Audio available on release day, Sept. 12.
Book 6 in the Quantum Series
As one of Hollywood’s hottest producers, Kristian Bowen is on top of the world. With the Quantum team fresh off a clean sweep of awards season and looking ahead to the premiere of their new film, Insidious, Kristian’s life is exactly how he likes it, complete with a stable of willing subs to tend to his every desire. Until he attends the wedding of his friend and business partner Flynn Godfrey and meets AileenGifford, the close friend of Flynn’s new wife, Natalie. Since meeting Aileen five months ago, Kristian’s carefully cultivated life has changed in ways he never could’ve expected. Now Aileen and her children are moving to Los Angeles, and he’s not sure whether to be excited or terrified about his powerful feelings for the single mom…
Aileen is coming off the worst year of her life, spent battling breast cancer while taking care of two young children. When Natalie, Flynn and their other friends encourage Aileen to move to LA and work for Quantum, she jumps at the chance to give her family a fresh start. And with her off-the-charts attraction to Flynn’s business partner in the mix, the idea of living in LA becomes that much sweeter. Until everyone shows up to welcome her and the kids to their new home in LA—except Kristian.
He can’t avoid her forever, and when these two finally see each other again, sparks fly between the single mom and the producer with a past he’s kept hidden from everyone who matters to him. When that past rears its ugly head, will he run away from the woman he loves or turn to her for comfort in the storm? And will she prevail in convincing him that he can be himself, in every possible way, with her?
Kristian and Aileen’s long-awaited story is full of heat, heart and humor, as well as appearances from all the Quantum characters readers love!
Other Books in the Quantum Series
I counted the days. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited for something to happen that I counted the fucking days. I did that leading up to today, the day Aileen and her kids, Logan and Maddie, officially move to LA. I first met them in January when they came for Flynn and Natalie’s wedding. Before Natalie’s life blew up after she got together with Flynn, she was Logan’s teacher. Aileen was sick with breast cancer then, and Natalie was a good friend to her and her kids.
The first time I saw Aileen at the wedding, she was painfully thin with deep, dark circles under her eyes and the shortest hair I’d ever seen on a woman. I found out later that was because she’d lost her hair during chemo, and it had started to grow back. I remember wondering about the odd haircut and then feeling guilty when I found out why her hair was so short.
But the signs of her illness aren’t what I remember most about my friend’s wedding day. No, it was Aileen’s joyfulness that stood out. I’d never met a woman who had such incandescent light about her, even during what had to be some of the darkest and most difficult days of her life. She was, even in the throes of illness, so beautifully alive.
I was drawn to her like the proverbial moth to flame, and like a moth that doesn’t know enough not to fly directly into the heat, I was unable to resist talking to her, getting to know her and nurturing an immediate and unprecedented attraction. The heat of that attraction swallowed me whole, and I was powerless to walk away. I let the attraction grow and flourish into friendship over subsequent visits, including the one in which I helped to convince her that she and the kids ought to move from New York to LA to live near us. Hayden offered her a job at Quantum, and we all encouraged her to take the leap.
And then I counted the fucking days.
So, what am I doing sitting on the floor of the game room closet in my Hollywood penthouse apartment, ignoring one call after another from my business partners, who are also my closest friends and the only family I’ve ever had? They want to know where I am, if I’m all right and why I’m out of touch on a day we’ve all been looking forward to.
We have plans. Flynn and Nat are picking up Aileen and the kids at LAX while the rest of us—Jasper, Ellie, Hayden, Addie, Leah, Emmett, Marlowe, Sebastian and I are supposed to be waiting for them at the house Ellie used to call home in Venice Beach. Since she’s moved in with Jasper, Ellie is renting the house to Aileen. I’m sure the others are already there as the airport contingent is due home within the hour. Everyone is excited for them to get here.
We have surprises waiting for them. Two days ago, Natalie, Marlowe, Addie and Leah accepted the shipment from the company that moved Aileen’s stuff from New York. Flynn, Hayden and I spent an entire evening putting beds together while the women unpacked their kitchen stuff. Aileen thinks she has all that to contend with when she arrives, but when they walk into the house today, their things will be waiting for them along with a black Audi sedan in the driveway.
I check my watch to confirm the car is being delivered right about now. The car will be in the company’s name, but I bought it for her. I knew she’d never accept such an extravagant gift unless I billed it as a company car. I’m not sure why I felt the need to do such a thing, but I was at the dealership finalizing the purchase when it occurred to me that buying her a car might be too much too soon. By then it was too late to take it back, and besides, I didn’t want to. She needs a car, so I got her one.
Natalie stocked the kitchen with groceries and filled the house with vases full of Aileen’s favorite white hydrangeas.
Imagining her reaction to everything we’ve done has me yearning for something I simply have no right to. If she is an angel sent straight from heaven, I’m the devil himself in comparison.
I grew up mostly on the streets in the meanest part of Los Angeles, clawed my way into the film business, catching a couple of lucky breaks that brought me to where I am today. I’m one of Hollywood’s most influential and powerful producers, a partner in the Quantum Production Company with some of the biggest names in the business. I’m on top of the world—literally—in my penthouse apartment right in the heart of Hollywood, which is suddenly trendy again.
Despite my many successes, despite the Oscar and Golden Globe that sit on a shelf in my office at work, and despite the fortune I’ve accumulated through hard work and determination, I’m still the homeless, rootless boy I once was. Crippled by fear, I’m sitting in the corner of a closet, ignoring calls and texts from the people closest to me and telling myself it’s the right thing to do.
