“AND AGAIN, I’M SO SORRY,” I parroted my own words for the twelve hundredth time, twisting my fingers together as I stood like a punished kid in Brent’s office. It was all white, other than the paintings hung on each wall of the room. They were beautiful.
One of a strawberry field.
One of naked men wearing fancy dress shoes.
One of a gun crying.
And one of a cherry blossom tree.
He stared at my painting and sighed, pushing his reading glasses up his nose.
“I’m not sure what to tell you, Millie, other than the obvious. You’re making a huge mistake.”
I would have argued, but there was no point. He was probably right. How many girls would have left everything they knew and loved—their city, their dream job, their sister, for a guy who kicked them out when they were eighteen? Not many. Yet I was that girl.
I was everything illogical and reckless, everything stupid and irrational…because I was his.
So I continued standing there, tapping my foot nervously. Brent got up from his seat, pushing from his white desk, and strode over to me. It was different than standing in front of Vicious when he was my boss.
Because now I wasn’t scared, just sad. Sacrifices were like vices. You made them, gave up something good, in order to get something better.
“What will Rosie do?” he asked. He didn’t know my sister all that much, but he’d met her a couple of times and knew our story. I shrugged. That was the most painful part. The part that made me feel like a traitor.
“She met a guy. Hal. She’s staying here in New York. Wants to enroll back in nursing school, anyway.”
Brent gave me a look—that look that said, See? You should stay here too—but I dismissed it by fixing my eyes on the naked-men painting.
“I’m so sorry I disappointed you,” I said. Which was true.
“You didn’t.” Brent leaned into my face, sighing. “I’m just hoping you’re not going to disappoint you.”
I made my way to Vic’s office right after I handed in my resignation. On the subway, I thought about the fact that I’d never resigned from so many good jobs in such a short amount of time. Ever. But I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was to move to Los Angeles. I’d never been there, but it didn’t matter. He was going there. My parents were there.
LA was my home, and I hadn’t even been there yet.
I sauntered into Vicious’s office, and as usual, his receptionist gave me the stink eye, though at this point she knew better than to try and stop me from getting inside. Over the past few months, I’d walked in that door countless times, and, embarrassingly, produced noises she could hear perfectly while I was there. Noises that clearly gave away the idea that I was engaged in some grueling cardio activity. Vicious didn’t have a treadmill in his office, so she knew exactly what we were doing.
“Hi.” I nodded to the receptionist.
“Mmm,” she answered back, flipping through a glossy magazine with a picture of heavily photoshopped Selena Gomez on the cover.
I missed Patty. I’d only worked there one week, but it didn’t stop me from getting attached. She was fun, even when she’d twisted my arm so I’d ask Vicious to do things for her.
It took the young receptionist exactly three seconds to realize where I was heading, and when she finally snapped from her gossip-induced haze, she jumped from her seat and waved her arms at me.
“You don’t want to go in there!”
I’d stopped knocking on Vic’s door long ago. Since he took me to see the cherry blossom tree, to be exact. It was as if after that, there were no secrets between us.
I arched an eyebrow and stared at her questioningly. “Why?”
She shook her head, looking exasperated and stressed all at the same time. “He’s…he’s with this woman. It’s been loud the last half hour.”
She was kidding me.
“What?” I felt my face whitening. The receptionist pushed her hair back. She was sweating. She looked like she wasn’t sure what she should do. This was serious.
“I don’t know, I hope he’s okay. I…”
Before she could finish her sentence, I twisted the door handle and breezed into his office.
It was loud in there, but he wasn’t the one doing the screaming.
And he was with someone.
The last woman I expected to see.
Josephine was standing over his desk, her manicured fingernails clawing at the glass, yelling loudly, while Vicious sat perfectly still in his executive chair. His eyes tore from her to me, and he gave me a private smirk peppered with a wink. It said “nice to see you” and “don’t get too attached to those panties, because I’m going to chew them off you in a second” all at the same time.
His chin rested in his hand, and he got back to staring at Josephine, who turned around and scowled at me.
“Can’t you see we’re in the middle of a conversation?” She jerked her head to me and seethed.
I walked over to her silently and slapped her. Hard.
Violence is never the answer. But it felt good when directed at the woman who orphaned the man I love.
Shocked silence filled the air after the thwack of my palm, before Jo brought her hand up and rubbed the pink flesh of her cheek.
“I hate you,” I said, staring at her through a curtain of unshed tears. “And I will protect him from you. Any way I can.”
She made no move, too astonished to react.
“It’s fine.” Vic waved her off dismissively, rising from his chair and striding in my direction.
