our eyes meet; time seems to pause. I’m breathing hard and heavy, anticipating what comes next, him entering me with his thickness, his completely capable body melding against mine.

I thought I’d want dirty sex, hard and fast, to just get my first time post-baby out of the way. I always thought if I hooked up with a guy it would be against a wall, something rushed and off-the-cuff—but ever since I walked into this suite, it’s felt tender.

Every movement Landon makes feels sincere.

And maybe it’s because he’s just that good of a player.

Or maybe I just needed this time to be sweet and soft. And maybe the universe decided, for once in my fucking life, to give me what I needed.

Landon reaches over to the nightstand for a condom, rips it open. And every inch of my skin drips with longing for him to be inside me. I’ve never felt a man touch me like Landon does now. His fingers run across my breasts, my stomach, before he moves to slide on the protection.

He feels safe. He feels like the only kind of hook-up I could really have.

And, as he unrolls the condom over his thick cock, my phone rings.

The ringtone reserved for my mom—and she only ever calls if it is important.

“Oh, shit,” I say, climbing off him and his perfectly-formed body. I want him so bad, but Sophia is my everything. I reach for the phone in my clutch.

“Hello?” I say.

“So sorry, I hate to call, I know you’re at the wedding, but Sophia’s fever spiked again, sweetie. She’s begging for you.”

Swallowing, I look at Landon, who watches me confused. I’m sure women never stop that ride for a phone call.

But I doubt most women he hooks up with are mothers.

“No, I’m glad you called. I’ll leave now.”

Hanging up, I reach for my underclothes.

“Sorry, Landon, but ... I’ve—”

He sits up, raises his hands for me to stop. “No,” he says. “It’s fine. I don’t need an explanation.”

“But....” I start. The truth is, though, I don’t want to give him an explanation. How could I, when I haven’t even explained my situation to Emmy and Tess? “Okay. Well, thanks. For ... everything.” I know my voice hitches, and for a bizarre second I almost feel like I could cry.

I pick up my clothes from the floor, embarrassment flooding my chest. And I hate that. I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I let myself have this short escape with Landon, and I also shouldn’t feel embarrassed that I need to go home to my daughter.

If my life were different—if I were different—Landon and I would have made love all night, ordered room service and drank fancy French-pressed coffee in the morning, with buttery croissants.

But that isn’t my life. I’m not that girl. I’m a mom, and I need to get home to my daughter.


Page 3

Chapter FourLandon

When Claire leaves, I briefly consider calling for one of the escort services that Ace so conveniently has listed in a binder in each room of his hotel.

My cock is fucking stiff like it’s never been before. I’ve haven’t had this much wood without a woman nearby since I first got a hard-on as a thirteen-year-old boy.

I don’t call for an escort, but only because at that moment the only person I want to fuck is Claire. Which is ridiculous. I have no idea who called her to make her pack up and go, and I’m not a nosy sonofabitch on top of everything else.

Besides, I knew before I ever brought Claire up here tonight, that she and I play in different leagues. Run in different crowds. Find entirely different things desirable.

Except, of course, we both seemed to be rather fond of my face between her tanned legs, sucking on her perfect pussy.

But that is neither here nor there at this point. She said she could spare me an hour, and I ended up with less than that. The last thing I’d ever do is ask for a round two when she couldn’t even stay for round one.

Earlier, my ego wasn’t bruised, but right now it feels quite sore. I get up from the bed and take a long cold shower, my mind filled with Claire’s tits and her soft ass and those soulful green eyes.

And I choose to move on. I must. I have plenty of things to contemplate.

Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. I don’t have anything else pressing for my attention, per se. Tomorrow there’s a blackjack tourney. I’ll work out at the gym McQueen’s convinced us all to join. Perhaps I’ll look on the Internet for possibilities for the business park. And I’m sure to ask a woman to dinner. Perhaps take her to a show. I’d say take her back here for a good old-fashioned fuck ... but, for the first time in my life, that doesn’t have any sort of appeal.

Which is concerning.

As I wrap a towel around my waist, turn on ESPN, and flip through the menu for late night room service, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something. Missing some piece of the puzzle. Missing the point, of all of this. Life. Ambition. Goals.

The other thing I can’t seem to shake is that in those minutes when Claire straddled me, when she looked into my eyes with devotion, seeming to offer me everything she had to give in that moment, I felt whole.

* * *

Claire

I get an Uber and arrive home within thirty minutes. Properly disheveled, but not at all properly screwed.

And I’m disappointed in myself for giving in to Landon. I never give in to men at the casino. But at Emmy’s wedding ... for a moment, Landon seemed different.

Which is dumb. Landon is like nearly everyone else, living in Vegas for money and sex and booze. But not me. I’m in Vegas for my daughter, to try and build a life for my little family.

I turn the key in Mom’s condo door and slip inside. I hear Sophia’s small cry right away, and I feel like shit for staying out so late.

“Sweetpea?” I call to Sophia, walking into the room she and I share at the back of the two-bedroom apartment. “Hey, love,” I say, looking down at my little girl.

Mom gives me a sympathetic shrug.

“Sorry, I know you were having fun,” Moms says, standing from where she was sitting on the edge of the bed Sophia and I share. “But Sophia just wants you. I gave her some more Tylenol, and a cool bath, I think right now the best cure is her mama.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I say, pulling Sophia into my arms.

“I missed you, Mama,” she says, her little arms tight around my neck, her legs wrapped around my waist. In an instant, she is home.

“I’m here. And Gram took good care of you, didn’t she?”

“Course she did.” I feel Sophia’s smile against my neck as she nuzzles closer.

“Thanks for everything

Mom shuts off the light to my room and I kick off my heels, pulling the duvet over Sophia and me. We sink into our bed with me still in my pink chiffon bridesmaid dress. Ace and Emmy’s wedding, their life at the Spades Royalle, and my time in Landon’s suite all seem like a dream. It always seems like that when I go down to the strip to work—all bright lights and glamour and glitz.

I don’t want or need a South Pacific honeymoon and the fourteen-jillion-carat engagement ring on Emmy’s finger. I don’t need a diamond tycoon’s son or a Grammy-nominated lover. I just want something more.

And that makes me feel like a terrible mother and a terrible daughter. I like my life on the strip. And I like my life in this apartment. I just don’t know how to bring them together.

I wonder if my life will always be here and there. Disjointed. Disconnected. Detached.

I wonder if my life will ever feel whole.

Cradled in my arms, Sophia is able to drift into sleep, her fever already fading with the healing power of being in the arms of someone who makes everything feel safe.

I close my eyes, wishing someone held me who could make me feel that way, too.

And, strangely, feeling like I had been held that way, for a sliver of a moment, when Landon hovered on top of me, looking in my eyes, seeing me in a way I didn’t understand.

Chapter FiveLandon

It’s beena solid two weeks since Ace’s wedding, and I haven’t seen Claire once. Not that I ever see her on the casino floor—her shifts are usually daytime, and I’m usually still sleeping at that hour.

Which is probably for the best. An awkward post-almost-rendezvous run-in isn’t something I necessarily want to have. I know once Ace and Emmy get back in town it will be inevitable, but what can I say? Avoiding confrontation is a fucking cornerstone of my goddamned existence.

I’ve just pulled up to the gym when the phone rings. My father.

Bloody fantastic.

“Hello?” I say into the now-parked car, Bluetooth activated.

“Landon, my boy, you sound exasperated. Surely you’re pleased to hear from your father.”

“Is everything alright?” I ask, not really interested in the never-ending small-talk-chatter my parents expertly engage in. Some English families are thrifty and sparse with conversation. My parents are not.

I don’t hold much against them, but their never-ending desire for me to join my brother Geoffrey as a productive member of English society, join in the cricket league in Hertfordshire, and stroll around in wellies with a bloody retriever fetching a ball before we break for a bit and shoot for sport makes me a bit ill. My father’s dream for me is a bit much.

Especially when I spend my nights in clubs until four a.m., sleep till mid-afternoon, and don’t even need to hire the strippers who dance for me ... let’s just say our life visions thus far haven’t quite intersected.

Geoffrey and Fiona should be enough for my parents, but they aren’t. Mum and Dad insist, constantly, on calling and asking me to join them in a wet weekend at home with them in England, sipping the nostalgic tea of my childhood.

“Well, listen, son—Geoffrey and I—”

“Dad, did you you really ring to tell me about your golden boy?”

“No, Landon, I called to invite you to an important family summit this weekend.”

“A summit?” I have no idea what he is talking about. “So we’ve graduated from annual family meetings, to full-on summits, have we? Is this a ploy to get me to join the family business?”

“Basically, yes.”

I don’t answer because I have no fucking clue what I’m supposed to say.

“Landon, you there?”

“I’m here.”

“Listen, I need you here next week. I am retiring. And I need to pass the family business on to one of my boys.”

My chest tightens. Retirement? I’d always assumed it was in the far-away future for my father, although my mum has been prodding him to take a step back from he empire for years. But retire now? Passing on the business? This I did not expect.

“You’re passing it on to Geoffrey?”

“Don’t assume anything, Landon. I haven’t made up my mind. You and Geoffrey have equal holdings in the company now, but I need one man’s name on the paper. The president and CEO. Need one of my sons in charge; I’m not interested in passing on The King’s Diamond to some willy-nilly chap who’s been working up the corporate ladder. No. I want one of my boys to take over what was once a small enterprise.”

“But doesn’t Geoffrey work for you now? Surely he’s the front-runner. This seems like an unnecessary step, really.”

“No,” my father says sternly. “I haven’t given anything to Geoffrey. Sure, he has experience with this business ... but I need my successor to really care about people. To care about each diamond, and whose hand will wear that wedding ring or that necklace, to know why each purchase is special, signifies love and commitment.”

This is the point where my father can drone on and on for days about diamonds representing something solid, unbreakable. Representing love. How The King’s Diamond is more than a jewelry store, how it’s an opportunity to be a part of the greatest moments of someone’s life.

He’s still talking, and I try to concentrate, mostly hung up on the fact that he’s considering me as his successor. Is he serious?

“You know how much I want you to succeed,” he says. “I want you to put some real heart into your life. Well, I need you to come home and show me what sort of man you are.”

I’m grateful that my father hasn’t learned what Face Time is, or he’d see my aggressive eye roll, notice the way my fingers grip the steering wheel.

Is this is motherfucking joke?

“Do you know me at all, father?” I snort.

“I do, Landon. At least, I know what sort of boy you were, before this mess. Before your stint in rehab, before you ran off with that dancer. Before you landed in Vegas for the past several years drinking and gambling away my money.”

The call goes silent. My jaw clenches as I listen to his recounting of my early twenties. I don’t need him reminding me of my past.

“But I don’t think that’s who you are anymore. Or, at least, I believe in you, son. Now, I want you to come home and show me what sort of man you are.”

I don’t want to fight with him. He isn’t that macho-aggressive sort of man, the kind who bullies and pushes to get what he wants. My father is a good man, and he seems to see something in me.

But I don’t know why.

“Look, I’ll think about, but things are busy here, I don’t know if leaving in a few days is gonna work,” I tell him. The last thing I want to do is show up in Hertfordshire and remind everyone what a fucking failure I am.

* * *

In the gym, sweat runs down my back. McQueen’s personal trainer JoJo has given me a run for my fucking money.

Throwing the boxing gloves on a bench, I grab a towel.

“You’re a beast. You know that, right?” I ask her.

“That’s what all the boys say,” she teases. Her long, red hair is wild and free, and from the body in her tight little shorts, I can tell she’s strong. Fierce. I won’t mess with a woman like her.

McQueen though, doesn’t know what’s good for him.

“So, you wanna come to a poker game tonight?” he asks her.

“Hey,” I say, punching him in the shoulder. “What the fuck? That’s a men-only game.”

“But JoJo is one of the guys,” he says, shrugging.

I see JoJo stiffen at the assessment, and I try to read the silent language going on between them. I can’t tell who wants whom.

“JoJo is most certainly not one of the guys.” And she’s not. Her little tits are perky and her ass is tight.

“Fine.” McQueen smiles coyly. “We’ll hit it a different night, JoJo. Maybe you can come over and teach me some new moves.”

“We’ll see about that, won’t we?” she says, laughing, waving us off toward the locker rooms.

“What the hell was that?” I ask him, as I open the locker where my things are stashed.

“The hell was what?”

“Do you have a thing for JoJo?” I ask. “She’s not your type, at all.”

“What the fuck do you know about my type?”

“I know you usually go out with women you meet at your shows. Not girls like JoJo.”

McQueen is a male dancer and DDs aren’t even on his radar. He likes big, plastic, and usually more than one at a time.

“I’m just teasing JoJo, and she knows it.”

“Alright.” I shrug.

We split up to get showered. After I change quickly, I sling my bag over my shoulder. McQueen comes over, ready to go, and tosses me a bottle of water.

“You hear from Ace today?” I ask. “The game still on for tonight?

“Yeah, he and Emmy got home last night from Tahiti. Lucky bastard.”

We leave the gym, and head to our cars in the parking lot.

“What, you want to go to Tahiti? You should fucking go,” I tell him. Living in the moment is my motto.

“Naw, he’s lucky he has Emmy. I don’t know. Maybe I’m done being a fucking asshole in this town. Maybe it’s time to find myself a woman.”

“Like JoJo?” I ask, grinning.

“No. Not JoJo ... she’s too....”

“Confident?”

“Maybe,” McQueen admits, laughing. “I don’t know. What about you? You wanna go to Tahiti with a woman?”

“Actually, my father wants me to go to bloody England next week.”

“Really, bro?”

I fill him in on my father’s phone call, and I can see the wheels turning in McQueen’s dumbass brain.

“So what are you gonna do? Pretend you’re no longer a player? Fly home and convince them you deserve the billion dollar empire?”

“I don’t think I can pull that off. I mean, what? I buy a three-piece suit and drop the f-bombs? I don’t want to go home; it will only remind me of why I left.”

We get in our cars. We’ll meet up later for Ace’s monthly poker game.

Fuck. I gotta get my head in the game. It’s just I’m not entirely sure what game that is.

* * *

Claire

Getting dinner and drinks with Emmy and Tess is the sort of indulgence I rarely give myself. I want to go ... but Mom-guilt is a bitch.

“You sure, Mom?” I just put Sophia to bed. It’s a school night and seven o’clock means that girl is out for the count. Still, I feel bad leaving her here with my mom for something that isn’t necessary.

“Claire, go,” Mom says. “Sophia is sleeping, and you’re all tense, have been for weeks. I’m just going to have some boxed wine and watch Bravo. Not missing much here.” Mom opens the fridge and pours herself a glass of Pinot Grigio from the second shelf.

“It won’t be late or expensive. Emmy says she has comp tickets for us at the hotel’s new restaurant, Moxie, and then we’ll have drinks in her penthouse after. She has wedding pictures to show us.”

“Great,” Mom says. “And you look nice. Except, maybe....”

“Maybe what?”

“Maybe change your top. It’s a little ... frumpy. And the shoes, too.”

“Mom? Seriously?” I shake my head. I know my wardrobe isn’t up to par with the women she watches on Real Housewives, but it isn’tfrumpy. I have on black boots, a black stretchy dress, and a jean jacket on top. Jean jackets are my lifesaver. They go with everything and they sell them at Target.

“I just think denim is a little casual, is all.”

I smile tightly. Mom is so clueless about well, everything. She has no grasp on the reality of me working paycheck to paycheck. How I can’t shop for Roberto Cavalli stilettos and designer dresses for dinner out with my girlfriends.

She’s amazing with Sophia. Beyond amazing. Mom being able to take care of her so I can work means so much. I just wish ... well, I wish an awful lot.

But specific wishes in regard to my mom? I guess when my dad died, ten years ago, Mom never considered looking for a job herself. She’s lived off his life insurance all this time, but now it’s nearly gone. And she’s never had a legit job in her life.

When I had Sophia she let me move in. I’ve always worked, and she’s always helped with my daughter. It was never on the table for me to stay home with my little girl and Mom to look for a job ... and maybe that’s fine. That’s my lot. I made the choice to have her when I was so young, and now I have to suck it up and deal.

I’m so appreciative of Mom watching Sophia so I can go to work and do things like go out tonight. But her commenting on my wardrobe—when I’m working my ass off—stings.

I make my own choices on where my money goes. Sophia doesn’t need to go to a private school. She doesn’t need to take organic applesauce in her lunchbox. I don’t need to take her to swimming lessons at the same pool her classmates go to ... or whatever other unnecessary-but-actually-very-important thing in my I’m-doing-the-best-I-can opinion.

Sophia comes before me. And then I make sure Mom has what she needs. I get whatever is left.

Tonight, it’s a jean jacket and black boots from halfpriceshoes.com.

“Okay, well, I’m gonna go. Text if you need me. Otherwise, I’ll be home by ten.”

Mom cocks an eyebrow my way and sits in her recliner, the remote in one hand, the white wine in the other.

“How about midnight, Cinderella,” Mom says as I set up an Uber. “Better yet, I’m giving you a hall pass. You never go out and really let yourself have a good time. Go. Play.”

I shake my head. “How do you even know what a hall pass is?”

“I’m pretty hip, Claire,” she says, turning on her show.

“We’ll see. Regardless, I’ll be home before Sophia wakes up, okay?”

I grab my purse and kiss her cheek goodbye, feeling nothing like Cinderella. That’s Emmy’s role. She was the one swept up off her feet by a Prince Charming. I don’t think there are any Kings left.


Page 4

* * *

“Maybe lose the jean jacket?” Tess suggests, frowning critically. The three of us have just been seated at a private table in the back of Moxie.

“What’s wrong with this coat?” I ask, looking at Emmy for confirmation.

She grimaces. “It’s a little ... casual?”

“Casual? Ohmigosh, where did my friends go?” I ask, clicking my tongue. “A few months ago, Emmy, you were hard up for any shifts you could get your hands on, and now you’re the fashion police? How far you’ve come, girl.”

Turning to Tess, I add, “And since when do you get off judging anyone’s fashion sense?” She’s worse than Shoshanna onGirls. She has such a high topknot at the moment I’m afraid it’s gonna topple off her pretty head.

“Whatever,” Tess says, not taking offense. “It’s just, like, something a mom would wear. Not you, Claire. You’re the hot one. The one with sex appeal.”

Her words hit me hard. I’m in mom clothes, probably because I’m a mom.

I need to get some balls.

“Let’s get drinks and let me tell you about my honeymoon!” Emmy declares. A waiter seems to appear from thin air and we order. As soon as he leaves, Emmy leans in. “Oh, and I have to tell you guys something, promise not to tell?” It’s like she has gossip dripping from her mouth.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the time to reveal that I have a five-year-old tucked in at home.

Not that I care more about gossip than being transparent with my girlfriends ... more like avoidance is my middle name.

For a split second I’m scared Emmy knows about Landon and me and that is her gossip ... but then I realize she wouldn’t be telling me about my own hook-up.

I need the waiter to bring me back my Prosecco. Stat.

“So, I know this is crazy ... but Ace and I didn’t use protection once on the honeymoon.”

“Wow,” I say, reaching for the flute the waiter has just brought me. Taking a sip—okay, taking a full-on chug—I can’t hide my complete shock. “You want to have a baby? So soon?”

Emmy looks wounded, and she lowers her eyes, tucking her hair behind her ears with her perfectly-manicured finger. “Well, gosh—I mean, I know it’s soon. But Ace and I want a family. We have one another, but ... we want more.”

“Well, it’s your life. Do whatever you want. I mean, it’s just … you’re only twenty-two, and you’ve been married for two weeks, to a man you’ve known for two months. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, if you ask me.”

I know my speech isn’t exactly ... gentle. But gosh, what the hell are Emmy and Ace thinking? They have no clue what life is like with a baby. I did it solo, but even with a supportive partner it can rock your world. I just don’t understand why they’d want to shake the surface they’re just starting to build.

“Claire.” Tess’s mouth hangs open. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” My mouth is set in a straight line and I know I must look like a matronly bitch with a stick up my ass. I feel like one, too.

Emmy has tears in the corners of her eyes.

“I know it’s fast,” Emmy says, reaching across the table and taking my hand, withholding the judgment I deserve. “But after everything with Janie, I just ... Claire, life is short. And precious. I don’t want to miss something good. Something beautiful, because of what-ifs.”

I can’t tell her that what-ifs are the very things that break us, that the what-ifs should be considered—because when you don’t consider them, you end up in a life you never wanted. In your mom’s condo in Vegas without a college degree, without a savings account, without anything besides your own bootstraps.

I can’t say that. I can’t really say that to anyone, can I? How can I say that I love Sophia with all that I am and all that I will be, that I will fight to make her life-story a fairy tale and a dream come true, but that I still wish I’d given myself space for a few more chapters of my own? How can I say that being a mom isn’t enough ... that I want more?

I can’t say that because it makes me sound like a monster, a shitty mom, a mom as bad as Sophia’s father. I don’t want to be that woman. I want to give Sophia everything.

And, looking at Emmy now, I know she wouldn’t be able to understand my words without knowing so much more.

Maybe if the night had started out differently I’d be able to tell them the truth ... but now the mood has already changed.

“You’re right,” I say, forcing a smile. “You’ll be an amazing mom, and Ace will be a badass dad, and you have money and opportunities and will be a gorgeous family. Sorry for being a cynic.”

“Well,” Emmy says, smiling. “It could be awhile. You never know. Some people try for years.”

And some people try one time. One singular time. And their lives change forever.

“Ohmigosh, you would be so hot pregnant,” Tess says. “Although, if you have a baby before Claire and I even find men, I might get a little jealous of your life.”

“You’re already jealous,” I say, laughing, elbowing her. The waiter comes back and we all order the special. When he leaves, Tess picks up where we left off.

“True.” Tess groans. “Your wedding was amazing … but, seriously, not enough single men. Right Claire?”

I feel my cheeks redden at this, and I take another sip-chug of the Prosecco. The waiter appears once again and refills my glass.

“You didn’t meet anyone either?” Emmy asks.

“Meet? No.” I bite my lip, knowing that it’stechnicallythe truth, but wondering if maybe I owe them theactualtruth.

