On the biggest night of my life, I stood in front of a full-length mirror wearing a deep red ball gown fit for a queen. The color was unbearably rich, darker than a ruby but just as luminescent. Golden thread and delicate jewels combined to form understated vines that twisted and turned their way up the full skirt. The bodice was plain, custom fit to my body, with airy, translucent red sleeves that kissed my wrists.
Around my neck, I wore a single teardrop diamond.
Five hours and twelve minutes to go. Anticipation built inside me. Soon, my year at Hawthorne House would be up.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
“Regretting letting Xander talk you into this party?”
I turned from my mirror to the doorway, where Jameson stood wearing his white tuxedo—with a red vest this time, the same deep color as my dress. His jacket was unbuttoned, the black bow tie around his neck a little crooked and a little loose.
“It’s hard to regret Hawthornes in tuxedos,” I told him, a smile pulling at my lips as I walked to join him. “And tonight is going to be my kind of affair.”
We were calling it the Countdown Party. Like New Year’s Eve, Xander had said, making his pitch for the festivities, but at midnight, you’re a billionaire!
Jameson held out a hand, palm up. I took it, our fingers intertwining, the tip of my index finger grazing a small scar on the inside of his.
“Where to first, Heiress?”
I grinned. Unlike the introvert’s ball, tonight was of my design, a rotating party where we would be spending one hour each in five different locations in Hawthorne House, counting our way down to midnight. The guest list was small—the usual suspects minus Max, who was stuck at college and would be joining via video call near the end of the party. “The sculpture garden.”
Jameson’s green eyes made a study of my face. “And what will we be doing in the sculpture garden?” he asked, an appropriate amount of suspicion in his tone.
I smiled. “Guess.”
“The name of the game is Hide and Go Soak.” Wearing a brilliant-blue tuxedo that looked like it belonged on the red carpet, and holding what had to be the world’s biggest water gun, Xander was truly in his element. “The objective: utter aqua domination.”
Five minutes later, I ducked behind a bronze sculpture of Theseus and the Minotaur. Libby was already back there, squatting on the ground, her vintage 1950s dress bunched up around her thighs.
“How are you feeling?” Libby asked me, keeping her voice low. “Big night.”
I peeked out around the Minotaur’s haunches, then retreated again. “Right now, I’m feeling hunted.” I grinned. “How are you?”
“Ready.” Libby looked down at the water balloons she held in each hand—and at her twin tattoos: SURVIVOR on one wrist, and on the other… TRUST.
Footsteps. I braced myself just as Nash scaled Theseus and landed between Libby and me, holding what appeared to be a melted water gun. “Jamie and Gray have joined forces. Xander has a blowtorch. This is never good.” Nash looked to me. “You’re still armed. Good. Steady and calm, kid. No mercy.”
Libby leaned around Nash to catch my eyes. “Remember,” she told me, her eyes dancing, “there’s no such thing as fighting dirty if you win.”
I turned my water gun on Nash right as she creamed him with a water balloon.
At eight, the party moved indoors to the climbing wall. Jameson sidled up to me. “Soaking wet in a ball gown,” he murmured. “This could be a challenge.”
I wrung out my hair and flicked water his way. “I’m up for it.”
At nine, we made our way to the bowling alley. At ten, we headed for the pottery—as in, a room with potting wheels and a kiln.
By the time eleven o’clock rolled around and we made our way down the labyrinthine halls of Hawthorne House to the arcade, our gowns and tuxes had been soaked, ripped, and spattered with clay. I was exhausted, sore, and filled with an exhilaration that defied description.
This was it.
This was the night.
This was everything.
This was us.
In the arcade, four private chefs met us, each with a signature dish to present. Slow-braised beef soup served with pork buns so tender they should be illegal. Lobster risotto. The first two courses nearly undid me, and that was before I bit into a sushi roll that looked like a work of art just as the final chef set our dessert on fire.
I looked to Oren. He was the one who’d cleared the private chefs to come here tonight. “You have to try this,” I told him. “All of it.”
I watched as Oren gave in and tasted a pork bun, and then I felt someone else watching me. Grayson was wearing a silver tuxedo with sharp, angular lines, no bow tie, the shirt buttoned all the way up.
I thought he might keep his distance, but he strode over to me, his expression assessing. “You have a plan,” he commented, his voice low and smooth and sure.
My heart rate ticked up. I didn’t just have a plan. I had A Plan. “I wrote it down,” I told Grayson. “And then I rewrote it, again and again.”
He was the Hawthorne I’d thought of the most as I was doing it, the one whose reaction I could least predict.
