Cracking an eye open, I immediately shut it against the harsh light coming into the room and bit back a groan from the pounding in my head. Making another attempt—this time with both eyes—I squinted at the unfamiliar hotel room and blinked a few times before letting my eyes open all the way as I took in my surroundings. Well, as much of them as I could without moving.
There was a heavy arm draped uncomfortably over my waist, a forehead pressed to the back of my head, a nose to the back of my neck, and an erection to my butt. What. The. Hell. I was naked; he was naked. Why are we naked, and who is behind me? If I wasn’t seconds from screaming for someone to help me, I might have snorted. The why was obvious, there was a familiar ache between my legs, and my lips felt puffy from kissing and where he’d bitten down on them.
I inhaled softly. He. Him. Oh God.
Flashes from last night took turns assaulting me with the pounding in my head. Impromptu trip to Vegas with the girls after finals ended. Dancing. Club. Drinks. Arctic blue eyes captivating me. More drinks and dancing. Him holding me close, and not close enough. Lips against mine. Stumbling into a room. Hands searching. His tall, hard body pressing mine against the bed—still not close enough.
My eyes immediately went to my left hand, and I exhaled slowly in relief when I didn’t find a ring there. Thank God, the last thing I need is a marriage as result of a drunken night in Vegas. I rolled my eyes. The last thing I needed was a man in my life, period. And if my family didn’t kill me for it, I would have died from embarrassment if I had ended up with a ring on my finger after last night. Because unlike what everyone loves to believe so they can feel better about their dirty deeds while in Sin City, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
Trying not to wake him, I slowly slid out from under his arm and off the bed to search for my clothes. Once I was dressed, I told myself to just leave, but I couldn’t help it—I turned to look at him in the light. I needed to be sure I hadn’t made him up.
The images from last night tore through my mind again when I saw the large, tattooed arm resting where my body had just been. The muscles were well defined even relaxed, and the face had a boyish charm now that he was asleep. Such a difference from the predatory stare and knowing smirk I kept seeing in my mind. Before I could stop myself, I gently ran my fingers through his dirty-blond hair that, now in the sunlight, I could see had a red tint to it. And I knew if he opened them, those arctic blue eyes would once again captivate me.
But I couldn’t risk that.
I’d already stayed too long; I’d already made a mistake with him. Drunken one-night stands weren’t my thing. Drunken one-night stands with strangers in Vegas were even worse.
Straightening, I turned and walked quietly from the room.
May 21 … One year later
“Why are you trying to doing this to me?” Kira yelled as she stood from where she’d been sitting on the couch.
I looked over at my identical twin to see a look of horror on her face, and waited for the freak-out that I knew was only seconds away. Shifting my attention back to our parents, I mumbled, “Told you it wouldn’t go over well.”
“But—you can’t—Kennedy, why—Zane’s in Florida,” Kira sputtered out, and I rolled my eyes at the same time as my dad.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Dad asked as he crossed his large tattooed arms over his chest.
Not willing to give Kira time to respond to that kind of question, I started talking over Dad before he could finish. “Did you ever think that maybe a little distance might be a good thing for the two of you? And did you not hear Dad? These guys are out of prison, Kira!” I shouted, punctuating the last few words in case she’d missed the memo the first time around.
“Maybe Zane will go with you,” Mom offered with a sympathetic look on her face that I knew was as well practiced as it was a lie. The worry was still there in her eyes, as was the eagerness to get us away from Florida … and it wasn’t exactly a secret that we all wanted Kira to get space from Zane.
They’d been together since we were fifteen, and the more time went on, the more Kira’s world revolved around only him. It was annoying.
“And leave his job?” Kira countered.
“Well, then maybe this will be good for you, like Kennedy said. Get a break from Zane so you can see other options. You girls are only twenty-two, you just graduated from college, and you’re too young to be getting serious anyway, Kira, just ask Kennedy. You’ll regret not enjoying life first.”
“Wow, thanks for that, Mom. What’s that supposed to mean?”
Before she could respond to me, my dad’s head jerked back and he sent Mom a look. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? You were twenty-one when we got engaged.”
“Do I look like I’m not enjoying life suddenly? What did I miss?” I asked Kira as Dad spoke, but she didn’t make any indication that she’d even heard me.
“Seriously, Kash?” Mom shot Dad a look that even I was impressed by. “That was different. We were different. She’s only dated Zane.”