I’m a piece of shit compared to her. The things I’ve done to survive and thrive in this harsh world would horrify her. I’m wealthy beyond my wildest dreams—and I had some fairly wild dreams as a kid running the wicked streets of LA—but all the money in the world can’t scrub the darkness from my soul.
I shudder in revulsion when I think about the things I did to stay alive. I don’t believe in regrets as a matter of principle. You can’t change the past, so why waste the present with regrets, or at least that’s always been my philosophy. But for the first time in my life, I wallow in a vast sea of regret. I wish I were someone different so I’d be good enough for a beautiful, unspoiled angel like her. Bile stings my throat, bringing tears to my eyes. I have to stay away from her and her precious children, even if everything inside me calls out for her, wishing I could let her fix what’s wrong with me, wishing she could be the one to chase away the darkness and fill me with her light.
She’s finally here. I could see her right now. All I’ve got to do is get up off the fucking floor, get in the car and point it toward Venice Beach. Everyone I care about is there. They’re looking for me, wondering where I am.
Moaning, I drop my head into my hands and rock back and forth as my phone rings again.
I can’t. I just can’t.
I’ve never been this excited about anything, except my babies, who are now nine and five and out of their minds with excitement. I couldn’t believe it when Flynn insisted on sending the Quantum jet to pick us up.
The Flynn Godfrey, who is now my friend. I still can’t believe that!
Even though he’s now happily married to one of my best friends, I have the biggest celebrity crush on him. I’ve seen every movie he’s ever been in at least five times. I’ve watched Camouflage a dozen or more times. He won the Oscar and every other major acting award for that film this year, and having met and spent time with him, I know firsthand that he’s as good of a person as he is an actor.
I’ll never forget the first day Natalie brought him to my apartment. That was last winter when I was so frightfully ill and fearful of what was going to become of me and my children. Then Flynn made a humongous donation to the fund that the kids’ school started for us, alleviating so many of my worries. Then he went a step further, hiring a housekeeper and nanny to help me with the kids. He single-handedly saved my life in every possible way, especially by getting me in to see the top breast cancer doctor in the city, who took over my care and made a few tweaks to my treatment program. Within weeks, I was feeling better than I had in a miserable year of surgery, chemo and radiation.
I’m not out of the woods yet. It’ll be years before I can consider myself “cured,” but I’m doing much better than I was, and I have Flynn to thank for that, too.
The entire Quantum team has become like family to the kids and me during our trips to LA for Flynn and Nat’s wedding and later for school vacation. They took us in and made us part of their tribe, and when they teasingly suggested we relocate, the kids begged me to do it. They love California and the people we’ve come to know there. With nothing much holding us in New York, they prevailed, and I agreed to the move, but only after they finished the school year.
School ended yesterday, and today we’re on the Quantum jet about to land in Los Angeles, our new home. If there’s one person among our new friends I’m looking forward to seeing more than anyone else, well, that’s my little secret.
I don’t know what you’d call the flirtation or whatever it is between Kristian and me, but it’s something, and I can’t wait to find out if it might turn into something more. It’s been years since I’ve dated anyone or been interested in a man, and I’ve never been attracted to anyone the way I am to him. He makes me feel so special by listening to every word I say like they’re the most important words he’s ever heard. The last time we were in LA, when we all stayed at his place in the city to avoid the reporters who’d swarmed around a scandal in Jasper’s family, Kristian and I sat on his patio and talked until four in the morning while everyone else was asleep.
With wavy dark hair, intense cobalt-blue eyes and sexy dimples that appear only when he’s truly happy or amused, he’s so gorgeous that I often find myself staring at him like a lovesick puppy.
I’m dying to see him again, to find out if the attraction is still there and to see what might come of it. I’ll never admit that he was one of the primary reasons I wanted to move here, but I’d be lying if I tried to deny it.
“How much longer, Mom?” Logan’s question interrupts my delightful thoughts of Kristian Bowen.
I check the time on my phone. “About twenty minutes.”
The kids are so excited to see our new home, to get settled and to spend the summer in LA. I’m starting my job at Quantum in two weeks, part-time for the summer while the kids attend camp and then full-time when they go back to school. I can’t believe I’m going to work for the company that produced Camouflage and counts among its partners Flynn Godfrey, Hayden Roth and Marlowe Sloane. Talk about being starstruck! And I haven’t even mentioned the other two Quantum partners, Jasper Autry and Kristian Bowen.
His name makes me want to sigh in anticipation, knowing I’m going to see him again today. If I were to let out my inner high school girl, I’d be writing his name next to mine on the cocktail napkin the steward gave me with the glass of wine I ordered and then drawing hearts around our names. But I’m not a high school girl. I’m a mature woman of thirty-two with two incredible kids who are my whole world and a brand-new life in a dynamic city to look forward to.
With maybe a brand-new man, too. God, I hope so. He’s so beautiful and sexy and intense, and I haven’t had sex since the dinosaurs were roaming the earth, or at least that’s how it seems. The last time was when I was pregnant with Maddie, who just finished kindergarten. There are dry spells and then there’s my life, a barren sexless wasteland. I’m ready to get my groove on again, and Kristian Bowen is the one I want.
He’s the only one I want.
But does he want me like that? Or are we stuck firmly in the dreaded friend zone? Why in the world would a man like him who could have—literally—any woman in the world want to be with one who’s fighting an ongoing battle with breast cancer while raising two young kids alone? There’s baggage and then there’s my two-ton trunk, a heavy load for me, let alone a man who can have any woman he wants.