“I’m glad,” Grayson told me, the words slow and deliberate, “that it was you.” He took a step back, clearing the way for Jameson to slide in next to me.
“Have you decided yet,” Jameson asked me, “what room you’re going to add on to Hawthorne House this year?”
I wondered if he could feel my anticipation, if he had any idea what we were counting down to. “I’ve made a lot of decisions,” I said.
Alisa hadn’t arrived yet, but she would be here soon.
“If you’re planning to build a death-defying obstacle course on the south side of the Black Wood,” Xander said, bouncing up, high off a Skee-Ball victory, “count me in! I have a lead on where we can get a reasonably priced two-story-tall teeter-totter.”
I grinned. “What would you do,” I asked Jameson, “if you were adding on a room?”
Jameson pulled my body back against his. “Indoor skydiving complex, accessible from a secret passage at the base of the climbing wall. Four stories tall, looks just like another turret from the outside.”
“Please.” Thea sauntered over holding a pool cue. She was wearing a long silver dress that left wide strips of bronze skin on display and was slit to the thigh. “The correct answer is obviously ballroom.”
“The foyer is as big as a ballroom,” I pointed out. “Pretty sure it’s been used that way for decades.”
“And yet,” Thea countered, “it remains not a ballroom.” She turned back toward the pool table, where she and Rebecca were facing off against Libby and Nash. Bex leaned over the table, lining up what looked to be an impossible shot, her green velvet tuxedo pulling against her chest, her dark red hair combed to one side and falling into her face
The world had accepted my account of Will Blake’s death. The blame was laid squarely at the feet of Tobias Hawthorne. But once Toby had appeared, miraculously alive, and announced that he was changing his name to Tobias Blake, it hadn’t taken the press long to piece together that he was Will’s son—or to start speculating about who Toby’s biological mother was.
Rebecca had made it clear that she still didn’t regret stepping into the light.
She sank the shot, and Thea strolled back toward her, shooting Nash a gloating look. “Still feeling cocky, cowboy?”
“Always,” Nash drawled.
“That,” Libby said, her eyes catching his, “is an understatement.”
Nash smirked. “Thirsty?” he asked my sister.
Libby poked him in the chest. “There’s a cowboy hat in the refrigerator, isn’t there?”
She looked down at her wrists, then stalked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a pink soda and a black velvet cowboy hat. “I’ll wear this hat,” she told Nash, “if you paint your nails black.”
Nash gave her what could only be described as a cowboy smile. “Fingers or toes?”
A yip behind me had me turning toward the doorway. Alisa stood there holding a very wiggly puppy. “I found her in the gallery,” she informed me dryly. “Barking at a Monet.”
Xander took the puppy and held her up, crooning at her. “No eating Monets,” he baby-talked. “Bad Tiramisu.” He gave her the world’s biggest, goofiest smile. “Bad dog. Just for that… you have to cuddle Grayson.”
Xander dumped the puppy on his brother.
“Are you ready for this?” Alisa asked beside me as Grayson let the puppy lick his nose and challenged his brothers to a round of hold-the-puppy pinball.
“As ready as I’m ever going to be.”
Thirty minutes to go. Twenty. Ten. No amount of winning or losing at pool, air hockey, or foosball, no amount of puppy pinball or trying to beat the high score on a dozen different arcade games could distract me from the way the clock was ticking down.
“The trick to a good poker face,” Jameson murmured, “isn’t keeping your face blank. It’s thinking about something other than your cards—the same something the whole time.” Jameson Winchester Hawthorne offered me a hand, and for the second time that night, I took it. He pulled me in for a slow dance, the kind that required no music. “You’ve got your poker face on now, Heiress.”
I thought about flying around a racetrack, standing on the edge of the roof, riding on the back of his motorcycle, dancing barefoot on the beach. “Gen H verity,” I said.
Jameson arched a brow. “As in generational truth for people far older than us?”
“It’s your anagram,” I told him, “for everything.”
My phone rang before he could reply, a video call from Max. I answered.
“Am I in time for the countdown?” she asked, yelling over what appeared to be very loud music.
“Do you have your champagne?” I asked.
She brandished a flute. Right on cue, Alisa appeared beside me, holding a tray of the same. I took a glass and met her eyes. It’s almost time.
“Piotr,” Max said darkly, “absolutely refuses to have a glass on duty. He did, however, pick a bodyguard theme song. I threatened him with show tunes.”
“That’s my girl!” Xander bellowed.
“Woman,” Max corrected.
“That’s my woman! In a completely not possessive and absolutely unpatriarchal kind of way!”
Max lifted her glass to toast him. “Elf yeah.”