“Can we get back to the more important discussion?” I cut in before Dad could respond, and looked back to Kira. “I’m going to California. You’re going with me. Zane can deal with it.”
“You can’t do this! I’m not going!” Kira shrieked as the tears started.
“You act like I’m giving either of you a choice. Both of you need to start accepting this.”
My eyes widened at my dad’s dark tone, and I shot right back, “You act like you still have a say in our lives. You haven’t for four years. And if you remember, I’m going along with what you want without complaint. So don’t throw me into the same category as Kira when she’s the only one fighting you on this.”
One dark eyebrow rose, and I saw Kira sink back onto the couch from the look he was giving. Too bad I was just like him: hardheaded and stubborn. I might be my sister’s mirror image, but I was nothing like her. I raised one eyebrow back at him, and Mom sighed.
“I don’t know how I put up with you two sometimes,” she groaned, rubbing her hand over her forehead. Looking at Kira, she said, “You’re going to California, no more discussion. This is for your safety, why can’t you see that?”
“I’m not going!” Kira sobbed. “Who cares if some guys Dad put away years ago are out of prison?”
I snorted, but before I could respond, Uncle Mason’s deep voice sounded directly behind us. “These men do.”
I turned quickly to look at him, and tried not to laugh when he gave Dad a questioning look and mouthed, “Zane?” as he gestured to Kira.
“Is there any other reason she would be freaking out like this?” I asked as I stood to go give him a hug.
“Are you both packed?” he asked.
“Packed?” Kira yelled again. “They just told us! I haven’t even called Zane!”
“Oh my God, no one cares.”
“Kennedy,” Mom chastised, but I knew she was thinking the same thing.
As soon as Kira was out of the room, I sighed and headed to my room to pack as much as I could. Kira was already packing and sobbing into her phone when I passed her room, and I somehow managed to hold back an eye roll. Never mind that our parents had just told us that our family was being threatened by members of a gang our dad and uncle Mason had put away over twenty years ago. A gang whose members had kidnapped our mom before we were born and held her for over a month in an attempt to free their main members from prison. Or that a chunk of them were getting out of prison within the next handful of months. Or that Kira and I were the main targets in their threats. Nope … none of that mattered to Kira right now. What mattered was that we were going to be living in California for the time being—close to our mom’s side of the family—and Zane wouldn’t be going with us. No Zane meant devastation in Kira’s world. She couldn’t even get dressed without telling everyone about a memory with Zane in that outfit, or that it was one of his many favorites.
Snatching a hairband off my desk, I pulled my thick, black hair into a messy bun on the top of my head and started packing. I didn’t turn to face Kira when she came into my room ten minutes later, but I knew she was there.
“How could you do this to me?” she asked quietly, her words breaking with emotion. “You’re supposed to be on my side, you’re always supposed to be on my side. And you went behind my back and planned this with Mom and Dad without even warning me?”
I glanced over my shoulder, my eyebrows rising at her assumption. “I didn’t plan shit, Kira. They told me while you were talking to Zane right before they asked you to get off the phone. They just wanted me to know because they thought you would freak out and they needed me to be able to try to talk you into it calmly—rather than hitting us both with the news at the same time. The only difference between you and me is I have no problem with this move because I’m not stupid enough to think that the gang won’t actually make good on their threats if we stay here. Or try to.”
I went back to packing, and there was a couple minutes of silence before she said, “I know why you’re all really doing this. Don’t think for a second that I’m stupid enough not to realize this is about Zane.”
I released a heavy breath and shook my head. “Despite what you think, this has nothing to do with you and your boyfriend. But I do think that this is something we need to do, and I think it will be good for us.”
“I won’t forgive you for this. You of all people should realize how much this is going to kill me.”
My breath caught, but I didn’t reply. I knew I couldn’t without lashing out at her. Without another word, she left my room. The only sounds were her soft cries and her feet on the hardwood as she walked away.
“So now that you have us on a private jet—which just makes this all the more weird, by the way—do you mind telling us details about where we’ll be spending the next however long?” I asked Uncle Mason a few hours later.
“Didn’t your mom and dad tell you everything?”
I gave him a look that he immediately laughed at.
“Okay, tell me what you know, and I’ll fill in the blanks.”
“Basically, all I know is that Juarez and a handful of others from his crew are up for probation within a few months of each other starting next week. They’re somehow threatening us—but more specifically, Kira and me—and Mom and Dad think it would be best if we weren’t near Tampa. Since we just graduated and don’t have a reason to stay up in Tallahassee anymore, the only other place to go is California near Mom’s family, and we’ll be there for an undetermined amount of time.”
