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"I need your license and registration, miss."
Bree held up a hand to shield her eyes from the beam of light coming from the police officer's blinding flashlight. "Wha-at off-officer," she slurred. She felt sick, sicker than she'd felt in a very long time. "I I have to get home."
"You're not going anywhere, miss."
"I need to call my daddy."
"You can call your daddy after you give me your license and registration."
Bree reached up and pressed a button, illuminating the interior of the low-slung Porsche. Reaching for the leather handbag on the passenger-side seat, she searched for the small leather case with her license, opened the glove compartment, removed the vehicle's registration and handed it to the cop.
"Fucking hell," she whispered over and over, her fingers beating a tattoo on the leather-covered steering wheel. If she'd been sober she would've seen his cruiser behind the copse of palm trees and definitely would've slowed down. She'd been speeding to get away from Tyrone Wyatt who'd tried to get her to engage in a ménage à trois after they'd had mind-blowing, drug-induced sex.
She'd promised her parentsher father in particularthat she would stop driving under the influence, but then he hadn't kept his promises to her, so why should she comply with his? All of her life she'd tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to gain Langston Parker's attention. She'd become a straight-A student because she knew how important education was to a man who, despite completing only one year of college, had become a recording-industry mogul. Then there was her mother: beautiful, talented Grammy-award-winning Karma Ryder-Parker, who'd relinquished the responsibility of raising her daughter to headmistresses and live-in nannies.
Breanna Renee Parker's exile had begun within days of her birth after a psychiatrist had diagnosed Karma with postpar-tum depressionthe symptoms of which she turned off and on at will.
Once Bree turned six her parents enrolled her in a private convent school where classes were taught by nuns in unfashionable black habits that exposed only their hands and faces. And when Mother Superior deemed her too incorrigible, she was banished to a prestigious all-girls European boarding school, returning home for the summers and Christmas, or when it proved advantageous to enhance the image of Langston and Karma Parker as a Hollywood power couple.
The Parkers had spent thirty years perfecting their image, only to have their son announce that he'd become involved with another man. Their shame was compounded when Bree returned to the States, eschewing involvement in her father's company to party all night, sleep away the day then get up to begin the nonstop partying all over again.
In the six months since returning to L.A. she'd joined the ranks of Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears as Tinseltown's latest "It girl"; she was shadowed relentlessly by paparazzi, while tabloid headlines reported every alleged uninhibited escapade.
Tonight, she'd managed to escape their lenses only because she'd concealed her dark-brown hair under a short, curly auburn wig, and had replaced her usual designer dress for baggy cargo pants, a hoodie and psychedelic running shoes.
"Is your father Langston Parker?"
Bree was coming down off the most exhilarating high she'd had in years. Her head came around slowly as she tried to focus on the police officer's face. He'd hunkered down outside the driver's-side door.
"You can call him now."
"May I call my brother instead?" She'd changed her mind. If Langston knew she'd been stopped for driving under the influence she'd have to relinquish the keys to the brand-new Porsche. The car, a birthday gift, had come with a laundry list of conditions. Three infractions and she would forfeit the car for a month. Tonight was her third infraction.
"Miss Parker, I don't care who you call, but you're not moving this vehicle." The officer held out his hand. "Give me your keys."
Turning off the ignition, Bree dropped the car keys onto the outstretched palm, then retrieved her cell phone from the compartment between the seats and punched the speed dial. Ryder Parker's phone rang five times before being picked up.
"Ryder, it's Bree," she said quickly.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"No." The single word came out in a sob. "I need you to come get me. A cop won't let me drive."
"Where the hell are you?"
Bree closed her eyes, her head pounding. "Please don't, Ry."
"Where are you, Bree?"
She opened her eyes, staring through the windshield. "I know I'm somewhere in Bel Air, but I can't make out the name of the street. I don't think I'm that far from the house."
"I'll be there as soon as I call a taxi and throw on some clothes."
Bree palmed the tiny phone, then settled back to wait for her brother. Ryder would rave and rant, but she could at least count on him to protect her from their father's celebrated temper. She rested her forehead on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, praying she wouldn't lose the contents of her stomach before she made it home.
