Authors: Kelly Favor
“And what about us?” Exley said. “What about Vera and me? Are we just left out in the cold?”
“You can’t be allowed to have any power, not for a long time,” Liam told him.
“We’ll fight you,” Vera said, but her voice didn’t sound confident any longer. “We’ll rake your name through the mud too. You can’t cut us out—“
“Nonsense,” Liam told her. “I can do what I please. I’m in charge of the entire estate, the whole Houston fortune is mine and you both know it. You only hoped to control me, use me like a puppet. And it worked for a long while, I’m ashamed to admit. But that’s over now and you better get used to it.”
“We can still make life difficult for you,” Vera said. “Nobody believes in you. We’ll call an emergency meeting of the board of directors—“
“The board is a complete joke,” Liam laughed. “Not even you really believe the board has any real power.”
Vera swallowed audibly. “We’ll see.”
Liam’s jaw set. “If you defy me again, I’ll sink both of you so deep down a hole, you’ll never climb out.”
“You wouldn’t. We’re family—“
Liam’s laughter diminished and his gaze hardened. “You never understood this about me, Vera. I loved my family so much that I was willing to let you play your games, willing to take your punches. You mistook that for weakness, and that was your mistake. I’m not weak anymore.”
Grace looked at him and felt the love and admiration for him well up like a fountain inside her. Liam looked like a king, like a fearless god among men, and she knew she’d have followed him to hell and back if he just said the word.
“You’re going to crack up again,” Exley said softly.
“Don’t push me,” Liam told him. “I promise, the two of you won’t like how it feels to be out in the cold.”
“So you and your little gold digging slut will take everything for yourselves?” Exley cried, his voice suddenly rising.
Liam launched forward and grabbed his brother by the chin and pushed him back, running him straight backwards into the wall. “Apologize right now,” Liam warned him, squeezing the younger boy’s face so that his lips contorted into a bizarre and pained grimace.
“No,” Exley said through his contorted face as Liam’s fingers pressed deeply into his skin.
“Apologize, or so help me—I’ll throw you out of here on your ass and never speak to you again, you little shit.”
“Liam, stop it!” Vera yelled. “You’re hurting him!” And then she turned to Grace. “Aren’t you going to stop him?”
Grace folded her arms. “Liam can make his own decisions.”
Vera gave her a look of pure, unadulterated hate, and then she turned back to Liam. Liam was still grabbing his brother by his face, and it looked painful.
Exley cried out in pain, but Liam didn’t stop.
And then finally, the younger man screamed an apology.
Liam let go of him. “Say it again, and be nice. Or I’ll put your head through the fucking wall.”
Exley looked frightened, truly frightened, for the first time. His worried eyes lit on Liam and then finally locked on Grace. “I’m sorry, Grace. I shouldn’t have insulted you. Forgive me, please.”
“Of course,” Grace said. “I do forgive you, Exley.”
Exley’s red cheeks flamed. Liam’s fingerprints were still visible on his cheeks and chin, white dots that were only now fading. Liam rubbed his jaw.
Vera rushed to him and held him in her arms, cooing and soothing him as if she was his mother.
Grace felt pity for them, but also disgust.
If it had been up to them, she would have been alone and miserable. Scott’s wedding planning business would have stayed ruined.
Their own father’s reputation would be destroyed and he’d likely have been disbarred.
And Liam would be nothing but an empty shell, a pawn for them to move and manipulate to carry out their orders.
Grace looked at Liam. “What now?” she asked him softly.
“This is our castle,” Liam told her. “Do you want to live here?”
She thought about it, shocked to have such an idea put forward. And then she shook her head. “No, there’s too much from your past here. I want to start a new home together, something that’s ours.”
Liam smiled at her and nodded approvingly. “It’s settled then.” He turned to his brother and sister. “You two are allowed to stay at the castle, so long as you behave and are respectful of me and Grace, and our positions in the family. Soon, the two of us will run this dynasty and I will have your unyielding and unquestioned support. In exchange for that support, I will keep the truth about your horrid scheme against Father to myself. But if you ever cross me again, I will tell him what you did. And that’s not an idle threat. Understand?”
Exley nodded, and then Vera nodded miserably as well.
The two of them looked like scolded children, diminished and small.
“What about money?” Vera asked, her tone almost pleading.
“You’ll continue to be taken care of in the manner you’ve become accustomed, and if you prove yourselves reformed, then in time you will get increases that will allow both of you to gain some degree of financial independence. Hopefully, in a few years, this ugliness will be in the past, forgotten.”