I still eyed her like she was trash I forgot to take out, and he placed a kiss on my cheek and collected my wild hair into a ponytail, releasing it over one of my shoulders.
“Emilia knows everything, and I mean every fucking single thing, so you can talk freely in front of her.”
I still couldn’t seem to unglue my eyes from Jo. We did look alike. Sort of. And it made me sick to my stomach. Oh, how Vicious must have felt when he saw me day in and day out and all he could think about was the woman who was responsible for his mother’s death.
I hugged him, then slowly moved to her. All I did was squint at her, and she almost crumbled to pieces, still clad in her Prada dress, her high heels, and fake demure expression.
“Why are you here, Josephine? Are you begging to get thrown into jail?” I asked.
She blinked at me once, like she was sure I was incapable of actually talking just because I wasn’t the proud owner of a thousand overpriced designer dresses.
“Emilia? I thought your name was Millie, honey. Bless your heart, and here I thought you’d be cleaning someone else’s toilet right about now. You know, like your folks? Talk about ungrateful. I gave you a roof, a job, and a good education, and this is how you repay me?”
“Josephine,” Vic warned, “I wouldn’t upset my girlfriend, unless I was eager to get out of here in several pieces.”
“Fine,” she huffed. “I came here for negotiation, not to get ripped off.” She pointed at Vicious animatedly. “I’m not giving you everything.”
“You are, unless you want to get charged with murder.” He loosened his tie.
I stayed rooted to the floor, too stunned to do anything. He was so calm all the time that I’d mistaken his indifference for a lack of feeling. But I was wrong. Vicious was full of feelings. He was a walking, talking ball of feelings. Just because he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, didn’t mean his heart wasn’t bleeding.
“Baron, if you think I’m stupid, you’re dead wrong. I know exactly what you did. I always thought the timing of my brother’s death was odd. Just before you went to college, after you’d already gotten bigger, physically stronger.” She wheezed, blinking. “I always maintained there was something off about you. Told your dad you were a psycho.”
Vicious shrugged. “This is fucking adorable. You do understand that your opinion has zero weight in court, right, Miss Delusional? What you need is a little thing called hard evidence. Got some of that?”
“Well, n…no—” She started, and he cut her off.
“I heard you plotting the death of my mother with my father, and my body is covered in scars. Now take a moment to let that sink in.” He paused dramatically. He was mocking her, knotting his hands behind his back and taking a deep breath. He then proceeded. “You had a motive. And Daryl was no angel. Then there’s the weird will my father left behind. For no reason whatsoever, and without informing me or his lawyer, he disinherits his only son. Viteri told me the new will was mysteriously found in his safe deposit box after he died, and both witnesses who signed it are dead.”
“That has nothing to do with me. A coincidence. As for these other wild accusations, you never said a word to anyone until now. A jury will know you’re lying.” She got in his face, her skin pale, her brow crusted with a thin layer of cold sweat. “You have no evidence against me.”
But he did.
He had me.
I waved my hand in the air with a smile. “Actually, during our senior year, Vicious and I were pen pals. School obligation. He told me everything about you and Daryl’s abuse in those letters. School records show that it’s true, and I even kept the letters in a shoebox. Still got ’em,” I said with a shrug. “My parents knew what was happening too.”
Vicious turned around and stared at me, a little stunned. He wasn’t expecting that. That made both of us.
I’d lied for him.
He fisted his hand and chuckled. “Holy Batman, Jo, that’s a lot of evidence against you. I’m going to have a field day burying you alive. In fact, just watch as I dedicate my next couple of years to sitting in court watching you sweat. And I won’t stop with the will. I’ll have my mom’s body exhumed. It’s amazing what they can test for even years after the fact. I personally know of a pharmaceutical giant that has amazing capabilities. You don’t even have to be convicted of my mom’s murder. I’ll sue you for wrongful death.”
The only audible sound was the humming of the AC and me swallowing hard. Jo, crestfallen, shaking and unbalanced, clutched her waxy cheek. Hard.
“You can’t leave me with nothing. Give me two million.”
“Not even a penny,” Vicious countered. “And I know about every single bank account and vintage vehicle my father had. You’re walking away with about two grand and the few clothes that didn’t burn up, so you better make immediate plans to go to the unemployment office in Hawaii because you’ll be strapped for cash soon. Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve never had a job since you weaseled your way into my family’s life. Guess it’s time to start looking for one.”
Josephine looked white, so white I thought she was going to faint. She let out a scream, a frustrated cry that echoed and bounced against the walls, running toward him and pounding her fists against his chest.
