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Justin Cales feared his father was going to have a coronary event as he crumpled the gossip rag in his hand until it was a tight, ink-smeared ball of newsprint before throwing it in the wastebasket with far more force than required.
"Calm down before you hurt yourself, old man," Justin muttered, failing to see what his father was losing his temper over. "It's no big deal. You can barely make out my face anyway and it was a joke. Benny thought it would be funny if"
At that Senator Vernon Cales growled, "Am I laughing? I fail to see what's laughable about the fact that your fool head is stuck between Starr's giant melon breasts."
Justin chuckled at the memory but sobered immediately when he saw his father was really about to lose it. "It was Benny's idea to go to that strip club but we were only there for maybe a half hour before this happened. It was a total joke but"
"But a photographer managed to catch the shot because he sure as hell knew who you were and who you were connected to. Damn it all to hell, Justin! What are you trying to do to this family?"
A familiar resentment rose in his chest that threatened his earlier decision to ride out the storm of his father's anger with a humble attitude. Screw that. The old man could kiss his ass. He hadn't done anything wrongper se. It's not as if he was out whoring and visiting strip clubs all the time. For God's sake, it was one time and they'd been clowning around. "It's always about the family. Let's get real, Dad. It's about your image, not mine."
"I've built a solid political foundation on morals and family values and I'm not about to let you tear it all down with your irresponsible ways. Everyone is toeing the line, but you."
Justin exhaled a short breath, quickly losing interest in the You're-a-Screwup show his father loved to roll out. He'd seen this show before and he didn't much care for the way it ended. "Is this what this meeting is about? If so, I'm going to bounce. I don't need this. It was a bit of harmless fun. There were half a dozen guys doing the same exact thing as me."
"But you're my son." Vernon's tone lowered with finality and there was something in his eyes Justin had never seen before. Hell, maybe the old man was serious this time around. Vernon drew a deep breath as if needing calm to proceed, then returned to his high-back leather chair. "Things are going to change," he announced, sliding paperwork to the forefront and steepling his hands over it. A sense of foreboding followed as Vernon continued. "You're thirty-two years old. It's time to start acting your age and take your responsibilities serious."
Justin rolled his eyes in ill-disguised irritation. This again? "I have a college degree, even a master's degree in business. I think I've fulfilled my debt to your expectations. You need to back off and let me live my life."
His father ignored him and continued undeterred. "When I was your age I was already working my way up the political ladder. It's time you start making your mark, too."
"I'm not interested in politics," Justin said flatly. He hated politics and his father knew it.
"I've decided not to run for my seat in the Senate," Vernon said, shocking Justin and sending a trickle of unease into his gut. He didn't like the general direction of the conversation. Vernon met his stare squarely. "I want you to run in my stead. I want you to be the next Cales New York senator."
"No." Justin sat straighter. "Dad no. What are you doing? You can't be serious." As far as bad jokes went, this one sucked pretty hard. Justin excelled in doing nothing, being highly educated for zero purposeand he liked it that way. He liked hanging out with his over-privileged friends who had trust accounts with more money than some small countries. He fully embraced his bacchanal lifestyle and a career in politics would definitely put an end to those types of shenanigans. He swallowed the spurt of raw panic but before he could launch a suitable protest, his father had begun again.
"I am serious. I've let you dick around too long and that" he pointed to the ball of incriminating evidence in his wastebasket "is proof. Your mother and I have come to a decision regarding your future. You're going to take a monthlong vacation, someplace warm and sunny, where you can appropriately say goodbye to your wild ways. At the end of that month, you will return home where you will immediately clean up your act and start the campaign trail for my seat. Of course, you'll have our full support and resources behind you. I've been assured your candidacy would be looked upon favorably."
"How is that even possible?" he asked, sweat beading his upper lip. "It's not as if I've been the model son, as you've enjoyed pointing out. Who the hell would put their resources behind me as a candidate?"
His father shot him a quelling glance. "Yes, who would? Well, let's just say it helps to have friends in high places. Most times your antics never made it to the press if it could be helped. This time was unfortunate," he said, referencing the stripper episode. "But with some creative handling, we should be able to maneuver around it. However, once your candidacy is announced it's important to avoid any more of these types of incidents. Am I clear?"