She'd turned twenty-three on November fifth, and she didn't know why, but she felt much older. There were times when she'd believed she was living in a parallel universeone in which she was a child thrust into an adult world, and the other where she'd been born as an adult wishing to retreat into a child's world.
She almost wished she could return to the womb and start life all over again, this time with a different set of parents. She'd grown up believing her parents loved her, though they weren't quite certain how to show that love. Their son was different: Ryder was firstborn, male and heir to a recording company rivaling Atlantic and Columbia Records.
Suddenly Bree felt something damp on the back of her hand. She stared numbly at one drop, then another. Cupping her hands, she held them to her face as blood pooled into her palms and trickled through her fingers. She was hemorrhag-ing. An icy chill swept throughout her, her body shaking then convulsing.
I'm dying. The realization hit her with the same impact as the white powder that had numbed her brain before taking her beyond herself.
Her hands fell into her lap as she rested her head on the steering wheel. The steady blare of the horn in the stillness of the warm December night sounded like a death knell as she slipped into an abyss of blackness at the same time as the police officer returned to peer through the driver's-side window.
"I can't believe you let them take her to a municipal hospital," Karma Parker whispered angrily, glaring at her son. "It's going to be hell getting her out of this place past those piranhas and lookie-loos."
Ryder, lounging gracefully in a chair near the window in Bree's private hospital room, didn't bother to glance at his mother. "I don't believe you! You're more concerned about someone photographing Bree than you are about why she's drinking and drugging."
Large gold-brown eyes, eyes that Ryder had inherited from his mother, darkened with Karma's rising temper. "Don't you dare you talk to me about my child."
Pushing to his feet, Ryder approached his mother. "When has she ever been your child, Mother?" His face twisted into a scowl that distorted his perfectly symmetrical features. "It's always been 'my son' but never 'my daughter.' I can't believe you've waited twenty-three years to finally refer to my sister as your child."
Karma combed her fingers through her fashionably cut dark-auburn hair. The embodiment of style and sophistication, she never went out in public without makeup or her hair coiffed.
"You're wrong, Ryder."
"No, I'm not wrong, Mother, and you know it. Bree wasn't your daughter when she was born, and she's definitely not your daughter now."
He ignored the tears welling up in his mother's eyes. He wasn't moved by them. The last time Karma had resorted to tears was just after he'd taken control of his trust fund. He'd informed his parents that he was resigning as executive vice-president of LP Records and then disclosed his alternative lifestyle.
Karma had broken down, sobbing inconsolably, while Langston had been too shocked to respond. His father didn't have to say anything because his expression said it allhe was ashamed and disappointed.
Straightening her shoulders, Karma stared at Ryder. There was something in his voice that garnered her undivided attention. "What aren't you telling me, Ryder?"
"I've told Bree that she can come live with me and Connor for as long as she wants."
Ryder had had long talks with his sister since her return to L.A. He knew she hated living with their parents, and he'd offered his home for as long as she wanted. She'd thanked him for the offer, but had remained noncommittal. He knew her drinking and drugging was a cry for help and attention.
Karma took note of her firstborn, her incredibly beautiful golden child. At six-two he was two inches taller than Langston, and he cut a magnificent figure. Broad shoulders, slim hips and graced with a masculine elegance that took some men a lifetime to acquire, Ryder had been born with it. His clear chestnut-brown coloring was the perfect match for his close-cropped auburn hair. He'd been born with shocking strawberry-blond hair that had darkened over time. However, he always wore a cap whenever he spent an inordinate amount of time in the hot southern California sun, because he'd tired of people asking whether he dyed his hair.
"Your father will never permit that."
Ryder shook his head. "It doesn't matter, Mother. Bree can live wherever she wants."
"Lang will disown her," Karma countered, angrily.
"You disowned her the day you brought her home from the hospital. I'll give her whatever she needs."
Karma knew she had to make amends with her son, but didn't know how. She had no way of knowing how much hostility he'd harbored over the years. Even when she believed he'd been the good child, the perfect son, he'd been harboring a deep-rooted resentment of his parents. And he'd waited until he was twenty-five to unleash his venom.
