Authors: Erin Watt
Grier nods. “We would be happy to accommodate that request. Your husband left several DNA samples that are being stored at a private lab in Raleigh. I took care of the paperwork myself.”
Dinah’s lawyer speaks up reassuringly. “We’ll get a sample of comparison from Miss Harper before we leave. I can supervise the process.”
The adults keep talking and bickering among themselves, while I sit there in stunned silence. My mind keeps tripping over the words “hundreds of millions.” It’s more money than I could have ever dreamed of, and a part of me feels guilty for inheriting it. I didn’t know Steve. I don’t deserve half of his money.
Callum notices my stricken face and squeezes my hand, while Brooke’s lips curl in distaste. I ignore the waves of hostility rolling toward me and concentrate on drawing air in and out of my lungs.
I didn’t know Steve. He didn’t know me. But as I sit here battling my shock, I suddenly realize that he loved me. Or at least, he’d
to love me.
And my heart aches that I never got the chance to love him back.
ours after the will reading
, I’m still numb. Still shocked. Still sad. I don’t know what to do with the ball of pain in my stomach, so I just curl up on my bed and let my mind go blank.
I don’t let myself think about Steve O’Halloran and how I’ll never, ever know him.
I don’t think about Dinah’s threats as Callum and I were leaving the law office, or the angry words Brooke hurled at Callum when he refused to take her dinner so they could “talk.” I guess she wants him back. I’m not surprised.
Eventually Reed walks into my room. He locks the door, then joins me on the bed and pulls me into his arms.
“Dad said to give you space. So I gave you two hours. But that’s over now. Talk to me, babe.”
I bury my face in his neck. “I don’t feel like talking.”
“What happened with the lawyers? Dad wouldn’t say anything.”
He’s determined to make me talk, dammit. Groaning, I sit up and meet his concerned eyes. “I’m a multi-millionaire,” I blurt out. “Not just a regular old millionaire, but a
-millionaire. I’m freaking out right now.”
His lips twitch.
“I’m serious! What the hell am I going to do with that kind of money?” I wail.
“Invest it. Give it to charity. Spend it.” Reed pulls me toward him again. “You can do whatever you want.”
“I…don’t deserve it.” The meek response slips out before I can stop it, and the next thing I know, all my emotions rush to the surface. I tell him about the will reading, and Dinah’s reaction, and my realization that Steve actually considered me his daughter even though he never knew me.
Reed doesn’t comment, not once during my long-winded speech, and I realize that’s what I wanted from him. I don’t need advice or reassurances, I just need someone to listen.
When I finally go quiet, he does something even better—he kisses me, long and deep, and the strength of his body pressed against mine eases the anxiety in my chest.
His lips travel along my neck, the line of my jaw, my cheeks. Every kiss makes me fall harder and harder for him. It’s a terrifying feeling, and it lodges in my throat and triggers the urge to run. I’ve never loved anyone before. I loved my mom, but it’s not the same thing. What I’m feeling right now is…all-consuming. It’s hot and achy and powerful and it’s everywhere, overflowing in my heart, pulsing through my blood.
Reed Royal is inside me. Figuratively, but oh God, I need it to be literally, too. I need him and I’m going to have him, and my hands are frantic as they claw at his zipper.
“Ella,” he groans, intercepting my hands. “No.”
“Yes,” I whisper into his lips. “I want this.”
The reminder is like a splash of cold water to the face. His dad could knock on my door at any second, and probably will, because I know Callum sensed how upset I was when we got home.
I curse in frustration. “You’re right. We can’t.”
Reed kisses me again, just the soft brush of his lips before he slides off the bed. “Are you gonna be okay? Easton and I were supposed to go out for beers with some of the guys from the team tonight, but I can cancel if you need me to stick around.”
“No, it’s fine. Go. I’m still digesting this money thing and I probably won’t be good company tonight.”
“I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he promises. “We can watch a movie or something if you’re still up.”
After he’s gone, I curl up again and end up falling asleep for two hours, which is totally going to mess up my sleep schedule. I wake up when my cell phone rings, and I’m startled to see Gideon’s number on the screen. I have all the brothers’ numbers, but this is the first time Gideon has ever called me.
I answer the phone, still a bit groggy. “Hey. What’s up?”
“You home?” is his terse reply.
I’m on guard almost immediately. It’s just two words, but I hear something in his voice that scares me. He’s angry.
“I’m five minutes away—”
He is? On a Monday? Gideon never comes home from college during the week.
“Can we go for a drive? I need to talk to you.”
My brows knit together. “Why can’t we talk here?”
“Because I don’t want anyone overhearing us.”
I sit up in bed, but I’m still not comfortable with his request. Not that I think he’s going to murder me on the side of the road or anything, but asking me to go for a drive is strange, especially for Gideon.