“It’s time.” Jameson said. I leaned into him as the others crowded around. “Ten… nine… eight…”
Jameson, Grayson, Xander, and Nash.
Libby, Thea, and Rebecca.
Alisa held a glass of champagne but stood back from the group. She was the only one who knew what was about to happen.
“Happy New Year!” Xander yelled. The next thing I knew, confetti was flying everywhere. I had no idea where Xander had gotten confetti, but he continued to produce it, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Happy new life,” Jameson corrected. He kissed me like it was New Year’s Eve, and I savored it.
I’d survived a year in Hawthorne House. I had fulfilled the conditions of Tobias Hawthorne’s will. I was a billionaire. One of the richest, most powerful people on the planet.
And I had A Plan.
“Shall I?” Alisa asked me. Nash’s eyes narrowed. He knew her—and that meant he knew quite well when she was up to some-thing.
“Do it,” I told Alisa.
She turned the flat-screen television on and to a twenty-four-hour financial channel. It took a minute or two, but then the BREAKING NEWS beacon flashed across the screen.
“Precisely what kind of breaking news?” Grayson asked me.
I let the reporter answer for me. “We’ve just received word that Hawthorne heiress Avery Grambs has officially inherited the billions left to her by the late Tobias Hawthorne. After estate taxes and taking into account appreciation over the past year, the current value of the inheritance is estimated to be upward of thirty billion dollars. Ms. Grambs has announced—”
The reporter cut off, the words dying in his throat.
For the second time in my life, I felt every pair of eyes in a room turn to me. There was an eerie symmetry between this moment and the moment right before Mr. Ortega had read the final terms of Tobias Hawthorne’s will.
“Ms. Grambs has announced,” the reporter tried again, his voice strangled, “that as of midnight, she has signed paperwork transferring ninety-four percent of her inheritance into a charitable trust to be distributed in its entirety in the next five years.”
It was done. It was legal. I couldn’t have undone it even if I’d wanted to.
Thea was the first one to break the silence. “What the hell?”
Nash turned to his ex-fiancée. “You helped her give away all that money?”
Alisa raised her chin. “The partners at the firm didn’t even know.”
Nash let out a low chuckle. “You are so getting fired.”
Alisa smiled—not the tight, professional smile she normally used, but a real one. “Job security isn’t everything.” She shrugged. “And as it so happens, I’ve accepted a new position at a charitable trust.”
I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at Jameson. Or Grayson. Or even Xander or Nash. I hadn’t asked for their permission. I wasn’t going to be asking for forgiveness, either. Instead, I thrust my chin out, the way Alisa had. “You’ll all be receiving your invitations to join the board of the Hannah the Same Backward as Forward Foundation soon.”
This time, it was Grayson who broke it. “You want us to help you give it away?”
I met his eyes. “I want you to help me find the best ideas and the best people to determine how to give it all away.”
Libby frowned. “What about the Hawthorne Foundation?” In addition to Tobias Hawthorne’s fortune, I’d also inherited control of his charitable enterprise.
“Zara’s agreed to stay on for a few years while I’m otherwise occupied,” I answered. The Hawthorne Foundation had its own charter, which laid out the minimum and maximum percentage of its assets that could be given away each year. I couldn’t empty it out—but I could make sure that my foundation had different rules.
That my inheritance wouldn’t stay earmarked for charity for long.
Grinning, I handed Libby a sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s account information for about a dozen different websites I signed you up for,” I told her. “Mutual aid, mostly, and microloans to women entrepreneurs in the developing world. The new foundation will be handling official charitable giving, but we both know what it’s like to need help and have nowhere to go. I’ve set aside ten million a year for you—for that.”
Before she could reply, I tossed something to Nash. He caught it, then examined what I’d tossed him. Keys.
“What’s this?” he drawled, his accent thick with amusement at this entire turn of events.
“Those,” I told him, “are the keys to my sister’s new cupcake truck.”
Libby stared at me, her eyes round, her lips making an O. “I can’t accept this, Ave.”
“I know.” I smirked. “That’s why I gave the keys to Nash.”
Before I could say anything else, Jameson stepped in front of me. “You’re giving it away,” he said, his expression as much of a mystery to me as it had been the day we met. “Almost everything the old man left to you, everything he chose you for—”
“I’m keeping Hawthorne House,” I told him. “And more than enough money to maintain it. I might even keep a vacation home or two—after I’ve seen them all.”
After we had seen them all.
“If Tobias Hawthorne were here,” Thea declared, “he would lose it.”
All that money. All that power. Dispersed, where no one person would ever control it again.
“I guess that’s what happens,” Jameson said, his eyes never leaving mine as his lips curled upward, “when you take a very risky gamble.”
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