Authors: Annabel Joseph
Copyright 2011 by Annabel Joseph
Cover art by Adrienne Wilder
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, shared, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Kai Chandler closed his eyes and tried to tune out all the soft chattering around him. He was the only one lingering over his plate in the corner of the ballroom. He should have been up on his feet, swilling wine, working the room, but he couldn’t get in the mood. Across the white-and-silver-gilt decorated space, a small orchestral ensemble played Barber’s
Adagio for Strings
, a song that used to move him to tears. Now he listened in a kind of anesthetized stupor. He appreciated the wistful beauty of the piece, but seemed unable to feel anything deeper.
He was here at least. His movie-star friends Mason and Jessamine had managed, after much hounding, to drag him out. Oh, he’d never stopped his patronage of the L.A. Philharmonic, but he hadn’t felt any joy in it for a while. He hadn’t felt much joy in anything, but that was his own fault. For God’s sake, it had been a year now since his marriage disintegrated.
As Barber’s piece reached its maudlin climax, Kai stared down at the gourmet chocolate cake on his plate and started smashing it to shreds. Why couldn’t he climb out of this funk? He was wealthy and healthy. He owned a thriving tech company which allowed him to throw money at causes he believed in, like the Philharmonic and their inner city music mentoring program. He ought to be happy. He ought to be ecstatic.
. Much more bearable, if still somewhat mournful. Was this a charity bash or a wake? Kai looked from under dark lashes at Caressa Gallo, the visiting cellist who elevated the already-glittering gala to the must-attend charity event of the season. He had noticed earlier that she was heavily pregnant. Pregnant bellies taunted him, made him wonder what his own children might have looked like, with his dark half-Indian coloring and Veronica’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed perfection. He would never know now.
“Kaivalyan, you whore!” Kai cringed as Mason Cooke, one of his oldest and closest friends, leaned down and slapped him none too gently on the back. Kai’s fork went skittering from his plate, sending splotches of hundred-dollar cake across the pristine tablecloth.
“Hi, Mace,” Kai said, glancing up with a grimace. Mason was tall, rugged, all-American beefcake, with dark, perfectly tousled hair and blue eyes that had melted a million women’s hearts--on screen and off. Kai never really thought of his friend as a celebrity, but at these events Mason truly played the part, as did the striking woman beside him--Jessamine Jackson, the other half of Hollywood’s premier uber-couple.
Mason pulled up a chair. “What are you doing lurking back here in the corner? You’re the organizer of this gala.”
“They don’t want to see me.” Kai gestured to Jessamine in her glittering scarlet gown. “Plenty of luminaries here for the star-gazing crowd.”
“Ah, but you’re the chairperson for the foundation.” Jessamine, sex starlet extraordinaire, seated her curvaceous frame squarely in his lap. “And you might not be a celebrity, but you’re certainly the sexiest bachelor in the room.”
Kai rolled his eyes and exchanged a glance with Mason, who was all too used to his wife hitting on other men. Mason was badass enough to be amused by it, rather than threatened.
“Success is an aphrodisiac,” Jess purred, running her fingers through Kai’s hair. “And I think you are the hottest fucking man on the planet. Aside from Mason, of course.”
Kai laughed despite his mood. It was impossible to feel down with Jessamine cooing in your ear. “Are you going to let your wife seduce me?” he asked Mason.
“Yep. Anything for the cause.”
Kai dumped Jess off his lap, more for self-preservation than any comedic purpose. With her glossy honey-colored hair, luminous eyes, and banging body, she was irresistible in normal circumstances. In close quarters she was excruciating, especially considering she wasn’t his.
Kai stood and took Jessamine’s hand, bringing it to his lips. “You’re a vision, Ms. Jackson. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being here. You and Mason both.”
“It was our pleasure to attend,” said Mason. “And it was great to hear Caressa Gallo play. She’s something.”
“I’ll say.” Jess, an unrepentant bisexual, gave the pretty cellist a lascivious look.
“Jesus,” teased her husband. “Give it up. She’s not available.”
“How do you know?” Jess pouted.
“Well, the first hint is the big pregnant stomach she’s sporting behind that cello. I also happen to know she’s married to Jeremy’s former assistant.”
“Really?” Jessamine looked shocked.
As if on cue, the string ensemble took a break and a tall, handsome man materialized at Caressa’s side. The couple exchanged sickeningly infatuated looks, resulting in a snort of derision from Jessamine. “Well, would you look at that. She
taken. God, why does everyone hook up with everyone else in our little circle? It’s like...inbreeding.”
Mason rolled his eyes and headed to the bar as Jessamine sashayed over to join the cellist and her husband, along with movie star Jeremy Gray and his wife. Kai tried to place her name. Belle or Nell or something. He had seen the Grays now and again at LoveSlave, the highly private and exclusive BDSM club hidden away under the streets of West Hollywood, and they undoubtedly had seen him too. What Jessamine said was true. Los Angeles was a huge town, but their wealthy, often hedonistic clique was small. Small enough that all of them knew his business. Knew that Veronica had used him and left him feeling like a fool. As much as he would have enjoyed speaking with the talented cellist and his other acquaintances, he still felt compelled to hang on the outskirts and hide. The group was laughing, probably over something Jess had blurted out. Caressa’s lovestruck husband placed one hand casually on his wife’s bulging waistline.
