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King of Sloth: Chapter 46


The next four months passed in a whirlwind of meetings and construction during the day and dates out or dinners in at night.

During that time, Sloane and I fell into an unspoken rhythm of staying at each other’s houses. One week, I’d crash at her apartment; the next, she’d take up residence at my town house. I gave her her own closet so she didn’t have to keep lugging her belongings across town, and she added my favorite brand of espresso to her pantry so I could get my caffeine fix without leaving her place. They were quiet milestones that passed without fanfare, but they kept me going during the most hectic, gray-hair-inducing season of my life. Contractor delays, customs issues, a nearby steam pipe explosion that cut off our access to the vault for a full week—problems abounded throughout the repair and construction process, and that wasn’t counting the massive egos I had to deal with on the marketing side of things.

“The vault is underground,” I told a certain rock star’s second assistant. “It doesn’t have an attached helipad…No, unfortunately, we cannot build one before the opening. Yes, I will make sure we have security in place so he doesn’t get mobbed by fans in the ten feet between his car and the entrance.”

I cast a warning glare at Sloane, who smirked from her spot next to me on the couch. She was handling the RSVPs for the party, but I’d insisted on sharing the guest relations duties because I had personal relationships with a lot of the attendees.

I deeply regretted that decision.

However, construction issues and self-important guests aside, the run-up to the Vault’s opening went mostly according to plan. There were no more fires, thank God, nor were there any major accidents or injuries. The steam pipe explosion cut into our already tight timeline, but my crew pulled through by the skin of their teeth.

The day before my thirtieth birthday, we were still putting finishing tiles in the bathrooms, but…

We got it done. All of it.

The following evening, after dozens of sleepless nights and crushing self-doubts, the Vault officially opened before the clock struck midnight and I turned the big three-oh.

Two hundred and fifty of the city’s wealthiest and most influential filled the renovated space, sipping cocktails next to the original six-inch steel walls and admiring the hundred-year-old brass chandelier.

Every single person had RSVP’d yes. There was Ayana and the fashion crowd, Isabella and the publishing heavyweights, Dominic and the barons of Wall Street, and more. Every major entertainment and society outlet was present for coverage because tonight, more titans of business, politics, celebrity, and art had converged in one place since the last Legacy Ball.

I’d never been so proud.

The night was young, and there were still a hundred things that could go wrong, but the fact that I got this far meant everything.

No matter how the inheritance committee ruled tomorrow, I’d created my own business and legacy, and no one could take accomplishment away.

“Have you seen the owner? I have a message for him.”

I turned, my mouth curving into a smile when Sloane came into view, breaking me out of my pensive mood. I was taking a moment for myself in the back before I started mingling, but the guests could wait a bit longer. They had plenty to entertain them. Sloane sauntered toward me in a shimmery silver-white dress and heels that made her legs look miles long. Her hair fell in loose waves around her shoulders, and her eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief as she came up beside me.

It didn’t matter how many mornings I woke up to her or how many nights I fell asleep beside her; she never failed to take my breath away.

“I’m not sure where he is, but I’m happy to pass the message along,” I drawled. My blood burned a little hotter when she pressed her hand against my chest, but I maintained a deceptively casual stance while I waited.

“Good.” Sloane threaded the fingers of her other hand through my hair, brought my mouth down to hers, and pressed her lips softly against mine.

One second. Two seconds. Three.

The kiss lingered on the third beat before she pulled away, leaving behind the taste of mint and strawberries.

“Pass that along to him,” she murmured. “Tell him happy birthday, and congratulations on a job well done.”

Warmth flickered in my chest, but I couldn’t resist a little tease. “I’m happy to, but do you mind repeating that from the top? I want to make sure I get it exactly right.”

Sloane rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “Only because it’s such a big night.” She kissed me again, deeper this time. “You did it,” she said, abandoning her earlier pretense. “How does it feel?”

“Pretty incredible, and we did it,” I said. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”

Publicity work aside, her faith in me had kept me going through the many setbacks and frustrations of the past four months.

She shook her head. “I helped, but this was all possible because of you. Don’t undersell your accomplishments. The Vault is your baby. Own it.”

