Sure, winning the lottery allows Zoe Ferris to quit her job as a cutthroat corporate attorney, but no amount of cash will clear her conscience about the way her firm treated the O’Leary family in a wrongful death case. So she sets out to make things right, only to find gruff, grieving Aiden O’Leary doesn’t need—or want—her apology. He does, however, need something else from her. Something Zoe is more than willing to give, if only to ease the pain in her heart, a sorrow she sees mirrored in his eyes . . .
Aiden doesn’t know what possesses him to ask his family’s enemy to be his fake fiancée. But he needs a bride if he hopes to be the winning bid on the campground he wants to purchase as part of his beloved brother’s legacy. Skilled in the art of deception, the cool beauty certainly fits the bill. Only Aiden didn’t expect all the humor and heart Zoe brings to their partnership—or the desire that runs deep between them. Now he’s struggling with his own dark truth—that he’s falling for the very woman he vowed never to forgive.
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I choose a Wednesday morning to draw my first guilt slip.
That's far enough away from the night I came up with the idea to give me perspective, but not so far that I seem like I'm avoiding it. I try not to be weird about it, but the slip-drawing does take on this ritualistic quality, even though I'm wearing monkey pajamas and an antiaging face mask. The worst thing about leaving my job since the lottery win has been what's happened to my days — or, I guess, what's not happened to them. Before, when I was working, my days were so regimented that they were almost comical; once I asked my assistant to set a timer every time I went to pee to see how many minutes my bladder was costing me (too many minutes, so I cut back on coffee). Now I spend a lot of time drifting around, wondering what to make of my time, wondering whether I'll ever go back to some kind of work, wondering how I managed to become the kind of person who isn't working at all, who hasn't worked in well over half a year.
But the guilt jar, much as it contains my most painful flaws, is giving me a sense of purpose I haven't felt in a while, and so I put it in the center of my dining room table and take a seat, setting my mug of tea in front of me. There's a familiarity to this setup, sort of like the Sunday mornings I'd get up early and work on briefs before meeting Kit and Greer, and I try to let that familiarity blanket the contrasting feeling of unease. The steam rising out of my mug isn't helping, though — the vase is starting to take on magic cauldron-like qualities. Maybe one of those slips is going to fly out and hit me in the face.
I take a deep breath, cut the bullshit, and reach in.
And ... well. Not that a lottery winner is going to get a lot of sympathy here, but rotten luck that I couldn't have drawn the Starbucks barista first. Instead, I've drawn a name — or, rather, two names: Robert and Kathleen O'Leary.
I saw a lot of unhappy people in conference room four, but I don't think I'll ever forget Robert and Kathleen O'Leary. Their settlement mediation was the last I'd sat in on, and I like to believe that even if I hadn't won the jackpot that night, it still would've been my last day at Willis-Hanawalt. That I would have said to myself, Enough is enough, and never gone back again. They'd been gray haired and slight, Mrs. O'Leary barely over five feet, her husband only a couple of inches taller — though between the two of them, he'd been the more diminished, the more fragile. Mrs. O'Leary's eyes had been puffy and red, but focused; she tracked the conversation with a sad, knowing acuity — well aware her lawyer was outmatched, well aware that whatever money she walked away with, she'd never get what she really wanted.
An admission of guilt.
But Mr. O'Leary — he'd barely been more than a bodily presence. At one point, I'd wondered if he'd had a stroke, or some other kind of catastrophic medical event that kept him from moving or speaking. I still don't know if he had. But I do know that he cried: silent tears that tracked down his cheeks and dripped off his jawline onto the conference table.
"What a performance," my boss had muttered, when the O'Learys had finally gone.
I swallow thickly, rubbing the slip of paper between my fingers. It's so uncomfortable thinking about those days when we were doing the settlements, thinking about how clear I'd been that something was off, thinking about how many opportunities I'd had to say something. And yet I think about those days a lot, too much, when — as my guilt jar is reminding me — I should be doing something.
And so I do: I grab my laptop, spend a few minutes getting the information I need. I take off the mask, I shower, I dress carefully. When I walk out to my car, I'm doing so with purpose. When I drive, I keep the radio off, so I can focus, so I can keep that little slip of paper in my mind.
The O'Leary house is a small, brick rambler, tidy at first glance, but there are signs of neglect — the two clay pots on the front porch are full of leafless, tangled twigs, the bushes that line the bed underneath the shutters are shaggy, a few aggressive limbs of growth reaching up past the windows. The left side of the iron railing leading up to the front porch is listing to the side, two newspapers still in their bags beneath it.
I think, briefly and nonsensically, about whether I'll pick up those papers when I knock on the door, whether I'll have to start by saying, Oh, I just picked up these papers that were here, and it's this stray, silly thought that finally gives me pause, pause that I should have had about ten thousand times before I got here: if they aren't picking up their papers, maybe they aren't around, or maybe they don't open the door for anyone; maybe they don't want to be bothered.