“Bummer. I know Ace invited some single guys.”

“Well,” Tess smiles, “you and Landon sure looked cute dancing together.”

“Ha. Right. Cute.” I swallow. I need to be real with them about something, and I’m not ready to talk about Sophia ... but I can mention Landon.

“You did, though.” Tess shrugs. “Dancing so prim and proper.”

“Well, okay, I’ll give you some gossip of my own,” I tell them.

“We’re all ears,” Emmy says leaning in.

“Okay, so after the wedding—” I start, ready to tell them everything.

Tess looks down at her phone. “Ohmigosh, I hate to interrupt, Claire, but you guys, I just got a text that Gwen Stefani is here. At the hotel.”

“Gwen Stefani?” Emmy’s mouth drops open. “Let me call Ace and see if he can … you know, like, introduce us.” She immediately grabs her phone and begins texting Ace.

I get it. Gwen Stefani being here is a big deal, and I know Tess loves this sort of thing. She Instagrammed the hell out of being at the wedding withtheAshley Fast. Even I know a potential Gwen Stefani sighting tops that.

I smile, lean back, and then take another sip of Prosecco, unsure if I just dodged a bullet or created a bigger divide.

A divide I’ll never be able to cross.

Chapter SixLandon

Ace usedto be all intense about anyone coming to his penthouse, but apparently getting wifed up changed all that.

I’m in the elevator headed to the top floor of the Spades Royalle for our monthly poker game when my phone buzzes. Checking it, I see Geoffrey texting.

Great, earlier it was my father, and now him.

Geoffrey: Dad said he called. You coming home, for reals?

Me: Checking my schedule.

Okay, that isn’t true. One, I have no fucking schedule; I’m my own man. And two, no way in hell am I coming home to watch Geoffrey be crowned king of the Diamond empire.

Geoffrey: Look, don’t get Mum’s hopes up. We both know you’ll flake out. Don’t put her through the disappointment.

I know our father is going to give it to Geoffrey. He’s the responsible son, the reliable son, the really fucking boring son.

Geoffrey: Don’t be an ass. Everyone knows you’re Mum and Dad’s favorite. But when you let Mum down, and don’t show, it screws with my life.

Me: Oh, I’m screwing plenty of things, but your life isn’t one of them.

I pocket my phone, every muscle in my body tensing from the exchange.

Why do I let Geoffrey get under my skin so easily? Why do I care so much that I might disappoint our mum?Again.

Maybe because, as much as I think Geoffrey is a complete prick, he also has that little, nagging thing everyone seems to want. Their parents’ bloody approval.

I’ve avoided that typical sentiment for years, but Dad’s voice today on the phone, the tinge of sadness he expressed over the idea of me not coming through for him, proving my worth somehow, made me want something I don’t think I’ve had for over a decade, possibly longer.

Not that me showing up at the family estate in Hertfordshire is going to somehow vouch for some personal awakening. Because I haven’t had one.

But Geoffrey just being handed the family business, as if he’s entitled to it, rubs me the wrong way.

The elevator door slides open and I walk into Ace’s foyer.

“What’s up, motherfucker?” Ace calls from the kitchen. I walk in and McQueen fist-bumps me, and Jack hands me a beer.

“What, no hot cocktail waitresses tonight?” I ask, taking the drink.

“Fuck that,” Ace says. “The den is all set up for us. Emmy thinks if another hot waitress works the game tonight one of you bastards might find a woman.”

“I don’t want any woman, not for a long time,” Jack says as we make our way into the dining room where Ace’s dealer Carla has set up the poker table. A waitress in fishnets is setting up the wet bar in the corner. But I’m not interested in her. She looks nothing like Claire ... which, fuck? Why am I even comparing them?

“What happened now with Ashley?” McQueen ask warily.

“After the wedding, she got pissy again about me not proposing yet. She kneed me in the fucking balls. It was bad.”

“And are you still together?” I ask.

Jack shrugs. “I don’t know what we are. But we’re meeting in L.A. for brunch in a few days. She says that’s what real couples do.”

“Fuck that,” I say, taking a swig of my IPA. “My parents say the same fucking thing. Apparently my brother and his girlfriend are royalty because they go to the country club on Saturdays for Bloody Marys and golf.”

“Meanwhile, we play hard,all night.” McQueen says, laughing, as Carla deals us a hand.

“Not Ace, not anymore,” Jack reminds us. “How was the honeymoon, bro?”

While we play several hands, Ace fills us in on Tahiti and I keep getting texts from my brother.

He won’t drop the whole thing about letting Mum know I’m not coming, and I’m sure his girlfriend Fiona is just feeding him the obnoxious texts.

“Dude, what the fuck is going on over there?” Ace asks, as I pull my phone out once more.

“It’s my brother.” I explain the phone call with my father earlier, how he’s willing to give his company to either Geoffrey or me. In a week.

“Holy fuck,” Jack says. “He’s just gonna give The King’s Diamond to one of you? Just like that?”

I sigh. “Shit, I guess. My parents are old school, but the good kind. You know how some people actually have their priorities in check? That’s my mum and dad. They don’t care about fame or fortune. They want to wear their old sweaters and go on walks with their dogs and grow old together.”

“Pretty fucking sweet,” McQueen laughs. “And you come from them?”

“Right?” I shake my head.

“Do you want to fight Geoffrey for it?” Ace asks. “Would you even want the company? If you could have it?”

“Dad would never give it to me. Although he says he wants me to show up and prove my worth, the truth is that I’ve got nothing on Geoffrey. He’s has Fiona, has been working for the business for five years. Meanwhile, I’ve been....”

“Fucking pussy and gambling your inheritance,” Ace says, laughing.

“Exactly. There’s no point in sugar-coating the truth. I’ve been playing hard for years. Can’t make that up in a week.”

“But would you want to?” Jack asks. “If you could?”

I look around the room at my friends. The fuckers who showed up, and stayed put. The guys who, for some reason, decided that even if I was a complete bag of shit they had my back. If I can’t be honest with them, I can’t be honest with anyone.

“If I could have it, I’d take it,” I admit. “Granted, I have no fucking clue what owning a company means ... but part of me wants something to work for, fight for. It’s why I’m still negotiating for this property in Vegas. Sure, life is good. But is it great? I don’t think so.”

“Fuckin-A. This got heavy,” Jack says, laughing, as he folds his hand.

“You gotta go for it, man,” Ace says, taking a whiskey neat from the waitress. “Shit, show them that you’re what they want.”

I narrow my eyes, knowing this is not an easy task. “So I just need to show my father I’m something besides a fuckup. I need to show him I’m responsible and a fucking family man. Right. Easy.”

I take a drink of beer, suddenly tired of being reminded why I can’t have what Geoffrey has. I’ve spent too long fighting it to try and get it back now.

I don’t want to feel like a fucking failure tonight, I want to feel like a King.

Just then, Emmy, Tess, and Claire walk in the room.

And seeing Claire is just what I need.

* * *

Claire

After Ace texts Emmy a quick reply telling her that no, Gwen is not in the building, we are completely sidetracked from my near-gush about Landon and me hooking up.

Which might be for the best, seeing as there would have been a dozen questions that followed my big reveal. Such as, why the hell did you leave before you screwed?

I don’t want to make up even more lies, so I decide it’s best that the topic got dropped.

We eat dinner and listen to Emmy tell us ridiculously fantastic details of her honeymoon. The sex on the beach and the candlelit dinners and the couple’s massages in their little cabana overlooking the South Pacific.

It is utterly drool-worthy, and I fight off any feelings of I-wish-that-were-me by drinking the bottle of Prosecco. By myself.

When we enter the penthouse post-dinner to look at Emmy’s wedding pictures, I’m more than a little tipsy.

“Hey, boys,” Emmy says, sashaying into the den like she owns the place. It takes me a moment to remember that she actually does.

Ace didn’t even ask her to sign a pre-nup. Because they are totally and completely the real thing.

“Hey babe,” Ace says, pulling her to him. She falls into his lap effortlessly, and I look away, because all I can see when I look at them is bliss. That amount of perfection is a little hard to swallow.

When I turn, though, my eyes fall on Landon.

And, shit, he looks amazing.

His shirtsleeves are rolled up, revealing the tattoos on his forearms. He looks me up and down as if something is on his mind, because he tips his head ever so slightly, a slight grin on his face.

When I left the condo tonight, sleeping with Landon was nowhere on my mind … but now it’s all I want.

I want to finish what we started.

“You boys almost done?” Emmy asks.

“Almost,” McQueen says, eyeing his piles of chips. “I’ve schooled this table.”

“Too bad JoJo didn’t come, after all, to see you win tonight,” Landon jokes.

“McQueen, you have a girl?” Tess asks, eyes wide, always wanting to know the scoop. “When did that happen?”

“No, I don’t.” McQueen shoves Landon in the arm. “Don’t start rumors. Tess is susceptible to believing anything she hears.”

“Be nice,” Emmy says. “I’m gonna show the girls the photos, and then we’ll all have a drink, okay?” She plants a kiss on Ace’s mouth. The kind of kiss you can only get away with when you’ve just returned from your honeymoon.

Sitting on her sofa, she opens her MacBook and scrolls through hundreds of gorgeous shots. She and Ace really do look like they belong on the cover of a magazine.

When I tell her so, she replies, “Oh, actually, Vegas Weekly is featuring us next month.”

“No shit?” I shake my head.

“Look,” Tess says. “See, Claire, you and Landon did look cute dancing together.”

“You really did,” Emmy says. “You know your moves.”

“I was bit obsessed with Pride and Prejudice as a tween. That’s why I learned the waltz. I’m a dork, I know,” I say, feeling lightheaded from the champagne. Lightheaded in a good way. In a way that makes me crane my neck to see if the guys are almost done with poker.

I want to see Landon again.

Another half hour passes, and the guys still haven’t emerged from the den. Realizing my dreams of some hook-up with the hottest guy I’ve ever seen naked aren’t going to come true, I let the girls know I should probably head home.

I have a hall pass from my mother, but no one to use it with.

“Stay here tonight,” Emmy says. “You too, Tess.”

“No, I should get home.” I shrug, knowing the only reason I’d stay out all night was if Landon and I had a chance to reconnect. “Thanks though.”

“Why? You don’t even work tomorrow.”

“Sorry, girls, I’d rather sleep in my bed.”

“Is it nice? Your bed?” Tess asks. “You know, I’ve never even been to your place. Isn’t that weird?” She scrunches her nose up and laughs. For a moment, fear fills my stomach. Are they going to ask to come over? I’ve dodged that bullet for months.

I am being such a shitty friend and, in a moment of vulnerability, I realize something: if they asked right now, I’d let them inside.

I need to be real with the people who have let me into their lives—and maybe showing them my apartment, where the My Little Ponies and the Barbie dolls are strewn about, would be the perfect way to reveal who I really am.

But Tess and Emmy don’t press me. Mostly because we all know this penthouse is a hell of a lot more fun to hang out in than any apartment off the strip.

Ace and the guys walk into the room as I am standing to leave.

“Let me call a car for you,” Ace offers thoughtfully.

“Actually, I’ll help you get home,” Landon offers. “I need to run, too.”

“You sure?” I ask. “I mean, if you have somewhere you need to be?” I squint my eyes, not believing him. Where does anyone need to be at eleven o’clock at night?

“No, it’s fine, I need to stop at the, uh, the....”

“Where you headed, bro?” Jack snorts. “The strip club?”

“I got her,” Landon says to Emmy, ending the discussion.

I don’t argue. This is what I wanted the moment I walked into this penthouse tonight.

Him and me. Alone.

Looking at Landon, warmth spreads through me, remembering his hands on my skin and my mouth on his. It doesn’t take much imagination for my panties to get wet.

Leaning over to give Emmy and Tess hugs good-bye, I can’t help but feel like I could have been a better person a million times over tonight. Truthful and real and an actual friend.

Instead, I’m sorta drunk and leaving with a man I let go down on me two weeks ago.


Page 5

Chapter SevenLandon

Claire stepsinto the elevator with me, biting her lip in a way she doesn’t seem to realize gets me hard just by watching.

“Did you have a good night with Tess and Emmy?” I ask as the elevator falls to the ground floor.

“Yeah, it was nice to get out.” She looks down at the floor and I notice her scuffed boots in contrast with my leather ones, polished and shiny.

The moment Claire walked into Ace’s penthouse, I wanted her. I want to finish what we started.

“Do you really want to go home?” I ask, stepping toward her.

She smiles, licking her lips and looking back up at me. “Considering last time we were alone together we were naked … no. I don’t want to go home.”

“Well, that was a terrific night.” I wrap my arms around her, pulling her close to me. My cock twitches in my trousers, and the need to take her to my room overwhelms me.

“Terrific?” She smirks. “That’s all it was?” She presses her fingers to her temple. “I should never have drank so much champagne.”

“The night of the wedding?” I ask, remembering her constant glass of bubbly that evening. Perhaps she regretted parting her legs for me. I sure as hell don’t regret it. I just want more, something I probably don’t deserve.

But then I remember her insecurity back in my suite, how she hadn’t slept with anyone in a long while. Maybe those feelings are rising up in her again.

Claire sighs, and in doing so it’s as if she lets down her guard. “No, I mean tonight, I had almost a bottle with dinner, because I’m an idiot.” I want to press her against the elevator wall, and take her right here, right now.

But Claire doesn’t lean into my body; she keeps talking, nervously.

Her words mesmerize me with their honesty.

“I liked everything about the night of the wedding,” she says. “I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.”

“You wanted more?” I ask, still holding her close. Not letting her go, ready to press my mouth on hers. “More of me?”

Her red lips open as if she’s about to admit something, but the elevator doors slide open and we’re deposited in the lobby of Spades.

“Your room then?” she asks.

I press the elevator button again and we fly back up to my floor.

Grabbing her hand as the doors open, I lead us down the hall. I swipe my key to let us into my suite, not able to move fast enough. I want to push her inside and pull down her panties and finish what we’d started weeks ago.

The moment we’re in the room, she reaches for a bottle of water and drinks it nearly in one gulp.

“Thirsty?”

“Just can’t afford to have a hang-over. I rarely drink so much. It was a bad idea.”

“You seem sober enough now.”

She doesn’t slur her words or seem to be overly emotional—both stereotypical tells of a woman nearly drunk.

“I suppose I am. I had four glasses of champagne over the course of four hours, so I’m pretty good now.” She lets out a deep breath before adjusting her jean jacket.

I don’t know much about Claire, but I can tell she could use some money. She serves drinks for a living, but her shifts are terrible ones, usually during the day, and anyone in Vegas knows the good tips are in the late hours, when there are plenty of drunken men. Working eight a.m. to three p.m. is not a lucrative job opportunity.

“Landon,” she asks, setting down the water and walking toward me. “Can we finish what we started?”

She’s caught me off guard—which is odd. That never happens with women.

I’ve been so preoccupied with trying to understand who Claire is that I haven’t noticed the look of desire in her eyes, the longing.

“Because, right now,” she whispers. “Right now, I need to feel ... more than I am.”

“Oh, Claire, I’ll make you feel more than enough.”

I pull her to me, and in one fell swoop my mouth is on hers.

She tastes so sweet. She looks like a vixen, but each kiss on my lips is tender and soft and full of longing. The kisses of a woman who has never been properly loved or properly fucked.

Her hands cup my face, as she pours herself into me. Her tongue finds its way into my mouth, encircling mine as we deepen our connection. The heat rises as she grinds against my growing cock, and I run my hands across her back, pulling off her coat, tugging down the straps of her black dress and her black bra.

I fill my hands with her perfect tits. They aren’t massive and fake—Claire is one hundred percent real and it’s refreshing and fucking hot to be with someone who seems not to be at odds in their own skin.

Massaging her tits, I watch her perky little nipples grow hard. I pull one into my mouth and suck as she pulls her dress off.

“Oh, fuck, Claire, you’re so sexy,” I tell her as she undoes my belt and buttons. We tumble into the bed, and I’m on my back as she pushes my trousers down, off. I pull off my shirt, wanting to feel her skin against my chest.

“You’re so hard,” she moans, taking my stiff cock in her hands as she presses her body on top of mine.

Our bodies are hot, so close to one another; she holds my cock in her hand as our mouths collide again. We kiss hard as my hands push at her panties. I want to touch that soft pussy again. I want to see those pink lips part, only this time I want my cock to spread them.

I want to feel her tightness around me as she swirls those hips of hers above.

She runs her fingers over my cock, massaging her clit with my base as she pushes us against one another. She bites my lip as I slap her little ass, and I love that she’s getting wet as she touches me.

I want to touch her. I push aside her panties, and dip a finger into her juicy folds, wanting to loosen her a little before I plunge my massive rod into her.

Her entrance is so soft and warm, and my fingers flick slowly, wanting her to enjoy every moment of this. Her pussy is so ready for my cock—my hand is sopping wet when I take my fingers out.

She wrestles the panties off herself, and I appreciate her desire to be completely bare. It’s exactly what I want, too.

A slow grin spreads across my face as I take in her naked body, every inch of her skin smooth and soft and ready to be devoured.

Her hands run over my chest, her blonde hair falling in her eyes. I brush it away, wanting to see her green eyes and heart-shaped lips, wanting to memorize the slight upturn of her nose and the subtle dimple in her left cheek.

“You are so beautiful, Claire. I could look at you all night.”

“Don’t,” she says. “Don’t say words that aren’t true.”

“You are quite the jaded woman, aren’t you. Not into sentiment?” I kiss her shoulders, her protruding collarbone that for some reason is fucking making me hard as a rock.

“Look, Landon, I’m not bitter. Just a realist. And I don’t need you to tell me I’m pretty to sleep with me. Right now, I just need to be fucked. It’s been way too long.”

Her mouth is on mine again, and I love that she isn’t tiptoeing around what this is for her. This is about sex for her. And it can be about sex for me, too.

But, damn, she really is gorgeous.

I roll on a condom, and I see her eyes flash with fear for a moment. I watch as she quickly looks over to her purse on the floor.

When no phone rings, when nothing threatens this moment, I hold her hips, and help ease her onto my base.

“Landon, you’re so fucking hot,” she says, covering her face with her hands.

“No sweet words, remember?” I tease, pulling her hands away from her face.

“Calling you fucking hot isn’t romance, Landon,” she says, resting her hands on my chest.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Even if it is just about sex, a man likes to be called fucking hot.”

She whimpers as she lowers herself onto me, seeming to pause before letting herself sit all the way down on top of me.

“That hurt? I ask.

“I’m moaning because your accent is so sexy. And I swear, without the accent I’d think you were just a regular American guy—most of whom do nothing for me. Lucky for you, the accent is hot as hell.”

I laugh. This woman has worked me over and she doesn’t even try.

“Claire, it’s time for you to enjoy yourself. Sit down on me, on my cock, nice and hard,” I tell her. “You know you want to.”

“I do,” she breathes in my ear, her tits heaving with each breath she takes, her arms wrapped around my neck.

She eases down, and I grab her firm ass with my hands, my fingers grazing at her pussy, helping her down. “Landon, it’s too much. You’re so big.”

“You can fit me. Your pussy needs to know what a real cock is. I’m gonna fucking teach you.”

“I want you to teach me, Landon,” she moans as she sits herself down, groans escaping her mouth as her head falls back in pleasure. “Oh, fuck,” she pants. “Oh, fuck me, Landon.”

A grin covers my face as her pussy starts to really love my cock. I thrust into her nice and slow, as we find a gentle rhythm so it doesn’t hurt her. Her pussy’s so tight I could swear she’s a virgin. My cock fucking loves filling her up.

“Oh, yeah, baby, that’s good,” I tell her as sweet juice flows from her, soaking my base, my thighs.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, her hands running through my hair, gripping me tightly as she comes, again and again. Her orgasm floods us and she moans loudly as my come shoots out. I hold her soft hips in my hands as I thrust again as I get off with her on top of me.

She falls into my chest, both of us catching our breath. My cock is still hard as a rock, and I pull off the condom. She cups my balls in her hand, as she lies down next to me, as she catches her breath.

Her head rests on my chest and my arms wrap around her, and for a moment it feels like more than a hook-up, more than a quickie.

* * *

Claire

I fall asleep, Landon’s arms wrapped around me, and the next thing I know I wake with a start. Switching on the lamp, I try to get my bearings.

“Landon,” I say, shaking him awake. A sheet is wrapped around us. Blackout curtains block out the lights of the Vegas strip.

“What, woman?” he asks, groaning, covering his face with his forearm.

I see the clock on the bedside table and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s 5:00 am. My internal clock is set for early rising, I’m always up two hours before Sophia to get ready for work, and I’m grateful that even on my day off I’m up when I should be.

Holy crap. I really used a hall pass.

A smile breaks across my face, realizing that sleeping over with a man is something I haven’t done in literally years.

And it feels good.

Like, hot damn good. Landon is does not disappoint.

“Why are you smiling?” he says, easing himself up. “It’s not even morning yet. Are you headed out?”

“I probably should.” I stand, grabbing the sheet as I move. I reach for my purse and see Mom never texted. Thank god. Nothing happened while I was out.

My shoulders fall with the relief only a mother can know. Sophia is okay. I’m okay. I left her for the night and nothing happened.

It’s only the third time I’ve ever done this. The first few were last month when Emmy had her world rocked and Tess and I stayed with her at her apartment. Those times, I never felt guilty, because I stayed out so I could support a friend.

This time, I left Sophia for purely indulgent reasons.

And maybe … just maybe … that is okay.

“Well,” Landon says, sitting up now and reaching for the telephone. “When I have sleepovers I feed my guests. You can’t walk out of here without a proper breakfast.”

“I think I can.”

“No, it’s not fit, Claire. You need coffee. Toast. Eggs.”

Setting my purse down, I tell him to go ahead and order room service.

Settling back into the bed, I wonder why I’m going along with this charade.

Maybe the only reason is because it feels really nice to be taken care of.

And maybe that’s reason enough.

Chapter EightLandon

While we waitfor room service, we fuck again. This time it isn’t tender or sweet. It’s fast, hard; I come with the speed that only happens when you wake up with a hard-on.

Claire falls into the pile of pillows on the king-sized bed. “Thank you forthat.” Her eyes rest on my still-bulging cock.

