Table of Contents The Internet Giant Copyright Dedication The Internet Giant GET A FREE BOOK! A Note About Reading Order Chapter One - Mia Chapter Two - Mia Chapter Three - Mia Chapter Four - Onyx Chapter Five - Mia Chapter Six - Mia Chapter Seven - Onyx Chapter Eight - Mia Chapter Nine - MIa Chapter Ten - Onyx Chapter Eleven - Mia Chapter Twelve - Mia Chapter Thirteen - Onyx Chapter Fourteen - Mia Chapter Fifteen - Mia Chapter Sixteen - Onyx Chapter Seventeen - Onyx Chapter Eighteen - Mia Chapter Nineteen - Mia Chapter Twenty - Mia Chapter Twenty-One - Mia Chapter Twenty-Two - Onyx Chapter Twenty-Three - Mia Chapter Twenty-Four - Mia Chapter Twenty-Five - Mia Chapter Twenty-Six - Onyx Chapter Twenty-Seven - Mia Chapter Twenty-Eight - Mia Chapter Twenty-Nine - Onyx Chapter Thirty - Mia Chapter Thirty-One - Mia Chapter Thirty-Two - Onyx Want to know what happens next? Sneak Peek: The Philanthropist Chapter One - Jamie Shit You Should Know
THE BURNING OFFER is the first book in my “Trevor’s Harem” series — a hot and suspenseful billionaire’s game of tested limits and forbidden temptations that’s like nothing you’ve ever read before. It normally sells for $2.99, but I’d like to give you a FREE copy. Just click the link below to get it!
http://aubreyparker.net/aubreyfb/ THANK YOU FOR READING! Aubrey Parker
A NOTE ABOUT READING ORDER
All of the books in the Trillionaire Boys’ Club series are meant to be read as standalone novels. That’s why I haven’t numbered the books: the number really doesn’t matter much for most readers, and I don’t want to imply that it does. In each book, you’ll read the story of one of the Club’s members and the woman he comes to love. The romance is self-contained and does not require knowledge of earlier books. However, some readers will want to read the books in the order I wrote them because behind each book’s love story, there is a slowly-building master plot. You don’t have to worry about this “big arc” to appreciate or enjoy any individual book at all, but you may want to see that slow build as it originally unfolded. If that’s the case, you’ll want to start with The Connector — the story of the Club’s founder, Nathan Turner. The suggested reading order for all of my books — including the Trillionaire Boys’ Club series — is on my website here. So yes, you may choose to read that way if you’re particular about order … but I promise: this book stands alone just fine, so you absolutely don’t need to. Happy reading! - Aubrey Parker
CHAPTER ONE MIA
Jamie is three steps ahead of me, pace steady, breathing easily. Bitch. “If you want me to run with you,” I pant, “you need to slow down and let me catch up.” “If you want to run with me,” Jamie retorts, “you need to go faster.” “Fine. I don’t want to run with you.” I stop, defiant. This lasts all of four seconds, because Jamie doesn’t slow down or look back. She’s seen this from me before — enough that I wonder why I do it. When I was fourteen, I worked at this hot dog stand; the owner, who lived above the stand, used to “quit” from time to time when his employees got reckless. Because he lived there, he had nowhere to go — so he’d walk to the corner and stand facing traffic, hands on his hips, delaying his inevitable return. That’s how I feel whenever I stop running: I’m only embarrassing myself. Jamie, knowing me better than I know myself, never stops when I pout. “Wait,” I call, hurrying to catch up. With a heavy sigh, Jamie does — for a moment. She’s off again the second I’m beside her, immediately leaving me two steps back. “I hate you,” I say. “You love me,” Jamie replies. “You make me do this. You make me feel pain.” “No pain, no gain.” “Actually, I’ve heard that’s not true. Nowadays people say that if you feel pain while exercising, you should stop.” “Stay off the Internet, Mia. Don’t you remember how you self-diagnosed yourself as having prostate cancer?” “Maybe I did.” “You’re a girl. You don’t have a prostate.” “Maybe that’s what went wrong. Maybe I grew one.” I can’t see because she’s ahead of me, but Jamie probably rolls her eyes. I’m already out of breath again. I hate jogging. I’m pretty sure that Satan and Hitler had a baby, and that little fucker invented jogging. “Wait up,” I say. “Catch up.” “I’m feeling pain.”
“Maybe it’s your prostate.” “Hey.” Big breath. It’s hard to talk. “I was serious. I read it on WebMD.” “And I told you to stay off WebMD.” “This wasn’t about me having a disease. This was a regular old exercise science article written by some guy.” “Oh, well, that’s different. I’m all ears if some guy wrote it.” Jamie looks earnestly at me, still jogging, that sun-kissed brown ponytail still bouncing behind her head. She’s tall, like five-eight or fivenine, with bigger boobs than mine and a flatter stomach. She doesn’t even need exercise; this is just how she’s built. Exercise is icing on the cake. She’s my best friend, but I hate her. “If you feel pain,” I say, “you’re supposed to slow down or stop.” “You’re not feeling pain, Mia. You’re just a wimp. You’re tired, not pained.” “When you feel tired, you’re supposed to stop.” Jamie doesn’t dignify me with a response. Instead she runs faster. “Slow down.” “Speed up, pussy.” “Slow … down.” “Come on. You can do better than that, fatass.” “I’m …” Pant. “Serious.” “This is good for you.” I hold my side. “I’ve got … shin … splints.” Jamie looks back, eyeing my posture. “Do you mean a side stitch, or do you really not know where your shins are?” “Fuck … you.” “You’ll need to catch me first.” I’ve had enough. I trip and fall on the grass without bothering to compose myself. I’m mostly looking upward, seeing only a tree and blue sky. I’m going to die, but that’s better than jogging. Jamie appears above me, clearly disgusted but holding out her hand. “Dying,” I manage to say. “Come on.” She shakes the offered hand. “Get up.” “No.” “Get up, Mia.” “No. You’ll make me run again.” “Do you know where you are?” Jamie asks. I roll as far as my muscles will allow, which is perhaps three inches. I’m too tired for more. I have no breath. This is how drowning must feel. The view barely changes. I don’t know where I am, only that the grass is slightly overgrown and that there’s a garbage can by the street that seems to have been tipped over, possibly by a bear. The bag inside the can has been ripped open. Inside, I see coffee grounds, the corner of a cereal box, and a paper plate stacked with what look like perfectly good cookies. Why would someone throw out cookies? It’s so illogical. I could eat them all right now, and fuck the jog. “This is Stygian Hart’s house.” I sit up onto my elbows, alarmed — a knee-jerk reaction. We avoided Stygian’s place on principle when we were kids. The route from our local Target to my house passed his, and sometimes we used to sit at the Target (or the nearby Wal-Mart) and watch entire movies on the demo televisions in the A/V
department. On that walk, I always took the extra block to circle around. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve heard from many reasonable people that Stygian is actually sweet despite his gruff exterior, but my childhood fears stay rooted, waiting until I’m too exhausted for common sense. Like when I’m jogging. “You lay here any longer,” Jamie tells me, “and he’ll come out waving his Bubba stick at you.” “That’s just something kids say.” “Oh, look. Here he comes.” I’m already sitting, so it’s easy to turn my head toward the porch. There’s a large picture window, and framed in it is the somewhat shadowy form of a man who’s large in both stature and frame, with a salt-and-pepper beard. He’s staring right at us, not moving. For all I know, he’s been standing there all day staring at the street, just to freak people out. And it’s working. I get to my feet and, glancing back, resume a fast walk. It’s not jogging; I’m on strike from that shit. “I hate you,” I tell Jamie again, once we’re clear of Stygian’s gaze. “If it weren’t for me, you’d weigh 300 pounds.” “I’m comfortable with who I am.” “No, you’re influenced by TV and magazines just like the rest of us. You’re the modern woman who wants it all: microwave mac and cheese because you’re too busy to cook AND an ass like a firm silk pillow.” “I thought we wanted buns of steel.” “Not since the 80s. Who wants a steel ass? Think about it.” I don’t think about it. I don’t care about asses. I can appreciate a nice butt on a guy, but I’m more into what’s on a man’s front, from top to bottom. The back half of a human is utilitarian — necessary, but then again so is the gross little alley behind even the nicest buildings. You have to take your trash out somewhere. “What time is it?” I ask Jamie. “12:16.” “You lie. We’ve been running for like five hours.” “Ten minutes, Mia. It’s been ten minutes.” “I don’t want to run on my lunch hour. First of all, I have to rush through lunch.” “You brought ramen today. It takes two minutes. If you savor.” “Second, I get gross.” “You were going to shower and change after your workout at the gym anyway.” I look ahead. We’re almost back to the gym, which is only three buildings down from our office in the Old Town part of Inferno. I’ve had a membership for three years because I’m too embarrassed to go in and cancel — each week I somehow convince myself I’ll work out tomorrow. They have fantastic showers. I’ve used them often enough when I run too late in the mornings and need to spruce up. “And lastly, it’s demoralizing. The fact that I have so much of my lunch hour left even after all this agony makes me feel like a failure.” Jamie looks at me. She’s sneaky; she’s started to jog again. Apparently my body has no will of its own, so I’m doing the same. “Your last reason contradicts your first. What do you want? To use up your whole entire hour and feel accomplished or to use up ten minutes and feel demoralized?” I’m not going to win this argument, so I drop it. I am, however, going to insist on no more lunchtime jogging. I like my job and this makes the middle part awful. As we finally slow into our cool-down, it occurs to me how rare my feelings are. Who truly loves their job? Who feels truly lucky to work each day, beyond their financial reasons? I sure do. I landed the
gig at Urban Design last year thanks to good luck, great grades, and a sliver of nepotism. Nepotism leftovers, actually. Jamie and I met each other senior year, both majoring in civil engineering. So when her father’s friend Anthony wrangled the job for her in the wake of her dad’s death, I angled for one too. We’re both too junior for a nationally known company like UD, but Anthony Ross pulls plenty of strings. We’re both too proud for handouts, but smart enough to accept what’s offered. We took the jobs and swore to kick serious ass —which we do, to earn the positions we maybe didn’t need to work as hard for as most people would have. “Let’s sit for a while first.” There’s a short wall outside the gym; Jamie sits and pats the concrete beside her. “There’s something we should talk about.”
CHAPTER TWO MIA
I wait for more, but there’s nothing. Jamie looks away, as if she’s just said nothing of note. There’s something we should talk about. If we were a lesbian couple, I’d be nervous. But after a few seconds of silence, it’s almost possible to believe she said anything. Maybe we’re resting. There’s definitely no discussion. I look at Jamie, then at the front window of the gym. There are people doing some sort of sweaty dance in the main room — they look like they’re reaching repeatedly for invisible coconuts on a tall palm, but they’re sure as hell not having any fun doing it. I’ve seen this class perform this torture before. Jamie looks off into the distance. Her skin, which is several shades darker than mine, has only the slightest sheen, while I’m dripping like a faucet and I feel like I’m going to throw up. She looks wistful; I look like I’ve been attacked. “About what?” I say. She looks over as if I’ve said something confusing. “You said you wanted to tell me something.” I see her waffling and get the feeling she wanted to sneak-attack me with whatever this is, but now she wishes she’d said nothing to raise my antennae. “We’re resting,” she says. I’m suspicious. Usually I’m the one who wants to rest. “You don’t look like you need rest.” “I figured you did.” I do. Obviously. If I don’t cool down first, my shower won’t take and I’ll sweat all day. But still I’m suspicious, and glaring at her. “How’s Mike?” she asks. “I don’t know. We broke up. So hopefully he’s in pain.” “You broke up with Mike?” “Yes. So what?” “Why didn’t you tell me?” Jamie’s brown eyes are wide. She’s acting like I’ve announced my pending death: maybe worried, at least concerned. Why? It’s not like Mike and I were special. I’m over it. Possibly because I was never all that into it. “I don’t know. I wasn’t aware I needed to log everything with you. I also forgot to take my trash out last night. Sorry. I got busy and it slipped my mind.” “You and Mike were so cute together!” “Cute, huh?” I shrug. “I don’t really judge relationships based on photo ops.”
“But I mean, he seemed nice. You seemed like a good couple.” I make a whatcha-gonna-do face. Mike was fine. Just like Slate, before him. I’ve had many mediocre boyfriends. None lit a fire, but I’m starting to wonder if they’re supposed to. Sure, once upon a time, a boy who shall remain nameless spoiled then destroyed me — but that was probably first-love stuff, if that exists. Teen hormones and the sense of danger that comes with a guy who’s no good for you at all. Maybe it’s not fair to expect fire. Maybe I should recalibrate — look for a guy who completes me as a good couple. Someone I’m cute together with. “Oh, honey,” Jamie says. “I’m so sorry.” “Don’t be sorry. I’m fine.” “Why did you break up?” “He just wasn’t … you know.” “No good in bed? Couldn’t give head right?” Her face sets, like she’s got it, and she points at me knowingly. “Had a bent dick.” “No! It’s not sexual at all.” “Oh. Sorry. You just sounded kind of embarrassed. I figured that’s what ‘you know’ meant.” “He just wasn’t the one.” “O … kay …” “He didn’t meet my standards. And a girl has to have standards.” Jamie gets all serious. “Mia. I love you. But nobody ever meets your standards. Your standards are too high.” “So at the ripe old age of 25, you’re suggesting I settle? That I’ve become an old maid and should take what I can get?” “I mean that nobody can meet your standards. They’re not meetable.” “They are so meetable. I don’t even have super-high standards. I’m not looking for a guy with a cover-model face — though I’d take it. I don’t need super six-pack abs, though they’re definitely on my Christmas list.” “That’s not what I’m talking about.” I bulldoze on, ignoring her. “I want a good man who knows what he wants and who loves me.” “That’s not what you want.” “Yes it is.” “What you’ve just described, that was all of your ex-boyfriends.” “No it wasn’t.” Or was it? Maybe she’s right. They all blend together. “Your problem is that you don’t trust guys anymore. You don’t let them in.” “I don’t let them in on the first date like you do, but I let them in eventually.” Not only am I trying to deflect; I’m not even saying anything that’s true. Guys follow Jamie around like puppies with boners, but she’s a good girl and always makes them wait. One more thing to prove her obnoxious discipline. Jamie rolls her eyes. “Are you going to be serious and listen to me?” “I am listening to you.” “You’re being stupid.” “No, you’re being stupid,” I counter. Jamie sighs and shakes her head. “I really wish you’d stuck it out with Mike.” “And this is your business why?” “It’d just be easier on you, is all. I didn’t know you’d broken up.” My suspicions from earlier return. There’s something we should talk about. She got off on this tangent about Mike, how I don’t trust guys anymore and how I put up a wall with my unmeetable
standards, but now I’m remembering what she sat me down in the first place for: to talk. About what? And what do my standards, my lack of trust in guys, and Jamie’s frequently stated assertion that someone ruined me in my youth have to do with it? Then I see it in her eyes. This is about Onyx. “What’d be easier on me, Jamie?” “I heard something. From Anthony. I thought it might not be true, because why would it be? There’s just no sense. But then I talked to Riley James, who’s in my western class at Ticket To Ride, and she said her dad said that someone’s looking to rent that mansion right by his place, you know the one, with all the covered porches?” She’s stalling the inevitable, but I’m already putting two and two together. I know the house, all right. It’s enormous and overlooks the valley. If I had to guess, it’s worth ten million at least. Nobody could handle rent that steep. Except for a multi-millionaire. Or a billionaire. “You’re kidding.” “About what? I haven’t said anything.” But I can see the truth in her eyes. My old flame is back in town. The one who set my too-high standard. The one who ruined me, and made me unable to ever love again.
CHAPTER THREE MIA
It’s fine. I’ll just avoid him. I’m thinking this while I take my shower at the gym. I’ve been in here for ten minutes, and already that feels like a day. I heard footsteps outside the stall, but nobody knocked. I’m sure it was Jamie. I imagine she knows the turmoil I’m in, despite the way I blew it off after her confession. I’ve tried to forget Onyx and what he did, but it’s been hard. He hit it big after teaming up with Aiden to create the Forage search engine, and now all of its spin-off tech services. Everyone knows that. You can’t not know that. Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, Aiden and Onyx. They’re mentioned in the same breath. Geniuses to many, powerful to all, loathed only by me. Nobody understands. They try, but fail. I knew Onyx when we were kids. He was just Onyx Scott, not The Onyx Scott From Forage. I don’t see why I should be punished just because he screwed me over and left me broken, then went on to stratospheric success. But I am. I’m punished, because I have to keep hearing about him. Because I have to field jokes about how I missed landing the golden fish, cracks about how I could have been a billionaire myself, and good-intentioned (but hideously inappropriate and offensive) suggestions that maybe I should look him up now that he’s rich and try to rekindle that old spark. Jamie didn’t knock on my shower stall to ask if I was okay, because she knows I’m not. She’s probably in the lobby, clean and dried, waiting for me to emerge. There’s still twenty minutes left in our lunch hour, but she’ll stay there until a half-hour has passed and we’re officially late. She’ll stay hours beyond. She’ll get fired if she has to — not just because she’s a friend and wants to help, but because this is her fault. Jamie dropped this bomb, and I know she feels a need to gather the pieces. She didn’t want to tell me that Onyx was back in town, but must have felt I was too near to discovering it on my own — maybe by running into the old flame himself. I stand under the shower, stark naked and head down. I shouldn’t wash my hair midday; it’ll be wet through the afternoon. But this is the only position that feels right. If I move, I’ll have to think about this. If I stay put, there’s only the water and the drain. That’s my world right now. That, and the fist clenched tight in my gut. “Mia?” I guess Jamie decided to interrupt me after all. “I’ll be out in a second.” “Are you okay?” No. “Yes. Of course. I’m just taking a shower.”
There’s a long pause, in which Jamie probably decides not to call out my bullshit. Then: “I’ll be out here waiting for you.” Knowing she’s actively waiting finally breaks my paralysis. I clean up, towel off, then get dressed, moving the towel to my head before leaving the cubicle. Wet hair gives me something to focus on, so I move to the mirror, remove the towel, and start combing. Jamie comes up beside me. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” “About what?” She meets my gaze in the mirror. “If it helps, the campus they’re supposedly building is outside Inferno. Near 275. He may not even come into town.” “Who?” I ask. “Stop it, Mia. Just stop.” “Oh. You mean Onyx.” “Of course I mean Onyx.” I say nothing, working out a knot. “You seem—” “I don’t really want to talk about it.” “That’s fine. I just thought you should know.” “I don’t want to talk about it — same as how I’ve never wanted to talk about it.” “Fair enough.” “That’s why I was confused.” I’m watching myself carefully, working on untangling my hair. I see Jamie from the corner of my eye but I refuse to look at her. “You know. Because we said we’d never talk about it. About him. That’s why I was so confused when you started talking about it.” “Mia …” I finally turn. There’s a smile on my face, but I have literally no idea where it came from. It feels like a joker’s grin — pasted on. The words on my tongue are kin to a joke, but I can’t imagine laughing. “Don’t you remember? We code-named the whole thing — put it in a box, wrapped chains around the mess, and buried it in a hole. I didn’t want to talk it out, and you said that’s fine; everyone represses things these days. We laughed about it. We decided laughter was better than reality, even if it wasn’t really healthy laughter.” “It was fresher then. I just wanted you to—” “Fresher, sure,” I interrupt. My voice must have a manic edge because people in the locker room are starting to glance our way. In the mirror, I’m wearing an uncomfortable smile. I look like someone about to slip — about to lose her false face and brandish a knife. “Fresher for me, but nothing for you. You weren’t around. I’d just broken up with him. Or he’d just broken up with me. Whichever way it happened, I don’t know because I put it in a box! I buried it in a hole!” I laugh a little. I’m scaring myself. I see what I’m doing, but the words keep coming. My smile is still there, but I see that my eyes are watering, too. “I know how you feel,” she says. “You do? You do?” More people look. I’m a quarter of the way toward screaming. “I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known it’d upset you this much. It’s just that if Onyx—” I hold up a hand. “We said we’d never use his name, remember!” It’s not a question; it leaves my lips as a tiny, panicked shout. “We called him ‘Voldemort.’ Remember that, Jamie? We made a pitcher of margaritas and we laughed about it. We got so drunk!” I’m losing it. There’s a slippery slope, and goddammit if I’m not sliding right toward the lip. I can see it, but can’t stop. Jamie looks around. She puts her hand on my arm. “Your hair is good enough. Let’s go. Let’s get
some air.” I sniff hard. No. I won’t be escorted from a building — not without so much as an event to traumatize me. Jamie merely mentioned a happening. I wasn’t assaulted. I didn’t witness a murder. I must be exhausted by the running, and now my defenses are down. I haven’t had lunch. My blood sugar is low. I shake my head. “I’m okay.” “We’ll take a full lunch. It’s okay; Simon is supposed to be talking to Anthony on the phone at one o’clock anyway. He won’t notice we’re not back, and if he does … well, Anthony. I hate to use my Get Out Of Jail Free card, but hey, why not.” “I don’t need sympathy. I’m fine.” “You’re not fine.” “I’m fine.” But I’m not. It’s all back now, all of it. It’s like I’m eighteen again and no time has passed — all that repressed emotion finally rising to the surface. I didn’t face it then, but it seems I’ll be forced to face it now. I wanted to forget all about Onyx but the world wouldn’t let me. He made billions and created a tool everyone uses daily. Now he’s one of the world’s darlings. I can’t avoid him. Every time I do an Internet search, I’m reminded of all that hidden pain. The hand on me increases its grip, suddenly alarmed and urgent. Jamie grabs my bag and says, hurriedly, “Let’s go.” I don’t see the other people in the locker room or the gym as Jamie drags me out. I’m too focused on my own downward spiral to notice them. But I do catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror before I’m yanked from view. And I see that I’m not just crying. I’m actually bawling, out of control.
CHAPTER FOUR ONYX
Part of the lie I told my PR gal Alyssa about coming to Inferno involved Mia. Of course it did. It was Alyssa’s job to safeguard my public image, and Mia has always been this potential landmine in my past that I’ve carefully avoided. Being Forage’s good cop to Aiden’s bad, I’ve had to keep my womanizing hidden. People expect me to fuck around —and I do — but a big, fat bomb like Mia’s could certainly injure some of the connections Forage is trying to form. Away from Inferno, danger from The Mia Factor was minimal. She was a nest of bees; if I didn’t bother her, she’d keep on ignoring me. That’s why Alyssa was so angry when I casually announced I needed to move back to Inferno for a while — ostensibly to build Forage Education on the fertile soil of up-and-coming Falls talent. Soon, Inferno will be another Portland, another Seattle, another Austin, Texas — one of those places people mention when they talk about hip trends, bright minds, and unlimited futures. It only made sense to build there. At least that’s what I told Alyssa. The truth is, we do like Inferno for our Education branch, but it’s far from the only option. The truth is, I won’t be able to avoid stirring Mia up during my visit. Because Mia is half the reason I’m here — or, more accurately, Mia’s friend Jamie and her father-figure Anthony Ross are. Mia’s LiveLyfe profile is private. She shares nothing outside of her friends circle, and I’m hardly one of her friends these days. I could have hunted around for someone inside that circle, but Mia turned her world against me. It was easier to call Evan Cohen and ask for backstage access to her profile. Yes, it’s private. But not when you know LiveLyfe’s CEO, and know how flexible his morals can be. I spend an hour searching her profile, trying to see what Mia’s been up to in the six years we’ve been apart. Scrolling backward through time, I see a few photos of Mia with guys. Each one makes me angry, but none of the guys last long. Jamie’s profile — also private — is far more helpful. She seems to have taken many pictures of Mia with her beaus-of-the-week, and Jamie isn’t shy about captioning such photos with many hearts and declarations of love. But then those guys stop appearing, and there’s a period where Mia isn’t mentioned at all. In Mia’s profile, there’s nothing between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. It’s strange. It’s like she didn’t want to erase just me, but the entirety of the time we knew each other. In Mia’s LiveLyfe, those years don’t exist. One day she’s blooming toward her Sweet Sixteen, and the next she’s a college sophomore. For a little more than three years, it’s like Mia Stover didn’t even exist. I close my laptop and stand. I don’t know why, but I’m completely hard. It doesn’t exactly make sense, and it’s strange that I didn’t notice it happening. There was nothing hot or sexy in the research, but
I’m turned on anyway, stimulated by the past. And even though it was mental stimulation rather than sexual, my cock got confused and rose to the task. I want to yell at it. Hey. Relax. There’s nobody to fuck. But even wondering at my hard dick makes matters worse. I’d been considering how I could approach Mia and do the least damage, but now my mind is spooling back through our chest of mental treasures. I have an advantage here that Mia doesn’t want me to have. She’s erased me entirely, but she couldn’t delete my memory. She hates me for sure — but I can close my eyes and fuck her whenever I want. That’s what I’m thinking, now that my cock is in charge. Memories spill into my mind like a tipped over bucket. Confused by the fear of what Mia must think of me today, my fantasies find a dull edge. I’m turned on not just by thinking of Mia’s most intimate times, but of how taboo it is for me to think of those times at all. The lewder the memory, the hotter it feels. The more I know Mia would hate me for thinking of something, the more it throbs my balls. Right now, she hates my guts. So it’s really fucking hot to remember the time she put whipped cream on my cock and licked it clean. Right now, if Mia saw me, she’d claw my eyes out. So I can’t stop thinking of how she looked that one time on Spring Break, when we fucked in a Subway bathroom, her bent forward over the sink with her bare ass toward me and her panties pulled down just far enough to give me access. I remember her sucking my cock on a road trip. I remember talking her into trying a vibrator rather than her hands for the first time, and how before it made her come three times, it made her laugh so hard she almost peed. Mia, who hates me. Mia, whom I wronged. I remember her slowly removing her bathing suit beside a hotel pool, off in the corner but where anyone might see her. I remember the fall of her dark hair, the glint in her mischievous cat’s eyes. I remember how I backed her into our room after that, and she rode me until the lamp shook off the end table and broke. I was nervous about seeing her again, but the animal inside me won’t lie down. When it’s all about sex, emotions stop mattering as much. I unzip. I think of Mia. It’s her hand on me. It’s her lips about to wrap around my shaft, then suck me until I come inside her. She must hate me. But our times together were hot, and I wonder if some way, somehow — when the chips are down and the clothes come off — she’s not as immune to me as I’ve always imagined. Maybe. I hope so. Tomorrow, I’ll see her for the first time in six years. I grip my cock, imagining my hand is Mia’s pussy. And I fuck her in my mind.
CHAPTER FIVE MIA
The next morning, after Jamie calms my hysterical shit down, she comes to me with two cups of coffee and a muffin. I find this so sweet I almost cry. I’m not normally a crier and Jamie knows it, so we both pretend we don’t see my almost-tears. Jamie wouldn’t let me go back to work yesterday, but it would have been obvious if she hadn’t gone back either. So she took me home, then texted me later and said she’d told Simon that our jogging session set off some Richter Scale menstrual cramps that left me unable to work. Mention periods, and guys stop listening, she replied when I pointed out that her excuse for me didn’t make sense. But things between us are still a little strange. Jamie is a great friend and she’d never judge me, but I still feel like a blubbering asshole after yesterday’s display. The whole walk home, everyone was staring. I probably have a new reputation downtown, as Crazy Breakdown Lady. And now here I am, almost crying again. I’m clearly not back to normal, if there ever was such a thing. But I’m not sobbing, and that’s worth something. “You brought me a muffin,” I say. “It was either a muffin or weed.” “I don’t smoke weed.” “That’s why I got you a muffin.” She takes a bite of her own muffin as we move into my small kitchen, then with a full mouth says, “But if I could make a suggestion?” I nod. “Start smoking weed.” I laugh a little. It’s nice. The laugh is welcome, and so is the joke. She’s nodded at the elephant, acknowledging its presence in the room. “Was I that bad yesterday?” I ask. “You were pretty bad.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be sorry. Just be less bad.” Another laugh. I know she’ll talk me through this and won’t rush my healing — if there’s any to be had. But the jokes at my expense are a breath of fresh air after my emotionally turbulent night. Sarcasm for the win. “Seriously,” Jamie says, settling onto one of my tall stools and setting her coffee on the raised counter. “How are you?” “I’m okay.”
