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King of Sloth: Chapter 45


Sloane and I spent the rest of the holidays in orgasmic bliss, interrupted only by the occasional food delivery and twenty-three minutes of a so-bad-it-was-almost-good movie involving feuding families, leprechauns, and a one-eyed dog named Tobey. By the twenty-fourth minute, we’d abandoned the movie for more interesting activities.

After the new year though, we hit the ground running. She got caught up in the whirlwind of Ayana’s engagement announcement, and I threw myself into getting the vault repaired as quickly as possible without cutting corners.

My birthday was no longer the end all, be all date, but I would try my damn hardest to open the club by then anyway. It was my challenge to myself.

If I accomplished it, fantastic. If not…well, my father had built his empire from pennies. I could too.

I consulted with half a dozen contractors, and the general consensus was that the damage wasn’t as dire as I’d feared. Sloane had been right—the vault possessed a lot of fire-proof elements, and though it needed major work, the right team for the right price could get the job done in two months.

I happily paid that price out of my own pocket.

The new timeline meant I had to change my original design plans, but Farrah was the city’s best hospitality interior designer for a reason. After several brainstorming sessions, we came up with a new concept that would take less time to implement but still fit my vision for the club. It threw her sourcing completely off schedule, but the hefty bonus I paid her made up for the trouble.

However, there was one more loose end I needed to tie up before I immersed myself completely in my new plans.

The second Tuesday of the year, after the city had recovered from its holiday lull and resumed its usual breakneck pace, I entered Vuk’s Upper East Side mansion.

From the outside, the sprawling building resembled a fortress more than it did a home. There were enough security measures to make Fort Knox look like child’s play, but the inside was the epitome of old-school luxury. Spiral staircases, arched windows, and gothic influences abounded. Every room was bigger than the last, and marble busts glared at me from their dedicated display tables as I followed the butler into Vuk’s office.

The butler announced me and disappeared in a discreet flash of silver hair and starched white cotton.

Vuk’s office was as dark and gloomy as the rest of the house. Black paneling, black desk, black leather furniture. The only specs of color were the emerald glass lamp on his desk and his wintry blue eyes as they tracked my approach.

It was my first time seeing him since the fire. His remote expression was a far cry from the terror I’d glimpsed before I dragged him out of the vault, but I’d never forget that look in his eyes.

Frozen. Despairing. Haunted.

“How are you?” I ditched my default irreverence for true concern. Vuk and I weren’t friends, but he was my business partner, and he’d taken a big chance on me. Plus, he’d been caught in the fire because of me, so I felt partially responsible for whatever he’d gone through the past few weeks.

He dipped his chin, which I took as a sign he was doing well enough.

“What about Willow?” I asked. Another dip of his chin.

“Right.” I’d forgotten how difficult it was to hold a conversation with someone who refused to speak. He didn’t seem inclined to express any further thoughts, so I gave him a quick summary of my revised plans for the club and an update on the opening party. It felt strange, talking business when we’d almost died the last time we saw each other, but Vuk didn’t strike me as the type who liked discussing emotions or past traumas (or much of anything, really).

He made a noise of approval when I finished and scribbled something on a sheet of paper.

Who’s on the guest list for the opening?


Interesting. Of everything I’d said, that was the part I least expected him to focus on.

“I’m finalizing the invites this week,” I said. “I’ll email you a full list once I’m done.”

I wasn’t confident about pulling off the club by my birthday, but I was confident in my ability to throw a kick-ass party. Even if people were dubious about my business acumen, they’d show up to see me sink or swim and have a damn good time in the process. “If there’s anyone you want me to include, just let me know,”

I added.

I’d asked out of courtesy. Vuk didn’t date, didn’t have a close social circle, and didn’t care about public appearances, so I didn’t expect him to have anyone in mind.

However, he proved me wrong when he wrote something else on a fresh sheet of paper.

It contained only one word—specifically, one name.


The same Ayana who’d just gotten engaged.

My gaze snapped up to Vuk’s stoic one. He didn’t offer an explanation for the name, and I didn’t ask.

“She’s already on the list, but I’ll triple check,” I said, rearranging my own expression into one of neutrality.

He nodded, I left, and that was that. It was the quickest, easiest meeting I’d had since I came up with the idea for the Vault.

Honestly, it could’ve been a virtual meeting, but I’d wanted to check on Vuk in person and make sure he was doing okay after the fire. Obviously, he was.