“Any time,” I say, meaning it. “Although, it is pretty fucking early in the morning. You always get up this time of day?”

“I do.” She doesn’t expound on the early hour. Instead she explains the hook-up. “It needed to happen, you know—you and I finishing what we started. Otherwise, I think I’d always have wondered about it,” she admits. “And this way, when I see you at work, it doesn’t have to be awkward.”

“There is literally nothing awkward about you,” I tell her. The knock on the door has me pulling on a robe, and letting in the breakfast cart.

A few minutes later, she and I sit in bed with bacon and eggs. She uses a fork and knife, and cuts each bite with the precision of an English lady. A napkin is across her bare thigh, and she literally raises a pinky as she sips her coffee.

Watching her eat, I can’t help but realize she really is the most laid-back woman I’ve ever been with. She isn’t high maintenance. She isn’t annoying. She’s polite, has manners, and knows how to dance.

An idea formulates in my mind and, the instant it does, I know it’s the most ingenious idea I’ve ever had. I know exactly how I can show my parents that I’ve become a solid, reliable son.

Obviously they won’t know I’m being dishonest.

“So,” I say, spreading jam on my toast. “Do you have any plans next week?”

“Just work,” she says, smiling at me. “Mostly.”

We could work around work. Hell, with what I was prepared to offer her, she might not need to work for quite a while.

“Do you have a passport?” I ask, wondering how tricky my idea might be to play out.

“A what?”

“A passport. A little blue book documenting your country of residence?”

“I know what it is.”

“I wasn’t implying you didn’t,” I tell her, realizing this might be a tricky proposition. I don’t want to offend her.

“I do have a passport. Which is ridiculous.” She waves her hands in the air as if somehow I would know why it’s so insane for her to have identification to travel.

“How so?”

“I’ve never used it.”

“Really?” I try to not sound surprised. I shouldn’t be. I know it costs money to travel. And, by the looks of things, Claire doesn’t have loads of that.

“When I was little, I used to dream about traveling and going to the places I read about. So when I turned eighteen the first thing I did was apply for a passport. I thought that as an adult I could do anything, go anywhere.”

“What happened?” I ask, shifting my body closer to hers on the bed.

“Life?” Claire smiles sadly, as if wistful memories are all she has of her still-unlived life.

I want to wipe that look away. I want to make Claire happy, to see her smile a real smile.

“How old are you, Claire?” I ask.

“Twenty-four.”

“Well, I’m twenty-seven. And I sure as hell hope there’s time left to travel, to use the bloody passport. To see those forgotten dreams.”

“Look at you,” she says, patting my knee. “Being all sweet to me.”

“I mean it.” I take her hand in mine, and look in her emerald green eyes, straight on. “Claire, what would you say if I offered you a one week job opportunity?”

“I already have a job.”

“Well, this job would be in England. At my family estate. If we succeed in our job, you would be paid one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

She laughs and then, when she realizes I’m not joking, her eyes narrow in on me. “And what is the job I’d be doing?”

“You’d be my one-week fiancé.”


Page 6

Chapter NineClaire

Landon is completely serious. His brows are slightly raised, waiting for my answer.

A fake fiancée?

The first thing to flash through my mind is the reason why I should say no: I can’t run off to England and leave Sophia.

Still ... two hundred and fifty grand for a week’s worth of “work”?

“Is there some weird catch to all of this?” I ask, setting down the cup of coffee, realizing that I need to get a clear picture of this proposal, distraction free. This is one of the biggest conversations of my life. It has the potential to change everything.

Landon laughs, flips the hair from his eyes. His chin is covered in five-o’clock shadow and his jawline all the sexier because of it.

“There’s no catch,” he says. “The job is fairly simple. And it should work as long as you don’t have any dirty secrets, because my brother will dig up any shit on you he can find. And that would ruin everything. My father needs to believe I’m living a blameless life.”

“How dirty is too dirty?” I swallow. Sophia isn’t exactly dirt, but she isn’t something I want anyone to know about. And she isn’t everything I am hiding.

“You have something in your past I should know about?”

“Nothing comes to mind,” I tell him plainly, not wanting to say anything that could be a deal breaker. I want this job. Scratch that—needthis job.

“Good. Because when we convince them of our love, of our commitment, and most importantly make them believe that I’m a more stand-up guy than my brother, the money is yours.”

“But what if they catch us?” I ask, not entirely sure I can play the part of a sophisticated bride-to-be.

“If they catch us ... well, then they’ll be reminded of why they already think I’m an ass.”

“But if they don’t? If we convince them we’re the real thing, what’s in it for you?”

“If we pull this off, then my father will name me his successor. I’ll be the owner of The King’s Diamond.”

“Shit.” I shake my head. The stakes are high. I don’t know if I have the credentials to pull this off, but the idea of that much money makes me want to try.

The problems that I don’t know how to solve—Mom running out of Dad’s life insurance money, my job barely making me enough to cover my expenses, knowing I’ll never truly get ahead while living paycheck to paycheck, and knowing I’ll never be able to give Sophia a life any bigger than the one she currently has—would all be fixed with this money.

Hadn’t I been saying for weeks—years—that I wanted more? Maybe this “job” is exactly the opportunity I need.

“You’re the only woman I’d trust to do this,” Landon says, taking my hand in his. “You’re smart, appear put-together enough to be something more than a fling, and you’re hot. Which my parents would consider a prerequisite for any girl I’d consider marrying.”

“So basically I’m your perfect woman?” I tease, sitting back against the pile of pillows, really considering this offer.

“I don’t believe in perfect girls, Claire.”

“I didn’t know you were so jaded.”

“Life has hardened me, you know, caused me to see the world as a pessimist.” Landon smirks. “What do you say? Pretend to be my fiancée. If it fails, you’ve finally put that passport to good use. And if we succeed, you’ll be a quarter of a million dollars richer.”

“And you don’t feel bad about the scam?” I ask. “I don’t think I would want anyone to know what I’d be agreeing to.”

“Taking this company from Geoffrey would make me feel like the fucking King of England. He’s a massive prick, Claire, and has completely convinced my parents otherwise.”

“And when would we leave?”

“Tomorrow.” He runs his hand over his jaw, considering his words. “Obviously you’ll need some decent clothing and luggage, but we can get that all sorted. I mean, the only hang up will be if you have some dodgy past you’re not telling me about. Are you up for the task?”

I don’t want to pause too long on his words, give him any reason to doubt me. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. If I tell him that I have a daughter—among other things—he won’t give me this job. Besides, no one is seriously going to look into my past—or even my present. That stuff only happens in the movies.

I want this money. I need it. What I don’t need is to dredge up an ugly past that would cost me this job. So I’ll just have to win his brother over so he doesn’t start looking into my past.

I smile, realizing that I’m finally catching a break. And even though this job is straight up deceitful … it’s his relationship with his parents, not mine. All I need to do is smile and keep my mouth shut for one single week.

And then I can give Sophia the life I always dreamed of for her.

“So,” I say. “Looks like I’ll need an engagement ring.”

* * *

“Morning, sweet pea,” I say, sitting on the edge of our bed, waking Sophia up from her slumber.

“Morning, Mama,” she says, snuggling deeper into the blankets.

I always hear these horror stories of children waking up at the crack of dawn, but that’s never been my Sophia. She sleeps hard and long.

“You gotta get up and get ready for school.” I kiss her soft cheek. “I brought you a special breakfast. It’s in the kitchen and you can have it once you’re dressed and your teeth are brushed.”

That gets her upright. “Is it my favorite?” she asks.

“You’ll have to wait and see.” I raise my eyebrows, teasing her. “Hustle, okay, so I can braid your hair.”

Sophia is a mini-me. She doesn’t take after her father, not a lick. She has my narrow frame, cornsilk-blonde hair, and bright green eyes. But she also has a hopefulness, a curiosity and wonder about her that I lost a long time ago.

“Okay, Mama.” She kisses me and I wrap my arms around her, squeezing tight.

I told Landon yes to the job when I left his suite, and I came up with a solid lie for my mom on my way back to the condo. The money isn’t something I can walk away from, but I don’t know if every one else will understand.

Lying to Landon’s family isn’t the hard part for me ... lying to Mom and Sophia is a little trickier.

Also, I’ll have to be apart from my little girl. The job will be over a week, when I factor in travel times, and we’ve never been apart for longer than one day.

But this isn’t about the lie right now, this is about our forever.

When Sophia heads to the bathroom, I make my way into the kitchen where Mom is pouring us coffee.

“No, thanks,” I tell her, sitting on a barstool at the island. “I had enough this morning.”

“You’ve been up for awhile?” she asks, adding cream to her mug.

“You know me. I’m an early riser.” I reach into my purse and pull out a to-go bag. “I brought donuts from the hotel.”

“So you stayed at Emmy’s last night?” Mom asks.

I immediately feel heat on my cheeks. One thing about being blonde and fair-skinned is that my face constantly betrayed me.

“What aren’t you saying, Claire?” Mom asks, leaning on the island counter.

“Mom, don’t be awkward. Of course I was with Emmy and Tess.”

Mom raises her hands in defeat. “Okay, honey, I’ll mind my own business. I take it the night was ho-hum, then—no man asked you out and swept you off your feet?”

“I don’t believe in getting swept off my feet for one, and two, Sophia is down the hall. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.”

“I don’t think you falling in love is the worst idea, Claire.”

“Love? Nobody is talking about love.” I scoff, remembering my exchange earlier with Landon, when he admitted he is a jaded pessimist. Knowing that I am too.

“Okay, so you didn’t fall in love. What did you girls do?”

Knowing Sophia would walk in the room any moment, but also wanting to tell Mom about the job, I talk a hyper-speed.

“Okay,” I tell her. “Dinner was fine. But what happened next is a little crazy. While we were at the hotel, I was offered a one-week trip to England.”

“What?” Mom asks, confused.

I fill her in on who Landon is—not the we-had-sex part, the friend of Ace’s part. “He needs to go home for work, his father owns The King’s Diamond—very fancy stuff—and he needs a plus one at the events. He asked if I wanted to go. Not like as his date,” I clarify, “but as his friend.” I wave my hand in the air, hoping it sounds plausible.

She tilts her head to the side, trying to absorb the information.

“It’s just for one week,” I explain. “But he leaves tomorrow.”

“And is your boss okay with you going?

“Ace is fine with it,” I say, embellishing. “What do you think?”

“I think it seems a little too good to be true. But you’ve wanted to go there your whole life, Claire.” Mom pats my hand, knowing that so much of my life didn’t turn out how I hoped. “Sophia will be fine with me. You deserve to have fun. To smile. I miss that.”

Just then Sophia walks in, dressed for the day, with a hairbrush and hair tie in hand. “Was I right?” she asks, a bright smile crossing her dimpled cheek. “Donuts?”

“You betcha.” I kiss the top of her head as I help her onto the stool beside me. She reaches in and finds her favorite pink frosting and sprinkled cake confection.

She starts eating, licking her fingers with each bite.

“So you’d be leaving tomorrow?” Mom asks discreetly, turning to get Sophia a glass of orange juice.

After she hands it to her, I pivot Sophia on the stool and start dividing her hair for a side-part fishtail braid. I’ve perfected the look, which is both adorable and functional. Sophia detests hair in her face when she plays at recess.

“Yeah, I’m not sure what time yet. Does leaving,” I point to Sophia’s head, “make me an awful person?”

“You’re not an awful person, Mama,” Sophia says with her mouth full of donut.

“No, your Mama is a perfect person. And she deserves to be happy. To smile. And she gets to go on a vacation with her friend.”

I breathe a huge sigh of relief at her words. My mom is able to make me leaving as un-dramatic as possible, and I appreciate it. I was about to make it this huge ordeal that neither of us would recover from.

“Mama doesn’t have friends,” Sophia says, laughing. “She just has us.”

I finish the braid and pat the top of her head, trying to not let her words hit me too hard in the chest. Mom watches me sadly, probably able to use X-ray vision to see the lump that seems to have formed in my throat, the tears insisting on springing to my eyes. She’s mentioned plenty of times that I’m too protective, too private. That I need to bring my friends around and let them into my life.

The thing is, if I let people in, they might hurt me. And I don’t want that, I don’t think I can even handle that. Not after everything with Sophia’s dad.

So I keep people at arm’s length. That way no one can hurt Sophia or me.

But it seems that if I’m going to do this job, Landon and I might end up getting a lot more personal than I’m used to.

The paycheck would make it worth it. And still, I can get personal without telling him about my daughter.

“Well,” I tell Sophia. “I think I do have a new friend. And Gram is right, I’m going on a trip with him.”

“Good,” Sophia says, patting my arm. “Mrs. Nightingale says having friends help us share and practice being nice, and makes our lives better.”

“Sounds like your teacher is pretty smart,” my mom says. “And it looks like your mom’s trip will help her learn all sorts of things.”

Looking at the clock on the microwave, I realize it’s time to go. My mom hands me the already assembled school snack. I get the backpack. Sophia finds her windbreaker. All three of us head for the door.

We are a unit, a family that works together, seamlessly. My life wouldn’t work without the two of them, and I think that us being here has kept my mom happy since my dad died.

Sophia runs out the door, and I pause before following.

“You’ll be okay for a week with Sophia?” I ask.

“Honey, I think you need to remember what it means to have a friend.”

“Landon isn’t a friend-friend. He just needs my help.”

“Call it what you like, but he’s offered you a trip to the place you’ve wanted to go your entire life. Remember those waltz lessons and those embroidered pillows you used to make? Our whole house was filled with them. Go play, be happy.”

I help Sophia buckle up in her booster seat, and then I get in the car and leave the condo parking lot. Looking in the rearview mirror, I watch Sophia.

Leaving her will be hard, but maybe Mom is right. Maybe it’s time I learn how to live.


Page 7

* * *

Landon

After Claire leaves the suite I feel like the fucking King I know I can be. The King I want to be. No one in my family expects shit from me, but just this once I’m going to show up and prove them all wrong.

I may be a cocky prick, but I’m not going down without a fight. Geoffrey thinks he can take this company because he’s plays the part of a fucking puppet to our father? Well, just wait until I show up, and start fighting for something I never knew I wanted.

The hardest part about this trip will be the distraction that Claire is. But thankfully she doesn’t seem as timid as she was last night. This morning, before the job opportunity flashed through my mind, we had amazing sex again.

And I intend to have more of it. Hell, she is my fiancée, after all.

Of course there will be no requirements on sex this week. She can do what she wants with her body—but now that she’s tasted me, felt me, been filled by me, no way in hell will she deny me.

After falling back asleep for several hours—because that woman woke me at an ungodly hour—I shower. Then I pull out my laptop, ready to book the tickets. Before I click purchase, I realize I should confirm with Claire that she is 100% in on this.

“Hello,” she says on the third ring. Her voice seems distracted, but I don’t ask questions. I may be taking her home as my bride-to-be, but we aren’t exactly old chums. Asking about her emotional well-being seems a bit … I don’t know, intimate.

“It’s Landon. I wanted to be sure you were one hundred percent committed before I bought the tickets. I don’t want to ... presume.”

“You don’t want to presume that I’m the sort of girl who likes to cheat and lie to people’s parents in an effort to make lots of money?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, don’t worry about my moral code. I’m all in.” I hear music playing that reminds me of an old Disney movie, and I swear a child is crying.

“Fantastic,” I tell her. “Is everything all right? It seems loud?”

“No, it’s fine. Just busy. Running errands. So when do we leave?” she asks. “I need to get my ducks in a row.”

I smile, knowing phrases likeducks in a rowis the exact reason I am taking her home, and not some flighty girl.

“Tomorrow,” I say, checking my computer screen for the flight times. “Ten in the morning. I’ll send a car around; just text me your address.”

“Okay. So I’ll just pack and ... I don’t actually know what I should pack. Is it like a jeans and sweater weekend or like ... actually, that’s basically all I have.”

“You know what,” I tell her, grimacing at the thought of her at the Hertfordshire estate in those worn boots. “Why don’t you swing back round to the hotel and get a credit card from me to purchase some new items for your wardrobe. Less shabby chic and more ... I don’t know ... Princess Kate.”

“This is starting to feel like Pretty Woman or something.” She half-laughs, then whispers into the phone as if she doesn’t want someone to overhear. “Just to be clear, there was no sex involved in the job offer.”

“Of course not—but, you know, it isn’t off the table.”

“Just not included in the handling fees.”

“Exactly,” I tell her. “Any sex had will not be a part of the job. It will be only for pleasure.”

“I think you should maybe hold off on the sexpectations a bit. For me, this really is a job. Sex is not the priority. Getting your family to believe we are a couple is.”

“What, you don’t want to sleep with me again?” I ask her, a bit surprised. Claire’s hard to read. Sometimes she seems all in, and other times ... it’s like her mind is somewhere else entirely. In all honesty, I’m not used to this reaction from a woman. Most women are dying to have my full attention.

“Fuck. Shit. Sorry, I have to go. I’ll call you back,” she says. The call ends and I stare at my phone confused. What the hell is going on with her?

What the hell is going on with her?

Then I shrug it off—not my business—and go back to my computer screen to book the tickets.

Chapter TenClaire

After kindergarten drop-offI come home, do laundry, clean the condo, and sit online paying bills. The three hours zoom by and the next thing I know I’m picking Sophia up from her half day.

Standing outside the classroom with the other kinder-moms, I can’t help but notice how different we are. They hold to-go cups of coffee, and with their hair pulled back they show off giant diamond earrings. I always notice details like this—but today I realize that if all goes perfectly with Landon’s family, in a week I could be like them.

I could be wearing cute yoga pants, having just returned from a workout and coffee date. I could be stress-free and smiling. Not looking frazzled, still unshowered, and hungry, like I am most days. Like I am right now.

“Hi—it’s Claire, right?” asks a woman I’ve run into a few times at pick-up.

“Yeah, that’s right. And you’re JoJo, Hardy’s aunt, right?”

JoJo is super in shape and super gorgeous, with flaming red hair.

“Yep,” she says. “I help my sister with him as much as I can. She’s a solo parent, and I’m glad I can help.”

“That’s awesome. I’m a single mom, too.” I blink, wondering why the hell I can tell this stranger the state of my family affairs, but not my best friends.

“Well, I don’t know how often you can get out, but a group of my friends and I are going to a show at Spades Royalle in a few nights. Would you like to come? I mean, it’s the all-male revue but should be fun? I’m actually kinda into one of the guys in the show and want to check him out. Which, I know, over-share much?”

Knowing firsthand how hot McQueen is, I have no doubt she’s into one of the guys in the show with him. They’re all gorgeous and ripped. Heck, the guy she has the hots for very well could be McQueen.

Instead of asking about McQueen, I stick to the facts.

“I wish I could, but I’m going to be out of town next week.”

“Oh, really? Work or pleasure?”

I bite my lip, knowing it’s both, and knowing that the moment I agreed to Landon’s job offer my life became an episode of some Bravo! TV show.

“Pleasure, mostly. Going to England, actually.”

“Oh, wow, that’s awesome,” she says. “Well, have a blast.”

Just then the kindergarten class files out into the hallway.

“Nice seeing you, JoJo,” I say, reaching for Sophia’s hand the moment she steps out the door. I sweep her up, knowing I need to get home and start packing.

Landon calls as I’m in the drive-thru at Panera getting Sophia a kid’s mac and cheese, while listening to the Frozen soundtrack for the eighteen billionth time.

“Tomorrow at ten,” he says, letting me know when the car will be there to pick me up.

He also says I need to get his credit card to get a new wardrobe.

Great, I’ll squeeze that in after I get Sophia down for a nap. My to-do list is unquestionably out of control. Besides quality time I need to squeeze in with my daughter, I apparently need to have a shopping spree. No way can I do it all.

That’s when Landon begins talking about the sex-potential of the trip. I whisper-yell my sex-boundaries, with the volume cranked up so Sophia doesn’t hear. Landon and I are on such completely different wavelengths at the moment. But obviously I can’t explain that. Not now. I just need to get to England.

Just as I’m about to hang up with Landon, a car starts backing into me in the drive-thru.

“Fuck!” I drop the phone, hang up, and start screaming for the person in front of me to stop their car. Thankfully, just before their bumper collides with my hood, the car stops rolling.

That was way too close for comfort. And I hate it when I’m human and swear in front of my daughter. Mom-fail #35867.

“Mama, is my mac and cheese ready?” Sophia asks.

“Soon, sweet pea, soon.”

I get our food and we eat as we drive, the chorus ofLet It Gonon-ironically blaring as I swing by the bank, pick up my uniform from the dry cleaners, then pull into Jiffy Lube for a quick oil change.

The last thing I want to do is leave my mom with the car when I’m out of the country, only to have it blow up on her. Which I know is dramatic but everything feels dramatic at the moment.

But honestly, the thing I’m most worried about at the moment is this whole thing blowing up in my own face.

* * *

Landon

Later, Claire calls me, calmly stating that, while she wishes she could swing by for a credit card and do some shopping, her responsibilities lie elsewhere. She asks if I would be so kind as to have a personal shopper pick up a wardrobe for her, considering I have “gobs of cash.”

“Uh, of course. That’s no problem,” I tell her. “I just thought women like to shop, you know, try on shoes while sipping white wine?” I have vague memories of my ex-girlfriend doing something similar. Perhaps, though, it isn’t every woman’s desire.

“Right, well … I’m not most women.”

“I never said you were. God, woman, is everything okay?” I can’t have her getting cold feet before we’ve even left the bloody country.

“It’s fine. I just almost got in an accident and it rattled me.”

“Okay, well, I’m glad you’re okay. It would have been tricky to explain my fiancée is in the hospital or some other mess.” When she doesn’t laugh, I get to the point. “I’ll see you in the morning. Just text me your sizes and I’ll get them to a personal shopper.”

“Okay, Landon. Ten tomorrow. Oh, and we need to use the flight to quiz one another. I was thinking I don’t know anything about you ... and if we’re gonna pull this off, we need to know everything. Even the things that aren’t true.”

She’s right, of course. We need to give the appearance of the perfect couple, better than Geoffrey and Fiona.