“Somehow I doubt that you’ll ever let us forget,” Vera muttered.
“You seem to always underestimate him,” Grace shot back. “When will you learn?”
Vera opened her mouth as if to retort angrily, but instead she shut her mouth and thought about it. An understanding seemed to dawn in her eyes. She made eye contact with Grace, and Grace was surprised to see a new expression on the woman’s face.
It was a look of newfound respect.
“You’re right, I have underestimated my brother,” Vera said. “But I think you are the one I underestimated the most, Grace.”
Grace smiled knowingly. “You’re right about that,” she said. And then she turned and left the room.
Left the three of them to have a moment to themselves.
So much love, she could hardly breathe. But then again, she was breathing easier than she’d ever breathed, and maybe that was the real problem.
How could she deal with getting everything she’d ever wanted?
Liam Houston was on top of her, his warm, muscular body coated in the sweetest sweat, beads dripping down his chest and ridged stomach.
Her legs spread, Grace accepted him deeper as he split her open, and it was exquisite, it was love, it was sex and it was deeper than the deepest ocean.
She cried out as Liam thrust, softly, slowly, pushing inside her until she couldn’t be filled anymore.
Panting, she grabbed at his skin and pulled him down so that he was covering her like a blanket, and she wrapped her legs around him, holding onto him for dear life as he penetrated her center point over and over and over again.
“God, you’re so wet,” he whispered into her ear.
“Liam, I’m going to come,” she said, and then it was happening. She was coming, not just once, but over and over again.
Liam fucked her, made love to her, everything at once.
She’d never felt so much trust. So much to love.
So much to lose.
But she couldn’t worry about losing anymore. Couldn’t worry about what might happen in life to take them away from one another.
“I’m going to take care of you always,” he told her, when he was withdrawing from inside her, and rolling off, sighing deeply. He turned back towards her and caressed her cheek softly. “Never be afraid again,” he said, as if he knew exactly the way her mind worked.
And maybe he did know.
Grace smiled, almost purring, she was so content.
Naked, they curled into one another. They were so close, their bodies connected, their ease with each other hard won and without any doubt left to taint the beautiful perfection of this night.
“I love you so much,” she said, the words catching in her throat.
“We’re going to be married,” Liam told her. “And we’re going to have a wonderful family—children running everywhere.”
“I think I’d like that,” she admitted softly.
“As long as you’re happy,” he said. “Because you saved me, Grace Knowles. And I’ll never forget that. I’ll never stop trying to repay you, trying to make you even a quarter as happy as you’ve made me.”
“Are you sure, though?” she asked.
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in all of my life.” He stroked her face as if he’d never seen her before.
“How did we find each other?” she marveled.
“True love will always find itself. We’re a part of the same soul, and we searched—who knows how many years, how many lifetimes—until we found ourselves in each other.”
“You mean it?”
“I do,” he answered.
And she knew that he did.
, many days later.
A white gown like nothing she’d ever imagined for herself, and yet here she was. Wearing a white gown that flowed behind her, and Liam stood beside her and they exchanged vows. They looked at one another and said those words—those fateful words, and Grace felt her heart pounding so hard in her chest that she thought it might burst.
Somehow, she got through it without fainting. Maybe it was because Liam took her hands and his eyes were so steady now.
I’m going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.
And then that kiss, a kiss as sweet as the first bite into a peach picked fresh off a tree.
The kiss as sweet as the first kiss they’d shared together, and although sometimes it seemed a lifetime had passed between then and now—Grace knew it hadn’t been so long, really.
And then there was the celebration.
In Slough Castle, they were wed, and Grace couldn’t deny the symmetry of it all. To be married in a lavish ceremony planned by her brother, the same brother who had told her how hopeless her relationship with Liam Houston was…there was a gorgeous irony to it all.
Not just married, but married in the same place where she and Liam had first met. The same place where she’d been so angry and bitter, hating all of the people in attendance at Easton and Kennedy’s nuptials.
But now many of those same people had returned and she felt love for them all—even Vera and Exley.
Scott had finally been forced to admit that he was wrong about it all, and he’d been only too happy to do so. By now, his wedding business was booming, he was in love with a wonderful partner, and Liam and Grace’s festivities cost so much that Scott’s business could’ve survived on their wedding day’s proceeds for the next decade.
After the vows, came the reception.
