Read an Excerpt
Copyright © Angel Payne&Victoria Blue 2016. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
“Have a seat.”
I tried to be diplomatic about it. Trey’s stoned eyes and clammy skin were evidence enough of how he’d tried to self-medicate the nightmare away last night. But this mess—his mess—wasn’t going away any time soon. I’d closed the shades, blocking out the panoramic view of the river and skyline, to force him to see it. All ten monitors on my office wall blared the headlines from the major news carrier websites.
Stone’s At It Again—Times Two
Throwing Stones? Looks Like He Did
Stones, Sex, and Politics—They Really Do Mix
Senators’ Daughters? He’ll Take Two, Please—At Once
Oh, Trey! Come and Play the Washington Way!
The titles progressed in creativity from there.
Trey didn’t sit. Instead, while taking a surly trip to the sideboard, he snarled, “Turn that crap off.”
I parked my ass against my desk and braced my legs. “Not happening.”
“Where the hell’s all your booze?”
“Forget it. Also not happening.”
“All you have here is coffee.”
“Because it’s nine in the morning.” I glanced at the monitors again and clenched my jaw. A blonde and a brunette this time. One of them was still in her school uniform. The other had waved hello to eighteen just last week. Yes, that was our single ray of hope. At least one of the girls was ‘legal.’
“I hate coffee.”
“Drink it. You’re going to need it.”
“Good. It’ll save me the money from having your stomach pumped.”
Trey hurled the coffee mug, thankfully still empty, past my head and into one of the monitors. “You know what? Fuck you, Killian!”
The hatred he flung from those bright eyes, now visible through a tangle of hair, hadn’t changed since we were kids. Neither had the stake of sorrow it drove into my gut. But unlike then, I wasn’t willing to share my Lego for a chance at his love. Because since then, I’d learned it wouldn’t make a difference. How’d the ditty go? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I could work with that.
“Sorry,” I drawled, “you’re not my type, brother. Besides, I’d have thought you were a little weary of fucking by now.”
“Nice,” Trey sneered. “I see the asshole factor of this office is seeping into you with no problem.”
“Probably true. But right now, my ‘asshole factor’ is keeping your ass from being nicknamed ‘gerbil bitch’ by prisoner two-fifty-six before dinner tonight. So sit.”
Watching the color drain from his pretty-boy cheeks was an odd relief. Maybe the dumb shit had started to comprehend how much trouble he was really in. He finally dropped into one of the room’s new conference chairs. The white leather didn’t do anything for his pallor.
Against my better instincts, I gave in to a moment of sympathy and sat across from him. Sympathy? That proved it—I had to be five kinds of fucked-up. His trip down Idiot Avenue was costing market share for Stone Global by the minute. My lunch with the Melbourne investors, carefully orchestrated for the wow factor of the sitting at the chef’s table at Alinea, would have an appetizer course of paparazzi flashbulbs. My real workday would end long after midnight.
But the way Trey’s hands shook, dragging through his hair, ripped my goddamn gut out.
“So how long is this shit gonna take? I’ve got plans for Mardi Gras, Kil. I’m supposed to leave tomorrow.”
So much for compassion. I surged to my feet. “You know the term jailbait, Trey? They call it that for a reason. You slept with a pair of senators’ daughters.”
“No.” The protest was as snide as the Mardi Gras hall pass request. “I slept with one senator’s daughter. The legal one.”
“So she brought her friend along for fun?”
“Ashley’s a curious kid! She wanted to watch.”
“In her bra and school skirt? With the movie option going on her phone?”
“Her sweater made her hot. And she wanted to capture everything as a memento.”
I gave in to pinching the bridge of my nose. It wasn’t a move I indulged in often, knowing Trey and Lance loathed its similarity to Father’s signature stress pose, but right now I prayed it made Trey’s goddamn eyes bleed.
“Memento,” I repeated. “You really believed that?”
Mirth gleamed in my brother’s eyes. “You want the real answer or the one we’re gonna fork over to the PR department?”
I almost gave in to the urge to laugh. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“Come on, Kil. Of course I do. Hell, I get Christmas cards every year from the team down in PR. With the bonuses they make because of me, they’re buying cars for their kids and taking vacations to Bora Bora.”
“Better tell them to research economy models and a few days in a forest yurt.”
I leveled my stare, hard and unyielding, across the room. “You haven’t just spilled the milk this time, Trey. This is a world-class oil slick, meaning things are going to get stickier before they get better.” I stopped there. He didn’t have to be told the entire story. Not yet, at least. I still had trouble believing it myself. Despite Senator Wooten’s enraged call for a press conference later today, no doubt designed to paint Trey as a predatory pervert, could ‘little’ Emily Wooten have actually been acting with the full green light from her father? I’d turned down the housing development deal from Wooten’s cronies over a year ago. It had looked like beneficial low-cost housing on the outside, but the structures wouldn’t have lasted through their first exposure to a brutal Chicago winter.