“We’ll be fine,” I reassure her. “And we’ll have plenty of time on the flight to do all sorts of things.”

“Is your mind always in the gutter?”

“Constantly.”

* * *

When I pickup Claire the next day, I’m horny as hell. I played cards last night, of course, but I didn’t take anyone back to my room to bang. I can’t think of the last time I didn’t have sex after I won a hundred grand. Usually, I can’t keep the women off me after I win big.

But last night I kept getting cock-blocked by images of Claire.

Her long legs, her soft skin, her tits so perfect, and her ass bare.

Fucking bollocks, I need her again. Smiling, I wonder if maybe she’ll let me take her into her apartment for a quickie before we head to the airport. My cock twitches at the idea of it.

But, as the limousine pulls up to her condo, I see she’s already on the curb waiting for me.

No quick fuck for me. That’s fine. Maybe she’ll be interested in joining the mile-high club with me.

The driver steps out and opens her door; she slides in, a canvas tote bag her only luggage.

“You packed light,” I say, taking in her slim shape in the stretchy pants she has on. An oversized tee shirt and baggy cardigan sweater, along with a pair of worn Converse tennis shoes to complete theI’m not trying to impress anyonelook.

She may not be trying to impress me, but she sure as hell makes me want to strip her out of those clothes and enjoy her naked flesh.

“You got me new clothes, right? Because I didn’t pack anything. I don’t have any pant suits or pearl earrings.”

“You can’t wear pearls to my father’s house, anyway. He sells diamonds. And, yes, I got you three perfectly packed Louis Vuitton suitcases. A purse, too.” I point to a bag on the seat across from us.

“Right. Diamonds and Louis Vuitton. No big deal.” Claire shrugs her shoulders aggressively, and blinks rapidly as the limo pulls out of the parking lot. Her head turns out the window as we drive away and a hand presses against the glass. It’s all rather dramatic.

“Everything okay?” I swear to god she looks about ready to cry.

“Yep.” Her voice has turned bizarrely high-pitched, and her head falls in her hands. She gives me a muffled, “Totally fine. Just jazzy.”

“Jazzy?”

“I’m nervous, Landon, okay?” She sits up and pulls her passport from her tote. “I’ve never left the country, but I’ve also never flown on a plane. And now I’m supposed to pretend I’m your fiancée and that this designer life is something I’m accustomed to. I know I can act the part once I get there—it’s just getting to the destination I’m having a hard time with.”

“Never flown?” I know my eyes widen in surprise, and I don’t want to offend her.

Blimey, this woman is all spun up today. I need cool, calm, and collected Claire. Not basket case, over-her-head Claire.

“Listen,” I tell her, taking the purse out of the Louis Vuitton bag. “This is just a bag. I wouldn’t have asked you to do this if I didn’t think you were capable.”

I watch her breathe through her nose, see her shoulders visibly relax.

“You’re right. It’s just a purse. I just had a panic attack about leaving home for the first time and failing you. But I want this to work. I can do this.” She looks at me with those gorgeous green eyes and I watch the wheels turning in her mind. She nods, steadier, and takes my hands in hers. “We can do this.”

“Of course we can.” I kiss her knuckles, wanting to do all sorts of things to her. Is it twisted that watching her have a meltdown turns me on? It’s like some part of me wants to protect her, make her happy.

Which is odd and completely foreign. My one and only girlfriend in college, Winnie, was a totally disaster. We smoked and drank our way into one another’s arms, only to rip each other to shreds once we were there. I’ve never had a relationship that didn’t end in rehab. That’s not exactly a healthy track record.

“Claire,” I say as the limo pulls up to the airport. “I’ve always thought you were this completely in control woman. But you’re actually rather vulnerable, you know that? Like, this tender little bird, ready to take flight, but scared of spreading her wings.”

“You are so cheesy, Landon.” She takes her wallet and passport, lipstick, and a Kindle, and fills the brown leather Louis bag.

“But I’m right, aren’t I?” The driver opens the door and Claire steps out. I follow her, the blue skies above a good omen for our long day of travel.

“No one has ever called me vulnerable, if that’s what you’re asking,” she says, licking her lips.

The driver sets our pile of luggage on the curb and a bellhop lifts it on a cart. I pull a carry-on bag from the pile and sling it over my shoulder, clasping her hand in mine before walking through the sliding glass airport doors.

“I’m not asking what you are, Claire. I’m telling you. It’s time you learned to soar.”


Page 8

Chapter ElevenClaire

The thing is, Landon completely unnerves me. The moment the limo pulled up to the curb, I was rattled. I kept thinking of earlier that morning, how I kissed Sophia good-bye and how she smiled, squeezing me tight, not in the least concerned about me leaving.

I took it to mean that Sophia didn’t really care about me, and that I was probably gone way too often at work, and that leaving now meant I was crappy mother.

My mom said it meant my daughter was happy and well-adjusted and that I should be grateful to have such a lovely child.

The story I was making up was totally bogus, I know, but being a mom makes me literally crazy. Like, I just don’t want to fuck it up for Sophia. She has one childhood, one chance. That’s why I need this job to work out. If I get the money, Sophia can have everything.

And when I had my I’m-leaving-my-daughter-for-the-first-time panic attack in the limo, Landon could have decided then and there I belonged in a crazy-bin. But he didn’t.

He basically handled it perfectly. Beyond perfectly. He didn’t say I was a mess or a disaster of a girl—the way I actually felt about myself.

Instead, he called me a bird. He said I was tender. The truth is, I’m a big fat liar. He only partially knows why I freaked.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s enough.

I just need to get to England and everything will get easier.

“Check-in is over here,” he directs me, and I’m happy to let him lead. I’ve never been up close and personal with an airport. We walk through a door, flash our passports, and are swept into the long line of gates.

“Don’t we need to get molested by TSA or something?” I ask. “That’s what the news always says.”

“Oh, we’re prescreened. I’d never wait in a line like that.”

“Right, because you’re upper crust. The elite, the one percent.”

“It’s not my fault I come from old money,” he says, leading me to a bank of restrooms.

“Don’t you have new money, from the cards you play?” I ask, standing outside the woman’s entrance.

“Some. But, honestly, blackjack isn’t a serious card game. Sometimes I win big, but mostly it’s for pleasure.”

“So you just moved to Vegas to mess around?”

“Isn’t that why everyone lives in Vegas?” he scoffs.

“No.” My voice is sharp. “Not everyone is in Vegas to fuck around. Look, do you need to pee or something? Because I don’t.”

“Okay,” he says, putting his hands on my shoulders, looking at me squarely. “We’re clearly stepping off on the wrong foot. Yes, there is a class divide here—but, Claire, you’ve got to lose the chip on your shoulder if this is going to work.”

“I know,” I say briskly. “I just—I don’t know if I can do this.” I shake my head, feeling totally overwhelmed again by the job I’ve agreed to. I want the money, so much. But Landon makes me feel ... too many things. Jealousy and resentment and ... desire.

“Shut up, Claire. You are completely capable. Let’s just change you into some proper clothing, get you a martini, and everything will be fine.” He flashes me that half-dimpled, chiseled-chin, heart-stopping smile. The smile that makes me a little wet, and no longer filled with anything so mild as desire. The feeling that smile gives me is straight-up lust.

“I don’t drink martinis. Especially at ten in the morning,” I say, smirking.

“My fiancée does, though.”

And then he pushes me into the family restroom.

In a hot minute, he’s pulled up my tee shirt and my sweater, I’ve unclasped my bra and he’s dropping his pants.

“Did you lock the door?” I ask, panting. “I don’t want some toddler walking in on this.”

“See, you may be this vulnerable little bird, but you’re also responsible. That’s what I love about you, Claire,” he says, locking the door. “You are marriage material, no question—thinking about childhood innocence instead of my cock.”

“Oh, I’m thinking about your cock, don’t worry.”

And I am.

When we slept together in the hotel room it was hot as hell, but it was also dark. Now the fluorescent lights of the bathroom are glaring down on us, shining on his hard rod. And God, he is such a fine specimen of a man. His cock is ten inches long, hard and thick, and I feel myself get wet as he pulls down my leggings, as his fingers plunge below the waistband of my panties.

“Claire, you need to relax, you need to let me take charge.”

“I want you to take charge. To take care of me.” The words slip out of my mouth before I realize the truth of them. Landon has a reputation for being this complete bad-boy asshole, but he isn’t like that with me. With me, he’s a man.

“I’ll take care of you alright.”

And then he begins to graze my opening with his fingers. My panties sopping wet as he flicks my clit expertly. Each movement causes me to reach my arms around his neck and hold on a little tighter. His hard cock is between us, teasing me, as he presses two fingers deep inside my pussy.

“You’re so wet.”

“For you.” I kiss his neck as he dips in and out, in and out, kneading my sweet spot deliciously.

“Oh, baby,” I moan as his strong hand pulls out of me, and swells of desire ignite as he pushes down my panties. He smacks his slick hand on my ass, and it burns so good.

My legs wrap around him, and he presses me against the wall.

Our mouths collide, and his tongue devours me greedily. In this frenzied moment of desire, I want him to take all of me. I want his cock on my tits, coming all over me. I want to get on all fours and have him pound me from behind, grabbing my ass as we come. I want him to lick every inch of me, and I want all of him, too. I want to get on my hands and knees and suck him off, his come on my face, in my hair.

Ohmigod, his cock is so hard. The tip presses at my tight opening, and I just want him to drop me against himself, so I can feel the immense pleasure deep and fast. Andnow.

I never give in like this, to my fantasies. But as Landon’s massive rod slides into my wet opening, it seems like he could bring any fantasy to life. If there ever were a man who could fuck me like I’ve only read about, it would be him.

“You feel so good, Claire,” he says in my ear, one hand holding me up and the other hand running over my breasts. My nipples are hard and tight, and I want him to fuck me harder.

“More, give me more, Landon,” I moan, as he thrusts his cock deeper in me. My head rolls back as the sensation fills me to my core. Every inch of me is on fire, alive with him.

He smells like cloves and money—and, right now, sex. He smacks my ass again and I feel my wetness pour over him. I’m completely undone.

Clawing at his hair, I groan loudly. “Oh, fuckmefuckmefuckme.” My pussy pulses as I come.

He holds my ass steady, pounding into me as he comes too.

“Oh, fuck, Claire.”

“What?” I pant.

“You are ruining me.” He kisses my nose, my cheek, my ear.

I smile, nuzzling against his face, ticklish from the kisses.

“Good,” I tell him. “Then your family will buy this engagement.”

He nods slowly, setting me down, pulling up his pants. “Right. I think they will.” He smiles tightly, then hands me the carry-on bag. “There’s a change of clothes in there. I hope they fit.”

I pull out a pair of slim-legged black pants, a cream cashmere sweater, a fitted pale pink, knee-length wool coat, a chunky pale pink scarf, and four-inch nude stilettos. They’re all the right sizes; his personal shopper did well with the measurements I sent Landon.

In the bag there is also a La Perla bra and panty set—pale pink as well—Chanel sunglasses, and a make-up bag.

“I’ve been instructed, as well,” Landon says, “to make sure you get a manicure before we board the plane.”

“Right.” I smile tightly, holding an outfit that probably cost five thousand dollars. “Great. This is totally normal.”

“Breathe, Claire. You’ve got this. Now.” He raises his eyebrows coyly. “Let me see you in those panties. I told the personal shopper to only buy you thongs.”

* * *

Landon

After the bathroom sex and the manicure, Claire and I are sitting in our first class seats, ready for take off. We didn’t have time for a dirty martini before we boarded the plane, but that’s all right. I can get her properly tipsy before long and then she’ll sleep it off before we land in my home country.

“Would you like a cocktail?” the flight attendant asks.

“Gin martini for me. And Claire will have a glass of champagne.”

Claire gives me a soft smile, and I’m glad I ordered her what she likes. Though I do think a woman who drinks gin is hot as hell, when Claire holds a flute of champagne she becomes both demure and alluring.

When we have our drinks in hand, I offer a toast.

“To a lifetime of happiness, for us both.”

That makes her laugh, almost enough to forget about takeoff. But as soon as the captain announces that we are off the ground, her hand finds mine and, without thinking, our fingers lace. Our eyes lock.

“It’s okay,” I tell her, my forehead resting on hers.

“I’m just really far from home.”

“That’s okay, bird. You ever heard the saying ‘Home is where the heart is’?”

“Of course I have,” she whispers, smiling. “Thank you, that makes me feel better.”

“Then all is as it should be.” I steal a kiss from her. Our lips lock, not like the passionate kisses we shared in the bathroom. This is a steady, reassuring kiss. A kiss that says more thanplease-fuck-me-now... it’s a kiss that feels intimate in a way sex never does.

And I know it’s all a job to her, and to me—but sometimes, like right now, when my our breath is so close, when my whole body is focused on helping her calm down ... it doesn’t feel like a job. It feels personal.

“Where is your heart, Landon?”

Everything tenses at that question. Because, fuck, I’ve spent forever running. And now I’m going home, no less sure than when I left. Still have no house to call a home, no real job, no real woman. Everything is like Blackjack. Just a house of fucking cards.

I’ve never felt shame before, at not having my shit together ... but when Claire asks, for some reason I want to show her that I am not such a screw up.

“If my father gives me the business, I’ll pour my heart into The King’s Diamond.”

“So you’d move to England?” she asks, taking a sip of the champagne. The plane has stabilized in the air, and she and I both rest back in our own seats.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admit. “I don’t really want to leave Vegas. My life is there.”

“I get it. I never thought I’d still be there. I mean, it’s where I grew up and I always wanted to leave ... but now? I don’t know. It feels like home.”

“England is so different from Las Vegas.”

“I know.” A serene smile passes over Claire’s face, and the flight attendant refills our drinks.

“What do you know of England?” I ask, lagging. “You’ve never even left Nevada.”

“Don’t laugh, but … when I was a girl, I was obsessed. You know the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice? Well, I had the whole thing memorized. When my friends were in love with Justin Bieber, I was head over heels in love with Colin Firth. So I know that the estates and countryside are very different from the desert.”

“The food is different, too. And the people. My parents are an anomaly, not stuffy or uptight. But my brother Geoffrey and his girlfriend Fiona? They are ridiculous.”

Claire’s eyes twinkle. “How long have they been together? That’s the sort of thing your fiancée would know.”

“Ten years. Geoffrey is just one year my senior. They’ve dated since high school.”

“But never got married? If they had, would that make him the obvious choice for your father’s successor?”

“Fiona wants to get married, but Geoffrey is a pansy. He’s worse than an ass; he’s a twit, which is why I think I actually stand a chance. Geoffrey is so terrible that if I show that I’m capable of even a modicum of decent behavior, I think my father will legitimately consider me.”

“Which is where I come in.”

“Right. So just shower me with praise, mention my virility and skill. Tell everyone I am investing in real estate, and never hint at the fact I spent five years mucking about.”

“You call it mucking, I call it fucking.”

“Ha,” I snort. “Claire, that wit is exactly the sort of humor Englishmen love. Keep it up.” As our glasses are filled for the third time, I toast Claire again.

“What is that one for?” she asks.

“For doing this. For putting up with me.” My lips curl into a smile as I realize I am actually genuinely happy to be bringing Claire home. She looks gorgeous in this posh outfit, holding her flute of champagne. Everything about her drips perfection, and I wouldn’t believe she had a blemish if someone swore she did.

“I want the money,” she says bluntly. “I’ll put up with anything.”

“Right.” I finish the martini in one fell swoop. Fuck me. My head needs to stay on bloody straight. This isn’t personal for Claire. She’s never once hinted that it is. It’s all business for her. And I need to keep it that way for me too.

But as we recline our seats, settling in for the long flight, I can’t help but look at Claire and think that what I really want is her.


Page 9

Chapter TwelveClaire

Ifallasleep for most of the flight, and wake only as Landon gently nudges my arm.

“We’re here, love,” he says, tucking a piece of my hair off my face.

That gets me sitting up straight.

“Love?”

He laughs. “I was trying it on for size. You know, to make this believable. We need pet names.”

“And mine isLove?”

“Right. It rolls off the tongue. You can call me anything you like. However, we should think on it as we walk. The rest of the plane has already disembarked.”

I unbuckle and look around. “You let me sleep while everyone walked past me?” I swat his arm. “Was I drooling?”

“You looked perfect.”

I eye Landon cautiously. He’s being ridiculously nice. Which, actually, he’s been pretty generous with me the entire time we’ve been hanging out. And byhanging outI mean planning on conning his loved ones, and having sex.

I stand and get my purse. “Okay, Babycakes.”

“So you’re going with Babycakes .then?” he asks, deadpan.

I walk off the plane with him trailing me. “It’s better than Toots.”

“It’s better than a lot of things. That doesn’t mean you should consider calling me Fuck-machine.”

I laugh, swatting his arm as he reaches for my hand again. We walk into the crowded airport. The Las Vegas airport suddenly seems minuscule, compared to this place. People from everywhere on the globe cross our path. Dialects and languages circle around us, and my face brightens as I realize that I really did it. I travelled to another country.

Looking down, I see Landon’s hand holding mine.

“You know you don’t have to hold my hand until we get to your parents house,” I tell him, as our fingers lace together effortlessly.

“Do you mind? I want to be in the habit of it, so it seems natural.”

“I don’t mind. We’re in England—this is your turf, your rules. Your wish is my command.”

“Okay, then.” He stops in the middle of the airport terminal.

Hundreds of people swarm around us. Huge windows are on either side of us, and planes are landing and taking off. It’s the place people go to leave. The airport is where stories end, the place stories begin.

The place where Landon is kneeling down on one knee.

Ohmigosh. I silently will him to stand. He could just slip a ring on my finger without a show ... yet here he is, pulling out a black box, holding my hand, looking into my eyes.

“Claire, the moment we waltzed, arm in arm, I knew you and I were destined for greatness. You literally glided into my life, and you are the only person I want to have this crazy adventure with.”

“You don’t have to do this,” I whisper out of the corner of my mouth. People have stopped walking; they’re watching, cameras poised at their faces as literal strangers begin documenting this proposal. My face is hot, my chest pounds. This is so not happening.

“Claire, I have to do this. Right now. Before another moment passes us by. Will you make me the happiest bloke in the world and be my bride?”

My eyes are basically falling off my face—and not because that diamond ring is beyond enormous, but because Landon looks so ridiculously handsome, so absolutely out of my league. He’s in a tie and collared shirt, a suit coat and nice slacks; he has on cufflinks for God’s sake. No one would believe we were together.

But then I look down at myself, with my high heels and manicured hands. My gorgeous clothing, and my three-thousand-dollar purse.

We fit. We match.

“Say yes,” he says, holding the solitaire flanked with two emeralds.

“Yes,” I say breathlessly.

“She said yes!” someone in the crowd calls, and everyone is clapping, calling out congratulations, and hollering.

I blink back tears, tears that make zero sense. This isn’t a real proposal. Landon and I aren’t actually in love.

Still, Landon slides the ring on my finger and stands, pulling me into a hug, and then a kiss as natural as our hands lacing together.

He picks me up off the ground and twirls me in a circle, grinning like a lovesick fool.

Then he sets me back down, and the crowd keeps moving—because everyone in this airport has a place to be. He cups my face in his hands and says, “For the record, you are a beautiful fake fiancée.”

“You aren’t so bad yourself.” I kiss him again, because I want to. Because this fake proposal took my breath away. I knew he’d give me a ring at some point, but I didn’t expect it to make me weak in the knees.

I can’t let my guard down, though. Landon sees this as a job, and so do I. I’m not in the business of making myself look like a fool.

Right now, I’m in the business of making two hundred and fifty thousand bucks in one week’s time.

He wants this to look as real as possible? I can give him that. I can give him exactly what he wants.

There are worse things than pretending to be in love.

* * *

Landon

I haven’t been to the family estate in nine months. I came last Christmas for two days, before flying to Bali for a week. Mum kept wiping her eyes the whole time, giving me a royal guilt trip for not being there longer, doing more. I shouldn’t have come at all, because being there only proved to them what I’m not.

No one wants to think about what I actually am.

Least of all me.

“So your mother is Helen and your father is Arthur. Tell me something else I should know,” Claire says, tucking her hair behind her ear. She holds her phone in her lap, and is texting as we travel the one-hour drive to Hertfordshire. I have no bloody clue who she’s speaking with ... and I have this strange curiosity to know.

She’s quizzing me, but I want to know everything about her.

“Right,” I say, stretching my legs in the back of the sleek town car. “Fiona, of course, is a bitch. And her sister hates me, so avoid asking about the family.”

“Why does she hate you?” she asks.

“Because I slept with her. But it was a long time ago. And the thing is, Fiona doesn’t even know the half of it.”

“What’s the other half?”

I snort, feeling my cheeks heat up. “I slept with her mother too.”

“Landon!” Claire punches me in the arm. “That’s terrible.”

Wincing playfully, I add, “It was holiday, I’d gotten drunk on eggnog. I was barely legal. She pounced. She was the original cougar.”

Claire rolls her eyes. “What else should I know? Because I know you’re a player in Vegas ... but, Landon, were you really that wild here, too?”

“Honestly? I was probably worse.”

“Did you intentionally omit these details when you offered me the job?”

“What, you don’t think you can do it?”

“I can do it.” She silences her phone and shoves it back in her bag. “I can do anything for a week.”

I take her hand in mind, resting them on leather seat of the town car. The diamond gleams between us like a million bucks. Scratch that—like two million bucks. Because that was what it bloody cost. However, using a perk of being the owner’s son, I borrowed it from the Vegas branch of The King’s Diamond ... since I don’t actually have that sort of cash yet.

Soon enough I will. Soon it will be my store. My company.

“It’s so beautiful,” Claire says, sighing as she looks out the window. It’s late—after dinner—and the sky is heavy with the colors of a setting sun. “Did you go to school here?”

“Primary school, yes. Then I went to boarding school in Edinburgh and uni at Cambridge. Where did you go to school?”

Claire licks her lips. “We should probably make up my whole back story, don’t you think? Falling for a cocktail waitress is not going to win the family over.”

“I suppose. It’s kind of bollocks though, isn’t it?” I run my hand over my jaw, confused as to why I feel protective of Claire and her feelings.