“Really okay? Or bullshit okay like you were saying yesterday?” I shrug. “Maybe okay. It’s still kind of a shock.” “Just avoid him. Just don’t talk to him.” “I know. And unless he’s an idiot, he’ll be avoiding me anyway. It should be easy. But still …” I moan. “Why, Jamie? He has the whole world. Why come back?” “Supposedly it’s for—” “You know what I mean. I don’t care what it’s for; I care that it’s not something a rational person would do, regardless. Even if — out of all the places in the world — Inferno Falls is the only place Forage can build this thing, why does he have to come? Send minions. Send his partner, if it has to be one of the two of them.” Jamie is silent. She’s chewing, but I know that’s not the only reason her mouth is closed. I glance at the clock. It’s only 7:45 and the office is a fifteen-minute walk. We have time, unfortunately. “You think he’s here for me, don’t you?” Slowly, Jamie shrugs. Yes, that’s exactly what she’s been thinking. She doesn’t want to admit it, but it’s not like I won’t figure it out. “I hate him,” I say. “I never want to see him again.” “You’re talking to the wrong person. I know that.” “He knows it, too. He’d be an idiot not to.” “Maybe he wants to apologize.” I laugh. It’s bitter, but a hundred percent genuine. It feels good, no matter the context. “What?” she says. “Apologies were always part of the process. It was almost a joke. If I wasn’t hurt so bad by the end, I would have laughed with him about it. He’d say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and it was impossible to keep a straight face. He said it so often that it lost all meaning. It became the opposite of an apology.” I push away the remains of my muffin. “I used to think that every time Onyx apologized it was like a confession. And that if he truly wanted to tell me he was sorry — if he really meant it — he’d need to find a new way to express it. Sorry didn’t cut it. He ruined the word. I can’t even hear it the way most people mean it.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” Jamie says. I shove her. “Maybe he’s in recovery for something. Maybe he’s at that ‘make amends’ stage. Isn’t that one of the twelve steps — apologize to all the people you’ve wronged because of your addiction?” “He wasn’t an alcoholic. Or a junkie or anything like that. He’s not in recovery. He’s just a fucker.” “Maybe he’s in recovery from being a fucker.” “They don’t have a program for that, I don’t think.” “Or sex addiction.” Jamie points at me with her muffin fragments, crumbs puffing from between her lips. “Did you think of that? Maybe he was a sex addict.” I roll my eyes. “If that’s it, I don’t want to hear it. It’s really convenient for the addict: ‘Oh, I’m sorry I fucked everyone, all the time, and lied to you every second I knew you. It was my addiction making me do that. I wasn’t in control.’ Bullshit. You don’t get to do crap like that, then blame it on some scapegoat to avoid all consequences.” “Supposedly the first step of tackling addiction is admitting you aren’t in control of your own actions. Giving yourself over to a higher power or some shit.” “Yeah, well, maybe this makes me an unenlightened bitch, but I don’t particularly feel like hearing it. I’m the higher power here, and I say …” I hold up my fist, then turn it thumbs-down like a Roman emperor declaring that the gladiator shall die. We sit in silence for a while. I sip my coffee. It’s a sharp, bitter blend — Sumatra, maybe. I like
milder coffee, but I drink it anyway. I’m glad Jamie brought it, because last night I wasn’t a very good friend. I needed someone to blame for my behavior, so I used her for telling me about Onyx. She tried to call and come over but I shut her down. All I can do now is to hope for her forgiveness. What can I say? I wasn’t in control of my actions. I finish my coffee. I can tell from the shadow line in her cup that Jamie isn’t even half done with hers. When I pitch the cup, along with what’s left of my muffin, she seems surprised. “Do you want to head out?” I ask. “I figured we could talk.” I sigh, but it’s a sympathetic and good-natured sigh. “I appreciate you being there for me. But I also don’t want to talk about any of it. I won’t run into Onyx unless he seeks me out, and if he does come looking I’ll shut him down. In a way, it’s nice that the issue is so closed and definitive, because it makes my decision easy. If I still loved him at all …” I trail away and immediately regret it, worried that it means something. “So there’s nothing there?” Jamie says. “You don’t have any lingering feelings?” I shrug. “He was my first. My first real boyfriend, the first guy I had sex with … all of it. I guess I’ll always have him in the back of my head. But what he did? I don’t want to feel like that again. I don’t want to let him back in even a little.” Jamie nods as if she understands, but I don’t think she agrees. I wonder if I do. I hope I do. “So, yeah,” I say. “Let’s go to work.” Jamie looks at the clock. “We’ll be like twenty minutes early if we leave now.” “That’s okay. We can stop for coffee.” Jamie looks at her own still mostly full cup. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night,” I explain. “I’m going to need some serious caffeine to get through the day.” Jamie gives me a hurt, sympathetic face, then wraps her free arm around me. We stay that way until we’re out the door, but we’re once on the street her arm drops — along with my jaw. Thank God I’m not holding my coffee. It would be on the ground if it was. Onyx is right down the street, not fifty feet away, and headed right toward us.
CHAPTER SIX MIA
He’s holding flowers. FLOWERS. That right there makes me want to punch him. I want to knee him in the balls, claw my fingernails across his handsome face, and use every ounce of strength I’ve failed to acquire in my missed gym sessions to knock his teeth backward against his tongue. I look at the bouquet, and one thought rushes through my mind: I sure hope those are to make your hotel room prettier, because if you bought them for me I’m going to make you fucking eat them. He’s still approaching us, now walking slightly faster. I should march forward to meet him, or spin and walk defiantly away — back into my building, maybe — but I don’t. Instead my feet betray me, rooting to the concrete. Our history comes rushing back in a wave. I’m nineteen years old again … or maybe sixteen. He’s the charming kid with the great smile and that sexy way of talking. My body remembers, even as my mind fights to forget. I clench my fists; I grit my teeth. I can only summon these small acts of rebellion as Onyx comes closer, but I’m spending these silent seconds conjuring things to say. Jamie’s beside me, leaning subtly back as if fearing an explosion, her eyes flitting between us. I can tell she doesn’t want to leave me alone, but that she’d rather be anywhere else. Jamie was supposed to pump me up, make me strong, then let me be. Poor thing didn’t know she’d be standing beside me when I crashed into the inevitable. “Mia.” He extends the flowers — not like a lover would, but like a peace offering. “I was hoping I’d—” My paralysis snaps. I snatch the flowers from his hand and aggressively hurl them into the gutter —then, in a single fluid motion, I use both hands to shove him in the chest. He’s wearing a long camel hair coat over an expensive-looking suit, and a motherfucking scarf — a goddamn scarf. For three hot seconds, all my fury is focused on that long strip of colorful silk, and I hate it as much as I hate him. I want to tie him up with it. I want to use that piece-of-shit, probably-hundredsof-dollars scarf to choke the life from his stupid beautiful body. The scarf flaps as he staggers backward, shocked. His eyes are wide, all whites. Whatever he expected when he saw me, this wasn’t it. Because he’s fucking stupid, apparently. I’d have seen this coming. Anyone would have.
“Mia!” “Don’t you talk to me! Don’t you come up to me! Why are you here? Why the fuck did you come to my town with your fancy motherfucking scarf and your goddamn coat and that smug fucking smile, bringing me—” I’m still hitting him with small blows and he holds up his hands, saying stop, just stop. “—flowers like I can just be bought off like some goddamn empty-headed bitch from a rom-com, like you think you can just waltz right back in here and—” “I just want to talk!” I give him one final shove. I stare deep into his eyes. If Hell has a stare, it’s the one I’m giving him now. “Talk,” I snarl. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry for—” He stops talking when I slap him as hard as I possibly can. The impact stings my hand but I don’t even care. I can see the shape of my palm reddening on his dark skin already. I must have hit him hard. I can only imagine what that slap would have done to the face of a white man. “I know I messed up. I know you’re mad and—” I hit him again. Harder. Onyx’s hand goes to his cheek and his tongue moves inside his mouth, blinking as if I’ve knocked him right the hell off his center. Clearly shaken, he says, “You’re making a scene.” I look at Jamie. It’s like I slapped her. Jamie’s mouth is slightly open, her eyes wide and staring. Her coffee cup is at her feet, a brown spill pooling around it. She looks like she wants to run, but can’t summon the courage. “I guess I am,” I say. I move to the gutter, to the flowers he brought to try and buy back years of pain and infidelity and betrayal. I fluff them a little, pulling the stems into order. Then I use both hands to shove the bouquet hard toward his face. It’s a messy sort of move and I’m sure I look stupid doing it, but getting a face full of greenery shocks Onyx enough that this time he actually does fall backward, catching himself on extended arms. Blooms rain like confetti around him. I stand over him, finally looking down on this man who wronged me. I look around at the people on the morning streets, who have indeed turned toward our spectacle. “What made you think,” I say, more quietly, “that after all you did to me, you had any right to bring me flowers?” “I … I just wanted to …” He looks like he’s afraid of making a wrong move. For a second I’m sure that he’s going to start reciting all the old lies: that he still loves me, that he’s sorry, that he was weak but that I was always his one and only. All the bullshit I let myself believe over and over and over again, like a scab healing over just in time to be ripped open anew. Instead he says something so plain, I actually believe it: “I still think of you.” The truth is, I still think of him, too. They’re horrid thoughts. Violent thoughts. Sometimes, they’re crushed thoughts — my innocence made hopeful, then squashed without a care. When I’m alone, there are days I think of the good times we had and could have kept having. I think of potential, blighted by the disease he brought upon us. But yes, Onyx. In a thousand different ways and few of them good … I think of you, too. I want to shout to the people watching us. They want to gawk? Screw it. I’ll tell them all he did. I’ll tell them about his tapestry of lies, the dozens of other women. I’ll tell them how, each time, he made me believe. Instead, I say nothing. I walk away without looking back, and after a while I hear Jamie running to catch up — finally
running behind me, for a change.
CHAPTER SEVEN ONYX
I imagine a thousand things in the pause between initiating the call and its ringing. The pause is too short for thoughts, but I have them anyway. I, better than most people, know there are no wires between my phone and my partner’s. Our voices are sent by satellites, connections made by computers that my company controls and those we’ll direct eventually — especially if Anthony Ross has half of his way. But I still think, as it rings, of a connection working westward toward the coast: a small telecommunications animal, foraging (appropriately enough) for food. And I think of Aiden, who might be happy with what I’m calling to discuss, or disgruntled. To the world, Aiden is either a philanthropist hero or a bastard. Which face he presents (and which one the cameras captures) depends on the day and his mood. Between us, I’ve always been the more pressfriendly. Everyone knows the Forage guys are a matched set. On one hand there’s Aiden: genius, brooding, temperamental, easy to ignite into fits of anger. And then there’s me: usually the good cop to Aiden’s bad — but also a bigger cad, beneath the gloss, than the public gives me credit for. Nothing proves that more than where I am now, doing what I’m doing. And lastly I think of Mia: a field of ideation that’s much more than just a single thought. I imagine her as she used to be: sweet, innocent, trusting, not yet jaded. I remember our passion. I think of the hard times — for her, anyway. For me, they were glory days. And, lastly, I think of my own thoughts of Mia: meta-reflections that I suspect are kin to regret. I’m not sure what the sensation really is. Hell, maybe I do regret what I did to her. It’s not in character for the wealthy and powerful Onyx Scott to suffer regret (especially now that Aiden and I have joined the Syndicate), but I suspect I’ve felt its cousins all the same. Mia with her soft brown eyes. Mia with her looks that should have been plain … but never struck me that way at all. Mia, and how fervently she must still hate me, all these years later. The ringing stops, the connection made. “Are you in Inferno Falls?” My reverie snaps. I look at the phone. I forgot I was holding it until Aiden’s voice was in my ear. “Yes,” I say. “Good. Are you settled?” “I’m at a hotel. The LeGrande.” “You aren’t going to stay there long, are you?” “I think Forage can handle the tab, Aiden.”
“I’m thinking of appearances. You’re supposed to be in the Falls scouting for the Forage Education group. Managing the temporary team.” Yes. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing, according to the story we told my public relations girl, Alyssa. She’s only working with a single client these days. I thought we would come to Inferno together. Once here, and after signing Forage’s cast in iron NDA, I’d have told her the truth. I wish she had come. I could really use someone well-versed in dealing with the public to advise me. Instead, I’ll have to do this on my own — and it’s bound to get ugly. “I’m a transient,” I say. “Like a drifter?” “Like a—” “I know what you meant, Onyx. It was a joke. You sound defensive. Keyed up. Long day?” I smile, but it’s not like Aiden can see me. The idea that anyone in my circle could have a “long day” in the sense that most working stiffs use the term is laughable. Yes, I’ve technically had one, but it began with a personal training session in our executive gym in Seattle, moved on to a 90-minute massage, then a breakfast that had to cost a grand, considering Canlis had to open special off-hours so that Nathan Turner and I could discuss Syndicate business. I hopped on the Forage jet after my final cup of coffee, then flew across the country while sipping champagne, took a Bentley to the hotel, and let Hunter Altman, who’s in town working with some local band, buy me a suit. He isn’t being generous; he’s trying to catch up. Despite being one of the first billionaires Nathan tapped to join his absurdly named “Trillionaire Boys’ Club,” Hunter seems to feel junior among the other members, and eager to prove his wealth. And it’s not like dropping eleven grand on a suit means much to any of us. I smiled. I thanked him. And now I’m having this call in my penthouse suite in the city’s best hotel. Oh, yes. Another exhausting day in Billionaireland. I don’t feel like answering. Instead I say, “I’ve got a line on a rental in the hills, same neighborhood as Mason James.” “Am I supposed to know who that is? Is he another of Nathan’s Syndicate prospects?” I almost laugh. It shatters my pattern. Then I do, because “shatters my pattern” is the sort of mind game bullshit that made Anthony Ross so famous. This conversation isn’t about Ross … yet … but I can’t help but snicker. “No, he probably only has a few million. It’s just that … well, when I lived here, he was the rich man on the hill. All the kids knew Mason James.” “Rich, huh?” Aiden says in his most condescending tone — the one that makes me feel like he might be thinking of getting a few million dollars in cash, dropping the pile in a pail beside his toilet, and using the bills to wipe his lily-white ass. “It’s a nice house. Don’t worry. It’ll seem to everyone like I’m planning to stay a while.” “And to Mia?” I sigh. “You’ll need to furnish it, you know. Make yourself look at home. If she gets the impression that you’re the least bit—” “This isn’t about Mia.” “This is all about Mia.” Aiden situates himself on the other end, then slowly resumes, as if I’m defective rather than half of the best-known pair of Internet geniuses in the world. “Lying to yourself will do you no favors.” I don’t want to hear this. We agreed on a few things before I came to Inferno — one being that Aiden couldn’t tell me how to do what I’m here to do. This was to be my way or nothing. We agreed to
keep it between us, recruiting help from people like Alyssa Galloway if possible, and only after locking them down with ironclad nondisclosures. Alyssa was the only person I’d have trusted for this. I’m on my own without her. So unless Aiden wants to fly out and embarrass both of us while trying to handle it, he’ll accept what I say as gospel. “Don’t tell me what I think, Aiden. And don’t tell me how my own head works.” “I’m just—” “You’re just sitting in Seattle, while I’m here. I’ve got a few jobs, and you damn well know it. There’s Forage Education—” “Harper will manage the Education group,” Aiden interrupts. “Harper is plenty competent but he’s never run a team this big, and it’s not established. There are too many unknowns.” “It’s not the COO’s job to manage one little divisional team.” “Which is why it’s just one of the reasons I’m here,” I counter. “But it’s still part of it, and you know as well as I do that Education matters to our future. I mean, hell, if you’ve got this whole ‘indoctrination’ idea—” Aiden cuts me off, finally satisfactorily annoyed. He once suggested — offhand, surely as a joke — that one of the things we could offer Ross’s grand plan was a bit of false history a la George Orwell’s 1984. “Forage is the new Ministry of Truth,” and all that … and Orwell didn’t even know there’d be an Internet, where history would be a giant wiki with no paper evidence to burn when it contradicted the past’s previously preferred version. Aiden had been spouting off when he’d said it, as he often does. I’m sure he doesn’t plan to manipulate records as a way of folding Forage into Ross’s plan — being the big, planet-saving philanthropist the world sees him as — but that hasn’t stopped me from jabbing him with it when he gets superior and starts pissing me off. “Obviously I didn’t mean that,” he snaps. “I’m just pointing something out. If you did want to indoctrinate anyone and/or change the way people see the past, Education would be the perfect place to start.” Aiden makes a small grumbling like sound. “Beyond that, there’s just Anthony Ross,” I say. I can almost hear Aiden mouthing words, desperately wanting to respond. We both know I wouldn’t have moved to Inferno for half a year or more on the off-chance that a rumor about a potential visit from Anthony Ross might turn out to be true, but right now I fucking dare Aiden to say so. I pick up my own ball, now that his complaints are silenced. “If Ross visits, I’ll find a way to talk to him,” I continue, my voice now calm. “If he doesn’t, I’ll find other ways to present our case. My presence in Inferno has nothing to do with it.” “Except that you are in Inferno Falls.” “Back to my old stomping grounds,” I agree, ignoring Aiden’s implication. Just say it, Aiden. Just say that if I don’t intend to use my old relationship to possible advantage, I’ve moved across the country for nothing. Just tell me that, Aiden. Tell me that if I wanted to “just talk” to Anthony Ross, I could have picked up the goddamn phone. Ross is in the Syndicate. We both are. Ross’s plan is the most likely candidate for what the Syndicate will do with its pooled wealth, so the table is set for a discussion. Point that out, Aiden. Point it out and tell me I’m a liar or on a fool’s errand — I dare you. But for now, Aiden says nothing. “I assume you’ll survive without me?” “It’s Seattle,” he says. “I have an umbrella and I can afford coffee. I think I’ll manage.” I consider another jab, but I might as well quit while I’m ahead. Aiden isn’t the kind of guy you
push. Even as partners, we sometimes cross swords; one-upping him further right now isn’t worth it. We hang up with mostly cordial goodbyes. I set the phone aside, then slip my graphite-and-gray calfskin Fendi billfold from an interior blazer pocket. The row of cards when I open it is a gallery of the inaccessible. Most people have never seen buying power like mine, with colors of the credit rainbow that the larger population isn’t even aware of. I reach behind the cards, into a pocket, and withdraw a small piece of glossy paper that doesn’t match the wallet’s luxury at all. It’s a photo, worn fuzzy and cracked at the edges. It shows an awkward black teenager with a pretty white girl, eyes wiser than her eighteen years. The couple is dressed in rented finery, looking as awkward as any prom-going teens ever have. In the picture, I’m wearing a blue bowtie and matching vest over my tuxedo shirt, beneath my bright white jacket. It’s an awful combination, and the tux doesn’t fit well. Mia, by contrast, is radiant, wearing a dress that matches my tie and vest, but with a cut that perfectly suits her. It’s a plain dress — not ostentatious (like many of the other promgoers) or slutty (like the rest). It’s the sort of thing a First Lady could wear to a gala— if she was bold and had Mia’s legs. “I was over you a long time ago,” I tell the photo. “I was a kid back then. I don’t do regret. I’ve made my bed, and I’m happy to lie in it. I owe you nothing, Mia Stover. Maybe I hurt you. But that’s life, and I have nothing to apologize for.” The photo doesn’t respond.
CHAPTER EIGHT MIA
I’m fired up for the entire day. Everyone avoids me, though whether it’s because they heard what happened on the street or because I’m radiating intensity, I have no idea. Inferno Falls, when I was a kid, used to be the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Today it’s a whole lot bigger, and you can get lost in anonymity. Now the busybodies have to work a lot harder. Simon asks me how I’m feeling, and I can tell from his hesitance that he believes he’s skirting a lady-parts issue. He doesn’t act surprised when I’m pissy. Girls get cramps, girls get PMS, girls’ vaginas do things the guys like to forget they have to do once a month. In a way, I’m glad Simon is afraid of my vagina right now. It gives me immunity. The guy wouldn’t fire me anyway — not just for missing half a day and now being kind of irritable — but he’s definitely not going to do it over what he thinks is period stuff. Instead, he acts like most guys. He ducks and covers, waiting for my monthly storm to blow over. And I think: Fucking men. They’re all over us when they want something, but when push comes to shove they back right off. Simon won’t confront me for insubordination (I told him I didn’t get to the Rivas sketches because I just didn’t feel like it), and Onyx didn’t even try to defend himself. I’m secretly convinced they’re all afraid of us. Oh, yes … we’re all soft and sweet sometimes and we cry over things men would never shed a tear about. But when we’re pissed? When we say no and mean it? Then they don’t know what to think. So they turn tail and run. Fucking Onyx with his flowers. Why didn’t he just bring me a teddy bear? Like I’m some brainless ditz without any sense — someone with no memory who can be easily bought. Has he forgotten the way we left things? Is he stupid enough not to know that his actions in the past were reprehensible, or naive enough to believe I’d simply forgive him if he brought enough posies? The more I think about it, the angrier I get. It’s the glossing-over that bugs me. The total and complete non-acknowledgement of his wrongdoing is infuriating. If he’d come up to me apologizing, maybe I’d have listened. If he’d come penitent, on his knees, I might have stopped to listen before shooting him down. But he only had the barest threads of apology after I was laying into him. It’s as if he thought he could come up, bribe me with girl-stuff, and I’d let it all go. Like I’m a dog that can be distracted with a ball, or the fool in a movie who gets distracted when the hero says, “Hey, look over there!” Well, fuck him and his attempts to make nice. We’re too far gone for that, and have been for years. He took my virginity, then had sex with all my friends. When I forgave him like a chump, he went off to
summer camp, became a counselor, and had sex with all the girl counselors. That, I didn’t even know about until after he went off to college, promising to stay true, and screwed every hot girl on his floor. One was in his camp back in the day — small world. I met her after Onyx jilted her and she came to find me. We practically formed a club. He lied to everyone — except when he was getting his dick sucked in front of an audience at a college party, of course. That got recorded. It’s even out there on the Internet, but somehow it’s made Onyx more adorable to his female fans — probably because broken women see him as a mischievous cad. All day, Jamie tries to talk, but I’m not interested. She doesn’t try to get me to run at lunchtime, though she does offer to buy lunch. When I decline, saying I need to catch up, she asks if I want to get dinner, drinks, anything. I’m a swinging single with nothing on my schedule. I tell her I’m busy anyway, because frankly today I need to do something that’s just as little-girly as Onyx seemed to feel was appropriate when he brought me flowers instead of logic and well-earned guilt: I want to see my mother. I’m twenty-five years old, and there’s a large part of me that wants to deal with this solo, just to prove I can. And there’s a reason: as three o’clock nears, I start to have a hard time holding onto my anger. Fury is a hot, intense emotion. Keeping it in your heart is like trying to keep a fire crackling at fullbore for hours. I can’t keep my fury by mid-afternoon, and so it starts to slide into softer emotions. There’s resentment, of course. There’s indignation. There’s hurt, which forms the foundation of my anger. And there’s something else, too. Something that feels worse than hurt. I don’t like the hurt; it implies that as much as I want to lash out at Onyx, it’s only because he’s lashed me already. But I’m afraid the something-else might be nostalgia. As three o’clock becomes four and as four becomes five, I find myself remembering our good times. I don’t want to, but they sneak into my mind anyway. I remember the times we laughed. The times we loved. Then I remember how Onyx betrayed me, over and over and over again. I remember the pain. The crippling, curled-into-a-ball spells when I didn’t feel powerful as I did today on the street, but felt helpless instead. That sinking, free-falling sensation. That sense that this pit had no bottom, and that I’d keep on falling forever. I remember how I never quite knew what to do with my limbs. My arms and legs were wild cards. If I tried to walk, I’d fall. If I tried to reach for something, I’d knock it over. I wasn’t just emotionally crippled after a go-round with Onyx’s adolescent cruelty; I was physically crippled. I couldn’t function. Every motion — in body or thought — ended in confusion. So I cried. For days. The looming, deeply hidden corner of that old feeling is a threat at the end of my workday. And as I feel the creeping panic of those memories — the sense that if I let them free, they’ll leap from the shadows to consume me all over again — I realize that I don’t want to handle this alone. I can’t. I handled Onyx on the street. Unless he’s stupid, he won’t try talking to me again. But it seems that, in my head, he’s just getting started. I don’t want to be alone. Mom was my biggest champion back in those days, as a good mother should be. Together we weathered the Onyx storm. Mom liked him when I liked him, loathed him when I loathed him, and fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself. After he hurt me, she never trusted him again — and that made her the rock I was too stupid of a little girl to be. I forgave him; Mom was strong enough not to. She wasn’t blinded by his ample charm.
She let me continue to make my own mistakes, always counseling against them. But out of everyone in the world, I know she’ll have my back now. I call her, tell her I was thinking we could have a good old-fashioned sleepover, me spending the night in my childhood room. And Mom isn’t fooled at all. “On a weeknight?” she says. I’m starting to lose the composure I’ve held so tightly all day. I’ve been gripping a ledge since eight this morning, and now it’s only my fingernails keeping me from the fall beneath me. I try to hide it, but I know Mom can hear the change in my voice. I don’t tell her what happened. I just tell her I’d really like to stay there tonight. “I’ll get a pizza,” she says.
CHAPTER NINE MIA Mom placates me with pizza and girl talk, and I say nothing whatsoever about Onyx. It’s a nice evening, as far as evenings following encounters with ex-boyfriends go. Mom lives right in town and I see her often, but as I settle into the couch I spent my teenage years on, it suddenly seems as if it’s not remotely often enough. We used to be best friends, and really still are. But it’s different, now that I don’t live upstairs. It was nice to be a kid and know she’d always carry the burden of protecting me from the world. But now I’m an adult, and I’m supposed to take care of myself. It’s a subtle shift, but I feel it tonight, as the pendulum swings backward for a few hours and I’m my mother’s baby girl again. I do stay over, despite wafflings that my own bed is only five miles away. Mom insists. I don’t even have to run home for things to sleep in. A bunch of my old stuff is still here, and even though I shouldn’t be surprised that it still fits, everything does. I guess I haven’t ballooned up despite Jamie’s warnings about my lack of exercise. Mom even has an unopened toothbrush. It’s easy to stay, almost as if I never should have left. But when my head hits the pillow, my mind betrays me. Gone is my righteous win over Onyx, victory over my former oppressor. Gone is Mom’s placation. In dreams I’m no longer a kept little girl. I’m on my own. Even inside my mother’s house, the dreamscape opens and pours me into an unreal world where no one can protect me. Gone are my walls, my impermeable defenses. I know I’m helpless as the dream begins. At first I’m in fog, like early morning mist. It burns away as the dream dawns, and I find myself standing on the stop outside my place with the sidewalk ahead. It’s only a stoop. A sidewalk. But even in the haze I know something is different, and the difference is chilling. The feeling evaporates as I walk. My heels clack the sidewalk, just like in life. My mind capitulates to the dream: this is life. I stop thinking about whether it’s real because I believe that it is. I know it is. This is just me, walking my usual short stretch to work. People mill around me. They’re all going about their business, careless of the short brunette in her no-bullshit work suit. My mind turns to what awaits at the office, and some part of me realizes this is today I’m re-living. I have a ten o’clock with Abigail, then I’m under deadline to get the Jackson project specs to the engineers by end-of-day. These are things I’ve already handled, but the dream doesn’t know it. And as I walk the dream street, I think of my day as I watch the people. The thin crowd parts. Onyx is standing just down the street, in the middle of the sidewalk, holding
an impossibly large bouquet. He comes closer. He says my name. I’m suddenly angry — a familiar rage, as if I’m reliving it, even though I haven’t seen this man in six years. Jamie warned me he was back, but that was yesterday. I had my freak-out. I’ve shed my pointless tears. Now I’m better, and a part of my mind is a bit surprised that Jamie didn’t come to see me this morning to improve my mood — bring me coffee and a muffin, perhaps. But Jamie isn’t here. It’s just me and Onyx. He’s in front of me, carrying the bouquet and wearing a smile that’s dropped a thousand pairs of panties. His smile makes me remember his body. A work of art, chiseled and hard. I remember the way he swept me off my feet — literally, in many cases. I was always little to Onyx. He could pick me right up. Carry me to bed. And do whatever he wanted, because I believed his lies. But he does lie. I remember that he hurt me, and my first instinct is to be offended by his pandering offer of flowers. So I push them away. I grab them, thrust the bouquet back toward him, and shove the mess into the gutter. Onyx looks at me, shocked. Then his devious smile returns and I feel something shift inside me. Where my anger was hot, this new feeling is like ice. Where I was pushing him away, part of me calls out to him. Remembers him. Don’t you dare try to apologize to me after all you’ve done. And Onyx replies, Okay. I don’t apologize. His eyes rake the length of my body. I’m wearing something conservative — maybe even prudish. But the way he looks me over, I might as well be naked. It’s like I’ve come to Onyx as an offering, down on my knees. Fuck you, I tell him. He smiles wider. If you insist. His hand comes out — his big, broad, strong hand. His fingers touch my stomach, giving me a thrill I don’t want. He applies just enough pressure that I move backward. My butt strikes something hard. One of the big stone benches along my street, the surface coated to make it smooth enough to sit on without scratching. When I stop, Onyx pushes a little harder. I’m off-balance now, so all I can do is sit. He pushes me back until my shoulder blades touch the back of the bench. I’m slouching like a teenager, my head against the back. People have stopped around us. I see a woman holding groceries. An old man with a cane. Watching. Wondering what this is. You’ve got some nerve, touching me, I tell Onyx. But he’s getting to his knees. He puts a hand on each of my knees and parts them. What are you doing? You’ll see. He pushes my legs back together, then reaches under my skirt. His fingers hook around the waistband of my panties., and pull. For some reason, rather than resisting, I lift a little so they can slide away from what they’re supposed to cover. They appear beneath the edge of my gray work skirt, right out there in the sunlight. Onyx drags them the rest of the way down and leaves them dangling at my ankles. Stop it, I say. But they’re just words. Truth is, everything inside me is lit up like holiday lights. Truth is, I’m soaking wet. Truth is, I can feel his hot breath even from where he kneels, quarreling with the slight morning breeze where it shouldn’t be able to reach.
A group of college kids and a fat man walking a tiny dog join the swelling crowd around us. They’re all motionless, curious, like they don’t know what they’re seeing but want to see it anyway. I’m embarrassed. Mortified. I want him to keep going. Don’t. Not here. But his hands move back to the insides of my knees. He raises my skirt and opens me the rest of the way. My pussy greets the sunshine. I can’t see it from where I am, but I imagine it opening for him, no longer tight-lipped. I’m dripping, and everyone can see. I’m not sorry, Onyx tells me as he leans closer, his breath brushing my wetness. I’m not sorry because I don’t have to be. I don’t want to kiss you. I just want to lick your pussy until you come all over my face. I’m exposed. The entire town is watching. People are starting to take out phones and record what we’re doing. I see them all but can’t make him stop. I remember what this feels like. No one eats pussy like Onyx. I open my mouth to protest, but my words turn into a sigh as his tongue, wide and flat, runs up my pussy and across my clit. Everything is slick and wet. I don’t know if it’s my lubrication or his spit; I can’t track the sensations. I only know that I can barely breathe, let alone think. His tongue firms, probing my hole and running across my erect bud before it starts making patterns, flicking it. His finger slides inside me and hooks back, rubbing the front wall of my pussy, hitting my G-spot. I want to squeeze the finger, so I do. He keeps rubbing, slightly thrusting. His tongue circles my wetness. I’ve closed my eyes, not caring who sees this. There is only the sensation. Only the pleasure. I come immediately, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt — not with other guys, not with my hands or my toys, not even with Onyx. I cry out, loud. It seems to go on forever. I’m not in control of myself. I’m his for the taking. I’m just starting to recover when I feel pressure below. My pussy flinches; my clit is still sensitive. But then there’s nothing but ecstasy, and fullness, and completion. I open my eyes to see Onyx between my legs, pants pushed down, cock inside me. His jacket is off, his shirt unbuttoned and open, his glorious dark six-pack as cut as ever. His muscles flex as he fucks me. I crane my upper body up, wanting to see his cock slide inside me. Its dark length is slicked with my juices, flowing in embarrassing abundance. My pussy lips caress his shaft as he thrusts in and out. They cling to his cock like real lips — a blowjob from below. You’re still tight. Your pussy was always so hot and tight. I don’t know what else to say, so I try my useless defenses. I hate you. There’s no pussy like yours, Mia. Maybe I did try all the pussy the world had to offer, but in the end I came home to yours. This makes me furious. I don’t want to hear about anyone else. Onyx is gone from my life. He’s never supposed to touch me again. He isn’t supposed to be between my legs right now, here in public for the whole town to witness, fucking me until I — I come again, harder. The feeling surprises me, both because it appears from nowhere and because I don’t usually come from just intercourse. But he’s hitting all the right spots. Onyx always knew what he was doing, and right now I don’t care how he learned.