Ugh. Do yourself a big favor, girlfriend, and don’t put the proverbial cart in front of the sexy horse. He’s apt to run for his life away from you and all your luggage.
Before I can let that depressing thought derail my excitement, a crackling sound comes from the speaker system ahead of the pilot’s voice. “Hello from the cockpit, Gifford family.”
The kids bounce in their seats, their excitement palpable.
“We’ve begun our final descent into LAX, and we’ll have you on the ground in about ten minutes. We ask you to fasten your seat belts and prepare for arrival. Welcome home, folks.”
The pilot’s sweet words of welcome bring tears to my eyes. After what I’ve been through, I’m so grateful for every day and determined to make this move the best thing that’s ever happened to my little family. My primary concern is making sure the kids are happy and healthy. They will miss their friends in New York, but they’re excited about moving to California, especially Logan, who missed Natalie terribly after she left in the middle of the school year.
A few minutes later, the plane descends through the clouds to reveal the sprawling city of Los Angeles below. “Look, guys.” I point to the window. “There it is.”
“Move your head,” Logan says to his sister. “I want to see, too.” She insisted he sit with her, and he allowed her to have the window seat, even though he wanted it for himself. He’s so good to Maddie and often stepped up to help with her when I was too sick to care for them. He’s far too mature for his nine years, and I hope this move will allow him to be a kid again and not a kid with a sick mother and a little sister who needs him more than she should.
They cheer when the plane touches down with a thud and the roar of the thrusters, which they’re used to from our earlier flights to LA.
After taxiing for quite a few minutes, the plane finally comes to a stop.
I supervise the kids, making sure they have everything and ushering them to the door, which opens right onto a tarmac where Natalie waits with her movie star husband, who is now our friend. Pinch me, please. Flynn Godfrey is my friend! It’s taken some practice to get used to saying that sentence, but he’s made it easy by being so amazing from the first time I met him. He’s done so much to help make this move happen, and I’ll never be able to repay him for his astonishing generosity. It’s easy to forget just how beautiful they both are until I’m with them, and then it hits me all over again that my lovely, wonderful friend Natalie hit the husband jackpot with her gorgeous, generous husband. They both have dark hair, and while her eyes are green, his are brown. I can’t imagine how stunning their future children will be. It’ll be unfair to the rest of the average-looking world.
Logan and Maddie run to Natalie, who embraces them both at the same time while Flynn looks on, grinning widely. He and Natalie are so in love that being around them gives me hope for myself. Maybe someday I’ll find someone who looks at me the way he looks at her. I’m mildly disappointed to realize that Kristian didn’t come to the airport, but then I check myself. Why would he come to the airport? I’m Natalie’s friend, after all.
Flynn hugs and kisses me. “Welcome to LA.”
“Thank you so much for everything. The plane, the movers, all of it.”
“Anything for you.”
He’ll do anything for Natalie—and her friends—and has proven that many times in the months since we met.
They load us and our suitcases into a silver Mercedes SUV, one of sixty cars that Flynn owns. Natalie mentioned that once, and I thought she was kidding until she told me she was dead serious. Sixty cars! It boggles the mind. But like he says, he could be addicted to worse things than cars.
On the way to our new home in Venice Beach, Natalie and Flynn point out landmarks and other points of interest, none of it registering with me because all I can think about is whether Kristian will be there when we get to the house. Now that I’m finally here, I want to get to know him better. I want to find out if the attraction that burned so brightly between us is still there or if it will fade now that we’re going to see each other more often.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I’ll be so disappointed. I’ve allowed my crush on him to get totally out of control, blowing it up in my mind into a romance with epic potential. In reality, he was probably being nice to me because he feels sorry for the single mom with cancer.
I’m appalled by the tears that fill my eyes. I stare out the window at the passing scenery as I try to get myself under control. With everything else I’ve got to deal with, including a new home, a new job and two kids who’ve been uprooted from the only life they’ve ever known, I simply don’t have time to obsess about a man.
But then we arrive in Venice Beach and pull up to the bungalow that now belongs to us, thanks to Flynn’s sister Ellie. The street is lined with some of the nicest cars I’ve ever seen, including a black Range Rover, a gray Jaguar, a Porsche and something else I don’t recognize, but it looks expensive. I begin to feel hopeful again. Does one of those fancy cars belong to Kristian? I have no idea what he drives, but it’s probably something amazing.
In the driveway is a black Audi sedan that looks new. The porch is decked out in balloons, and the yard is full of friends waiting to greet us. My heart pounds with excitement as I take in the familiar faces—Marlowe, Leah, Emmett, Sebastian, Addie, Hayden, Ellie and Jasper.
Everyone is here. Everyone, except Kristian.
My friends are simply unbelievable. I start crying the minute I step out of the car, and I don’t stop for what feels like an hour as they hug me and the kids, show me what they’ve already done to make the house our home and present me with keys to the car in the driveway, a company car being made available to me to use as I see fit.
It’s too much—and not enough, because Kristian isn’t here, and that makes what should be one of the best days of my life a little less than it would’ve been if he’d been part of it. I want to ask about him, but I don’t dare show my hand where he’s concerned. If it were just me and Nat, I might ask her, but I can’t ask about him with his closest friends and business partners all around me.
Ellie left me the grill on the back deck, and Hayden fires it up to cook burgers under Addie’s supervision. We eat on the deck, enjoying the warm Southern California sunshine, sitting on the gorgeous teak furniture that Ellie has also left for me after moving in with Jasper.
