Read an Excerpt
Copyright © Angel Payne and Victoria Blue 2017. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
Fashion icon. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
Even if all I saw outside the window of San Diego’s most exclusive couture bridal shop was a parade of last year’s jeans and ugly Christmas sweaters.
Ugh. The humanity.
I turned away from the horror show, sighing as I stopped in front of a mirror to readjust my beanie. It was a bold choice of accessory, running the risk of tumbling from damn-she’s-fabulous to oh-no-she-didn’t inside five seconds. The trick was the backside dangle. If that fell right, you were golden.
I sat on a couch and thumbed impatiently through a magazine. China patterns, honeymoon locales, reception favors, more china patterns…
I threw the thing down, pretty damn sure I felt a migraine coming on.
For the love of Louboutin, how long did putting on one wedding dress take? Okay, so she was my sister. Sort of. Technically, my soon-to-be sister-in-law—even if only a handful of people on the planet knew that. I wasn’t sure I wanted the news expanded past those boundaries either. It had been sheer hell working out the bullshit surrounding the family everyone did know about.
No. Today wasn’t a day for moping about Mother. Or the way she’d used my birth like a bargaining chip. Or the fact that she’d kept that truth from me for twenty-six years—and not felt a moment of remorse once I did find out.
Christ almighty. What was Claire doing in there, sewing the damn thing by herself? Since there were three attendants with her, that was the mystère du jour.
“Claire!” I repeated. “Honestly, I’m growing roots from standing in the same—”
My derision died as my doe-eyed stepsister stepped out of the small room, silk and lace trailing behind her in a wave of tulle and princess-bride splendor. If I were a weaker woman, which I most certainly was not, I would cop to a lump in my throat at the vision standing before me, eyes aglow, dimples bracketing a shy smile, red hair tumbling into the gown’s regal neckline.
Holy hell. Wait until Killian saw this. He thought he was head over heels before? Brother of mine, prepare your gut for a real train collision.
“Claire Bear. Wow.”
It was all I could manage. And, no, the tightness at the base of my throat had nothing to do with it.
The sales bitches beamed like they’d just birthed the fucking Baby New Year. They had this one in the bag and knew it—the exact reason why I pulled a full ice princess, glaring just enough to let them know the real bitch would come next. In an instant, they rushed forward to fuss around Claire once more.
This dress was made for you, Miss Montgomery.
Mr. Stone’s eyes are going to fall out of his head.
Amazing. Simply amazing.
It went for fifteen minutes, one blah blah blah after another. I tuned out, my stomach turning on the latte I’d subbed for breakfast this morning.
This would never be me.
I would never walk down the aisle into the controlling clutches of a man. Ha—I didn’t even have a father to walk me down the aisle. Like it was even a big deal anymore. Until ten months ago, I’d written off the dad angle from my life, with no reason to disbelieve what Mother always asserted—that my father had run out on us and didn’t deserve a moment more of my attention. That all changed in a Chicago hospital room, where Josiah Stone had confessed to something much different—before taking his last breath.
Never knowing that his death had also killed off one of the most enduring fantasies of my life.
That somehow, my father would realize what a huge mistake he’d made in running from me—and return to embrace me with tears of grateful reunion. He’d tell me he didn’t care about my makeup or clothes, that he only wanted to know what I was really like, on the inside, before sweeping me off to his mountain cabin, where—
Like going any further down that road was going to help right now.
Thank you, Mommie Dearest.
I officially hated that woman.
No, you don’t.
Hmmm. I was pretty sure I did. Though I was too damn afraid of her to ever say it to her face, which was…unnerving. At really deep levels.
“Margaux? Are you okay?”
Claire’s enormous brown eyes were fixed on me through the mirror. This chick didn’t miss a beat with her attention or her concern, which pounded the unnerving right down into disturbed.
Christ, I was a mess lately. And the kicker? I was actually aware of it. Puke. Life had been much simpler when all I thought about in the morning was digging into someone else’s dirt—and how fabulous I’d look while helping them with it.