There’s only the orgasm, and the gravity of abandon. His tempo increases until he’s slamming me back against the bench in a furious assault. I want it. I want it all. Oh dear God help me, I want all the fucking he’ll give me. Somehow I come a third time as Onyx makes a final thrust, arching back and stretching his naked torso out before me, face to the sky, mouth open and moaning. His strokes become more fluid as he fills me with his seed. We’re nothing but liquid. My pussy squeezes his hard cock, never wanting to let it go. But then his cock leaves me. Onyx stands, composes himself, and nods to the crowd. I can’t move. I stay where I am, legs open, pussy spent but still wanting more. Stay away from me, I say. Stay away and don’t tempt me. Onyx says, No, Mia. We’re over when I say we’re over. Then he leaves. The crowd, suddenly disinterested, leaves me as well. And again, I’m alone.
CHAPTER TEN ONYX
The phone rings. At first I figure it’ll be Aiden, but it’s not. It’s Alyssa Galloway. I know before I answer because I actually look at the screen this time, but I still can’t keep the surprise from my voice when she comes on the line. “Well … hello,” I say. “Why are you calling me?” “Just checking in.” “But you don’t work for us anymore, do you?” “You don’t know?” Alyssa asks. “I can’t be bothered with such things. I’m too high up.” Alyssa laughs. It’s an unusual sound coming from her. She always had such a hard edge, and it took most of my charm to thaw it. Alyssa is pretty, but I never really considered trying to bed her. She was more of a friend — and honestly, my ability to be friends with a pretty woman makes me wonder if I’m finally growing up. Although there’s more to it on Alyssa’s side as well. I hear things are different for her now. Better. “You’re still a Banner client, even if I’m not your day-to-day rep.” “Oh. Good to know.” “But obviously that’s not why I’m calling. As your rep, I mean.” “‘Obviously’?” “I’m calling as a friend.” “People like us don’t have friends.” Another laugh. It’s a shame to think that all those years, when everyone knew her as such an ice queen, that pleasant sound was trapped inside her. “How is Education going?” Ah. Yes. The lie. Truth is, we’re scouting but may or may not settle Forage Education here. She’s still operating under the ruse we spun, before she turned down our offer in favor of something much better. “It’s fine. Of course, most of it is confidential.” I’m being playful, but that’s mainly to cover my tracks. I don’t remember what I told her and what I didn’t, other than that we’re planning to headquarter Education here and that I, personally, needed to be present for oversight — hence the bind that supposedly required Alyssa’s relocation to help me. “Mmm-hmm. And what about your other little issue?” “I’m still kind of an asshole. Although I’ve been having a lot less sex lately.” I’m still toying with
her, bantering — but I also realize it’s true. I haven’t been having much sex. There was a day when I couldn’t keep my dick out of a soft, wet garage, but lately it’s like I haven’t had time for even the most casual encounters. I don’t think I’ve been laid since … … since before Aiden suggested I come back here to work the Anthony Ross angle? But … no way. Has it really been that long? “It’s like you’re becoming respectable,” Alyssa says. “No. Never.” There’s a long pause. Then Alyssa gets to the reason she called. “I meant your other problem. Since you’ve been back in town, have you heard from Mia Stover?” Hmm. Now, how should I answer that? “Well … sort of.” “‘Sort of’?” “I actually ran into her yesterday.” Another long pause floats between us. I’m sure Alyssa’s tone is about to become disapproving. Alyssa doesn’t directly work for me any more, and I for damn sure don’t work for her, but she’s always done this shame-shame thing with me, like she doesn’t think I’m capable of running my own life despite building a multi-eleven-figure business. Compared to a guy like Cole Ellison, I should have been an angel of a client, but for some reason I’m always getting her judgment. “I see. And how did that go?” “You’re calling as a friend?” I say, feeding Alyssa’s words back to her. “Of course.” “Not as a PR agent.” “Just as a friend.” “Then, friend-of-mine, I’ll be honest. It went pretty goddamn horribly.” “Couldn’t you turn away when you noticed her? Or is Inferno so white that you were bound to stick out anyway?” “Inferno is diverse.” I stop there, as if the first part of the question will go away if I ignore it. “And?” “I couldn’t just turn away, Alyssa. She knew it was me.” “Describe the scene. I need to see this in my head.” I sigh. Then I say, “How is Cole?” “Don’t change the subject.” “No, let’s change the subject. I don’t want to talk about this. My relationship issues are none of your business.” The old Alyssa snaps back into her voice. “First of all, you can’t leave me hanging on a cliff like that. It’s not fair, just from a human standpoint. If you wanted to hide this from me, you should have hidden it all. You can’t tell me you saw her, that it went badly, and then refuse to say anything else. You should have learned that in kindergarten, Onyx.” “Well, actually—” “And second, we have a work history together and I need the loop closed on that basis, too. When I started working with you and asked about things from your past that might come back to haunt your current-day public image, you said Mia Stover without even taking a breath first. We spent days trying to decide whether she’d ever come at you now that you were a billionaire, be it with some sort of spiteful defamation attempt or something more egregious like a paternity suit. You’re on borrowed time with that, by the way.” “I always wore rubbers.” “Hey. I’m on Mia’s side here. Now that I don’t work for you anymore, I sort of want some babymama to come out of the woodwork and give you what you have coming. I held my tongue when I was
your publicist, but now that I’m not, I have to say it: You’re a real shit-face, Onyx. And I hope she kicks you in the balls the next time she sees you.” “Thanks, Alyssa.” “You can’t have me working on the potential Mia problem for nearly two years, then decide you have to go back for God knows what reason—” “I told you the reason: Forage Education.” “—and expect me to not be curious about whether you manage to stay out of trouble. Wrap that all together and we have a situation where I now know my friend-slash-former-client not only ran into the situation we’ve been fearing for years, but that it ‘went badly.’ So a big fuck-you for thinking you could avoid the details.” “Okay. Fine. She yelled at me. She shouted me down.” “Not surprising.” “She hit me. A few times.” Alyssa laughed. “Good. Serves you right. Did you say anything, or were you caught totally unaware when she spotted you on the street?” During the day yesterday, I went ahead and signed for the mansion I wanted to rent. Turns out, it came mostly furnished. One item I can’t quite abide is this giant grandfather clock. Its ticking drives me mad. In the pause after Alyssa asks her question, I hear every one like a hammer on steel. “Onyx?” “Well …” I shuffle, suddenly unable to get comfortable. “I thought I’d get her flowers.” Another long pause. Four clicks of the grandfather clock. “Wait. Are you telling me that you went to her?” “No,” I say, wondering what I’m trying to accomplish with such a simple, stupid lie now that the cat is out of the bag and loudly meowing. “After all we talked about? After all the scenarios? Don’t you remember, Onyx? We had teams of lawyers weigh in. Unless you knocked her up and didn’t know it, she has nothing on you because being a monumental bastard isn’t against the law. But that doesn’t mean she can’t stir up a lot of shit, and there are plenty of ambulance-chasers around who’d take up any frivolous thing she wanted on contingency just because you’re Onyx Scott and Forage has some of the world’s deepest pockets. They sue you, they sue you again, they sue you again … and sure, none of it sticks, but in the meantime you’re racking up legal charges and your name is getting dragged through the mud because believe me they’re letting the press know all about their cases. They want you to settle; doesn’t matter if there’s anything legit. But you told me, ‘She’s not like that,’ and we decided that there was one strategy that sounded best and that, honestly, we both thought would keep you out of trouble. Do you remember that strategy, Onyx?” I don’t reply. “Onyx?” Dammit, she’s really going to make me say it. “To stay away from her.” “Correct. So maybe you can enlighten me. Maybe you can tell me why, after years together and what I thought was a fair amount of mutual trust, you’ve decided to throw all of my work and advice into the crapper.” “It’s not that I didn’t take your advice. It’s that—” There’s a huge sigh. I imagine her free arm swinging wide as if trying to rise above a flood of stupidity, hair whipping as she spins away from me as if we’re in person, lips parting, exhale venting. “You got her flowers! You made a decision to walk right into the den of a problem we spent hours and hours and hours trying to solve. There was one thing you needed to do if you absolutely couldn’t avoid Inferno. Do you know what that was, Onyx? You fucking well should, seeing as we talked about it
at length when I stepped down from your account and turned down the offer.” “If I remember correctly, you missed your chance for the offer.” Another long pause. I picture my mother staring at me for trying to say some stupid bullshit. “The one thing I told you to do in Inferno,” Alyssa says slowly, “was to stay away from her.” “That’s easier said than done.” “Yes. Yes it is, when you get a fucking bouquet, seek her out, and plop yourself right in front of her. You didn’t tell her you always loved her, did you? You didn’t say she completes you or anything. Did you get down on one knee? Tell me there were limits to your humiliation.” “Just the flowers. But—” Alyssa stops me again, probably pacing the room, unable to believe my stupidity. “Let me ask you something, Onyx. Answer me honestly. Do you have any respect for this woman at all? And I mean, I know you don’t, or you wouldn’t have been the fucking asshole you told me you were to her.” “Are you sure this is you calling me as a friend?” “Please tell me you didn’t actually think that was going to work. Please tell me you didn’t think that after years of repeated, chronic cheating and lying — after betraying her innocence again and again — you didn’t actually believe that you could just walk up and hand her flowers and it’d all be better.” I snap. Fuck this. “Well, then, what the hell should I have done?” “I don’t know, idiot. Maybe stayed away like I said ten thousand times?” “Maybe I didn’t want to stay away. Maybe I wanted to say I’m sorry.” “Is that true? Or is it bullshit?” I hesitate. The answer is, It’s complicated. If we’re just considering me, then sorta, yeah. But there’s Aiden in this, too. We have a mess on our plate — me, Aiden, Mia, her friend Jamie, and Anthony Ross. We’re all swimming in it together. “Yes,” I say. There’s a shorter pause, and I think Alyssa might be about to hand me the key to the female psyche. It’s like her hand is on the wheel of the girl vault, considering whether or not to invite me in. “Well, too bad. You lost your chance with this one.” “I was a kid.” “You weren’t that much of a kid. Last time you fucked around on her was … what … five years ago?” “Six,” I say, a tad defensively. “So you’d have been 21. That’s an adult. And it’s not like you grew up in the lap of luxury, so don’t pretend you were partying on Daddy’s dime then.” “So … what? People aren’t allowed to change?” “Talk to me in twenty years. Maybe then, if you’re good, I’ll tell you that you can try again, see if she’ll buy that you’ve changed.” “I have changed!” But I haven’t. Not really. “Too bad. You don’t get a do-over every time. Some shit gets written in ink. Forget about Mia, and trying to make it up to her. In her shoes, I wouldn’t even want you to try. Take my advice on this one, Onyx. I’m serious. The best thing you can do for Mia right now — if you have changed enough to regret what you did — is leave her alone.” “I want her to know that I’m sorry.” “So what? That’s about you and your conscience. It has nothing to do with her. So you say you’re sorry. Is that supposed to make it all better?” “No, but I think that—” “Are you a woman, Onyx? Do you have a vagina?” I’m assuming this is rhetorical, but I answer anyway. “No.”
“Then honestly, it doesn’t matter what the fuck you think on this one. You don’t get to try and make yourself feel better. You get to take your own shitty consequences and sit in them. And that’s just tough fucking titties.” I bite my lip. I don’t know how to continue this conversation. I can’t tell Alyssa the whole truth. Not only do I doubt she’ll have a solution, I’m also pretty sure she’ll fly to Inferno and murder me. “I know you’re an asshole, and I like you anyway,” Alyssa says, somewhat more gently. “Never in a thousand years would I ever date or sleep with you, but—” “I never tried to—” “I like you as a person,” Alyssa says. “But frankly, aside from being hot and rich and powerful, I think you suck as a man. If you want to be a better one, great. Good for you. But it can’t start with Mia. That ship has sailed. Do better next time, but not with her. I get that you’re sorry, and that’s a start. But you don’t get to wipe the slate clean. You’d better learn to accept that what’s done is done.” I want to say more, but I’ve reached the limit of what Alyssa can hear. Maybe it’s good she refused this job. Once she was here, with a signed NDA and the truth, Alyssa would never have gone along with it anyway. “Okay,” I say. “We can talk later.” “All right. And Alyssa?” But she’s already mumbled goodbye and hung up. The line is dead. I set the phone down and walk to the giant window. Inferno sprawls beyond my expansive lawn. Somewhere down there, Mia is stewing about me. I have no idea how the hell I’m going to turn her around, but I have to try. My business depends on it.
CHAPTER ELEVEN MIA
I wake up sweaty in my childhood bedroom. At first there’s that strange dislocation that comes whenever you sleep somewhere new — that sense of this isn’t where I belong. But then I remember where I am, why I’m here, and the dream that dragged me through the night. I sit up, blinking in the sunlight. It’s Saturday, right? I don’t have to go to work, and that’s good because lately I don’t seem capable of going in without causing some sort of a spectacle. So far, nobody other than Jamie has said anything about the source of my agitation, so who knows — maybe nobody’s aware. Why would they be? Inferno isn’t the tiny little town it used to be, despite Old Town and its residents still feeling that way. Old Town … where I live. The one where we still have a small-town vibe, and everyone probably does know. Because they saw me and Onyx having sex right there on the bench. I suffer a full-on moment of panic — just enough to get my heart pumping faster. I jump a little and my hand clutches the sheets. It passes, but even in the seconds that follow, when every fiber of my rational being knows it was only a dream, some primitive part of me is still afraid. That part feels like it actually happened, and was recorded by the crowd. Something else is bothering me: I remember enjoying the dream, right up until the end. I liked that I denied Onyx, but he could see through me. I wasn’t even aware I wanted his tongue between my legs, but oh. My. God, the feeling when he yanked my panties down right there on Main Street and licked me … I know it was only a dream, but I swear I can still feel it. All the agitation I’ve felt about Onyx’s return has built up stress, and it’s settled below my waist as well as above it. How long has it been since I’ve had sex? I’ve been so worked up, I haven’t even touched myself. I wonder if I came in my sleep. That must happen, right? I know they talk about teen boys having wet dreams, but girls probably have the same thing, right? I came in the dream, did I also come for real? My panties suggest that I did. I catch myself thinking these thoughts, and I’m immediately embarrassed — or maybe “ashamed” is a better word. No one is here to see my embarrassment and shame, but I feel it anyway. Onyx isn’t someone I want in my dreams — and if he is, I want fantasies of kicking him in the balls. I want revenge. If I’m going to be fucking someone in a dream involving Onyx, I want it to be some other guy, and I can fuck him while Onyx watches and squirms. Or, hell … we’re talking fantasy, right? We’re talking dreams? Then I want like ten guys all
around me, and Onyx can sit in the corner stewing like a loser while ten hot studs do their worst. My pussy’s still tingling. It’s so tempting to heed its call. But if I go there, it’ll be because I’m hot on the memory of Onyx from my dream — which, let’s face it, isn’t far from memories of him in real life. He was a king at eating pussy. Nobody since has been able to hold a candle to him. I never faked it with Onyx. I didn’t have to … and the few times something was bothering me and I couldn’t climax, he always wanted to know. I want to know when you don’t come, he’d say, because that makes it so much hotter for me when you do. I shake the thoughts away. But they don’t want to go. They’re persistent, sticking to me as I wake up and get ready, like cobwebs clinging to my fingertips. Onyx is the last thing I want in my head, but the more I tell myself not to think about him and what his body used to do to mine, the more I’m unable to bar him from my mind. I quickly shower, so I’m not naked with my thoughts for long, then put on old underwear, ratty jeans, and a faded T-shirt with too many holes — all decidedly unsexy because they’re left-behind items from my teen years, when I flirted with grunge. But even at my least feminine, with my hair pulled back and no makeup — with a pair of unraveling cotton panties doing unpleasant things where the seam is splitting — I’m still getting turned on. Goddamn you, Onyx. Stop turning me on. I fucking hate you. The dream has ruined yesterday. I left that encounter feeling powerful, like I’d finally found my revenge. Onyx thought he could bring me flowers and make it all better, with his fucking stupid-ass grin? Well, screw that. And that’s how I felt, pride held high and my righteousness wearing an exponent, when I stomped off with Jamie running gobsmacked behind me. But now I have this alternate version in my head — the one from my dream. Onyx still comes to me with his dumbass flowers. Except now, when I push him away, he shoves me down to sitting, opens my legs, drops my panties, and licks my pussy. He makes me come, and then he fucks me. He doesn’t ask. He takes. It’s how he used to be — kind outside the bedroom, but bossy in it. Nobody’s been precisely like that to me since, either. Stay away from me, my dream self told him. Stay away and don’t tempt me. And Dream Onyx said, No, Mia. We’re over when I say we’re over. That’s not how it is, though, I tell myself. There’s fantasy … and then there’s reality. There are dreams … and then there’s the way things really are. In real life, I beat his ego into the ditch and walked away proud. That’s the version playing out now, and nobody has to know that he just fucked me in my sleep. Or that, honestly, I sort of hope he does the same thing again tonight. No I don’t. I hate him. But I’m lying. I don’t trust myself to be alone with my thoughts. I need a counterbalance. Something to distract me. And I need a real-world anchor to show me the difference between what I actually do and have and want in the real world, and the horrible things I shouldn’t think even in the privacy of my deepest thoughts. I glance in the mirror. I look, in a word, practical. This is a look that says, “Here’s a human being” and nothing more. I’m not sexy. I don’t need or want to be sexy, or to think about sex, or to admit to myself that motherfucker, Onyx actually did look damn fine yesterday in his dark suit and camel-hair coat. I leave the room, in search of my mother. I tell myself to stop thinking of Onyx.
Of course that’s impossible.
CHAPTER TWELVE MIA
And Mom is no help at all. I guess Jamie’s sister’s cousin’s hairdresser’s dog-walker’s boyfriend’s grocery-bagger knows a similarly distant acquaintance to my mother, because somehow Jamie got Mom’s number and called last night to ask about me. She swore Mom to secrecy, but of course Jamie doesn’t know Sarah Stover. She has the best of intentions, but it’s like my mother doesn’t know what secrecy is. Same for privacy. When I enter the kitchen, the first thing she says is, “Good morning. Your friend Jamie called last night.” “She did?” “She told me not to tell you.” I give my eyes the exaggerated roll I used in high school — the one that’s meant to be overtly seen, aimed right at her. The coffee is already brewed, so I grab a mug from the same cupboard the mugs have always been in. Things don’t change here. “So,” Mom says, “you want to talk about it?” “About you not understanding what ‘Don’t tell Mia I called’ means?” Mom shuffles on her stool. She’s always at least somewhat animated — the kind of person who’s always saying the wrong thing because she’s always saying something, even if it’s really inappropriate. She’ll go to a funeral, hear a chair squeak, and ask someone nearby if the corpse just farted. “Come on,” she says. “You came to me all bummed out last night. Obviously something went wrong. I didn’t want to pry.” “You did want to pry.” I pour my coffee. It smells delicious. The ebony liquid reminds me of Onyx. So does the heat. “Yes, but I held it in check because I’m a good mom who knows how to pretend that she’s giving her daughter space. But we also know that kind of thing only lasts so long, and eventually I’m going to start picking at scabs.” “I’m so glad you’re the person I turn to for comfort.” “You like me because I’m insightful, persistent, and have an adventurous fashion sense. I don’t like to brag, but I’m kind of the ideal mother.” “Mmm-hmm.” “So do you want to talk about it?” “No.” “Jamie said it was something with he-who-shall-not-be-named. What, was he profiled on TV or something?”
“Are my words not working again? Dammit. I’d swear I just said no.” “Or did he call you? He wouldn’t call you, would he? He knows better than that.” “Mom —” “She wouldn’t give me details. She told me not to even tell you that much.” “Mom, you’re a wonder.” I sit beside her, idly stirring my coffee. “I don’t know which role suits you better: secret-keeper or confidant.” “Aren’t they the same thing?” “A confidant is also around to support the secret. A secret-keeper only keeps them.” “Well, then, I’d rather be a confidant.” “You’re more of a broadcast center. Or an open box. Yes, that’s it. If I had some information I just wanted to leave lying around like a lost-and-found for secrets, you’d be that box.” “I’m flattered. Anyway. What happened?” I could keep playing this game and dodging her questions, but we both know that’s spinning wheels. I knew I’d have to face Mom’s aggressive girl talk in the morning. I sigh. I really, really don’t want to discuss this. It’s not that I’ve done anything wrong or even that I don’t want to think about it; it’s more that I know how Mom will react. Right now, I don’t know how much she knows or what Jamie told her, but it can’t be much. She guessed if I got upset because I saw him on TV, for shit’s sake. “I ran into him yesterday.” Mom does a variant on the classic double-take and almost spills her coffee. “Wait. Who? Not …” I nod. “Onyx.” “Doesn’t he live in California or something?” “Seattle, I assume, That’s where Forage is headquartered.” But then I think: Should I know that? Do most people know off the top of their heads where the world’s largest Internet company is based? Or do I know because I’ve poked around — almost as if I have (or once had) a vested interest? “And he was here?” I sip my coffee. “Yes.” “In Inferno Falls?” I look around as if just realizing something. “Wait. This isn’t Boca?” “I’m trying to digest this. You’re telling me your ex-boyfriend Onyx —” “Yes.” “— who, whenever I see his face, I make the sign of the cross —” “Just like Dracula.” “— is here. In town. Now.” “Seems that way.” I say it casually, but that’s because I can already sense Mom ramping up. In high school, back when I actually liked Onyx, I had to constantly defend him. Mom saw through the guy from day one, and the first time he cheated on me that was it — done, goodbye Onyx for good as far as she was concerned. Mom gives most people second chances, but not the guy who hurt her little girl. I forgave him, and forgave him the second time, and forgave him through all his many betrayals and lies. But all it took for Mom was the first time. The coming roles feel familiar. She’s toning up and I’m toning down to balance her. When I saw Onyx yesterday, it was one hell of a big deal to me, so it’s funny that right now I’m trying to make like it was barely anything, just to hold her temper. Tentatively, as if she’s trying to give the benefit of the doubt, she says, “Why would he be here?” “Business,” I say. Last night before bed, Jamie called and we talked a little. After her dad died, their family friend
Anthony sort of became her surrogate father. He didn’t open doors for her so much as coach her — helping Jamie to find her “one true path.” Back then, hearing the man who would become the one and only Anthony Ross say “one true path” and other self-help absurdities was sort of funny, but today it’s a whole other thing. Today, thousands of people at a time pay him thousands of dollars to hear him say words like that. I can’t even guess at what he’s worth, but everyone knows his face, his voice, his famous self-help-guru brand of aggressive personal development. It’s kind of funny that people say Anthony Ross has more influence than the Pope or the President now, when to me he’s just someone I knew growing up — my best friend’s second daddy. So Jamie talked to Anthony again, keeping the most embarrassing parts of my encounter to herself. She asked why Onyx is back — something Anthony had been cagey about when he let something slip before, apparently as part of some rich guys’ code of silence. This time, Anthony told her. Then Jamie told me. Now I tell my mom: “They’re apparently building some new Forage office here.” “In Inferno Falls?” Mom says it with intense disbelief, as if I said he was building a Forage office at the top of an extremely tall pole. “Hey, this is a happening little city now. You’d know that if you ever left Old Town.” “The traffic is terrible out there. I don’t want to leave.” “Well, it’s hipping up. You’d be surprised who’s looking here for their creative talent. I’ll bet you don’t even know how top-tier Urban Design is considered to be. I work at one of the world’s most respected architecture firms. You should be way more proud of me than you are.” “I’m so proud.” “Thanks.” “You’re so smart.” “I really am.” “But not as snappy a dresser as your mother.” “Okay. Great. Thanks.” Mom sips again. “So that’s it? He’s in town on business, and it’s all perfectly logical and just a big coincidence?” I take too long to reply. Yes, that could be partially possible. But I didn’t accidentally brush shoulders with Onyx at Hill of Beans; he showed up right outside my house, holding a big bouquet of flowers. And now, whatever I say, Mom will refute the coincidence. “Okay,” she says. “There’s more to this than you’re telling me. You may as well spill. I’m a relentless interrogator.” I cave. I tell her everything, down to the last slap. It’s hard to tell the story, though, because part of me is confused; I don’t really know which parts of which version are true. I know we didn’t have sex on a bench, but smaller differences escape me. Did Onyx grab me in real life? Did he touch me at all? Did he say I was his, and that we were only over when he said we were? Mom is nodding, trying to take it in and see how she feels. “He obviously wants you back.” “I think he just wanted to apologize.” A strange thing happens as I say it: I start to think maybe I overreacted. The guy’s been out of my life for years, and he might have been coming back to give me the sorry I couldn’t hear. Did he deserve an assault? I thought so yesterday … but what about today? “He brought flowers,” she says. “Maybe he brought them to apologize.” Mom stands, like the news is too large to process while sitting. She paces, then says, “You aren’t thinking of seeing him again, are you?”
“What? No! Of course not.” Mom squints down at me, assessing. “What was that just now? That little look?” “Nothing!” Then, calmer: “Nothing, Mom. It’s just … why would you even think I wanted to see him again?” She shrugs. “You always used to.” “Mom!” “I’m only going off past experience. He’s a magnet, you’re metal. He’s donuts, you’re your Uncle Rog.” “Rog does really like donuts.” “You’re changing the subject.” “I’m playing along!” Now I stand, too. “Why are you giving me crap about this? I didn’t do anything. He came to me. I shut him down, and now it’s over. End of story.” “Mia. Honey.” A condescending tilt of her head. “No offense, but I’ve heard that before.” “What the hell?” I throw my palms into the air. “I’m not eighteen anymore, Mom!” “Don’t be mad. I just …” Sigh. “You don’t know how hard it was, putting you back together every time he crushed you. And you can’t possibly know what it was like to see where things were headed whenever you went back to him and never being able to stop it. You would always tell me that he was truly sorry this time. ‘He’s changed, Mom. He loves me, Mom.’ And then he’d go and screw around. He’d lie right to your face.” “He was a teenager. He’s a grown man now.” “Mmm-hmm. I’ve heard that before, too. Like when he went off to college. Remember that girl he got pregnant? He knew she was pregnant when he came home to slip between your sheets.” “Mom!” “He’s a liar, Mia. Once a liar, always a liar. And I’ll be damned if I let him come near you again.” “He’s not coming near me again! Jesus, I wouldn’t have told you if I’d known I’d end up on trial!” “I’m just saying, you’ve always been weak around him.” “Weak?” “I’m sorry, honey, but it is what it is. It’s not a judgment. Believe me, there’ve been men in my past who I couldn’t stay away from, even when I knew—” My temper is back, but curiously not directed at Onyx this time. “I’m 25 years old, Mom! It’s been six years!” “You always defended him. Just like you’re doing now.” “I’m not defending him!” “He never does anything remotely ethical. He’s a shit and always has been. He’s a con and a turncoat and a—” “Forage has given hundreds of millions of dollars to fund educational development overseas, and —” “I thought you weren’t defending him?” “I’m being reasonable! You’re attacking me as much as you’re attacking him!” “I’m not attacking you, Mia. But you need to understand that what happened with you and Onyx — that whole long, horrible saga — wasn’t just his doing. It wasn’t like he was coming into the house and snatching you away. It takes two to tango.” “I thought he was the liar and cheat.” “He is. But you’re—” “—just gullible and weak.”
“I didn’t say that. And I don’t think it.” “And yet you seem to think that just because I ran into Onyx on the street, that means we’re suddenly going to—” “You didn’t just run into him! He came to court you like something out of a fairy tale. You’re a romantic, sweetheart, and I love that about you. But I also know this asshole, and I know the kinds of things he pulls, and believe me, if he came to you with flowers, he’ll come again with something else. And I’m just saying that when he does, I hope you remember that …” She stops, her eyes on me as I cross the room, away from her. “Where are you going?” “I need to get home.” “Why?” “I have work to do.” “It’s Saturday.” “Sometimes I have work to catch up on over the weekend.” “You’re mad at me.” “Gee. You think?” “Why are you mad at me?” “Because you don’t trust me, Mom! I’m not getting back together with Onyx!” “Fine. Okay.” She holds her arms out a little, the way she would if she was trying to find her balance on a rocking boat. “Just don’t let him talk to you again. Walk away.” “I think I can decide that on my own.” I’m moving upstairs, down the hall, into my room, gathering my few things. Mom’s on my heels like a terrier. “Are you thinking of seeing him again?” “No!” “What if he comes to you again? What if he says he’s really, really sorry and regrets everything. What if he says, ‘Mia, let’s just have dinner. I just want to talk to you.’” “I don’t know. I guess I’ll cross that bridge if I’m on it.” I didn’t bring luggage. It doesn’t take long to throw stuff back in my purse and grab my discarded clothes. I squeeze past Mom back into the hallway. “Wait. What does that mean?” “It’s a pretty straightforward expression, Mom.” “Why is there any question? You don’t need to wait until you come to that bridge. Just decide now. ‘No, Onyx, you’re an asshole and I never want to see you again.’” I’ve never been good at being told what to do, even if it’s what I would’ve done anyway. “Whatever I say if that happens — which it won’t — that’s my decision.” “Mia …” “Mom …” “I’m not going to let him hurt you again.” “You don’t have to let him do anything. I’ll be the one to keep him from hurting me again — by being a sensible human being who’s not an idiot, unlike what you seem to believe.” “And if anything happens,” she says, ignoring me, “I won’t hold your hand. If you make this particular bed, you’re lying in it alone.” I round on her as I reach the front door. Our silence says a thousand words. “I’m serious,” Mom eventually says. “He’s bad news and you’re not yourself around him. Please. Hear me. Decide right here and now, you’re done with him. Entirely. Forever.” But I’m stubborn. She shouldn’t be surprised; I’m my mother’s daughter. Just to be contrary — even though I don’t mean it — I say, “If I want to talk to him again, that’s my choice to make. Not yours.”