“I have palm trees in my backyard,” I proclaim during a quiet moment, making them laugh. “Sorry, but it’s the little things.”
“You have lemon and orange trees, too,” Ellie says, pointing them out to me.
“Do you eat the fruit?”
“That is amazing—and don’t laugh at me. I’m still getting used to the fact that I have a yard, let alone trees bearing fruit that I can actually eat.”
“It’s a big culture shock to move here from New York,” Natalie said. “It took me a while to get used to having a yard, too.”
“So where’s Kris?” Flynn asks the others.
The question has me sitting up straighter, hardly breathing as I wait to hear what they say.
“No fucking clue,” Hayden says. “He hasn’t been answering calls or texts.”
“Do we know he’s okay?” Flynn asks, seeming alarmed.
“We assume he is,” Hayden says, “until we hear otherwise.”
Now I’m worried that something has happened to him. Was he in an accident or… No, stop. He’s a grown man with a life of his own. Maybe he had other plans.
“It’s weird because he said he would be here today,” Marlowe says.
Okay, well… What does that mean? Did he think it over and decide he didn’t want to be part of my welcoming committee after all? That would totally suck. I feel like a balloon that’s been hit by a pin. Deflated.
“I’ll track him down later,” Jasper says, seeming unconcerned.
From what I’ve observed in the past, Jasper is Kristian’s closest friend. If anyone would know whether we should be worried or where to look for him, it’s Jasper.
“He probably left his phone somewhere again,” Addie says.
I want to ask if he loses his phone frequently, but again, I can’t bring myself to voice the question because I don’t feel I have a right to ask about him. I want to know everything about him, and that isn’t creepy or anything. Needing a moment to get myself together, I check on the kids, who are running around in their new yard, and stand to begin cleaning the paper plates from the table.
“Let me help,” Natalie says, gathering bowls of potato chips and tossed salad and following me inside.
“Do I have you to thank for fully outfitting my kitchen with things like plastic wrap?” I ask her as I use the wrap to cover the bowls.
“I might’ve had something to do with that.”
I can tell I take her by surprise with a tight hug. “You have to be the best friend anyone has ever had. Thank you for all you and Flynn did. I love it all, especially the white hydrangeas.”
She hugs me back. “We’re so glad you’re finally here. I couldn’t wait for today.”
“What you all have done here… You’ve made everything so easy for me and the kids.”
“We love you,” she says, her sweet, simple words moving me to tears.
“I love you, too. All of you. I can’t believe I’m hosting a cookout for Flynn Godfrey, Hayden Roth, Marlowe Sloane and their closest friends.” I laugh as I wipe tears from my cheeks.
“In a few months, you’ll forget they’re celebrities, and every time you see them, they’ll just be your friends.”
“How is this my life now?”
“We have Fluff to thank for all of it,” she says, referring to her fourteen-year-old dog, who broke free of her on a walk last winter and ended up biting Flynn. The rest, as they say, became the stuff of Hollywood films when Flynn the movie star fell for Natalie the school teacher.
“Thank goodness for Fluff.”
“Leah and I say that every day.” Natalie’s former New York roommate has also relocated to LA to work as Marlowe’s assistant.
“How is Fluff getting along with Flynn these days?”
“They’re BFFs. He calls her his daughter, and she hasn’t bitten him in months. I think they’ve turned the corner.”
“That’s so cute.”
“She’s a holy terror, but she’s our holy terror.”
I glance at the deck, where everyone else is enjoying drinks and the sun. “Could I ask you something?”
“Is it weird that Kristian didn’t come today? I sort of thought, you know…” I’m so embarrassed and anxious that my body feels like it’s been plugged into a heater.
“That he had a thing for you?”
Her blunt comment makes me even more uncomfortably warm. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Why not? We all saw it. He could barely take his eyes off you from the minute you met at my wedding and every time you’ve seen each other since.”
“I’ve seen him exactly four times.”
“Okay… All four times, he was obviously into you. So where is he today? As far as I know, he was looking forward to you getting here as much as I was.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he confirmed the date with me—several times. The car in the driveway? He did that. And last weekend, when we were all at Hayden and Addie’s, he asked if everyone was planning to be here today to help you get settled.”
Hearing he did all that has me more confused than ever. “Maybe he changed his mind. About being interested.” I glance at Natalie, feeling oddly vulnerable. “In me.”
Natalie shakes her head. “No way. No one changes their mind that quickly. Something must’ve come up. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll see him soon.”
“That would be nice. I’ve been looking forward to seeing him again.”
“I have a good feeling about you two,” she says with the big smile we’ve seen so much of since she fell for Flynn.
“Don’t jinx me.” The emotions of the day catch up to me all at once, and when I wobble ever so slightly, Natalie notices. I hate that I still haven’t completely recovered my mojo after being ill. Among other things, I suffer from lingering fatigue that regularly creeps up on me, taste buds that don’t work the way they used to, scars and anxiety over whether the cancer will come back. I’ve heard that last one lets up somewhat over time, but I still wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from the fear of dying and leaving my kids without a mother.
Natalie puts her arm around me and leads me to the sofa I sent from New York. It’s old but still in decent shape even after two kids did their best to ruin it. “You need to take it easy, Aileen. You’re still recovering.”
“I know. We’ve had lots of excitement today and over the last couple of weeks. I thought the kids would spontaneously combust waiting for today to get here.”
“Well, now you’re here, and you’re going to take it easy. Tomorrow you guys are coming over for lunch and a swim and then staying for the birthday party we’re having for Mo.”
