Owning Violet


Bantam
December 2, 2014
Series:
New York Times bestselling author Monica Murphy begins a sexy new contemporary romance series—perfect for fans of Christina Lauren and Emma Chase—that introduces three sisters born to wealth, raised to succeed, ready to love, destined to make waves. I’ve moved through life doing what’s expected of me. I’m the middle daughter, the dutiful daughter. The one who braved a vicious attack and won. The one who devoted herself to her family’s cosmetics empire. The one who met an ambitious man and fell in love. We were going to run Fleur Cosmetics together, Zachary and I. Until he got a promotion and left me in the dust. Maybe it’s for the best, between his disloyalty and his wandering eye. But another man was waiting for me. Wanting me. He too has an overwhelming thirst for success, just like Zachary—perhaps even more so. He’s also ruthless. And mysterious. I know nothing about Ryder McKay beyond that he makes me feel things I’ve never experienced before. One stolen moment, a kiss, a touch . . . and I’m hooked. Ryder’s like a powerful drug and I’m an addict who doesn’t want to be cured. He tells me his intentions aren’t pure and I believe him. For once I don’t care. I’m willing to risk everything just to be with him. Including my heart. My soul. My everything.
Read an Excerpt

Buy it in Print

Amazon Amazon Canada Amazon UK Barnes and Noble Books-a-Million Indiebound Book Depository


Buy the eBook

Amazon Kindle Amazon Kindle Canada Amazon Kindle  UK Amazon Kindle Australia Barnes and Noble Nook Books-a-Million eBook Kobo iBookstore Google Play


Watch the Trailer



Excerpt

Chapter One

Violet

Tonight, my life is going to change.

In preparation for it, I spent all day at the spa. Treated myself to a facial, massage, wax, mani, and pedi. My skin is smooth, my face is clear, my fingers and toes are painted a perfect demure pink. My muscles are relaxed and loose, but my brain . . .

My brain is jumpy. My stomach is a mess of nerves. My outward appearance is the exact opposite of my inside because so much is on the line. Everything I’ve strived toward these last few years is coming to the final pinnacle tonight.

Finally.

I found a dress to wear for this special moment a few days ago at Barneys, one I knew Zachary would approve of. A navy-­blue sheath, it hits just above the knee and skims over my curves, subtly sexy because he doesn’t like anything overt. Obvious.

Meaning he hates everything my older sister wears, does, says. He doesn’t much approve of the way my blunt baby sister acts, either.

But that’s fine. He’s going to ask me to marry him tonight. Not Lily or Rose.

Me.

There’s nothing obvious about me. I’m the epitome of understated. I would make the perfect politician’s wife. Standing behind my man, offering my never-­ending support all while wear­ing the pleasant smile I’ve mastered over the years. There have been a few slipups in the past. I struggled once. Fought for my life, really, and survived.

My father and grandmother like to pretend none of that ever happened. Zachary doesn’t even know about it. It’s a moment in time—­before I met him—­the family prefers to sweep under the rug.

It’s so ugly, Violet, Father told me once. Wouldn’t you rather forget?

So I try. For the family.

Zachary arrives at my apartment right on time because heaven forbid he’s ever late. One of the many qualities I admire about him. He’s punctual, thoughtful, efficient, handsome, and smart. So incredibly smart. Some call him conniving. Others call him cutthroat. Rumors swirl that there are other women. I’m not stupid. I have my suspicions. They might have even been confirmed once or twice. But when we’re engaged, when we’re married . . .

That will change. It has to.

Zachary and I have a perfect relationship. The sort of relationship I’d dreamed of since I was a little girl. One that Lily mocks constantly, but what does she know about love?

Sex and addiction and getting into trouble, she knows plenty. But love? I don’t think she’s had a real relationship in her life.

I have. Boyfriends throughout junior high and high school, then my one very serious boyfriend in college. The one I’d originally thought I might marry. The one I gave my virginity to midway through freshman year. I’d been a real holdout, one of the last remaining virgins among my friends.

He dumped me the beginning of our sophomore year. Right after everything . . . happened. The incident, I like to call it. The thing no one likes to talk about. So I don’t talk about it either.

After the breakup, I remained single. Tried my best to rise above everything that happened by focusing on finishing school and then on my career, my legacy at Fleur Cosmetics.

I might have quietly fallen apart for a short period of time that not many know about. We kept it secret. Father didn’t want any more public humiliations. We lost Mom so long ago and he always said I was the most like her. Delicate but determined. Smart but not always practical.

I lived up to his expectations for a brief, not-­so-­shining moment. I needed therapy. I needed medication. More than anything, I needed to be numb. Craved being numb. Feeling emotions only hurt, and I was so tired of hurting.

But eventually I knew I needed to learn how to cope on my own.

Father let me return to work after my brief stint away. And when Zachary Lawrence started working for the company two years ago, getting to know him, I was soon interested. And so was he. I could tell. I didn’t care if at first he talked to me only because I was the CEO’s daughter. I flirted. I wanted his attention.

And I eventually got it. Got him.

I knew dating someone I worked with wasn’t the smartest move, but I couldn’t help it. Where else can I meet a man of such good quality? Someone I can trust? I have trust issues. No surprise, considering what I’ve been through.

While my father calls most of the shots, the company really is a family business. Both Rose and I work there. Even my grandmother still comes in and consults, though she’s now eighty-­five and mostly retired.

She loves Fleur Cosmetics and Fragrance. My grandma is Fleur Cosmetics and Fragrance. She started the brand. It was her face that appeared in the magazine advertisements and billboards for so many years. Dahlia Fowler is a legend in the cosmetics industry.

And despite my weaknesses and my father’s once complete lack of faith in me, I desperately want to follow in her footsteps. With Zachary by my side, of course, considering he works in the brand marketing department and has higher aspirations. The two of us could take Fleur to the next level. I know it. He knows it.

Together, we’re a force to be reckoned with. And once we’re married . . .

“You’re lost in thought.”

Zachary’s deep voice washes over me and I blink, realize that he’s watching me. His brows are furrowed and his mouth is turned down. He looks concerned.

“I’m fine.” I smile, hope lighting within me when I see the worry etched all over his handsome features slowly disappear. His blue eyes twinkle as he reaches across the table and takes my hand, grasping my fingers tightly.

“I have something I want to discuss with you,” he says in that low, reassuring way of his.

My smile grows and I nod, squeezing his fingers. “Now?”

“Yes.” He takes a deep breath and lets go of my hand. Odd. “I’ve known about this for a while and it’s . . . taken everything within me to work up the courage to tell you.”

Oh. How sweet. He’s nervous about proposing. Zachary’s always so confident about everything—­I’m surprised. “Go ahead and just say it, Zachary. I’m fairly sure it will all work out in the end.”

“I agree. Your father said the same thing.”

My heart skips a beat. He spoke with Father. This is serious. This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for all this time. I can’t believe it. My fingers are literally trembling in anticipation of the ring he’s about to slip on my finger. I wonder how big it is. I don’t like gaudy jewelry. Neither does Zachary. Understated, refined—­that’s more our style. Perhaps he spoke with Grandma and she gave him her engagement ring, though rightfully that should go to Lily since she’s oldest . . .

