The first time I saw Lauren Hanson, it was on a snapshot in a thick folder brought to me by my lawyer, Richard Crook. I was sat at the mahogany desk in my multimillion-dollar mansion on the outskirts of Santa Barbara in California. The valley stretching beyond the large bay windows was streaked in the colors of the setting sun—the deep red as ominous as the rage surging through me at the prospect of what I was about to do.
Laurie was an attractive girl with brown hair reaching down to her narrow waist—the kind you could twist around your fist and pull gently as you rode her hard, then forget all about her. She looked like a nice girl with an innocent glint in her hazel eyes that reflected even through a photograph. In less than forty-eight hours I’d be using that innocence to make her mine forever.
“Are you sure, Mr. Wright?” Crook asked.
I nodded gravely and tossed the folder back to him.
“You’ve barely looked at her,” he continued, “or her background. Maybe you should wait. I could look into alternatives and—”
“I’m not interested in her life story,” I said through gritted teeth, cutting him off. “Just make that meeting happen, and I’ll take over from there.”
Crook heaved a defeated sigh. He didn’t argue as he picked up the folder but left Laurie’s photo on the desk. Her hazel gaze looked at me accusingly. I turned it over so I could flee it for the time being, figuring soon enough I’d have no choice but to face the hatred embedded in her eyes, staining her heart forever.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Crook said upon leaving. “If you change your mind…”
“I won’t,” I said sharply, “and don’t be late.”
It was almost noon when I arrived at my apartment. Everything was silent when I entered. After insisting for an hour that Chase take me home—the one place I had always felt safe but no longer did—he had given in, but only under the condition that I called him immediately if anything scared me. The moment I closed the door behind me, Jude called over from the kitchen, “Where have you been?”
I shrugged out of my jacket and joined her at the kitchen table. “I spent the night with Chase.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You did what?” She let out a cascade of incredulous laughter.
“It wasn’t what your dirty mind is imagining.” Actually, it probably wasn’t far from the truth, but Jude didn’t need to know that. In spite of the situation, a laugh escaped my throat.
“What happened?” Her eyes were as big as saucepans, and her smile was so bright I wouldn’t have been surprised if a satellite could have picked it up from the stratosphere. But as much as I wanted to tell her, I couldn’t spill the beans because I had more pressing issues to worry about. Ever since I had opened the envelope, and seeing Chase’s and my face circled with a thick red marker, I felt a kind of foreboding that left me nauseated. Chase had been right when he asked me not to tell anyone about it. Jude might be my best friend, but I didn’t want my fear to infect her and risk her getting all paranoid on me. My paranoia was enough to deal with. Having her fears imposed on me was the last thing I needed.
“I’m sorry for dashing your hopes, but I didn’t sleep with him,” I said.
“Oh.” She stared at me in badly disguised disbelief, the disappointment clearly etched across her face. Eventually, she shrugged her shoulders and a grin tugged at her lips. “What’s wrong with you? You spent the night at his place. It would have been so easy, Laurie.”
“I’m not sleeping with him, Jude. Period.” I glared at her, my gaze both imploring and threatening if she didn’t drop the subject. “He’s just a friend and that’s all I want him to be.”
Which was a lie.
A big, fat lie.
I could see her doubt.
And then her phone rang, and I breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Whatever. You’re making a mistake waiting for Mr. Prince,” she muttered, and walked back to the living room, closing the door behind her. I sighed again, then put my keys on the table and squeezed out of my shoes. Seconds later, a scream echoed down the hall.
“Jude, are you okay?” I dashed for the kitchen.
“I’m going to be a TV personality,” Jude squealed as soon as I opened the door, her voice echoing off the walls.
I put my handbag on the kitchen table and squeezed out of my shoes as I took a moment to digest the news. Why was she going to be a TV personality? And then I remembered her mentioning a blog and a TV channel being interested in giving her a prime spot.
Her face appeared around the corner before I had the chance to reply. “Did you hear me?”