I exited the mansion and flashed back to the sight of Ayana’s name written in bold, black strokes. He’d pressed the pen so hard it’d punctured a tiny hole in the paper.

Then again, maybe he wasn’t okay, but that was none of my business.

I had enough on my plate without taking on other’s troubles, so I put Vuk’s strange interest in the supermodel aside and simply made a note to myself to ensure Ayana attended the grand opening, no matter what.

Being in love was strange.

The overall rhythm of my day to day stayed consistent—I still went to work, hung out with my friends, and dealt with wild client demands—but the details had changed. They were softer, more fluid, like moonlight slipping between the rigid blinds of my life.

I was quicker to smile and slower to anger. The air smelled fresher, and my steps were lighter. Everything seemed more tolerable with the knowledge that, no matter what happened, there was someone out there who called me his and who I called mine.

Some mornings, I lazed in bed with Xavier instead of waking up early for yoga; some nights, at his suggestion, I dipped my toe into horror films (hilarious—horror protagonists were almost uniformly dense) and slapstick comedy (not for me). Afternoons were either spent eating at my desk (on particularly busy workdays) or at a string of increasingly adorable bistros that Xavier found.

Routine became suggestion, and every suggestion became a touch more magical when Xavier was involved.

I was disgustingly happy, but even so, there were still a few rough patches of my life that needed smoothing over.

One of them was the situation with Pen and Rhea.

Two weeks after I ran into Caroline at Le Boudoir, I received a curt email requesting I meet her at my family’s penthouse. Xavier had gone to see Vuk, so I showed up alone, my heart giving a little twist at the sight of the building I’d called home for half my life.

It looked exactly the same as the last time I was here, down to the hunter green awning and potted plants by the entrance.

“Miss Sloane!” The doorman greeted me with a surprised smile. “It’s nice to see you again. It’s been a long time.”

“Hi, Clarence.” I smiled back, oddly touched that he’d remembered me after all these years. He used to sneak me little pieces of candy every time I came home from school. My father had forbidden me from eating too many sweets, and he’d been furious when he found some of the wrappers in my room. I’d lied and told him I’d gotten the candy at school. “It has been a long time. How’s Nicole doing?”

“She’s great.” He beamed brighter at the mention of his daughter. “She’s in her first year at Northwestern. Journalism.”

We chatted for a few more minutes before another resident came down, asking for a cab. I said goodbye to Clarence and took the elevator straight up to the penthouse. I didn’t recognize the housekeeper who answered the door, but when I followed her through the halls, I had to battle a surprising bout of nostalgia.

The oil paintings. The cream marble floors. The scent of calla lilies. It was like someone had preserved my childhood home in a gilded time capsule, and while I didn’t miss living here, I missed the happy moments I did have growing up.

Of course, there hadn’t been many of them, and they’d been overshadowed by my father or sister in one way or another.

That was all it took to bring me back to reality.

I shook my head and brushed off the last bits of understandable but unwelcome sentimentality before I entered the living room, where my father and Caroline waited for me.

Obviously, Caroline had talked to him as promised, but neither looked too happy to see me. That was fine; I wasn’t thrilled to see them either, though I was a bit surprised to see my father at home on a weekday afternoon. I supposed that was a perk of running your own company.

I sat on the couch across from them and arched a cool brow. I was dying to ask a thousand and one questions about Pen, but I wouldn’t give them the upper hand by speaking first.

Tension dripped around us for several minutes before Caroline caved.

“I’ve discussed Penelope’s situation with George,” she said without preamble. “He’s agreed that it’s untenable. Therefore, we’ve decided that, despite the original terms of your departure from this family, it would be…beneficial for all parties involved if you resumed your correspondence with Penelope.” Caroline sounded like someone was peeling strips of her skin off with each word.

“But let us be clear. This isn’t a free pass for you to worm your way back into this family.” My father’s eyes blazed beneath thick, gray brows. “You disrespected us, embarrassed us, and ignored us when we gave you an opportunity to make amends. However…” His glower deepened when Caroline glared at him. “Penelope is clearly attached to you, so for her sake, we’re willing to give you some leeway provided you act appropriately.”