“I wasn’t told most of that,” Kira muttered from where she was sulking across the aisle.
“You were told that,” I shot back. “All of that. You just couldn’t get past the California-equals-no-Zane part, and flipped while they told you the rest!”
Before we could start on another war, Uncle Mason spoke up. “You’ll be just North of San Diego, near your Uncle Eli. He’s already been looking into places for you to live, and your parents are working something out with them for a car.”
“Lovely. Sounds like everyone is already completely filled in,” Kira sneered.
Uncle Mason didn’t respond for a long time, he just sat there staring at Kira with a somber expression. It was so unlike him. “I don’t want you two to have to do this any more than you do, trust me. Your dad and I know better than anyone what it’s like to pick up and move at a moment’s notice and not be able to have a say in it, so we know what you’re going through.”
Kira mumbled something too low for me to hear, but it was obvious in her expression that she didn’t agree with him.
After a subtle shake of my head, I looked back at Uncle Mason and tapped his leg with my foot to get his attention again. “Okay, so we’ve heard about Juarez’s gang and what happened with Mom being taken. But here’s what I don’t understand and am having a little bit of trouble with. Why after so much time has passed do you think it’s them threatening us? Wouldn’t they be over it by now? I mean, couldn’t it just as easily be someone you’ve arrested recently, and you’re just jumping ahead and thinking its Juarez?”
Uncle Mason was already shaking his head before I even finished asking my questions. “No. It may have been twenty-three years ago, but we haven’t forgotten what happened, and we know for a fact they haven’t and are still holding a grudge because there have been letters delivered to your dad.”
“What did they say?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What did they say?” I asked louder, and Kira leaned toward us in her seat to hear his response.
“I said it doesn’t—”
“We deserve to know!” I snapped.
After a beat of silence, he admitted, “They’ve said, ‘Can’t wait to meet the rest of your family’, or ‘How are those daughters of yours?’” Uncle Mason sighed heavily and looked out the window for a few seconds.
“That’s it?” I asked when he didn’t continue. “I mean, that’s really creepy but it doesn’t prove much of anything.”
“It does, because at the bottom it had the gang’s symbol. A symbol your dad and I used to have tattooed on us when we were undercover. A symbol they left spray-painted on your parents’ wall after kidnapping your mom.”
“Oh,” I breathed, and Uncle Mason sent me a look.
Squeezing Cecily’s waist once, I deepened the kiss for a few seconds before pulling away. A smirk crossed my face when she tried to follow me. “I gotta go.”
“Just a little longer?” she asked huskily as she pulled on my tie, bringing us closer together.
“I can’t. You know I have to get to that meeting.” Grabbing her slender wrist in my hand, I took my tie from her firm grip and sent her a look.
“Of course, the so-called ‘meeting’ that no one else in the office seems to know about.” Her full lips pouted, and I exhaled slowly at the annoying look.
“You know about it.”
Cecily smacked my arm and huffed. “Only because you told me.”
“That’s not my problem. Besides, it might be a bad thing that I’m the only one. Who knows? You may get your wish, I might be getting fired.”
She smiled wryly and wrapped her arms around my neck before pressing her mouth to mine. “Now that definitely sounds like a meeting I want to happen,” she murmured against my lips.
“Power-hungry bitch,” I growled, and kissed her hard once more before backing away.
“Hasn’t stopped you.”
Her gaze raked over me as I backed up toward the door before snapping up to my face. “No, it hasn’t.”
I grinned and nodded in her direction. “Are you going to leave my office?”
She slid off the desk and walked around to sit in my chair. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll sit in here a while to get used to what my new office feels like.”
“I haven’t gotten fired yet.” Not bothering to wait, I walked out of my office and left Cecily in there. I looked behind me to watch the door shut as I fixed my tie, a soft smile tugged at my lips as I thought about the girl in there.
There was no bullshit when it came to Cecily and me. I didn’t like relationships, labels, or being tied down to any one girl; and she liked guys who demanded control. It was the complete opposite of who she was, but I wasn’t going to question it. She wasn’t shy about her need to be at the top of everything—including a company—nor was she shy about her willingness to step on any and everyone to get there.