They wouldn't want to be bothered, not by me of all people. Even if they don't remember me, I'll have to explain in order to apologize. I'll either be poking at a festering wound or reopening one that can only be, even under the best of circumstances, barely healed. I grip my steering wheel, so hard that it hurts my fingers, in plain, simple frustration at myself. The real me — the smart, sharp, ambitious me, the me who proofreads everything six times, reading both forward and backward, the me who practiced presentations until notes were a distraction rather than an aid — that me would've thought of this. Instead, I've come over here thinking only of my own guilt, my stupid internet jar, and my stupid, lazy sense of purposelessness driving me.
If I really mean to make up to people, I have to do better than ambush apologies that they may not even want to hear.
My hand is back on the key, ready to turn, ready to back out and go home where I can rethink this.
But then the front door opens.
It's not Mr. or Mrs. O'Leary there, that's for damn sure, because this is about six feet two of muscled, fully alert dude, his thick, dark brown hair messy, his square jaw stubbled.
And he definitely does not look happy to see me, though I suppose he'd have that in common with the O'Learys.
It's still possible to turn the key, wave an apology like I've found myself at the wrong house or something. But there's something that stops me — something about the way this man stands so still, watching me, and something about that heavy fatigue I feel, all the time, pulling at my shoulders. Maybe this man knows something about the O'Learys. Maybe he can help me get some of this fucking weight off.
So I take my keys from the ignition, inhale, exhale — even doing the noisy puff of breath that my yoga teacher is always suggesting — and get out of the car. My heel wobbles a bit on the cracked pavement, and I steady myself on the top of the car door before shutting it behind me, smoothing the front of my dress, which is another terrible choice I made this morning. It's a gray herringbone, sleek and tailored, a jewel neckline, and sharply cut cap sleeves. It's a dress I'd wear to work, a dress that makes me look as cool and detached as I probably did on that day. It appalls me how little I thought this through, what a massive, selfish mistake I made this morning. I think of making a new slip, later: Bothered a man at his home, because of my narcissism.
"Hello," I manage, surprised that my voice sounds very much like it always does when I meet new people, which is to say: it sounds detached and professional, when I came here to be anything but that. When I came here to show them that I do, in fact, have a heart.
A heart that is beating so fast that I suspect this man can see it pulsing in my neck.
"What can I do for you?" he asks, and however harmless the question is, however polite seeming, it is clear he does not mean it to seem so. His voice is gruff, clipped. He stands, feet slightly apart, arms crossed over his chest, like he's here working security.
"I was looking for Robert and Kathleen O'Leary," I begin. "But I believe I've — "
Before I can finish that, before I can say, I believe I've made a mistake, he cuts me off. "They moved."
It's him that's made the mistake now, because I've lain awake so many nights wondering about what has happened to the O'Learys, to other families I ran mediation for, that I am now desperate to know more. Did they take the money, buy a home somewhere beautiful, somewhere away from the place that must remind them of terrible grief? Do they live a better life? Have they been able to move on, at all? That little shred of information — they moved — makes me curious enough to keep pressing.
"Do you happen to know where they went?"
"I do." It seems like — I don't know what. It seems like he has made himself bigger somehow. He is looking at me like I am something unpleasant he stepped in.
"I guess I'll have to be more specific with my questions," I say, annoyed now. My concern is for the O'Learys, and this man is becoming an unnecessary roadblock.
"Guess so," he grinds out, but then he shifts slightly, his hands tightening around where they are crossed, at the join of his elbows. And then he says, "I know who you are. And believe me, they would not want you to find them."
I swallow, once, then again, suddenly feeling hot and sick. I should've had something to eat before I came, something light that would settle my nervous stomach. My eyes lower automatically, an old habit that I'd fully eradicated in my adult life, when I made my living off being completely unflappable. I am torn between wanting to ask how he knows who I am and wanting to turn back and get in my car, to pretend this morning never happened.
"I'm their son," he says, and my eyes snap up, taking him in with renewed interest. My first thought is automatic, innocuous: How can this — this giant — be the son of the short, ruddy-skinned couple from conference room four? My second is more painful: their surviving son.
"I apologize for bothering you," I say.
"You didn't," he says, firmly. The sentiment is so clear: I am not worth him being bothered.
I offer a small nod, turn my back to return to my car, to put this entire mistake behind me. A guilt jar. What a fucking joke. What a perfect encapsulation of the worthless person I've become. I feel so strangely unwell; it's hot out here, the still-muggy heat of a southern September.
When I have my shaking hand on the car door, he speaks again. "If you have business with them, you need to take it up with me. I don't want you trying to contact them. They've been through enough."
And haven't you? He was your brother, after all, I think, surprising myself.
I turn back to face him, my spine straightening, even though I am desperate to fold myself back into the safety of my car. "I came to apologize. That's it. I can see it was ..." I have to pause, take a deep breath in response to his forbidding expression. "I can see that was a mistake."