“Oh. We are?” All I hear in her kind invite is another possible chance to see Kristian. He wouldn’t blow off Marlowe’s birthday party, would he?
“You are. If you want to, of course.”
“We want to. Thanks for the invite.” As I smooth a hand over my skirt, which is wrinkled after the long day of travel, I try not to think about how I wore this outfit with Kristian in mind, hoping it’d make me look young and healthy and appealing to him. Despite the wonderful outpouring from our new friends, I feel oddly let down.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes! This has been such an incredible day.” The last thing I want is for Natalie or any of my other new friends to think I’m disappointed after all they did to make us feel so welcome.
“It’s okay to admit that you’re bummed he’s not here.”
“Sure, it is.”
“I built it up in my mind to be something it’s not. We’ve only seen each other a few times, talked a little.” But those conversations were some of the most meaningful I’ve had with anyone. I’ve thought about that night on his balcony so many times over the last few months. That one night made me want to move here so I could live closer to him. Foolish, stupid, ridiculous. You’d think someone who’s been so totally burned by a man in the past would be so much smarter and at least a tiny bit wary. “I feel silly.”
Natalie takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “Please don’t. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for why he didn’t come today. We’ll figure out what happened and go from there.”
“You won’t tell him—or Flynn—that I was disappointed, will you?”
“I won’t say anything. Don’t worry.”
Ellie and Jasper come into the living room, smiling and laughing about something. They’re so damned cute together, and Ellie’s rounding baby bump has her glowing with happiness and excitement.
“I’m taking my baby mama home for her afternoon nap,” Jasper announces.
“That’s code for he wants to have sex,” Ellie adds.
Natalie cracks up laughing. “Funny, Flynn uses that same code.”
“Ew,” Ellie says. “Don’t tell me things like that about my brother. It’s gross.”
“There is nothing gross about it,” Natalie assures her.
I cover my ears. “TMI, ladies.” In fact, I’m wildly jealous of their obvious love for their partners and can only imagine what it might be like to have sex with guys like Kristian, Flynn, Jasper and Hayden. Dear God…
“Forget about TMI in this group,” Ellie says. “There’s no such thing as too much information.”
“That’s true,” Natalie says.
“In fact,” Jasper adds, in his delicious British accent, “we believe the more information, the better.”
Natalie pats my leg. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to us. Eventually.”
Smiling at her, I say, “I remember when you used to be such a nice, sweet first-year elementary school teacher.”
She laughs. “That feels like a million years ago.”
“She’s been thoroughly corrupted,” Ellie says. “Listen, if you need anything or have any problems with the house, just give me a call.” She gave me her number weeks ago when she offered to rent her house to me.
I get up to hug her. “I can never thank you enough for this. I know you’re giving me a sweet deal on the rent, and I so appreciate it.”
“It’s not that much of a deal,” Ellie says, smiling.
“Yes, it is.”
“My lady is very handy with a screwdriver if you need anything,” Jasper says.
“Good to know.” His sexy accent makes me want to swoon. How can she listen to that all day and get anything else done besides him?
“Darling,” he says to Ellie, sliding his arm around her, “can we play the handy-lady game when we get home? You know the one where you wear the tool belt and nothing else?”
Ellie rolls her eyes at him. “Sorry about him.” She nudges Jasper to move him in the direction of the door. “Hope you enjoy the house. I love where I live now, but this place…” She shakes her head when her eyes fill. “I loved it, and I hope you do, too.”
“I’m sure we will. Thanks again for everything.” I still want to pinch myself that the kids and I live within walking distance of an actual beach. We’ll be there every day all summer. After glancing at the backyard to make sure the kids are still entertaining themselves, I return to the sofa. “They’re adorable together.”
“They really are. Flynn said he’s never seen her so happy.”
I fan my face. “That accent…”
“Right? It drives Flynn nuts when I get all swoony around Jasper, but I can’t help it!”
“I was just wondering how she gets anything but him done every day.”
Natalie loses it laughing. “That’s a very good question.”
Leah, Marlowe and Addie come in to find us a few minutes later, bringing a bottle of wine and glasses for all of us. We sit around my new living room and talk like old friends for an hour while the guys play horseshoes with the kids in the yard. By the time they all leave, it’s after seven, and I have two very sleepy kids on my hands since it’s three hours later in New York where we began our day.
The kids are sharing a bedroom, which they’ve assured me will be fine. For now. But as they get older, they’ll want their own space, and we’ll have to look for a bigger place to live. We have plenty of time before I’ll need to worry about that.
I see them through baths and bedtime stories from the books each of them brought in their backpacks, and I tuck them into bed. Maddie can’t believe her bed from New York is now in her room in Los Angeles. I worry that they’re too excited to sleep, but when I look in on them fifteen minutes later, they’re both out cold.
I go into the kitchen, my gaze drawn to the half bottle of red wine on the counter. Rooting through cabinets, I find the glasses I sent from New York and pour myself a glass of wine, taking it out to the deck to enjoy the warm evening. I sip the wine, grimacing at the metallic taste that’s a carryover from chemo.
I hear it’ll go away in time, but for now, it makes eating or drinking anything a chore. My doctor in New York has been urging me to start drinking protein shakes because he’s concerned about how much weight I’ve lost. I’ve never been so bony or fragile, which has made me extremely self-conscious about my appearance for the first time in my life. And my weight isn’t the only thing that’s different. My stick-straight hair is growing back curly! It’s the strangest thing. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I barely recognize myself.