This time, Mom doesn’t reply. She stands in the open doorway as I walk away, angrier than ever, refusing to look back.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN ONYX
There’s a knock on my door at precisely 4 pm on Sunday. “Hang on,” I shout. “Not ready,” says a droll voice. “Typical.” I finish filling my glass of water, then cross the room to the entrance and open the door to see Aiden standing on the stoop. He’s looking down at his watch, practically shaking his head. He’s in his signature look, which could be described as “travel-worn.” It’s a farce, of course. His hair is a mess that’s a bit too artful to be truly messy. His blazer isn’t flashy, nor remotely cheap. He looks unshaven but wears stubble well. His white shirt collar is open as if he’s taken off his tie in frustration, but I know he never put one on. I find his look as ridiculous and pretentious as his insistence on perfect punctuality. If he wants to dress well, he should. If he wants to go casual, he should do that. But his careful facade says I’m perfect even when I don’t try — and while women seem to fall for his act, I’ve known Aiden long enough to see right through it. “We aren’t going anywhere. And I’m not late even if we were.” “Number one, who cares,” Aiden says, holding up one finger, then raising a second. “And number two, yes you were.” I don’t bother to respond. Instead, I turn around and walk away. Aiden makes himself at home, carefully closing the door and crossing to what’s probably a sixthousand-dollar sofa. He sits, then removes his shoes before propping his feet on an ottoman. And of course he brushes it with his hand first. “I have our solution,” he says. “I wasn’t aware we had a problem.” “Of course we do. Anthony Ross has some sort of an issue with me. You’re here to fix it, but apparently you’re a pussy.” I look up. Aiden is kicked back on the couch, looking like a surfer with his faux-windblown hair. “I know things,” he explains. “What things?” “Mia shooting you down on the street.” He laughs. “Gallant effort.” “How do you know about that?” “You not knowing makes this all so embarrassing. Where’s the promising young man I found at UC?” “Pretty sure I found you, Aiden.”
“Yeah, well.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s not fair, but history still tends to believe the white guy.” “Why are you here?” “I told you I was coming.” “That’s not what I asked.” “I’m here because you’re a pussy. Own your woman, Onyx. You’re embarrassing us both.” “And you still haven’t told me how you know about the thing with Mia.” He looks at me for a long moment and I get the feeling I’m supposed to guess. But I don’t feel like playing Aiden’s games. His presence is insulting enough. I don’t have his answers, but Aiden doesn’t travel unless he has an excellent reason, and then only grudgingly. He’s here to handle an annoyance. And because it’s my place he’s arrived at, precisely on time, I assume that whatever hasn’t met his expectations is me. Fucker. “Evan Cohen,” he says. “Don’t tell me she posted it on LiveLyfe.” “No, but someone else did. Someone named Carol. She saw some girl smack a guy down. Said it was hilarious. Her profile says Inferno Falls, and the IP she used to post something an hour before was also Inferno. I did the math. I asked myself, “Who else besides my pussy of a partner would get his ass kicked by his ex-girlfriend on the streets of Inferno Falls?” Dammit. I don’t think he was sure, but now I’ve confirmed it was me. What an asshole. “It’s handled.” “Is it? Because I have to say, Turner’s little Boys’ Club met in Portland yesterday, and I had Sammy take me down in the helicopter. Anthony Ross still doesn’t seem to want to talk to me.” “We’re all in the Syndicate together. Ross will come around.” Aiden shrugs. “Maybe. But maybe he’d take me a bit more seriously if an outside party vouched for Forage. Someone he loves and respects, who maybe heard something that someone else was planning, and thought it might be a perfect match for something Ross was already considering.” “Assuming that pile of horseshit you said is about Jamie Kyle, I don’t think Ross tells her his secret plans for his secret Syndicate’s secret trillion-dollar pool of assets.” “Well, no. But then again, it’s not quite a trillion dollars yet either, is it? Now that Nathan has most of his wish list in the stupid Trillionaire Boys’ Club inner circle, I hear a lot of the old-guard billionaires are starting to join the Syndicate. They don’t know they’re too old and ugly to be part of the real clique, but it’s not like I get much thrill out of being part of something called a Trillionaire Boys’ Club, so maybe they’re not missing out.” “What’s your point, Aiden?” “My point is that we got to where we are with Forage by being able to predict which way the wind was blowing. I don’t know how big the Syndicate’s asset pool is now, but I do know how Nathan thinks, and I know he won’t start calling for official ideas on how to use that pool until we hit the one trillion mark. And I know that’s coming, maybe soon. We can’t wait until Ross’s plan becomes the plan before we approach him about Forage’s involvement. We need to make sure he knows we’re worth involving now, or the entire Boys’ Club’s power structure — not to mention that of the larger Syndicate — will swing away from us like a pendulum.” “That’s a great metaphor, Aiden. I’m glad you made this trip to explain it.” He sits up, taking his feet from the ottoman, and stares me down. “All we need is his ear, Onyx. We need Ross to hear us for real, rather than just because he feels he has to or is being polite. The guy is a motherfucking guru. He could form a cult, and the world would follow. So the problem isn’t talking with him — it’s getting him to pay honest attention to what we have to say.” “And you think that Jamie Kyle liking me will make him pay attention.” “Yes, honestly.”
“Well, Jamie doesn’t like me. No one that ever cared for Mia likes me.” And with good reason. “Then make them like you. Start with Jamie — that girl is like a daughter to him. If she said she wanted a pony, he’d buy all of the Triple Crown venues to please her. Whoever Jamie likes, he’s going to like. And not fake-like, the way he usually is with people. You can sit down with him and he’ll captivate the fuck out of you. Make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. I can see how he got the whole world hypnotized. I’ll bet it’s a great asset for him in terms of getting tail. But that’s all just the public Anthony. You want to get his attention for real, you need to get past all the razzmatazz. Forage is perfect for what he has in mind, Onyx. What’s more the Internet than us? What suits his avatar project better?” “LiveLyfe?” Aiden laughs. “Well, you can bet Evan will try and convince him of that the minute he gets some idea of where things are headed. Right now, we’re a few steps ahead. But we’ll only stay there if we can grab Ross’s attention. If we don’t hook our cart to the future winning horse now, we’ll be fighting for a spot on his back after he’s left the gate.” “Another great metaphor,” I say, finally sitting. “And the second racehorse reference.” “Are we doing this or not?” I consider. Aiden’s right, but he’s also willing to break a lot more eggs than I am. I’m on board if we can agree to break fewer. That’s always been the difference between us. We’re both maybe too bold and too aggressive, but I’ve always had my limits. Aiden? Not so much. “Let me try and talk to Mia again.” Aiden considers, sighs, puts his feet back up. “Your problem is that you don’t know what you want. You don’t focus. It makes you hesitate. Never hesitate, Onyx. We didn’t hesitate when we built this company — not one step along the way. You were an ice-hearted bastard back then. This here?” He looks around the house, as if to imply the town, the situation, all of it. “This is a side of you I don’t even recognize. You’re distracted. You’re not focused. So what are you truly after? I know I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but apparently I do: Man the fuck up, partner of mine. Be who you really are, rather than this … this pussy you’re becoming.” I don’t snap back at Aiden. Honestly, he’s right. Mia literally beat me up on the street and Alyssa pummeled me with her words. I don’t let people do that. Like Aiden said, despite my PR smile and warm public image, deep down I’m an ice-hearted bastard. It’s why Mia hates me. And maybe — just maybe — it’s time I accept that. If Mia hates me, fine. But maybe I can still get what we need out of her. “I hear you,” I say, “but it has to be Mia first. I can’t get on the good side of the people who hate me because of her until I get on her good side.” Even as I say it, I wonder what the hell I’m talking about. If Mia still has a good side — which would be a miracle, after the way I treated her — I’m sure that I’m barred from it. Forever. “Okay,” Aiden says, raising his eyebrows at me. “We’ll do this your way — for now. But I need to know you’ve got this.” “I’ve got this.” “Her office. You’ll need to go to her office. If you go to her place she’ll kick you out and if you meet her on the street again … well, we don’t want that.” “I know. I have an idea.” “Is it a good one?” Slowly, trying to remember my ballsier, less-pussy side, I nod. “Good. But just in case, I got us an ace.” My head turns toward him. “What do you mean?”
“Urban Design,” he explains. “I bought the company.”
CHAPTER FOURTEEN MIA
When I get to work on Monday, there’s a shiny black Tesla in Simon’s parking spot. This strikes me as strange. Simon has terrible taste, and this car is downright sexy. Also, I don’t think Simon has much money. He owns and runs a prestigious architecture firm, but he’s brainless in terms of finance and he never enforces payment deadlines — something our clients have all figured out. His outgoings are overly generous and incomings are short, so Simon’s kept the company afloat by refusing to take a salary beyond the one that barely sustains him. He keeps talking like he’d leave the company the instant he could, but I don’t see how. This place has tons of potential, but it’s currently an albatross. Who the hell would ever buy it? Who’s going to save Simon’s ass if not Simon himself? So a Tesla? That’s not like Simon at all. I take the lobby stairs, pass Franklin at the front desk, and walk back to my office. I pass Jamie’s office along the way, peeking in to wave at her through the glass walls. But she doesn’t see me; she’s got her back to me, talking to a man in a gray suit, white shirt, and no tie. I feel like I should recognize him — he seems vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure why. Is it because he looks like a cover model? Or is it because I’ve seen him on a magazine, for something else he’s done? Maybe he’s just one of the clients I don’t work with directly. I lag an extra second, really wanting Jamie to see my greeting. I feel bad about the past few days, and how I’ve dragged her through so much crap. She’s hung in there — dragging me on jogs, telling me things I’d rather not hear because they’re in my best interest, standing by during a freakout that turned on her, then finally witnessing my blowup at Onyx and dodging the fallout. A friendly wave will start my week on a positive note; it’ll show Jamie I’m thankful, and more-orless fine. I do feel okay now. The past is in the past. Even Mom and I patched things up. We fight — all mothers and daughters do — but we never let wounds fester. But I can’t catch Jamie’s eye. She’s engrossed in what seems to be a serious exchange. I wonder if she’s being yelled at. All I can see is her slim profile: pulled-back long brown hair, a figure that’s so much better than mine, her effortlessly pretty face with those big almond eyes. I move on. I’ll talk to her later. I enter my own office, looking through my own parallel walls of glass: the one facing inward, toward the area we call the bullpen, and one facing outward toward the city. My mother’s isolationism reoccurs to me and I look out with fresh interest. Old Town really is its own little village, but the same can’t be said of the larger Inferno Falls. Our little city has grown up so much since I ran through its streets, fearing the likes of Stygian Hart.
I sit at my computer and busy myself. I’m about to delve into the city’s survey report on a new property we’re developing when a Google Calendar notification appears in the corner of my screen. Apparently I’m invited to a meeting today. In a half hour. This is super annoying, because I do my best creative work in the mornings — first thing, before anyone distracts me. Now I don’t want to start drafting anything, knowing I’ll need to stop. So I clean out my inbox. I send some proactive emails I was planning to handle later, and when all that’s done and I still have five minutes before it makes sense to hit the conference room, I decide to seek out Jamie again. We can chat for a moment — maybe discuss this meeting, which everyone in the company seems to have been invited to. I find Jamie at the Keurig, making herself a cup of French roast. She’s shaking down a green packet of stevia when I walk up behind her. “Good morning,” I say. Jamie jumps a little, surprised to see me. Her face registers awkwardness, and my stomach drops. Apparently the weird air between us isn’t going anywhere on its own. “Morning,” she says. “Who was that you were talking to earlier?” I ask. “A client?” “No. He’s …” She sighs. “Have you talked to Simon yet?” “I haven’t seen him around.” I look toward his office, but Jamie shakes her head in my peripheral vision. “No, no, he’s down in the lobby.” She doesn’t say it in the way she might if Simon went on an errand. She says it like “the lobby” is Simon’s assigned post. “Why is he in the lobby?” Jamie is looking past me, toward the bullpen. People are starting to gather for the meeting. I can’t remember the last time we had a full-group meeting. Jamie leans in and whispers. “Don’t be pissed at me, okay?” “Why would I be pissed at you?” “Don’t shoot the messenger, is all I’m saying. I’m just looking out for you. Trying to, anyway.” I feel bad that she’s so gun shy. Jamie’s my friend, and now I’ve made her skittish, like I’m going to bite her head off. I can’t blame her. “What’s going on?” “Someone bought the company.” At first I don’t understand. “What?” Rather than answer this rather simple question (People do buy things and you shouldn’t be surprised by it, says my rational mind), Jamie takes me by the upper arm, flicks her eyes around, and drags me the short distance back to my office. Inside, she turns the spindle beside the big window to close the blinds, shutting down my view of the bullpen . “Jamie. What’s up with you?” “Maybe you should tell me the same. What’s up with you, Mia?” “Nothing is up with me.” “Nothing?” “No, nothing. What’s going on?” “I came in early to try and get a bit more done on the Ace file before deadline. Simon was the only one here, and he was in his office, packing up.” “Why?” “I told you. Someone bought the company.” She hesitates before saying someone, and it makes me think that she’s only being vague for my benefit. She knows who that someone is.
I don’t know why my skin is crawling. “How wouldn’t we know about this? You don’t buy a company like you buy a cup of coffee.” “Simon said it happened fast. Just the past week or so. He told me a lot of stuff I didn’t understand, about loans and land contracts, that I suppose was him trying to explain it. ‘It’s not really a sale,’ he said, like he thought I was accusing him of trying to get away with something.” “I … who the hell would buy the company? Was it Aeon?” Jamie shakes her head. Assuming that our largest competitor would have bought Simon out makes sense, but Jamie’s shake tells me it’s what she’d have thought, too … but that no, something far less sensible has happened. It’s half negation, half bafflement. “No. It’s …” She looks at me sideways. Like she doesn’t want to say. “Is that who you were talking to in your office? The new owner?” “Yes. But … honestly, Mia, I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t want you to overreact. According to Aiden, this sort of makes sense, them buying the company for strategic reasons. This can’t be all about you. It wouldn’t make sense to buy a company because …” Again she trails off. “All about me? Why would I think Simon selling the company had anything to do with me?” “That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think it does. But Mia, I’m worried that you might think …” She glances around the closed office as chatter passes by outside. “And I mean, it’s almost sensible for you to jump to conclusions. In your shoes, hell, I’d probably think that …” Another reset. “But the timing doesn’t work. There’s just no way. That was only a few days ago!” “What was only a few days ago!” I shout it more than ask. She’s freaking me out. Talking in circles, clearly afraid I’ll draw a conclusion she doesn’t want drawn. But the vagueness of this conversation is making my hair stand on end. I sense bad news on the horizon, and she’s acting like delaying my knowing will solve the problem … whatever that might be. Something punches me in the brain. Something Jamie said is just now slotting into place. Aiden. I know an Aiden — well, know of an Aiden. “Who’s Aiden?” I say. Jamie’s eyes dart toward the door. “Jamie?” “Urban Design’s new owner.” She swallows. “One of them.” “Aiden who?” “Aiden Page.” Onyx’s partner in Forage. And she said one of the new owners. I almost stop breathing. “What are you saying?” Jamie opens her mouth. Her brown eyes have become tiny frightened animals, darting back and forth. She looks like she might be about to speak, but there’s a knock and my office door opens before I can respond. The bullpen is well-lit by comparison, and opening the door, even with the morning sun through my window, is like rolling a rock from the mouth of a cave. There’s a man there, the man from earlier. The one Jamie was talking to, the one that now owns Urban Design. Aiden. One half of the brains behind Forage. He’s still wearing his gray suit and white shirt, but no tie. He’s ruggedly handsome and hasn’t bothered to shave his morning stubble. His big hand stays on the doorknob, and his light blue eyes brighten when he sees me. “We’re ready in the conference room, Jamie,” he says. Jamie gives me a look that’s somewhere between warning and apologetic, then sneaks past Aiden and into the bullpen. He looks at me and offers a a sideways smile. It would be logical to introduce himself or say
hello, but he does neither. I move toward him, so I can join the meeting, too. But before I’m halfway there, he steps out and allows the door to close, shutting me in my office. Asshole, I think. I move toward the door and reach out my hand, but the knob turns before I can touch it. The door opens. It’s not Aiden who’s there this time. It’s his partner — the second half of the Forage duo the whole world knows, but that my mind hasn’t cottoned onto until now: Onyx. Here, in my office, with the blinds closed. He shuts the door. And, reaching back to press the button in the center of the knob, he locks it.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN MIA
“Get out of my office,” I say. But Onyx doesn’t budge. There’s a small moment of seeming indecision, but then he steps forward. He’s not holding flowers. He’s not asking for anything, least of all my forgiveness. He doesn’t say a word. He looks me over, top to bottom. Assessing me. It’s as if our last fight on the street was a warm-up, and he’s here for the rematch. He looks like an opponent who’s analyzed his past failures and aggressively trained to crush them. Whatever this encounter is, Onyx comes at me like a man intending to win. “Didn’t you hear me? I said to get out!” “I don’t want to get out.” His voice is velvet. My heart beats faster. Just hearing him sends my body into an adrenaline response, but it’s nonspecific enough to be embarrassing. Instead of priming me to fight, the adrenaline stiffens my nipples. Instead of mobilizing my legs to run, the stress response makes what lies between them wet. It’s like my biology knows stimulation, but not the difference between negative arousal and the kind that feels a little too good. Am I really so conditioned? Do I truly have no will of my own, once I’m in this man’s presence? “I don’t want you here.” “I guess that’s the difference between us, Mia. I do want you. Here.” It could mean anything. He seemed to hesitate between “you” and “here,” but that’s probably my imagination. This isn’t the Onyx Scott he became while we were apart; this is more like the asshole Onyx I knew back when we were kids, the guy who was always making me feel good before making me feel awful. This isn’t the Internet giant from all those Forage interviews. This is the man who used to rip my clothes off when we were together — who always met my anger with a kiss. “I’m leaving.” I head for the door, but my legs are heavy. My head is in a fog. It’s like a dream, with my feet held by tar. Of course I want to get away from this monster. He betrayed me again and again and again, no matter how many times I went back to him. So why am I so drawn to him now? Onyx reaches out and places his hand flat on the door, holding it shut. He fixes me with a gaze. His stare melts me. I feel nude before him, and my mind recalls the dream. I don’t want to think of Onyx like that. It was how we were best — just bodies, no brains or hearts. I almost thought he loved me once. I was wrong. But desire me? That, I never doubted. I hate that I’m rising to his unspoken challenge. I hate that, rather than knocking him out of the way like I did on the street, I’m attracted now by his stubborn refusal. He doesn’t want to let me go, and a
small part of me wants to stay. Damn him. And damn me. “I’m your boss now,” Onyx says. “You’re not my boss.” “Forage bought the company.” “Well, I’m not for sale.” “Don’t be proud, Mia. You made it clear you didn’t want to talk. You wouldn’t even let me apologize.” I laugh. Apologize. “But if you’d stop and think for a second, maybe you’d see that this isn’t all about you. You’d see that maybe the entire fucking world doesn’t revolve around you.” He comes closer. My back hits the wall. He isn’t pinning me, but I feel pinned all the same. Maybe I could walk around him. But the way he stands over me, part of me is unwilling to try. “Did you ever consider that maybe I was coming to see you because I knew we’d end up working together and didn’t want things to be awkward?” “I told you. You can’t just buy me off.” I’m puffing up my chest, but I feel so inadequate. All this posturing is probably drawing attention to my inappropriately erect nipples. “And I told you to think, how could we possibly acquire your company ‘to buy you off’ in just a few days?” “Jamie said it was a loan, or a land contract. Not a sale.” But I’m talking out my ass. Before me, Onyx seems so strong and certain. “This was in the works from the start. We need architects and engineers to build the Forage Education campus, and we weren’t willing to wait in line. This company has tons of potential but we practically stole it. Your old boss? Not the greatest negotiator.” I watch Onyx’s eyes. He’s so different from the way he was on the street. I thought I’d bested him then, but now I wonder if I was wrong. Is he telling the truth — that Forage acquired Urban Design first and Onyx only came to try and make nice after, knowing it’d be awkward? It can’t be right. But it’s hard for me to imagine challenging him now — hard to imagine saying no to Onyx at all, or keeping him from whatever he wants. “Well,” I say, “I’m not going to work for you.” “I’m in charge. Aiden is here for the meeting but then he’s flying back to Seattle. This is my office now. You will work for me, or find a new job.” He looks right into my eyes. My soul. I don’t know how to feel. As hard as he’s facing me, I almost believe this is business — a superior challenging a troublemaking subordinate. But it’s hard to separate that from the Onyx I was in poisoned love with before. It’s hard not to remember him looking at me this way when he was inside me. When he made my body feel, and my heart bleed. “You can’t do this,” I say. “I have done this.” “It’s not fair.” “It’s just business.” “Fuck you, Onyx.” I force back the moisture in my eyes. I will not cry. He’ll see it as weakness, when in fact it’s fury. Liquid rage, coming in a wave of undifferentiated emotion. He takes a step. There’s less than a foot between us. My pulse is in my neck. In my throat. Behind my eyes. Everything is blood and throbbing. I can barely see straight, and I don’t even know why. There’s an energy between us. A force that attracts as it repels. Slowly, he shakes his head.
“This isn’t going to work.” I look up. I don’t know what he means or where he’s going. “This isn’t going to work, is it, Mia? You and me, working together. I thought we could move on. I’d hoped we could. I know your reputation. You’re incredibly talented.” I blink, waiting. The truth is, Onyx got me into this field. He shaped my education and my future. Encouraged me, between bouts of pain. He was good for my mind but bad for my heart. He was good in my life, if he could only have stopped destroying me. I’m not surprised he thinks I’m talented, or that he’s researched me enough to know. In both good and bad ways, I’m his creation — the monster he made through act and thought and deed. “I don’t want to lose you,” he says, “on this project.” I swallow. “But if you say you won’t work for me—” I respond without thinking. “I won’t work for you.” If there’s a way out, I’m taking it. I’m not a slave. My hand isn’t forced. I don’t want to work for him. And never mind the inappropriate wetness in my panties, or the way I’ve noticed the rippling muscle beneath his shirt. I can’t help responding to this man after the way he once made me feel. I’m not guilty. This is only biology. “Don’t answer so quickly. Emotion is crowding your logic. You love your job, Mia — and a challenge.” It’s true. But fuck him if he thinks I’ll work for Forage. I can’t take it. I can’t live like this. I say nothing. “You’re being emotional, but this shouldn’t be an emotional decision.” I see his earnestness. I see him wanting me to make the right choice. Maybe even trying to move on. But I’m stuck in the past. I hate him. I want him. And no good can come from either, no matter the logical opportunity Forage presents. “I …” Softening, knowing it’s a mistake, I say, “I just can’t.” He watches me. I melt. I don’t know why, or why it’s happening now … but I’ve never wanted a man more than I want Onyx in this moment — and damn the consequences. He sighs and turns around, his back to me. I think he’s going to head for the door, but instead his hands move, rearranging something in front of him. I hear clinks. Then shuffling. But I can’t make sense of any of it, with all this lust claiming my mind. “Sit down.” Still facing away from me, he nods toward the chair beside my desk. “Talking won’t solve anything. I’m out. My answer is no.” “The problem,” Onyx says, as if he hasn’t heard me, “isn’t that your answer is no. The problem is that your answer is yes. You still want me, Mia. I can see it in the way you breathe. I can see it in the way your nipples are poking through your blouse. You might be able to fool someone else, but you can’t fool me. I know how you are when you’re turned on. I know what you look like, when your body’s begging for me to make you come.” At first I can’t speak. I want to shout him down, but it takes a few seconds to form words. Horribly, he’s right. I know the first thing I’ll need to do after I kick him out is to lock myself in this office, slip my fingers inside my dripping wet panties, and finish what Onyx started. It won’t take long. What’s in me now is an aching, hot-blooded need. “We can’t move on,” Onyx says, “with you feeling this way.” I lick my lips. I’m glad he can’t see me, because he might read unknown words on my face. He might see the way I’m watching him. He might imagine what I’m thinking, what I’m recalling from our
shared past. He might see the way I’m standing: still with my legs anchored, because I’m afraid that just the movement of my clothing will brush me wrong — or right — and send me into uncontrollable, helpless bliss. “You need to go,” I tell Onyx. But it comes out weak. I can barely talk. “I said to sit.” He turns his head but not his body, stares me down until I finally move forward. Every step is hesitant, as if I’m carrying nitroglycerine. I sit in the chair. I look up. He’s unbuckled his belt and unzipped his slacks. His thick cock is out, hard and seeping pre-cum. “Not on the chair. I meant sit up on the desk, and spread your legs.”
CHAPTER SIXTEEN ONYX
Mia looks at me like she doesn’t understand. Or rather, she looks at me like she doesn’t want to understand, but very much does anyway. I look at her, my cock hard and wanting. I fight for sense. None comes. I thought maybe this could be handled differently. Aiden made his plans — and in doing so, made some for me. After I failed to patch things up with Mia my way, he shoved his way in, as usual. The worst part is, it’s not a bad plan. Urban Design was mismanaged, and negotiating our quickie deal with the owner, to force things, was far easier than I’ve led Mia to believe. The truth is that we can use the talent, and if Education ends up getting built in the Falls, having our own architecture firm is far more efficient than dealing with outsiders. Worst case scenario, we let the option expire and drop it back in Simon’s lap. There’s no way to lose. Except between me and Mia. But now there’s no other choice. She’s doing what I told her even as she eyes me with lust-filled regret: moving to the desk, standing in front of it, and dropping her panties to the ground. She’s in a little black skirt that suits her, with a white blouse that looks almost like one of my dress shirts, tailored to fit her tiny frame. Her black hair and black-lined eyes are stark against her pale skin. She’s trembling, nervous. I know how she feels. I’ve never wanted any woman more than I want Mia now, and I’ve certainly had my pick. She’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me. When she sits on the desk and opens her legs, it’s all I can do not to dive forward without a thought. She’s watching me with a down-tipped chin, upturned eyes. Her eyes light me on fire. The look is innocent and craven. Good and evil. Desiring and avoidant. I’m drawn to her, and know I shouldn’t go. She lays back a little, opening wider, then hikes her skirt up to show me her pussy. One hand holds the desk and the other moves between her smooth folds. The skin there is blushed with moisture. She wants me, all right, just as I want her. My cock twitches as I watch her lips open like a flower. I want to fuck her like never before — to make her claw my back when she comes, to make her scream my name. I shouldn’t do this. For both our sakes, and given our past. I do it anyway. Part of me wants Mia to tell me to stop, to shove me away. It’s kin to the part of Mia, I suppose,
that wants me to stop on my own. But I can’t stop, and she can’t tell me to. We’re both hopeless. We’re two ships bound to collide. Neither can steer away from the inevitable wreck. I’m not strong enough to stop wanting her, and she’s hopeless to stop craving me. We fit together in every way — until it’s over, and my true nature returns. I wanted to be true to Mia, but I was broken. Somehow I stop with the tip of my cock inches from her pussy. And I say, “It won’t be any different.” Mia bites her lip. Her chest rises and falls. Her fingers stroke her pussy, then reach for my hard shaft. I feel her soft digits caress me, bringing me toward the edge. There’s a moment. Then it breaks. “It can only be sex,” I say. Again she says nothing. Biting her lip. Watching my eyes. Her chest rising and falling. Without thinking, I pull her forward. I can’t put my cock in her like this, not with her face as a window to the past. We’re both adults; we know this is stupid. But at the same time, we’re both adults — mature enough to know this is an itch that must be scratched. I pull her from the desk. I turn her around and bend her over, so that she’s facing away from me — a smooth ass and a delicious pussy. Just another girl. One more place to dip my wick. She’s not Mia. I tell myself this because I can’t be with Mia, because … well, I don’t know why anymore. Without thinking, I press the tip of my dick against her pussy. It slides in without resistance. The sensation is intense as I enter. It’s as if her pussy is a fist, taking me by the shaft and dragging me inside. I’m all the way in and her tunnel squeezes me, throbbing like an orgasm. I move a little and the squeezing intensifies, then just like that Mia’s pressed flat on her own desk blotter, one arm striking out sideways involuntarily, striking a caddy full of pens and knocking it to the floor. She gasps and her pussy milks my cock and I realize she’s coming. Already, she’s coming, with my big dick inside her. I thrust, feeling the contractions. She’s so tight as she comes that I almost come with her. Instead she brings me to the edge — my balls pulled up tight against me, nerves screaming through crotch, everything tense as I try not to explode inside her. It’s nearly impossible. Mia keeps coming and coming, an endless orgasm, her breath in hitches and moans. She’s not in control. Neither am I. I fuck her slow to try and hold out, but there’s no way; she’s borne down on me, pressing herself flat to the desk, her body weight pinning my cock inside her, flattening her pussy between torso and desk. She’s grinding against me, pushing back, fighting my every attempt at restraint. But I can’t hold back. I think things I shouldn’t as I slide toward my point of no return. This is Mia I’m fucking. I’m inside Mia, all over again. My balls clench and I thrust faster into her, slamming against her ass, gripping her shoulders, my feet barely able to hold me upright. We shouldn’t be doing this. I swore, for both our sakes, that we’d never do this again. Not because I didn’t want her. But because we were hotter than the sun. Hotter than any mortal is equipped to take. We burned bright and died early. Whatever we’re doing now … it won’t end well. “Onyx,” she says. “Onyx, I’ve missed you.”