The flicker of warmth ignited into a roaring flame. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”

“Once or twice, but I’m not opposed to hearing it again.”

“I love you,” I murmured. “Más que cualquier otra cosa en el mundo.”

This time, I kissed her, and I let it last.

Time with Sloane always melted away, and we might’ve stayed in our little corner in the back forever had one of the guests not spotted us and interrupted to give me his well wishes.

“We should probably join the party,” she said after he left. Her cheeks were flushed from our embrace, but I could see her kicking back into work mode. “Everyone is here for you. We’ll celebrate privately later.”

“Looking forward to it,” I said with a wicked grin that turned her cheeks from pink to red.

But Sloane was right, so after one last tiny kiss—hey, it was my birthday; I could take my time—we took to the main floor, where a crowd had already formed around the bespoke bar featuring Markovic Holdings’ first alcohol-free vodka. Mixologists worked their magic, conjuring stunning mocktails of pink and blue and green and serving them in frosted glasses adorned with various garnishes. Across the room, the alcoholic bar catered to an equally large crowd.

Vuk commanded his own table in the space between the two bars. He sat by himself, and it was difficult to tell if he was happy, annoyed, or indifferent. He wasn’t even paying attention to his latest product launch—he was too busy glaring at something.

I followed his gaze to where Ayana stood with her fiancé, a fashion CEO who, according to the rumors, also happened to be one of Vuk’s old college friends.

That can’t be good.

Before I could ask Sloane what she knew about the relationship between Vuk and Ayana, Isabella popped up, purple mocktail in hand.

“Hey, guys!” she bubbled. “Great party, and happy birthday, Xavier. This place is a hit.”

I smiled at her enthusiasm. “Thank you.”

“So, I was looking for you because I have an idea for your Tastemaker series.” Isabella’s eyes gleamed. That, combined with Sloane’s sudden grin, set off every alarm in my head.

“How do you feel about hosting a book preview for Wilma Pebbles’s upcoming dinosaur erotica?” Isabella asked. “I met her at a recent event, and she gave me an advanced copy of Penetrated by the Pterodactyl. It’s amazing, and she has a huge fanbase.”

I blinked, unsure whether she was fucking with me or deadly serious. It was always hard to tell with Isabella. “Um…”

“Think about it.” She glanced to the side, clearly distracted by the arrival of another movie star. “I’ll send you her backlist so you can get a feel for her books. I really think it’ll be a fun event!”

Then she was gone, leaving me to shake my head. “I thought she was going to ask me to host a preview of her new book, not Wilma Pebbles’s.”

“Oh, Isa’s love for dino erotica runs far deeper than her own career ambitions,” Sloane said, her grin widening. “Trust me.”

For my own sake, I declined to ask for further information.

Halfway through the night, Sloane and I split to mingle with different guests. I personally thanked everyone who’d helped me get the Vault off the ground, including Dominic Davenport, who seemed to be surgically attached to his wife’s side, and Sebastian, who’d pulled through with the catering.

“You pulled this off, man.” Sebastian clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Now I owe Russo ten grand.”

“You bet against me?” I asked with mock offense.

“I had faith in you, but Luca’s usually wrong.” He laughed. He glanced over my shoulder, and his smile turned into a smirk. “Speaking of Russos, I’ll leave you to this one. Good luck.”

He disappeared before I could respond, and Dante took his place.

We hadn’t talked since his holiday gala, but he appeared much more at ease tonight than he had at Valhalla. Perhaps he was finally settling into the rhythm of parenthood, or perhaps it was the near-empty glass of scotch in his hand.

“This is impressive,” he said, skipping the standard greetings. “I had my doubts about you, but you pulled it off.”

“Everyone keeps saying that,” I grumbled, but it was hard to stay annoyed when the night was going so well. “Thank you.”

Dante inclined his head, his gaze flicking to the bar where Vivian was talking to Sloane, Isabella, and Alessandra. It lingered on his wife for a soft moment before it returned to me and hardened.

“I have to admit, part of me was hoping you’d fail,” Dante said with surprising frankness. “I haven’t forgotten about Vegas, Miami, or the dozens of questionable situations you’ve dragged Luca into. However…” His voice turned dry. “If my brother can clean up his act after years of useless partying, I suppose you can too.”