I don’t want to offend her with the truth of the people I come from. They would judge the hell out of her if they know she serves rum and Cokes for a living, while wearing a corset and fishnets. How the fuck do I know this? Because they have been judging me for the past decade for doing nothing with my life as well.

Not that Claire isn’t doing something with her life—she seems happy-ish—but she isn’t exactly riddled with life-passion or motivation, is she?

Okay. I’ve got to stop this. I don’t want to become an entirely different sort of ass the moment I land in the Heathrow airport. An ass like Geoffrey. I can live with being a womanizing prick, but a judgmental one? Not at all.

“I know that my job is usually a stepping stone for most people—but, Landon, I’m not most people. I don’t even know what sort of job I’d want if I weren’t a waitress. The money is decent. And the hours are great.”

“Are they really?” I can’t help but ask. “Because it’s actually something I’ve always wondered. Why do you work the crappiest shifts at the Spades? Surely Ace would give you a leg up? Let you work weekend nights and make more in tips?”

Claire shifts uncomfortably in her seat, her soft wool coat covering so many inches of her, the inches I want to run my hands over.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Landon,” she says briskly. “I like my job, and the shifts I have are the ones I want.”

“Duly noted.”

“But, honestly, we need a backstory. How we met. What I’m doing in Vegas. Hell, whatyou’redoing in Vegas. We need to know why they should give the company to you.”

“We really should have discussed this before we were fifteen minutes from my parents house.”

“Fifteen? Fuck, Landon.” She covers her mouth. “Shit. I can’t say fuck around them. They’re proper, right? Like rich, and have tea and a maid? Tell me, is it going to be like an episode of Downton Abbey?”

“First of all, Downton takes place, like, one hundred years ago. You do realize that? But yes ... they have a staff. And afternoon tea.”

“I’m so over my head.” She takes deep breaths in and out, closes her eyes. Grips my hand tight in hers.

“Are you going to have another panic attack?” I ask. “Because, really, this is not at all what I envisioned. I need put-together Claire. Claire who’s always, you know, responsible.”

“But, Landon, you’re the one who needs to be cool, calm, put together. You’re the one who needs to win them over, not me. I’m an accessory.”

“Fuck.” I match her breathing pattern, realizing she’s absolutely right. I brought her along to prove how reliable I am. To show my parents that I’m able to commit.

The truth is, their eyes will still be on me. I have Claire here, hoping she’ll solve my problems. But she can’t. She can only hold my hand and smile. I’m the one who needs the fake identity.

“It’s okay, Landon. We can do this. Together. One thing at a time.”

Claire leans over and kisses my cheek. I know it’s an effort to be as natural a couple as possible, but her kiss genuinely does cause my shoulders to drop, my eyes to open. I feel grounded with her next to me.

“What kind of woman would they like you to marry?” she asks. “A girl like Fiona?”

“Absolutely. They love Fiona. She goes to bridge with my mum. And they play tennis at the country club together. Also, they like to shop. On vacations, they seem to talk about books. I don’t know. It’s all boring stuff.”

“I got this. I can do boring.” She smiles, nodding her head, assuring me. “And you, Landon? What would your father want from you? To be like Geoffrey?”

“They would want me to be like Geoffrey, only more friendly. Outgoing. Not so stick-up-my-ass. My father is always riding my brother about being rigid, no fun, a bore. My father likes to have a good time—not too good, but he certainly doesn’t want to sit stoically and discuss finance.”

“So, you’re your father’s son, only you have a tendency to be more wild than you should.” Claire cocks her head, looking me up and down. Her eyes land on the bulge in my pants. I can’t wait to get her in the house, in a bedroom, and tear off her clothes. Which will be soon. We’ve just pulled up to the estate.

“Let’s not talk about my father right now. Let’s talk about all the things I plan on doing to you.”

“Um. I’d love to hear all about it ... but, Landon, this cannot be your house. This is a freaking castle.” Claire’s gorgeous eyes are wide in surprise.

“Technically, yes.”

The driveway leading to the estate is filled with autumn foliage and the house itself looks as regal as ever. Towering spires and stonewalls, barred windows and sweeping views of the property.

“Everything will be fine,” I tell her. “Remember, you told me we’ve got this.” I kiss her again, because I can’t fucking help myself. Everything about her makes me insane. Her vulnerability, her innocence. Her absolute naiveté of the world around us. The way she holds herself together, not thinking she’s less than, or inadequate. She is enough.

“I like it when you kiss me,” she says, her lips lingering on mine, her words soft breaths that I want to inhale. When the driver stops the car at the front of the estate, and opens her door, I squeeze her hand.

“They’re going to be so shocked that I’ve actually come.”

She half-laughs in disbelief. “You didn’t tell them you were coming? That I was coming?”


Page 10

“Everyone likes a surprise, don’t they?”

As we exit the car, I hear Claire mutter under her breath, not thinking I can hear, “Surprises aren’t always a good thing.”

I watch as she straightens her coat, flicks back her platinum hair, reaches for my hand. She seems completely in control ... the panic attacks are gone. She’s the Claire I met at the Spades Royalle. The Claire I needed to bring home to my family.

I wonder if she’s everything she’s telling me.

If she is ... this engagement could become more real than I imagined it could be.

Chapter ThirteenClaire

So the houseis actually a castle. And the family has no clue I’m coming. And Landon is making my heart flutter in completely inappropriate ways. And all I can do is look down at his crotch when I really need to be keeping my eyes on the prize: winning over the family and getting my paycheck.

But all I want right now is more of him pressed against me.

A butler in a white starched blazer opens the door. Yes, that is correct. A butler. Because that joke about Downton Abbey is no joke. This is real. Really real. I am really in England, at a Jane Austen-esque property, wearing gorgeous clothing and a gorgeous ring, holding the hand of a beyond-gorgeous man.

Landon is all sorts of things. He’s insecure. He’s hot as hell. He’s gentle with me.

And he is nervous. Like really, really nervous. As we enter the grand foyer, where a chandelier larger than a poker table hangs above us, and a staircase sweeps across the room, I am struck by how tightly Landon is holding my hand.

“It’s okay, Babycakes,” I whisper. “We got this.” My words elicit a smile, exactly what I hoped they would do. Landon needs to be relaxed and confident when his parents greet us. They need to believe he is undoubtedly grown-up.

“I will call your parents, Landon,” the butler says, bowing at his waist. “They are having after-dinner drinks in the sitting room, and I don’t think they were expecting you.” A footman trails behind us, depositing our heap of luggage.

“That is quite all right, Brandon. We can greet them ourselves,” Landon says, shaking off the butler’s words.

“As you wish,” Brandon says, shutting the door behind us. “Geoffrey and Fiona are here as well.”

“Of course they are,” Landon says, smiling tightly.

I watch the exchange, trying to be present, and as observant as possible. I need to be one hundred percent on my A-game. Landon is counting on me. And so are my daughter and mother, even if they don’t know it.

Walking down the hall, Landon blows air out of his cheeks, seemingly upset.

“Stop.” I tug on his arm, spin him to look at me. “Before we go in there, you need to remember something. You are Landon, the hottest man I know. You are the King of Vegas, in ways a guy like Ace never will be. You aren’t the mafia boss’s son. You are the heir to a freaking castle. You are a badass. And you need to remember that. Don’t let your brother make you feel less-than. We are in this together.”

In this moment, what I really want is for this to be real. As ridiculous as that is, for a split second all I want is us to actually be engaged and meeting his family for the first time. I want the feeling of being in it with someone else. Forever.

For five years it’s been Sophia and me against the world. Earlier, when I texted my mom in the car, letting her know I got here safely, I wondered what Landon would say if I told him the truth—the truth about having a daughter, and the truth about everything else. Would he still go through this arrangement with me? Still want me as his fake fiancée?

I know one thing: if he knew the truth I’d never be the real deal. The real fiancée, the real wife.

I brush my foolish wishes away; at the same moment, Landon brushes a strand of hair from my face. His eyes search mine, and his lips press against my lips. In an instant he has me against the wall, and my hands run through his hair.

His kiss searches all of me, as if he’s trying to find a way to believe in the words I spoke. My words, meant to encourage him, seem to have ignited a passion. A desire. My words seem to be working.

Other parts of me are working, too. My panties get wet as he presses himself against me. His cock is right against my belly, and all I can visualize is him and me together, sprawled out on some enormous bed in this castle, him fucking me all night.

Which, I know—not a part of the job description.

But, oh God, as Landon’s tongue slides into my mouth, deepening our kiss, I want other parts to slide into me as well.

“What the hell is going on here?” A nasal voice draws Landon and I apart. A woman about my age in a houndstooth skirt and jacket has her mouth dropped open in shock. “Geoffrey,” she hisses, “get over here, now.”

A man holding a wine glass is a few steps behind her. He wears a frown, and a slight look of disgust is etched onto the squinty corners of his eyes.

“Geoffrey, Fiona. Hello,” Landon says, stepping away from me and reaching out his hand.

“I cannot believe you, Landon. This is so typical.” Fiona’s eyes take me in, head to toe—trying to judge me, but I know I look impeccable. There is no room for the snotty words she wants to dish.

“You really came, to muck everything up. Just what we need.” Geoffrey shakes his head in disapproval and I watch Landon’s eyes find their way to the floor.

How is it that two people who are complete bores shake the confidence of a man with an ego as big as his cock?

I reach for his hand, and hold my head high. Fiona has nothing on me. And Geoffrey has nothing on Landon. I just need to convince his parents of that.

And it seems I need to convince Landon of that, too.

* * *

Landon

Claire laces her fingers with mine, and it steadies me the same way her words did. Her speech filled me with so much unbridled passion I wanted to fuck her right there in the open. I wanted all of her, and I still do.

Of course Fiona and Geoffrey, of all people, had to interrupt us. That’s just another log for the fire he is building against me.

We follow Fiona and Geoffrey into the sitting room and, the moment we walk in, Dad and Mum are up, wrapping me in undignified hugs.

“Landon, you came. You came home,” Dad says, clapping my back. “I ask. I always ask, but it rarely works.”

Geoffrey and Fiona have found their way to a sofa, and sit with looks of disapproval on their faces.

“A family summit seemed rather important,” I say, smiling. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Obviously, I’m trying hard to sound easygoing and relaxed. The sort of man Dad would want representing him.

Mum clasps her hands to her heart. “We are so pleased. I just can’t believe you didn’t call first,” she says, swatting my arm. “And who is this sweet thing?” she asks, looking between Claire and me.

“I think she’s another bird he found on the way from Heathrow. Guessing she flew right into his lap,” Fiona says smugly, reaching for her cocktail glass and taking a drink.

“Play nice, kids,” Dad says, his brows furrowed. Obviously Fiona’s referencing last Christmas when I brought home a woman I met in the airport bar. Fiona’s being a snot, but I understand why. She usually has reason to be. I’ve ruined enough family events with my drugs, drinking, and women to make her pissy. I deserve it.

But Claire does not.

“That’s funny, Fiona,” Claire says. “Landon actually calls me his little Bird.” She embellishes the truth, but I don’t mind. Not if she can iron things out with Fiona. “Though I don’t think I spend nearly enough time in his lap to elicit that sort of comment from you.”

“Oh, she’s feisty,” Dad says, laughing. I think he’s relieved to hear that Claire isn’t a girl I just met in passing. “Tell us, who are you then?”

“Landon,” she says demurely, her eyes lowered, a small smile on her face. “Tell them, love.”

“Love?” Mum’s eyes widen, and she covers her mouth.

“This is Claire,” I explain, reaching for her hand. “She’s my fiancée.”

Fiona literally spits out her drink. Chocking back her shock, she reaches for a napkin, a poor attempt to wipe away her surprise.

“You’re engaged!” Mum wraps her arms around Claire and me, her eyes instantly brimming with tears.

“Brandon,” Dad calls. “Champagne, we need champagne!”

“The prodigal son has returned,” Geoffrey says, his face revealing everything. Resentment. Jealousy. Loathing.

“It just happened,” Claire says, beaming. We find seats in the richly upholstered chairs, and sit facing one another. “We’ve been dating for months, and we decided this would be the perfect time for me to come out and meet you all, but then ... you’ll never believe it,” she says, laughing. Her green eyes are wild with intensity and pure absolute joy. She is a fucking amazing actress, because everyone is on the edge of their seats, eating this up. “Then, after we landed here today, he got down on one knee at the airport and proposed. It was magic. People were cheering, and wishing us good luck, and it was like a movie. I just ... I can’t believe it’s our life.”

She reaches over and kisses me softly on the cheek.

Mum and Dad are crying literal tears. Fiona is speechless. She stares at us with a look of empty hatred.

“Can we see the ring?” Dad asks.

“Of course,” Claire says, sticking out her hand.

“Now, this is a special ring,” he says. “The three stones are for the past, present, and future, I presume?” Of course he has an analogy for this. He has one for everything related to promises of forever and commitments and why he went into this bloody business in the first place. “But Landon, tell us about the emeralds?” He’s commenting on the two emeralds flanking the solitaire.

I breathe a sigh of relief. This is an easy answer. I’m sure there will be plenty more that I won’t have any words for. But this, I do. “Just look at Claire’s eyes and you’ll understand.”

Claire smiles coyly as all eyes fall on her green ones once again.

“That is very romantic,” Mum says. “But Landon, we have family jewels.”

“I know but, Mum, I couldn’t wait another moment to propose.”

“I didn’t even know you were dating anyone, dear. We have so much to catch up on.”

“Later, dear. Now, we must share a toast,” Dad says, smiling.

Brandon carries in a silver tray with six champagne flutes and a chilled bottle of champagne. Once we all have a glass of bubbly in hand, Dad stands and offers a toast. “To Claire and Landon, and a lifetime of love.”

We clink glasses and there’s a moment of silence as everyone takes a sip.

We spend the next hour catching up. Nothing new with Fiona and Geoffrey, besides bragging about how many promotions he’s earned. All the while, Dad looks on as if this is the last thing he wishes to discuss.

“Well, I must say everyone thought it was rather ingenious,” Geoffrey drawls on, “the way I expanded distribution in Mexico City. No one has made any inroads there for years.”

“True, no one has,” my father says. “But that deal required quite a bit of brand leniency didn’t it?” He shrugs. “If I wanted to sell diamonds in strip malls, I would have started my business in America. The King’s Diamond is all about the luxury experience.”

“Oh, boys, let’s not do this now,” Mum says. “Claire, tell us about you. What do you do for fun? Where did you two meet? I need details, darling.”

“Oh, of course. Well.” Claire looks over at me, and I nod encouragingly. “I love tennis. And reading. Books. And, of course, dogs.”

Mum leans in, a bit perplexed. “Books and dogs, you say?”

“Yes, well.” Claire waves her hands in the air, laughing nervously. Fuck me, she’s losing it. “Sorry. Jet lag is making me a bit wonky.”

“I don’t want you wonky. Do you need some tea, perhaps?” Mum asks.

“No. I’m fine. I’m sorry. Landon, will you tell them all the lovely details of our life together?”

I cough, grin tightly, and take her hand. “Of course, love. The details.”

Dad smiles encouragingly and I have no choice but to forge ahead, what with Geoffrey sitting smugly across from me, and Fiona practically begging for me to say Claire is a stripper.

“Claire is in hotel hospitality. Her office is at the Spades Royalle where I live. And we met at a business function. You know, how I’ve mentioned the investment property I’ve purchased?”

When my Dad nods, I keep going. “Right, anyway there we were, both talking of investments and hospitality and it was pure….” I pause, clapping my hand there, stalling because I know my explanation is complete rubbish.

“Pure magic,” Claire finishes, getting a second wind. “We were at a business gala, and the moment our eyes met it was magic. The next thing you know we were waltzing around the ballroom at the Spades, reminding each other of our childhoods and falling in love.”

Claire is able to spin a story of Ace and Emmy’s wedding into something that has my parents on the literal edge of their seats.

“Landon, dear, how could you hold this from me,” Mum asks. “I can’t believe you met what, three months ago? And you’ve kept this gem a secret all this time.”

“Well,” Claire says, clasping her hands in apology. “I know we just arrived, but I am absolutely spent. Is there any way I could be shown a bed to sleep in?”

“Of course, dear,” Mum says. “Let me get Clarice. She’ll take you to a room. I had one ready just in case Landon chose to grace us with his presence. We got doubly lucky, though, didn’t we?”

“As did I,” Claire says, standing and reaching for my hand. “Are you coming, love?”

I don’t hesitate. In this moment, I’ll go anywhere this girl wants to go.


Page 11

Chapter FourteenClaire

The room is beautiful. Thick drapes line the window; tapestry curtains hang around the four-poster bed. I wondered how old-fashioned his parents would be, and if we’d be able to sleep in the same room—but apparently this diamond ring works wonders.

Fiona pitched a little fit when she realized Landon and I would be sharing quarters--Landon says she and Geoffrey were together five years before they were allowed to sleep in the same bedroom at the family estate.

“This was your childhood bedroom?”

“Ridiculous right? Fit for a king.”

“I love it.” I fall onto the bed, still dressed, unable to help myself. It has been a long day.

“Are you all right with me sleeping here?” Landon asks. “I know this is a job ... and sleeping together was not in the contract.”

“We didn’t actually sign a contract, did we?” I ask, sitting up.

“No. I just don’t want you to feel forced.”

“Oh,” I say, pouting a little. “I actually want to be forced into a few things tonight.”

“Do you?” Landon throws his suit coat and tie on a chair. Slips off his shoes and shirt. His pants drop next. He’s down to his boxer briefs in a matter of seconds.

“Eager, much?” I laugh, standing up and removing my heels. Truthfully, I want him as much as he wants me. When he pressed me against the wall in the hallway downstairs, I thought I might melt into a puddle on the hardwood floor. I love aggressive Landon, but gentle, insecure Landon makes me equally turned on.

“You were incredible tonight,” he says, walking toward me.

I take off my scarf, pull my sweater over my head. Fold them carefully before setting them on top of a bureau.

“They ate it up,” I tell him, unbuttoning my pants. I take them off and add them to the pile. I don’t want ruin these clothes; they’re worth more than my car.

“You are a good liar.”

“I prefer to call it embellishing the truth. All those things did happen. Just, you know ... not the falling in love part.”

A flicker of understanding crosses Landon’s face, and I turn from him, taking off the necklace I’m wearing and setting it on the dresser. I hate the emotions running through my heart. They make me feel weak.

While I sat downstairs, for a moment it didn’t feel like I was playing a part. It felt ... real. Like this was actually my life. That Landon, the playboy gajillionaire, had actually chosen me.

But he didn’t. He only chose me to play a role. And thank my lucky stars that I’ve practiced deceiving my friends for the past few moths. I’ve gotten really good at being a person I’m actually not.

But what if I was? What if I was the girl who got swept away, swept off her feet? What if I was the girl who got a happily ever after, just like Emmy did?

What if I was a girl who fell in love with a man who didn’t want to leave, who didn’t go without ever coming back?

“Claire,” he says, coming up behind me and wrapping his arms around my waist. He kisses my neck tenderly, and a shiver crosses my spine as his skin presses tight against me. “Can we pretend ... for just one night ... that this is real?”

“That what is real?” I whisper, wanting it to be real so badly my eyes prick with tears. Is it just that I’m so desperate for someone to choose me that I’ll take it in any form I can get? In the form of a man who doesn’t really love me or want me? In the form of the only man who is here?

“That today we really did get engaged, did come home and tell my parents,” he says into the crook of my neck. “Can we pretend that this is real? You and me? Us?”

I’m grateful that our eyes don’t meet—that we aren’t face to face—because I’m scared my heart would betray me. That he would see everything I want to hide. I feel ashamed for the things I want from him, the things he has never offered to give.

Because our fake engagement suddenly feels real in ways I know it shouldn’t. He thinks I’m someone I’m not, and I want him to be a man he isn’t.

“Okay.” The word is easy to say, because I want to pretend as much as he does. It’s easier to act like this is real than to admit that neither of us have the things we need.

His exhale is long against my skin, and he pushes away my hair, kissing the base of my neck. I give into the sensation.

“I love you,” I whisper words that aren’t true. Words I want said back.

“I love you, too,” he says, unclasping my bra, pushing the straps off my arms, and cupping my breasts from behind. He is so close against me, his hardness pressed against my ass.

I sink into him, his hands warm and strong, holding me up. His cock massive and thick, the only thing able to let me completely release, utterly let go, and I want to touch it, taste it, suck it.

My hands reach up, touching his face, and I turn, kissing him hard, with passion, with desire. I give my mouth to him, hoping he takes more.

“I want all of you,” he says, as if reading my mind. He picks me up, and my legs wrap around his waist as he carries me to the bed.

Sliding off my thong, I lay naked on the pile of pillows under the beautiful canopy. Amber light glows from the sconces on the wall. And as he pulls the curtains around the bed shut, a heavy decadence covers us. Like we are in a cavern, our own little cave.

He takes off his boxers, and then we’re both kneeling before one another, our eyes finally meeting—but this time my heart isn’t on the line. Right now the only thing I’m offering him is my body. His giant rod is between us, so thick I can’t help but bend over and lick the length of it.

I moan in pleasure as my lips trail the skin of his shaft. He smacks my ass playfully as I lick him, and then, unable to help myself, I press the tip in my mouth, and take as much of him as I can.

My lips are stretched around his thickness, and I feel the tip of his cock in my throat, but I want to be filled with him until I gag. I want to taste his come in my mouth and hold his balls in my hand. I suck him, my head bobbing up and down as my hands rest on his thighs. His fingers run through my hair as his thickness pulses in my mouth.

I taste his saltiness begin to pour in my mouth, feel his thrusting slow and deepen at the same time. I want more of him so I keep him in my mouth as ropes of come fill me. I swallow, my pussy wrecked with heat, wanting so badly to be fucked.

My thighs are slick with my wetness; I’m unable to stop myself from moaning in desire as I suck him off until he’s emptied his seed in me. I clench myself together, wanting to save my ecstasy for when he fills me up, but it only heightens my desire.