“. . . so he’s asked me to test out the new position in London and see if I’d be a good fit. And I said yes.”

Wait. What? “P-position? In London? What are you talking about?” I clear my throat, proud that I keep my voice level. I didn’t want to make a scene in the middle of one of the most elegant restaurants in all of Manhattan. I could hear my father’s voice now.

Violet, that just wouldn’t do.

“Your father is sending me to the London office, just on a temporary basis. They’ve created a new position there since growth in the UK and Europe has been so strong the last couple of years. I’ll be trying out the new chief brand and marketing director position both in London and Paris. It’s a tremendous opportunity, Violet. One I couldn’t turn down. This promotion could change everything.” The pointed look Zachary gives me says he’s made his choice and there’s no chance I can talk him out of it.

“But . . . Wait a minute.” I shake my head, a huff of fake laughter falling from my lips. He can’t be serious. That’s what he wanted to tell me? About a possible promotion? To London? “What about . . .”

“Us?” he finishes for me with that rueful, charming smile. The one that says he knows he’s a little bit in trouble but somehow he’ll talk himself out of it. As usual. “I won’t be gone for long, only a few months. Hey, I bet you could fly over for a weekend. Come to London or even better, Paris. We can explore the cities together.”

No offer to take me with him to live there—­not that I’d go, especially since it’s temporary. But it could turn permanent and he might end up staying. We don’t know.

Would I leave to be with Zachary? Only if he promised that we would be married—­and he vowed his complete fidelity. I feel safe here. Everything I know, my family, my friends, my career, is here. In New York. Not London or Paris. And what about the ring? The proposal?

It sounds terrible in my own head, but I expected that. A beautiful diamond solitaire ring accompanied by an offer of marriage, along with Zachary’s promise of undying love and faithfulness to me. A girl can tolerate only so much and I know it’s stupid, but . . . I love him.

I do.

Disappointment threatens to wash over me, but I hold it at bay. I have to.

“I think I know what you were hoping for,” he says softly. “But what sort of marriage could we start if we’re on two different continents? It wouldn’t be fair to either of us. We’re still young, darling, especially you. We have plenty of time.”

“We’ve already been together almost two years . . .” My voice drifts and I drop my head, blinking my eyes shut for an agonizingly long moment before I open them again. I refuse to cry. I am twenty-­three years old. I refuse to bawl like a little girl.

“And maybe we’ll have another year, maybe two years, like this, but I promise, I will marry you.” My heart leaps at his words. “I swear. I just—­I need this. This promotion is important to me and I’m not the only one your father is considering. I’m a front-­runner, but still, there are no guarantees. For you, it’s different. This is your family. They’ll give you whatever you want,” Zachary says, irritation making his voice scratchy. Does he even register the change in tone? “But for me? I have to work at it. Constantly.”

I stiffen my spine, offended by his words. They make it sound like I’m some sort of spoiled brat who gets whatever she wants whenever she wants. “I’ve worked very hard at Fleur since I was in my early teens,” I say in protest. “You know this.”

He waves a hand, whether dismissing his words or mine, I’m not exactly sure. “You know what I mean. Just . . . let me have this. I’m not a selfish man but I’ve worked damn hard for this career, Vi.” I hate it when he calls me Vi and he knows it. “I’m almost thirty years old. The time for me to do this is now. Before I marry you and we have children and I won’t be able to ever leave.”

The way he said that makes me think he would feel like he’s stuck with the wife and children. In other words, with me and our future children. Why am I letting this bother me? Am I being too sensitive? What he’s saying makes sense. He needs to push forward with his career. I understand that. But I need to push forward with my career as well. And my life. My personal life, with marriage and children and . . .

My voice is hesitant as I say, “I could ask my father to step in and offer you a promotion here—”

“No. I refuse to take that sort of handout. I will earn this promotion,” he says vehemently. “I want to do this. I would never hold you back, you know.”

“That’s not fair,” I murmur, my gaze locking with his. A mix- ture of anger and sadness fills me, but he doesn’t appear sad at all. No, he looks excited. Like this is exactly what he wants. What he needs.

Does this mean I’m not what he wants? What he needs? “It’s the truth,” he says simply. “And you know it.”

He never told me he was interviewing for the position. And this sort of thing goes on for weeks. Sometimes months. My fa- ther didn’t tell me either, and that hurts because he knew what was happening yet never gave me a warning. More than any- thing, though, I hate that Zachary has kept this secret from me.

Makes me wonder if he’s kept any other secrets.

Don’t fool yourself. He’s kept plenty of secrets from you. Why do you put up with him?

I swear my sister’s voice is berating me in my head. I can just see Lily’s smug expression, telling me she knew it all along. Zachary Lawrence doesn’t deserve me. She’s said that time and again. So has Rose.

I’m starting to wonder if they’re right.

A woman’s husky laugh draws my attention and I glance at a table a few feet away, recognition making my stomach sour. God, of course he’s here. A million restaurants in all of Manhattan and he’d have to show up in this one. The mysterious, arrogant Ryder McKay, fellow corporate employee of Fleur Cosmetics.

Ryder’s with . . . of course, Pilar Vasquez, his former boss, his supposed lover, girlfriend, whatever he might call her. Their relationship is strange, to say the least.

Strange because Pilar doesn’t talk about it and Ryder definitely doesn’t talk about it either. No one’s sure exactly what happens between them, but everyone would love to know.

Not that I want to know. Or really care. His arrogance, the look on his handsome face, the way he strides around the build- ing as if he’s the king of all he sees, drives me crazy.

If all goes as planned, that right will eventually go to Zachary someday. He is without a doubt the future CEO of Fleur.

Or me. I could be the CEO. Grandma has said that more than once. If I had half of her confidence, I could conquer the world.

All I know is that Ryder McKay is definitely not on par with Zachary and all of his experience. He’s worked at Fleur a bit longer than Zachary, a little over two years. He came to the company via Pilar, who got him a position since she worked with him at her previous employer. Somehow, he’s gotten into the good graces of practically every executive who works at Fleur. His charm is dangerous, and I can reluctantly admit he’s a valued employee.

Which makes him lethal. And I refuse to fall for him. Zachary hates his guts. Something about Ryder rubs me the wrong way.

Ignoring the disgust curling through my blood, I try my best to keep my attention on Zachary, trying to ignore that the life I’d planned is falling apart in front of my eyes. But Zachary’s phone rings, and he takes the call without asking if I mind. Like I don’t matter, and I hate that. I hate even more that he turns away so he can murmur into the phone without me hearing.

More secrets. It’s probably a woman. That I sit here and tolerate his behavior makes me want to smack him.

Or smack myself.

I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to do, how to act, and I can’t help my gaze from drifting to where Ryder sits. He’s disgustingly gorgeous in a charcoal-gray suit and a crisp white shirt, though he’s sans tie and a few buttons are undone at the neck, revealing the sexy column of his throat. His dark brown hair is in slight disarray, as if he’s run his fingers through it countless times, and the entire look gives him a rakish air. One that says he doesn’t care what people think of him while he sits in a restaurant that caters to some of the richest people in all of Manhattan.