Her words should make me wither. Instead, they push me over the edge and I explode inside her, my fingers on her shoulders like talons. I pull out, already regretting what we’ve done. “Tell me you’ve missed me, too,” she says, her voice soft. Of course I have. But I say nothing. Instead I buckle up and leave her behind.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN ONYX
Aiden finds me in his Tesla. He didn’t even rent it. He bought the thing after landing, the way a man who forgets his toothbrush on a trip will simply buy a new one. He leaves it unlocked, figuring it doesn’t matter if anyone steals it, and when he’s done here he’ll do one of two things. Either he’ll leave it somewhere and wait for the city to ticket and eventually repossess it, or more likely he’ll contact one of his charities and have them take it for auction — in a very public way. And when I say that, I don’t mean to sound jaded. It’s not that Aiden’s famous philanthropy is disingenuous; he means it. It’s just that when he does good things, Aiden insists on getting credit. For PR’s sake. It’s after eleven when he finally comes down to the car. It’s almost lunchtime inside, and Aiden’s work is done. I, however, will eventually need to go back. I don’t want to. Because if I play my cards right, I’ll find Mia back on her usual hook — where I no longer want her. Aiden opens the passenger-side door, slides in, and has closed it by the time I look over. “Tell me you hit that.” I don’t reply, so he holds up a hand and repeats: “Tell me you hit that.” “Put your fucking hand down.” I don’t look over, but from the corner of me eye I see him shrug. “Fine. Leave me hanging. I thought we were better friends.” I refuse the bait. “Did you handle the meeting? Is it over?” “Jamie will take over most of the day-to-day. I made it clear that it’s not permanent and that we’ll be bringing in someone to manage things.” “Now you’re hiring? This is a lot of work, Aiden.” “One of your Education people can do it. There’s like fifteen people in the entire company. How hard can it be to manage architects and civil engineers?” I say nothing. I’m still thinking, mostly ignoring my partner. “Relax, Onyx. Based on what Jamie said, the office runs itself. Simon was more in the way than anything.” “And now we own an architecture firm.” Aiden confirms what I’d already figured: “We don’t have to go through with it. When we’re done here, we can let Simon have it back.” “I get the feeling he doesn’t want it.” “Then we’ll make some process improvements in the meantime. I’ll infuse some capital. We need the loss on the books anyway. He’ll get back a better company than he left. What’s the problem?”
I sort of grunt. Aiden turns to face me. “What’s going on with you, Onyx? You just got laid. I’d think you’d be stress-free, not stressed out.” “This was a mistake.” “Of course it’s not a mistake. I saw Jamie and Mia in the break room on my way out, so I stopped to listen. That girl is really hung up on you, Onyx.” Yes. Yes, she is. That’s exactly the problem. And what I can’t tell Aiden for a dozen reasons is that it’s not entirely one-sided. The way Mia and her mother always saw things, I was the bad guy. And yes, I was awful. But there was a second truth: I always fucked things up when I started to think about Mia too much. I didn’t like the control it felt like she had, given all the things I wanted to do in the world. When she started to feel like shackles, that was when I broke things, when I took whatever we were building and lit it on fire. “Your logic is fucked up, Aiden. Even if Mia starts liking me again, Jamie will be a stumbling block. Mia can say I’m awesome all day long, but Jamie won’t go to bat for Forage with Anthony Ross as long as she — Jamie, not Mia — thinks we’re rotten.” “This was your logic, partner. And it’ll work. Just let me worry about Jamie.” That turns my head. I saw them together earlier. Based on her LiveLyfe profile, Jamie doesn’t strike me as the kind of girl who’s easily fooled or even wooed, but I did see her flirting with Aiden. And there’s no question about the guy’s charm. “So now you’re sticking around? Going to manage an architecture office in Podunk, America?” He laughs. “Of course not. I’m taking the jet to Seattle as soon as I grab my shit from the hotel.” He looks around the car’s cab. “You want the Tesla?” “So you’re not staying?” “Why would I stay?” “You said you’d handle Jamie.” “I said, ‘Let me worry about Jamie.’ What, did you think I was going to fuck her?” Aiden laughs. “She’s hot, but she’s way too smart for me. Not that I’m against intellectual chicks — I just mean it’d take more time to crack her than I’m willing to invest. And hell, she’d probably see right through me. I’ll hurt the cause, not help it.” “So why fly down?” “To make sure you didn’t fuck things up.” He frowns. “Or, perhaps more accurately, to make sure you did ‘fuck’ things up.” He makes a show of sniffing the air. “But yes. I do think it smells like pussy in here.” I hate that Aiden knows what happened between me and Mia — even if that was his plan. Putting us at the helm of Urban Design is a way to keep me close to Mia so she can fall for me again, but I had to cross that particular line first, today. Now it’s handled —but what I did feels different than the plan. And I resent AIden’s nose in my business. “I’m going back to my place,” I say, reaching for the door handle. “Wait.” My hand is still out, but I turn my head to look back at him. “How long have we known each other, Onyx?” I don’t answer. It’s rhetorical, and I don’t particularly feel like playing his games. Normally, I like Aiden a lot. He’s like a brother. But today? I don’t know — I want him gone so I can be alone. “I know how you are,” Aiden says. “I know you better than you know yourself.” “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not always a cold-hearted bastard. A lot of the time, you seem like one — and I’d say you are — but every once in a while you’re a decent guy.” I wonder if I’m supposed to thank him. “There’s a lot riding on this, Onyx. You know there is. Ross’s platform is a perfect match for Forage. It’ll turn us into the intelligence behind the entire Internet … and that’s for starters. You know how Ross is. He doesn’t have a five-year plan. He doesn’t even have a ten-year plan. The ideas Ross has hinted at? They won’t fully realize for fifty years. It’ll be the 2060s before we know what this all really meant and why it mattered.” “He’ll be over ninety in fifty years, and lucky to be alive.” “And if the rumors we’ve heard are true? In twenty or thirty years, ninety won’t be that old for a guy like Anthony Ross … or for guys like us, if we play our cards right.” I’ve heard this all before. It’s bullshit, but I don’t feel like arguing with Aiden right now. He fixes me with his blue-eyed stare. “My point is that now — right here, today — we have a chance to get into this thing with Ross, if the Syndicate votes the way I think it will when the time comes. If we do, then we can only imagine what we’ll have created when the 2060s roll around. But if we fail? If Anthony Ross isn’t interested in talking to us because his surrogate daughter doesn’t tell him what amazing visionaries we are? Well, then Forage will be another search engine, eventually losing the race to Google.” “What’s your point?” Now Aiden reaches for the door handle, actually opening his. He’s either planning to walk away from me or hail a cab. I guess this is my car now, no matter whose name is on the registration. “My point is that every once in a while, you’re a decent guy,” Aiden says. “But for the love of God, don’t let now be one of those times.” He’s out of the car. I reach over and hold the door open. “You’re just going to leave me to deal with this alone? Just like that?” “Just pretend to be yourself,” Aiden says, “and make sure Mia believes.”
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN MIA
My knee-jerk reaction is to feel like an idiot, but I convince myself that it’s worth turning the coin to see the other side. Maybe I’m not a fool. And maybe it’s listening to my knee-jerk reactions — instead of properly thinking things out — that keeps getting me into trouble. It’s backwards psychology, telling me only what I want to hear. Part of me recognizes my bullshit, but not all of me. Somehow I decide that maybe I had so much trouble with Onyx in the past because I never stopped to consider the consequences … and conveniently ignore the fact that what I’m not stopping to consider the consequences of this time is having sex with my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. Honestly, though. That’s something I should feel stupid about. I mean … come on. Still, I manage to pull my shit together once Onyx leaves the room, telling myself that maybe he didn’t kiss me or look at me or say goodbye because he was being discreet. Maybe he’s trying to keep a playful secret alive between us, and that’s why he didn’t ruin our beautiful carnal moment with … you know … courtesy. I suspect this is a defense mechanism. I suspect I’m telling myself these lies because if I don’t, I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’ll have no respect left for this skinny black-haired girl who can’t resist the asshole. So after work, I tell Jamie. And she flips right the fuck out. “You what?” And when she says it, she’s not responding to my revelation that we had sex in my office today. That would be logical. Instead, she’s responding to something much more offensive that I just said: That I think he might be feeling things for me again, and that maybe he’s changed. “Mia. Honey. He and his partner bought the company you work for just a few days after he came to you on the street with flowers, looking to—” I point a finger in her face. We’re at a table on the patio at Hill of Beans, and there’s a light breeze in the air. The day is fragrant. I hear chirping birds and smell the season’s freshest blooms while the logical part of my brain points at me and laughs. What am I, a fifteen-year-old in love? This is Onyx. He’s caused me more pain than my dentist. “That’s just it,” I interrupt. “He came with flowers.” “And you punched him in the dick.” “He deserved it. I’m just saying, time can change people.” Jamie squints at me as if trying to read tiny writing on the bridge of my nose. Then, carefully, she says, “You’re just trying to justify the cock.” “Jamie!”
“You are. You got fucked. But you told me yourself that he said it was just about sex.” “Oh, I don’t know what he meant by that.” “I think it probably meant, ‘This thing I’m about to do, where I put my dick inside you? It’s just about sex.” “You didn’t see how he was.” “I know exactly how he was. Not today, but for … like … all of your past.” I sigh. “This was different. I … saw something in him.” “I think what you both saw was something in you — namely, his cock.” “It’s not just sex.” Jamie looks like I’ve set someone on fire. “Mia! He told you, ‘It’s just about sex!’” “That’s out of context.” “Uh-huh. And right after he said it, you … what? Went to a carnival? Oh, no, wait. You had sex.” I knew this was a bad idea. I should have kept it to myself. I went into the bathroom after it was all over — wiped the evidence away, pulled my panties back up, and pretended to be an upstanding member of the office with nothing to hide despite the looks I got after leaving my shuttered office. I stared into the bathroom mirror just to prove to I could do it. He’s not just using you again, I told myself. He’s changed. He may have changed. It’s somewhat remotely possible that he’s changed … you don’t know. But now, facing Jamie, those lies are harder to believe. It was simple yesterday, because we were two separate people with a terrible past. Now we’ve had this encounter. And if I didn’t do it because I believed that Onyx had changed, I’ll have to admit to being a sucker — his fuck toy, there for the taking. Jamie puts a hand on my shoulder. “You know I love you, right?” I roll my eyes. She usually suggests we go jogging right after saying something like that — like she’s softening me up by pointing out how my life or health needs saving. “If he wants it to be just about sex, then cool, as long as you want it to just be about sex. I wouldn’t have recommended it, but you sort of jumped the gun without asking me, so what’s done is done.” “Hmm.” “And by ‘jumped the gun,’ the ‘gun’ is his fat hog.” “I get it.” “Because you jumped all over his sausage. You just climbed right up there and slid down that shit like a ring pop.” “Actually, I was laying on my desk.” “But now you think he loves you — and that’s a problem.” “I don’t think he loves me, Jamie.” But saying it bothers me a little. Truth is, I did see something in Onyx’s eyes before he bent me over. It wasn’t really lust and it certainly wasn’t love, but it was something. In the neighborhood of regret. Like maybe he didn’t want to do what we were doing but couldn’t help himself. Or maybe I’m projecting so I don’t feel like a total slut. I mean, he didn’t speak to me at all afterward. He left my office, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Maybe because he was processing his feelings and couldn’t face me. Because … you know … maybe he still kinda loves me. “Mia? Earth to Mia.” I turn my head back to Jamie, realizing I’ve been daydreaming. She’s mocked me for my far-away gaze before, and I’m sure I’ve done it just now. “He’s bad news, Mia. He’ll hurt you again. I can’t let that happen. I’ll cut his balls off first.”
“I know,” I say, nodding. But honestly, I’m only telling Jamie what she wants to hear.
CHAPTER NINETEEN MIA
Jamie wants to hang out in the evening, but I get the feeling she’s doing it to keep an eye on me, like a wary shopkeeper watching a group of kids he’s afraid will start stealing. At first, I consider taking Jamie up on her hangout idea, even knowing her likely intentions. It’d be good to have a sounding board, even if it’s a judgmental one who thinks I’m unfit to run with scissors. But then I think of today and how I feel about it. It’s moved to some sort of mental back burner, neither present nor absent in my mind. I’m working behind the scenes, brewing something I can take the lid from and figure out tomorrow. I don’t want to think about Onyx, nor do I wish to steer my thoughts clear. I don’t want to avoid him, really, but I also have no desire to seek him out. Today’s tryst popped a bubble of anticipation between us, now we’re back to neutral with our itches scratched. I feel strangely distant. No lust or regret, desire or shame. It’s just something that happened — another datum for my percolating, back-burner equation. I feel safe to be alone. I won’t do anything stupid. I know where Onyx is staying, and something tells me he won’t come all the way out to Old Town to walk around — let alone come for me with another ill-conceived bouquet. He must be as confused about me right now as I am about him. He won’t come to find me. I’m fine. I can do this night myself, and probably need to. Jamie thinks I was imagining the strange new look in Onyx’s eyes, but even now — even after I’ve had time to absorb Jamie’s assessments and think on it — I believe it was there. No, I don’t think that look was love. I’m not that stupid — especially not now, not after being burned a million times. But I do think it was something. And if I had to guess, Onyx probably has changed in some small way over the past six years we’ve spent ignoring each other. I surprised him as much as he surprised me, and I doubt either of us knows what to think of what we did on my desk. I hear Jamie: It’s just sex. But it wasn’t, no matter what Onyx said before moving inside me. Determined to be alone, I call Eva at Ticket to Ride and book a lesson. Riding horses relaxes me — and bonus points when she’s yelling at me to straighten my back, lower my heels, and keep my chin up. Riding, for me, is like yoga. I focus on my body and on doing what my instructor says. It’s almost primal, and I can forget everything else. Hold this body part this way. Hold this other part this way. Grip with my legs.
And feel the animal move beneath me. The sky darkens after the lesson. I run back to my car, smelling like horse. I’m the only one in the lot. The night and hills are quiet. We’re five minutes from Old Town out here, but for a while, looking up at the stars, I feel like the world’s lone occupant. I’m not thinking about today. I’m only thinking about now. This was exactly what I needed to clear my head. I drive through Old Town on my way back to my place, and as I pass The Nosh Pit, I get a sudden hankering for a big greasy burger. I have plenty of food at home, but tonight — tired, smelly, and unsure of my moral bearing and/or integrity — I figure what the hell. So I stop. And at the second table past the hostess stand, I see Simon. I consider pretending not to see him, due to an odd feeling in my gut (didn’t I have sex with someone in his building today?), but he sees me and raises a hand, his face lighting up. I smile, head over, and sit. I guess I’m not getting take-out, but that’s fine. I reek of horse, but Simon doesn’t seem to notice. We make small talk. He asks how things are going. I say, You mean in the one day you’ve been gone? Har-har. Simon laughs, but then keeps waiting. Yes, he means it. He’s been gone from Urban Design for less than 24 hours, and already wants an update. That makes me sad. Simon mismanaged the company and that’s probably why he lost it. He could barely keep us afloat despite our high rates and stellar reputation. The guy was too damned nice. But now, looking at his big eyes, I realize that Simon’s attachment to the company wasn’t borne of dogged persistence. He didn’t hang onto UD for years after it started bleeding him because he was stubborn or stupid. He founded the company, and it was always his baby. So I tell him: As far as a single day can go, things are fine. “Aiden said they’d bring in a new CEO,” he tells me. “I don’t suppose you heard anything about that?” In a day? Of course not. But rather than sharpening the point, I shake my head. “The company needs a CEO. A real one.” “You were CEO, Simon.” He shrugs. “In name, maybe. But I never acted like one. I just wanted to make art.” That hurts a little more. I never got to know Simon super well, but I know enough of his history for that to hit close to home. Once, when I was new to the firm, we went out to lunch. We were both fine arts majors, but I had a degree in business, which Simon didn’t have. Late in my run, I added a serious focus on civil engineering, then extended my run by over a year to get that degree, too. It’s made all the difference in building my dream job, setting me well above (and more in demand than) our architects. I have Onyx to thank for pushing me toward civil engineering. He understood me, knew I was great at math even though I hated it. He told me to get over the hump and do more of it now, so that I’d be happier tomorrow. He was right about something I’d never have realized on my own. “Until then,” Simon goes on, “is Jamie running things?” “Some. Most of the daily operations.” “And you?” “I got an informal promotion.” Then, feeling ridiculous but sure I should say it, I added, “We’ll take care of Urban Design for you, Simon. She’s in excellent hands.” He smiles, then sighs. “I believe it. Mr. Page said they were infusing some much-needed capital, too. He said Forage needs the write-off, plus dedicated staff to work their Education project, if it happens.” “‘If it happens’? Is there a chance it won’t?” Simon looks caught. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about this. I signed an NDA.”
Part of their deal, I guess. I let it go, though that definitely raises my antennae. As far as I’ve heard, Forage came to the Falls for their Forage Education expansion. Why are they here, if they might not do it? And why did they buy an architecture firm if they weren’t sure? “Look,” I say. Something’s been bugging me, and if I’ve got Simon here, I’m going to at least try and ask. “I know it’s confidential. The deal is confidential. But the staffing plans … that can’t be under your NDA, right?” “I’m not sure …” “Once Forage owns the firm, then it’s none of your business. So you can’t be expected to keep it confidential.” “Technically, they don’t really own it. More like they’ll own it soon.” Simon’s hand darts to his mouth like he’s said too much. I pretend not to see this. Going for my question now, while he’s distracted because he thinks he might have blown his deal, is my best chance. “Some people were worried that Forage might lay some people off. I heard chatter about it this afternoon.” “They can’t get rid of you, Mia. You’re lead engineer.” “I wasn’t thinking of me. You always ran UD like a family, so I’m thinking of everyone.” It’s true. Probably one of the reasons we were always underwater. There’s an old drafter, Jerry, whose skill set was obsolete a decade ago and who says he “prefers” not to work on a computer because he doesn’t know how. There are a trio of interns that Simon funded even though they were unpaid positions, because it was “fair.” The residential team, in particular, probably isn’t relevant to Forage’s commercial plans. They might be on the block. Simon watches me. He definitely knows something, and is trying to decide whether to tell me. “I won’t say anything, Simon. I’m just concerned.” “Okay,” he says, nodding. “I guess I’d have to keep it to myself if there were going to be layoffs, but I’ll tell you, to set your mind at ease, because the truth is there won’t be.” I’m surprised. My face must show it, because he gives me an I know, right?’sort of look. “It’s written into the takeover documents. Which are under my NDA, remember, so don’t say anything. Promise?” “My lips are sealed.” Simon chuckles, then shakes his head. “I hope so. Because if Mr. Page finds out …” “Why would I tell Aiden that you said anything? You know I wouldn’t rat you out, Simon.” He shakes his head again, this time more insistently. “It’s not that. I’m not saying that Aiden will find out that I talked to you about our deal. I’m thinking of the disaster that might erupt if he found out what the deal was.” “How could he not know what the deal was? He made the deal with you!” “I made an initial deal with Mr. Page,” Simon explains. “But it wasn’t until after Page left that I finalized it with Mr. Scott.” “You finalized the deal with Onyx?” Simon nods. “And when I brought up staffing and layoffs, it was already too late. Those things were fully Forage’s decisions by the terms of our takeover.” He looks around, smiles guiltily, and says, “I’m not doing a very good job of ‘not disclosing’ per my ‘nondisclosure agreement,’ am I?” I ignore this. I’m more interested in the meat of what he’s saying, and damn whether he’s not supposed to tell me. “What about staffing and layoffs?” “He wrote up an addendum, Mia. Right on the spot. They’re equal partners, and either one of them can bind Forage in a contract, so he didn’t need Page’s okay. And he told me, this was between us —
between me and Mr. Scott. I couldn’t tell Page, because if I told him, he’d flip.” “What did the addendum say?” “It said they’d freeze staffing for two full years or until the contract is rescinded, whichever came earlier.” “He wrote up something specifically to freeze staffing? Meaning nobody can be fired?” “Not unless they steal or do something egregious.” “Why? What did you give him to get him to add that to your deal?” “Nothing.” Simon shrugs. “I asked and he gave. He even put up a fund to cover overpayment on payroll. But here’s the thing: He said his partner would know if he took that fund from Forage’s account, so he paid for it personally.” “Are you saying that Onyx not only promised, in writing, not to let anyone at Urban Design be laid off or fired … but that he personally created a fund to handle staffing?” Simon nods. “The shortfall, yes. So the larger business won’t be impacted by what he called my less than ideal hiring and paying choices.” I realize my mouth is open. I close it. “Why, Simon? Why would he do that, after Forage had already taken over the company?” “Honestly? I have no idea.” Simon gives me a helpless smile. “He just said something weird, that he didn’t want to explain.” “What was it? What didn’t he want to explain?” “He told me,” Simon says, “that there really are such things as ghosts.”
CHAPTER TWENTY MIA
This was a really stupid idea. The minute I open my mouth, I know I shouldn’t even have come to my mother’s house, let alone said what I have. In my memory, it was one of a few untainted things. Now Mom’s ruining it with her rolling eyes and sarcasm, making me feel stupid in seconds, soiling the mood I had on my short drive over after leaving Simon. “‘There’s such a thing as ghosts’?” she says. “Never mind.” “Are there such things as fairies? Can I give Tinkerbell back her power if I say it enough times, and believe with all my heart?” “Mom, just … forget I said anything.” But she’s on a roll. I should have known better. I had my entire life to teach me. And even if I didn’t know better at first, I should have figured it out at some point while telling Mom about my day. I omitted the colorful parts (mainly my desktop interlude with my ex, or any mention of us talking), but I had to tell her about Forage’s sudden and inexplicable takeover of my company in order for Simon’s punchline to make sense. Now I wish I was dead. “No, no, this is important.” Mom stands, leaves the kitchen table, and starts opening cupboards. She opens every one along the top, then works on the lower ones. I know exactly what she’s doing, but I also know that if I don’t play along, she’ll keep it up forever and prolong our embarrassment. “What are you doing?” “Looking for ghosts.” Her head perks up. “Or fairies.” “This is why I don’t tell you things.” “You have to tell me everything. I’m not just your mother; I’m your best friend.” “Jamie is my best friend.” Mom points at me so hard and so suddenly, she almost jabs me in the eye. Her smile is cocky, and that makes me want to walk away. I don’t, of course. “Liar!” she says. “Your mother is your best friend. You can’t deny it. I gave birth to you.” “You know, some people have relationships with their parents that are more—” “Boring?” “Traditional.” “Yes. Like boring people. But we’re not boring. We are bold adventurers into the fields of awesomeness. And we do believe in ghosts!” She keeps opening cabinets. Fuck. I guess she’s not going to stop.
“Mom …” “Shh. If I stop this, I’ll have to talk to you seriously. I’m very uncomfortable with that. Because if you force me to talk seriously to you, we’ll have to have a discussion about what an idiot you’ve become.” “I’m not an idiot.” “Idiotic enough to think it’s non-psychotic behavior when your ex-boyfriend buys the company you work at in order to try and win you back. I’ve gotta tell you, Mia — your father never bought any companies for me. It was an entirely unsatisfactory courtship.” “Mom …” “Idiotic!” She shouts it like an old crone in a gothic novel might shout Unclean! “First of all, Onyx didn’t buy UD. Forage did.” “Oh. You’re right. That’s so different.” “It is different! He can’t just go buying whatever he wants.” “He’s got six gazillion dollars,” Mom says. “It has to be approved by the company. I think they have a board of directors or something.” “Well, now,” Mom says, putting a hand on her hip and standing beside her recently vacated chair. “‘A board or something’? This really is turning into an airtight case.” “Second, they need architects and engineers to build their new campus.” I figure I might as well try this one; I was lucky enough not to mention Simon’s slip that Forage Education might not even happen. “And you’re the only architecture and engineering company in the world.” “We’re one of the best. And we’re here in Inferno, where they want to build.” “That’s convenient.” “And third, you heard what I said, didn’t you?” “Yes. I’m going to get the Ouija board.” She actually walks toward the door. I’ll have to shout to stop her; we really do have a Ouija board somewhere and Mom will stop at nothing to beat a joke to death. “Mom!” Turning. “Yeeees?” “Oh, forget it. I’m going home.” This time, when I stand, Mom finally drops it. She comes back to the kitchen table and puts a slender hand on the top of one wooden chair. “Okay. Fine. I’m listening. What does it mean, about the ghosts?” I sigh. I don’t want to tell her this now. It’s already mostly ruined in my memory, and I’m somehow sure she’s about to ruin it the rest of the way. “It’s something I told him,” I say. “Something you told Onyx?” “Yes.” “And?” “He was taking a class. Something that was one of the university prerequisites that he didn’t like. History or something. Or a foreign language; I don’t remember. But you know how he was with computers. So of course he figured out how to change his grade, and he figured it out early, when the class started. He told me all about it — about how he was just going to ditch all the classes then change his grade at the end, after he’d failed. I told him it was a terrible idea.” “Such a spoilsport,” Mom says. “Not because it was unethical. More because it was just … kind of karmically wrong. And not even for the class. For him. Like, he’d always know he’d taken a shortcut. This was after a lot of stupid shortcuts he’d taken — shortcuts that were robbing him of … well, of failure.”
“I hate being robbed of failure.” “But we need to be able to fail, right? So I told him, go ahead and fail. Skip the class and take the F. Or attend one test so you can get the D and pass. But no matter what, admit to yourself that you’re choosing failure or least effort. Cheating is lying to yourself. And to the world. That kind of thing always seems to come back and bite you.” “Deep,” Mom says. “Anyway, I told him that doing wrong stuff creates a kind of haunting. Like there are ghosts around you forever that won’t let you forget. Haunted by your past deeds. Know what I mean?” “Honey. That’s so cheesy.” “It became something we joked about — kind of an inside thing. He still cheated and changed his grade. He still faked his way through a lot of stuff. Every time, he told me about it and said, ‘I guess now I’ve got more ghosts on me’ like he was making fun of me.” “This is a great story.” “But don’t you see? Nobody knew he was helping Simon out other than Simon. Nobody would ever know that he’s frozen staffing by going over Aiden’s head, or paid out of pocket to support it. He paid for the staffing fund himself because he didn’t want Aiden to know.” “Because it was stupid?” “Because it was the right thing to do!” There’s a long pause. I’m sure Mom is going to do the one thing that will destroy the “ghosts” memory forever. And despite the way Onyx used it to mock me, I miss sharing it. I’m sure she’s going to ask if I said anything about ghosts when Onyx cheated on me. But she doesn’t, and that causes my mind to start spinning in circles. Why did my lesson, ignored for so many years, finally land in Onyx’s mind firmly enough to come out now? Why did he do such an irrational, emotional “right thing” that nobody was ever supposed to know about? Does this mean he’s been thinking of me all these years? And if so, have the ghosts of what he did to me been haunting him at night? It’s a ridiculous train of thought. I force it to drop, and face my mother. “Honey,” she says. I see it coming. I grab my bag and stand, saying, “Okay.” “Honey, I only want what’s best for you.” “What if he’s changed, Mom? I don’t even know who he is anymore!” “He hurt you so much. I hate him for it. I don’t care how much he’s changed. You have to stay away from him. Just … don’t give him the chance to get to you. If he has changed? Well, that’s great. I mean it. And I guess I could maybe see my way to wishing him the best. As long as it’s not with you. As long as he stays the hell away from my little girl.” “What if I was with him again, Mom? What if I gave him one last chance?” Mom’s face is so sad, it breaks my heart. “Honey. You haven’t talked to him about—” “No!” And it’s the truth. I’ve just had sex with him. In my office. Today. “You came to me for a reason. Maybe you don’t want my advice, but—” “What if, Mom? I know you think he’s a bastard and I do too, but … what if I’d given him one more chance?” Forgive my sins. Forgive my transgressions. I’ve engaged the enemy, and now I’m afraid I’ll never be free. I’m begging her to forgive me for what she doesn’t know I’ve done. But I can’t tell her that. I won’t. I’m scared of how she’ll react, and what it says about me.
“If for some fool reason you did that, Mia, then crying for you would be all I could do.”