He let her.
Then he held her when her knees buckled, and she collapsed into something that resembled a hug. It was all so surreal. I didn’t know what to make of it. I was guessing none of his employees knew how to handle it either because I saw the curious stares through the glass wall.
“I can’t,” she mumbled into his chest, clutching on to his clothes, letting her makeup stain his pristine baby-blue dress shirt. “I can’t go back to being poor. Baron, please. Baron, I will die.”
“Shhh…” He patted her head in a way that was almost fatherly. “It’s over, Jo. You had a nice ride, but you hijacked the fucking vehicle. Did you really think you would get away with it? What am I saying, of course you did, you stupid little thing. But it’s done. The war is over, and the good guys won.”
“You’re not a good person,” she sniffed.
“My mom was.”
I ended up sleeping at his place that day. I still didn’t talk to him about my resignation. It seemed inappropriate to talk about anything else other than what happened with Jo, and besides, he had a lot of phone calls to make to Eli Cole, Mr. Viteri, and other people who were going to handle the mountains of paperwork involved with Jo relinquishing her claim to Baron Spencer Senior’s estate.
Vicious even made sure his stepmother was going to give back the jewelry and designer dresses she’d retrieved before the house burned down. Every single one of them. I was actually surprised he didn’t alert every pawnshop on the East Coast not to deal with his stepmother. He was busy avenging. Busy being bad. And I let him.
That night, we had sex like we used to before he flew to Todos Santos. Brutal. Hungry. He was detached, but I didn’t care. I knew he’d come back to me eventually. And he did.
The next morning, I woke up to find a breakfast of Greek yogurt and fruit waiting for me. Vicious always ate like a rich person. Which meant he wasn’t big on carbs and he liked his protein lean and his vegetables organic.
“Where are my eggs and bacon?” I pouted at the table like the food personally offended me, but internally I was smiling. He’d arranged a table full of coffee, orange juice, and carefully cut fruit while I was busy snoring.
Vicious threw a cool glance over his shoulder from the kitchen and raised one eyebrow. “Holy shit. You stayed the night. Didn’t I call you a taxi?”
I grinned and held my stomach as I pretended to laugh, then sat down and dug into the yogurt. My mouth was full when I spoke. “So I need to tell you something.”
“Okay, but I need to tell you something first.” He turned around and walked to the table, holding his coffee cup. His jaw ticked once and he swallowed. “I want to strike another deal with Dean. I was thinking of maybe extending my stay for another six months, but I wouldn’t be able to give him another ten percent. I would if I could, and fuck the company and my shares in it. It’s not the money. But Jaime and Trent would never sign on for this shit. Maybe I can convince Dean to sell some of his shares to them—”
I stopped him right there, because he was talking nonsense, and even though I appreciated the gesture, I didn’t want to watch him flushing his career down the toilet just so I could explore mine.
“I resigned,” I said serenely.
He raised his eyes to meet mine. There was hope and confusion in them. “What?”
“I resigned. I’m coming with you. Rosie is staying here with Hal. I asked her to join me, but she wants to give their relationship a try, and besides, she would never live anywhere other than New York. I told her she didn’t even give LA a chance—”
He cut me off. “Emilia, no disrespect, but who gives a flying fuck about your sister? Rewind. You’re moving with me to Los Angeles?”
I got up from my chair on wobbly legs and smiled sheepishly. “Surprise…?”
He grabbed me and flung me in the air like I was a little kid, spinning me in place, his face happier than I’d ever seen it. I took a breath between kisses, knowing it was going to develop into something more, something a lot more, to tell him what my condition was. Because there was a condition. And it had to be fulfilled.
“One thing,” I said.
“Anything,” he promised.
“I want you to let Rosie rent back this apartment. I don’t like her living in a bad neighborhood. I think she and Hal are going to move in together anyway, so they can probably afford the rent.”
“They won’t have to afford the rent. Maybe a few hundred dollars for legal purposes, but not the whole thing. I promise you. And she can stay here, yes. I’ll make sure of it.”
I nodded. “So I’m going to be an LA girl.” There was a beat of silence. We both smiled.
“I love you.” He grinned like the boy I was once so desperate to impress.
“I loved you first,” I teased like the girl who knew deep down he always liked her too.
“Not possible.” He kissed me hard, his tongue sliding into my mouth. Then he leaned back. “I loved you since you told me your friends called you Millie. Even then, when I caught you eavesdropping, I knew I wasn’t gonna call you that, because you weren’t going to be my fucking friend. You were destined to be my wife.”