I’m determined to get healthy again this summer, to put on some weight and to lose the sickly looking pallor that has left me with deep dark circles under my eyes and overly prominent cheekbones. Hell, all my bones are overly prominent. The kids and I are going to take full advantage of the beach we can walk to from our new home, and I’m going to lie in the sun without a single worry about wrinkles. When you’ve battled a deadly disease, you don’t worry about stupid things like wrinkles. That said, however, I’ll still lather on the sunscreen because I never want to hear the word “cancer” again.
I take another sip of my wine, but the taste is so bad that I put it aside and hope my taste buds will eventually get back to normal. I’ve read it can take months for that to happen, and sometimes it never happens. That would truly suck, because back in the day before I got sick, I used to love to eat. I loved my cocktails, too.
My thoughts wander again to Kristian. I hope wherever he is, that he’s okay. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he probably changed his mind about the flirtation or whatever it was with me. Why would he, who could have any woman in the universe, want to take on a skinny, half-bald, single mom who might still succumb to a fatal illness?
I start to laugh, and then I’m crying, tears leaving hot streaks on my cheeks as I try to accept that it’s not going to happen with him.
Now I just have to find a way to live with the disappointment.
Someone is pounding on the door and ringing the doorbell. I raise my head off the closet floor, where I’ve apparently fallen asleep. Christ, how long have I been here? The apartment is totally dark now, so it’s been hours.
More pounding. More doorbell.
Then someone is yelling for me. “Kris! Where are you?”
Jasper. He’s let himself in. What the hell does he want at this hour on a Friday night? Doesn’t he have better things to do now that he’s engaged to Ellie and expecting a baby?
I drag myself off the floor and take a second to get my bearings after I’m hit with a dizzy spell. When was the last time I ate? Last night? No wonder I’m light-headed.
I head downstairs and turn on a light, my eyes protesting the brightness after so much darkness.
Jasper is standing in my living room. “Where the hell have you been all day?” my best friend asks.
“I was here.”
“Why haven’t you answered your phone or responded to the two thousand texts we sent you? We were worried.”
“Oh, sorry. I’ve been down hard with the flu. I was asleep all day and never heard the phone.”
“Aileen was disappointed you weren’t there.”
His words are like a knife to the gut. The thought of her disappointed because of me is crushing. But better now than later, when her disappointment would be so much more profound. I’m doing the right thing for her, or so I tell myself. It’s agonizing to stay away from her, especially knowing she’s so close now. “I’m… I’m sorry to hear that, and I was sorry to miss it.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Jasper eyes me with the kind of insight only a longtime friend would have. “You look weird around the eyes, mate.”
“I’m fine.” I will be. Eventually. “You’ve probably got better things to do than check on me. Where’s Ellie?”
“In the car. We’re on our way home.”
“You were in Venice, and you live in Malibu. How is this on the way home?”
“Everyone was worried, Kris.”
I feel bad about that. “Apologize for me.”
“Will you be at Marlowe’s birthday party tomorrow night at Flynn’s?”
Oh God. Is that tomorrow? Everyone will be there, and they’re sure to invite Aileen and the kids. Fuck. “I’ll see how I feel.”
Jasper gives me an odd look, filled with a million questions. But he only asks one of them. “If something were truly wrong, I hope you know you can talk to me about it. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course.” This… This is too personal to share with anyone, even him.
“All right, then. I’ll leave you be. Ring me if you need anything.”
“I will.” I walk him to the door. “Thanks for coming out of your way to check on me.”
I appreciate what he’s done. I’d do the same for him if the circumstances were reversed. I hate that people were worried and Aileen was disappointed.
And then I’m elated because she was disappointed. That means she wanted to see me as badly as I wanted to see her.
No! You’re not elated! You can’t have her. The voice inside my head reminds me of the understanding we reached earlier, when I decided to stay home rather than go to her. That voice has directed my entire life, and it’s never steered me wrong. I’m counting on it now to lead me through the greatest dilemma I’ve ever faced.
I should eat something, but the thought of food makes me nauseated. Instead, I go upstairs to the master bedroom and lie down on my bed. Closing my eyes, I allow my mind to wander in Aileen’s direction. After all, no one can be hurt if I think about her, right? But instead of her sweet, beautiful face, I see the parade of women with whom I’ve had superficial dealings, most of them sexual, over the years.
In our clubs here and in New York, I’ve worked out my aggressions on willing subs who allowed me to control their pleasure. I’ve bound them, controlled them, fucked them in every way a man can fuck a woman. In the past, my dominance has been all about the mind game, exerting my power to bring the ultimate pleasure.
But I’ve never felt a goddamned thing for any of them. Not one of them has ever stirred me the way Aileen did from the first time I saw her. I’ve never felt powerless around a woman until she came strolling into my life at Flynn’s wedding. I may as well have been standing on a table that she upended, because she knocked me on my ass, and I’ve been there ever since.
I tell myself I was much better off before I knew she existed in this world. Before that day five months ago now, my life was under my control and everything was fine. Since then, nothing has been the same. Of course, I’ve heard about love-at-first-sight bullshit happening to other people. I saw it happen to Flynn after he met Natalie and went off the deep end over her. Hell, I’m a fucking film producer. I’ve seen the movies and read the books.
But I didn’t honestly believe it was a real thing until it happened to me.
I think about the night a couple of months ago when we were hunkered down in my apartment, dealing with the threat levied at Jasper and the rest of the Quantum partners. Aileen and her kids were on their way to LA to visit Natalie and Flynn for the kids’ school vacation when the shit hit the fan. Natalie brought them here.