"Please let's wait until your father gets here so we can talk about it together."
"There's nothing to talk about, Mother. When Bree leaves here she's coming home with me."
Bree opened her eyes at the sound of the familiar voices. She didn't remember when she'd been wheeled into the hospital or hooked up to an IV. Once she was conscious an E.R. doctor had informed her that he'd cauterized her nose to stop the bleeding and she'd been given a unit of whole blood.
"It doesn't matter what Daddy says. I'm going to stay with Ryder for a while." Her voice sounded as if it didn't belong to her. It was low and raspy.
Karma walked over to the bed where her daughter lay. Clear liquid flowed from a tube and into her veins. She stared at the flawless dark-brown face, as if she were seeing Breanna for the first time, seeing things she hadn't noticed before.
How, she thought, had she missed her daughter's understated beauty? When had she dyed her dark-brown hair raven-black? The nose she'd always thought too short and pug made her appear much younger than she was. High cheekbones, expressive, round, wide-set eyes and her tall, thin body had made her the favorite model of Yves St. Laurent the year she'd turned seventeen. Would Brenna be lying in a hospital bed if she and Langston hadn't forced their daughter to give up modeling?
Reaching over, Karma placed a hand on her daughter's forehead. It was cool to the touch. "I'm going to ask the doctor when I can take you home."
Bree closed her eyes, unable to meet her mother's gaze. "I told you that I'm not going home with you."
A soft gasp escaped Karma's parted lips. "You intend to live with Ryder and that ?"
"I'm going to stay with Ryder until I decide what I want to do with my life."
"I know what you want to do with your life," Karma spat out.
"I didn't know you were clairvoyant," Bree countered hotly.
Karma froze, her eyes widening at the unexpected quip. "You're competing with the other stupid little Hollywood bitches abusing alcohol and drugs. Do you have any idea what an embarrassment you are, Breanna Parker?"
"I thought Ryder was the family's embarrassment," Bree retorted, pushing into a sitting position. Reaching around her body with one arm, she pulled up a pillow to support her shoulders.
"I'd rather have a gay son than a crackhead for a daughter."
Bree closed her eyes again. "Ry, please get her out of here before I forget she's my mother."
Karma straightened and threw up an arm when Ryder reached for her. "Don't touch me!"
"What the hell is going on in here?" Langston Parker stood in the doorway, resplendent in formal dress. "Please, not everyone answer at once," he continued when encountering deafening silence.
"Ask your wife," Ryder said with no emotion in his voice.
Langston's dark gaze shifted from his son to his wife before lingering on his daughter in the hospital bed. He'd been at a fund-raising event for one of his favorite charities when he'd got a 911 page from his son to say that Breanna had been taken to the hospital, only to arrive to find his family at one another's throats.
Tall and powerfully built, Langston reeked of authoritative control, running his record company like a despot while engendering employee loyalty and respect with his straightforward manner and generous spirit. At fifty-five, Langston had achieved everything he'd ever wanted in life, and now all he wanted was to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. He'd dealt with his son coming out of the closet, but what he hadn't been able to accept was Ryder wanting nothing to do with LP Records because he wanted to be a writer. The shock had precipitated his third heart attack within seven years, leading to a quadruple bypass.
It had taken Langston a year to recover fully from the medical procedure, and during his convalescence he'd promised himself that he wouldn't permit anything or anyone to threaten his family's unity or jeopardize his health.
Walking into the room, he gave his wife a reproachful look. He'd only recently got his daughter back, and no matter what Karma proposed or complained about, he didn't intend to lose her again.
He approached the bed, leaned over and pressed a kiss to Bree's forehead. "What happened?"
Bree stared into the deep-set, intense, dark eyes glowing like polished onyx. She'd always believed her father was the most handsome man alive and she still felt that way. His cropped hair was now salt-and-pepper, and in recent years he'd added a mustache and goatee that enhanced the utter masculinity of his face. She knew he'd waited years for Ryder to take over the reins of LP Records, and when Ryder had told him that he was leaving the company the news had devastated Langston. The thought he'd spent thirty-five years building an empire he would eventually relinquish to those who weren't his flesh and blood rankled.