Outside, under a gorgeous setting sun, they ate and then danced on the sweeping green lawn that went on as far as the eye could see.
Pictures were taken.
A band played music that had the entire party on its feet for hours.
Liam and Grace sat together and watched their guests enjoying themselves.
“Look at Easton and Kennedy,” Liam said, as he held Grace’s hand, his body relaxed, legs outstretched.
Grace’s old boss and his wife were dancing like there was no tomorrow. Nearby, Nicole Jameson was watching Kennedy’s baby so as to give Kennedy and Easton time to celebrate. And Red Jameson was playing with Riley, swinging her around in his arms while she held a glowing sparkler that sent showers of light arcing off in all directions.
“Everyone looks so happy,” Grace said, her eyes shining.
When she finally glanced back at Liam, he was watching her. “Look at you,” he said, his voice soft. “How did I get so damn lucky?”
“You were born lucky,” she said, nudging him.
“True,” he said, getting to his feet once more. “Enough resting,” he said, extending his hand to her. “It’s time to dance.”
“My feet are killing me.”
“You can rest your feet tomorrow.” Liam grinned and his eyes flashed, but now there was just love, none of the darkness from the past even glimmered behind his smile.
Grace got to her feet and Liam pulled her into the throng of celebrating guests, many of whom whooped and hollered when they saw the bride and groom were joining them once more.
Everyone was sweat soaked, dancing singing, as the band struck up an old but well-known tune.
Grace sang out, her arms wrapped around her husband.
They caught each others eye and laughed, and then they were kissing again.
Around them, the crowd continued its merriment, and for a brief time, it was just the two of them—alone amidst the revelry.
In the fading daylight, beneath the quickly setting sun, their lips met yet once more.
She felt Liam right there, felt his presence, his body so close, his lips on hers.
Everything I ever wanted is at my fingertips.
But as it turns out, all I ever needed was him.
he trip had not gone well
No, it had not gone well at all, and Chloe Reed’s boss wasn’t cushioning the blow.
“I don’t think you’re going to last here,” Amy said.
They were on the plane home from Orlando, where they’d gone to meet with the hotel’s biggest client. The wining and dining was expected, and Chloe had no problem with taking an executive out to dinner and giving him the royal treatment.
What she did have a problem with was the expectation that she should have slept with that executive just to keep him happy.
Chloe held the magazine she’d bought at the airport gift shop tightly in her sweaty palms as a bit of turbulence jarred the plane. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said softly to her fuming boss. “Was I supposed to sleep with him?”
Amy turned and shot her a furious look. “I never said that. Don’t even insinuate such a thing.”
“I’m just saying—“ Chloe began.
“You insulted the man,” Amy told her. “And now he’s going to take his firm’s business elsewhere. Do you have any idea how much money you just cost our hotel?”
“A lot,” Chloe murmured.
“More than a lot. Hundreds of thousands. We relied on them to keep our numbers up, especially through the slow times. He was always good—his company has been so reliable, and they’re still growing. The man was going on and on about bringing us even more business when they started their new branch—and you’ve gone and tossed all of it in the trash,” Amy continued.
She hadn’t stopped harping on Chloe’s failure since they took off from Florida hours before.
Why did we have to sit together?
Chloe asked herself.
It was bad enough to have to travel with your boss, and then to have screwed up so massively on her first client meet ‘n greet—it wasn’t good.
In fact, Chloe knew it was a death blow to her fledgling career at the hotel.
Getting the job straight out of college had been difficult enough, but within a matter of weeks it was all over.
She’d been hit on by an obscene old man and hadn’t known how to handle it diplomatically.
Instead, Chloe had told him to get his hands off her, and then she’d burst into tears and run away from the bar where they’d been having drinks.
Offended, the executive had told Chloe’s boss in no uncertain terms that his treatment had been unacceptable and he would be taking his company to a hotel that appreciated their business.
And no doubt he would have many takers.
“Loyalty is the only thing that keeps us going,” Amy liked to say. And she continued to say it.
Finally, Chloe snapped. “I get it. I should’ve kept my mouth shut and let him grope me.”
Amy stared straight ahead. “Stupid girl.”
“Don’t call me stupid, Amy.”
“I was talking to myself,” Amy retorted, still staring ahead. “I was the one who said you’d make a great hire, even though others wanted a different candidate. And now I’m going to be the one who eats shit.”
Good. Eat shit and die
, Chloe thought, but managed not to actually speak the words aloud.
She looked out the window, saw the clouds parting and now they were beginning their descent towards JFK.