Landon is such a man that I can’t help but want to please him, take care of him. Be his plaything all night long. I’ll play the part of his fiancée tonight, but I also want him to use me as his personal sex toy.

I pull his throbbing cock from my mouth. “Fuck me however you like, Landon. I want you to use me however you want.”

He greedily pulls me to him, and kisses me hard. His hands cup my face as his hot kisses seal me to him. My head falls, my back arches, my core is on fire.

His hand reaches down to my entrance, his fingers touching my wet pussy, and the softest touch from him elicits deep moans from me. I want so much, all at once. I want everything. He must sense this, because his fingers rub against me with more intensity. Each circular motion they make causes me to shake with desire.

“I need you in me,” I beg him.

“Not yet.”

“I need it though, baby. I need you in me.”

“Let me get you off. I want to see you squirm.”

He gently pushes me against the pile of pillows, and he spreads my thighs on either side of him. Reaching for my opening again with his fingers, he begins to rub my clit until I have tears on my face. The mounting pleasure is uncontainable as his experienced fingers rub against me, until there’s nothing left but for me to scream out in relief.

Three of his fingers reach inside me, hitting my g-spot with such intuition that I know he must have finger-fucked a hundred women this way. As my pussy clenches around his hand, my opening gushing with release, all I can think isthank god I am woman one hundred and one, because I deserve someone experienced, someone who knows how to use his massive cock, his strong hands.

“Now you’re ready,” Landon says, his cock hard once again. My eyes flutter closed for a moment as I catch my breath. But he knows what he’s doing. He knows that waiting for me to recover isn’t what I need. I need to be fucked so hard my eyes will close for the rest of the night. He knows I need to be fucked until all I see is black skies and bright stars.

I need to be fucked until all I see is him.

He presses his thickness into me, and I gasp as he does. He fills me up in ways I have only dreamed about. Ways I need. I grab his shoulders and pull him down, wanting his body to cover mine.

“Oh, baby,” I moan. “This is everything.”

“This is magic.” He kisses me again, as he rhythmically ravishes me with his cock. “This is us.”

When he comes it’s hard and fast; I do too. Unable to comprehend the ceaseless orgasm he causes to ripple through me, I laugh.

He rolls off me and takes my hand. Our fingers lace again. It’s natural and it feels like love … and I don’t want to think about that fact that it is all fake.

Landon doesn’t either, because in the stillness of the dark curtained bed, where our sweaty bodies and slick skin reveal the ways we gave ourselves to one another, he whispers, “I love you, Claire.”

And I close my eyes again, wanting to remember the moment when I forgot what was real and what was not. Wanting to remember when I chose to believe, for just one night, the things I wanted, not the things I had.

* * *

Landon

The next morning I wake in an empty bed. Pulling back the curtains on the bed, I find Claire texting on her phone, pacing the room in nothing but her panties and a tank top.

“Everything okay, love?”

She whips to face me the moment she hears my voice.

“Love?” she asks. “I thought the sentiment was just for last night?” She drops the phone in her purse, and crosses to the bed. Wrapping her arms around my neck, she tilts her head and smiles.

“It’s just so easy to pretend,” I tell her, holding her at her waist so effortlessly. Last night felt like a dream but, waking up this morning and seeing her here, it feels so real.

Maybe it can be.

Maybe this is more than a job, more than a ruse. Maybe Claire is the perfect woman for me.

“I know, but we need to keep our heads in the game.” She smirks, her lips twisting in perfection. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she asks me.

“Like what?”

“Like you’re up to no good.”

“That’s my motto, sweet cheeks.”

“Sweet cheeks, huh? What will you call me next? Snookums?” Claire laughs, her head falling back and her graceful neck tempting me to devour it. But she pulls away before I can plant kisses in the places I want to—which is everywhere. “I’m starving. And it’s already nine. I haven’t slept in this late for five years.”

“Five years?” I scratch my chin, watching as she opens a suitcase and begins rifling through the piles of clothing.

“Give or take.” Her back is to me, but she keeps talking. “What do the English wear to breakfast?”

“Anything will do. I’m sure Dad will want everyone to walk the property and Mum will insist everyone sees the greenhouse. Fiona will act like they’re the most amazing plans of all time, and Geoffrey will grumble. It will be a pleasant day, I’m sure.” I know I sound jaded, but I know exactly how days with my family go.

“Well, that makes it easy for us,” Claire says, holding up two sweaters. “We need to get downstairs and beat them to the punch—ask them if we can walk the dogs and see the garden first.”

“You should wear the green one,” I say, pointing to the one with the lower neckline. “And you’re brilliant. We should play our cards just as you suggest.”

“Aww, the blackjack player using card analogies. Very cute.” Claire stands and swats my legs with her top. “Now, get dressed. And we need to be matchy-matchy. I want them to think we’re the perfect couple.”

I nod, but inside I silently say words that shock me.We are the perfect couple.


Page 12

* * *

When we getdownstairs for breakfast everyone is sitting at the massive oak table. Fiona and Geoffrey have crossed arms and pursed lips. Mum and Dad look confused and upset. All I want is some tea and toast.

“What is it?” I ask, pulling out a chair for Claire, remembering to be the perfect gentleman. I look at my mum for approval, but her head is now buried in her hands.

“So, Claire … tell us, what kind of life do you live in Las Vegas?” Fiona asks, picking up her teacup, emphasizingLas Vegaswith disdain.

We’ve just been seated and haven’t even taken a bite of food.

“Um, well. What would you like to know?” Claire maneuvers her answer expertly as she takes a seat.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I told you last night. I work in the hospitality sector.”

Fiona snorts. “See,” she says flippantly to my mum. “Told you.”

“Told what?” I ask.

“Hospitality sector is a quaint way of saying cocktail waitress,” Geoffrey scoffs. “Admit it, Landon, this girl is no different than the other birds you’ve brought here on holiday. The only difference is this girl has a rock on her finger. On loan, I might add.”

“How do you know that?” I ask, feeling heat rise to my cheeks. I don’t know why him mentioning that I didn’t buy the ring outright embarrasses me, but for some reason I don’t want Claire to know that.

“I called around,” Geoffrey says, picking up a piece of toast as if this conversation is—as if Claire and I are—beneath him. “It’s not that difficult to look up an address, search a few databases. Ask a few tech friends to run a few things on your fiancée, a few things on you.”

“Oh, don’t ruin a perfectly nice family holiday,” Mum says, setting down her napkin. “All I want is my family all together, under one roof.”

“Well, first of all, it’s not a holiday, Mum. We’ve gathered for a family business meeting. One we must have sooner or later. Besides,ourfamily is all together,” Geoffrey digs. “But not Claire’s. Tell them, Claire, what family did you leave at home?”

Claire’s face goes white, as if she’s seen a ghost.

Geoffrey and Fiona seem to have crossed a line ... I just don’t know what line that this.

“What?” I ask her, confused. Claire’s eyes are already brimming with tears.

“I ... can’t....” Then she’s up, running from the room.

And then she’s gone.

Chapter FifteenClaire

Idon’t wantto be a drama queen. I swear to God I don’t. I came downstairs today wanting an English family breakfast where everyone eats clotted cream and scones and drinks Earl Grey tea.

Running out makes me look like a basket case ... but I can’t help it.

Fiona’s look of hatred and Geoffrey’s apparent disdain for me solidified everything I fear. Being judged for being the person I am.

I love my daughter; I love the fact that I live with my mom and that the family I have is close to me.

What I hate is holier-than-thou people. Especially ones who are only that way because they happen to be living a life of estates and diamond tycoons and passports filled with stamps from the entire world.

What I hate is that I feel less-than because I live in the desert in my mother’s house. Because my baby-daddy left before our daughter was born. Because I don’t have a college degree or a retirement plan—or anything, really, besides my girl.

And shouldn’t that be enough?

Landon follows me from the house, calling my name, but I want to keep running. I’ve run down a stone pathway, and I don’t know where it leads, but what’s new? I don’t know much of anything.

Right now, all I know is that I hate Landon finding out about Sophia this way. I shouldn’t have held my cards so close. And I know this is just a job ... but when Landon looks at me, kisses me, says he loves me? I swear it is something more.

Last night we played pretend, and I know that it was just a game —a way to numb and a way to hide and a way to get lost. I know there is nothing more between us … but,God, a not-so-small part of me wishes there were.

But as Landon catches up to me, grabs my arm, forces me to stop and look in his eyes, I see that my wishes mean nothing. This is a job to him ... and I think I may have royally fucked it up.

“What the bloody hell are you doing, woman?” he asks, panting for breath.

“You never use the wordbloodyback in Vegas. One day in England and you’ve returned to the slang of your childhood?”

“This isn’t a joke. And we aren’t making this about me right now.”

“Can we? Can we please?” I ask him, turning from him, my chest pounding and my ears pounding as I look around the gorgeous garden we’ve run into. Oak trees and ivy and massive hedges in the shape of diamonds surround us.

“No, Claire.” Landon places his hands on my arms, forcing me to stop and turn back to him. “Wearetalking about you. What was Geoffrey referring to? What made you run?”

“You didn’t stay and listen?” I ask.

“Dammit, Claire. Stop it. My parents think we’re bloody engaged. You think I’d just let my fiancée run from the house without coming after her?”

“So you came because I’m your employee?”

“Stop being difficult.” His eyes search mine, but I’ve already turned off the emotions ... the feeling that could reveal how I really feel. Because what I really feel is something passing between Landon and I every time our hands touch. Every time he whispers my name. Every time we make love.

“You said Fiona and Geoffrey were beasts, but you never mentioned the fact that they were completely determined to ruin your life.”

“I’m pretty sure I did, Claire. I said if you had any dirt at all that they might dig up, they would.”

“I haven’t even been in the country twenty-four hours. I thought I’d have time to win them over before they attacked.”

“That isn’t my fault. God, Claire, what are you hiding?Whoare you hiding?”

“I can’t do this.” I pull away again and sit on the cold stone bench, resting my face in my hands, brushing away the tears. Suddenly I miss Sophia madly. With all of my heart.

This was so stupid, to travel here for a scam. There was no chance in hell we could pull it off. Fake fiancées are only a thing people write about in books, or that you see in romantic comedies starring Reese Witherspoon. Not real life. Notmylife.

“Don’t do this. Don’t be a brat about it. I’ve brought you all this way, Claire. The least you could do is be honest now.”

“Don’t be mean to me,” I say, my voice cracking. Hating him for looking at me like I’m a bitch. Just wait until he hears that I’ve been hiding a daughter from him. I swore I had no dusty cobwebs, no skeletons in my closet.

And sure, Sophia is one of the things I’ve kept from him ... but she isn’t everything.

How deep did Geoffrey get when he started digging?

“Just tell me what Geoffrey meant when he said you have family back in Vegas.”

Landon sits next to me, and his softness with me—the tender way he’s been taking my hand, threading our fingers together—isn’t here. This is a hands-in-his-lap, no-room-for-emotion sort of conversation.

“You won’t see me the same way once I tell you.”

“And how do you think I see you now?” he asks plainly. Which I hate. I hate him putting it back on me, right where it belongs. I don’t want to own anything at the moment. I just want to curl up in a ball like a cat, find a sunny spot to sleep, and pretend this isn’t happening.

I’m so freaking tired of wishing for a life I don’t have. It isn’t fair to the life Idohave.

I let out a smallhmph, ashamed of myself for the millionth time today. Why the hell can’t what I have be enough?

Landon deserves more than I’ve given him. Sure, I’ve given him my body, but friendships can’t be built on orgasms alone.

“I think you see me as a smart woman who’s put together, but prone to panic,” I say quietly.

I look away from him, focusing on the diamond-shaped greenery, because that is emotionless. That is what I can handle in this confession. Landon’s eyes are filled with an expanse of feelings that are too much for me to take.

I keep talking, “You think I’m pretty and fun to be around, and you like the way I make you feel, even if the feelings aren’t forever feelings. In the moments that we’re together, I think I make you feel better. And I think there are moments where this doesn’t feel fake. Where you forget you’re a bachelor in Vegas with famous friends and a different woman every night of the week. I think when you forget that ... you like what you have.”

The garden is so quiet; the only noise is Landon clearing his throat, and I wonder why I said all those things. Because maybe he doesn’t think that about me at all. Maybe I am presumptuous and a fool. And maybe I’m just putting on him the emotions that are my own. Maybe it’s me who’s falling for this boy, and not the other way around.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Either way it ends in a good-bye. He thinks I am single woman who likes sex and has no strings attached to anyone or anything ... but the reality is so different. Right now, Landon doesn’t even know surface-level Claire. He doesn’t really know me at all.

“Fuck, Claire. That was a speech.”

“Too much?”

“Never too much.”

“That’s not true,” I tell him. “I haven’t told you the secret.”

“Which is?”

“That’s not fair. I laid out for you what I think you see in me. Shouldn’t you be required to say what I see in you?”

“Is this game really about what’s fair?” Our eyes meet. The air is still. My heart catches. “I think you’re trying to hold out on the inevitable.”

He’s right. I give in.

“Landon, I have a daughter.”

* * *

Landon

I’d say I am a level-headed man. Sure, I like pussy; I’m not denying that. But it doesn’t get me all whacked out, because it’s just a fact of life.

If I want to have sex, I take a woman to my room. And I also like to gamble. There’s something about cards on the table, where you can’t hide. You can only bluff for so long before you have to show your hand.

Claire has the best poker face I’ve ever seen.

A daughter? I literally would have never guessed that’s her dirty little secret.

“A daughter?” I ask, incredulous. “No fucking way.”

“This is so stupid,” she says, tears streaking her gorgeous cheekbones. “I should go. I have to go. I can call myself a cab.”

“Shut up and sit down,” I instruct, grabbing her hand before she can run off again.

“I told you I had no skeletons ... but I lied. About a lot of things.”

“She’s a daughter, not a fucking basement filled with rats.”

“People don’t put rats in the basement.”

“Crazy people do. And that isn’t you. You are a mother, not a psychopath.”

“I said I’d go, because I understand this compromises the entire deal.”

“Maybe we can find another angle. You are obviously not leaving.”

“They want Fiona, not me, Landon. A perfect English woman, with nothing wrong with her besides a resting bitch face. Not a single mom living with her mom.”

I ignore her assessments. “Do Tess and Emmy know?” I ask.

“No.” She swallows and looks away.

“That’s pretty fucked up.”

“I know, God.” She hits me then, against my arm, and I don’t want any more answers or to ask any more questions. I just want to fuck her.

Maybe my desire for pussy does get me all whacked out.

All I want is her. Again.

“Claire, you are a really hot mum,” I say, pushing her hair from her face and leaning closer. I know her having a daughter is a big thing … but it’s not the only thing. I still want her in ways that overwhelm me.

“Don’t brush this off like it’s a joke,” she says. “I feel awful enough already. I’ve lied to basically everyone and now you want to have sex with me because it’s another thing to check off on your sex-list.”

“I don’t have a sex-list. Is that even a thing?” I ask her, smiling. “Do you have one? Do all the mums have them?”

“This is serious, Landon. Like, either I go back and tell your parents I’m an imposter, or ... I don’t even know option two.”

“Option two is I spank you for being so naughty.”

“Ohmigod, me being a mom is, like, turning you on, isn’t it?” She shakes her head, giving a soft laugh, like she can’t believe this is happening.

“I don’t think it’s the mum part. I think it’s you, Claire. You get me so fucking hard.”

I kiss her then; my mouth can’t help but taste her sweet lips, feel her warm skin. When she doesn’t hesitate—when she leans deeper into the kiss, when her hands take hold of my face and she moans her perfect little moan into my mouth—I just want to pull down her jeans and fuck her then and there.

I know we can’t have sex on the pathway to the garden, but I do pull her into my lap so she straddles me, and my hands reach under her sweater, holding her narrow waist. Her soft skin is warm and willing, molding under my hands as if made for me.

“Landon, you want me, now?” Her voice is low and broken.

“Unquestionably.” I stand, holding her as she wraps her legs around me tighter, and carry her down the path, her mouth on my neck, licking the skin leading to my ear. She nibbles my earlobe, and my cock grows hard as her tongue slides across my skin.

I take her to a small wooden shed near the pond, kicking open the door and setting her down on a potting bench.

Her hands reach for my sweater, pulling it off, and I tug off hers, too. We’re panting for breath; all I want is her hands to touch my cock, to feel the stiffness that’s grown for her.

She sits before me, her legs spread apart, and I pull down the white lace of her bra, filling my mouth with her perfect tit, sucking at her hard nipple. Wanting to devour her.

“I want to touch you,” she says.

“Not yet,” I tell her, shaking my head, in mock seriousness. “I’m going to spank you first, for lying to me.”

“Are you going to spank me hard?” She pants, her hands reaching into the waistband of my trousers, reaching for the only thing that can get her off like a fountain. I know she wants to get soaked, but not yet.

I pull her off the counter, and spin her around so her ass is in my face, right where it belongs. I undo her pants buttons, her zipper—and in one fell swoop I pull them and her white thong to her ankles.

Her forearms rest against the wooden bench, and I kneel down on the tile floor and press my face against her gorgeous ass cheeks. They are the roundest part of her body, and I want to slip my tongue into the space between her legs, where she is already dripping with desire.

My hand spreads her legs slightly apart and I press against her opening quickly, teasingly, knowing she likes my fingers deep inside her, knowing that is when she really lights up, but knowing first I need to spank her, play with her. I like sex that isn’t wrapped up in a nice little bow, and so far I’ve given her pretty tidy packages.

I want things to get dirtier now, want to take it to the next level.

I know she wants it too, because she kicks off her shoes and her pants that are around her ankles. Now, fully naked, her hand reaches to her opening, her fingers rubbing against her throbbing clit. I kiss her neck, massaging her tits from behind as she touches herself.

But then she pauses, and turns ever so slightly, to whisper in my ear.

“I know we’re playing, Landon, but you don’t think I’m really bad, do you? For lying? ... You aren’t actually punishing me?”


Page 13

“Oh, baby,” I say, spinning her around to face me. “No. We can stop if that’s what you think. I’d never do something that you didn’t want.... And I don’t know whatthisis, you and me. But fuck, right now I just want to make you come and I want to fill you up with my cock and I want to taste you. It isn’t about being bad or being good. It’s about being us.”

“Then spank me, Landon,” she says, her eyes gleaming with desire, with longing. “I want my ass to burn and then I want you to come all over it.”

My eyes close because I’m speechless. Where the fuck did this woman come from?

My hand smacks against her bare ass, and she moans under me, the tender skin where I spanked her bright red.

I spank her again, and a third time, my cock hard—but the truth is, I was already hard. Hard from when I watched her touch herself, hard from when I took in the view of her nice round ass.

And so I kneel down and kiss the spot where the palm of my hand met her flesh, kiss away the redness. Because maybe I’ve liked to fuck this way before ... but in an instant I know it isn’t what I want with Claire. I want something tender.

“What’s wrong?” she whispers, her voice so soft that I have the insane desire to scoop her up and put her somewhere safe where she will be protected forever.

“I just want to be in you,” I admit, the words seeming weak, sounding small. But the words are true. I just want to be inside this woman who is better than me and stronger than me and has a life apart from me—a life I’m too much of an ass to have the privilege of understanding. She doesn’t trust me with the details of her life as a mother.

Of course she doesn’t. I’m a player, a guy living out of a hotel room, conning my parents for a stake in a company. A real man—the kind she deserves—is better than me.

She sits up on the potting bench, the cold October air drawing us together. I press myself into her ready opening, and she wraps her legs around my waist and draws her arms around my neck. Our foreheads touch. Our noses brush against one another. And, as I come in her, all I can think is that I want to be a better man.

I want to be good enough for a woman as complicated as Claire.

Chapter SixteenClaire

As we walktoward the house–well, the freaking castle–something has changed. The shame I felt for not being honest, for hiding the thing I am most proud of, is still heavy on my heart. But Landon is looking at me differently. He didn’t ask me to leave. And what started as reckless sex in a shed became a moment more intimate than I have ever experienced.

We dressed quietly, he took my hand, and I swear to God to took my heart.

But I know this feeling of protectiveness over me is fleeting. Landon is such an alpha man that of course he’s surging with emotion right now. He thinks it’s his job to protect me, that I’m his responsibility.

But I don’t want to be anyone’s obligation. Landon and I played make-believe last night, and I know it confused the lines of what was real and what was fake.

Right now he thinks this is real. And even if I want it to be real, too, I’m not a fool. In the moment it might seem sexy to take claim over me. But the reality is a five-year-old girl he has never met. The reality is bed times and sippy cups and no other woman. Ever. I’d be a fool to think he’d give up so much for me.

Also, I don’t know if the only dirt Geoffrey found was the truth of my daughter. Or if he found more.

If he found everything.

“So this is how we’re going to spin it,” Landon says. “We go back in there, and we tell them that of course I knew about your daughter. That you were just upset to be blindsided that way.”

“You think they will care? I thought your old-school parents want the company to go to someone really traditional? This might compromise them even considering you.”

“Geoffrey is awful. Even with a kid, we’re a better choice.”

“Ouch.”

“What did I say?”

“Well,even with a kidis a pretty harsh way of putting it,” I tell him. “Like we’re second rate because of her.”

Landon’s lips turn to a frown. “Why did you hide her?”

“Because it isn’t anyone’s business.” I pull my hand from him and walk toward the house with crossed arms. Defensive, yes, but I am always defensive when it comes to Sophia.

“It isn’t about enjoying the time you have each day that doesn’t revolve around diapers?”

“There are no diapers.” I raise an eyebrow at him, interested to see where this leads.

“Wait, how old is your kid?”

“Sophia is five.”

“No shit?” Landon runs his hands through his hair. “You had her when you were a teenager?”

“Hate to break it to you, asshat, but I’m not the first woman to have a baby at nineteen.”

“I know.” Landon shrugs, uncomfortable. “It’s just hard to imagine. You’re so beautiful and smart and–”

“I think you should stop trying, Landon. You’re in pretty deep.” I shake my head, hating the fact that for a moment I actually thought that maybe, just maybe, Landon isn’t the guy I assumed he is. That maybe he would be my knight in shining armor.