“It’s about Savannah, okay?” he mutters. “And I want it to stay between you and me.”
I relax slightly. But the confusion lingers. This is the first time Gideon has mentioned Savannah to me. I only know about their history because of Easton. Still, I can’t deny I’m insanely curious about it.
“I’ll meet you outside,” I tell him.
His huge SUV waits in the driveway when I descend the front steps. I hop into the passenger seat and Gideon drives off without a word. His profile is like stone and his shoulders rigid. And he doesn’t say a single word until he pulls into a small plaza five minutes later and kills the engine.
“Are you having sex with Reed?”
My mouth falls open, and my heart starts pounding, because the furious look in his eyes is unexpected.
“Um. I…No,” I stammer. It’s the truth.
“But you’re together,” Gideon presses. “You’re hooking up?”
“Why are you asking me this?”
“I’m trying to figure out how much damage control I’m gonna have to do.”
Damage control? What the hell is he talking about?
“Shouldn’t we be talking about Savannah?” I ask uneasily.
“This is about Savannah. And you. And Reed.” His breathing sounds labored. “Whatever you’re doing, you need to stop. Right now, Ella. You need to end it.”
My pulse is even more off-kilter. “Why?”
“Because no good will come of it.”
He drags a hand through his hair, which causes his head to tilt back a bit, drawing my attention to the red mark on his neck. It looks like a hickey.
“Reed is screwed up,” Gideon says hoarsely. “He’s as screwed up as I am, and, look, you’re a nice girl. There are other guys at Astor. Reed’ll be off to college soon.”
Gideon’s words tumble out, a bunch of disjointed sentences that I can’t make sense out of. “I know Reed’s screwed up,” I start to say.
“You have no clue. No clue at all,” he interrupts. “Reed and I and my dad, we have one thing in common. We ruin women’s lives. We drive women to the cliff and then push them over. You’re a decent person, Ella. But if you stay here and continue with Reed, I…” He breaks off, his breathing heavy.
His knuckles whiten as he grips the steering wheel tighter but offers no other explanation.
“You what, Gideon?”
“You need to stop asking questions and start listening,” Gideon snaps. “End it with my brother. You can be his friend, like you are with Easton and the twins. Don’t start up a relationship with him.”
“Goddammit, are you always this fucking difficult? I’m trying to save you from getting your heart broken and offing yourself with a bottle of pills,” he finally explodes.
Oh. His outburst makes sense now. His mother killed herself… Oh God, did Savannah try something, too?
Reed and I have things sorted out, but I don’t think Gideon is ready to hear that. And I suspect he isn’t going to let up until I agree to his crazy demands. Well, fine. I’ll agree then. Reed and I are already sneaking around behind Callum’s back. It’ll be easy enough to hide it from Gideon, too.
“Okay.” I reach out and rest a soothing hand on his. “I’ll end it with Reed. You’re right, we’re messing around, but it’s not serious or anything,” I lie.
He runs a hand through his hair again. “You sure about that?”
I nod. “Reed won’t care. And honestly, if it upsets you this much, I’m sure he’ll agree that it’s not worth it.” I squeeze Gideon’s hand. “Chill, okay? I don’t want to ruin the dynamic we have going on in the house. I’m cool about ending it.”
Gideon relaxes, his breath coming out in a long rush. “Okay. Good.”
I take my hand back. “Can we go home now? If someone drives by and sees us parked here, the rumor mill at school is going to explode tomorrow.”
He chuckles weakly. “Truth.”
I fix my gaze out the window as he starts the engine and pulls out of the parking lot. We don’t talk on the ride back, and he doesn’t get out of the car when he drops me off.
“You heading back to school now?” I ask.
He speeds off, and for some reason I don’t believe that he’s returning to college. At least, not tonight. I’m also more than a little freaked out by his outburst and his insane request for me to stay away from Reed. Speaking of Reed, his Rover is parked near the garage, and the sight fills me with relief. He’s back. And all the other vehicles are gone, even the Town Car, which means Reed and I will be alone.
I hurry inside and take the stairs two at a time. At the landing, I veer right, toward the east wing, where every door is open except for Reed’s. The twins and Easton are nowhere to be seen, and my bedroom is empty too when I peek in.
I haven’t been in Reed’s bedroom before—he always hangs out in mine—but tonight I’m not going to wait for him to come to me. Gideon really shook me up, and Reed is the only one who can help me make sense of his brother’s strange behavior.
I reach his door and lift my hand to knock, then smile ruefully because God knows no one in this house ever knocks on
door. They just waltz in like they belong in my room. So I decide to give Reed a taste of his own medicine. Childish as it is, I kinda hope he’s jerking off in there, just to teach him a lesson about the importance of knocking.