“I have no intention of worming my way back into this family,” I said coolly. The very idea was laughable. “I’m doing perfectly fine on my own, so let me be clear. The only reason I’m here is because of Pen. She’s the only Kensington I want anything to do with, and I have zero interest in drudging up the past. You betrayed me, I embarrassed you…I don’t care. Now, let’s get to the real reason why we’re here, shall we?”

I wasn’t worried about them kicking me out. They’d swallowed a massive amount of pride just by asking me to come, and they wouldn’t throw that away before they said what they wanted to say. My father’s face turned a fascinating shade of purple. He’d thrown me off-balance at the hospital, but I hadn’t planned on seeing or confronting him then. This time, I was prepared, but I no longer cared enough to engage more than I had to.

Sometime between Pen’s hospitalization and now, I’d healed enough to not let him get to me by the mere fact of his existence.

“We’re willing to let you see Penelope on our terms,” Caroline said stiffly, drawing my attention back to her. I bristled at her choice of words, but I kept my mouth shut until she finished. “Specifically, once a month at a predetermined time, date, and location of our choosing.”

“Once a week, at a predetermined time and date of our choosing.” I shook my head when she opened her mouth to argue. “Pen is nine. She’s homeschooled, which means she doesn’t get many opportunities to interact with kids her age. You and George are rarely home, and you’ve fired the only person in this household who treats her like a normal person. The least you can do is let her have some say in her own life.”

Silence engulfed the room.

Caroline glanced at George. A telltale vein throbbed in his forehead, but he gritted out an acquiescence.

“Fine. Once a week at a time, date, and location of your choosing.” He stood abruptly, his frame radiating barely suppressed anger. “We’re done here.”

He left without another glance at me or his wife.

Caroline took his sudden departure in stride. “In the future, you and Penelope will meet elsewhere,” she said, flicking her eyes over me. “I have no interest in bringing you into our home again. As you can see, your presence has a way of creating strife.”

I ignored her jab and focused on the first part. “In the future?”

Does that mean…? My stomach flipped with a sudden surge of hope.

Caroline smiled thinly. “You may want to stay in the room for a bit longer.”

Then she, too, left, but she’d barely departed before a familiar girlish voice squealed, “Sloane!”

I turned my head in time to get tackled by a small blond blur. Pen’s arms wrapped around my waist, and a rush of pure, indescribable relief filled my lungs.

I hugged her back, my chest so tight it hurt to breathe.

“Hey, Pen.” I smiled past the swell of emotion in my throat. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” She looked up at me, her eyes shimmering with tears. She looked a lot thinner than the last time I’d seen her. While I was glad to see her again, we needed to have a talk about her hunger strike—after I finished squeezing the hell out of her. “I didn’t think I was going to see you or Rhea again,” she said in a small voice.

My heart broke at the vulnerability in the words.

“Trust me. I would’ve found a way to see you again, one way or another.” I meant it. My father and Caroline couldn’t have stopped me from seeing Pen forever. I would’ve found a way around their stonewalling, though this was a much better alternative than other, perhaps less ethical alternatives.

I didn’t think I was going to see you or Rhea again. The last part of Pen’s sentence registered, and a furrow dug between my brows. What did she—

A flash of movement caught the corner of my eye. I turned, taking in the woman hovering in the doorway.

“Rhea!” I gasped. “You’re back.”

Pen’s old nanny smiled, looking tired but satisfied. “I’m back,” she confirmed. “Mrs. Kensington called me after the new year. Penny put up such a fuss that the nanny they’d hired after me quit.”

“That new nanny sucked,” Pen said. “She didn’t even know that Blackcastle is a soccer team.”

The remaining tension broke, and there were hugs and tears all around as the three of us reunited for the first time since November. Well, not tears from me—I hadn’t been able to cry again since I reconciled with Xavier. I suspected I’d emptied the well so thoroughly it’d take another twenty-odd years before the phenomenon happened again.

However, the joy of seeing Pen again didn’t stop me from scolding her about her hunger strike. It wasn’t healthy, especially not for someone with her condition.

“What’s this I hear about you refusing to eat?”

She slunk down in her seat. “I didn’t refuse to eat. I simply skipped a few meals and threatened to skip more unless they let me see you.”

“You shouldn’t do that, Pen,” I said gently. “Your health is the most important thing, and skipping meals can be seriously harmful.”

“But they took you and Rhea away, and the threats worked!” she protested. “See? Look at us.” She gestured at our trio. “Honestly, I should’ve tried that tactic sooner. Then we wouldn’t have had to sneak around for so many years.”