That is the exact sort of attitude Ryder McKay always seems to have and I find it infuriating. Not that I have to deal with him, not much. He was promoted to associate director of package development a few months ago, a position I now can’t help but wonder why Zachary didn’t apply for, though it would have been more of a lateral move, not necessarily a step up. It would have kept him in New York, though.

Unless Zachary had no desire to stay in New York . . .

I stare harder, wishing I could listen in on Ryder’s conversation with Pilar, but I can’t hear a thing. His face is shrouded in shadows, the candle flickering in the deep red votive that sits in the middle of the table casting it in golden light. He’s very attractive, I can reluctantly admit. Flashing a wicked smile at Pilar, he lets forth a glorious, downright filthy-sounding laugh that sends a spark of heat zipping over my skin.

Only because it sounds so devastatingly wrong and shockingly dirty, not because I have any sort of interest in him. He’s too quiet, too mysterious, too . . . dark and full of secrets. That wicked smile is still curving his lush lips as he reaches across the table and takes Pilar’s hand, bringing it to his mouth to kiss.

I watch, transfixed, as Pilar laughs, her voice raspy as she seemingly admonishes him. He merely shakes his head in return and drops her hand, his gaze going to mine for the briefest second and then lingering.

I’m caught. Snared in his intense gaze and for a long, charge-filled bundle of seconds, I return his stare. Recognition flares in his eyes and I quickly look away, my cheeks heating, and I’m thankful the lighting is dim so he can’t tell. He thinks nothing of me, I’m sure. I’m barely a blip on his radar, and that’s just the way I like it. I don’t want his attention.

His type of attention . . . scares me.

Glancing across the table, I wave my hand in front of Zachary’s face but he doesn’t see me. I hiss out his name, earning a hard glare from him before he turns away.

A sigh wants to escape and I stifle it, chancing a glance in Ryder’s direction again to find him still watching me. And he doesn’t look away, either. His smile softens and he leans back in his chair. He positively reeks of a man who knows just how to please a woman—a man who has no qualms about flirting with one woman while sitting at a table with another.

I remind myself that I can’t stand him. I hate his cocky behavior. His confidence is galling and Zachary can’t stand him. I should be disgusted that he’s looking at me in such a blatant manner, but . . . I’m morbidly fascinated.

What’s it like to think that way? To feel that way? Pilar seems absolutely thrilled to be with him, which only confirms that something is going on between those two. And I wouldn’t doubt he’d try and touch her in some inappropriate manner if he hasn’t done so already. She probably wouldn’t protest, either. She’s an eager climber who has no problems stepping on people to get what she wants, both professionally and socially.

They look like they’re enjoying their evening, though. Whereas I’m tense and upset at Zachary’s seeming rejection they’re laughing and carrying on as if they have zero worries. Funny, I can’t help but think how lucky Pilar is. To be lost in the pleasure of Ryder’s wicked company while I’m lost to my own turbulent emotions at the thought of Zachary leaving me.

Of being alone. Again.

Tearing my gaze away from Ryder McKay, I focus on Zachary, who’s off his cell phone and watching me with an expectant expression on his face. “Now, where were we?” he asks, looking genuinely confused. How could he forget that he’d just delivered such life-altering news?

“You were telling me about your possible new promotion.” I hold in a breath, count to three, and then let it out in a soft exhale. “I’m happy for you,” I finally say, forcing myself to smile. But it doesn’t feel genuine. My lips tremble at the corners and I let the smile fall away. “Congratulations, Zachary.”

“I knew you’d understand. You always understand. Every- thing.” He reaches across the table and grasps my hand again, giving it a gentle squeeze. “If I get the position, I don’t see myself staying in London beyond two years. We can make it work, can’t we, darling?”

“Of course we can,” I whisper. But I’m not sure. Two years with Zachary in another country, meeting numerous women? Most likely bedding numerous women?

For all I know, this could be the beginning of the end.

Chapter Two

Ryder

“I’m going to seduce Violet Fowler.” I keep my gaze locked on the very woman I’m referring to, enraptured with the way she tucks a wayward strand of glossy brown hair behind her ear, her pretty smile directed at that asshole boyfriend of hers.

I fucking hate Zachary Lawrence. And I fucking want his girlfriend.

Which, of course, gets my mind churning with ideas. Not a one of them good.

“Absolutely not.”

I jerk my gaze away from Violet and stare incredulously at my former boss and occasional lover. “What did you just say?” “Please. You heard me.” She scowls, her blood-red lips forming into an obvious pout. Even angry, she’s strikingly beautiful. Her exotic features help Pilar stand out among any crowd. “Why in the world would you want to even touch Violet, let alone fuck her? She’s so incredibly boring.”

She sounds jealous. Not that I’d ever say that. Pilar has extra- sharp claws and she’s not afraid to use them. “That’s what’s so intriguing about her.” I have the distinct feeling that in the hands of the right man, Violet Fowler would be anything but boring.

“You just want her because you can’t have her. Typical male.” Pilar waves a hand dismissively. “Can’t we talk about something else?”

“Fine.” I stare at her, knowing she has information I want. It’s the reason I asked her to go to dinner with me tonight. “Tell me about Zachary.”

Pilar’s lips curl into a cat-got-the-mouse smile. Now I was talking her language. “What do you want to know?” She sounds bored but she loves this. I can tell from the glittering of her golden-brown eyes that she’s far from bored.

“I heard they’re sending him to London,” I say.

“Yes, they are.”

“To do some sort of temporary tryout for the global marketing director position that was just created,” I continue.

“Yes. It’s an excellent opportunity. One that many would want.” She looks so damn pleased with herself, saying that. She knows my blood is boiling.

And I feel like I’m about to burst. “Right. Like me. I want that job.” So bad I can almost fucking taste it. I’m damn good at what I do. I’ve risen among the ranks within Fleur at surprising speed.

She rolls her eyes. “You haven’t earned it.”

“I work my ass off. I’ve earned it far more than fucking Lawrence. He gets the chance because of who his girlfriend is.” I can’t even say his first name. I hate how he insists everyone call him Zachary. It makes him sound like a complete pussy. Pompous asshole. “I told Fowler.”

Pilar frowns, her eyes dimming. The excited sparkle is gone just like that. “Told him what?”

“That I want the position.”

She looks shocked. Good. It’s rare when anyone can surprise her. “And what did he say?”

“‘Prove yourself, son.’ And that’s a direct quote.” I lean across the table, my gaze locked with Pilar’s. “So that’s what I plan on doing.”

A perfectly arched eyebrow rises. “How? By getting into Violet’s granny panties? Please. That little prude won’t let you even look at her. How do you think you’re going to get your dirty paws on her pristine body?”

I hadn’t thought that through yet. But it doesn’t matter. Once I focus on something, I always get what I want. At least now I do. When I was a kid, hell no. I begged. I stole. I fucked to get what I wanted. My past, though, just made me tougher. More determined.

And for whatever reason, just looking at Violet Fowler sitting there in her pretty little dress with her pretty little body, tolerating that asshole Lawrence while he ignores her and chats on the phone . . . makes me want to jump her. Show her what a real man could do for her.