Kai scrutinized her face. Did she love him? They seemed so easy together, and so disgustingly in love. But was she acting? Was he? The man used to work as a personal assistant. It stood to reason that Caressa Gallo was the wealthier of the two.
Did they have a prenuptial agreement?
It was none of his business. It really didn’t matter how lovingly and happily they interacted, or how much that reminded him of his own glaring mistakes. From the start, his marriage had gone downhill. Like a chump, he’d continued to work at things. He’d blamed himself. He felt guilty for working long hours. He analyzed his personality for flaws and constantly worried about what he was doing wrong in the relationship. When Veronica asked for a divorce, Kai had felt it like a physical blow. Failure, after everything he’d tried to do to save them. It was his lawyer who pointed out that she’d filed for divorce on the exact day she became eligible for full benefits under the prenuptial agreement. Their fifth wedding anniversary, to be exact.
His lawyer had built in the five-year requirement to discourage gold digging, but Kai supposed five years wasn’t much time to put in for a 35 million dollar payout. He’d advised Kai to hire an investigator to look for evidence of adultery, which would have negated the agreement. They didn’t find any evidence of adultery, only three secret abortions his wife had undergone. He was father to three ghost children who haunted him even now, years after they’d ceased to exist at his wife’s hand. He’d been so stupid,
stupid. He dreamed of them sometimes. In his dreams, his non-children gazed at him accusingly, as if to say,
this is your fault
Mason returned from the bar with a couple drinks and collapsed into the seat beside Kai. He glanced across the room, following Kai’s gaze. “Yikes. Happy couple alert. How are you holding up?”
Kai grimaced and made some vague, noncommittal noise. Mason kept staring at him, a technique Kai knew was intended to draw him out, but there was really nothing to say.
Mason’s face registered disappointment. “So, reconciliation with Veronica is totally out? There’s nothing left? Nothing you can build on?”
Kai stabbed at the cake congealing on his plate. “Reconciliation would be fucking impossible. As far as my feelings for her, she can burn in eternal agony and hellfire and it still won’t be enough.”
Mason raised one dark brow. “Okay.”
His friend didn’t know about the ghost babies, or the vicious things Kai and Veronica had said to one another at the very end. Kai and Mason generally talked about everything. They’d come from the same quiet lower-class suburb south of the city, and had been through a lot together as they clawed and fought to make better lives for themselves. But Kai found himself unable--or unwilling--to share the darkest events of the breakup of his marriage. He didn’t believe anyone else could ever understand all the guilt and loss he felt.
“Anyway,” Kai said with a dismissive wave, “she’s already seeing someone else.”
Mason frowned. “You pretend you’re over her.” He imitated Kai’s careless gesture. “But you’re really not. What’s happened to you?”
I lost faith in love. I lost faith in trust. I lost faith in...faith.
“Nothing happened to me. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but you look like you’d rather be anywhere else. You used to live for this shit. For the arts, for making a difference. You used to glow at these shindigs.”
Kai gave him a raw smile. “What? I’m not rah-rah-save-the-world chipper enough for your liking? I’m more into the cancer charity this month.”
Mason shook his head. “You have a great job, a great life, these causes you believe in. You’ve improved a lot of people’s lives. On top of that, every single woman in the room is checking you out, wondering how to get into your pants.”
“Or my wallet.”
“So one woman took you for a ride. Live and learn. Look around at what you’ve done. A lot of kids have a chance, a lot of musicians have a livelihood thanks to you. So your marriage didn’t work out. My first marriage didn’t work out either. It might be time to move on.”
Kai momentarily considered clocking Mason right between his famous blue eyes with his fist, or maybe with the plate of mashed-up chocolate cake. It was easy for Mason to talk about moving on. He couldn’t walk five steps without bumping into a woman who wanted to fuck him, and he was married to the sexiest female in the world.
“You know, I don’t feel like I’m in a good place to start a new relationship. When things calm down...”
“But are you happy? You should be happy. You’re a fucking cinema tech mogul, for fuck’s sake. You should be living the high life.”
“Let it drop,” Kai muttered. “I appreciate your concern, but I can handle my life just fine. I’m a big boy.”
“So I hear.” Jessamine returned, trailing a swath of expensive perfume. She sized up Kai’s surly expression and leaned down to take her husband’s arm. “Mason, I just had the most wonderful idea. Why don’t we invite Kai to come along with us to the sheik’s house? It might cheer him up.”
Mason looked like that was the least wonderful idea he’d ever heard. Kai looked between him and Jessamine.
“The ‘sheik’? Is he really a sheik?”
“Oh God, no.” Jessamine laughed. “We just call him the sheik because--”