Aileen walked into my home, and the second I saw her, it was like someone had sucked all the oxygen from the room, proving that what happened at the wedding wasn’t a one-off. No, it was the start of something so far outside my realm of understanding that I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all these months later.
Things like that don’t happen to people like me. Someone as pure and perfect as Aileen doesn’t belong with someone like me.
So, it doesn’t matter if meeting her was like grabbing a lightning bolt with my bare hands. It doesn’t matter that the hours I spent with her were the best of my entire life. It doesn’t matter that I want to do everything I possibly can to make life easier for her and her two adorable kids.
No, the only thing that matters is staying the fuck away from her so she’ll have the chance to meet a nice, normal guy who can give her the kind of life she deserves.
There is nothing normal about me.
I can’t have her.
Somehow, I have to accept that and move on. Oh, and while I’m doing that, I also have to find a way to see her every fucking day at work and at the frequent gatherings with my friends without losing my fucking mind.
I’m trapped in a hell of my own making with no way out. I’ve got to get out of here before I lose my mind. I get up, grab my wallet and keys and head for the elevator.
Club Quantum is rocking. Ever since we let in outside members, our revenue has skyrocketed. If anyone was surprised to find out the Quantum principals run a BDSM club, we haven’t heard about it. People in the lifestyle tend to keep their mouths shut, especially those in our business. Members sign airtight nondisclosure agreements that ensure our privacy and theirs.
Sebastian says something to a guy at the crowded bar. He gets up, nods to me and moves along. Apparently, Seb told him to give his seat to me.
I take his place, sliding onto the barstool and mumbling my thanks to Seb for the Grey Goose and soda he puts in front of me.
“How you doing?” Sebastian asks.
“That’s how we like it.” When my partners started falling like dominoes and stepping away from the club somewhat, I suggested opening it to the public or shutting it down. No sense paying Sebastian and the rest of the staff to run a club that most of us had lost interest in. I’m glad it worked out, because I love coming here. In the fishbowl of Hollywood, I prefer the privacy of our club to the more public options for late-night entertainment.
Despite my high-profile business, I keep a low profile in my personal life and wouldn’t have it any other way.
I nurse my drink and try not to dwell on the anxiety stirred up by Aileen’s arrival. I came here for a break from that, and I’m determined to find a distraction to get my mind back where it belongs. A distraction such as the young woman who stands a few feet from me, watching the action on the floor, her expression an intriguing combination of curiosity and fear—my favorite qualities in a sub. Her shoulder-length curly blonde hair, big blue eyes, plump lips and curvy, sexy body make for an attractive package. If I have a “type,” she’s it.
Taking my drink with me, I get up and go over to her. “How’s it going?”
My presence seems to startle her. “Umm, fine?”
She nods. “This is my first time here.”
“What’s your name?”
“Evelyn, but my friends call me Evie.”
“Nice to meet you, Evie. I’m Kristian.”
“I know who you are,” she says, blushing. “Everyone knows who you are.”
“That’s what I get for having famous friends.” Mindful of the million-dollar initiation fee we charge new members to keep the riffraff out, I wonder what she does. “Are you new in town?”
She laughs. “Hardly. I’ve been here ten years chasing the dream. So far, I’ve had quite a bit of success with modeling, but the acting career hasn’t materialized.”
I immediately wonder if she joined the club to gain access to us, but watching her watch the action on the floor, I begin to see that she’s here for the right reasons. On the far left-hand stage, a Dom has his sub attached to a St. Andrew’s cross. She’s facing away from him, and her ass is bright red from the flogger he’s been using on her. Two men are tag-teaming a woman on the middle stage. Her ass is plugged, her nipples and clit are clamped and her Doms are driving her wild with feathers.
The stage on the right features two men, one of them on his knees sucking the cock of the other.
“Have you had a tour of the club?” I ask Evie.
“Sebastian said he’d give me one when things die down at the bar.”
“I could do it if you don’t want to wait for him.”
She glances back at the bar where Seb is up to his eyeballs in customers. “Sure, that’d be great.”
“Right this way.” I lead her through the big room, watching her take in what’s happening on the various stages. “We allow everything but intercourse on the main floor.” Curious, I ask her, “Have you belonged to other clubs?”
“Yes, but none as nice as this one.”
“How long have you been a sub?”
“Always,” she says. “But I only understood it for what it is about five years ago.”
“Do you have a Dom?”
“Not now. I… I recently ended an unhealthy relationship.”
I sense a much bigger story, but I don’t ask her about it. I’ve got enough of my own problems without taking on hers, too. “Do you like to watch?” I ask, even though I already know the answer to my own question.
We walk down a dark hallway lined by a series of doors. I gesture to the first door, and she opens it. I follow her into the observation room, where we encounter a scene in progress between a Domme and her sub. He’s a big guy, easily six-foot-two or three, muscular and completely at the mercy of the much smaller woman who has him tied to the four-poster bed. She circles the bed, running the leather tip of a crop up his inner thigh.
His cock is so hard, it’s purple against the pale skin of his belly.
I press a button on the wall so we can hear him moan. His every muscle is tight and tense as he tries to anticipate what she will do.
With a flip of her wrist, she flicks the crop against his balls.
She does it again and again and again as he shrieks. “Don’t you dare come. Do you hear me?”
“Y-yes, Mistress,” he sobs.
Evie watches the scene, her fingers white from gripping the molding that frames the window.
“Do you like what you see?” I ask her.
She licks her lips. “Yes, Sir.”
That word, so fraught with meaning in our community, has me moving closer to her, slipping an arm around her waist to bring her in tight against me.