I’d probably scare the shit out of her. Hell, I might enjoy scaring the shit out of her.

Clearly, I’m a twisted fuck.

“If her asshole boyfriend is leaving her behind, I’m sure I can figure something out.” I shrug. “She’ll be alone and vulnerable. Missing Lawrence. I can step in and ease her pain.”

“Ballsy, aren’t you?” Pilar murmurs. “And what about me? Am I supposed to sit by without protest while you’re out fucking another woman?”

“You have before. Plenty of times. Not like we’re committed.” Our relationship isn’t what I would call conventional. Our ties are there, but we’re not forever bound to each other. Pilar is a user.

So am I. It’s why we work so well together, both personally and professionally.

Lately, though, I’ve felt conflicted. I know I’m ready to end the sexual relationship with Pilar, but we have a history. She’s the only woman who ever took care of me, so I take care of her.

My mom disappeared when I was little and I don’t remember her. Dad was a semi-presence in my life until I was around fifteen, but he was never a real parent. More like a roommate. A man who brought whores around and passed me my first drink when I was barely twelve. A real stellar example of what a parent should be.

When Pilar walked into my life, took one look at me and decided I would become her personal little project, I was relieved. Fucking thankful.

I was nothing more than a stupid, dirty street kid, nineteen and with a minor drug problem, no job, and no place to live, when we first met. I slept on a park bench at night and hung out in Starbucks all day. At least it was warm. I could afford a tall coffee and a free glass of water. I nursed that shit all damn day. I didn’t care.

Pilar entered that Starbucks like she owned the place every single morning. Sometimes I saw her, sometimes I didn’t. One morning in particular, I caught her eye and she surveyed me like I was a bug under a microscope. She came closer to where I sat, peering at me. She’s older, beautiful, and radiates so much confidence that I was caught. Hell, I wanted to be caught.

She brought me home to clean me up. Her apartment was like a palace. Clean, with new furniture and food in the refrigerator and a toilet that flushed, with a shower that had hot running water and soft towels, a warm bed to sleep in at night. I was in heaven.

When she said she could get me a job where she worked as her assistant, I said yes. That job was more than anyone had ever given me before. The meals she provided? I ate more than I’d ever eaten in my entire fucking life. The first night I stayed with her, I threw up, I ate so much goddamn food. I remember thinking what a waste as I bent over the toilet and puked my guts out.

Nobody had ever wanted me. Nobody had ever given two shits about me. When no one has ever given you anything, not one thing in your life, and then someone comes along and gives you not only what you need, but what you want . . . you never forget it. What Pilar and I share, it’s not what I would call good.

But it’s more than I ever thought I’d be getting.

That she was interested in me had blown my mind. Made me want to work harder for her, prove that I could actually amount to something. She rewarded me, too. First with sex, and eventually with job opportunities, and I’ve proven my worth. Even though I don’t work directly under her anymore, supposedly I still owe her.

I’m ready, though, to have my debt paid in full.

“I won’t sit by and let you screw around with her. Have you lost your mind? Do you really believe by getting Violet Fowler in your bed, you’ll automatically get a promotion? Forrest Fowler is extremely protective of his daughters, you know. He’d probably chop your dick off if he found out you fucked his little girl,” Pilar points out. “Especially since she’s the damaged one of the bunch.”

The CEO of Fleur is overly protective of his two youngest daughters. The oldest one—Lily—is a walking disaster. A sexy one, too, who spent most of her time at parties half naked and drunk, gaining constant coverage on shitty gossip sites.

Violet is the restrained, fragile one. Rumor is she’d been admitted to a psych ward at one point. That their mother offed herself when the girls were young and Violet’s just like her. Vulnerable. Unstable.

A mess.

She’s the perfect victim. I could scoop her up and spit her out, no problem.

“I want to get in her good graces,” I say, because what the hell else can I say? I know Violet Fowler doesn’t give a shit about me. That I caught her staring at me a few minutes ago had surprised the hell out of me. “Besides, haven’t you always wanted to fuck around with Lawrence?”

The mock surprise on Pilar’s face is telling. “I’ve found him . . . scrumptious. On occasion.”

Scrumptious. The word in reference to Zachary Lawrence grates. The guy is an arrogant prick. It takes everything I have to restrain the frown that wants to appear. “So help me out here. Wrap your lips around Lawrence’s dick, take a few pictures, somehow get them to Violet, and then she’ll break it off with him. I’ll console her, look like a superhero, and Fowler will have no choice but to give the promotion to me.” It sounds like a shitty plan and I prefer to earn my promotions the old-fashioned way—doing a damn good job—but I’m pissed. I’d love nothing more than to snatch that job right out of Lawrence’s hands.

Snatch the promotion and his beautiful girlfriend, all at once.

“It’s not that simple, darling. Zachary is leaving for London. Remember?”

“Not for another week or two. That’s plenty of time for you to set your sights on him and fuck him over.” She moves quickly when she wants. So do I.

Pilar smiles and tilts her head back to let out a throaty laugh. One she’s honed to perfection over the years. Not one thing Pilar does is spontaneous. She’s calculated down to the very finest detail. “Aren’t you the naughty one, suggesting I nail Zachary Lawrence to help you get ahead in the company? What do I get out of it?”

“Sex with Lawrence?”

She smirks. “Not good enough. I want more.”

I decide to distract her by changing the subject. “Speaking of that jackass, he’s sitting over there right now having dinner with Violet.” He’s such a smarmy asshole. He knows how to put on the charm and most everyone at Fleur is completely enamored with him, but I see through the façade. I’ve lived enough, especially during the first nineteen years of my life on the streets, to recognize some real bullshit and know that what Lawrence is dishing out is top-of-the-line B.S.

“I saw them already.” Pilar schools her expression, grabbing her wineglass and bringing it to her lips so she can take a sip before she responds. “Such luck, that we chose the same restau- rant tonight. I assume he’s telling her that he’s leaving.”

Good riddance. I won’t miss the guy, though I’m sure ninety- five percent of the staff is ready to throw him a huge going-away party. I bet he’s fucked about ninety-five percent of the female staff, too, what with the way he loves to chase a skirt.

More than once I’ve heard that Violet knows about Lawrence’s extracurricular activities but chooses to turn a blind eye. Why she tolerates him I have no clue.

Pilar sighs when I say nothing, propping her elbow on the edge of the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking like a wistful teenage girl. “He shall be missed by all.”

“Not by me,” I mutter.

She laughs. “You’re just jealous.”

“Of Lawrence? Hell no.” I shake my head. “He’s an asshole.”

“A charming asshole who has everything you could ever want.” The look on Pilar’s face tells me she thinks she knows all. “Admit it. You’re jealous. He’s your direct competition.”

I shrug. He’s the closest thing to competition I have when it comes to work. I started at Fleur about six months before he did. We’ve both moved up the ranks, at right about the same speed, though he’s outpaced me recently. I blame it on his relationship with Violet.

It doesn’t matter what anyone says. The man is banging the owner’s daughter. There have to be some advantage in there someplace.

“Tell me what you want, Pilar.” I say, wanting to refocus. Needing to refocus. I have to come up with a new plan. After speaking with Forrest Fowler earlier, letting him know that I want the position Lawrence is temporarily taking over, I want my chance.