Below, the tiny buildings and cars were like some toy city beneath her.
For a brief second, she forgot about how miserable she was and simply was in awe of the view.
Chloe had only flown a handful of times in her life and she still was blown away by the feeling of being so high up, so far away from everything.
Beside her, Amy sipped at her alcoholic beverage, no doubt trying to numb the sting of the loss of a huge chunk of their hotel’s business. She would have to grovel and scrape, and other than blaming Chloe, Amy might also have to worry about her own job security.
The difference is, she’ll blow whomever she has to in order to keep her job.
Chloe glanced down at her magazine, staring a moment at the cover that had captivated her attention in the airport gift shop.
It was a Sports Illustrated magazine, something she normally didn’t pay a bit of attention to.
But the man pictured on this cover was so gorgeous, so handsome and alluring that Chloe had quickly grabbed a copy and thrown it on the counter along with the pack of gum and water she’d been intending to purchase.
THE BILLION-DOLLAR MAN, BRODY HAWK
That was the headline beneath the glowering, chiseled face that stared out at her now, his brown eyes seeming to look directly into hers.
She’d heard that Brody Hawk had just recently signed a deal with one of the big cable networks, a deal that had made him the highest paid athlete in the world.
But even though she’d heard of him—you couldn’t live and breathe and not have been exposed to Brody Hawk somewhere, sometime—Chloe had never given the man much thought previously.
She didn’t like boxing, hated fighting, and wasn’t much of a sports fan in general.
But somehow, when she’d seen this Sports Illustrated cover earlier, she’d
to have it—needed to look at that face and feel the butterflies it sent spinning in her belly.
Despite the fact that she’d had one of the worst weekends of her life, lost her new job and perhaps ruined her reputation in the hospitality industry—Chloe couldn’t stop staring.
As the plane descended towards New York City, she flipped the pages and began reading the article about Brody Hawk, a self-made man who’d come from a little town in the middle of nowhere, and somehow turned himself into the highest paid athlete in the world.
He had a promotional business, Hawk Entertainment, which represented Brody and some of the other biggest names in sports. He had energy drink endorsements, film, television and book deals.
Anything that you could make money on, Brody did it.
But it was really his boxing that made the whole operation tick. Brody had remained undefeated in thirty-six fights, and he’d turned pro at the age of eighteen.
Now, at age twenty-nine, his popularity and talents appeared to be at their respective peaks. His Pay-Per-View events earned him more than anyone in history, and because of that, he’d landed the largest contract in all of professional sports.
But for Brody Hawks, that was what was expected.
In the article, he came off as brash and arrogant as someone as successful as him would have to be, Chloe decided.
“I’m the best,” he was quoted as saying. “So it makes sense that I earn the most money.”
There were also more pictures of Brody in various states of dress and undress.
Chloe’s mouth was watering as she stared at his incredible body.
In one picture, he was pouring sweat after a workout, in nothing but his shorts. His arms were inked with tattoos. His brown hair was spiky, with glistening beads of water or sweat—you couldn’t be sure which--falling from the strands of hair as he looked into the camera with that magnetic confidence that oozed sexuality.
Chloe felt her entire body responding, just like the other millions of women who were drawn to the man.
He’d been linked with models and actresses and pop singers and even dancers, a serial womanizer who was unapologetic about his enjoyment of female companionship.
“I like women,” he was quoted as saying elsewhere in the article. “When I like things, I keep lots of those things around so I can enjoy them.”
The article drily noted Brody Hawk’s tendency to objectify everyone and everything around him. He was a walking contradiction—a man who might suddenly drive to an impoverished neighborhood and pay for hundreds of families to eat for a week, or send a needy youngster to college on Brody’s dime—but he might just as easily mock his opponents’ intelligence, use a woman for sex, or use his notoriety and leverage to force other businesses to capitulate to his increasingly restrictive demands.
“Everything is competition,” He was quoted as saying near the end of the article. “And I don’t ever lose.”
By the time Chloe had finished the article, the plane was touching down with a shockingly abrupt impact as the wheels hit the runway.
As soon as the plane pulled up to the gate, Amy was standing up and getting her bags from the overhead compartment.
“What happens now?” Chloe asked her. “Do I come into work tomorrow?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. And I don’t care, either. It’s not my decision, but I can’t imagine them keeping you on after all of this.”
“Great,” Chloe sighed, as her boss moved down the aisle, trying to get as close to the front of the line as she could.