Dante Russo, the king of backhanded compliments.

“I wouldn’t say the partying was useless,” I drawled. “It gave me the experience I needed to do this.” I gestured around us.

Dante’s eyes narrowed a fraction of an inch. Then, to my shock, he let out a genuine-sounding laugh.

“Keep that same energy tomorrow,” he said, brushing past me to rejoin Vivian. “You’ll need it.”

Tomorrow. My first evaluation. The fate of eight billion dollars.

I would be lying if I said my stomach didn’t sink an inch at the reminder, but tomorrow was tomorrow. I’d done my best, and there was nothing I could do between now and morning that would move the needle in a meaningful manner.

So instead of worrying, I grabbed a drink from a passing server’s tray, tossed it back, and simply enjoyed the rest of the night.

I’d earned it.

Judgment Day took place the following morning via videoconference. Considering the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the reading of my father’s will, it seemed pretty anticlimactic for the fate of eight billion dollars to be decided over Zoom, but everyone was too busy to travel to Bogotá for an in-person gathering, so Zoom it was.

Sloane and I were both at my house, but for optics reasons, we took the call in separate rooms. I was in the library; she was in the living room.

Five faces stared back at me from the screen as I explained my business plan, my rebuilding efforts after the fire, and the opening’s smash success. The only thing I didn’t tell them was the fire sabotage part. Alex had sworn me to secrecy, and it’d raise more questions than it answered, especially after he told me he found the saboteur but “couldn’t disclose their identity at this time.” All he said was they had ties to a mercenary group that was targeting certain members of the business community for “confidential reasons.”

Part of me wanted details so I could take revenge on the person who’d caused so much strife, but a larger part was happy to keep the fire in my past and let the professionals deal with it.

General rule of life: don’t go looking for more problems than you already had.

After I finished my spiel, Mariana spoke first. “Before we proceed with our evaluation, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the biases of certain committee members.”

The chairwoman of the Castillo Group’s board was petite and sturdy-looking with glossy black hair and an air of authoritative competence. She’d never liked me; she thought my behavior reflected poorly on the company, and while she wasn’t exactly wrong, I wasn’t going to let her railroad this meeting or slander Sloane’s character.

Obviously, that was who she was talking about; Mariana was staring straight at Sloane’s square on the screen. To her credit, Sloane didn’t blink an eye at the scrutiny, but I was less forgiving. “I assume you’re referring to my relationship with Sloane. If so, that’s a non-issue,” I said coolly. “Were it an actual issue, you or another committee member should’ve raised your concerns beforehand.”

Mariana gave me a thin smile. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” she said, her tone matching mine. “I’m simply reminding all those present that you two are, in fact, dating, and anything Ms. Kensington says will be influenced by that relationship.”

“You’re right.” Sloane cut in before anyone else could respond. Her eyes glinted, and I hid a sudden smile. Mariana was about to get her ass handed to her. “What I say will be influenced by our relationship. I’ve worked with Xavier for three and a half years, and I’m the only person on this call that has watched him build the Vault from the ground up. I’ve watched him grow from a hedonistic degenerate—”

Whoa, a bit harsh, but okay.

“To someone with passion, pride, purposeThat’s the man I fell in love with, and when I cast my vote, those will be the reasons behind it. My vote won’t be biased because I’m dating him; it’ll be biased because I know firsthand how hard he’s worked to launch the Vault. If he wasn’t the type of man who’d do that, we wouldn’t be dating in the first place.” Sloane pinned Mariana with a steady gaze. “Alberto’s will stated Xavier ‘must fulfill the chief executive officer position to the best of his abilities.’ In my opinion, he’s done that and more.” She addressed the rest of the committee. “It should come as no surprise, then, that I vote yes.”

My hidden smile blossomed into a full-fledged grin.

In five minutes, Sloane had undercut Mariana’s sneak attack, redirected the committee’s attention to the purpose of this call, and added the first tally in my column.

That’s my girl.

Mariana looked like she’d swallowed a gallon of raw lemon juice, but there was nothing else she could say on the topic.

The vote proceeded apace.