It was very possible that Wooten had done his homework and unearthed the weakness in Stone Global’s massive hull. And now we had an oil slick.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Trey demanded.
I folded my arms and stated, “No in-house PR. Industrial-sized slicks require big guns for cleanup. Andrea Asher is on her way from California and she’s bringing her best team with her.” I checked my watch. “We have five hours until they arrive. Great timing. They’ll get here just before Wooten gets up on his soapbox.”
“Fucking great.” Trey looked like a man on his way to the gallows again. “Should I order beer and corn nuts?”
“No beer,” I snapped.
I rose and crossed to the door that led to my private bathroom. “Sounds like a perfect temperature for your shower. Wash your hair and shave too. Then get some goddamn sleep. I’ve had Britta pull out the sofa bed in the anteroom for you.”
Trey closed the door on me with a furious whomp. Again, nothing I wasn’t used to. The filthier pieces of our family dynamic took up a lot of space under our rug. It was simply my job to carry a very big broom. The task had always been manageable, but I was smart enough to know when to ask for help. I was also smart enough to seek the best, and that meant Asher and Associates. Though it was the first time I’d used the woman’s number, I wasn’t saving the digits to speed dial. This effort would be massive and expensive, and I expected this PR dream team to put the fear of God into Trey at the same time they commanded his reputation to rise up, be healed and walk from the grave. After they performed that small miracle, we could all live happily ever after on our respective sides of the country.
And as long as they didn’t discover the darkest, dirtiest secrets under the family rug, we’d all get along fine.
“You’re going down.” I threw the taunt at Chad as we deplaned. Sure, we were teammates, but that didn’t mean a little good-natured competition wasn’t in order. Besides, traditions were sacred, and this one had sprung to life on one of our trips over a year ago. Points were assigned for varying degrees of horror experienced during our coach class flights—a game we used to smile through the pain. Or acknowledge our masochistic sides. There was a difference, right?
The answer could wait. I finally had the drop on Mr. Chad Lerner, my geek-cute yet all-too-cocky teammate. I was sure of it this time.
“No damn way.” Chad laughed and readjusted his new Kliik eyeglasses as we strolled the jet way to the terminal. “Did you see the nightmare I was stuck with? You’re delusional to think you’re winning this one, little girl.”
From several feet behind us, Michael joined his laugh with Chad’s. He knew why we teased each other, though he’d been so far back in the plane, we didn’t know if he was still in today’s running. I glanced to where his head of thick gold waves appeared over the sea of other passengers. From this distance, the guy could be mistaken for Ryan Reynolds, especially when the top half of his handsome face became animated by a gloating waggle of brows.
I volleyed with a deep pout. “Damn.” The guy racked up automatic points for being stuck in the last five rows of the plane. Throw in a screaming kid or a gossipy seatmate and he’d have this sewn up, at least for today. Our final teammate, Talia Perizkova, was scheduled to join us in a few days, after wrapping up a job for the firm down in New Orleans.
Our little competition never included the other two members of the team, because they always sat in first class while we were herded to coach with the other cattle. Andrea was the owner of the leading PR fix-it firm in the nation, so she never sat in coach. Neither did her princess-zilla daughter, Margaux.
Okay, maybe the princess-zilla thing was overkill. Margaux had been my classmate at USD, even my pseudo-roomie for a couple of months, and I remembered a few people who’d strained to see her softer side despite the friendship-through-intimidation routine that’d served her well through life. I’d personally given up on the quest halfway through sophomore year, especially after the events of senior year, but that had been three years ago. Maybe it was time to give her a fresh chance.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
We passed the plane’s flight crew as we entered the terminal. The attendant who’d been serving the first-class cabin wore a tear-stricken gaze, gripping a wine glass rimmed with Margaux’s signature berry lip stain.
While giving the girl a sympathetic smile, I prayed Margaux had limited herself to one glass of wine before accompanying her mother to one of the most important meetings in Asher and Associates’ history.
There was no sign of Andrea and Margaux at baggage claim. They were likely outside already, watching as Stone Global’s driver loaded their bags into the company’s limo. That meant Michael, Chad and I would have to postpone a final points tally while hurrying through baggage claim then hustling our asses to the curb.
Watching the carousel vomit luggage was strangely calming. The thunks of the pieces as they touched down were predictable and steady, the last of life’s elements I could count on for the next few months. We were headed into a public relations DEFCON One situation. Trey Stone was a monumental embarrassment to his family’s company. Before the plane tickets had been purchased for Chicago, we’d all agreed this newest fiasco was likely a scrape on the surface of what the playboy was capable of. Experience had shown us how the drill went in situations like these. They usually turned worse before they got better.
Trey had two brothers, as well. Lance, eleven months behind him, was the dream-prone artist. The youngest was Killian, Josiah Stone’s hard-ass heir apparent as ruler of the empire—and the face that flashed into a million women’s minds in the greater Chicago area every night when they closed their eyes to sleep. The men’s labels meant nothing. We’d throw open their closets of secrets, too. Yank up their rugs until no dust ball or spider web was concealed anymore.