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE MIA
The Tesla isn’t there for the next few days, and neither of our new owners are in the office. I’ve been stalking both of the Forage guys on the Internet using their own search engine, but the only timely item I find is that Aiden apparently returned to Seattle. There are photos at some sort of a charity gala, with him looking dashing. It’s not like the Internet is saying one way or the other, but I get the feeling that we’ve seen the last of him, at least for a while. It makes sense. He shouldn’t have come in the first place. None of this makes sense. Not taking over UD, not being in Inferno … none of it. I see nothing about Onyx at all in the past few days. I don’t know if he’s left or gone home, only that he hasn’t been in our building or otherwise in my face. I run into Riley Grant down at the supermarket and I ask if her father’s seen Onyx around that big, sprawling mansion of his. She doesn’t know, but asks if she’d like me to find out. I tell her no, of course not, then drive past the big house that night, trying to see if enough lights are on, if anyone is still inside. Friday morning, the Tesla is back in Simon’s parking space. I brace myself. I knew I’d have to face him again eventually, but no matter how many mantras I’ve run through, I’m not prepared. I’ve avoided advice from Mom and Jamie, both of whom know half of the story. Mom knows about Onyx’s selfless act in saving our employee family and Jamie knows we had sex, but I waffle between believing one might feel better about Onyx if they knew the entire truth and deciding he’s a total shit myself. The latter is safer, so I embrace it. Obviously he’s here to manipulate me somehow — to dip his dick in the past before running away. I can fight, get angry, or embrace it. I go back and forth. Should I lean into that one mistake with Onyx and repeat it, believing that it’s only sex? Or should I kick him in the balls if he tries it again, seeing as he’s hurt me so many times? I don’t want Onyx to win, or take me for a sucker. Yet he’s infected my mind. I dream about him most nights — fantasy and memory swirled together with what we did in the flesh a few days back. I remember how he felt inside me. I remember how hard I came. I’ve touched myself more than once thinking about it — recalling his feel, his touch, the way his handsome face and hot body turn me to putty in his able hands. Until now, I haven’t had to make my decision. But seeing the Tesla tells me that today I will. I see him immediately — across the bullpen, near Simon’s old office, talking to Jamie. I feel a pang of something and realize with shock that it’s adjacent to jealousy, magnified when Onyx says something and Jamie laughs. She’s prettier than me, with a much better body. She seems to have conquered her hatred — now that it isn’t one-degree removed, levied on my behalf. He’s talking to her
directly, charming her, probably wetting her panties like mine. Jamie looks toward me and for a split second I hate her. Then the feeling passes and she makes a face, drawing a finger across her throat when Onyx isn’t looking. I still hate him for you, I hear her say inside my head. He’s hot as hell and makes me wet, but I won’t fuck him, at least not while you’re looking. Jamie smiles and heads into her office without coming to me. Onyx and I look at each other across the room. He’s wearing a light suit, bespoke I’m sure, shoes that probably cost more than my car, and a smart blue tie. I hate that I’m drawn to him. That I can’t stop craving him. I refuse to look away first. He’ll have to come to me. But he doesn’t. Instead, he heads into Simon’s office and closes the door. It’s like that all day. I hang outside my office at lunchtime, tell Jamie I’m eating in even though I’m starving, have nothing, and spend half of my lunch waiting to see if Onyx will come talk to me. He finally emerges, but he doesn’t stop. I get one glance, then he’s out the other door. He avoids me all afternoon, taking meetings. He’s so diligent with his work and bothers me so little that I could swear he’s trying to run a company. Unpleasant anticipation builds. I wish he’d just come and talk to me. I won’t slap him or yell. I just want to get it over with. The waiting is murder. We reach five o’clock, pass it, and move toward six, then seven. I’m not fooled. I know what he’s doing. Waiting until the last people leave and we’re alone. My sticking around will be his excuse. It’s after seven. Why are you still here, Mia, if not to wait for us to be alone? The stragglers take forever to leave. We’ve had a major company shake-up, and now we’re in a curious mix of catch-up and suck-up. Some of those who stuck around did so because there was new work to be done, necessitated by Forage’s buy-out … which I’m starting to think wasn’t a traditional buy-out at all. Some stuck around to show the incredibly handsome new boss just how hard they’re willing to work. It’s twilight by the time the last of them leave. In fifteen minutes, it’ll be full dark outside. Perfect time for an after-hours encounter. I’m still here — just to see what Onyx has in mind. Whatever he’s going to do, I want him to get it over with. Finally we’re alone, a departing car the only sound. He’s going to ambush me. Now that we’re alone, I’m sure he’s going to put himself between me and an exit. He’s going to do his worst. Not that I want him to. I’ve stuck around for other reasons — like figuring out what bullshit he’s trying to pull so I can end it. But Onyx just gives me another little look, avoiding my eyes, as he leaves. And I think, Okay. Fuck this. I run across the office. Down the stairs, fighting to keep from slipping in my heels. I reach the parking lot just in time to see him drive away. And here I am, standing like a fool. Mom said, Stay away from him. But I get into my car, and follow him instead.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO ONYX
I’m thinking I can’t do this as the road sprawls out ahead, both of my hands gripping the wheel. Between the town centers of Inferno Falls (Old Town and new) and my rented mansion, there’s a stretch of nothing. It’ll develop eventually, I’m sure, because that’s the way things always happen. Mason James might even do it himself, filling empty stretches with brand new Life of Riley homes. But for now, it’s dark and lonely. There are no streetlights. Only my headlamps on the road. Every once in a while, someone rounds one of the slow curves as I make my way toward the wealthy suburb. There’s a lone car behind me. I didn’t turn the radio on, and doing it now would feel like hiding. I crave distraction from the thoughts in my head, but there’s nothing around. What Aiden has in mind won’t work. It’s stupid, thoroughly absurd. Does he really think I can make inroads with Anthony Ross through his surrogate daughter Jamie, through Mia? It’s not only three degrees removed from us sitting down with Ross (something we could do if we were adults, and the Syndicate didn’t already have its dick-measuring and infighting); it also doesn’t feel remotely likely. Thinking through how this is intended to go, I don’t buy it for a second. Mia’s supposed to say, Oh, Onyx. I was wrong about you. Not only are you a good man; you have software I just MUST tell my friend to vouch for. Then Jamie’s supposed to say, Wow, Onyx, I was wrong about you. Your week spent in the Falls more than makes up for all the horrible things you’ve done to Mia over the years. Here, you know what? Let me vouch for you with Anthony. Not because you asked, but because it’s only logical. And Anthony will say, Yes, Forage Guys. I want you involved in my plan for the Syndicate’s trillion dollars. My protégée’s friend’s blind acceptance of your supposed turnabout is good enough for me. It’s bullshit that makes me a bastard. I swore I’d never come back. I told myself it was because I’d left a fire raging behind me, and that returning to Inferno was asking for a burn. I told Alyssa about Mia from the start — because Alyssa, as my public relations agent, needed to know what bad juju might return to haunt my now-glowing public image. Forage could easily look like Enron, but thanks to PR pros like Alyssa, we’re saints. Aiden’s the brooding genius; I’m the affable playboy. Alyssa’s managed to turn our cocky, arrogant, philandering, asswipe tendencies into positives. The world loves a bad-boy billionaire, she always said. We offset our negative traits with excellent work and plenty of charity. If I see one more magazine cover with Aiden’s never-smiling face touting him as “The Philanthropist,” I’m going to punch his teeth out just so he stops looking so pretty. Yes, Forage does great things. But that doesn’t change the fact that
Aiden treats people horribly and that I left a trail of used pussy through the detritus of my earliest youth. But Alyssa spit-shined us, made us look great. She told me, Just leave Mia alone. Don’t call her; don’t write her; never seek her out. With any luck, she’ll want to forget about you more than she wants to raise a ruckus just to cause you pain. So far, Alyssa’s been right. Mia said nothing as I rose from obscurity to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most famous men. We got lucky. That’s why Alyssa lost her shit when I told her I was returning to the scene of my crimes. Why would I play with fire just because Aiden thinks it sensible? And worse, why am I playing with Mia’s emotions? I did care about Mia, no matter what she thought. I was just broken. I’m not like that now, but I can’t change her mind and don’t want to try. I made my bed with Mia, and it was a mistake to lie back down in it the other day. … or to lie on her desk instead. This was all a big mistake. We need to let the option expire. Return Urban Design to Simon with the new infusion of capital, hoping it’ll fare better. Today was torture. I’ve been trying to think like Aiden wants me to, be the cold-hearted bastard I used to be. But it’s not working. I couldn’t even look at Mia. I don’t want to do it again tomorrow, and I shouldn’t have to. I’m Forage’s COO, for fuck’s sake. Why am I playing babysitter to a bunch of architects and engineers? It’s not because I think I can force my way back into Mia’s panties, is it? Or her heart? It’s not going to work. It’s stupid. I can’t do this. I won’t do this. I’m thinking it as I pull through the gates and into the circular drive of my rented mansion. The car behind me seems to have closed the gap. It’s pulling in behind me, slipping inside before the gates close. My pulse races as it stops behind me. I’m unarmed. Should I stay in the car? Anyone who’d follow someone into a gated home must have robbery on his mind … and a gun in his hand. I don’t kill the engine. I wait, my hand on the gearshift. But it’s not a home invader who charges from the blue Camry and comes at me. It’s Mia Stover.
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE MIA
I’m not thinking. I stopped thinking miles ago. I might have had the skeleton of a plan when I pulled out of the Urban Design parking lot, hot on the Tesla’s trail, but if so, I’ve forgotten it. The drive isn’t short; I had time for the highway’s hypnosis to work its fingers into the soft meat of my brain. I was aware of my intentions when I put foot to pedal, but after twenty minutes behind the taillights, I’m more zombie than woman. I don’t know how to feel. Earlier, when I talked to Jamie, I felt defensive. I know myself and my limits even if she thinks I’m making mistakes. When I talked to Mom, I felt pitied. She’d decided I was a fool, and was unwilling to help me if I couldn’t help myself. When I came to the office, I felt agitated. Onyx wanted to play games? Fine; I’d be ready. And when he turned to leave, I got angry. I’d chase him down, if for no other reason than to shout. You know when you go to a self-serve soda fountain, and you put some of every soda in your cup? Jamie and I always called that a suicide, and that’s me right now. I’m a suicide soda. I have every flavor in me. I’m not defensive or pitiable or agitated or angry; I’m all of those things and a dozen more. I’m a bubbling cauldron of emotion. I’m hurt. Heartsick. Broken. Needy. In lust. I’m in love. I yearn. I’m overflowing with shame. I burn for him. I want him. I want nothing more than for him to leave me alone. I wish he’d touch me. And if he touches me, I’ll kill him. I stop five feet short of the car. Its sleek black metal gleams beneath the rotunda of lights beyond the gate. Onyx’s door opens and he gets out slowly. His expression is uncertain, as if he can read the multicolored mask of my emotions. He says my name. Hearing it, my legs falter, betraying what’s dominant within me. Damn me for it. Damn me and my weakness. “Why are you here?” I don’t give my lips permission. They speak without authority or vetting. “You said it was just sex.” A pause. Then: “It was.” “Do you think you can just show up in my life after all these years, fuck me, and ignore me?” “It’s not that simple.” “It’s dead simple.” Then, surprising myself: “How dare you.” “I don’t mean to ignore you.” “You did. You have. You are.” “We should never have done that. I was …” He stops, as if unwilling to finish a sentence he’d had
all lined up. “It was a mistake.” “You’re a bastard.” He nods. “I’m sorry.” I don’t know where my anger is coming from. It’s boiling within me, growing stronger by the word — with his every rebuttal. Anger blends with other emotions: hurt and hate and six years of shame. And lust. And desire. I don’t want to want him like this. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry!” I throw the statement like a blade. He can’t dodge it. He can merely stand before me in the sharp halogen shadows, taking my dagger in the chest. “I —” This time he stops, caught. He can’t even say he’s sorry for saying he was sorry. I don’t know what I want from Onyx right now, other than for him to suffer. “What do you want me to say?” he asks. “Say you want me.” Onyx blinks. Whatever he was expecting, that wasn’t it. “I want you.” “Say you cheated because you were a bastard. Say you left because you were a bastard. Say you came back into my perfectly happy, finally settled life because you’re still a bastard.” “I’m a bastard.” He comes closer, one step. He looks like he thinks I might bite him — and honestly? The way I feel right now, I might. I close the distance. I hit him in the chest, but he’s a wall of muscle and doesn’t flinch. “You don’t mean it,” I say. “I mean it.” “You came here because you expect me to fold, to take you back.” “I don’t think that, Mia. I know you’re smarter than that.” I hit him again. My gaze has averted, looking down at my tiny fists. My eyes have started to water. The emotion inside is changing. “I’m not.” “You are.” “Don’t tell me what I am!” I expect Onyx to step back, but he doesn’t. I barely looked up, and now my eyes are down again. I can’t know what’s on his face, or guess at what he’s thinking. It finally settles. I know what I want, even if it’s not awful for me. Mom would tell me to run and Jamie would shout me down for even thinking it. But I can’t help myself. I want Onyx. Or, more correctly: I want him to want me, without me wanting him. I need him, but can’t and won’t admit it. I’ll hate myself if I admit that I want him after the bastard he’s been. I want Onyx, but I want him to want me more. I want him to take me, so I’ll feel taken … instead of feeling like a fool. I want him to overwhelm me. To have his way. To force me to do what I already want to do. My thoughts are so broken I almost cry. What did this man do to me? Why can’t I just hate him, purely? Or if I find a way to forgive him, why can’t I love him, purely? Why such a horrible stew? He’ll never understand. Men never do. His hand is on my arm. Again, I won’t look up. Or face him. I’ve embarrassed myself enough — by succumbing in the office, by following him here. I must seem like a stalker. A basket case. A girl who, even if she’s a great lay, will eventually boil his rabbit. “Mia.” I twitch away. “Don’t touch me.” The hand returns. “Mia, listen to me.” I hit his hand, but again it comes back.
“Mia. This is important. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you want to hear. But there are reasons I came back. And they’re not what you think. I didn’t return to Inferno for you … but at the same time, you were the only reason I came back at all.” It’s the most he’s said. The words break me a little more, and I still can’t look up to face him. He pulls me closer. I feel his breath, his heartbeat. I realize I’m crying — ruining my makeup. Now I’ll look like a freak show too, instead of just acting like one. “That doesn’t make sense.” “What we did — it was a mistake. But I did want it.” I wanted it too, but there’s no way I’ll admit it. “There’s no way to untangle this. Aiden and the thing with Urban Design … Well, it’s complicated. Even explaining it makes me look bad. And I am. I should never have come here. The only way to win what we were facing, honestly, was not to play the game.” “What game? Who’s we?” “There’s a lot to it. And it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that, for everything, I’m sor—” He stops mid-word, knowing I hate his apologies. “It shouldn’t have happened.” I step back. I look up. He still has my arm, but we’re no longer pressed together. I still don’t know what I feel. Except for regret; I definitely feel that. Whether Onyx is sorry or not — whether he’s a changed man willing to mind his ghosts — I’m still the fool. I should leave, because we’re at his place and he can’t. But if I go, who am I? I want to be the angry girl who’s had her say. But I’m not. Forever and ever, he’ll see this moment as the day I came to him, wanting him, even after all we’ve been through. Maybe he thinks it shouldn’t have happened and can’t happen again, but I’m still being rejected. Today, no matter the reason, I’m still not desired. My rage returns: “I was always just a fuck to you. That’s it, isn’t it?” “No. Never. I was—” “It didn’t matter what we had — what you claimed we had, every goddamn time you told me you were sorry and would never do it again. And it didn’t matter how much sex we had, or how. Because it’s not about sex for you, is it? Even with us, now. It’s about more sex. It’s about whatever hole is next. You never wanted what you had. You wanted what came next: the next conquest, the next goal to achieve. The next notch on your bedpost.” Something occurs to me, and my head cocks. “You never loved me at all, did you?” “Of course I did. It wasn’t like that.” But it was, and it is. I see it now. I take another step back. His arm still holds me, but I’m gaining steam. “When did you ever fight for me, Onyx? When did you ever show me that I meant more to you than a willing pussy?” I shake him off, realization dawning. It’s true. In everything, Onyx asked and I said yes. Do you want to go out? Yes. Do you want to have sex? Yes. I just cheated on you. Do you want me back? Yes. I’ve been gone for six years. Now I’m here again. Do you want to fuck on your desk? Yes. I’ve never had a backbone. I’ve never been a challenge. I’ve never had things my way. I realize, now that I’m thinking about it and my ire is rising, that has always been the problem. It wasn’t that he cheated on me. It was that afterward, when he wanted me back, I went right along with him. Which is what Jamie has been saying.
Which is what my mother has been saying. No wonder I hated myself when I was with him, and no wonder I felt like a used and discarded tissue when we finally broke up for good. It wasn’t that I hated Onyx. It was that I hated myself for never standing tall. For never calling the shots, and having things my way. I spent the drive here thinking of the shameful way I let Onyx fuck me at work, and the disrespect my subconscious gave me by delivering our sex dream. I’m burning with rage, but the rage is tinged with lust. The angrier I get, the wetter I get for him, too. “Just a hole. That’s all I ever was to you.” Finally, his bland, defensive expression snaps. “Hey, I’m trying to do the right thing here!” Seeing him move from apologetic to authoritative turns me on the rest of the way. It’s uncomfortable. I must end this, find a spot to park, and do what’s needed. I’ll claim a victory here, then a second by the side of the road. Or hell, while I’m driving. The seat’s vibration will do wonders … and as keyed up as I feel right now, a DIY orgasm won’t take long. “You never thought about what I wanted.” “Look, Mia, I don’t want to have sex with you again, okay? If that’s what you think this is all about, that’s not what I’m after!” “You, you, you,” I say. “You’re still talking about only what you want.” “Well? Then what the fuck do you want, Mia?” To hurt you the way you hurt me. To see you burn. But those are lies. Right here and right now, I believe he’s a different man. I believe he really is sorry, even if I won’t allow him to say it. And even if that makes me an idiot, I don’t care. Whether he’s different or sorry doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I do what matters to me. All that matters, is that for once, I get what I want. “I want you to come over here,” I say, stepping back until my ass meets the side of my car. “And I want you to fuck me, whether you say you want it or not.”
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR MIA
Of course, he wants it. I could tell by the hard shaft on my hip while we were close a moment ago, and by the thick roll visible in his pants right now. I can tell by the way his eyes light up even as he hesitates. I can tell by the way that thick thing throbbed when I said the words, growing even larger. I don’t know what’s going on in Onyx’s mind right now, but watching him is almost comical. I know he wants me. He’s probably never stopped wanting my body, even when he insulted my emotions and mind all those years ago. But still, something is holding him back, so he looks like a man torn between two masters. Up top is his brain, forcing him to pause. And down low is his soldier, already on the march toward my wet pussy. It’s hard not to touch myself as I watch him. I want to fuck with him, and see him squirm. But I can’t wait. I wish he’d make up his mind. I want him to take me. I want his cock far enough inside to make me gasp. “What did you say?” “You heard me.” Onyx laughs uncomfortably, but I’m serious. “I don’t want to take advantage of you,” he says. “With us, it’s never just one thing.” “You’re not taking advantage of me if I tell you to do it.” “It’s not a good idea. It’s a terrible idea. I was an asshole to you in the past, and if we …” He trails off as I turn around, sigh, and open my car door. “What are you doing?” I shrug. “I’m not going to beg you.” “Wait.” “If you want to be ‘a better man’ and refuse, that’s your call. If you’re dumb enough to think that it’s insulting me to do the single thing I’ve ever actually asked for, because I want it?” I shrug. “Then that’s on you.” Onyx is still gaping at me. I open the door the rest of the way, then walk around it. My pussy is so wet from all this talk and mental foreplay, there’s no friction when I move. My panties must be soaked. I’ll need to pull my skirt down enough when I sit, or stain the seat. It might happen anyway, right through my skirt. I look at his body: chiseled and firm. I look at his cock, tenting his trousers. I yearn. I boil. But when he still fails to move, I open the door to its stop and sit down.
“Wait.” I buckle up. I start the engine. “Mia, wait.” I close the door. I put the car in drive. It rolls forward two feet before the door yanks open and I see Onyx holding it. His hands are suddenly on me, fumbling across my chest and lap, pulling at the seat belt as if he’s never seen one before. I instinctively hit the brake to stop the idling, but when the belt comes free, the lurch as Onyx grabs me unseats my foot. The car’s still in drive, so it continues to roll slowly forward. I shriek as I’m dragged through the door. Then I’m hanging in Onyx’s big hands as the car continues to inch forward. “Onyx, the car!” It strikes the gate at two miles per hour, bending the fender. The car stops, but the engine’s still running with a wolf’s hungry growl. Watching the car with alarm, I’ve almost forgotten about Onyx, still holding me. His hands spin me like a top. I feel dizzy. I meet his eyes and find there’s almost no human left inside them. This is an animal before me. No longer a man; he’s a thing. A thing that wants me. A thing that plans to take me, and has lost all sense beyond desire and need. “You could have—” Then I can’t speak because his mouth is on mine, smothering me, murdering my outrage, stealing my breath. I was a pot ready to boil, now I’m an erupting volcano. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, but it’s like I can’t differentiate one type of stimulation from another. He angers me, my body responds. He frightens me, my body responds. He pulls me from a moving car, nearly getting me caught or run over, and part of me is terrified even as he kisses me … but it’s lost to the part of me that calls to him, gropes toward him, wants him — needs him — inside me. His big body consumes mine; our center of gravity is his to manipulate as he clutches me to his broad chest. We lean into each other, then we’re staggering backward and I think we’ll fall, but I fetch up against something hard and smooth that turns out to be the rear quarter panel of my Camry. We hit it hard and it hurts a little, but right now pain is just another undifferentiated stimulus. Whatever makes my heart race causes my pussy to throb. I’m soaked. I don’t notice the hurt. I only notice his hands. As they hold my face between them, captive, his lips crushing wetly into mine. As they slide down my sides and then up again, to the top button of my blouse. But the hands don’t fumble for the button. They’re too carnal. In one strong motion those big, strong hands rip the fabric, popping buttons to skitter away on the macadam, and I feel the cooler night air kiss my bare skin. He wastes no time pushing my bra away to free my tits, which want his fingers to roll across their hard nipples. When he bends down to take one and then the other in his mouth, sucking, biting just a little, I reach back to undo the bra clasp he’s failed to handle, and then my hands are on him, too, removing his blazer, loosening his tie. It all takes too long. I can’t wait. By the time I finally unbutton his shirt to a hard, ebony chest and raised abs, it feels like I could come on the spot. His hands travel down my stomach, across the front of my skirt, sliding down and then up under. There’s no delicacy. With feral intensity he yanks my panties aside, slipping a finger inside me, making my eyes close. I moan. There’s no courtesy to his foreplay, if that’s what this is. He’s not trying to please me, but he is all the same. This is Onyx taking, and me grateful for being taken. He doesn’t strum my clit but I’m hot enough to feel even the tiniest movements in other places rocket through it. The vibration of the running car behind me telegraphs through my bones to make everything hum. With an almost angry motion, Onyx lifts my skirt up and out of his way, raising it to circle my hips. He drags my panties down and I shake them away, my pussy now bare to the nighttime courtyard. His hand finds my wetness again, sliding flat between my thighs this time, cupping the right and dragging its back
along the left, both of my inner thighs slick with my juices. His thumb is up, stroking my clit. I can’t wait any longer. My hands pull his dress shirt off and fling it away, then sprint to his belt. The clasp feels too complicated despite its simplicity. It takes too long to open, and the slide clasp on his slacks is likewise. The zipper is next. Then my hand is reaching inside for my prize, finding it thick and hard in my small hand, feeling him respond. I slip lower, cupping his balls, then run my hand up the underside of the shaft, feeling its every feature and ridge. He pushes me down by the shoulders. I can’t help myself; one hand slips between my legs to continue what he can no longer reach. I stroke his thick, hard monster, pausing to watch it twitch before bringing my lips forward to kiss it. Then Onyx’s hand is at the back of my neck, not forcing but wanting, and I slip my lips along his shaft until I’ve taken all I can. I stroke his length between my wet lips, savoring the feeling of his overwhelming size. “Sit on the car,” he says, “so I can eat your pussy.” “Fuck me, Onyx. Oh, God, please fuck me.” But he just pulls me upright and says, “Do as I say.” It’s not like I have a choice; he effortlessly lifts me to sit on the trunk, my ass cold on the metal. His hands slide between my legs and part them, uncomfortably wide, as if he wants the best view, the best access. Then his fingers and lips and tongue make a symphony of wetness between my spread legs. I can’t tell what’s touching me or licking me or rubbing me and I don’t care. All I care about is that I’m coming harder than I ever have before. He pulls back, pushes his pants the rest of the way down, and grips his thick, hard cock by the base, aiming it like a weapon. I have a moment’s hesitation, wondering if he’s too big despite knowing I’ve taken him inside me so many times. A moment’s hesitation about us, about this situation — something about me feeling like a fool. But there’s no space for that in my head as he pushes his cock inside me, filling me up, making me yell out with pleasure. “Jesus, Mia. You’re so wet. You’re too fucking wet.” He’s pulled halfway out and is looking down at our union. From my half-propped-up position, I can see my pussy lips wrapped around him, his length coated in my flowing juices. He uses his hand to wipe it away and fucks me again, this time with more friction, and I think I come again, but it’s all a mess of sensation. He pulls out. He steps back and I stare at his long cock, its surface shiny from fucking. It’s too big to stand straight out; its girth makes it sag. I want it back inside me. I’ve never wanted anything more. He reaches out — takes my hand and pulls me away, not asking permission or assent. He leads me to a patch of grass, where he lays down and I kneel beside him. “Get on top. I want you to ride my cock. I want to see how you fuck me.” I crawl atop him, reach between my legs to take his hot length in my hand. I guide him to my needy slit, grateful as he fills me again. Then I ride him — close at first with my nipples brushing his chest, then upright as he pushes me up, his hands on my tits. They move up, to my hair, and those big fingers roll across my scalp, sending waves of sensation to every part of me. “Sit up,” Onyx growls. “Sit up and let me see my cock slide into your beautiful pussy.” I do, but to move how he wants me I need to get off my knees and onto my feet. I reach back to slide my high heels off but his hand stops me. He purrs into my ear, “Leave them on.” The ground is blessedly firm, though, and the heels don’t sink into it. I sit upright, now fully in control of our fucking, looking down on Onyx as he receives his pleasure. “Just like that, Mia. Keep fucking me just like that. I want to come looking at my cock in your pussy. I want to come seeing how beautiful you are.” I’m close again too, and as my pussy grips him tighter, my orgasm rising from deep in my gut, I thrash and bounce, my every reservation gone. This cock is mine and I’ll use it as I wish. And Onyx is
mine, no matter how much he tries to hurt me. “Fuck me harder,” he says. “I’m coming. Oh God, I’m coming!” “Fuck me with that little wet pussy, Mia. Oh, fuck! I’m going to come. I’m going to come inside you!” I let go of Onyx’s chest, now fully on my feet. My lower half is consumed in all-encompassing sensation. My hands go up, into my hair, and I’m arching my back, feeling the thrust of his big dick inside my tight pussy, knowing I’m driving him wild, feeling it throb and finally erupt, with my back arched and Onyx’s hands on my tits and with his orgasmic shouts in my ears, I finally let go and for seconds there’s nothing but feeling — nothing but ethereal bliss as I come against him. When it’s over and Onyx is still beneath me, I move onto my knees and lay against his chest. I don’t take his cock out of me. It belongs where it is. He’s mine, and I’m his — even if we’re both stupid for believing it. He really has changed. I know it. Somehow, I know it. There are such things as ghosts — immutable hauntings from our pasts. And we are each other’s.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE MIA
I’m afraid things will be awkward the next day at work. They’re not. If I’d hooked up with some random guy from the office (or with Simon; gross), I’m sure it’d be weird to face him again in the morning, because we’d have gone from co-workers to lovers in the blink of a red-hot moment, pausing only after it was finished to ponder our judgment. But this is Onyx. We have history. I suppose part of me always thought we might end up back together, but my most sensible part had a giant problem with that. And if it were still then instead of now, I’d still feel that way. I felt that way when Jamie told me he’d returned to Inferno, and when he tried to bring me flowers on the street. I was suspicious when he took over the firm. I hated him. He’s still not off the hook, but I know what I know. What I feel is real. He’s not just in it to fuck me. This time, I seduced him. He’s trying to do the right thing. He’s different now, and at work he shows me how. Now that the ice has thawed, he’s not cold or distant, because I’ve made it clear what I want. This time, my actions mean he can’t use me — if anything, I’m using him. At least that’s how I think I feel. I only doubt it when, after Onyx pours me a cup of coffee and we chat a while, I catch Jamie glaring at me as if I’ve committed a crime. Throughout the morning, I feel a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, whispering in opposite ears, telling me different things. On one side, I trade flirty glances with my on-again, off-again ex. I see the lack of guile in his eyes, the way he watches me — not only like a wolf watching prey (though he does that, too, checking me out when he thinks that no one is looking), but with eyes softened by time. Back then, he was the perfect guy — if he’d kept his dick in his pants and his lies inside. He made me stretch personally, made me take risks that led me to where I am. He helped me grow professionally, always encouraging me to be more than I thought I was. And we were sweet together, like we’re starting to be now — years gone in the space of a morning. It’s Mia and Onyx, 2gether 4ever again. But on my other side, dagger-stares from Jamie whisper in my ear: Are you an idiot? How many times will you let him burn you before you learn? He’s a cad and always has been. He’s only looked out for himself, his own personal pleasures. He’s fucked you in the past, and left you. Are you really so stupid when you need to come? On one side, Onyx smiles from across the bullpen and I believe he’s taken over UD for the reasons he said: because Forage Education needs architects, and it was simpler to buy the company than to fight
other clients for attention. But on the other side, Jamie scowls and it’s clear she knows what I’m thinking, and sees me as a fool for believing a damn thing this liar says. Onyx takes me to lunch, and it’s sweet. It’s like someone grabbed the clock and the calendar, turning hands backward and flipping pages down, rather than up. Time unwinds between us. We snap back effortlessly, and although I should suspect something duplicitous I know that isn’t the case. We had to go through the rough spots to reach the good. Push through our downs to find our ups. Every rose has a thorn, and all that. Time moves backward and it’s only us, before he lied to me that first time. And I feel very much in love. Onyx takes my hands over the table and says, I wish I could take it all back. I was so cruel. And I say, Don’t apologize to me. I’ve heard all your sorries already. But this time, I don’t mean it like a jab. I don’t want his apologies, but I’m not angry or hurt when I say it, knowing that only this moment matters. Don’t apologize for the past, because that got us to where we are now, and now is good. Onyx leaves for the afternoon, dropping me off at the door — going so far (and this is so cheesy, I actually laugh) as to open my car door. I get out, treading on clouds. And on the walk back to my office, a rough hand snaps out from the side and seizes me like a zombie grabbing a limb in a horror flick. I scream a little, but it’s just Jamie — reeling me into her office, closing the door, and dropping the blinds. She says, “Are you fucking kidding me?” “What?” “Don’t ‘what’ me. I just need the answer to one question, Mia. One question only.” “Okay. What question?” “‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” I roll my eyes. “Jamie …” Her name leaves my mouth as a sigh. “You’re not this stupid. I saw you ace chemistry, even though you took it as a what-the-hell in college. Who does that? I watched you land this job right out of the thin air.” “You got me this job.” “I told you, I didn’t. And before you say anything, Anthony didn’t either. I think he got me my job. But not you, honey bear. You got it because you’re one sharp bitch.” “Thanks?” “So this is what I don’t understand: You don’t have a drool cup. You don’t wear a helmet to keep from running into things as you go about your day. You can’t quite figure out that exercise is good for you, but other than that you’re not a total fucking moron. So why are you buying his bullshit?” “What are you talking about?” “Onyx. Come on, Mia.” “It’s been a long time. Things are different now.” “People don’t change that much. He’s broken your heart … what? … ten times?” I make my Oh-come-on face. “Maybe three times.” And I think: Okay, at least a dozen. “Your mom called while you were out, you know.” I was rolling my eyes so hard I barely heard Jamie, but this nabs my attention. “What?” “I was walking by and heard your phone ring. We’re waiting on that client so I figured I’d peek in and at least see before it went to voicemail, but the display read Sarah Stover. So I picked it up.” “You what?” “We had a good talk. I told her about how twinkletoes you were this morning. How you were all flirty with your new buddy. Or, wait. I’m sorry. Your old buddy.” “You had no right to answer my phone!”