“I know that all sounds bad ... but, look, I’m trying to picture the Claire I know with the Claire who has a five year old. I can’t believe you’ve kept her a secret.”

“It’s for exactly this reason. You see me totally different now.”

“Is that a bad thing? To be seen as you are?”

“As I am or as you see me? I think they are two different things.”

“I think this can become a game of semantics that I will indubitably lose.”

“Why, because I’m a mom?”

“Exactly.”

“Do you still want to do this? Really?” I ask him, wondering if we should cut our loses, screw the cash prize, and just go home. Me to my daughter, him to his hotel room.

“Do you?”

“Can you just man up and say what you want?” I brace myself for his reply.

“I want you.”

“Stop it, Landon. I can’t play that game.”

“Fine,” he says, seeming to swallow the rest of his words. “Let’s do what we came here to do. Show them how in love we are. How responsible I am. Fuck, they’ll think I’ve changed completely, now that a child is involved.”

“We can try,” I tell him, wanting to try because, even if my heart is all wobbly, falling all over in places it shouldn’t, I do want the money. It’s what I came here to do. Not fall for a guy I have no claim over.

I came here for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I came here to change my life.

* * *

Landon

Holding her hand as we walk back in the house isn’t difficult. Mostly because watching Fiona and Geoffrey’s ghastly reaction to the entire scene is priceless. Everyone has their breakfast dishes cleared, and they appear to have been waiting for us to make our return.

I knew our detour in the shed caused them quite a wait, but they were clearly on pins and needles for the explanation and hadn’t gone anywhere.

“So, you knew about her daughter?” Fiona sputters to me after we explained.

Claire lets out a long exhale, and I look at her, realizing she was nervous to walk back in here and face my family. She smiles, her eyes brighter, like she is relieved.

“Of course I knew,” I tell them. “What do you think? That I wouldn’t know about my fiancée’s daughter?”

“Last night I didn’t say I was a waitress because I didn’t know what you might think. And I so want your respect,” Claire says. “Not that you would ever judge me–the woman marrying your son—but I get insecure about my line of work.”

“Which is bollocks,” I say, leaning into my parents for this priceless line. “Because we all know a mother’s job is the hardest occupation there is.”

Dad doesn’t speak, and I watch him watch Mum, knowing her reaction is going to matter quite a bit.

“Well,” Mum says, sitting across from us, wiping a tear from her eye. “Now that it’s all cleared up ... can you tell us about your daughter? Our future granddaughter?”

Claire picks up her cup of now-frigid coffee and takes a sip, swallowing with a grimace. The maid comes around with a new cup and swaps it out.

“Thank you,” Claire says, and she pauses again, as if not wanting to speak. Which is quite unlike her. She never seems stuck on what to say. She’s always appeared effortless.

But then again, her appearance was deceiving. She’s been living a life that wasn’t wholly hers.

“My daughter is Sophia. And I ran out because—no offense, of course, Fiona, Geoffrey, but—I get very protective of her. And you seemed almost ... accusatory of the fact that I have a little girl.”

At this, Dad’s eyes furrow, his gaze landing on my brother.

“Why must you insist on stirring the pot until it overflows?” Dad asks him.

“I’m just trying to look out for your best interests, Father.” Geoffrey shakes his head slightly. “Landon shows up here, unannounced, clearly wanting to prove something to you, prove his worthiness. It concerns me. His intentions have never been honorable before.”

“I’m not trying to prove anything,” I start, but Claire tugs on my wrist, and I clench my jaw, forcing myself to be quiet.

“Meanwhile,” Geoffrey says, “I’ve spent the last decade earning your respect, only for you not to take my advice seriously.”

“Is that what it’s called?” Dad asks.

“Henry,” Mum says, tugging on his wrist the same way Claire did with mine. Apparently the women in the house are more cool and collected than the men.

Well, some of the women. Fiona seems to be spreading her claws, ready to pounce.

“What, Helen?” Dad asks, looking at his wife. “We all know Geoffrey’s ethics, and the way he has compromised the company’s integrity.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fiona roars. “He is doing everything in his power to sa–”

“Enough,” Mum declares, cutting Fiona off. “I don’t want to discuss this anymore. We have a lovely day planned. And I don’t want it ruined. Please, children. Can we just talk about something sweet? Something good? The last thing any of us needs is a fight in the family.”

“Especially when it’s already damn near falling apart,” Geoffrey mutters under his breath, and I don’t understand what he means.

But I want to.

“Please, children,” Mum begs. “Just be nice.”

The only one who seems to care what Mum wants is Claire.

She smiles, completely ignoring the ruckus at the other end of the table, and says, “Sophia would love it here, on your property. She and I both love the garden displays at the Bellagio every season. We go every quarter to see the new design the gardeners have created. Even though I was crying when I left breakfast, I was able see some of the your gardens, Helen. Do you think you could show us more?”

“I would love to. And, yes, those displays at the Bellagio are just magnificent. Henry and I visited Landon for a few days last year, and we went. On display was a fall garden, complete with scarecrows and mossy trees. It was just gorgeous.”

“I remember that one,” Claire says. “In fact, Sophia decided to be a scarecrow for Halloween after seeing it.”

“And who is with Sophia now?” Mum asks.

“She’s with my mother. We live with her; we’re practical people. And the truth is, my life wouldn’t work without my mom. She’s my saving grace, for sure. I work day shifts, now that Sophia is in kindergarten, so it isn’t too much of a burden on her.”

I watch her speak, her slender neck graceful, her eyes light and alive as she mentions her daughter. I see the lines of worry across her arched brow and I wonder how I had missed this before, the truth that Claire has a little girl.

I’m sure that is who she’s always texting, calling about. Pacing the room in worry over. It suddenly clicks, the reason she forgoes better shifts, and as I look at her all I see is sacrifice. All I see is beauty.

“Shall we go on a walk then?” I ask. Everyone nods in agreement.

I watch Fiona and Geoffrey scowl as we stand. They exchange whispers and shake their heads.

But I just take Claire’s hand in mine. And follow.

Chapter SeventeenClaire

After a walkaround the garden and a light lunch, everyone goes their separate ways to rest.

As I climb the stairs to the bedroom Landon and I share, I smile, liking the luxury of a midday nap. That isn’t something I’m accustomed too. Life in Vegas isgo-go-go. Life in the English countryside is on pause.

Landon is already in the room, sprawled out on the bed, a laptop open before him.

“Are you working?” I ask.

He laughs. “Right, because of my prestigious job I must focus on.”

“Stop putting yourself down.”

“Okay, Mum.”

“Not funny,” I say, swatting him with a pillow.

“Sort of funny? Maybe?”

“No.” I smirk. “Honestly though, what are you up to?”

“I’m trying to figure out what Geoffrey meant this morning about the family damn near falling apart. Do you think he meant the business?”

“I’m sure he meant that since the company isn’t digging for blood diamonds, the whole thing is a complete waste. He seems like a greedy ass. Turning a fancy boutique diamond store into something popping up at strip malls? Kinda tacky, isn’t it?”

“You’re so cynical, Claire,” Landon says, closing the computer. “But I’m sure you’re right, that Geoffrey’s just fighting with Dad about money. I can’t find anything online about the company being in shambles. Not that I have access to anything confidential.”

“For now.” I smile mischievously. “Soon enough you’ll have this whole thing. They love us, Landon. Your mom and dad think we’re adorable. They absolutely buy our story, and they hate Geoffrey right now. Whatever he’s been up to, it pisses your dad off. Which is a win for us.”

“My God, woman, you are ruthless.”

“I know. It’s just ... now that you know about Sophia, you can see how this money would change my life.”

“Now I feel like a jackass. I can just give you the money. You don’t need to be here with me to get it.”

“You have a quarter of a million dollars?”

“Nearly. I won a hundred grand last week. And I usually play what I have, but I haven’t been back to the tables since. I can give you that.”

“Is that literally everything you have?” I ask him. For some reason I thought Landon was seriously loaded.

He sits up, running his hands through his hair, clearly uncomfortable. “You wanna talk money?” he asks, a slight frown on his face.

“I don’t know. I guess. You just seem so freaking rich.”

“I get some money quarterly from my parents. I don’t have a house or any debt. I make money at the tables and can buy whatever I need with that. I just don’t need much.”

“Besides nice suits and a nice car and nice dinners out and nice women to take home.”

“I don’t think most of the women I bring home are that nice. Sexy? Yes. Willing? Very. But nice? No. I take home women who want the same thing as me. One night to forget that our lives are quite shallow.”

“Why do you live like that, then? If you know it’s shallow?”

“I’ve never had this overwhelming need to be something. And frankly, I’ve never had anyone require me to be more than I am.”

I sigh, knowing he’s being brutally honest about his life. I appreciate it, his transparency, especially when I’ve been so fake with him.

But his honesty also reminds me why these feelings I have been waffling with—the lust turned passion turnedCould he and I be something more?—is just a ridiculous fantasy that will end up with me crushed.

Landon has no interest in the life I lead. He doesn’t want to be the sort of man I need. A reliable job, a family insurance plan. A car with room for a booster seat. A willingness to take a family vacation to Disneyland. That’s why I’ve always looked for relationships with guys on bowling leagues, who have toolboxes in their garages. Those guys are the sort of men who want a family.

Or at least, could handle a family.

Landon just explained his existence. And none of it involved PTA meetings.

“You look so damn serious, Claire.”

“Just. Jet lag, I guess.”

“Would you like to take a nap? I’ll let you be.”

“Thanks, Landon. I just need to call Sophia and then rest.”

He flips off the overhead light as he leaves the bedroom, and I switch on the lamp. Then I pick up my phone from the bedside table.

Me:Hey Mom, Sophia there?

Mom:She is, want to FaceTime?

I press the FaceTime button and they pick up right away.

“Hey sweet pea,” I coo. “You look like you’re having fun with Gram.”

Sophia is holding a paintbrush and has construction paper all over the kitchen table.

Mom flips the phone to her own face. “She insisted on painting you a picture.”

“What is it?” I ask Sophia, whose smile fills my darkened room.

“It’s you at a garden. Gram showed me pictures of English gardens. Can you take me there someday?”

“I’d love to. There are pretty gardens here. I’ll send Gram some pictures okay?”

“You having fun with your friend?” she asks, dipping her brush in a pot of green paint.

“I am. We’re getting along really well.”

“Good. You need friends, remember?” She looks up at the phone, her green eyes matching the scene she’s painting.

“I remember.” My mind instantly goes to Emmy and Tess ... and the way I’ve kept so much from them. Can I really be called their friend when I am basically an imposter? “I love you,” I tell her.

“I love you, too, Mama.”

We hang up and I tuck the phone under my pillow, reaching to turn off the light.

I suddenly feel very far from home.

* * *

Landon

When I go to check on Claire five hours later her eyes are still closed, the light’s still off. I immediately try to retreat. But my entrance stirs her awake.

“Landon?” she asks, sitting up. “Is that you?”

“I didn’t mean to wake you. I just wanted to make sure you were still alive.”

“I’m alive,” she says, reaching to turn on the lamp.

“Everyone’s dressing for dinner.”

“Dressing for dinner? That’s an actual thing?”

“I know; the British are bloody formal.”

“You’re so cute when you speak like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like, you. You are just really cute in general.”

I sit next to her, wanting this moment to last. Her nap put her in a good mood.

“I think you’re still sleepy. You sound delirious.”

“I’m not.” She props up in the bed.

Her rumpled clothes and messy hair are endearing. As is everything about this woman. I want to tell her that I actually am falling for her ... in a way that is much more real than it ever was with Winnie. Than it has ever been before.

But I have no reason to think she’ll believe me. She doesn’t see me as a real man, a real option—especially after I revealed the state of my fucking finances, which was a stupid idea.

Being honest only made me look like a worthless shit.

If I get the company, then I’ll have something of worth. Something to give her and Sophia.

If I don’t get the company, she would never want a man like me. I just wish there were a way to show her my intentions were true.

Not that I know exactly what my intentions are ... but they are more than her being my fake fiancée.

“I wanted to tell you, I’m sorry I got you a loaner engagement ring,” I tell her. “After Geoffrey declared it at the table, I kind of felt douchey for not mentioning it.”

“Landon, if you’d had actually spent a jillion dollars on a ring for a fake engagement, I think I’d have to chop off your balls.”

“You get so intense, Claire. I never want to cross you.”

She smiles and I push her over, so I can sit in bed next to her.

“What did you do all afternoon?” she asks.

“Tried to talk with my Dad about The King’s Diamond. But he was being really squeamish about it all.”

“Squeamish? What do you mean?”

“Well, he kept asking more about you, about the property in Vegas, about a potential family trip to Greece. I don’t know, it was all very strange.”

Claire snorts. “You are so out of touch with reality, Landon.”

“What do you mean?”

“It sounds like you father wanted to talk to his son. About his life. That shouldn’t make you feel squeamish. That’s called your dad being nice. Thoughtful. Considerate. He’d be a jerk if all he wanted to discuss was money and business.”

“Fuck, you are perfectly right.”

“Well, I’m a mom. I know things.”

“Can I ask you something?”

Claire gives me a sidelong glance. “Is it going to upset me?”

“Why, you only like it when people ask you easy questions?”

She moans. “Just ask me, Landon. We both know you’re going to regardless.”

“Okay,” I smile, enjoying how close she and I have become, and feeling like asking this question isn’t totally out of bounds. “Who is Sophia’s father?”

She sighs, closes her eyes.

“Sorry,” I say immediately. “That was inappropriate.”

“No, it’s not. You’ve put up with my secrets. My dishonesty,” she says, picking at lint on her sweater that doesn’t exist. “I just really, really don’t like talking about it.”

“Is he in the picture anymore?” I want to know. I need to know. Because I am falling for her, so hard. And, at the moment, I don’t really know her real story.

“No,” she says adamantly. “Not even a little.” Her eyes fill with tears, and I know this subject is getting really personal, really quick. But isn’t everything between us getting really personal, really quick?

“Okay,” I say slowly, nodding. “I don’t need the torrid details. I just wanted to know if you were single.”

She laughs, wiping her tears. “Landon, before you, I hadn’t slept with anyone in five years. Since Sophia’s dad and I ... so, no. There is no other guy.”

“That is a bloody long time not to shag.”

“Don’t,” she says, warily.

“Don’t what?”

“Use words like shag. What is this, Austin Powers circa 1996?”

“So I can’t use the word shag, but can we? Do the actual shagging?” I roll her on top of me, and I know by the dreamy look in her eyes that she’s game.

“I thought we had to dress for dinner? Suits and heels,et cetera. I don’t think those jeans and this sweater are going to cut it.”

“They won’t. We do have to dress for dinner,” I tell her, stealing a kiss on her neck, her ear, her mouth. “But we have to undress first.”

“You’re brilliant, you know that? But I need to shower first.”

“Even better.”


Page 14

Chapter EighteenClaire

It doesn’t take longfor us to move from the bed to the en suite bathroom. He strips and I rip off my top and bottoms and we cross the carpeted floor. He turns on the water in the two-person shower, and we step inside.

“I’ve never had so much sex in my life, just so you know,” I tell him, as water from the double showerhead pours over me.

“I think we are all pretty clear on the how-little-Claire-has-had-sex front.” Landon wraps an arm around my waist. “We have a lot of years to make up for.”

My hands press against his hard chest, and damn, it really is solid. His body is exquisite. His muscles are ripped, his shoulders straight and strong. Everything about him declares his power, his control, his absolute sex appeal.

“You’re so hot, Landon. Like, I knew it the first time I saw you naked in the hotel ... but I swear, every time I look at you there’s another muscle in your arms, another dimple in your cheek, another color in your irises. You just get sexier by the minute. It isn’t fair.”

I kiss his mouth, hard. The warm water covers my back, drawing us closer together as our slick bodies melt into one another.

“Don’t even with me,” he says, smoothing back my wet hair. “I called you a bird before, but the truth is they don’t have the right wings. You are an angel. Something divine. Something from heaven.”

“You believe in God?”

“I believe in love.”

“Don’t,” I say not wanting to get to the L-word territory. It will complicate things at a whole new level. “Don’t. Let’s just ... be.” And I kiss him again, not wanting anything more to be said, words that aren’t true, because they can’t be. We’ve known one another intimately for a few weeks, since the night of Emmy and Ace’s wedding.

It can’t be love.

I feel his hardness press against me, and it ignites my desire to be close to him, to be covered by him. To escape with him.

And in that moment, as I drop to my knees in the shower, I understand why someone might lead a shallow life. I can see the appeal. Because going to the deep end of the water, where things can sink to the bottom, is terrifying. The shallow end lets us breathe when we might otherwise drown.

It’s not somewhere you can stay forever, because eventually you have to learn to swim ... but learning to swim without anyone helping is frightening.

And maybe Landon is just scared.

And so I let my hands run around his back, resting on his firm ass. Then I take his cock in my hand, pressing the tip of it in my mouth, tasting him. He moans as I take him deep, holding his balls in my hand, softly rubbing the base of his shaft. I press my lips tight around his hardness.

His hands rest on my head, running through my wet hair, as water pours over my back.

“Girl, you are everything.”

And I suck harder, wanting him to feel good. Wanting him to feel enough. Wanting him to feel the way he has allowed me to feel over and over again. Wanted. Desired. His.

I stop sucking when I think of that word.

His.

It’s dangerous to think like this.

Does he even see me that way? Why do I fight the things I want? What if I was the woman for him?

“You okay, baby?” he asks. I take his cock from my mouth, kissing away the milky early-release from his tip.

“I’m okay,” I lie. Or is it the truth? I like being here, on my knees before him, but I don’t like not knowing what is real and what is fake. “Are you okay?”

“You know the fucking answer to that.” He grins down at me, and I grin too.

I make things so messy in my head, so difficult, and I think that’s the Mom in me. I need order, control. I want things to make sense, because I can’t just go with the flow when I have Sophia to think about.

But being here with Landon–the poster child for living in the moment and not thinking anything through and growing up so privileged that a hundred thousand dollars is just disposable cash–it’s like the universe is giving me a gift.

A gift of letting it all go for a little bit. Of just letting myself enjoy this time with Landon for what it is, a free vacation with a gorgeous man.

I stand and reach for Landon’s hand, pressing his fingers between my legs. His other hand massages my breasts, and he kisses me greedily.

The pressure in my pussy feels so good and my toes curl in excitement.

“Fuck me, Landon,” I whisper in his ear. I lift my leg onto a bench in the shower, giving him room to press another finger into my opening. His fingers run back and forth along my narrow slit and then he begins to circle his thumb against me.

“Baby, it feels so good,” I moan, grabbing hold of his neck. “But I want your cock in me. Now.”

He doesn’t hesitate. He spins me around and I lean against the shower wall as he expertly leads his cock into my pussy from behind. Once his thickness is inside me, my pussy begins pulsing against his cock in pleasure.

He thrusts into me, gripping my waist as he goes in harder. I’m moaning loudly now, and I can’t help it. His cock courses shock waves of pleasure through me.

“Claire, oh yeah,” he says, as we both orgasm, my body dissolving into the wall as he thrusts one final time. He leans against me, the hot water still running over us, my legs jelly, and his heart beating fast against my back.

He kisses my neck, and I close my eyes, my forehead against the shower wall.

I don’t want to move. I want to stay here, knowing I’m not in the shallow end with Landon any longer. We’ve passed that ... somewhere between Vegas and England and the truth of Sophia and the vulnerability he has shown me.

But knowing what comes next is the murky middle, where the water gets deep and where he might not want to tread. Or worse, he may want to dive in headfirst.

And the truth is, I’m scared to learn to swim ... because in all my life, I’ve never left the shore.

* * *

Landon

“The family meeting will be held tomorrow afternoon,” Dad says over dinner.

We’ve dressed for dinner, per their request, and are sitting around the table as a family.

“We’re all here, why don’t we just have it now,” Geoffrey says sourly.

“Because I want to enjoy this evening business-free,” Mum says. “Let’s talk about something else. Something light.”

Fiona smiles, picking up her fork. “Well, Geoffrey has asked me to marry him.”

“Wow,” Claire says, not hiding her shock. “Really?”

“Is that so hard to believe?” Fiona asks.

Mum and Dad exchange a look of confusion before Dad stands and claps.

“Unexpected, Fiona, but not hard to believe, “Dad says. “You and Geoffrey have been dating for a decade. It’s about time you two tied the knot.”

“Congrats, bro,” I say, raising my wine glass to him. “Brandon,” I call to the butler standing by. “We need champagne.”

“When did this happen?” Mum asks.

“We’ve been talking about it for awhile,” Geoffrey says, looking down at his plate.

“Fiona tie your balls in a knot after she heard I beat you to the punch?” I laugh, loving the fact that I’ve one-upped him in something. Which would be the first something in our entire lives.

“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” Mum says, misty-eyed once again. “Both my boys, settled down and happy. The timing couldn’t be better.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

Geoffrey smirks and takes the champagne Brandon offers him.

“There’s a lot you don’t know, brother.”

“Try me,” I say, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks. There is little I hate more than being on the outside.

“Not now, boys,” Dad says. “Let’s toast the happy couple.” He raises his flute of champagne and we all follow suit. “To love.”

“To love,” we all repeat, clinking glasses.

Claire catches my eye, and she gives the slightest of nods, as if warning me to not press any further. She’s right, of course; I need to keep my cool. The last thing I need to do is start ruffling feathers and pissing on everything and losing what I want.

Which is to take this company. Have a legitimate job that will impress Claire. Confess my love. Actually marry her.

I want all of that and I won’t get any of it if I start acting like a prick.

“So when is the wedding?” I ask, wanting to watch Geoffrey squirm about something not business related.

Claire rolls her eyes discreetly and I know even that line of questioning is cutting it close. She looks so delicious in her cream dress, cut tight around her narrow body, her long legs in those high heels. I want to strip her out of all of it later. And I will.

“Soon,” Fiona says. “Very soon.”

“That’s lovely. A spring wedding, then?” Mum asks.

“Sooner, even,” Fiona says. “I’ve waited long enough. I want to get married as soon as possible.”

“Oh, how grand. A winter wedding would be lovely. Does your mother know, Fiona?” Mum asks. “And let’s see the ring.”