“Have you seen the back of this one, Claire?” I flashed more daggers at the bitches. “Did any of you think to show her the back? It’s stunning, Bear. Truly.”
My diversion tactic worked, at least on the sales flock. They flurried again, turning Claire so she could see, erupting into more gibberish about the gown and its perfect fit, flare and hem line. But damn it if my sister didn’t keep her eyes fixed on me, silently—and unashamedly—trying to probe. I finally rolled my eyes and gave her the Margaux salute, jabbing my middle finger when the attendants weren’t looking. She suppressed a giggle but that didn’t fool me. She’d be all over me the minute we were alone—because that was simply the kind of girl she was. Observant. Intuitive. And caring to the point where it was her damn super power.
Lucky, lucky me.
The morning from hell transitioned into the afternoon. Dress after dress. Perfection upon perfection. Okay, some not so much. The lavender one had to go. Who the hell wore a lavender wedding dress? I suspected Claire tried that one on to see if I was still paying attention. Thank God I’d paused between emails, which had become my new obsession lately. Now that I was on the full-time roster with Stone Global, I needed to be serious about shining there.
The idea of continuing on with Mother—with Andrea—had seemed impossible when we returned from Chicago. After all her secrets had been unveiled, I couldn’t even stand being in the same room with her. Even a simple explanation might have helped, though I never gave in to the illusion of receiving a full apology. That kind of thing happened in worlds where unicorns descended from heaven to save humanity from the zombie apocalypse.
She’d never come. Never called. Never said another word. And with her silence, had wrecked whatever connection we’d had, however dysfunctional. I sent a formal letter declaring a leave of absence, but she and I both knew I was never coming back. Too many lies, too much deception. I was tired of Andrea Asher’s games and refused to be a pawn in them anymore. Or so I told myself on the good days.
I’d barely had a chance to realize that woman of leisure wasn’t a role I enjoyed playing, when Killian approached with the opportunity to stay on permanently with Stone Global’s expanded PR department. It made perfect sense from a couple of angles. The Asher and Associates team had already been working exclusively with SGC, so everything already felt like my home turf. And as they say, blood is thicker than water. Or did it form the ties that bind? Or coagulate if you used hot honey? Whatever. It was irony at its best, however you phrased it. Killian, only a Stone by adoption, hired me, the real Stone, for the family business. To add a ha atop of that ha, Killian’s lineage was now full public knowledge—and mine still a carefully guarded secret.
Because I demanded it that way.
I’d had a first-row seat for the media’s last feeding frenzy about Stone family news. It had driven Killian Stone, one of the finest men I knew, into months of hiding. Well, last time I checked, my name wasn’t Shark Chum. I’d be damned if I’d voluntarily splash into that same tank.
When Killian opened SGC’s San Diego branch and brought me on, my friendship—and unique sisterhood—with Claire was forged deeper. Sure, we had less in common than most typical besties, but somehow it worked in our favor. With unanimous backing by the board, Killian named her the director of the new public relations department, with me as her tight wing-woman. She was the first to admit that she still had a lot to learn, so my experience had come into play in ways that made me feel, for the first time in a long time, like my contributions mattered.
So far, it had been a pretty cool gig.
It wasn’t like we didn’t keep tabs on what was happening over in Mother’s realm. Talia, Chad and Michael had stayed on with Asher and Associates, since there were only so many positions to fill at SGC without displacing the very capable people who already occupied them. So, the five of us got together on a regular basis to talk shop—in a fly-over, let’s-not-mention-names kind of way—and to shoot the breeze or some darts, or often both.
Yes. I just said that. I now went to bars with dartboards. And even—wait for it—jukeboxes. Maybe I’d taken a sip or two of beer, as well. The designer shit only. Something handcrafted or microbrewed.
A girl was capable of crazy shit when given the throw-down by a lopsided grin and a pair of dazzling hazel eyes. Okay, fine—and biceps the size of melons. And legs like a damn gladiator. Hey, Perry Ellis could only hide so much—especially when it was fitted over the fine, fine form of one Michael Adam Pearson…