I deserve a chance. So I need to use every advantage I can get.

She sobers, her expression thoughtful as she taps a blood-red fingernail against her pursed lips before she snaps her fingers and points her index finger at me. “I know. I want Violet gone.”

Now it’s my turn to raise my eyebrows. “Gone?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Pilar nods and drops her hand to the table, her fingers clutching the edge. “Zachary has something you want? Well, Violet has something I want.”

“And what’s that?”

“Power,” she says simply.

No shit. “She’s a Fowler. Of course she has power.”

“Yes, but if she’s gone, that’s one less Fowler I have to deal with, hmmm? And Violet is so determined to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. Certainly more determined than Rose is.” Pilar smiles, her lids lowering. “You destroy Violet, she’ll crumble like she has before. Then . . . she’s gone.”

Unease slips down my spine at Pilar’s suggestion. Yeah, we’ve played these sorts of games before, but she’s never asked me to destroy someone, particularly someone as delicate as Violet.

“You’ve already admitted you want to fuck around with Violet, right? Once Zachary’s gone, you’ll get the promotion and move to London and Violet will be left behind to pick up the pieces. She’ll fall completely apart, disappear, and I’ll step in and take over.” Pilar leans back in her chair, contemplating what she just said. “I personally think it’s a brilliant idea.”

It’s a fucking dangerous idea. One that makes me feel un- comfortable, not that I’d ever tell Pilar that. She’d use it against me.

I let my gaze slide toward Violet, watching as she perches on the edge of her seat, those wide, velvety brown eyes taking in everything that asshole Lawrence has to say. My skin tightens as I imagine her looking at me like that. Like I hung the moon and stars and everything in between, all of it just for her.

Yeah, I’ve fantasized about her. More than once. Who wouldn’t? Sometimes even when I’m fucking Pilar, I’ve imagined Violet in her place. Pictured her beneath me, all that long, silky dark hair spread across my pillow, her cheeks glowing, that velvet gaze stuck on me. Only me. There’s just something about her shy, reserved personality that drives me out of my fucking mind. That makes me want to drive her out of her fucking mind. With my cock imbedded deep inside her tight little body.

“I don’t know. This idea comes with zero guarantees,” I finally say with a quick shake of my head. One wrong move and we could both be fired. I can’t afford to screw around. I need to focus. I need to get away from Pilar once and for all and get her to back off.

I need to grow the fuck up and do something with my life. I’m tired of dealing with distractions. But sick as it is, Pilar is all I have. There’s no family, no real close friends. It’s hard to let her go.

And she knows it.

“Just when I was ready to agree with your plan, you act like this. You’re no fun.” Pilar mock pouts. “You’ve become awfully serious lately.”

“I have to be. Look, Pilar.” I lean across the table, wanting her to see just how damn serious I am. “I can’t afford to fuck around anymore. I want that promotion. I want the fuck out of here. We start pulling too many people into this and actually . . . hurt someone, the CEO’s daughter for Christ’s sake—it’s too damn risky.”

“Oh, it’ll be fun. And like you care about Violet’s feelings. When has she ever done anything for you? She usually looks at you like you’re a piece of dirty, sticky gum on the bottom of her shoe.”

Pilar’s probably right. Doesn’t matter, though. I may be a user, but the idea of pushing Violet over the edge doesn’t sit well.

Guess I have some morals after all.

“I don’t know . . .” I start, but she cuts me off.

“Please. You can’t do this for me?” She waves a hand, dismissing my words. Since when did this plan turn into her proj- ect? “After I took you in. Gave you a job when you had nothing. You’d be dead if it weren’t for me.”

Fuck. I know. She’s told me often enough.

“You owe me,” Pilar continues. “I loaned you money.”

“I paid you back, didn’t I?” Freaking tenfold, I want to add but don’t.

“I saved your life,” she reiterates. “Come on. I think your idea sounds fun. Everyone gets what they want.”

Fun. The idea is much more than just fun. “Meaning me and you,” I say.

“Darling, we are the only ones who count in this world. If we can’t look after each other, then no one else will.” She reaches across the table and settles her hand on top of mine. “Come on, my darling, sweet boy. Do this for me—do this for you—and we can ensure each other’s climb at Fleur. I guarantee it.”

How the hell can she guarantee anything? I’m not the same gullible kid I was when she first found me. “Knock it off, Pilar,” I mutter, sliding my hand from beneath hers.

I swear I feel Violet’s eyes on me, watching me. Judging me. Little prude. She probably thinks I’m a complete jackass, when she’s the one inviting the biggest asshole on the planet into her bed every night.

Makes me wonder how she is in bed. Uptight? Prim and closed off? Lawrence probably has to pry her thighs open with a crowbar to get in there and then she dissolves into tears every time they have sex.

Sounds like a nightmare to me.

Yet I’m still hard as a rock just thinking about it.

Which means . . . I should do this. Fuck it. What have I got to lose? And if it all comes together as planned, I have everything to gain.

Everything.

“If I do this . . .” I start, lowering my voice. The excitement that flares in Pilar’s eyes fuels my own. “If I fuck her . . . play with her for a while, we have to be discreet. Meaning you have to keep quiet.”

Pilar nods, her eyes going wide. “I can do that.”

“You fuck Lawrence and cause them to break up, but don’t make a huge scene. Then we get him the hell out of Fleur,” I say, laying it all out. “I console Violet, we become closer. I prove to her father that I’m perfect for the London job and he has no choice but to promote me. I leave Violet behind, devastated that I broke up with her so harshly, and then she’ll need to—go away for a while to recover. That’s when you slide in and take over her responsibilities.”

“Sounds perfect,” she croons, her hand covering mine once more, her foot sliding along my leg. My cock twitches to life, both from Pilar’s actions and the challenge of the hunt, the chance at the prize.

Fucking Violet Fowler and getting a promotion in London, away from Pilar? I couldn’t ask for anything better.

“After her, this is it, though. No more games. We remain friends only, Pilar. That’s all,” I add.

The smile on Pilar’s face diminishes, but I can still see the glow in her eyes. She loves it when I talk like this because she thinks I don’t mean it. This time, though, I do. “Fine. Whatever you want, darling. It’ll be fun. We can compare notes.”

I don’t say a word as she scoots her chair closer to mine, her hand gripping my shoulder as her gaze goes to my lap. “You know, you can act like I’m the one who selected Violet as your latest conquest, but remember it was your idea. I suspect you’ve wanted her for a while,” she whispers, reaching out to settle her hand on my dick. “So pretend all you want that hard-on of yours isn’t for her.”

I take a deep breath, tell myself to remain calm. “It isn’t. It’s all for you,” I lie smoothly. My life is fucking chaos. I don’t need Pilar making it more of a mess than it already is and she knows how. That’s the scary part. “So you’ll start in on Lawrence tomorrow?”

She arches a perfectly sculpted brow, removing her hand. I swear my cock breathes a sigh of relief. “And you’ll start in on Violet?”

“Yes.” I take a deep breath, pushing aside the uneasy feeling that wants to take over. “But then . . . like I said, that’s it. We’re done. I go my way and you go yours. My debt to you is paid in full.”