I sighed while Rhea shook her head. There was no arguing with Pen; she won every time.

“What do you want to do today?” I asked, switching topics. As long as she ate regularly going forward, there was no use dwelling on what was already done. “I took off work, so I’m all yours.” I’d planned on going into the office that afternoon, but I’d just emailed Jillian to tell her I wouldn’t be in.

Pen pursed her lips, her little face scrunched in thought. “I want to watch a movie.”

My eyebrows shot up. She rarely wanted to do something as calm as watching a movie. She watched soccer games, but that was different. “A movie? Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She gave a definitive nod. “I don’t want to get tired too fast.”

“Then a movie it is.”

We decamped to the screening room, where I put on a cartoon about fairy princesses and filled her in on what’d happened since we last talked. I omitted the non-kid-friendly parts; there were some things about my life that Pen never needed to know.

“Did Xavier hurt you?” she asked. “Because I told him I’d sic Mary on him if he did.”

“He did briefly, but he didn’t mean it, and he apologized.” I paused, my brow creasing. “Who’s Mary?”

“A haunted Victorian doll.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You don’t have a Victorian doll. They creep you out.”

“I know.” Pen’s grin was pure mischief. “But he doesn’t know that.”

I couldn’t help it; I burst into laughter. She was definitely going to be a handful when she grew up.

Pen made it through the entire movie before her energy flagged. Now that our visits were out in the open, she didn’t protest as much as she usually did when we said goodbye.

I told Rhea to call me in the next few days so we could schedule our next visit, and I waited for them to disappear into Pen’s room before I left.

I made it halfway through the foyer when the front door opened, and I came face-to-face with my other sister.

Georgia and I froze at the same time.

She was impeccably groomed, per usual, but I detected shadows beneath her slightly bloodshot eyes. Her baby bump was finally showing, but that hadn’t stopped her from wearing three-inch heels or blitzing through Madison Avenue; her arms were laden with shopping bags from a dozen designer stores.

“Moving back home into the viper’s nest?” I asked. “How sentimental.”

Georgia sniffed and tossed her hair, but her eyes darted left and right like she’d rather be anywhere else except here. “I’m staying here while our townhouse is getting renovated. The fumes are bad for the baby,” she said, emphasizing the last word like I cared that she was pregnant and I wasn’t.

Bullshit. She was too much of a control freak not to nitpick renovations from as close quarters as possible. But if the townhouse wasn’t getting renovated, then why…

“Is Bentley staying here too?” I asked on a hunch. Georgia’s eye twitched, proving my hunch correct.

I didn’t know what happened after she left my office, but obviously, it was enough for her to move back home for however long. She still wore her wedding ring, but that didn’t mean much. Plenty of people wore their wedding rings long after the love behind them had dissolved.

Instead of feeling triumphant or vindicated by the evidence of their relationship troubles, I felt…nothing. Because, simply put, I didn’t care. Not anymore.

“You might think you did something by playing that audio in your office, but you didn’t,” she said when I brushed past her. “Bentley and I are weathering a few issues at this time, but we’ll never leave each other. I will always be the one he chose over you.” I looked at her, with her perfect hair and expensive clothes and diamond ring, and felt something I never thought I’d feel toward her: pity.

I’d grown up jealous and resentful of Georgia for being our father’s favorite and for playing the perfect daughter and socialite so well when I’d struggled to do the same. She’d always gotten what she wanted, and I’d thought that was something to be envied. It wasn’t until now that I realized my jealousy had been misplaced because Georgia was never happy with what she had; she was only happy when she took things away from other people. She spent her life trying to win invisible competitions with others because it made her feel superior when, in reality, her power plays were the ultimate sign of insecurity.

If I still cared enough about her as a sister, I would try to help her, but I didn’t. That bridge had burned long ago.

“You’re wrong. I did do something,” I said calmly. “I proved your husband is a lying scumbag, though I’d correctly guessed it wouldn’t matter if it took you that long to recognize his faults. If you want to stay with him, stay. If you want to divorce him one day, then do that. There’s no need to tell me because I truly don’t care. But I hope for your unborn baby’s sake that he treats them better than he’s treated anyone else in his life. Otherwise, he’ll learn that children aren’t always as forgiving as wives.”

Georgia sucked in a sharp breath, but I didn’t wait for a response.

I walked out the door and didn’t look back.


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