Clear? Was his father joking? Not hardly. "I'm not doing this," he said, shaking his head.
"You will." It was the certainty of his father's voice that deepened the chill chasing his spine. Justin felt the walls closing in on him, squeezing out the oxygen in the room.
"No!" Justin jumped from his chair. "I've never harbored any desire to follow you into politics or expressed any interest in current events or world issues. You know this, Dad. Why are you doing this to me?"
"Because it's time you stop thinking about just yourself. The Cales name has been associated with strong politics for generations. I'm not about to let my only son ruin that legacy without a fight."
Suddenly logic calmed his panic. His father couldn't make him do anything. He drew a deep breath and shook his head. "Sorry, Dad. I know I'm letting you down but I'm not about to jump through your hoops just to satisfy some ego stroke for you. I'm not that guy and if you thought I was, you obviously don't know me at all." He turned to leave, finished with the conversation, but his father's voice at his back pulled him around.
"I know who you are and who you can be. Today you're a lazy, spoiled playboy who spends more than he makes and depends on his trust fund to survive. You haven't held a serious job since graduating college and you have a penchant for fine things and expensive pastimes. Oh, son I know quite well who you are right now. But I'm not interested in that person. I'm interested in finding who you can be. And I have a feeling that person is going to be someone worth knowing. So here's the deal You will go on your vacation, leaving tomorrow. Mourn your playboy days and then when you return, you will devote your considerable energy on securing your campaign funds for your candidacy."
"And if I don't?"
Vernon's gaze hardened and Justin knew he wasn't bluffing. "You will be cut off. Permanently."
Justin balked, not quite comprehending what his father was saying. It seemed unbelievable in this day and age, something so medieval as familial extortion would become part of his father's arsenal but as he stared, meeting his father's steady and unflinching gaze, he realized the senator was as serious as a heart attack. "This is bullshit," he finally murmured in a shaky voice, unable to hide his shock. "And beneath you."
"You brought us to this end."
"A little archaic don't you think?" he bit out.
His father shrugged. "Some methods haven't lost their effectiveness no matter their age."
Justin felt betrayed by his own blood. He'd always known his hard-nosed father was a bit of a ruthless bastard when it came to getting what he wanted but he never thought he'd get caught in those deadly crosshairs. "Mom in on this, too?"
"She is agreed."
Swell. There went his only ally. Could he handle life on his own? Away from the safety net of his parents' influence and resources? He liked to think he could but he'd become accustomed to the privileges wealth provided and the idea made him shift uncomfortably. Before this moment, getting a job, having a career had been a back burner priority. Now it seemed paramount if he wanted to survive. He didn't like that feeling. Not at all.
He hated the idea of yielding to his father even more.
Pushy, overbearing jackass. He shoved his hands in his pockets to hide the hard clench of his fists. He needed time to think his way out of this. A month ought to be long enough. So, he'd take a vacation in a tropical paradise on his father's dime all the while figuring out his exit strategy. Sounded doable. He relaxed his fists, drawing air through his tight chest and forced a cool smirk. "A vacation it is, then. But here are my terms if I'm going to give up my life, I want top shelf, five-star accommodations. I want a credit card without a limit and I want you and Mom to leave me alone for the month that I'm mourningas you put itmy playboy ways. No calls, no nagging emails or texts family-free. Got it?"
His father nodded, accepting Justin's terms. He picked up the paperwork on his desk and held it out for Justin to grab. "I anticipated your answeras well as your demandshere are your travel documents, plane ticket and whatnot. You leave at 8:00 a.m. for St. John. Enjoy your vacation, son. I look forward to your return."
Justin accepted the documents, his lips pressed tight.
Go to hell, Dad.
Lilah Bell relieved Celly, Larimar's one real employee, for her lunch break and took her spot behind the front desk of the airy resort she'd known as home since she was old enough to remember. Her grandparents had bought the resort shortly after they'd married and they'd planned to live their lives out among the surf and sand. Well, Grams had accomplished that goal having died from breast cancer ten years ago but Pops was still kicking, even if his mind was quickly losing its sharpness.