“All right.” The smile returns, darker this time, her eyes lit with an unfamiliar fire that makes me wary. “Then we’d better make this interesting, shouldn’t we?”

“As interesting as we fucking can.” I shift in my seat and her hand falls away from me, thank Christ.

My gaze wanders yet again to Violet and Zachary’s table, but they’re gone. They’ve just left, Zachary heading toward the entrance of the restaurant, Violet going in the opposite direction, most likely to the restroom.

“I should go after her,” I suggest, never taking my eyes off of her. God, she’s beautiful. I want her.

Though I shouldn’t.

“Yes, you should. Now shoo.” She waves her hands, as if she’s a mama duck pushing me out of the nest for the very last time. “Work your McKay magic all over her and I’ll go find Zachary.”

Without another word, I stand and wind my way through the tables, following the path Violet just took. It’ll be a game. A little fun. How long will it take to make her fall for me?

I’ve done it before and I can do it again. I know how to play the game. Be what she wants me to be. I’m a chameleon. Been told that since I was a kid. “Adaptable” is a much nicer way to put it.

A phony. A fake is the more honest term for what I do. I own every title. After all . . .

I’m practically a professional.

 

Chapter Three

Violet

I lied when I told Zachary I wasn’t upset about his leaving but I put on a brave face, something I’ve become exceptional at doing. Just when I believe things are going my way, news is delivered that’s like a punch to my stomach. But I’m a survivor, not weak, or at least so I’ve been told again and again. Now it’s all about my game face. That’s what Father calls it.

Like life is one big game. Who thinks like that? Who actually lives like that?

Just as the waiter took away our plates, Zachary told me he would drop me off at my apartment. “Too much to do,” he murmured with that reassuring smile of his pasted on his face. So phony. Why do I believe his lies? Am I that insecure? “My only chance to start packing is at night, after work. I leave in less than two weeks. You understand, don’t you, sweetheart?”

Of course I understand. I’m the perfect girlfriend who stands by her man and lets him do whatever he wants. Including letting him leave her while he attempts to take on a new and glamorous job in another country. He’ll most likely go find a new and glamorous woman, too.

He’s done it before . . . though never out of the country. So that’ll be a new adventure for him. One I’m supposed to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist

The telltale stinging in my eyes lets me know I need to get out of there so I can be alone. Zachary would be embarrassed if I cried. He’d probably tell Father, and I can’t . . . I can’t let him know that I’m upset. I’m fine. I’m composed. I’m happy.

I’m perfect.

So when the tiny imperfection tries to slip through in the form of tears, I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. Hide away in a stall so no one can see me as I lean against the wall with my face buried in my hands, the tears streaming freely down my cheeks. I only allow myself approximately ninety seconds of crying, though. Any more and my cheeks would turn ruddy, my eyes bloodshot. Zachary would know what I was doing.

And I can’t have that.

I keep Visine in my purse for moments like this and after I exit the stall, I go to the row of sinks to wash my hands and assess myself in the mirror. I look . . . like I’ve been crying. My cheeks are a little rosy, my eyes damp and with a tinge of pink. I dry my hands and reach into my purse, grabbing the eye drops so I can take care of the problem. I’m always ready for any situa- tion. My sisters love it. They make fun of all the things I have in my bag, but I like to be prepared.

The drops go in easily and I blink, then grab a tissue and dab at my eyes. My skin is still flushed, so I splash cold water on my face and dry off, then grab my Fleur Cosmetics Perfect Pressed Powder and dab at my cheeks, taking the redness out. A slick of Lickable Lip Gloss in Macadamia Nut on my lips and I finally look presentable, ready to face the world. Face Zachary.

Despite my anger, I know I need to cherish these last few days with him before he leaves, but my stomach hurts when I think about how he and Father kept this from me when I could have known weeks ago. I could have prepared myself. Instead, he blindsided me.

Get over it. Be strong. You can go on without him. This is temporary. It’s not like he broke up with you. All sorts of couples manage through a long-distance relationship.

They do. I can. Zachary loves me in his own special way. He needs me, but he also needs to do this to further his career. Otherwise, he’ll resent me forever.

Taking a deep breath, I slip my Chanel bag over my shoulder and exit the bathroom, stopping short when I see a man standing in the darkened hallway, almost as if he was waiting for me. His face is in shadows but I recognize his build, the way he holds himself. Confident, with that arrogant tilt of his head and those incredibly broad shoulders.

It’s Ryder McKay.

“Well, well, well. Violet Fowler, how are you this evening?” His rumbly deep voice washes over me as he steps out of the shadows, tall and imposing and handsome as sin.

I take a step back, not wanting him in my personal space, but he invades it anyway. “Mr. McKay,” I say politely, not daring to call him by his first name. That would imply I know him, that we’re friends or at the very least friendly coworkers, and we’re neither of those things. He may work at Fleur, but I rarely speak to him. I don’t have to, and besides . . .

There’s something about all that edgy darkness and how it radiates from him. He demands attention without saying a word, and there’s an air of danger that surrounds him, that en- snares me despite my reluctance to be near him. The innate sexuality that he represents . . . it scares me.

He scares me.

“I’ve worked at Fleur long enough for you to call me Ryder, don’t you think?” He pauses for a heavy beat and the air seems to fill with electricity as I wait for him to speak. “You don’t mind that I call you Violet, do you?”

He somehow makes my name sound like a sexual promise. I take another step back and my butt hits the wall. He smiles, and I know he knows I’ve realized I’m trapped. “Of course you can call me Violet,” I say, thankful my voice isn’t shaking. I have no idea what to say to him, how to act. “Did you have a nice dinner?”

He grins. “Why yes, I did, thank you for asking. The view was spectacular.” His gaze slides down the length of me, taking me all in. My breasts, my stomach, my hips, my legs, lingering on my feet before moving back up, his gaze once more on mine. “The food was good, too.”

My cheeks heat, but it’s not from the leftover tears. It’s the way he looks at me, his gaze so bold, like he wants to devour me. His mention of the view is in reference to me. As if he’s somehow attracted to me.

I don’t believe it. He’s just trying to unnerve me with his not-so-subtle flirting. And it’s working.

“How’s Zachary?” Ryder asks when I still haven’t answered.

I jolt, giving myself a little shake. Zachary. I need to remember that my boyfriend is outside waiting for the car. Waiting for me. “Fine,” I say as I step away from the wall. But that only brings me closer to Ryder and he doesn’t budge. I can smell him. His scent is as dark and alluring as he is. “I should go. He’s waiting—”

“I hear he’s leaving for London.” The expression on Ryder’s handsome face is all polite sympathy, but with a hint of mockery in his dark blue eyes. He doesn’t like Zachary and the feeling is mutual. Zachary complains about him all the time. I’m sure Ryder’s thrilled that Zachary is leaving. “Trying out for a promotion, correct? I’m sure you’re proud of him.”

Proud of him? I should be. And seriously, did everyone know this bit of news but me? “H-how did you hear?” I press my lips together, angry that I let the little stutter slip. I need to remain composed, especially in the face of this particular man.