I throw open the door and say, “Reed, I—”
The words die in my throat. I stumble to a stop and gasp.
he clothes litter
the floor like an obscene breadcrumb trail. I follow the path with my eyes. High-heeled shoes tipped over on their sides. Running shoes bracketing them. A shirt, a dress, under—I close my eyes as if I can erase the images but when I open them again, it’s unchanged. Lacy black things—things I would never wear—look as if they were dropped just before their owner climbed into bed.
My gaze flickers upward, past strong calves, over knees, beyond a pair of hands loosely clasped together. Up the ladder of his bare, ridged abdomen, pausing at a new scratch on his left pectoral, about where his heart is supposed to be, stopping to meet his gaze.
“Where’s Easton?” I blurt out. My mind rejects the scene. I superimpose a different story than the one laid out in front of me. A story where I’ve stumbled into Easton’s room, and Reed, in a booze-induced haze, stumbled into the wrong room, too.
But Reed just stares stonily back at me, daring me to question his actions.
There’s no way that Reed is going without
, I hear Val whisper in my ear.
“The guys you were meeting for beers?” I toss out desperately. I give Reed every chance to spin an account different than the one I see before me.
Lie to me, dammit!
But he remains stubbornly silent.
Brooke rises like a ghostly specter from behind him, and the earth stops. Time stretches out as she slides her hand up Reed’s spine, over his shoulder and then brings her manicured fingers across his chest.
There’s no question she’s naked. She kisses Reed’s neck, all the while looking at me. And he doesn’t move. Not one muscle.
“Reed…” His name is no more than a whisper, a painful scratch against my throat.
“Your desperation is sad.” Brooke’s voice sounds wrong in this room. “You should leave. Unless…” She stretches out a bare leg and drapes it outside of Reed’s hips, which are still covered in the cotton of his sweatpants. “Unless you want to watch.”
The pain in my throat gets worse as she remains wrapped around him and he makes no effort to move away.
Her hand drifts down his arm and when it reaches his wrist, he moves—a tiny, almost imperceptible flinch. I watch with alarm as her fingers glide across his abs, and before she can take hold of what I’d started to believe belonged to me, I turn abruptly and leave.
I had been wrong. Wrong about so many things that my mind can’t catalog them all.
When we were moving around so often, I thought I needed roots. When Mom had her umpteenth boyfriend who leered at me too long, I wondered if I needed a father figure. When I was alone at night and she was working long, tiring hours waiting tables, stripping and God knows what else to keep me fed and clothed, I longed for siblings. When she was sick, I prayed for money.
And now I have all of that and I am worse off than before.
I run to my bedroom and stuff my backpack full of my makeup, my two pairs of skinny jeans, five T-shirts, underwear, stripper gear from Miss Candy’s and my mother’s dress.
I keep the tears at bay because crying isn’t going to get me out of this nightmare. Only putting one foot in front of the other.
The house is deathly silent. The echoes of Brooke’s laughter when I told her that there was one good and decent man out there bounces from one side of my skull to the other.
My imagination conjures up visions of Brooke and Reed. His mouth on her, his fingers touching her. Outside the house, I stumble to the corner and vomit.
Acid coats my mouth but I push on. The car starts immediately. I shove it into gear and, with shaking hands, navigate down the driveway. I keep waiting for that movie moment when Reed runs out of the house, screaming for me to come back.
But it never happens.
There’s no rain-filled reunion and the only moisture are the tears I can’t hold back any longer.
The monotone voice of the GPS directs me to my destination. I shut off the engine, pull out the title to the car and shove it in my Auden book. Auden wrote that when the boy falls from the sky after calamity after calamity, he still has a future somewhere and that there’s no point in dwelling on one’s loss. But did he suffer this? Would he have written that if he had lived
I rest my head on the steering wheel. My shoulders shake from my sobs and my stomach heaves again. I lurch out of the car and stagger on shaky legs to the entrance of the bus station.
“You all right, honey?” the ticket counter attendant asks, looking worried. Her kindness wrenches another sob from me.
“My-my grandmother passed,” I lie.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Funeral then?”
I jerk my head in a nod.
She types into her computer, the long nails clicking against the keyboard. “Round trip?”
“No, one way. I don’t think I’m coming back.”
Her hands pause above the keys. “Are you sure? It’s cheaper to buy a round trip ticket.”
“There’s nothing here for me. Nothing,” I repeat.
I think it’s the anguish in my eyes that gets her to stop asking questions. She silently prints out the ticket. I take it and climb into the bus that cannot take me far enough and fast enough from this place.
Reed Royal has broken me. I’ve fallen from the sky and I’m not sure I can get up. Not this time.