She wanted my job, I’d known that before we started sleeping together, but she couldn’t have it. And despite our current status and her greed-filled eyes, she wasn’t one to sleep her way to the top—we just happened to be a nice distraction for each other at work.
I looked up just in time to stop myself from running into the man standing in the hallway. He hadn’t been moving; he was just standing there with his arms crossed over his chest, one eyebrow raised as he studied me.
“Excuse me,” I said, and moved to walk around him—he moved with me. My eyebrows slanted down, and I looked up at him. Yeah. Up. I was six-two. To have to look up at someone was saying something. “Can I help you?” I asked when I noticed his mirrored-movement hadn’t been a mistake; he was still staring down at me with a calculating expression.
The man didn’t move, and he didn’t say anything. With a huff, I gave him a once over and smirked. My dad owned a boxing gym, meaning I’d grown up around some of the leanest, deadliest fighters, as well as some of the biggest meatheads. But this fucker was massive. “If you don’t mind, I have somewhere to be. And lay off the steroids, old man.”
When I went to move around him this time, he let me pass; but when I looked over my shoulder, he was turned around and glaring at me with that same expression before he glanced behind him toward my office.
My footsteps faltered and I racked my brain trying to think of any mention of another guy Cecily might be seeing—one who would come looking for her at work—but I came up with nothing. And somehow I knew in the way he was glaring at me again, that he wasn’t looking at me like he was ready to fight. He looked like he was frustrated with what he was seeing in me.
Shaking my head as if to clear it, I looked ahead of me and continued down the halls to my boss’ office. Before I got there, I stopped at his secretary’s desk. “Hey, call security. There’s a guy in here I’ve never seen before, and I don’t think he’s supposed to be here. Height is probably six-five. Weight is around two seventy or two eighty. The guy is solid muscle, tan, Caucasian, black hair.” I watched as she jotted everything down. “Got it?”
“Yeah,” she said as she grabbed the phone, but I didn’t wait to hear the conversation.
Walking toward the office beside her, I knocked on the door as I opened it, and flashed a smile at my boss, Eli Jenkins.
“Hey, Liam, come in and have a seat.”
I sat in one of the two chairs on the other side of his desk, and waited for whatever he had to say as he sat directly next to me. Despite what I’d told Cecily, I wasn’t worried about losing my job. I knew Eli liked me and my work, and I was on the same path he’d taken in this industry. But that didn’t mean he didn’t know about Cecily and me, and our interoffice relationship wasn’t exactly allowed.
Before he could say anything else, his eyes snapped up when the door to his office quickly opened.
“Two hundred and seventy, to two hundred and eighty pounds? Hardly.”
I turned quickly at the deep voice, and my eyes widened at the roided-out guy from the hall.
“Two hundred eighty five, actually. I’m proud of those extra five pounds.”
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked, standing up from the chair. Turning to look at Eli, I pointed at the guy. “I had security called on him.”
“He called me, ‘old man’, can you believe that?” The guy snorted. “At least you were right about the height. Good one, kid.” He walked around to sit in Eli’s desk chair, and I looked back and forth between him and where Eli was sitting next to me.
Eli rolled his eyes. “Liam Taylor, it’s not exactly a pleasure to introduce you, but this is Mason Gates. He’s a close friend of my sister and her husband.”
“You still don’t like me?” Mason asked Eli. “It was twenty-three years ago.”
Eli shot him a hard look. “She’s my sister. No, I still don’t like you.” Glancing over to me, Eli explained, “He also dated my other sister.”
Mason snorted a laugh at the word “dated”, but didn’t say anything else to piss off Eli. Nodding in my direction, he said, “He’s good. Probably dumb as shit, but he’s funny, and he was pretty spot-on about me. Minus the steroids.”
“I’m lost,” I whispered to the room, and then looked at Mason. “What was your deal in the hall?”
“I already knew I wasn’t going to like you. Any other questions?”
“Mason,” Eli barked, then looked at me. “Act like he’s not here. For whatever reason, he felt the need to be here when I talked with you.”
“Okay…” I said, drawing out the word. “Talk to me about what?”
“Mason just brought my nieces to California from Florida so they could get away from a situation going on back home, and they’re not exactly happy about being here. They know they need to be here, and that’s all that’s keeping them from going back to Florida, but they need something to do to keep them busy. A job, friends … anything. And I was hoping that you would be able to help with that.”
I waited to see if he would add anything, and when he didn’t, I shrugged. “I—sure. I mean, I don’t know how much I can do for them to find friends, but if they’re old enough for the gym, I know my dad is looking for a few people.”