Soon, the aisle was filled with the other departing passengers, but Chloe simply sat and opened the Sports Illustrated to the story about Brody Hawk. As she reread the story, she forgot that her life was now officially in shambles.
A little while later, Chloe deplaned and slowly walked back into the terminal. It was busy, with people walking to and fro, saying hellos and goodbyes.
Chloe rolled her tiny suitcase behind her as she walked, numb from everything that had happened on the business trip from hell.
I can’t believe I blew it so badly. What if I’d just excused myself and gone to the bathroom instead of telling him off and embarrassing him?
But it was too late for that.
She’d said what she’d said and the damage had been done.
She was so off in her own world, her own private thoughts and recriminations, that she almost passed right by the purse lying on the seat to her left.
However, the purse caught her eye in much the same way that the cover of the magazine had caught her eye earlier that day.
It was just so incredibly unique and gorgeous.
A Hermes Birkin Bag, black with alligator exterior and gold hardware.
Chloe stopped short and stood over the seat, wondering where this bag’s owner might be. There was nowhere sitting or standing nearby, and the seats around it were all empty.
Chloe wondered if she might be on a hidden camera show or something.
This didn’t make sense.
If the bag was real—and not some very adept knockoff—then it was surely worth thousands and thousands of dollars.
She licked her lips, wondering what to do. She turned and looked for the nearest person, someone who might own this thing. An older woman was texting nearby, and she looked put together and rich. But then she turned again and Chloe saw that she had a purse over her shoulder already.
“Shit,” Chloe whispered.
I should turn it in or something
But the truth was, she didn’t trust airport security to deal properly with a bag this expensive. If they realized how much it was worth, whomever she handed it over to might just decide to keep it for themselves.
Is that what you’re going to do? Keep it?
No. I’m going to keep it safe.
You should just turn it over to security and let them deal with the thing.
Chloe stood beside the bag, and then finally sat down next to it for a moment. If someone had forgotten it, they would surely come back for it soon.
So she would sit and wait, and that way most passersby would assume the bag was hers and not try and steal it.
Chloe did just that.
She sat and waited next to the bag, trying to imagine its owner and who that person might be. Clearly, it would be a very wealthy woman. Someone who appreciated the finer things—high fashion.
Probably a bitch.
Chloe didn’t want to think that way. Maybe it was some nice lady who’d gotten food poisoning and was even right that moment locked away in the bathroom being violently ill, not even realizing she’d just left her impossibly expensive purse out in the open at a New York City airport where almost anyone could swipe it.
What if there’s a bomb inside this thing?
Anyone who leaves a bag unattended might be a terrorist.
A Birkin Bag explosive device did seem highly unlikely, but still…Chloe decided, just for safety’s sake, that she would open the purse and see what was inside.
First, she glanced around to make sure no one was watching and then she delicately opened the bag and peered inside.
Her stomach muscles relaxed when she saw all of the normal things she associated with a woman’s purse.
A cell phone, wallet, pocket mirror, tissues, keys, moisturizer, a small paperback novel, a half-used roll of mints, lipstick, what looked like some crumpled up receipts, various colored hair ties, loose change.
There was nothing strange at all about the bag, other than the fact that it was probably worth more than most cars, and it had been left unattended at JFK airport.
Chloe shut the bag, although of course she wanted to snoop even more.
Then she proceeded to wait.
She checked the time and decided that a bag this expensive—not to mention a wallet and phone—wouldn’t be left for long. Whoever owned this stuff would be back for it.
But as the minutes ticked by, Chloe began to realize that nobody was coming back for this bag after all. And that meant she needed to make a decision.
She scanned the surrounding area and saw airport security. An older man with a big belly who seemed to be studying his cuticles.
Not him. Definitely not him.
But each time she saw someone, she realized that she couldn’t trust them with an expensive item like this. Unless she stood there each and every step of the way, it would just be too easy for the bag to disappear.
And it would be worth it for whomever might decide to walk away with it.
She googled the price of this purse, and if it was genuine, it was just south of
a hundred thousand dollars
As insane as that might seem, and as wrong as she personally thought it was to sell a piece of cloth with some stitching for that kind of money—the reality was that this item was worth more than some people’s houses.
Chloe stood up, took a deep breath and picked up the purse as if it was her own. And then she proceeded out of the airport and got into a taxicab.
Normally, she’d have taken public transportation back to Brooklyn, but no way was she going to do that when she had this Birkin Bag in her possession.