"Can't imagine your firm would like that."
"I don't work for them anymore," I answer, as though this might magically change his opinion of me.
"I know. I heard you came into some money."
If it was possible for me to feel sicker, I didn't know until now. Kit, Greer, and I had all agreed on privacy when our numbers came up. The state required a public disclosure of identification, but the jackpot had been comparatively small, the most interesting part of the win being the grainy security video of the three of us buying the ticket, which I'd buried as best I could with some threatening legalese. Greer and I had helped shield Kit — who'd had bigger reasons for keeping it quiet — by doing the small, state-lottery-required press conference, which didn't even make the news, and other than a brief clipping in the local paper, which had identified us by first initial and last name only, we'd flown under the radar. He would've had to go looking.
"Listen, I came to apologize to your family," I say, the effort to keep my voice steady almost Herculean. "That apology extends to you. I can see you're not interested, and I'm sorry for that too. I'll leave you alone. I would appreciate the same courtesy." It's a warning. If this guy has been sniffing around my private life, he'll find out there are limits to my guilty conscience. I don't deserve to be stalked, for God's sake.
He makes a derisive noise, a half snarl. "Believe me, I don't care to know anything more about you than I have to. Your former secretary told me. Without prompting."
Ugh, Janet. Probably because I forgot her birthday (2x, per my guilt jar). And made her time my bathroom breaks. Still, my brow furrows in curiosity, wondering what dealings he's had with my former firm. He'd certainly never been involved with the Aaron O'Leary settlement before. But I stifle this curiosity; it seems my sense of what's appropriate has picked this moment to return. Would that it had a better sense of timing.
"Well," I say. "Again. I am sorry for bothering you."
"Are you on some kind of apology tour?"
Good God, this man cuts like a knife, doesn't he? Or am I really that transparent?
"Something like that," I manage.
"For your next stop, I'd say show up in something other than a Mercedes."
I am torn, at this moment, between two instincts. The first is to fight back against this man's ire, to cut him down to size, to push back against his scorn. That Mercedes is four years old, after all, bought not with lottery winnings but with my own salary, the salary I earned for billing the most hours in the entire firm in my first year on the job.
But the second? The second is to stand there and take it. To invite more of it, in fact, because — because in some sick, dark corner of me, it feels good to have his scorn. It feels like I earned it as much as I earned that Mercedes. Maybe more, because, after all, I question every single billable hour I worked for Willis-Hanawalt. It wouldn't feel easy. But it would feel like what I deserve.
There's a long pause while I stand, frozen, caught between these two instincts, while he stares right through me, pinning me to the car with that gaze. In another context, I would find this man so sexy as to make me weak in the knees. But right now, I'm just ... weirdly, uncomfortably weak in the knees, fuzzy headed and still overly warm. I have a distant memory, suddenly, of the senior partner at Willis-Hanawalt coaching me the first time I went before a judge. "Whatever you do, don't stand there with your knees locked," she'd said. "You'll faint dead away from the nerves."
I think I set a hand to my forehead. I think I hear this man say, "Are you all right?"; I think he moves closer to me.
But then, everything goes gray around the edges.
And then, it all goes blissfully, forgivingly dark.
When I come to, my first sight is of lace curtains, yellowed but beautiful, delicate and fluttering before an open window. I jerk up, instinctively, and hear the man's voice, lower now, no trace of anger. "You're all right," he says.
I'm inside the rambler, sitting in a dusty rose velveteen chair that is both hideously ugly and incredibly comfortable. "Oh God," I mumble. "Was I out for long?"
"Maybe two minutes." He's kneeling in front of me, a black duffel next to him. "My name is Aiden. I'm a paramedic. Do you know where you are?" I stare down at him, bewildered at this new information. Aiden. Paramedic. Probably carried me in here. But I realize I need to answer, if I don't want things to get more awkward.
"Ah — I'm assuming I'm in your house?"
He nods, sets his hand gently on my wrist. "Good. Do you know what day it is?"
I tell him, respond to his question about the year, the approximate time. He looks so different now, his face placid, his body curled into a protective posture at my feet, though he only touches me in that one spot, one warm hand on my wrist, two fingers touching the soft inside of it. Taking my pulse, I realize, but he presses on with his questions.
"Do you know how you got here?"
I can't help but smirk. "Well. It started with this jar," I say, but my mouth flattens when he looks up at me, quick and concerned. "No — no, I mean, sorry. That was a joke. I got here because I was making an inadequate, ill-considered apology in your driveway. And I guess I fainted."
"All right. Is it okay with you if I check you over a bit?"
"I think I'm fine," I say, scooting forward a bit in the chair. "I didn't eat today, and I — I think I was a bit nervous."
Excerpted from "Luck of the Draw"
Copyright © 2018 Kate Clayborn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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