“I look at your phone all the time! You know I’m nosy, Mia!” I would laugh at her non-defense, but I’m too irritated to let it go. I hold my scowl. It’s true; Jamie answers my cell when I’m away from a table but leave my purse. Still, given this timing, everything feels so much worse. “You haven’t told her you’re trying to get back with him, have you?” Jamie says. “I’m not back with him!” “Oh, please. I see the way you came in here this morning. You clearly got laid last night. You fucked him, didn’t you?” “I told you about that!” She’s shaking her head. “That was about the first time, in your office. I allowed that; it lets you get him out of your system. You know, by letting him inside your system?” “Allowed? You’re not my—” “Not your mother? No. Your mom is your mother. And when I told her what I know and think I know, she—” “I’m twenty-five fucking years old!” Mia plucks her phone from her desk and hands me the receiver. “Fine. Call her and tell her that. Tell her that you’re 25 and that’s why you had sex with Onyx last night.” “That’s not why …” I walked right into her trap. Jamie’s eyes light up. She points an accusing finger in my face. “You did fuck him.” Turning away. “No.” “You did! I know that look, Mia! That’s the look of a girl who’s had her fill of dark meat!” “Well, so what?” “Why didn’t you tell me? Why are you afraid to tell your mom?” “It’s none of your business!” “Is that it? Or is it because you know we’ll both think you’re an idiot? You told me last time.” “And last time you got all judgy!” “Well?” Jamie puts a hand on her hip. “Wasn’t there something to judge?” “Just my own damn business. Not yours.” She looks me over, then says calmly, “Look, Mia. You’re drunk on dick right now. I get it. Cock is a powerful drug. It makes you do stupid things. But it’s okay. That’s why we all have friends: to keep us from doing stupid shit for cock.” “It’s not his cock that …” But how do I finish that sentence? “Or for ‘love,’” Jamie says, anticipating my foolish-sounding direction. She says “love” the way most people say “diarrhea.” It’s not that Jamie is anti-love; it’s just that it’s clear to her, from the outside, that I’m not in it now. Or at least that’s probably the way it seems. But I know better … … don’t I? “He doesn’t love you, Mia.” “We’re just trying things out again! I know it’s not …” Again, I stop speaking. Truth is, I’ve felt exactly the same way this morning as I have with Onyx repeatedly before. He makes me notice birds, detect the freshness of air and the sweet scent of spring flowers. I’m a romantic at heart, and I’ve spent the morning pretending Onyx is, too. “Don’t just react and tell me he loves you for real this time, Mia. And don’t bullshit me that you’re ‘trying things out.’ I know your cycle. He has you again: hook, line, and sinker. I’m amazed that you can’t see it.” “But he’s different. Since we were together last, he’s grown up. He built a company.” “Being a billionaire doesn’t make his fuckstick more loyal. I’d argue the opposite. You know that
expression, about how a man is only as faithful as his options?” “When he took over UD, he—” Jamie cuts me off with a dismissive flap of her hand. “Yes, yes. The addendum. I know. Your mom and I talked all about it. Just because he doesn’t want to lay anyone off doesn’t mean he’s suddenly boyfriend material.” “He didn’t want anyone to know about it, Jamie. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Simon even said that Onyx told him—” “There are such things as ghosts?” I deflate. It’s obnoxious, being disarmed so handily. That was supposed to be my hammer, and yet Jamie’s clearly already heard and dismissed it. “That’s something I told him. Something I taught him. Don’t you see? He—” “Just because he quotes you doesn’t mean you’re more to him than a hole, Mia.” “I’m just saying that—” “And if you ask me, this whole takeover smells kind of—” “Will you stop cutting me off?” Jamie stops. She looks at me the way she might look at a friendly dog that’s turned on her — one that she’s just realizing has contracted rabies and is now dangerous. “He’s manipulating you, Mia,” she finally says. “I love you, girl. And I’m going to look out for you whether you like it or not. So is your mom. We both agree that—” But I don’t want to hear this. I know what love feels like. I know what it’s like, to be loved for real. They’re wrong. I’m right. So I leave the office, fuming, without looking back.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX ONYX
It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. “It’s off,” I say. The phone line is silent while I wait for Aiden to answer me. “What’s off?” he finally asks. “All of it. This backdoor bullshit with Anthony Ross, your stupid plan, everything. If we’re going to build Forage Education, we need to decide now, and if we aren’t, I’m releasing our contract for Urban Design. It’s over, Aiden.” “Release Urban Design? What, and give up all that quality time at work with your girlfriend?” “Don’t patronize me.” But rather than being angry with me — he should be, and I figured he would be — Aiden says, “Oh. Never. I’m going to sit here and be perfectly fine with your throwing away our future.” So it’s fake anger, then. “There are other ways. We’re all in the Syndicate. If Ross won’t take Forage’s offer seriously, I’ll get Nathan to vouch for us. This is his Syndicate.” Artificial anger is swallowed by the real thing. “And he’s just the matchmaker. You don’t even have a first-degree connection to Nathan anyway. What are you planning to do? Talk to Alyssa and ask her to talk to Ashton Moran about talking to Nathan for you, so that Nathan can talk to Ross? Get your head out of your ass, Onyx. I talked to Johnson this morning and he said you’re right in there with Mia. All lovey-dovey and shit. Just keep it up. Dip your wick; have some fun. Then work on her friend. Oh, sure, Jamie hates you now; she said it when we talked. And she’s a tough cookie; I’d swear she was suspicious of me the entire time I was soaking her panties.” “Did you … with Jamie …?” “No, Onyx. This is your job. I run the company while you play house and score us the big hookup. That was the deal.” “That was your deal,” I correct. “Built off of your foundation. And you agreed.” “I never really agreed.” “And yet you’re clearly fucking her. Don’t tell me you’re not fucking her, Onyx.” I consider outright denial, but sometimes Aiden is a truth detector. He believes in black and white, not shades of gray. I can’t admit that I had sex with Mia while simultaneously pointing out that it’s still not what he wanted. Same act, different meaning. I’m not the stone-cold bastard I used to be. I go sideways, dodging the issue. I won’t deny my actions. Only his plans.
“We’ll set up a meeting with Ross. Everyone says he’s super outgoing. And—” A sigh. “He’s super-outgoing because he’s a fucking guru, Onyx! He’s super nice because that’s what he does! It’s why he has a fucking cult behind him! Everyone who meets Anthony Ross says they feel like he’s their best friend. Men feel like he’s the brother they never had, and women cream themselves just looking at him. The guy looks like he belongs on the cover of G-Fucking-Q, built like a brick shithouse, and has that whole sexy father figure thing going on. All the girls with daddy issues want to fuck him — or worse, want to take him home to mom. They think he’s the chiseled-jawed hero of their personal bullshit; that’s how mesmerizing he is. But it’s one-sided. You can’t be everyone’s best friend, and Ross is no exception. So yes, we can set up a meeting. And he’ll act like ours is the world’s best proposal and technology. We’ll leave thinking the deal is in the bag. But it won’t be. Because he makes everyone believe those things.” “That doesn’t mean we can’t convince him. The tech is so perfect, it’s—” “He’s Tony Fucking Ross!” Aiden blurts. “He gets pitched on perfect things all the time! He has more money than God and the fact that everyone else is impressed by Forage doesn’t make us worth dick to him. Face it, Onyx. We need him more than he needs us. That means we need an in. A personal in, that he’ll listen to. You’re maybe a few weeks from convincing Jamie that you’re a solid guy this time around. Just keep nailing the girl you’ve never stopped talking about leaving behind. What’s the harm? Why throw it all away?” “Because it’s not right.” Aiden actually groans. “This is half my company, Aiden. Forage isn’t yours; it’s ours. This time, you don’t get your way. This isn’t some decision you’re bringing to the board. This is about me.” “It’s about you being a pussy, and dooming us.” “Oh, please. It’d take a nuke to doom Forage.” “You have no idea, Onyx. You have no idea what our tech plus Ross’s ambition could do. With or without us, Ross plans to change the world.” “The Syndicate plans to change the world. We have a vote proportionate to our share of the trillion-dollar pool as to how that happens, remember.” “But if we were Ross’s partners, we’d have—” “It’s over, Aiden. Find another way, or live without.” I kill the call, my breath coming heavy, pulse in my throat.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN MIA
The week goes on. There’s a subtle change in Onyx when I see him the first evening, and I can’t put my finger on it. He seems to be mourning something lost between us, and yet we’re going on same as before. We’re getting closer if anything, both of us moving tentatively, wary of traps. It’s sweet, even as I dodge Mom’s calls and Jamie’s texts. I like the new Onyx. But something has entered his mind and refuses to leave. One night — our third together, after the torrid evening in his mansion’s driveway — I ask him what’s wrong. He answers with a question: “What would it take for you to believe I’m really different now?” It chills me, the way he asks. I get the impression he’s not asking from close up: I’ve changed, and I want you to believe it. It’s more of a hypothetical: If I were to convince you that things were different, purely as an academic exercise, what would be required? His precision bothers me. It’s like he’s building distance even as he holds me close on his luxurious couch. I answer anyway. “You don’t need to convince me. I just believe you.” It’s a lie. I can’t “just believe” him any more than I can “just believe” I could fly without help. I’m telling him this as a leap of faith, hoping my belief won’t hang me. But faith is all I have left, after Jamie and Mom turned their heads on our foolish reunion. Onyx doesn’t answer. He looks away. It isn’t the response he wanted. “It’s okay if you think I’m a bastard. I am one.” “You were one,” I correct him. He looks around the room. I notice a cardboard box in the corner. It must be left over from when he arrived with a small load of personal belongings. But I was here last night and that box wasn’t there. So it’s new, and open with things inside it. What does it mean? “I acted selfish in the past, but I need you to know that what I do now isn’t selfish, no matter how it might seem.” I snuggle into his arm. It’s strong and firm — my anchor in the spinning world. “What you’re doing now is being here for me.” This must be the wrong thing to say, because Onyx is clearly uncomfortable. He shifts, and the big arm leaves my grasp. He looks at me, his handsome face concerned. “I just need you to understand that. Beneath it all, I’m doing everything I do because it’s what’s best for you.” “And because you care for me,” I add, nodding. Onyx doesn’t respond.
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT MIA
There’s a knock on my door. I answer without peering through the peephole. I’m distracted. I’ve now spent five nights in a row with Onyx, but tonight he had business and I’m alone. I asked him to come over afterward, but he told me it’d be too late. I asked him what business he was doing, but somehow the topic got changed and I’ve only just realized that he didn’t answer. I shouldn’t be suffering from this odd, hollow feeling, but I am anyway. There’s a psychic blanket smothering the room. I know something is wrong even though nothing is, or seems to be. I can’t settle. There’s a piece out of place in my night’s puzzle, and I have no idea which one it is, where to find it, or how to fix it. Jamie’s in the doorway. She’s faster than me; before I can sigh and close the door in her face, she shoves her foot inside. I hit it with the swinging door, hard. “Ow! Fuck!” I pull the door back, instantly apologetic. I didn’t mean to hurt her, but she’s been annoying the hell out of me this past week — and in the times between Jamie’s attempts to judge me, Mom takes over. They don’t call me too close together, and when one or the other comes over I’ve been pretending not to be home. I think they’re tag-teaming me. One tags out, and the other in. Just so long as someone is sticking her nose into Mia Stover’s business at any given time, they’re happy. But hitting her stupid foot washes all of that away. The simple truth is, I hurt my friend. She’s obnoxious, but I know she thinks she’s trying to help. I sort of bend down, and Jamie takes her advantage. She leans into the door and pushes. I’m offbalance so I fall onto my hardwood floor, but Jamie doesn’t stop to apologize as I was going to do with the slammed foot. I’ve shut her out too many times. This time, she’s inside through any means necessary. “Sorry about your foot,” I say from the floor, my voice caustic. “He’s leaving you.” I can only look up. I’m on my ass and my tailbone took a banging. But in an instant the pain is gone and a new one is blooming. I shouldn’t know what those simple three words mean, but I do. I shouldn’t believe what she’s accusing him of, but I do. I’ve felt something amiss all evening — for days, really, since Onyx changed and he seemed to mourn a thing that wasn’t yet missing. Yet. She’s shot an arrow through the dark and hit me in the heart. “Did you hear me?” I push it away. I extend my hand as Jamie closes my door as if this is her place instead of mine.
She takes my hand and pulls me up, but my distracted mental state has already stirred into something turbulent. There’s obvious truth here. So obvious, I must have been willfully blind to miss it. I sit. Into this hard, uncomfortable antique chair in my hallway, passed down by some dead relative. “Mia? Do you understand? It doesn’t matter if you believe me; Onyx is leaving. ” I think of the open cardboard box in his rented living room. The way he pulled away. His distance this past week. The way I’ve followed him as he went, foolish and blind as always. “Are you listening to me? He’s—” “No.” But it’s not a denial. It’s not, No, he’s not leaving or No, I don’t believe you. Just No, and nothing else. Jamie hears the difference. She squats in front of me, now at eye level across my small hallway. “Mia?” “He’s changed.” “I don’t like being the one to tell you this.” “It was different this time. I sensed something. I could tell. But still it was different. He’s …” Jamie sighs. She takes my hands and meets my eyes. They’re deep and earnest, like Onyx’s. I feel a wave of self-pity. Even as I push this away, I know it’s true. And I wonder, if my eyes were as pretty as Jamie’s, if he’d have left. “This isn’t your fault.” It’s like she can read my mind. “I know.” I’m too calm. Shell-shocked. This must be the eye of my personal storm. “But it’s real.” Jamie’s sympathetic face turns stern yet honest. Like she doesn’t want to give me a shoulder to cry on just yet because if she does, we’ll both get too emotional. There are things she needs to say, and it’s clear she means to say them now, before I lean into her, because this is going to hurt. “Real,” I say. “When you wouldn’t listen to me, I started poking around. I figured the worst-case scenario, if you were right and I was wrong, was that I’d just come off as nosy. But how’s that different from how I usually am?” She smiles, and I try to smile back, but the reality of this — the knowledge I’m just now realizing I’ve always had, even though I worked so hard to earn my denial — keeps the expression from rising to my face. “I asked some people about this rental. There’s no lease. No rental agreement. He just paid a huge lump of cash, but there’s nothing to hold him here. He still has his place in Seattle. But maybe that didn’t mean anything, so I called Anthony. I wanted to hear if he knew anything about ‘Forage Education,’ which is supposedly what Onyx came here to build. Anthony’s in some club with Onyx and his partner, and even though there’s a code of silence Anthony tells me things. I kept it light. Turns out, Anthony didn’t know anything about Forage’s expansion plans. Google did: Forage bought a sprawling plot of land outside Austin, Texas. They’ve already hired architects, to build the Education campus.” “Maybe they’re keeping their options open.” Jamie shakes her head. “They’re not building it here, Mia. Maybe they never planned to.” “So why buy Urban Design, if they didn’t need us to design their Education campus?” Jamie gives me a tight-lipped smile. She doesn’t answer. We both know what it means. “I sort of stumbled into something when talking to Anthony. I mentioned Onyx and Aiden being in Inferno, keeping things casual, not letting him know I was sticking my nose in where it maybe didn’t belong. And Anthony said the most curious things. First he said that he was in a club with the Forage guys, which I already knew, but that he wasn’t sure about them as people — their integrity, their values, all of that. He wasn’t questioning them; he literally didn’t know. But then he said he was starting to question them because of something that had just happened. He asked me about my impression when I met them.”
“Why does it matter? You’re not a tech whiz.” “Anthony always asks my opinions,. It’s part of our bond. You know he’s like my dad, but to him I’m half-daughter and half-advisor. We talk all the time about stuff like this, and there’s more than one of his big things I’ve had a say in, one way or the other.” “What was the ‘something that just happened’? The something that made Anthony ask you about Forage?” Jamie sighs again, as if steeling herself. “Aiden Page started calling him. Trying to get a meeting — and mentioning you.” “Me?” Another heavy sigh. She nods slowly. “Anthony told me he said, ‘My partner is dating Jamie’s best friend. Maybe we can all get together some time. Onyx and I have something we’d love to discuss.’” I slump. I feel kicked in the chest. Not even believing myself, I say, “Maybe it doesn’t mean what you think it does.” Jamie looks up at me from the floor and puts a reassuring hand on my thigh. Then she comes up onto her knees and wraps an arm around my shoulders. I’ve known this. Somehow, I always have. “He came to Inferno Falls so he could use you to get to me — then get to Anthony from there. Everything that’s happened has been a part of it: the move, the way he kept trying to arrange a meet-up, your hook-ups, the buyout of Urban Design. If you want details, I can prove it. I’m nosy enough to have asked Anthony the right follow-ups, to have made some more calls, and to have kept looking until I found plenty. And, honey?” She looks me full in the eyes, making sure I’m paying attention. “Trust me on this: I’m nosy enough to be certain.” I start to cry. Not because I’m surprised, but because deep down I knew it all along.
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE ONYX
Packing to leave Inferno is easy. I didn’t bring much with me, and what I did bring is simple enough to gather and box. Most of what’s in the house came with the rental, so what’s truly mine — and mine to leave with — fits in the back of the truck I’ve hired to haul shit back after I’ve flown to Seattle on the Forage jet. I prefer to fly light and can carry my messenger bag. I look around, wondering what I’ve missed. I search the bathroom, the kitchen, the master bedroom with its giant fireplace, hot tub, and stone deck overlooking the valley. Even in these places, there’s nothing to grab. There never was much of me in this place, and I’ve been here for over a month. I’ve basically used the mansion like a hotel room. I don’t spread out much in hotels. It’s something I learned, I think, from being a scrappy kid who didn’t exactly grow up poor, but did grow up a minority in what used to be a whitebread town. You keep your belongings close. When things stray, you risk losing them forever. That makes me think of Mia. I’m on the patio, looking out toward Old Town, when I’m hit with a wave of something unpleasant. It comes all at once, and I have to sit until it passes. I wonder what Aiden would think of me now: not only did I refuse to do what he wanted, but I’m feeling this rush of emotion beneath a slowly setting sun. I’m not the ice-hearted son of a bitch I used to be. About that, Aiden is correct. It doesn’t bother me. If feeling bad for wronging someone and ruining her life makes me a pussy in Aiden’s mind, so be it. If this emotion is regret that despite my best efforts, I’m about to hurt Mia again, then I don’t care if I feel it. I should regret hurting Mia. I never used to, but I’m no longer that asshole. I watch the valley. The sun sets. If there’s a small blessing to this, it’s that Mia doesn’t know I’m going. Her heart is unbroken for now. I wanted to give her at least that much — to not ruin our final night with a fight. She can hate me in the morning, and she will. But if I’m lucky, she’ll remember the things I said — about how under it all, I’m doing what’s best for her. Maybe she’ll understand that staying would have been the crueler thing for me to do. Maybe she’ll be able to see my intention: that I left because the alternative was worse. Because if I’d stayed, it would have been because I was sticking to Aiden’s plan. She might hate me for leaving, but maybe she’ll come to understand the truth in time: leaving was the more difficult choice. I should be proud of myself. For once, I didn’t lie to Mia. I didn’t manipulate her with untruths. I came here intending to hook up with her, make nice with her Jamie, and use Jamie to get in front of
Anthony Ross. I came here to be a son of a bitch, to use and abuse the poor girl, same as before. Or maybe that was Aiden’s plan, and I played along while I could. Maybe I changed my mind early. Maybe that’s the problem: that somewhere between the plan’s initial spark and my return to Inferno, I remembered that I’m no longer that kid. I sigh. None of this matters. I’m still leaving. I still lied, even if it wasn’t the big one Aiden wanted me to tell. I still manipulated Mia with lies and half-truths. And most importantly, even if leaving town is the least of evils, I’m still going to hurt her again. I hear a shuffling behind me. The sound of a shoe on stone. Or a sandal. I look back and see the sandals in question. There are long legs above them, a simple blue dress, and a girl whose unadorned self is exactly what makes her so beautiful. “Were you even going to say goodbye?” I could lie, but I owe it to both of us not to make this more emotional than it needs to be. Let her hate me more, if she must. Let her be angry if it saves her some sorrow. “No,” I say. Then, because I can’t help it, I add, “I’m sorry.” “Apologies. You’re always apologizing to me.” “What do you want me to say?” “Anything else. Anything that’s not an apology.” Tension is building. This isn’t close to a shout, but a scream is hiding behind it. “Anything but more of the bullshit I’ve heard from you again and again and again. You owe me that much, Onyx.” I can’t face her. I have to make a clean break. Let her hate me, I remind myself. Let her be happy to see me go, because I’m her villain. So I don’t reply. It’s near-impossible to keep my mouth shut, but I’ll do her no favors defending myself. I watch the sunset, holding it in. I keep my back straight. I probably look cocky, like I’m too good to answer. Strong. Detestable. “Jamie says you came here to get to her through me. She says that all you wanted, all along, was a way to make Anthony Ross like you. But that’s crazy, right? Tell me she’s crazy.” I turn my head. Mia’s eyes are strong, shimmering in the orange light. She comes off furious, but rage is only part of this. She’s angry, yes. But she’s hurt even more. I hate myself, but the best way through this is to hurt her deeper. Worse for her now means less sorrow later. “Tell me that even if you needed to talk to Anthony Ross, that wasn’t the reason you came.” “I can talk to Anthony Ross whenever I want. I needed a personal connection.” “Then tell me it was only part of the reason. Tell me it was a side benefit, not the purpose of your trip and the reason for all that happened between us. Because—” She sniffs, fighting not to lose control. She’s so broken. I see it and want to leap from the balcony. Get in my car and crash it into a bridge stanchion. Her break is all my fault. “Because whatever you came here to do,” she continues after reclaiming control, “things changed when we connected again.” I watch her, knowing how much Mia longs to believe what she’s saying. Again I think: I did this to her. We met when she was tender, and I’ve shattered her like a vase. Mia will never be whole. I know it because although she has every reason to shout me down, she’s begging first. She wants to believe my lies this time. Whatever bullshit I tell her now, she’ll leap to embrace it. I can’t do that to her. Not now. Not again. Not ever. “Nothing changed,” I say. I’m looking away. I hear her stop short behind me, disbelieving. I hate my cruelty. I need to keep telling myself that it’s for her own good. I made this bed. And no matter how much she detests me, that’s
the mess I’ve made to lie in. “It’s not true,” Mia says. “You should go. I wanted to leave quietly so I could spare you this. I made a mistake, but for what it’s worth I decided to stop on my own.” “Anthony Ross is coming to town next week.” I can’t read her tone. The non-sequitur surprises me, so I turn to see her watching me, still inscrutable. “He’s coming to see Jamie. So if you want to meet him …” “I don’t want to meet him. I told you. I already know him.” At first I don’t understand what’s happening with Mia, but then I see it all at once. My resolve snaps, and all of a sudden my tough guy act gets so much harder to maintain. She’s not caving, begging me to stay, tell her pretty little lies, and make believe that all is well. There’s a bit of that in Mia now, but above it all is strength. I was wrong to believe she wasn’t angry. She’s shaking as I take her in, her face working. And all of a sudden, I no longer feel like letting her hate me. “Stay.” Her sweet word sounds like a threat. Her fists are balled at her sides. Her upper lip is firm, eyelids slightly lowered. She’s trembling, like someone with mild palsy. “Stay and fuck me, and I’ll tell him good things.” “Mia …” “Stay, Onyx,” she says, her shaking more pronounced. “Stay, and tell me you love me all over again. Take me to Jamie’s house when he comes over and stick your dick in me while the two of you smoke cigars. I won’t say a word. I’ll just lay there and take it like your little whore.” “I never said—” “You can get off,” Mia says, “while you’re getting a leg up on the competition.” “Look —” But I only get the one word before she picks up a potted plant and throws it at my head. “Mia!” “I believed you!” she shouts, her careful control now finally gone. “I told myself you were the same fucking liar you’ve always been, but then I started to believe, and now you’re making me look like a goddamn ditzy idiot all over again! I know what you told Simon, about the freeze on staffing. Your contract addendum. You told him about the ghosts. But that was all part of the game, wasn’t it?” “No! When I talked to Simon, nobody was supposed to—” “I trusted you! I let you in after I’d finally gotten past what you did to me! I defended you! Jamie told me you were using me. My mom told me you were using me! But what did I do? I told them you’d changed! I told them you weren’t the same old asshole, even with all the …” She fights for a word, then seems to find it: “The bullshit little dramas you laid out for me! Buying Urban Design! Telling Simon exactly what you knew he’d turn around and tell me, to make you look like a … a goddamn saint!” “I didn’t know you’d talk to Simon! How could I? I honestly wanted to make sure that nobody lost their job because of—” “BULLSHIT! Stop lying to me! Stop lying to me, just for once!” “I’m not lying to you!” She stares me down. We face off across the patio, her eyes like lasers. I don’t know where to take this, but this time I have some truth on my side. Aiden bought Urban Design, but I made that staffing addendum in earnest. I lied some, but left so many inventions behind. “You’re a son of a bitch.” She turns to leave, the final word said. I feel an intense — almost irresistible — desire to run after her and drag her back. But what would that accomplish? Do I plan to drug her into submission? It’s over. I should have the decency, for once, to accept my consequences and let it go.
Instead, feeling something well up inside me, I shout after Mia that I’m sorry. It’s the most I’ve ever meant something, but the very last thing she wants — or deserves — to hear.
CHAPTER THIRTY MIA
Five days later, I’m feeling slightly less like shit. I tell myself I don’t miss Onyx, and it’s easy to believe because I’m so busy being furious. Still, shame trumps the anger. I feel duped and stupid. Used. Like I should’ve known better. I’m Charlie Brown after Lucy’s yanked the football for the thousandth time; I’m sending my bank details to a Nigerian prince. It’s embarrassing. And even after five days, it’s only slightly better. Mom, bless her heart, was kind enough not to say she told me so. She just looked at me when I went to her house, and without a word we embraced. I cried and she made me tea. Later we ate ice cream right from the carton. No words about Onyx or my stupidity. Jamie’s kept her tongue as well, but as my means of silent penance for ignoring her warnings we’ve gone jogging daily. Each time, I feel like I’m going to die, but at least in near-death it’s hard to dwell on my idiocy. Today she invites me over and tells me to dress nice; we’re going out for dinner somewhere fancy. I don’t put two and two together until we get there, and then I feel stupid all over: I knew from the start that Anthony Ross was coming to town and am only just now remembering, and seeing him reminds me of why Onyx used me. But I shake the thought from my head as best I can, and allow myself to be led, behind Jamie, into Anthony’s limo. It’s not a normal limo; it’s a big black Rolls. The interior is like a tiny apartment. It makes Anthony look like a giant. He’s incredibly handsome — dark features with bright blue eyes, hair with a brush of grey at the temples. I think he’s in his lower forties but with the strong, broad build of a man in his prime. He’s thick through the chest and arms, but still tall. A large man, in both body and personality. It’s easy to be spellbound. Jamie, who grew up as if she were his daughter, is immune. To me, Anthony seems like a god. He’s intense when he speaks, staring right in your eyes. You feel like you instantly know him, like he’s your very best friend — or, in a lot of female cases, a lover. I try to match those eyes but find myself blushing, looking away. Inappropriately, I wonder what this powerful man is like in bed. But it’s just his charisma working on me — the dominant presence he’s always had, that’s earned him his many millions of devotees and followers. We arrive at the restaurant and sit. There’s way too much silverware, and the plates make me afraid I’ll damage them with my careless eating. Waiters wear tuxedos and white gloves. I hear someone mention a bottle of wine while I’m messing in my purse, looking for lipstick, and I’d swear they said the word “thousand” when quoting the price. Who pays four figures for wine? And who can tell the difference
between that and Two Buck Chuck? I’m still trying to find my lipstick, realizing how uncultured I must seem in this crowd but grateful for the invite, when a familiar voice surprises me. “Anthony? It’s so good to see you again.” I look up to see Onyx, in an immaculate suit, smiling, pulling an empty chair from between two diners at the next table. Ours is a four-top and there are only three of us, but even with the fourth setting removed, there’s an obvious spot for Onyx to slot the chair in with us and sit. So he does. I don’t know what to say. I’m sure my jaw is hanging open, but I’m too distracted by Anthony’s open mouth to think of it for long. I’ve never seen Anthony Ross surprised, even on TV; he always seems so in-charge and under control. Not now. A fourth diner has inexplicably pulled up a chair and joined us without invitation. Anthony looks as shocked about it as the next-table diners from whom he stole the empty chair. This despite the fact that the two men obviously know each other. “Onyx?” He acts like he can’t hear the surprise or question in Anthony’s voice. Onyx is looking down at his blazer, straightening it. Then he looks up at us and smiles as if this is all perfectly normal. “I … I didn’t know you were even in Inferno Falls,” Anthony says. “I wasn’t. I mean … I was last week, but then I went back to Seattle.” “Why?” “Because I’m a son of a bitch.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t just say that. I look at Jamie to see if I’m hearing things, but Jamie doesn’t notice. She’s too busy staring daggers at Onyx. If looks could kill, he’d have been dead a long time ago, rotting in a shallow grave and drawing flies — that’s how hard Jamie is staring. “Oh,” says Anthony. No help there. Maybe he thinks he heard wrong, too. Onyx straightens his collar, adding nothing. Anthony seems to realize he’s being rude in not introducing the awful man who’s crashed our table. Still looking flummoxed, he gestures between Jamie and Onyx. “Jamie, this is my business associate, Onyx Scott. He’s one of the founders of the Forage search engine company.” Jamie doesn’t break her killing gaze. Like ice, she says, “I know who he is.” “And Onyx, this is Jamie Kyle. She’s sort of a protégée — although really, we’re closer to family. Her father was a friend. She’s been like my adopted daughter since his passing.” Onyx nods pleasantly toward Jamie. “We’ve met.” “And this is Jamie’s friend Mia.” Jamie not-so-subtly elbows Anthony and mutters. I hear something like, That’s the bastard I told you about. Anthony looks up. I don’t know what they’ve discussed about me and Onyx, but I gather it’s distinct from her nosing around about what the Forage guys might be up to. Apparently it’s a surprise to Anthony that I have a social history with one of the world’s best-known tech giants. “Oh,” says Anthony to no one in particular. I say nothing, and don’t know where to stare: at Onyx for daring to show up like this, at Jamie in camaraderie, or at Anthony in apology, as if this interloper is all my fault. And Onyx just says, “We’ve met, too.” There’s an awkward moment poignant enough that diners at the tables around us have started stealing glances. The malcontent must be radiating from our foursome like heat. “Look, Anthony,” Onyx finally says, “I’m sorry for crashing your party. But there are some things we need to discuss. Important business.” Anthony looks at me and Jamie, then at Onyx. “Maybe another time would be better? My assistant would be glad to —” Onyx holds up his hands. “This is the right time.”