She leans into me, and we stand like that to watch the scene progress to her sucking his cock while he begs for permission to come.
“Do you like to be bound?” I ask Evie.
“Under the right circumstances.”
“I have to trust my Dom completely. Trust has been an issue for me in the past.”
I could easily win her trust and show her how it should be. I could take her to a private room and negotiate an agreement that would leave us both drunk with pleasure. With her leaning into me and expressing tacit interest, all I have to do is suggest it to make it happen. I’m about to say the words when an image of Aileen pops into my head. My arm drops from Evie’s waist.
She looks up at me, her brows furrowed with confusion.
Sebastian comes into the room. “Ah, there you are,” he says to Evie. “I wondered where you’d escaped to.”
She blushes at the sight of Sebastian. He’s a big, strapping, muscular dude with dark hair and eyes, sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scars he doesn’t talk about and a ten-inch cock that keeps him in hot demand with the female members of the club. He could have any woman he wants, but he’s choosy. I’ve known him to go months without a woman. He told me once he’d rather wait for someone who does it for him than settle for someone who doesn’t. I admire his restraint. I’ve been much less choosy in my dealings with women.
“Kristian was kind enough to offer to show me around since you were busy at the bar.”
“I’ll take it from here,” Sebastian says to me.
I note the hungry, needy way he looks at Evie and take a step back. “It was nice to meet you, Evie.”
I leave the room feeling shaken once again by the realization that Aileen has so totally taken over my body and soul that the thought of touching another woman intimately makes me feel sick. I haven’t been able to bring myself to be with anyone else since the day I met her. I’ve never gone this long without sex. Turning down a willing sub is highly out of character for me and further proof that I’ve lost what’s left of my mind.
I return to the bar, order another drink from the backup bartender covering for Sebastian and down half of it in one big gulp. About two seconds later, I remember I never did eat anything, which is why I’m more than a little drunk after one and a half drinks. “Can you order me a salad with grilled chicken?” I ask the bartender.
“Of course. I’ll put it right in.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Marlowe coming toward me.
She slides onto the stool next to me and orders a glass of chardonnay. “There you are. You had us worried earlier.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Don’t give me that shit, Kristian. I can tell just by looking at you that something’s wrong. And where the hell were you today?”
“I was… I…”
Her hand lands on my arm. “Talk to me, Kris,” she says gently. “Tell me what’s going on.”
I take another swallow of my drink, seeking the courage to say it out loud. “Aileen.”
“What about her?”
I glance at my friend and partner, someone who has been there for me any time I needed support, encouragement, friendship. As much as I love her and know that she loves me, I can’t say the words.
So naturally, she says it for me. “Aw, damn. You’re in love with her.”
“What? No, I’m not in love with her.” Really? My own conscience calls bullshit. I want to tell my conscience to shut the fuck up and stay out of it.
“Would you even know love if you felt it?”
Marlowe is one of very few people who knows a little about how I grew up. No one knows the full story, and if I have my way, no one ever will. What does it matter to who I am now? Her question about love strikes at the heart of all my insecurities where Aileen is concerned. She’s hit the nail squarely on the head. How would I know what true love feels like?
“This,” I say gesturing to the club and all it entails, “is my life, my home. Can you see her here?”
“Not really, but I never expected to see Natalie or Addie or Ellie here either.” Our partners’ significant others have taken on our lifestyle after being introduced to it by the men they love.
“That doesn’t mean Aileen will be like them. She’s a mom and a cancer survivor. How does one go about sexually dominating a woman like her?” I take another deep gulp of my drink because thinking about sexually dominating her is all it takes to make me hard as concrete. Motherfucker.
“You’re getting too far ahead of yourself. You haven’t even talked to her about anything that truly matters. Perhaps she’ll surprise you the same way Natalie surprised Flynn and Addie surprised Hayden and Ellie surprised Jasper. Maybe it’ll all be fine.”
“It’s different with her.”
I raise a brow in her direction. Marlowe is notorious for her avoidance of anything that smacks of romance or commitment. “Do you?”
“I’ve been in love before. I know how it feels and how difficult it can be to reconcile the emotion with the lifestyle.”
“I’m not in love with her.” I’m such a fucking liar.
“So you said, but something has you tied up in knots where she’s concerned. Is that why you stayed away today?”
I shrug. I don’t want to talk about why I stayed away. Everything about Aileen makes me feel raw and unprotected, the same way I felt after I witnessed my mother’s murder. I hate that feeling, and part of me is angry with Aileen for resurrecting emotions I’d sooner live without than revisit.
I signal the bartender for another drink. We have a two-drink limit for members, but I’m not a member. I’m a fucking owner, and I’ll have a third one if I want it.
The bartender delivers my drink, and I down half of it in one swallow. Across the bar, I make eye contact with a redhead, who raises her glass to me. Under normal circumstances, that’s all it would take to start the ball rolling. I could be engrossed in a scene with her within thirty minutes if I so desire, but I don’t desire her. I desire someone else, and the craving need I have for her is making me insane.
“I’m worried about you, Kris,” Marlowe says softly. “I don’t like seeing you this way.”
“I don’t like feeling this way. Why do you think I stayed home today?”
“Avoiding it won’t make it go away,” she says softly.
“Won’t it?” I’m the king of avoidance when it suits my purposes.
She shakes her head. “If she’s in your heart, you’ll take her with you everywhere you go, no matter how far you run.”
The truth of Marlowe’s statement hits me like a rock to the head. I’m so totally fucked, it’s not even funny.