“We don’t have the ring yet, and haven’t said anything to her family,” Geoffrey says. “Because we weren’t going to mention the engagement yet, considering everything else going on, but....” He gives Fiona a smirk before adding dryly, “Apparently the excitement overwhelmed us.”

“Oh shush, Geoffrey,” Fiona says, swatting him. “It’s only what I’ve wanted for five years.”

After dinner, Mum and Dad excuse themselves, stating that they are exhausted, leaving Fiona, Geoffrey, Claire, and me to sit awkwardly around the table.

Claire has been putting up with Fiona relatively well all evening, but her patience seems to be wearing thin.

When Fiona tells Claire that her and Geoffrey’s marriage will last forever, since they know one another so well, it is Claire’s last straw.

Claire smiles tightly and says, “So, Fiona, if you’ve been dating so long and are so perfect for one another, what made you decide to go ahead and get engaged now, of all times?” Claire seems to realize her words have caused the happy couple to pause in discomfort, but I smile, realizing it was intentional.

“Well, because we’re in love, and so happy.” Fiona plasters on a smile that’s a bit manic, looking at Geoffrey to help. When he doesn’t, she adds, “You know, we’ve been talking for so long and then you both show up here, all ... smug. It’s quite obnoxious, actually. Don’t think we all didn’t hear you having sex last night. We heard.”

Claire looks down in her lap, and for a second I’m scared she’s going to be upset and run off again. But then I see the slight upturn of her mouth and realize she’s suppressing a smile.

“Don’t laugh at me,” Fiona says to Claire. “You with your blonde hair and skinny legs and perfect eyebrows. You aren’t a real Englishwoman, and you never will be.”

“I don’t intend on being one. I intend on being myself,” Claire says smoothly.

“Oh, no you don’t, we know your game. You and Landon waltzed in here together for one reason and one reason only.”

Claire’s eyes meet mine. Fuck, they’ve found us out. What did they do? Scroll through our text messages or listen at the door to learn of our plan?

“And what’s that?” I ask.

“To get your Mum and Dad to pay for your wedding. And your life. Obviously you need your father to bail you out, now that you’ve committed yourself to a wife and child. Everyone knows you have no prospect of supporting anything, or anyone.”

Geoffrey raises his arms. “Fiona, just calm down a moment. Our marriage has nothing to do with them, you know that. They have nothing to do with our engagement, so let it go. Don’t get so defensive. And why do you care what sort of sex they have? We have plenty of it ourselves.”

“I know we do, darling, it’s just … it’s not fair the way he thi—”

I cut her off. “I’m here because it’s a family summit,” I tell her, seething, unable to restrain my feelings. “Because I’m trying not to be such an asshole like I’ve been my entire life. Because I wanted you to meet Claire, and because I want to make Mum and Dad happy, okay?” I shout. “So enough with calling me out for being a money-grabber. For being nitwit. For being a prick. We all know what I have been, but maybe for a moment, we could think of what I might be.”

The room is quiet. I don’t think I’ve ever given a speech quite like that in my life, and the only problem is I now need to dissect it to see what parts were real and what parts were false … and what parts became true halfway through.

“So then, what might you be?” Geoffrey asks.

His question stumps me for a moment. I can’t say I might be the owner of The King’s Diamond, because that’s what he’s just accused me of wanting. Which it is.

And because what I want more—much more—is for my parents to be proud of me. For my brother to think I’m more than my sum. And maybe ... just maybe ... I want Claire to think that of me, too. The company just seems the only logical way for me to get everything I want.

“Maybe I could be a man everyone here is proud to know.”

Chapter NineteenClaire

His speech bringstears to my eyes.

He wants us to see him as someone we are proud to know.

I’m proud to know him. Beyond proud.

But I’m not very proud of myself.

For the way I’ve been to my friends. For the secrets and the lies.

I can’t tell them everything, just like I haven’t told Landon everything ... but they need to know about Sophia.

After the fight, we go our separate ways, and I pull Landon aside to speak with him privately. We find an empty den at the end of the hall, and close the door.

“Your speech was so amazing, Landon, and it made me realize that I need to tell Emmy and Tess the truth.”

“I agree; you should do that.” He pauses, his brows furrowed. “And ... you liked my speech even though it was full of lies?”

“Was it?” I ask, because I think that on the surface he’s been saying he wants to trick the family into getting the company... but deep down I see the truth in his words.

That this isn’t about the money, because Landon isn’t a money-grabber at all. If he were, he wouldn’t be playing blackjack, that’s for sure. Blackjack players aren’t in it for big wins, they’re in it for fun. Poker and craps—nowthoseplayers are looking for a jackpot. But not blackjack. Not Landon.

He came to his family estate to prove something. And I think he brought me because he was scared to do that alone.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself … maybe foolishly.

“I think you’re the only person who can see through me,” he says. “Through my bullshit.”

I step toward him, letting my heart flutter in anticipation. Wanting another kiss, wanting him to pull me close. Knowing that kisses lead to sex … and sex with him makes me forget everything else. Which is what I want.

I’m not ready for reality. For real life. I want to stay in this make-believe place a little longer.

“Claire, I do want my father’s company. I didn’t say it in my speech because that’s what Geoffrey was droning on and on about ... but I want my dad to give it to me. I need him to.”

“Really?” I ask. “I guess I thought this might be about more than beating your brother.”

“Well, maybe in some ways it is about more than that. But you and I both know I need to fucking grow up. I can do that. I can be the guy who’s responsible and has his shit together.”

“Landon, I’m not asking you to be anything. Not for me.”

“So you don’t want me to be that guy? For you?”

“I don’t know what I want.”

I take a step back; suddenly feeling like this is all happening too fast. The idea of him and me is fun in theory … but the reality?

I just feel like if I gave in to that–gave in to him–it would end with me heartbroken.

“Are you trying to prove something to me?” I ask him. “That you can be man enough? Because I’m not asking you to be my man. To be my anything.”

“Shit, Claire. You are seriously fucking with my mind. I thought you and I were more than—”

“More than a job? You don’t even know me,” I tell him, my words blunt but true. “You have no idea what a life with me would be like. You are in no place to commit.”

“That’s bullshit, Claire. You’re just scared to let anyone in. You don’t tell people who you really are, and then no one can hurt you, because no one can see you. I don’t know who screwed you over so you became this way, but they must have seriously fucked with you.”

“Don’t talk like that to me, Landon. You don’t mean it. So don’t get all ugly with me now, when I’m speaking the truth. When I say you can’t handle me. Because we both know you couldn’t handle life as a father. You don’t even know how to be a man.”

“Fuck that, Claire. I know how to be a man.”

“No,” I tell him. “No, you don’t. A real man never would come to his parents house trying to trick them.”

“Well, you know what, Claire? A real woman wouldn’t have agreed to it.”

The words we exchange cut into my heart. I want to pretend they aren’t true, but they are. All of them. His and mine. This isn’t pretty and this can’t be love. Because love doesn’t hurt; love heals. Love doesn’t destroy; love protects.

And right now, it feels like whatever we were—whatever we might have been—is gone.

* * *

Landon

One day.

One single day can build you up and then tear you down.

One day can make you feel like a fucking King and then make you feel so small. Make you feel like nothing at all.

Claire’s face is streaked with tears, and so is mine.

Our fight is what has kept me from ever letting a woman into my heart.

Winnie and I would fight. We’d throw ugly words at one another when we were drunk or high or both.

But this is worse, because Claire and I are both sober. We know exactly what we just said. We will remember every word. Every line.

Maybe it was better with Winnie. Because at least the next morning would be a fuzzy haze of forgotten exchanges. We’d know we said things we shouldn’t have ... but nothing about the sentences would be clear enough to hinge another fight on.

The words Claire and I spoke won’t be forgotten. They ruined whatever we may have found.

Possibility.

One another.

Love.

“I’m going to bed,” she says, stepping further away from me. “My head hurts and I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“I’ll sleep in a guest room.”

“No, you won’t.” She sighs as if this exhale of breath takes all her energy, all her heart. “It will raise too many questions.”

“So you aren’t leaving right now?”

“I may be an awful woman, Landon, but I’m not giving Fiona and Geoffrey what they want.”

“Really?”

“Really, what?” She raises her hands in front of her, physically creating a barrier between us. “Landon, my heart hurts so bad right now. I feel like a monster and a bitch and cheat. I feel awful inside. But I’m also too tired to fight with you anymore. I don’t want to fight with you at all. I hate this.”

“I feel pretty shitty, too. Which is why I thought perhaps we should just confess to my Mum and Dad.”

“Is that what you want?” she asks.

“It sounds like whatIreally want isn’t somethingyouwant.”

“It isn’t that simple. I’m not that simple.”

“Fuck that, Claire—you’re just scared.”

“So what if I’m scared?” she whispers, opening the door, walking away. “We both know there are worse things to be.”

* * *

After she leavesthe den I make the executive decision that she may hate ... but in my gut I know it’s what she needs. A way to forgive herself for keeping Sophia a secret.

I make a phone call and then go to our bedroom. She’s curled in a ball on the bed looking at her phone.

I get in beside her, trying to give her as much space as possible. Wondering if I should even be here at all.

“Do you want to see a picture of her?” she asks, rolling over to face me, her phone in hand. I love that she doesn’t play games where she refuses to speak because she’s upset. She isn’t running from me, from our fight.

“Yes.” My voice is so quiet, because I feel like I don’t deserve her trust ... her anything ... but I want it so badly. Wantherso badly.

She passes me her phone. “That’s her at the first day of kindergarten.”

The photo is of a miniature Claire. Blonde hair and tan skin and bright green eyes. Sophia wears a pleated skirt and knee socks and a button-down shirt.

“She goes to a private school? I assumed....”

“That I couldn’t afford to send my daughter somewhere nice?”

“No ... well, yes. You’ve been so adamant about needing the money I figured—”

“She’s on scholarship. But I want the money so I can give Sophia more. I never feel like I can give her enough. What she really deserves.”

I tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear, scared she’ll swat my hand away any moment. But she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t pull away. And in that choice, I know she doesn’t hate me. Our words may have been ugly, but neither of us is ready to give up without another fight.

“You don’t think what you give her is enough?” I ask.

“Not even a little.”

“What if it is?”

“Ifwhatis?”

“What if you being her mother is enough?”

Claire sighs and takes back her phone, using her fingers to zoom in on her daughter’s face.

“I think that Sophia deserves more than a room in her grandma’s house, sharing a bed with her mother,” Claire says, staring at her daughter. “I think Sophia deserves a yard and a dog and a mom who isn’t always running around from work to school to dishes to laundry. She deserves a mom who’s better than me.”

“What if you’re missing the point, Claire?” I ask, my voice tender, because it’s so clear she’s hurting. She’s putting things on herself no one is asking her to.

She drops the phone on the sheets. “You’re going to give me advice on how to be a parent?”

“I’m not giving advice on bloody parenting, Claire. I’m giving advice on being a person.”

“Right, because you have life so well figured out.”

I don’t answer, because her words keep hitting me hard in the chest, knocking the wind from me.

I wrap my arms around her anyway, and we fall asleep, neither of us wanting to let go, even though we have no bloody clue what it means to stay.

* * *

The next morningwe sleep late, the time zone differences hitting us hard–but also, the night was so heavy. I don’t think either of us wants to wake up and face one another ... or remember the words we said.

“Is someone knocking on the door?” Claire asks, her outstretched hand hitting my face.

“Fuck, yes. What the hell?” I moan. Looking at the clock, I’m shocked at the time. “It’s eleven in the morning, Claire.”

“No way. I’m always up before six.”

“Not today you’re not.” I stand from the bed to answer the incessant rapping.

“Tell them to leave unless they have coffee. Tea isn’t gonna cut it today.”

I pull open the door and my eyes grow wide, remembering my phone call.

“Um. Claire,” I say.

“What?” She peers through the heavy curtained bedposts. “Holy shit.”

“You didn’t tell her we were coming?” Emmy asks, smacking me in the chest before walking in the room, Tess and Ace in tow.


Page 15

Chapter TwentyClaire

Ican’t believehe called them without telling me. What the hell?

Last night Landon and I had a fight that could be more aptly described as a mind-fuck.

Am I ridiculously in love with him or just completely cracked out because I’m staying with him at a castle in my dream destination a million miles from my responsibilities?

Obviously, I think it’s the latter ... but what really scares me is the idea of it being the former.

Of me actually being this spun out of my mind because I love this man.

I don’t want it to be true, because it’s easier to pretend my feelings are all made up. It’s easier to tell myself that the way he looks at me and holds me is part of the fake fiancée charade.

The door to the bedroom swings open and Emmy and Tess walk toward me, wide-eyed in disbelief, scanning back at Landon and then again at me.

“Sorry, boys, you’ve gotta go. We need girl time,” Emmy says over her shoulder.

I meet Landon’s eyes and he bites his lip, caught. I don’t know how to feel.

“I’ll get you some coffee, Claire,” he says, not giving me a chance to decide if I’m mad at him. He pulls on a tee shirt and then hastily exits to where Ace is waiting in the hallway.

I take a deep breath, not even knowing where to start. However, I don’t need to be the one start the conversation—Tess has no problem jumping right in.

“Um. What the heck is going on?” Tess asks, plopping on my bed once the door in closed. “We got here like five minutes ago and have zero clue what is going on.”

“Did he call you?” I ask.

“Landon?” Emmy nods. “Um. Yeah. He said you were here, with him–which, Claire, we knew nothing about that.” She smacks me on the side of my head.

“Ow,” I say, pushing her away.

“He called to tell us you were having a meltdown and that he needed backup. I tried to ask what the meltdown was over, but he refused to give me details.”

“So you three just hopped on a plane and came? Across the world?” I sit up in the bed, trying to gather my bearings. Never in a million years did I expect to wake up to this.

“Of course we did, weirdo,” Tess says. “Well, I mean, Ace flew us here in a private jet, which honestly was a big help. My credit cards are completely maxed out, so having a free ticket helped with the speed of travel.” She grins, but I just bite my lip, not knowing how I feel.

“You haven’t answered our calls for four days,” Emmy says, sitting cross-legged on the bed. “And then we find out that you–our best friend– ran off with LandontoEngland.”

“Yeah, a heads-up that you had fallen in love with him would have been freaking considerate,” Tess barks at me.

Do I tell them the reason I’m there? How it has nothing to do with love. How the potential paycheck has everything to do with my daughter.

My daughter.

I need to lead with that. I cover my face with my hands, totally ashamed and totally over my head.

“What the fuck!?” Tess grabs my hand, shrieking. “You got engaged? To Landon?”

“Ohmigod,” Emmy says. “Why in the world did you hide this from us?”

“It’s complicated, and—” Before I can say anything else, Landon is back in the room with a tray of fruit, coffee, and mimosas.

“For the ladies,” he says, setting the tray on the bed.

I smile, a really fake smile because I actually want to scream.

Instead, I stand and pull Landon into the bathroom.

“Sorry, girls, just need to speak with Landon for a sec,” I tell them. They’re both too stunned to speak, so I shut the door behind me.

“Hey, Claire ... now don’t be mad,” he says as I back him into the corner. Literally.

“Landon, what were you thinking?” I hiss. “This is going to end badly.”

“No. It doesn’t have to be bad. You kept saying how terrible you feel about lying to them. And I hate that you are carrying that around. I thought—”

“You thought they were just gonna think it’s cute that we are engaged?”

“Well, we can tell them it’s a fake engagement.”

“No, we can’t.”

“What do you mean? Of course we can. They won’t care.”

“Icare, Landon. Me. I don’t want my friends to know I’m okay with deceiving your family for money,” I say.

“They will hate Geoffrey and Fiona, which means they’ll be happy I’m taking the business.”

“No,” I say. “They’ll think I’m a shitty person. Which just confirms how I already feel.”

“You’re seriously making way too big of a deal out of this.”

At that moment I want to scream. I want to strangle Landon for being such a guy.

“No, I’m not,” I whisper. “And it is so like you to minimize this. To not realize the implications. Even if I was okay with them knowing about our scheme, you think it’s smart to let Ace and Emmy and Tess all in on our plan? While they’re here at your parents’ house? Someone will accidentally let the cat out of the bag.”

Landon fills his cheeks with air, realizing what I’m saying is true.

He exhales. “Fuck. Sorry. I shouldn’t have called them without asking you.”

“Now I have to lie.More.”

“Not about everything,” he says.

And for a stupid second I think maybe he means I don’t have to pretend about the engagement. That he really wants to be with me.

And for a stupider moment Iwanthim to say that.

But then he opens his mouth again. “If they’re your real friends, they’ll forgive you for lying about Sophia.”

I nod, hoping he’s right.

“Claire,” he says. “About last night–”

“Don’t,” I stop him. “We both said a lot, and I can’t deal with that while Emmy and Tess are right there in the bedroom.”

“Later, then, we’ll talk?” His eyes plead with me, and I know this knot in my stomach needs to unfurl.

“Okay,” I tell him. “After the family meeting we can talk it out. I’m sure we’ll know more by then anyway.”

“Nothing my dad says is going to change how I feel about wanting to be your man.”

“Landon.” I close my eyes, pressing my hands to his chest. “I can’t right now.”

He doesn’t argue. He just takes my hands and kisses my knuckles, smiling despite the fact that I’m walking away.

That alone melts me in ways it shouldn’t. With him, right now, I need to stay resolved.

* * *

Once Landon leavesand it’s just Tess, Emmy, and me, I hand them each a mimosa.

“I’m going to tell you something that might shock you. So drink that while I talk, okay?”

“There is nothing you can say that is more shocking than the fact you are here in England, with Landon, engaged,” Tess says coolly.

“No,” I say, shaking my head, and then clasping my hands together to stop them from shaking, too. “There is.”

“What?” Emmy asks.

“I’m not who you think I am, not entirely.” I forge ahead, knowing I just have to get this over with. “I have a five-year-old daughter.”

For a second the room is silent, and then they’re asking questions all at once.

“Wait, what?” Tess asks. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“You’re a mom?” Emmy sets down her drink. “I’m so confused, Claire, what the actual fuck?”

So I explain. I tell them about why I kept my personal life under wraps at first, and how then too much time had passed to tell them without it being weird. And how I didn’t want it to be about me when Emmy’s sister was in the hospital. And how I’m self-sufficient and don’t want them to judge me.

And how, deep down, I know if they know what I really am—a mom—the friendship will change.

It already has, because both their eyes are filled with tears.

I’ve ruined this.

“I can’t believe you’d hide your kid from us. Like ... are we not good enough to know her or something?” Emmy asks.

I realize the story she is telling herself about my secret is that she isn’t good enough, when the truth is I wanted to keep Sophia to myself because I am selfish.

Because I’m scared.

“We’ve only been friends a few months.” I feel like such a mess, still in my pajamas, not ready for the day at all—and especially not ready to be confronted by my friends. “It isn’t about either of you. You are more than I deserve.”

“Then what is it really about?” Tess asks.

“It’s about me. About me not liking my place in life. I love Sophia. So much. But sometimes I feel stuck. Like the life I have isn’t one I chose.” I bury my hands in my face, ashamed at what I’ve admitted to them.

“But you chose Landon? He knows about Sophia, right?” Tess asks.

“Yeah, and when did you fall in love? I just ... Claire, this is a crazy amount of information to try to absorb,” Emmy says, and I agree with her.

Mostly because half of it is still untrue.

I’m still stuck in my lies.

I try to move ahead using half-truths instead. “Landon proposed at the airport. It was sudden and unexpected, but his family thinks we’ve been together a few months, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell them that it hasn’t been that long.”

“How long has it been?” Emmy asks. “When did you start seeing one another?”

Telling her the truth is my only choice. “We hooked up after your wedding. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to mess things up in the group if Landon and I were a one time thing.”

“Okay, I can forgive you ... I guess,” Emmy says. “I mean, my feelings are really hurt, and I don’t get it.Get you.” It’s quiet for a moment, then she asks, “Who is Sophia’s father?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” There is no way I can get into that with them today, on top of everything else. I swallow, not able to meet Emmy’s eyes. “It’s the past. Five years in the past. Not now.”

“Ohmigosh,” Tess says, completely disregarding the serious turn the conversation took. “That night of the poker party at Emmy’s penthouse, Landon didn’t just take you home, did he? You guys were having a secret sex date, weren’t you?” Tess smacks me, already moving on from Sophia.

And I get it.

She would think talking about Landon and me is a lot more fun than discussing my five-year-old. Because our lives are so completely different. Landon thinks the two parts of my life can be merged, and merged with his. But he is so over his head. He has no clue.

And neither do I.

* * *

Landon

It’s really fucking simple. Get my dad’s company, therefore securing a legitimate job, and prove to Claire that I can be the sort of man she needs.

Because right now the only thing standing in our way is her fear.

Because, shit, I’m all in with her.

“You proposed?” Ace asks, stunned. The girls are in my bedroom, and I’m walking out of the house with Ace, needing to get fresh air like I never have before.

Running my hands through my hair, I sit down on the back steps. Ace paces the yard.

“This is all kinds of insane,” he says. “When did you fall for her?”

“At your bloody wedding. It’s your fault; you’re the one who told me to ask her to dance. I was done for.”

“Shit.”

“You know, Claire has a daughter? She kept it from everyone, the last few months.”

“What the fuck?” Ace stops and looks at me, hard. “What do you know about this girl? I mean, really?”

“I know enough.”

“I’m not sure, bro. You already proposed. This is fast. Like, faster than Emmy and I. And Claire kept her kid a secret. Who does that?”

I don’t tell him it’s a fake engagement, because Claire asked me not to. But the truth is, I don’t want to tell him it’s fake because I want it to be real.

“You’re really gonna get high and mighty about secrets?” I flip him off. “You hid the fact that your name is Adrian Genova from us for five fucking years.”

“I know. But I had good reason.”

“It’s pretty fucking relative, though, isn’t it?” I ask.

“This is insane.” Ace sits next to me. “What is Claire’s crisis?”

“She knew she needed to come clean about her daughter.”

“You really ready to be a father?” Ace asks.

“I don’t know. But shit, I’d be anything for Claire. Right now, though, I just need to get my father to give me his company.”

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