Lilah loved Larimar, and the fact that it was in trouble caused a flutter of real panic to steal her breath. No, it was going to work out, she told herself fiercely. Her oldest sister, Lora, had come homeand fallen in love with her former arch nemesis, Heath Cannonand Lindy, Lilah's twin, made frequent visits home with her new fiance, Gabe Weston, and for the first time in a long time, Lilah wasn't suffocating under a blanket of depression.
All in all, things were looking up.
Now, if only everyone would stop treating her as if she were going to break.
Apparently, one suicide attempt was enough to put you on permanent mental health watch.
She smiled in spite of the topic, noticing Maho, her adopted cat, winding his way between her legs, meowing for her attention. She picked him up and cradled the cat like a baby.
"Lilah, what did I tell you about that cat?" Lora said, entering from the private section of the resort, wearing a frown. "I know it's a lost cause to ask that you find a different home for him, but at the very least, please don't keep him at the front desk. What if our guests come in with allergies?"
Lilah shrugged. She used to worry about her sisters' approval or disapproval, as it were, but not anymore. She knew there were bigger issues to worry about on any given day and potential dander allergens for guests was not one of them. "When is Lindy flying in?" she asked, pressing a quick kiss on the top of the cat's head before gently setting him on the floor.
"She had to reschedule her flight," Lora said. "Something about Carys's school and not being able to get her independent study approved. Sorry, Li, but she said she'll be on a plane as soon as possible."
"It's okay," Lilah said, smiling to hide her disappointment and her mild irritation that everyone felt the need to tiptoe around her feelings. It wasn't as if she were going to fling herself into the sea with every drop of bad news. She twisted a hank of her long hair and secured it to the top of her head in a messy knot, then busied herself with straightening the desk. "It isn't that big of a deal."
"I know, but you miss her so much when she's gone. I wish I could understand that twin thing but well, it's a mystery to me."
Lilah's smile widened at her sister. To look at Lora today was to see a woman transformed by the power of love. Corny as it sounded, it was true. Lora had once been a royal bitch to put it lightly. Now, she was still Type Awhich rubbed against Lilah's naturally creative and flighty Type B personalitybut at least now she didn't make small children cry with a look from those witchy blue eyes. "It's okay. Besides, now that she's engaged to the CEO of a multimillion dollar company, her visits aren't so few and far between."
"Gabe has been good for Lindy," Lora agreed. "And not just because of his frequent-flier miles."
Lilah chuckled. "Yes. He's been pretty good. I wish I could've seen her first play. I'm sure she was amazing."
Since moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Lindy had hooked up with a theater group that actually appreciated her acting talents and not just her pretty face and body. For that, Lilah was inordinately grateful. She'd always been uncomfortable with the lifestyle Lindy had been immersed in while living in L.A.
"Are you thinking of going out tonight?" Lora asked, switching gears.
Her tone was innocent enough but the concern beneath the innocuous query smacked of trepidation. Lilah withheld her annoyance, knowing her sister's concern was coming from an honest place but it raked against her raw nerves all the same.
"I'm just wondering Thought maybe I'd go with you," Lora added, trying to offer a plausible excuse.
Lilah gave her sister a knowing look. "You haven't been interested in going out in years but suddenly you want to spend a night out on the town?"
"That's not true," Lora protested, going so far as to seem wounded. "I didn't have time to go out before now I do."
Lilah sighed. It was pointless to argue. Lora wasn't going to admit she was being overprotective. "I was thinking of going to the Rush Tide. There's going to be a live band tonight. Reggae."
Lora tried not to wrinkle her nose but Lilah knew her sister hated reggae almost as much as she hated jazz. Finally, Lora gave up on the false smile she had frozen in place and broke down to admit, "No, you know I hate reggae. Gives me a headache."
Lilah smiled and glanced away, privately relieved. It wasn't that she didn't love her sister, but since the whole embarrassing incident happened a few months ago, she'd been trying to get her head on straight and so far, she was succeeding. But when her sisters handled her with kid gloves, it made her want to do something recklessly stupid. And Lilah knew that wasn't a healthy impulse.