He’s a shark. I know he takes advantage of the weak and gobbles them up. I’ve heard the stories. And those stories are more than half the reason Father is so pleased that he works at Fleur. Father admires a shark. It’s why he loves Zachary so much, too, though Zachary is much smoother in his . . . predatory approach to business.

“My dinner partner told me the good news.” He inclines his head when he notes my confusion. “I’m here with Pilar.”

“Oh.” Pilar. How could I forget? His relationship, his usual aloofness—it’s all such a mystery. Hardly anyone knows much about him, but they all want to learn more. At the moment, though, he’s being downright friendly with me.

“Yes.” He smiles, and it’s so dazzling I feel like I’m momentarily blinded. “Oh.”

“How is Pilar?” I ask, being polite when I realize he seems to be waiting for a response. He still hasn’t moved out of my way and I inhale discreetly, taking in his sharp, masculine scent. I let my gaze linger on him for a long moment as he looks down at the floor, as if he’s savoring a personal joke. His eyelashes are long and thick, casting shadows upon his cheekbones, and my belly flutters when he glances up, his intense gaze meeting mine.

“She’s well. Up to her usual tricks.” The smile that curls the corners of his lips tells me he is in on the joke and I am definitely not. “I should probably go check on her.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s waiting at the front for her car. We rode together.” His smile grows. “I wanted to come back here and check on you.”

I frown. “Check on me?”

He shrugs those impossibly broad shoulders encased in fine Italian charcoal wool. “You seemed upset.”

Really? Does that mean Zachary noticed too? He never said anything to me. I practically broke down in front of him at our table and he never uttered a word of concern.

“From the way you leapt up from the table, I had a feeling that Zachary just delivered the news.” Ryder takes another step forward, reaching out to settle his big hand on my upper arm, giving it a brief, somewhat innocent squeeze.

My reaction to his touch is anything but innocent. That squeeze swims through my blood, settling like a pulse between my legs.

“We’re fine. Really.” I step out of his touch, then move to the side so I can get past him. I hurry down the hall, as far away from Ryder as I can get, when he speaks.

“And you? Are you fine, Violet?”

I pause and close my eyes, fighting the tears that threaten yet again. What’s wrong with me? Why do I want to cry at something stupid Ryder McKay just said? It makes no sense. My reaction to this man makes absolutely zero sense.

“I’m perfect.” I turn to find him watching me, his hands slipped into his trouser pockets, his legs spread in a typical masculine stance.

“Yes,” he says, his gaze roaming over me yet again. I’m tempted to fidget but keep myself still. “You are.” He looks like a warrior ready to stand down against the enemy, tall and powerful with an arrogant curl to his upper lip, his eyes glittering in the dim light.

“Thank you for your concern,” I add, frowning at my ridiculous graciousness. I need to walk away. His presence completely throws me.

“Anytime. Always so polite, aren’t you,” he murmurs, his voice drifting toward me, soft and sexy. “I hate to see such a beautiful woman so upset.”

My knees wobble at his casual compliment. When was the last time Zachary said something like that to me? Called me beautiful? Such a simple word, but it carries so much power. “You flatter me,” I murmur in return.

“I speak the truth.” He steps forward, drawing close once more. “May I escort you outside?”

Ryder offers his arm and I have no choice but to accept. As he said, I am always, above anything else, polite. So I slip my arm through his, around his elbow, and he leads me through the restaurant toward the entrance. I try to ignore the hummingbirds fluttering their wings within my belly. Try to ignore the heat that radiates off him, inviting me to snuggle closer.

I smile, barely able to hold back the laugh that wants to escape. Snuggle is not a word I would use when talking about Ryder. I’m sure no woman has ever wanted to merely snuggle with him. He’s far too intimidating.

“You’re laughing,” he says, his lips at my ear as he bends his head toward mine. A shiver moves through me when I feel his warm breath caress my skin. “Do you find me that amusing?”

The man notices everything. It’s rather unnerving. “I wasn’t laughing,” I counter. “Just smiling at someone I know.”

“Mmm-hmm.” That low hum rumbles from his chest, the sound knowing. As if he’s confident he’s caught me in a lie.

Which he has.

Ryder opens the door for me and I step out into the bitter-cold air. Zachary is standing on the curb in front of our car, Pilar standing in front of him, her hand on his chest as they both laugh.

My blood runs cold and I stop in my tracks, watching them. Ryder stops as well, never letting me go and not saying a word either. I curl my fingers around his rock-hard bicep, momentarily distracted as I tilt my head to look at his arm. The man must work out obsessively to have muscles like that.

I wonder what his skin feels like. Bare and smooth and hot . . .

“Violet!” Zachary strides toward me, his eyes flashing as he takes in me standing beside Ryder. “There you are. I was worried you’d fallen in.”

I grimace. Such a crass remark. I can’t believe he said that in front of Pilar and Ryder. He never talks like that. “I’m fine.” I smile and lift my chin. “I ran into Ryder on my way out and we were talking.”

The anger simmering in Zachary’s gaze is undeniable. Good.

He should know I’m not thrilled that Pilar has her hands on him either. She’s standing beside him, her dark red lips curved into a closed-mouth smile, looking awfully pleased with herself. “I didn’t realize you two were so close,” Zachary says, his voice sharp, his gaze assessing.

“Someone needs to take care of her now that you’ll be gone, don’t you think, Lawrence?” Ryder chuckles.

I immediately release my hold on Ryder’s arm, shocked at his words. The fire in Zachary’s gaze rises and I go to him, sliding my arm around his waist and giving him a squeeze. “Ignore him,” I whisper, placing my hand on Zachary’s cheek when he continues to stare at Ryder like he wants to murder him where he stands. “Please.”

Zachary breathes deep, his chest rising against mine, his expression contrite. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He glances up, glaring at Ryder again. “See you both tomorrow?”

Pilar murmurs a goodbye, though Ryder says nothing. Zachary opens the door for me and I slide into the car, Zachary following in after me. Just as he pulls the door shut, I hear Ryder’s voice, clear above the usual city noise.

“See you tomorrow, Violet.”

He doesn’t bother mentioning Zachary. It’s as if he’s completely focused on me.

And that makes me fairly sure Ryder is quite possibly the last person I want to see tomorrow.

***

“Tell me.” I keep my gaze focused firmly on my monitor so my sister won’t suspect I’m up to anything. I’m on a research hunt and I want no one to suspect a thing. “What do you know about Ryder McKay?”

Rose laughs. “I know he’s sexy as hell.”

My head whips in her direction so fast I swear I just threw out my neck. I rub the back of it, wincing. “What do you mean? Do you have a crush on him?”

Rose laughs even harder, the little witch. “What woman that works here doesn’t? Not that he notices any of us. He’s too focused on his work. Or he’s spending time with Pilar Vasquez.” She grimaces. “There’s a relationship I don’t really understand.”

“Agreed.” I can’t get him out of my mind. I tossed and turned last night, my mind racing. Why had he been so nice to me? What had he meant by that remark he made to Zachary? And why did Pilar have her hands all over Zachary’s chest?

Such a strange night. One I can’t help but reexamine and try to take apart. But every time I try to put it back together, the pieces don’t fit.