Mason cleared his throat, and Eli gave him an annoyed look before saying, “We also need to make sure that one of them, Kira, doesn’t try to run back home. She has a boyfriend and is taking the separation harder than her sister. My sister and brother-in-law trust my judgment to find someone who can do that. I trust you as much as I trust my own son, and I think you and your connections will be exactly what they need to settle in here.”
I laughed hesitantly and looked at both of them for a few seconds. “Are you serious? I’m not a babysitter, Eli; we work in advertising. Besides that, I’m twenty-four, what do you expect me to do with these girls that will make it seem okay for me to even act like their friend?”
“I knew I didn’t like him,” Mason blurted out and stood. “Meeting over.”
“Sit down,” Eli ordered, but didn’t look to make sure he did. “Liam, my nieces just turned twenty-two, they’re close to your age. And no one is asking you to babysit them.”
“You want me to make sure one of them doesn’t run back to her boyfriend! That sounds like babysitting,” I argued.
“Still don’t like him,” Mason chimed in, but Eli and I didn’t bother responding to him.
“I don’t need you to watch her every move, I was just hoping that you could maybe include them in whatever you and your friends are doing one or two times over the weekends. See if the girls get along with you or your friends, try to get them to have a good time so they won’t focus on how much they don’t want to be here. You don’t have to give up your life for them, Liam. And if you aren’t willing to do that, and if your dad does have space at the gym for them, that would be more than enough. I won’t ask you for anything else.” When I just sat there staring at him, Eli leaned closer. “Please. I’d have my son do this, but you know he’s backpacking through Europe this summer with his friends.”
If it had been something as simple as inviting his nieces to a party, I would do it in a heartbeat. But with Mason there—whatever his real reasons—and with the part that still sounded like I’d be babysitting them, I knew there was something else behind this than the girls just needing to be introduced to a few people. The fact that there was a “situation” back in Florida, and that they didn’t want to be here, only confirmed that thought. But Eli was my mentor. I’d interned for him in college, and he’d hired me on after the internship had ended. He’d continued helping me throughout the last couple years of college, always pushing me to work harder and be better, and then did the same so I would work my way up in his company after I’d graduated. He’d done more than I could’ve ever asked for, and this was the first thing he’d asked of me. No matter how odd it seemed, I knew I couldn’t tell him no.
“Okay,” I finally agreed. “I’ll call my dad. I know for a fact that he needs new people for the drink station in the gym. I’ll see if he can interview them and let you know when.”
“Perfect,” Eli said on a relieved sigh. “They’ve already been here a week, I know they need to get out of their condo.”
I nodded and reluctantly said, “And I’ll make sure whichever one you mentioned won’t go running back to her boyfriend. I’m sure a bunch of us will end up at the beach this weekend, at least. I’ll let you know when I do.”
“Still don’t like him,” Mason said again. “I vote we find someone else.”
I rolled my eyes and looked over at him. “Why did you even need to be here?”
“A question I’ve already asked a few times,” Eli mumbled.
Mason’s teasing tone and expression quickly left, leaving him looking at me the exact way he had been in the hallway. “I’m here because someone needs to tell you that you aren’t to touch either of them. Rachel and Kash may trust Eli’s choice in you being the one to help them out, that doesn’t mean I do. No one chose you so you would have another girl to fuck.”
“Mason,” Eli snapped, but Mason’s gaze never left me.
One eyebrow rose, and a short laugh burst from my chest. “Excuse me?”
“You didn’t try to hide the girl who was in your office earlier, and that already makes me not like you as much as I could. You see an opportunity in a girl, and you take it. Trust me, I get it. I was the same way when I was your age, which is why Eli still hates me. But those girls mean the world to Eli, to me, and to their parents. This is me warning you now, if you touch one of those girls, you will have all three of us on you. And their dad is the last person you want to piss off. Your job is to be their friend. Nothing more.”
“Noted,” I huffed as I stood to leave the office. “Anything else, Eli?”
He shook his head at Mason, and sighed when he looked back at me. “Just remind Cecily that I don’t want her in your office.”
The corner of my mouth tilted up and I nodded as I turned to leave. “I’ll call my dad and let you know what he says.”
“I appreciate it, Liam. Really,” he called out as I reached the door.
Mason snorted. “Still don’t like him.”
The feeling was mutual.