“I agree with Sloane’s judgment,” Eduardo said. “What Xavier has accomplished in six months is extraordinary, and the coverage has been glowing. I also vote yes.”

My heart rattled in anticipation.

Two out of five. One more vote, and I was in the clear.

“The timeline is impressive, but I’m not convinced of the Vault’s longevity,” Mariana said. “Nightclubs come and go, and in my opinion, it’s a lazy concept to start with. Despite having a silent partner, you answer largely to yourself. There’s no board, no shareholders, nothing you’re truly the CEO of. Fulfilling CEO duties to the best of your ability means choosing something that isn’t an easy win. I vote no.”

Easy win? I locked an acerbic reply behind clenched teeth. Arguing wouldn’t be smart, but she was voting in bad faith. I’d also addressed her later concern in my presentation, which included plans for expansion if the New York location was successful enough.

But I hadn’t expected Mariana to vote yes anyway, so I didn’t push back.

The next vote, however, did shock me. “I’m sorry, Xavier,” Tío Martin said. A feeling of dread curdled in my chest. “As proud as I am personally, Mariana made some good points. I also vote no.” He didn’t elaborate or meet my eyes, and I knew with sudden certainty that, for all his fairness, he wasn’t immune to domestic manipulation. He’d obviously voted no to placate Tía Lupe. Two versus two. It was a tie, and there was one vote left. All eyes swung toward Dante.

He rubbed his thumb over his bottom lip, his expression pensive. Our short conversation last night gave me some hope, but I had no idea whether it was enough to overcome his long-seated dislike toward me.

The minutes ticked by.

Tío Martin shifted in his seat.

Eduardo’s brows wrinkled with concern.

Mariana’s mouth pursed so tight it resembled a prune.

Sloane and I were the only ones who didn’t give anything away, though a bead of sweat cut down my back despite an air-conditioned breeze.

Dante lowered his hand and said, so casually he sounded like he was discussing the weather instead of a seven point nine-billion-dollar fortune, “Yes.”

That was it.

No explanation, no grand flourish after keeping us on tenterhooks for so long. Just a simple, resounding yes.

That was all I needed.

Relief exploded behind my ribcage, leaving me lightheaded. A grinning Eduardo started saying something about follow-up paperwork, but his words blurred beneath the weight of my elation.

I did it. I fucking did it.

I didn’t need their validation, but honestly? It felt good to have it.

The call ended minutes later, and I took great satisfaction at the sight of Mariana’s frown before she signed off.

“I screenshotted an image of Mariana’s face so you can look at it if you ever feel down.”

I turned, another smile taking over my face when Sloane entered the room. She wore a perfectly pressed silk blouse and pajama shorts.

The biggest perk of taking work calls at home? No one could see below your waist.

“You take such good care of me,” I teased, pulling her into my lap. “Thanks for casting the first vote, by the way. What you said…”

“Was true. I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean.” Sloane’s face softened for an instant before mischief sparked. “Just don’t forget that when you’re drafting your own will. I’m only doing this for your money.”

“Are you now?”

“Yea—aah!” She let out a yelp of surprise when I stood abruptly and maneuvered us so I straddled her on the floor.

“What was that you were saying about my money?” I threatened, pinning her wrists above her head with one hand. I reshaped my grin into a stern frown.

Heat and laughter glittered in her eyes. “That it makes you seven point nine billion times hot—oh God.” The rest of her sentence dissolved into a gasp when I slid a hand beneath her shirt and palmed her breast.

It was the weekend, I’d just pulled off the biggest night of my life, and I had a long, free day ahead of me.

If Sloane wanted to tease me, I could return the favor a hundredfold.

“Not God, Luna.” I dipped my head, my mouth brushing hers with each word. She tasted sweet, warm, perfect. “God has no hand in what I’m about to do to you.”

It was for the best, considering our activities in the library, and my bedroom, and the rooftop for the rest of that day were decidedly unholy.

Sloane and I didn’t talk about work, money, or anything else, not even when the sun set and we lay, sweaty and exhausted, in my bed.

That was the best part about being with the right person.

Some days, we could talk all night; other days, we didn’t need words at all. Just being with each other was enough.


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