“I’ve heard he’s very driven,” Rose says, interrupting my thoughts. “He’s determined to succeed at Fleur, which I’m sure Daddy loves.”

“He does love it. He approves of Ryder’s tactics. Father has lavished praise on him to me more than once.” Only Rose would get away with calling our father Daddy. I don’t think I’ve ever called him that. He’s Father to me. Not even Dad.

Our relationship has always been more on the formal side.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t tried to match me up with him,” Rose continues, turning her head so she’s gazing out the window. “Like he matched you up with Zachary.”

“He didn’t match us up,” I argue, offended that she would even suggest it. She knows the truth behind the start of our relationship. “I chased after Zachary.” I took one look at him and knew he would be perfect. Father encouraged our relationship, I won’t deny that, but it was no predestined match.

“Whatever you say.” Rose shrugs and turns her attention upon me. She’s the astute one. The savvy one. Nothing much gets past my baby sister. “Why are you asking about Ryder anyway?”

My mind blanks as I try my best to act like it’s nothing when it’s so something. A very big something I discovered when I went over my schedule with my assistant earlier this morning. “I’ve been working on a project and just realized I’m going to be in constant contact with him over the next few months. I want to know what I’m dealing with.” Not necessarily a lie. I’d been in a meeting earlier this morning, discussing the new line we’re creating under my name. We’ve come to the point where design needs to be involved, and Ryder is the associate director of packaging.

“Packaging?” Ah, Rose the mind reader. “I’ve heard he’s very good in whatever position he’s put in. You haven’t met with him yet?”

“I scheduled a meeting later this afternoon.” The timing of this meeting is a little odd. It almost feels . . . planned. How, I’m not sure, but everything’s falling into place quite nicely.

I don’t mention to Rose the strange encounter last night. I don’t want to. Zachary had been angry the entire ride back to my apartment, sitting silently beside me, stewing over what I haven’t a clue. He brushed a distracted kiss upon my cheek when we arrived at my building and I climbed out of the car, hurt that he didn’t even bother to tell me he loved me.

Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if he really does. But then I tell myself my insecurities are showing and I push the worry aside. I’m good at that.

Quite good.

“I’ve spoken to Ryder a few times, but nothing major. He’s quite the charmer. And like I mentioned, Daddy seems enamored with him.” Rose rolls her eyes. She’s been on the outs with Father lately, and so has Lily. Our oldest sister is banned from working at Fleur. Father cast her out, tired of her sullying the family name and cheapening Fleur’s brand with her constant antics and partying.

His words, not mine.

“So if Father approves, you don’t?” I ask.

“If he’s anything like Daddy, then yes. I will automatically hate Ryder McKay. It doesn’t matter how nice he is to me.” Rose smiles, her golden eyes twinkling. She has the face of an angel, but it’s countered with that devilish glint in her gaze. With her mesmerizing eyes, round face, rosebud lips, and long, golden-brown hair with perfect blond highlights, she’s stunning. Twenty-one and confident, she holds the same position as I do at Fleur, consultant at large. It’s a lofty position, one all three of us were given since we’re the daughters of Forrest Fowler.

Rose and I have earned that position, though, what with the many hours of work we’ve put in over the years. I may have had a minor setback with my epic nervous breakdown, but once I returned, I threw myself into my work, wanting to prove myself. Needing to prove myself.

Eager to do this job, take care of this legacy that’s been so graciously handed to me.

“I should ask Grandma,” I say, grabbing my cell when it buzzes, hopeful it’s Zachary. But it’s a message from Lily, asking if I could call her later tonight. My stomach flips as I type back a yes in response.

My sister is . . . troubled. And I don’t know how to help her. None of us really do.

“Oh, I’m sure if Dahlia has met him, she will definitely have an opinion.” Rose grins and stands. She came into my office a while ago just to chat, which turned into a twenty-minute session talking about Zachary leaving. Rose doesn’t much approve of my boyfriend either.

Rose really doesn’t approve of much of anything.

“I’ll talk to her later, after the meeting.” I want to form my own opinion about Ryder’s work and abilities. I know how he affects me on a personal level and the most polite way I can phrase it is, he makes me very . . . uncomfortable.

If that translates at work, too? Then we’re in trouble.

“I’m sure he’ll come up with a brilliant idea for your packaging. Maybe you should request that he lead the project,” Rose says.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He has to prove himself first,” I murmur, glancing at my schedule on the monitor. Just seeing that meeting listed makes my stomach jump. That I’ll have to face him again after last night worries me. I’ll need to put my bravest face on so he doesn’t see how much he unnerves me.

I can’t let him get the upper hand.

“I don’t doubt for a minute he’ll prove himself. Like I said, he’s very good at what he does,” Rose says.

Ugh. The way she says it almost sounds . . . sexual. Of course, that could be my own overly active imagination pinning sexual connotations on everything in regards to Ryder.

Very unfair of me.

“Hmm. I suppose I’ll find out.” I tap my finger against my cell screen, surprised when a new text comes over and it’s from Zachary.

We’ll meet for lunch.

Frowning, I grab my phone and quickly type. I hate how he doesn’t ask. He always just assumes I’m sitting around waiting for him.

Sorry, I have plans.

Another lie, which niggles at me. I’d rather sit at my desk, eat a sandwich, and prepare for the packaging meeting than watch Zachary eat and worry over what he thinks of me.

“I should go. I have a conference call in fifteen.” I glance up as Rose smiles down at me. “Make sure and tell me how your meeting with Ryder goes.”

“You should sit in on it with me,” I say distractedly, staring at my phone screen, nervously waiting for a response from Zachary. He doesn’t like it when I refuse him.

“If you want me to, I totally can. Just let me know when.” “Two o’clock? Does that work for you?” I ask. “Definitely.” She nods. “I’ll see you then.”

“’Bye,” I say as Rose leaves, but I don’t pay any attention. Too busy watching as Zachary types his response.

I can’t see you tonight. I have plans too.

Is this his way of getting back at me? He’s done this before when we’ve been in disagreement over something. Almost like he’s withholding his company from me. Like I’m supposed to fall apart and not know what to do without Zachary
by my side.

Which isn’t too far off from the truth.

My fingers hover over the keyboard for agonizing seconds before I finally type.

Maybe another time then.

Closing my eyes, I let my phone fall to my desk with a clatter. I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to avoid Zachary, either, but something isn’t right between us. I thought I’d been very accepting of his news, but maybe he thinks I’m upset. I am, but I’d never let on. I’m a good enough actress that I can always pull through.

But maybe he saw through the cracks in my veneer. Maybe I shouldn’t have lied and said I had plans. I hate lying. Lies only lead to trouble.

His answer is immediate.

Dinner tomorrow night?

I chew on my lip, wishing I could just say yes like normal and carry on with my day. Instead I’m mulling over every little thing. Analyzing his behavior and mine, wondering why I can’t stop thinking about Ryder McKay calling me beautiful, flashing that gorgeous smile at me that made me feel weak in the knees.

Thinking of it, remembering, I still feel weak.

Pushing all thoughts of Ryder out my brain, I finally answer Zachary.

Dinner sounds perfect.