“But I’m having dinner with my guests.” “That’s why I’m here. It’s business with them, too.” Onyx seems to consider and corrects himself. “Nope, nope, that’s not quite right. It’s not business that involves them, but it’s business they’ll want to know about. Do you know what I mean, Jamie?” And Jamie says, “Go fuck yourself, Onyx.” Anthony’s head ticks toward her. While he’s looking away I say, “Leave us alone,” and Anthony’s head ticks back. “Maybe another time,” Anthony repeats. Onyx straightens up, and starts talking faster. “Look. I’ll be brief. I know you have a proposal on the table at a certain organization we both belong to. A certain club, you might say.” “This isn’t really a proper discussion for—” Onyx cuts him off, dismissing the idea of confidentiality. “I’ll be blunt. Forage is making modifications to its code and infrastructure to attempt to work with the substance of your proposal. What you’re suggesting, along with Alexa and the others? Forage’s new initiative is designed to work with that, exactly. My partner Aiden also would want me to point out that Forage’s capacity as a search engine makes it an ideal index for the … changes your proposal suggests.” Now Anthony looks uncomfortable. He seems to want Onyx to stop talking, but short of putting his hand over the man’s mouth, that seems unlikely. “Aiden will also get in touch with you, adding possible considerations involving Forage Education. He’ll make jokes about indoctrination. Possibly the George Orwell novel 1984, and its Ministry of Truth.” Onyx sees something change on Anthony’s face and says, “Oh, I see. He already has. So you know what I’m talking about. You know what Forage’s angle is on this, to try and work with you.” “It’s under consideration,” Anthony mumbles. “Well, don’t,” Onyx says. “Don’t put it under consideration.” “Excuse me?” “Don’t,” Onyx repeats. “I know how you work. People pitch you things all day long. They know you make things happen, and everyone thinks you’re their best friend even if you’re not.” He holds up a hand. “No offense intended. I get it. Part of being a guru.” He lowers the hand. “But because you’re pitched all the time, only proposals that come with a personal endorsement really merit your consideration. Am I right? You can make gold out of anything, so you’re not wanting for ideas. What you want most is to work with people you like. People you trust. People that those closest to you vet as good guys or gals.” Onyx gestures toward Jamie. “So, for instance,” he says to her, “what would you tell Anthony about me, and whether or not he should work with me?” “You’re a liar. A cheater. A total and complete asshole. I wish you were dead.” Onyx doesn’t flinch. “My sentiments exactly. I am a liar. I am a cheater. I am a complete asshole. There are times, for sure, that even I wish I was dead. And the same is true for my partner. Aiden has a great reputation as a philanthropist, but he’s even worse than me. I tried to change my ways and can’t, but Aiden doesn’t even try. Don’t turn your back if you do business with him. He’ll rob you blind.” Anthony looks at me, then Jamie, then finally at Onyx. “Are you drunk?” “I’m a bastard,” Onyx answers. “I use people. I’m only out for myself. And I came here tonight to tell you that if you even consider partnering with us, you’ll definitely regret it.” Anthony doesn’t seem to know what to say. Finally he nods and says, “Okay.” Onyx stands. He looks at me. Softly — just for my ears — he says, “You don’t deserve an apology. My apologies are worthless. You deserve so much more than my bullshit.” I don’t understand. Every time in the past when Onyx has screwed me over, he’s come back on his
hands and knees, apologizing, promising to change. Today, he’s done none of that. He’s walked into a fancy restaurant, sat across from the man he schemed for months to impress through me and then Jamie, and shot himself and his company very publicly in the foot. There’s no chance Anthony would work with Forage now. Onyx has ruined his chances, and he hasn’t even tried to apologize. I have to wonder: Is he drunk?” He looks down at me, buttons his blazer, and says something too low for me to hear. “I’m sorry?” I say, urging him to repeat himself. “For once, I’m not,” he says. “But at least this time, I’ve created the right ghost.” He nods pleasantly to all three of us. And then he walks away.
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE MIA
Apparently Onyx didn’t hire a limo, because I catch him out front, trying to hail a cab. It’s a stupid idea. That might work in the other cities he visits, but Inferno only has a handful of cabs and they all take longer, cost more, and are less readily available than an Uber. The one he’s managed to spot, down the block from us in New Town, is already pulling away with a fare. He stays where he is as if another might come along at any moment. I come up beside him. He looks at me and nods. So I’m the one who has to say, “What the hell was that all about?” “Sabotage.” “You doomed your chances with him. Just blew yourself right out of the water.” “Okay: self-sabotage.” “Why would you do that? Are you trying to impress me?” “If I am, I kind of suck. You have no idea what that deal was worth. My grandkids will still be earning from it directly when they’re eighty.” “You didn’t need it. You didn’t want to do it.” Onyx shakes his head, frowning a little. “I wanted to do it very much. This stopped being about the money for me a long time ago. What Anthony has brewing? It’s big enough to change the world. To make an impact far more than any of Aiden’s pet charities could ever possibly achieve. It would have been a fitting cap to my career, and I’d have managed it before thirty.” “So … why?” “Maybe I like a challenge. Maybe I don’t want to peak too early.” “Tell me the truth, Onyx.” I don’t add: for once. He turns to face me square. “If I tell you, will you forgive me?” “No.” He nods as if I replied in the affirmative. “Okay, good. Then I’ll tell you. And this is the truth, Mia, though I’m sure you’ll think I’m playing an angle. I don’t know how to prove to you that I’m not, but it really doesn’t matter. I don’t need to convince you. There’s no reason, since I’m not looking for grace.” I’m not sure how to respond to this, so I just say, “O … kay.” “Truth is, I did come here to play you. I didn’t love you, so why not? I knew how to push your buttons, so Aiden and I got together, when we were working on the problem of Anthony Ross, and decided I might as well start pushing them. I knew you knew Jamie, and of course we both knew how she was connected to Ross … and how her simply liking me could make all the difference in the world. So that was how this started. Are you with me?”
I nod. I’m boiling hearing all of this, but he’s saying it so plainly, it’s hard to fight back. “I started to wonder if it was a good idea almost right away. By the time I moved here, I knew it wasn’t. But I did it anyway, because that was the plan. It got off to a rocky start, but then things changed. We started to connect.” “It was working,” I say, cynical. “Actually, it wasn’t working for me at all. Because the whole idea was for me to play right through you. I’m good at that — or at least, I used to be. I knew how to rev you up, then how to settle in long enough that even your mom would think I’d changed. I could’ve done it, Mia. I was right on target. But it didn’t work … because it did work.” “I don’t understand.” Onyx sighs. “Things felt different this time. I didn’t want to lie. I kept thinking of stupid shit you’d forced into my head, like the idea of karma and ghosts. Even after Aiden arranged that one-sided buyout of Urban Design, I couldn’t let it go without getting in there and protecting the staff. And at the same time, I was trying to distance myself from you. But what happened? My attempt to square the UD deal brought you closer. I couldn’t win.” “So you left.” “I had to leave, Mia,” he says, softening. “The alternative was to stoke the lie.” “You could have told me the truth.” “You’d have assumed I was lying. It’s nested with us. Always has been. You kept saying you were tired of my apologies. I didn’t want to tell you I was sorry, even though I was. And that had to be okay. I didn’t say I was sorry and leave kindly because that would have been something I was doing for me, to make myself feel better. ‘Oh good; she accepted my apology; now I don’t have to hate myself.’ But this wasn’t about me, and the apology didn’t matter. You even told me what you needed from me was the opposite of an apology.” “I was just mad.” And I still am. But now I’m also confused. It’s hard to say which end is up with this enigmatic man. “But you were right. You deserve better than me, and what we’d built started with a lie. There was no way out, so I went away. I’d say I’m sorry I hurt you again, but that would just be another stupid apology you won’t believe. It wouldn’t change things for you. It would only make me feel better at your expense, if you accepted it.” I shake my head. “You’re such a strange man.” He nods toward the restaurant, and when he does his face brightens. “Now that, in there? That, I’m proud of. What’s more the opposite of an apology than destroying yourself? I didn’t try to convince you I’ve changed. I told you that I’m an asshole and that I’ll never stop hurting you. And I made sure that Ross knew it.” “Why did he have to know it?” “Because if I hadn’t done that just now,” Onyx says, “Aiden would have found a way in with him. He’ll almost for-sure still try, but after my little speech I don’t think Aiden will make headway. And that’s good. Because if we ended up doing this deal — Forage and Anthony Ross — in any way, shape, or form, it would have started here. With us. With me, and the lies I’ve told.” I’m trying to be angry at Onyx, but my anger is mostly gone. I can’t forgive him, but that’s okay because he isn’t looking for grace. “It was too much, Onyx. What went wrong was between you and me. You didn’t have to do that.” “Yes, I did.” “Not for my sake.” He shakes his head, agreeing with me. “For the ghosts.” I inhale the evening air, trying to figure this out. I don’t know how I feel. Strangely, I’m touched.
But I’ve always been an idiot that way. “I made that ‘ghosts’ thing up, you know,” I tell him. “I used to believe in things like karma, but now it just seems so …” I shrug, because futility. “All you just did? It was founded on a lie, too.” “That’s okay,” Onyx says. “Because I lied to you, too. Just a little lie, even though it’s a huge one. Even though it’s the last lie I’ll ever tell you.” “What’s the lie?” “That when I went away, I stopped loving you. The truth is I never stopped.” “So why …?” I don’t know how to finish. “Because I broke you. I couldn’t come back, and when I returned this time, I couldn’t do it honestly. I knew you’d forgive me. And like I’ve said, I don’t want to be forgiven.” “Why not?” Onyx shakes his head. He’s looking around for a cab as he does, and miraculously, one appears at the end of the street, dropping its passenger three doors down. Onyx raises his hand to hail it. The cab heads right for us, its light on. “Forgiveness isn’t something I’ve earned with you, no matter how much I do to repent.” He gives me a grim little smile and a nod, and the cab pulls up beside him. He reaches for the door and has it open, stepping in, when I physically grab his coat and drag him back out. “Forgiveness isn’t something you take. It’s something that’s given to you.” I reach past him, close the cab’s door with Onyx still on the curb, and wave for the driver to leave. “And as much of a bastard as you’ve been to me, I’m not going to sit here and allow you to be so rude as to refuse a gift.” He wants to be touched, but he shakes his head. “You’re broken, Mia. I broke you.” “Then you’d better start making up for it.” “You’d be stupid to believe I’m different now.” “I am stupid,” I say. “And you’re a liar.” “You don’t love me,” Onyx says. “You’re just brainwashed.” “Don’t tell me what I am.” He looks at me for a long, long moment. We measure each other. I’m extending a mental hand and Onyx seems to be wondering if he can trust it. This time it wouldn’t be him who’d betray me. It’d be my trust that betrays his refusal of it. I know. It confuses me, too. “This is a mistake,” he says as he takes both my hands. “We’re just two fucked-up assholes in a downward spiral. I don’t really love you and you don’t really love me.” I lean my head against Onyx’s chest. “Liar,” I say.
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO ONYX
It’s a full month after Mia and I head back to Seattle before I take my first business trip to Chicago. I decide to have lunch with Alyssa. “So did you see her?” she asks from across the table, after we’ve settled in. “Who?” Alyssa reaches over our water glasses and slaps my arm. She’s more comfortable relaxing these days. She’d never have smacked a client before. Not in public. “You fucking know who.” “My mother,” I say. “I’m talking about Mia Stover. Stop being an asshole.” “Never. I’ll never stop being an asshole.” But I’m smiling. I’ve been doing that a lot since that night outside the restaurant. Maybe Mia was right about me. Maybe I am a better man now that I won’t admit I’m trying to be. “You’re slipping, Alyssa,” I say when she just glares at me. “Photos have been taken. People magazine. Us. The gossip mags have caught wind of the Forage king’s brand new squeeze. And not in the sense that you set Ashton Moran up with a press-friendly squeeze.” Alyssa squints. She really doesn’t know the press says I have a steady woman now, despite being in PR all her life. She really has gone to whole new shores. And my bomb — admitting to a “brand new squeeze” after she asked about the girl we both figured wanted to rip my throat out — is only confusing her. “I don’t get it.” I sigh, then smile wider. “Yes, I saw Mia while in Inferno. I couldn’t avoid her, despite your best advice.” “And?” “And we’re engaged.” I hold up my left hand. Alyssa squints at it. “What am I looking at here?” “Men don’t get engagement rings. It’s such a ripoff. But Mia isn’t here to show you hers, so I’m improvising.” Alyssa looks at my hand, which still has no jewelry. “You’re a weird guy, Onyx.” “My fiancée agrees.” “Is it a stunt? Something you and Aiden dreamed up to … I don’t know … play an angle?” “Like you did with Moran?” I shake my head. “Believe it or not, Onyx Scott has gone straight.”
“You’re sure?” “I think I’d know if I were playing an angle with Mia, Alyssa. We actually just like each other.” “And you aren’t cheating on her.” “Of course not.” She looks at me for another few seconds, not quite believing. “So … what? She’s moving to Seattle?” “We’re figuring that out. There’s still the matter of Forage Education.” I try to remember what I’ve told Alyssa. Last she heard, Forage Education was the reason I went to Inferno in the first place. Turns out, we might build there after all. She can work remotely from Urban Design — now that we’ve returned it to Simon, letting him keep the infusion of cash that updated all their systems — but Inferno is still Mia’s home. I wouldn’t run Education, but I could check up on it if we choose to live there. Or we could have a handful of homes. Mia always wanted to travel, and our money flows freer than water. Alyssa nods at my mention of Forage Education — but instead of asking about our plans to build it in Inferno like I expect, she says something else: “And Education and its infrastructure is what you’re pitching to Ross, anyway.” I blink up at Alyssa. “What?” “Education. Anthony Ross. Infrastructure. Am I not saying the buzzwords right?” “Where did you hear that?” It’s not public. Not even a tiny little bit. I’ve never had a bigger secret. “From Aiden. He called last week.” “Why did Aiden call you?” “He wanted to know if I knew who handled Ross’s PR.” She looks at me. I know my eyes are wide, and I can tell that makes her suddenly wary, almost suspicious. “What did you tell him?” I ask. “I have no idea who handles Ross’s PR.” “Good.” “Why is it good?” Because that nest of snakes shouldn’t be opened. Because I love Aiden like a brother, but I burned some serious bridges with Anthony Ross … and it’s hard to trust what it might take for Aiden to rebuild them. I don’t like hearing this from Alyssa. We’re supposed to be partners. What is Aiden hiding? “Never mind,” I say. “I told him to try going through Ross’s foundation if he wanted an inside track. Aiden’s supposed to be this big philanthropist anyway. Spread the wealth in the right directions, y’know?” I let that settle. I should be pleased, but so much about this makes me nervous. Aiden didn’t say a word about trying to renew our personal connection to Anthony. It’s like he doesn’t want me involved, for reasons I can only guess at. “I suppose.” “He said something else,” Alyssa says, biting her lip and touching a long, red-painted finger to her chin. “Do you know this girl? The one who’s been giving him problems?” “What girl?” “So you don’t know. No biggie.” “What kind of problems?” “It’s nothing. Just some bitch. I figured you might know something, since you just came back from Inferno.” “Wait. Why does that matter? What does Inferno have to do with any of this?” “The girl is from Inferno. Just a coincidence.” She sees me staring, notes my intensity, and must
decide I’m making a mountain out of a rather by-the-way molehill. “Seriously. He just mentioned her for like ten seconds. Forget I said anything.” I nod. I sip my water. Then, after a long pause, in my most casual tone, I ask, “What’s her name, just out of curiosity? The girl who’s bugging Aiden while he’s bugging Ross. Did Aiden mention her name?” “Jeanine,” Alyssa says. I look out the window. It’s raining. Shocker, for Seattle. But then Alyssa says, “No, wait. Not Jeanine.” I look back at her. She seems to be thinking, her face scrunched up. “Jamie,” she says. “I think her name was Jamie.”
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CHAPTER ONE JAMIE
In Anthony’s house, with him gone on one of his seminar tours, I feel like a little girl again. I’m a lot taller than when I last played hopscotch and jumped double-dutch, but Anthony’s castle on the hill is so big it’s like the whole world has grown around me. I’m tiny in this palace. And with Caitlin beside me, I’m giggly, light as air. We chase each other through the enormous rooms and around the many balconies looking down upon the Del Mar waves. We’ve been drinking, but not too much. It’s like I’m a child all over again. “Okay, time out,” Caitlin says, stopping by a column, holding her chest and fighting for breath. “If I keep laughing and running like this, I’m going to pee my pants.” “Do it and I’ll tell Rudy.” This threat is about making fun of Rudy more than embarrassing Caitlin. Her boyfriend has said that he thinks girls peeing their pants is hot. Neither of us knows if he’s joking — and Caitlin, who sleeps with him, is half certain he’s going to go gross-fetish on her. “Do it and I’ll tell your dad,” Caitlin counters. She means Anthony. My dad died when I was little, and Caitlin isn’t cruel enough to bring him up. “What are you, eight?” “You started it,” she counters. “So you are eight. Are you rubber? Am I glue? Does everything I say—” “You’re retarded,” Caitlin slumps to the floor and, with this sage proclamation, I deem the topic closed. I also decide that perhaps we are more than a little drunk. Anthony has been like a father to me for most of my life, but it’s only in the past ten years or so that he became famous … then stupid famous. I’m not used to his new place, even though his insane wealth has become surprisingly comfortable. I don’t live large, just like I don’t (and never did) live with Anthony, so being in such an opulent house — a damn castle — is new enough to make me giddy. The place is filled with secret passages. It’s like spending the night in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Tonight’s recipe was always going to be one of excitement and mischief — left alone to explore the billionaire life on my own. But when I found out that Caitlin was in town and that we could do a Girls’ Night Out? Well. That’s when the tequila appeared and shit got real. “I’ve had too many margaritas,” Caitlin says. “There’s no such thing as too many margaritas.” “I’m a junior partner at an LA law firm. I’m a professional. And you? You’re an architect.” “I remember,” I say, “but thank you.” “We’ve had too many margaritas for such professional women.” “This is the age of liberation. Professional women are allowed to have as many margaritas as we
want.” Caitlin stabs a finger at me as if tallying a point. She used to do the same thing when we were girls. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we still were. Instead of being 25-year-olds who wear suits to work, we could be pre-teens with pigtails. Margaritas have rewound the clock. Removed inhibitions, made us happy, urged us to rush through the halls looking through all the rooms, and reduced our maturity by at least an order of magnitude. Soon, if we keep this up we’ll start contemplating the finer points of cooties. Especially with me on leave and Caitlin on vacation — both of us temporarily irresponsible in the big house where no one is home. We have a week. Empires could fall in that amount of time, and with that much evening tequila. “You shouldn’t drink to forget your problems,” I tell her. “Look who’s talking.” “I don’t have any problems.” “Yes, you do. Your childhood best friend is fucking your fake daddy.” “Who’s …?” But then I realize she means herself. She’s probably not technically my childhood best friend, but she’s close. We grew up together, and if she hadn’t moved to California, we’d probably have grown the rest of the way up together back home in the Falls. She’d know my current best friend, Mia, better. She’d have met her on-again, off-again boyfriend Onyx who co-founded the Forage search engine and became a billionaire, too. Billionaires are everywhere these days. There’s Anthony, there’s Onyx and his partner Aiden, who I’m in the middle of tormenting as best I can. Well, not right now. Right now I’m drinking and playing hide-and-seek. I’ll get back to cockblocking Aiden’s attempts to cozy up to Anthony in the morning. He doesn’t stand a chance. “You’re not fucking anyone,” I reply. “Except Rudy. Who wants you to pee on him.” “He hasn’t said that.” “Doesn’t mean he doesn’t.” “Gross.” I shrug. “Well, I think we both know that Rudy is gross.” There’s a moment where I think she’ll protest, but it’s true; Rudy is gross. He cleans up okay and isn’t bad to look at, but the man has zero ambition. He and Caitlin started at the law firm around the same time, but she’s close to adding her name to the marquee and he’s still just a step up from the mail room. And the shit she’s told me he likes in bed? Gross. “I had to settle,” Caitlin says, “since I can’t ride your fake daddy any more.” “You never rode my fake daddy.” “In my dreams I did.” “Great.” I’d better end this. Caitlin doesn’t have the best filter, and this isn’t a discussion I want in my head. “He must have a huge dick,” Caitlin says. “I mean, you’ve seen the size of his hands.” “Ugh.” “And you know he’s all enthusiastic, probably uses his on-stage voice when he’s giving it to you.” She impersonates Anthony’s seminar voice — the one the world knows, from when he’s on stage doing his magic. It’s rough from his years speaking, but deep like thunder. A voice to match his larger than life personality. “‘I’m going to reframe your personal paradigm!’” Caitlin says in her horrible Anthony voice, gesturing with her too-small hands for emphasis. “‘Spread your legs so I can NLP your pussy!’” “Gross! You know I hate it when you talk about Anthony like that.” Caitlin slumps to the floor. Now we’re sitting. Refilling our margaritas will be that much harder
— though honestly, I’m not sure I can find the kitchen without a trail of breadcrumbs. “Oh, come on,” she says. “He’s not your real dad.” “He’s basically my dad! And he’s 43 years old!” “So? 43 is the new 23.” “I didn’t grow up in his house, but every day for years, he taught me—” Caitlin interrupts, her brown eyes eager and irreverent. She has a tiny overbite. Guys think it’s cute. I don’t have the overbite, but otherwise we could be sisters. We both have brown hair, small frames, long legs, thin, slightly upturned noses. And the same big, curious brown eyes, based on what I see in the mirror and what I’m looking at now. “Did you ever go on vacation with him? With the Anthony Ross?” I don’t like where this is going. Caitlin used his full name and gave herself away. He’s usually just “Anthony” between us, and she’s not easily star-struck. She’s around famous people all the time — and her job often comes down to kicking those famous people right in their big giant egos. But “Anthony Ross” has sex appeal in the press, and right now it’s like my usually cool friend wants to taste his name on her tongue. “Yes.” “Sleep in the next room?” “Yeah, sure.” “Ever hear him having sex?” “No!” Caitlin looks suddenly dreamy. “I would. I’d listen until I heard it.” “Cait, stop it! You know it freaks me out when you crush on Anthony!” “The whole world crushes on Anthony.” “You’re my friend. You grew up around him same as—” “Exactly. I grew up around him, too. If I hadn’t moved before my boobs started to grow, I could have seduced him right into—” “Caitlin!” She looks at me. “I’m sorry. Would you prefer I stop talking about your hot older man’s thick, throbbing—?” “Yes.” “… veiny, hot, come-spurting …” “Stop it!” Caitlin shakes her head, acquiescing. She’s pretending this was just about goading me and mostly it is, but what she says is still true. Caitlin’s been hot for Anthony forever and, despite having a brain, she doesn’t understand why I won’t play her little game. I know Anthony is attractive. But to me, he’s Dad. “Fine,” Caitlin says in her you’re-no-fun voice. “Do you want to run around again like idiots?” “If we do that,” I say, “I’ll puke.” “And you don’t want to talk about Anthony’s hog.” I roll my eyes. “Fine. Then maybe you tell me what’s up with Aiden Page.” “Nothing is up with Aiden Page. Except that he’s a predator.” Caitlin bobs her head, apparently accepting this disparagement. Then she turns to face me. “Do you know Clive Spooner?” “No.” “Microdyne. English guy?” “No,” I repeat.
“You don’t know who Clive Spooner is.” “What do you want from me? I’m not a computer person.” “What about Evan Cohen?” “LiveLyfe’s founder?” Caitlin nods. “My firm represents them both. I don’t know Evan, but I’ve talked to Clive a few times. He has this idea about a privacy chip. It’s sort of nutty, but the guy hasn’t been wrong yet.” “Fascinating.” “Clive has mentioned Aiden and Onyx. He’s also mentioned Evan, and he talks like Evan knows Aiden and Onyx, too. Tell you the truth? I think they’re in some sort of billionaire club together.” “Imagine the dues,” I say. “Anthony ever talk about any sort of a club? I mean, he must have a billion by now.” “Are you making this up?” “So he hasn’t said anything?” Now that I think about it, he sort of has. I haven’t pried, but there was a time I remember Onyx inviting himself to a dinner I was having with Anthony and Mia, and their discussion made me think they were already friends. Or associates, at least. I shrug. “Clive’s doing some shit with Aiden, I think,” Caitlin says. “And with Evan owning LiveLife, I think they’re both doing something with him, too. And the things I’ve seen in their legal paperwork —” “Aren’t you supposed to be, like, attorney-client privilege?” Caitlin makes a psssht noise and waves the issue away. “I was just wondering, if you have your eye on Aiden Page —” “I don’t have my eye on him. Not in the way you mean.” “You could do worse. He’s fucking hot.” “Do you think everyone is hot? You know, except for Rudy?” Caitlin plays along. “Poor Rudy. He has no idea I’m going to end up in a group scene with all these hot guys. I’ll have Anthony behind me, Clive in my mouth, and Evan and Onyx’s cocks in my hands.” “Onyx is spoken for.” I feel the need to clarify, for Mia’s sake. “Whoever, then. This ‘Boys’ Club’ must be a room of rich guys to choose from. I wonder if they know Mateo Saint. There’s a dude I’d go down on all night.” “You’re such a slut.” “I’m just ambitious.” And that’s true; she is. “I’ll handle those four. Or three. You’ll be over in the corner, fucking Aiden Page.” “Aiden Page disgusts me,” I say. “Mmm-hmm. So why does it sound to me like you’re stalking him?” “I’m thwarting him.” Caitlin puts on her disbelieving face. “You. Thwarting one of the owners of Forage.” “Hey. I control access to Anthony Ross. I can thwart whoever I want.” “Well, look … if you control access to Anthony Ross …” “Stop it, Cait.” Again, she glances at me with her you’re-no-fun expression. We sit a while longer, then eventually stand up. We’ll go back to the kitchen, drink some more, then maybe continue our immature Girls’ Night In. There are giant rooms to explore. Enormous tubs to soak in. Views to absorb and crashing waves far below. Wall-sized screens, on which we’ve seriously discussed watching My Little Pony. “Okay,” Caitlin says. “Back to your hot dad’s kitchen, then.”
I don’t take her bait. Instead I follow, knowing she’ll duck into each room to snoop. In the third room she stops, holding up something I can’t yet see. “Now, what the hell do you think this is?” she says. Did you enjoy this sample chapter? Be sure to pick up your copy — TRILLIONAIRE BOYS’ CLUB: THE PHILANTHROPIST — available now!
SHIT YOU SHOULD KNOW This book was a little different for me to write. In the first three Trillionaire Boys’ Club books, the billionaires have been assholes. They’re alpha in the boardroom, they’re alpha in the street, and they’re alpha (of course) in the bedroom. Ashton Moran in particular (The Clothing Mogul) was so alpha, I don’t think he could order a cup of coffee at Starbucks without calling someone “bitch” or asking them to shine his shoes while he waited in line. Not that Ashton would ever go to Starbucks. Or deign to wait in line anywhere. But I digress. Onyx is different. He’s a man who used to be a callous asshole and grew into sorta a callous businessman, but it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that Onyx is better at heart than our average Joe Billionaire even at the start of this story. And that meant that writing Onyx was a shade divorced from what these stories are usually about. Usually, the only major “relationship” story is about the couple. This time, it was also about Onyx’s relationship with Onyx. I liked writing Onyx. I saw him sort of like Will Smith if Will Smith had a really shitty youth wherein he used to be a colossal dickbag. (Although I don’t actually know Will; maybe he was a colossal dickbag back when he was performing “Parents Just Don’t Understand” with DJ Jazzy Jeff.) We all know Onyx is actually a good guy at the start of the book even if he does agree to go after Mia for the benefit of Forage and the Syndicate. He’s heading back to Inferno Falls to manipulate something out of his old love, sure … but I think we all get that he’s not sure it’s right to do so, and that he’s never really lost his feelings for Mia, even though he won’t admit those feelings to himself. Onyx’s story arc is one of self-discovery, like any good hero’s internal journey. But in Onyx’s case, it’s specifically about realizing not just how selfish he used to be, but how selfish he still tends to be — and ultimately
deciding to overcome it by choosing Mia’s well-being (and love) over his own needs. The awareness of selfishness, in itself, makes Onyx different from this series’s earlier heroes. Ashton Moran, for instance, is fully aware that he’s selfish. He just doesn’t give a shit. I can relate to Onyx. Looking back over my life, I can see places where I’ve been selfish. Plenty of them. The worst part of realizing such things is that you also realize how oblivious you were. If you can only see it in retrospect but couldn’t see it at the time, that means you were steamrollering people who just thought you were being an ass rather than simply being unaware. Because you were an ass. Being unaware changes nothing. There are things in my past I’d love to change. People I wish I’d been more considerate of. Times I’d chose to have been less selfish. And people, if I encounter them again, who I hope will forgive me. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m sorry. That’s where Onyx finds himself. He’s an adult now, and he thinks he’s moved on and changed his old ways. But he hasn’t, has he? He feels the pangs of regret from his past but still doesn’t feel the future pangs he’s causing right now … by choosing, again, to be selfish and oblivious about it. I’m glad Onyx came around and saw himself as others do. It couldn’t have been easy for him. It’s one thing for an obnoxious “alphahole” to see the errors of his ways at least in regards to one special woman; those guys are so cold at the start that their transformations are almost magical. But the transformation needed for a guy like Onyx is more subtle. I’m doing fine, he thinks. I’m a good man. It’s only below the surface that he can hopefully realize he’s still carrying all that baggage from his past. I guess there really are such things as ghosts. Happy reading to you … and to all your baggage! - Aubrey
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